American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Climbing Alone, Unroped, Inadequate Food and Equipment, Inexperience, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2010

UNITED STATES

CLIMBING ALONE, UNROPED, INADEQUATE FOOD AND EQUIPMENT, INEXPERIENCE

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

On May 21, Gerald Myers (41), a member of a private expedition of four, was reported as overdue on a solo summit attempt of Mount McKinley from the 14,200-foot camp. Without prior consultation with his partners and unbeknown to them, he departed the camp around 4:30 a.m. on May 19 with no stove, shovel, or bivouac gear and with an unknown amount of food. He retrieved his skis, which had been previously cached, from the 17,200-foot high camp, and was last positively seen around 4:00 p.m. near the 18,700-foot elevation by two separate climbing groups descending from aborted summit attempts because of high winds. One of those groups and another separate group successfully attained the summit the following day, and upon arrival back at the 17,200-foot camp, one of the expeditions’ members mistakenly reported that he had seen the missing climber on the summit ridge. This mistake wasn’t identified until the expedition had descended to the 7,200-foot camp on the evening of May 24, where he was interviewed.

Search operations were initiated on the morning of May 21 when it was determined that the climber had failed to descend to the high camp. During this endeavor, both fixed and rotary wing aircraft were used to search and photograph the high reaches of the mountain, including the alternate routes that a climber might use to ski or hike down. The aerial search totaled 30.19 hours, of which 18.09 hours were from fixed wing aircraft and 12.1 were from helicopters. During these flights, 6,025 high-resolution photographs were taken and analyzed for clues.

On May 26, in light of the Myer’s minimal supplies and the sub-zero temperatures and high winds prevalent on the mountain during the search period, search managers concluded that survival was outside the window of possibility. Active search operations were terminated with no pertinent clues being found as the whereabouts of Myers.

Analysis

Many decisions were made by Myers and his expedition as a whole that likely contributed to his disappearance. The first was the rapid ascent that the expedition made to the 17,200-foot camp. This may have predisposed Myers to contracting HACE/HAPE while high on the mountain. The second was the Myer’s decision to attempt a solo ascent to the summit from the 14,200-foot camp. Not only was it a spur-of-the-moment decision, it also left him traveling alone without any support in the event of an accident. Myers apparently did not comprehend the difficulty in conducting a summit attempt from the 14,200-foot camp. Traveling solo and his failure to carry any survival gear or equipment that would enable him to construct a shelter surely was a major contributing factor to his death. Myers also lacked experience with extreme high altitude and would not have known his physical limits at that elevation. If he had, he might have recognized the futility of his attempt and turned around.

It will never be known why he did not turn around after talking with the descending climbers on May 19. It can only be hypothesized that he did not recognize the severity of the situation and was driven to reach or photograph the summit at all costs. An increasing number of climbers are traveling solo and/or unroped on Denali, which is a disturbing trend. (Source for all Denali National Park incidents here and below: Denali National Park Rangers.)

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