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Falling ice on Mount Hunter, a 1,000-foot tumble on Denali: Rangers rescue injured climbers

Two people were rescued in the Alaska Range this week from two different climbing teams, one of which tumbled 1,000 feet down a popular route on Denali before coming to a stop in a glacial crevasse, an official said.

The two accidents happened around the same time Sunday, said Maureen Gualtieri, public information officer for the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station of Denali National Park and Preserve.

On Sunday, two people climbing Denali's West Buttress route fell off a narrow ridge near an elevation of 16,500 feet, Gualtieri said. The two were roped together but weren't using snow anchors, which would have caught their fall.

A third member of their party was still at camp at 14,200 feet, Gualtieri said.

The pair tumbled an estimated 1,000 feet toward Peters Glacier, stopping when they fell into a crevasse out of sight from the ridge above.

The location of the accident on the West Buttress route that left a woman with spinal injuries, relative to the 14,200-foot camp on Denali. (David Weber / National Park Service)

A guided party saw them fall and alerted rangers.

Although rangers knew two climbers had fallen, they didn't have much more information at that point, Gualtieri said. Ground crews began looking for the pair, she said.

When the two climbers came to a stop inside the Peters Glacier crevasse, they activated their personal locator beacons. A ranger patrol responded to the site of the fall, but bad weather rolled in, making for high winds and poor visibility, and the helicopter had to turn around, Gualtieri said.

Early Monday morning, as a rescue team was waiting to depart from 14,200 feet, one of the climbers who had fallen stumbled into camp, Gualtieri said.

He had an injured knee. He told rescuers that his climbing partner was injured and couldn't move, but she was alert and stable at around 15,800 feet on Peters Glacier, Gualtieri wrote.

At that point, rangers, volunteers and mountain guides ascended to the ridge and traveled back down toward the glacier, where they found the woman in the crevasse. She had suffered spinal injuries but was able to remain warm and out of the wind by staying under the lip of the crevasse, Gualtieri said.

But the weather was worsening. Rangers assessed her medical condition and prepared her for transport by helicopter.

She was evacuated and flown to Talkeetna, where she was transferred to a LifeMed air ambulance helicopter "for treatment of significant spinal injuries," Gualtieri wrote.

Elsewhere on Sunday, a team of two climbers was hit by falling ice and rock while rappelling the Mini Moonflower route on 14,573-foot Mount Hunter, adjacent to Denali. The climbers used an InReach device to contact the National Park Service, according to Gualtieri.

Even though one climber had a broken arm and "significant lacerations," the pair were able to descend to the base route on their own, Gualtieri wrote. The injured climber was evacuated by helicopter, flown to Talkeetna and then taken to a ground ambulance for further care.

So far this climbing season, two other people have been rescued from the Alaska Range, Gualtieri said. On April 14, a climber on West Kahiltna Peak fell and broke his leg. He was evacuated by National Park Service rangers.

The other rescue occurred May 3, when a person with "multiple traumatic injuries" was evacuated from Reality Ridge on Denali's South Buttress route. The climbers weren't trying to summit the mountain, just complete the route, Gualtieri said.

Nobody has died while climbing 20,310-foot Denali this year.

The first, early-season climbing team reached Denali's summit April 23. Most of the other climbers began to arrive the last week of April, Gualtieri said.

On Wednesday morning, 398 people were on the mountain, Gualtieri said. Thirty-eight climbers had already come and gone.

The busiest part of the season is fast approaching. During the last week of May and first week of June, 500 to 600 climbers will be on the mountain at a given time, Gualtieri said. Most take the West Buttress route to the summit.

By mid-July, Denali's climbing season will likely be over, as the weather warms and crevasses open up in the lower mountain areas.

"'It just gets too dangerous on the lower parts of the mountain," Gualtieri said.

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