FALL ON ROCK, CLIMBING ALONE
Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress
Claude Ratté was a member of the Quebecoise 2008 Expedition, which consisted of two party members out of Quebec. Richard Cadorette, the second team member, had left the expedition approximately a week before Ratté’s accident due to team dynamic issues that could not be worked out at 14,200 feet. As a result, Ratté continued his climb above 14,200 feet as a solo climber.
At 1159, June 3rd, Ranger Roger Robinson received a call at the Talk- eetna Ranger Station from DENA dispatch placed by Claude Ratté from his SAT phone. Ratté said he had fallen off the ridge between 16,200 and 17,200 feet, was not sure of his exact location, and was in his sleeping bag with injuries to his left eye and left ankle.
Ranger Brandon Latham and Dan Escalante (Latham’s VIP), stationed at 17,200 feet, received a radio call regarding the incident, then packed and hired the necessary resources for a hasty search down the ridge. Kevin Koprek, a guide with Mountain Trip, was hired as the technical team leader and immediately assembled a team consisting of Brent Okita (Rainer Mountaineering Inc.), Josh O’Halloran (Rainer Mountaineering Inc.), Bill Billmeier (Mountain Trip) and Ted Reckas (private party member). Latham choose Koprek as the Team Leader due to his experience as a Rigging for Rescue instructor and Denali guide. This allowed Latham to focus more on the overall logistics of the operation.
At 1233, Ratté called back to Talkeetna stating he could see the ridge from his location, but was still unsure about where he had fallen from.
Latham prepared equipment from the 17,200-foot cache needed for a long, low angle raising operation, which included one 185m, 9.8mm low stretch rope; two 60m, 9.8mm low stretch ropes; pickets; rock protection (in case the patient was in the rocks below Washburn’s Thumb); Sked; anchoring material; tent; stove; food; sleeping bag; and an assortment of medical supplies, including oxygen.
Latham and Escalante (hasty team) went down the ridge to confirm Ratté’s location and situation (1255). At this time, Ranger Latham had not received any further information on the location of the patient and had planned on trying to initiate a verbal response through shouting out the patient’s name while descending the ridge.
At 1320, Ratté called Talkeetna Ranger Station. The general impression was that he was sounding panicky. He said he felt he may expire in his sleeping bag. He stated he reached the top of the fixed lines and fell to the other side. Latham proceeded down the ridge continuing to shout in hopes for a verbal response upon receiving this new information.
Latham and Escalante arrived at the top of a slope approximately 60 meters above 16,400 feet and received a verbal response to shouts and also had a visual on what was thought to be Ratté’s location. Visibility was poor, but Latham was confident they had an idea of Ratté’s location and continued to descend to the top of the fixed lines. Meanwhile, Ranger Shain briefed his team at 14,200 feet.
Latham and Koprek’s team met at the top of fixed lines to discuss strategies for descending to Ratté’s location on Peter’s Glacier and conduct a raising operation to the top of the fixed lines. Potential objective hazards were identified and discussed, which included bergschrunds, avalanche hazard, and weather conditions.
At 1354, two teams, led by Latham and Koprek, traveled on 60-meter low stretch ropes with Latham leading down placing pickets for protection. The 600-foot low stretch rope was deployed approximately half way down in order to identify the location for a midway raising station. On the descent, the team encountered two bergschrunds. The first had a three to four foot span, which was relatively easy to navigate through. The second was approximately six to eight feet in height and required a rappel to overcome. The second rope team (Koprek’s team) stopped 40 meters above the second bergschrund to establish an anchor in order for Latham, Billmeier, and Escalante to rappel and gain access to the patient. This was accomplished by tying the 600-foot rope and two 200-foot ropes together, which put them in flat terrain 30 feet from Ratté.
Latham and Billmeier reached Ratté at 1540. At this time, Station #1 was re-rigged for a raising operation with a rescue-sized load. Ratté was in stable condition with his chief complaint being pain and swelling in his left ankle and facial trauma. Ratté was packaged in a hypothermia wrap to help maintain a warm and dry environment during transport. Frostbite and increased inter-cranial pressure due to head injuries were two major concerns due to the prolonged exposure to the cold and the lack of movement in the extremities.
The raising operation at station #1 began at 1640. The terrain for the raise ranged from 30-50 degrees and included the two bergschrunds. The patient was switched over from the midway station to the top station. Ratté was then evacuated to the Ranger Camp at 14,200 feet where he was flown out via helicopter to Talkeetna the next day, then transferred to Life Flight to be taken to Anchorage. (Source: Daryl Miller, Ranger, Denali National Park)
(Editors Note: Maureen McLaughlin, Information Officer; stated the following: From the time of the initial distress call, the entire ground rescue operation took ten-and-a-half hours and involved 14 ground rescuers, including mountaineering rangers, NPS volunteers, mountain guides, and independent climbers. Denali mountaineering staff estimates there have been at least ten significant climbing falls onto the Peters Glacier, including three separate fatalities in 1998. The technical rope rescue of Ratté involves the longest raising operation in Denali mountaineering history.)