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1992 was deadliest Alaska Range climbing season

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published May 26, 2011

This National Park Service record details search and rescue operations during the 1992 season -- the deadliest on record -- in the Alaska Range. Eleven of the 13 deaths happened on Mount McKinley.

The final two came on Mount Foraker.

1992 ALASKA RANGE SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS

92-183 - Denali (Alaska) - Rescues

On May 11th, three mountaineers were rescued and airlifted off Mount McKinley by park rangers and a high-altitude Lama helicopter on contract to the NPS. Just after 2:00 p.m. that afternoon, Daryl Hinman came into the ranger station at 14,000 feet on the mountain and said that his two climbing partners were in trouble at 17,500 feet. Tom Roseman, 43, of Ridgecrest, California, was suffering from high-altitude cerebral edema, pulmonary edema and frostbite on both feet and his nose; Robert Rockwell, 56, also of Ridgecrest, was suffering from frostbite on his feet. The Lama was called and flew from Talkeetna to the 14,000-foot level to pick up ranger Ron Johnson and volunteer Julie Culberson and drop off ranger Daryl Miller to man the ranger station. Pilot Bill Ramsey flew Johnson and Culberson to 17,500 feet, where they stabilized the patients and loaded them on the helicopter. While Ramsey flew the patients to 14,000 feet, Johnson and Culberson and a French guide who had assisted them traversed to a better landing area for pickup. Before the rangers were picked up, however, a second rescue call came in. Timothy D. Hagen, 39, of Bellvue, Washington, had fallen at about 15,800 feet on the head wall of the West Buttress route. His partner, who was leading as they descended, fell; Hagen arrested the fall, but broke his right arm and scraped his face in the process. The climbers were not using the fixed lines on the headwall. Johnson and Culberson were flown to 15,600 feet, climbed up to Hagen, stabilized him, and brought him to the helicopter. All three patients were then flown from 14,000 feet to 7,200 feet, where a fixed-wing air taxi took them to Talkeetna and eventually to Humana Hospital in Anchorage. District ranger J.D. Swed and ranger Roger Robinson flew communications cover throughout the entire operation. The injured were off the mountain by 6:00 p.m., less than four hours after first notification. The rescues brought to four the number of climbers taken off the mountain this month by the Lama. An SCA working for the NPS was flown off late last week with frostbite in his hands. (cc:Mail message from John Quinley, RAD/ARO, 5/11)

92-187 - Denali (Alaska) - Rescue in Progress

A 28-year-old Korean man fell an estimated 300 meters while attempting a new route on the south face of Mount McKinley on the afternoon of May 11th. He suffered severe head injuries and was evacuated by members of the Korean Alpine Club to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,000 feet at 4 a.m. yesterday morning. Visibility at the camp was zero and heavy snow was falling at the time of the report. Continued poor flying conditions are predicted. Doctors who are in the camp as part of other expeditions are treating him. (cc:Mail message from John Quinley, RAD/PNRO, 5/12)

92-187 - Denali (Alaska) - Follow-up on Rescue

An Alaska National Guard Pavehawk rescue helicopter picked up 25-year-old Korean mountain climber Seog Woo-Song from the 7,000-foot base camp on Mount McKinley at 6:45 a.m. yesterday morning. Woo-Song had sustained severe head injuries in a 900-foot fall while rappelling on McKinley's south face and had been unconscious since the accident occurred on May 11th. Bad weather - zero visibility and five feet of snow in 24 hours - had prevented earlier evacuation efforts. During that time, Woo-Song was attended by two doctors from other climbing expeditions. (cc:Mail message from John Quinley, RAD/ARO, 5/13)

