American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Climbing Unroped, Poor Position, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

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

FALL ON SNOW, CLIMBING UNROPED, POOR POSITION

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

On May 26, a climber (33) was descending un-roped with his team members along the ridge below Washburn’s Thumb at approximately 16,500 feet. At this location the terrain forces the route off the ridge onto the North side of the buttress.

The climber encountered an ascending guided expedition on this steeper, off fall-line, traversing slope. Though the guided group was placing snow pickets as fall protection on this terrain feature, he decided not to wait until the trail was clear but rather to descend the traverse above the guided group. While descending the traverse, he lost his footing, fell, and became entangled in the guided group’s rope. He suffered a dislocated shoulder.

NPS Rangers lowered him from the base of the fixed-lines to the 14,200- foot camp and attempted, but could not reduce, his shoulder dislocation.

After a span of seven days of non-flyable weather, he was evacuated on the eighth day by NPS helicopter without incident.

Analysis

The terrain where the climber fell is an off-fall line, left upward-trending traverse on about a 40-degree slope. Although the climbing is not difficult, it can be awkward when carrying large loads. Often the trail is hard-packed, uneven ice, with the fall line being down towards the Peters Glacier. Guided groups use a rope and place up to three snow pickets for protection in this section. With up to a 1,500-foot potential fall down to the Peters Glacier, climbing here unprotected has potential for injury or death. A lot like a micro-Autobahn (a terrain feature located above 17,200-foot camp leading up to Denali Pass), this spot is generally underestimated and its consequences often over looked.

The climber’s decision not to use a rope for this section resulted in a serious injury. The ridge was crowded with slower moving guided groups on their way up. He fell into another group that was using the appropriate technique of being roped and placing protection. He could have caused a major catastrophe if he had dislodged this group. Climbing the crowded West Buttress demands patience and respect for other climbers. Haste put both himself and others in a dangerous position.

It is worth noting that this was one of three similar incidents at this same location.

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