American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1955

Alaska, Mount McKinley—Elton Thayer (27), George Argus (25), Leslie Viereck and Morton S. Wood successfully ascended the south peak via Ruth Glacier and the south buttress. They reached the top on May 15, 1954. The following day, May 16, they left their high camp at 17,200 feet and had an easy descent of the Harper Glacier. The descent down the cocks comb was marred by poor conditions, deep snow over ice. At the bottom of this at 12,800 feet they came to a nasty steep pitch where there was a fixed rope attached to wooden pickets left by a previous party. This was used for added security since it appeared to be in good condition. Argus was leading, Wood was second, then Viereck and last Thayer. To avoid a particularly bad part of the ridge, they skirted below the crest along the north side where the slope was less steep. Suddenly Elton slipped and started sliding. The slope with loose snow over ice offered poor belay positions and the rest of the party and fixed rope was dislodged by the fall. They slid down the slope 800 to 1000 feet to a spot where the slope lessened and one of the party fell into a crevasse which arrested the fall. Thayer was killed by the fall and Argus suffered a broken hip. The two uninjured survivors later were able to move Argus down to the Muldrow Glacier. They then left him with most of the supplies while they walked out to Wonder Lake to alert a rescue party. A rescue party returned to Argus and he was successfully removed by helicopter from a point lower on the mountain.

Source: Manuscript of Wood’s account; Bradford Washburn.

Analysis: According to Bradford Washburn, the decision of the party to traverse to the left instead of going straight was unfortunate. The left side represents the lee side and there is always much snow on the 50° ice slope. The traverse to the right is also hazardous, but there is no loose snow (the Sayre party elected to do this on their descent last summer, 1954, and were successful). Descending this pitch directly is more thrilling but three- fourths of the rope can be firmly anchored.

The exact cause of Thayer’s slip is unknown, but this accident does point out the need for extreme care on the part of the last man on steep ice or snow slopes. Apparently the fixed rope pulled out or some part broke, which demonstrates that equipment exposed to the elements for some time must be used cautiously and should be checked carefully. Furthermore, the descent by an unknown route always presents a certain hazard.

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