92-188 - Denali (Alaska) - Rescue

A 26-year-old French woman was rescued from 17,000 feet on Mount McKinley on the evening of May 11th by ranger Ron Johnson and three volunteers. The woman had been left at that altitude by her climbing partners, who descended to the ranger station at 14,000 feet at 2:30 p.m. and advised the rangers there that the woman was exhausted and unable to continue. She reportedly had a sleeping bag and tent, but no stove. Weather forecasters were predicting the arrival of the worst storm in ten years that evening; it would bring heavy snow and winds up to 100 mph. A four-man rescue team was sent after her and arrived at her location in four hours. They found her in fine condition. She descended the West Buttress to 14,000 feet on her own power in about two hours. Rangers plan to question the climbers as to why they did not descend as a group. (cc:Mail message from John Quinley, RAD/PNRO, 5/12)

92-196 - Denali (Alaska) - Three Fatalities; SAR in Progress

Rangers are in the process of attempting to drop food, water and a camp stove to three Korean climbers who have been marooned without food or water for six days at the 18,000-foot level of Mount McKinley, but efforts to drop the supplies by helicopter have been thwarted so far by winds of from 60 to 70 mph. Park spokesman John Quinley reports that nearly perfect weather will be required to fly in and rescue the climbers, but adds that "perfect weather is not in the forecast." Rangers learned of the climbers' plight when the Koreans radioed on Saturday to a helicopter crew searching for several European climbers on the mountain. Swiss climber Alex Von Bergen, 42, died on Sunday after experiencing respiratory problems at 14,000 feet, and two Italian climbers - Roberto Piombo, 30, and Giovanni Calcagno, 49 - were killed late last week when they fell while climbing Cassin Ridge. Rangers recovered Calgano's body yesterday at the mountain's 11,800-foot level; Piombo's body remains on Cassin Ridge at 15,000 feet. While efforts were underway to find and/or recover these climbers, rangers also learned of another incident in which three Koreans from a second Korean climbing party fell into a 60-foot crevasse at 15,500 feet. One climbed out, a second was rescued, and the third was being pulled out by rangers and volunteers late yesterday. The third climber, who is suffering from major trauma, will be raised out on a stretcher and taken by sled to the 14,000-foot level for evacuation. (Yereth Rosen, Reuters, 5/18)

92-196 - Denali (Alaska) - Follow-up on SAR in Progress

Rangers finally reached the three Korean climbers on Mount McKinley yesterday and evacuated them by helicopter. Their condition is not presently known. The stranded climbers were in a snow cave at the 18,200-foot level of the 20,320-foot peak. Earlier reports indicated that the group's leader was suffering from frostbitten fingers and altitude sickness. The mountain received significant amounts of snow during an unusually strong spring storm last week. About 400 climbers were reported to have been on the mountain over the past weekend. (Media reports, 5/18 and 5/19)

92-207 - Denali (Alaska) - Three Climbing Fatalities

Three Korean climbers died in a fall on Wednesday in yet another incident on Mount McKinley. The bodies were found at the 15,000-foot level after observers warned rangers that the climbers might be in trouble. The trio fell down the Orient Express, a little-used route on the mountain's west rim, while descending from 18,000 feet, where they'd been trapped by bad weather for seven days. The bodies will remain on the mountain until the weather improves enough to allow a recovery team to enter the area. The three fatalities followed the rescue of three other Korean climbers on the mountain's summit on Monday. The three, who were stranded for a week without food or water, were evacuated to an Anchorage hospital. (Yereth Rosen, Reuters, 5/21)

92-196/207 - Denali (Alaska) - Follow-up on Multiple SAR Incidents

Alaska Regional Office has provided us with a summary of the past week's intense activity on Mount McKinley in Denali. Over that period, rangers responded to ten incidents involving a total of 18 climbers; of the 18, six are dead (five of them still on the mountain), nine were airlifted to hospitals, one was uninjured but is no longer on the mountain, and two are well and still on McKinley. Here's a chronology of the events which took place:

• May 14 - The park received a report from a party of Korean climbers

that they'd seen a body on Cassin Ridge, but winds were too high to fly

a confirmation flight.

