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Fall on Snow, Unable to Self-Arrest, Climbing Unroped, Poor Position, Alaska, Mount McKinley, Kahiltna Glacier

FALL ON SNOW, UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST, CLIMBING UNROPED, POOR POSITION

Alaska, Mount McKinley, Kahiltna Glacier

On May 16, French mountaineer Pascal Frison (51) fell to his death while climbing Mount McKinley. He and his partner were approaching a feature at the top of Motorcycle Hill known as “Lunch Rocks” near 12,000 feet on the West Buttress when Frison lost control of his sled, which he had untethered. In an attempt to stop it from sliding over the ridge, both Frison and his sled tumbled towards the Peters Glacier. Frison, who was unroped at the time, was unable to self-arrest and ultimately fell over 1,000 feet to a steep, crevassed section of the Peters Glacier.

A nearby team witnessed the fall and made a radio distress call shortly after 3:00 p.m. to the Denali National Park Rangers. At the time of the notification, the park’s high altitude A-Star B3 helicopter was at the 14,200- foot camp on a re-supply flight. Within five minutes, the helicopter flew to the accident site with two mountaineering rangers on board as spotters. They saw several pieces of fallen gear and followed the fall line down to what appeared to be the climber lying in a crevasse around 10,200 feet.

As the steep terrain at the fall site offered no feasible landing areas, the helicopter and crew flew back to the Kahiltna Basecamp at 7,200 feet. After a two-man communications team was inserted at the top of the Peters Glacier, the A-Star B3 helicopter then returned to the crevasse site with NPS mountaineering ranger Kevin Wright on the end of a “short-haul” (end of a 120-foot rope). Wright could not safely reach the climber who was lying an additional 20-feet below him in the crevasse. However, Wright readily determined that the climber had not survived the long fall.

Analysis

In an expedition environment, equipment, supplies, and your life are very closely intertwined if not inseparable. It is understandable that Frison would have been in a very bad situation without his equipment, but he would not have lost his life. One cannot speculate whether the decision to jump onto a moving sled at the edge of such exposed terrain was a lack of sound judgment and/or an error in perception—or perhaps a reactionary instinct that was not driven by thought or strategy at all. Had Frison been roped up, the rope would have likely have stopped him from falling. Or perhaps it might have dragged both team members down the slope had he pursued the sled towards the edge.

Runaway sleds on Denali are a common occurrence. Most of these instances are a result of a momentary lapse of thought or a careless act. During pre-trip planning, we recommend developing a redundant rigging and attachment system and having a firm understanding of how to prevent a loaded sled from leaving you once on the mountain. (Source: Brandon

Latham, Mountaineering Ranger and Denali National Park and Preserve News Report)