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How one little slip proved fatal for Mount McKinley climber in precarious spot

Craig Medred
NPS photo

How thin the margins are high on Alaska's Mount McKinley was sadly illustrated earlier thsi month when 49-year-old German Steffen Machulka fell to his death after leading a group of friends from Saxony-Anhalt up the headwall from near the 14,200-foot camp to 16,200 feet.

The top 1,000 feet of this part of the West Buttress is steep enough that the National Park Service in cooperation with the concessionaires who guide about a quarter of the climbers up the mountain use fixed lines there for safety.

The headwall is steep at 40 to 45 degrees, but not that steep. In the right snow conditions, it can be skied by experts. But usually it is so icy that a climber whose foot loses a crampon bite on the surface can easily take a nasty, possibly deadly, fall. At the height of the climbing season, there are sometimes climbers stacked up waiting to clip onto those lines before starting the final ascent. It is wise to clip in.

Topping the headwall

Machulka clipped in, according to Park Service officials and other climbers, and inched his ascenders push by push up the line on May 18. The fixed lines -- there are two, one for going up and one for coming down -- were not crowded that day as Machulka led a group of three hailing from Halle, a small German town near Leipzieg, toward where the headwall tops out and the fixed lines end.

Ahead of him were two German friends from another climbing team. They saw Machulka make the top of the headwall and unclip.

"As we understand it," park service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin reported, "he was taking a break after topping out ... He set his pack down while waiting for his two teammates to finish the fixed lines."

German newspapers describe Machulka as an experienced climber. Who knows how many times in the past he'd reached a ridge top and slipped out of a backpack to sit back for a minute to relax and enjoy the scenery. It is something every climber has done. But in the thin air high on McKinley, it cost Machulka his life.

The pack started sliding. Machulka grabbed for it. He, too, slid. There was no stopping.

'Mountain has no mercy'

Blame the icy surface of the mountain. Blame the incessant winds up high. Blame a moment of inattention due to fatigue and the lack of oxygen in the cold air.

"This mountain has no mercy," his hometown newspaper, the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung reported. "A backpack falls. A man reaches for it. Suddenly there is no stopping him. The brutal hand of fate strikes. Three-hundred meters Steffen Machulka plunges into the depths."

What started Machulka's backpack sliding is unknown. The wind has blown a lot of gear off McKinley's summit ridge, but the pack could have just slid on the ice.

Whatever happened, Machulka surely grabbed for the pack instinctively, as most climbers would. It was a fatal mistake.

The climber, McLaughlin said, "fell 1,100 feet down the north face of the buttress to an elevation of 15,100 feet on the Peters Glacier." By the time a Park Service helicopter with two ranger-paramedics got to him, he was dead.

Triumph to disaster

Mitteldeutsche Zeitung described his climbing companions as men in shock:

The survivors have to watch helplessly as the 49-year-old races down the steep snow slope. The two companions, who a doctor later examined at base camp, are in shock. No wonder, since the loss is so different from anything before: Within a few moments, the biggest event of their lives suddenly turns out to be the greatest disaster.

Machulka, an electronics expert for a German railway, had dreams of one day climbing the Seven Summits, the tallest mountains on all seven continents, according to the newspaper, which described Machulka as "a world traveler with rope, crampons and ice tools.

Friends and acquaintances from the Halle mountaineering scene reacted in horror at his death. They share a concern that the disaster will cast a shadow on the sometimes controversial sport of mountaineering ... Even apparently minor mistakes can cause fatal consequences.

The Halle mountaineers and the German reporter got that last part right.

It is a different world up there in the cold and wind and thin air high on McKinley. The Park Service was hoping Machulka's death would the first and the last of the three-month climbing season, but it wasn't.

Less than a week after he plunged to his death, Finnish extreme skier Ikka Uusitalo fell while trying to ski down the Orient Express, a couloir so named because many Asian climbers perished on it decades ago.

Uusitalo tumbled and cartwheeled almost 2,000 feet down the often-dangerous section until his body disappeared about 60 feet into a crevasse. Park Service rangers eventually pulled him out.  

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com