A rash of avoidable accidents on North America’s tallest mountains has national park rangers worrying that a contemporary, urban ethos might be putting people’s lives in danger.
Most of the recent accidents on the slopes of Alaska’s Mount Denali involved solo climbers who started up the mountain with a team but ended up going it alone only to fall into glacier crevasses and need to be rescued, said south district ranger Tucker Chenoweth.
Rangers warn Denali is a bad place for a casual break-up.
So far, no one has died, but the latest to be saved is in critical condition in a Fairbanks hospital.
Crevasses falls are normally not a problem for roped climbers. One goes in, the other or others quickly stop the fall, and then help the fallen climber out. Soloists have no protection against going in deep, and no help handy to get them out.
Chenoweth said problems have come from climbing teams splitting up and leaving people on their own.
“They just split,” Chenoweth said. “They’re a team; then they’re not a team. They don’t ever intend to be soloists.”
A lot of today’s climbers, Chenoweth said, appear unaware of the potential dangers of this move. They have had little exposure to expedition climbing. They have honed their skills as weekend peak baggers in places where it is possible to go home at the end of the day, and places where if a friend decides not to do the climb, it’s easy to part ways and meet later at the microbrewery.
“There’s a whole new climbing public,” Chenoweth said.
Denali these days attracts a lot of men – 88 percent of climbers were male last year – old enough and successful enough to believe they know what they are doing (or can figure it out) even when they can’t. The average age last year was 39, according to the annual Denali Mountaineering Report.
Many of them are used to making decisions on their own. Some of them only want to get to the summit. A lot are on their first expedition climb. Some don’t adjust well to roped travel, which can be a pain in the ass if a partner travels either too slow or too fast.
Few recognize that what applies to combat units also applies to expedition climbing. As the late Gen. George S. Patton put it well:
“An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit.”
Some of the Red Bull-generation of modern mountaineers, however, grew up on heroic stuff. Dean Potter, who died two-years ago, in a wingsuit crash in Yosemite National Park and Preserve, is admired by many. He was 43, and he had performed amazing feats. His skills as a free climber were unmatched.
Many of the climbers who take to the slopes leading to the 20,310-foot summit of Mount McKinley circa 2017 have incredible climbing skills. The quality of climbers on the peak has arguably gone nowhere but up over the years.
But it’s not on the climbs that they’re getting into trouble; it’s on the hike up the glacier along the West Buttress leading to the real climbing.
“They’re treating the Kahiltna Glacier like it’s any other hike,” Chenoweth said, but it’s not.
On its relatively gentle climb to Windy Corner, the Kahiltna looks rather benign, no more and arguably less challenging than Flattop Mountain in the Chugach Front Range above the state’s largest city. But the Kahiltna’s surface is laced with crevasses.
The crevasses are a particular problem this year. A low-snow winter left many of them unbridged, and then came a snowy May that made many looked bridged. They were covered all right, but the snow was neither deep enough nor consolidated enough to support much, if any, traffic.
Unroped climbers who step on these sorts of bridges have a nasty habit of occasionally disappearing out of sight.
“The likelihood is really low,” Chenoweth said, “but the consequences are high.”
Forty-five-year-old Korean Jung Kuk Kang might have disappeared into one of those crevasses forever if not for a little luck. An Alpine Ascents International guided team of climbers just happened to see him go through the ice near 8,300 feet near the end of May.
They went to investigate and found Kang wedged in ice about 30 feet down in the glacier. Guides Stuart Robertson and Michael Hutchins were able to get a rope on Kang and pull him out of the hole, and rangers helped evacuate him to a Palmer hospital. Kang’s visit to the insider of a glacier was painful, but not life threatening.
The same could not be said for the crevasse fall of 38-year-old Martik Takac of Trmava, Slovakia. He dropped 40-feet into the glacier near 7,800 feet and got stuck there. It took rangers and volunteers 15 hours to pry him free.
A tragic history
Some of the rescuers had flashbacks to the tragic death of 25-year-old Chris Kerrebrock in 1981. Kerrebrock set out with the older, more-experienced Jim Wickwire, a Pacific Northwest climbing legend, to tackle the Wickersham Wall, one of the toughest routes on the mountain.
Wickwire and Kerrebrock were descending the Peters Glacier in early May of that dangerously close together – only 20 to 30 feet – when Kerrebrock went through a hidden crevasse. Wickwire, 40, was pulled off his feet and into the crevasse before he had time to react.
Twenty-five-feet deep in the glacier, Kerrebrock wedged in the ice. Wickwire, who’d injured his shoulder in the fall, tried for hours to get the younger man free. He finally climbed out of the crevasse hoping he could raise a passing airplane on a CB radio to call for help. No planes came.
Wickwire spent five days at the crevasse waiting before he decided to save himself only to get caught in a four-day storm. He managed to survive and make his way back toward Kahiltna Pass where he was spotted by a pilot and rescued. Rangers and volunteers eventually returned to the scene of the fall and after hours of chipping ice were able to free Kerrebrock’s body and remove it.
Mountaineering ranger Bob Gerhard later concluded Kerrebrock had been the victim of “a freak and unusual accident,” but noted that “if the two had been traveling farther apart (approximately 50–60 feet) or, better yet, if there had been three climbers roped together instead of two, then probably both (or all three) would not have fallen into the crevasse at the same time and Kerrebrock may or may not have been pinned as tightly as he was.”
A teaching moment
With Takac in critical condition in the Fairbanks hospital, Chenoweth said, rangers are trying to spread the word of his accident up and down the mountain.
“We’re kind of using this story as a case study,” he said.
Whether the message will get through or not is hard to say. As Chenoweth admitted, “there’s a highway beat in” to the snow along the Kahiltna Glacier heading up from base camp.
The route is so well-traveled, and such a relatively easy hike, it’s easy to take it for granted – easy to conclude that it looks safe, so it must be safe.
But it’s not. People have been punching through regularly, Chenoweth said, and worse.
“In addition to the two major crevasses rescues reported in this blog in the past week or so,” Maureen Gualtieri, posted on the park service’s Denali climbing blog on Wednesday, “two additional crevasse falls last night at the base of Heartbreak Hill (not far from base camp). In last night’s falls, the climbers were uninjured and/or pulled out by a teammate.
“Nevertheless, in all four of these instances, the climbers that fell into the crevasse were NOT ROPED to their partners.”
Roping up is considered a normal safety precaution for glacier travel, something akin to buckling the seat belt in your car. But, of course, roping up is impossible if there is no one to rope to.
Since Wednesday, travel conditions on the mountain have only grown worse. The only good news might be that rain at lower elevations could collapse bad bridges across crevasses and make route finding easier.
“Warm temperatures and rain have made a mess of the lower glacier,” Gualtieri reported Friday. “Julie at Basecamp reports ‘waist deep post-holing in slush.’ And the glacier is riddled with crevasses, so roping up when travelling on the lower glacier is critical. Travel roped up at all times, and only at night when the temperatures are cooler.
“Rangers at 14 camp (14,000 feet) are advising climbers interested in descending to stick around camp for a few more days until the temperatures get colder.
“Yesterday saw a mass exodus from high camp due to wind. All of the 70+ climbers (and rangers and volunteers) descended to 14 camp in difficult conditions. Winds on the ridge were sustained at 50 mph, but the upper mountain is well protected with pickets, and climbers were using them to full advantage.”