1,100-foot fall causes first death of season on McKinley

Lisa Demer

A Mount McKinley climber fell 1,100 feet to his or her death Friday afternoon while trying to recover a backpack that had started to slide downhill high on the mountain, the National Park Service said on Saturday.

The Park Service hasn't released the climber's identity, nationality or gender but said the individual was part of a three-person team from another country. The group wasn't using a guide and members were not roped together, said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Talkeetna.

Denali National Park and Preserve mountaineering rangers were notified at 4:30 p.m. that a member of the climbing team had fallen from the 16,200-foot level on the mountain's West Buttress route.

The team was ascending the mountain and had just reached the top of an area in which lines are secured to the mountain to aid climbers.

The fixed lines end at the crest of a ridge. The group was taking a rest break at a popular, relatively wide spot on the ridge, said Denali lead mountaineering ranger Coley Gentzel, who led the incident command in Talkeetna.

But what begins as a gentle slope quickly drops off to about 30 to 35 degrees, he said.

"This climber had set the pack down and it began to make a getaway. And the climber went after it," Gentzel said.

The climber tumbled down the north face of the buttress to an elevation of 15,100 feet on the Peters Glacier, the Park Service said.

Many climbers pause in that spot to regroup. Some stash equipment and supplies in the area, then return to a camp lower on the mountain, at 14,000-foot elevation, for the night.

Friday was clear and calm with temperatures in the teens at the 14,000-foot camp.

"It was a beautiful day in the mountains," Gentzel said.

It wasn't immediately known whether their goal for the day was to make high camp, the 17,000-foot level, a common strategy, or whether they were storing supplies and intended to head down to the 14,000-foot camp, Gentzel said.

At the time of the fall, a Park Service mountaineering patrol was ascending the fixed-lines just behind the three-person team. They contacted fellow rangers by radio. At 5:15 p.m., Denali National Park's helicopter, with two ranger-paramedics on board, took off from Talkeetna. Rangers reached the fall site and confirmed the climber had died of injuries.

The team members weren't roped together or anchored to the mountain. Most climbers travel as a roped team in that area but it's not uncommon for climbers to tackle it unroped as well, Gentzel said. It's not glaciated, so there's no danger of falling into a crevasse. Still, park ranger teams travel roped together, even on the stretch with lines already fixed, and they latch onto the mountain with snow pickets, rock anchors and other technical equipment.

"So if one member of the group falls, hopefully that anchor you are clipped into will hold," Gentzel said. Roping by itself "really serves no purpose if you're not anchoring it to something. You are sealing your fate with everyone on your team should someone slip and fall."

Rangers encourage others to rope together and clip into anchors but it's up to individual climbers to decide how to maneuver.

Reaching for a backpack, a sled or even a mitten as it slips or falls away is a simple, everyday reaction. It's also one to guard against on the slopes of McKinley.

"You take that and put in context of highly technical terrain with high consequences," Gentzel said. "Obviously, a slip, trip or fall in the process of trying to retain this item can be deadly. And that's happened a couple of times even in recent history."

Currently, there are 336 mountaineers attempting routes on Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak at 20,320 feet. So far this season, four climbers have reached the summit.

Friday's fatal fall was the first serious incident of the 2012 season.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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