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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“…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.