Fall on Snow — Failure to Clip in to Fixed Rope

Alaska, Mount McKinley, Denali Pass
Climb Year: 2011. Publication Year: 2012.

Early in the day on May 25, several groups went for a summit attempt from the 17,200-foot camp. The Alpine Ascents guide stopped by the NPS tent to let Rangers know that they would be attempting to summit.

At 2315, NPS volunteer Mik Jedlicka noticed something below Denali Pass, approximately half a mile from camp. She used a spotting scope to confirm it was a group of four climbers, then heard a shout for help. Based on the location of the group, it was apparent they had fallen from the standard trail on the Autobahn from around 18,400 feet. I notified Ranger Tucker Chenoweth at the 14,200-foot camp, and then quickly went to other tents at the 17,200-foot camp to recruit help. I initially contacted Mountain Trip guides and the Para-rescue/Dutch team (Windmill) with Robert Schnell, Matt Kirby, and Alexander Naumann. Alex Sargent of Team Ranger and NPS volunteers Andrew Dietrick, Mark Dalpes, Mik Jedlicka, and Anthony Larson M.D. were also in the initial rescue party. The hasty teams mobilized quickly with minimal gear set to triage, and the following teams brought more medical and rescue gear including a Cascade toboggan and a Sked litter. Schnell (paramedic) did the initial triage when he arrived at the patients. He prioritized James Mohr (30) as Immediate (difficulty breathing, unconscious, closed head injury), Gary Burke (31) Urgent (lower leg fracture, scalp laceration, head injury, alert and oriented). The other two climbers, Suzanne Allen (41)—a guide for Alpine Ascents—and Peter Bullard (46), had no signs of life and were declared deceased.

Most of the rescue team worked on stabilizing and packaging the two patients while the Mountain Trip guides fixed a guiding line to protect the traversing crevassed terrain back to the 17,200-foot camp. An immediate helicopter evacuation was put on hold until adequate daylight allowed for safe flying conditions. At this point the time was around 0030.

Two independent teams pulled the patients back to camp, one in the Cascade toboggan, one in the Sked litter. As we got close to camp, I radioed to Jay Casello of the Para-rescue team (Windmill) to request additional strength to pull the patients into camp. Numerous other climbers, including the entire Dutch team (Windmill) came out to help.

The patients were placed into two VE-25 Park Service tents which served as dedicated patient treatment tents. Schnell maintained primary care of the critical patient and Larson was the lead provider for the urgent patient. Schnell performed a cricothyrotomy to keep an open airway on the critical patient and continued respirations with a bag-valve mask and supplementary oxygen. Military medics from team Windmill assisted care of both patients under the leadership of Schnell and Larson. Both patients were monitored as the daylight increased.

At 0420 the Park helicopter launched from Talkeetna. Pilot Andy Hermansky flew to 17,200 feet. He picked up the critical patient and returned to Base Camp, then flew to 17,200 feet a third time to pick up the urgent patient and take him to Base Camp as well. Both patients were transferred to LifeMed helicopters and taken to Anchorage hospitals.


Some details are missing to thoroughly understand the sequence that took place and caused the fall. Only one member of the team recalls the events, and he suffered some head trauma and memory deficit from the injuries. Based on the survivor’s accounts, the guide initially began the traverse descent from Denali Pass as the last person on the rope. This puts the guide above the clients and is the traditional position for a mountain guide on this traverse. As the team moved onto the Autobahn face, the guide noticed that the fixed protection pickets were not being clipped onto the rope by the leading person. She took corrective action and reversed the rope team, putting herself in the lead and in charge of clipping the protection. There may have been a deviation from the standard trail as the team moved onto the traverse due to confusion of the new and old trails. During the course of making this transition or shortly after the guide assumed the lead, a climber fell. At this point no pickets or other protection were clipped to the rope. The first fall was stopped initially, but apparently pulled other climbers off their stances and initiated another fall. Ultimately the sequence of falls led to the entire rope team of four climbers being pulled off the trail and down the slope. The vertical fall distance to the point of rest was estimated at 1,000-1,200 feet. The angle of the slope averaged over 40 degrees, with some areas closer to 50 degrees.

The circumstances that caused this fall are attributed to climbing without adequate protection.

Autobahn history: The location of this incident has historically been the most dangerous section of the West Buttress climbing route. At least 14 climbers have died in falls on the Autobahn and many others have suffered significant injuries from falls down the slope. Most falls happen on descent from a long and tiring summit day when fatigue is most significant. It remains a challenge for mountaineers to negotiate the Autobahn safely, despite the efforts of the National Park Service and guiding companies to keep fixed protection in place to arrest falls. The slope is steep enough to make it very difficult to arrest a fall once initiated, especially in firm snow or icy conditions. Traveling roped together on the Autobahn without protection in place puts the entire team in jeopardy if one climber were to slip. A guide has little chance to arrest the fall of a client without the benefit of snow pickets to absorb the energy of a fall.

Fixed protection: An issue that came up multiple times this season involved groups having their climbing protection or carabiners removed by other teams so that it was not available for the descent. A common tactic is for groups to place carabiners on the 20-24 fixed pickets on the Autobahn and leave them in place for the day, only removing them after they pass by the second time on the descent. If the leader of a rope does not have extra carabiners available and none are with the pickets, then they do not have the means to use the fixed protection. With a client leading a rope team and responsible for assuring that protection is clipped, the guide may not be aware of the type, quality, or absence of protection on the rope. The NPS and guide companies have tried different solutions to keep carabiners fixed to the pickets and they still disappear. We don’t know if the guide left carabiners in place and was expecting them to be available for descent, or if her gear may have been removed by other teams, but it is a likely scenario.

Another possible cause of confusion was the presence of two trails on the Autobahn. The older trail used in previous years was not favored or maintained due to an open crevasse midway up the slope. The new trail for 2011 took a higher route than normal and was maintained beginning in early May by the first guided teams. Descending climbers on several occasions this year unintentionally took the lower route, which did not have pickets for protection. The lead climber of the Alpine Ascents rope team may have moved onto this lower trail and found no pickets available.

Debrief point: This was a resource-intensive rescue at high elevation with critically injured patients. A large team of 14 experienced and acclimatized rescuers was instrumental in the favorable outcome of the two survivors. (Source: Kevin Wright, Mountaineering Ranger)