Hidden dangers

A satellite view of the area where a skier died in Denali National Park and Preserve this week

The 2021 Alaska Range climbing season has begun tragically with an unroped Colorado skier dead in a crevasse fall on the south spur of the Eldridge Glacier.

According to officials with Denali National Park and Preserve, 28-year-old Mason Stansfield from Ouray, Colo., dropped an estimated 100 feet to his death on Monday.

A climbing and skiing partner, who the National Park Service (NPS) did not identify, used an InReach satellite communicator to text Talkeetna-based mountaineering rangers for help after the glacier swallowed Stansfield.

“The park’s high-altitude helicopter pilot and two NPS mountaineering rangers departed the Talkeetna State Airport within 30 minutes of the emergency communication,” according to a Denali park statement. “The rescuers flew direct to the party’s GPS (global positioning system) coordinates located…in gently sloping terrain at an elevation just under 8,000 feet.”

One of the rangers descended into the crevasse to find Stansfield dead.

Why the skiers were traveling unroped on the heavily crevassed Eldridge Glacier is unclear. Satellite photos of the area show the icy surface clearly riddled with crevasses, but they are buried beneath winter snows this time of year.

It is possible they were less than fully aware of the significant danger in the area because of that winter snow cover. But experienced Alaska Range climbers who looked at aerial photos said pre-trip planning should have made obvious the risks of travel.

“(It’s) amazing they didn’t fall into other cracks getting to the crack they fell into,” one observed.

There were reports from friends of Stansfield in Colorado that he and his partner were trying to skirt one snow-covered crevasse when Stansfield fell into another.

Local knowledge

Glacial crevasses are a danger with which many non-Alaska climbers are unfamiliar. Denali park mountaineering rangers have spent years trying to warn them of the risks of glacier travel in the crevasse-riddled mountains of the 49th state.

“Because glacier travel is such a huge component of climbing (Mount) Denali, it is imperative to your safety and survival that your team is skilled with proper glacier travel, route finding, and crevasse rescue procedures,” the park’s Denali mountaineering guide warns.

Climbers heading onto the slopes of Denali proper – the tallest peak in North America – are required to attend an NPS orientation class that covers, among other things, glacier travel and crevasse rescue.

But the class is not required of those skiing or mountaineering elsewhere in the wild and remote, nearly 9,500-square-mile park and preserve about 200 miles north of Anchorage.

Stansfield had in the past worked as a guide on the popular West Buttress route up the mountain, according to reports, and should have been familiar with glacier travel safety. But the trail up the Kahilta Glacier toward the summit is so well packed at times that a certain nonchalance often develops there.

Four years ago, then 38-year-old Martin Takac from Slovakia spent 14 hours wedged approximately 40-feet down in a crevasse on the Kahiltna before NPS rangers and volunteers could free him.

He ended up in Fairbanks Memorial Hospital suffering from hypothermia and injuries suffered in the fall, but he survived. Like Stansfield, he had been traveling unroped on a glacier.

Fox News in Denver was Wednesday reporting the residents of Ouray, a Rocky Mountain outpost of 1,000, was in shock over the Stansfield’s death. He worked in Ouray as a guide for San Juan Mountain Guides.

“The community is rocked right now. There’s just a pervasive sense of shock and disbelief by everyone,”  Nate Disser, co-owner of the business, told Fox. 

“…What’s really, really tough I think (is) for people to see somebody who had that effect, to lose them at such a relatively young age.’

Stansfield’s death was a bad start for an Alaska climbing season that was very quiet last year because of the pandemic. The Park Service banned climbing on Denali, and activity elsewhere was minimal.

Normal seems to be on the way back this year, however, with 785 climbers registered to date to climb Denali and 37 already on the mountain.

The Park Service on Wednesday reported base camp is in at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna and rangers pioneering the popular West Buttress route up the Kahiltna to the 14,000-foot high camp were near 11,000 feet.











8 replies »

  1. I typed in YouTube “ropeless glacier trekking” and came up with a 19yo on the 78th floor of a newly constructed skyscraper. The experienced showman and ledge walker proceeded to hang one-handed on the end of a crane 78 floors up for the GoPro moment. I admit, I was impressed until my toes curled when he fell to his death.
    I pondered, surely this young man knew better, was “properly” trained, and knew the consequences? After all, you are hanging 78 floors above the ground with no ropes or safety nets in place. I then quickly typed in “is Superman and Spiderman real”? Nope! Still FICTIONAL CHARACTERS.

  2. The “fast & light” paradigm in modern alpinism has spurred many mountaineers to leave their rope in the tent….or even worse, ski with it in their pack on the way to a route.
    Mason knew better as he was a climbing guide.
    Sadly, I have seen quite a few climbers dying this way in Alaska (UNROPED).
    I lost patience with the best of my climbing partners for just this same reason…they never wanted to use the rope when traveling across a glacier…complained it made us too slow & being slow in the AK range means that you are maybe a bit more cold.
    The system works folks…learn crevasse rescue & practice on dry land.
    Carry a rope or two out to the glacier with you.
    “Rope-up” anywhere outside of camp (which needs adequate probing to be safe).
    Good luck to all who venture into the hills for recreation & my deepest condolences go out to Mason’s family and his partner that witnessed the accident.

    • Totally agree. On a personal level, it’s mind-boggling to me that they weren’t roped given where they were, but that’s me. I’m sure some others might reach other conclusions. Skiing roped is a bit of a pain in the ass. Far less so travel on snowshoes.

    • Steve, really good statement! Tough to adhere to at times especially at “indestructible”28 years old . Yes those darn crevasses can be any where. Probing like you said is very wise . Easy to be impatient in youth. Or perhaps devil may care youth. We used to do crazy stuff in cravasse feilds . Big hills are for extreme speed. I was once rolling canonball style down a glacier hill to my surprise i flew down a crevasse! Talk about a shock ! 100 ft dropp straight down. Holy horse piss! I tell you my fingers were on fire from trying to slow my decent . I got lucky and crevasee narrowed before hitting bottom. I was young and managed to work my way out. By that time my Freinds had gotten near the edge . Talk about a lot of big eyes! When i had disappeared they were sure i was a gonner . Enjoyable at time . There was some really serious cravasse roped training on one edge of that glacier. Huge unbelievable cracks where death was guaranteed.

      • OK, I got the creeps just reading that. All my crevasse problems have come when I was roped, and I was damn glad to be roped.

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