American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Climbing Alone in Severe Weather Conditions

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: 2011
  • Publication Year: 2012

On the evening of June 28, a guided group at high camp radioed NPS rangers at the 14,200-foot camp to report that a solo climber had been on the upper mountain for more than 24 hours and had not yet returned to his tent at high camp. NPS rangers notified Talkeetna personnel of the potential need for a search and rescue operation, which, due to weather and time of day, could not commence until the morning. The climber, Juergon Kanzia (41), from Austria, was last seen ascending from high camp to Denali Pass. There were no other climbing parties on the upper mountain at this time.

The NPS launched a full-scale search via ground and air that was in its second full day of operation when rangers at the 14,200-foot camp spotted what appeared to be a body below a long couloir below the summit plateau known as the Orient Express. The NPS contract helicopter with a ranger onboard flew to the site and confirmed that it did appear to be a body and the climbers clothing matched the description of the missing climber. Rangers and volunteers climbed to the site and recovered the body and assorted equipment and confirmed the identity of the missing climber. Events leading up to Kanzia’s fall and death are not known. He had left his backpack and skis at a point close to the entrance to the Orient Express couloir and was apparently trying to descend on foot.

Analysis

The most significant contributing factor to this accident is likely the decision by Kanzia to ascend into severe weather and in the face of an unfavorable forecast. Other teams at high camp reported losing sight of the climber as he ascended towards Denali Pass due to the formation of a lenticular cloud over the upper mountain. Earlier conversations indicated that, although he was a very experienced climber and guide in other parts of the world, he seemed to be unfamiliar with big mountain weather and conditions factors. (Source: Coley Gentzel, Lead Mountaineering Ranger)

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