• May 15 - Morning winds continued to be high, but the park's Lama was

able to fly in the afternoon. One body was confirmed at 15,000 feet, and

a second was suspected. A pile of ropes was seen at about 11,800 feet.

Rangers suspected that the victims were a team of Italian climbers. While

on that flight, rangers received a distress call from a three-person

Korean team at 17,700 feet (not the same group that reported the

fatality on the 14th).

• May 16 - Winds were blowing at 50 mph, and rangers were unable to fly

emergency gear to the Koreans at 17,700 feet. The deaths of the two

Italians were confirmed. They had reached the summit and were descending

Cassin Ridge - a very rare and dangerous route. At 10:35 a.m., rangers

received a report that a Swiss climber had died of respiratory problems

at 14,000 feet. His family was on site as part of a group of eight

climbers. At 5:25 p.m., a report came in that three Koreans from still

another group had fallen in a crevasse at 15,500 feet at the base of the

headwall on the West Buttress. One went all the way through; two were

stuck up to their arms. One of them was able to extricate himself and

report the incident. The second eventually went all the way down. An

11-person rescue team was assembled. The members were Ron Johnson, Matt

Culberson, Julie Culberson, Jim Wickwire, John Roskelly, Brian Okenek,

and five Koreans. At 8:06 p.m., the rescue team located both victims

about 60 feet down on the false floor of the crevasse. Winds were

blowing snow at 30 mph. One of the two was extricated by about 10 p.m.;

the other was eventually dug out and taken to 14,000 feet with more

serious injuries. Weather precluded a helicopter rescue flight. The

body of one of the Italian climbers was recovered and flown off the

mountain by fixed wing aircraft in early evening.

• May 18 - The weather improved, and the Lama was able to evacuate the

Korean injured in the crevasse fall from 14,000 feet to 7,000 feet,

where he was transferred to a National Guard Pavehawk and taken to Humana

Hospital in Anchorage. Army CH-47 Chinooks were summoned from Fort

Wainwright. The park planned to either drop emergency supplies to the

Koreans at 17,700 feet from the Lama or lower them via the Chinooks. At

4:30 p.m, Lama pilot Bill Ramsey dropped a bag of emergency gear to the

climbers, but it rolled off the mountain. When the weather calmed, he

attempted to land about 40 feet from the climbers; when they rushed the

ship, Ramsey (and ranger Jim Phillips, who was on board) lifted off and

signalled them that only one climber could be extricated. Ramsey landed

again and picked up the worst injured of the three. After a short

turnaround at the NPS camp at 14,000 feet, he picked up the second

climber, then went back again for the third. The Army Chinooks picked

up the three climbers and took them straight to the hospital in Anchorage.

One had severe frostbite on his fingers and toes; the second had severe

frostbite to his feet and was dehydrated; the third suffered from mild

dehydration and abdominal pain. During subsequent interviews, the

Koreans reported that they discovered an abandoned bottle of stove fuel

while digging their snow cave.

• May 20 - A translator working with Korean climbers reported that

two Koreans at 14,000 feet had contacted her to report that another

three-person Korean team was at 18,000 feet and heading down after

spending seven days there due to bad weather. They were on their last

day of food and water. The information was passed on to Matt and Julie

Culberson - both volunteers working with rangers - who had been on patrol

on the West Rib since May 19th. At 7:25 p.m., the Culbersons reported

that they'd found the bodies of three Korean climbers at 15,000 feet at

the base of the Orient Express, a steep couloir named by climbers for

previous accidents involving foreign climbers.

• May 21 - Meetings were held in Talkeetna between park and regional staff

and the Italian consul general from San Francisco. Italy will send a

climbing team to recover the body of the remaining Italian climber at

15,000 feet, and the Service will provide helicopter support in moving

the body after it's taken to a landing zone.

There's high media interest both nationally and internationally in the spate of incidents on the mountain. Many questions have been raised in the press and by callers questioning the Service's policy of not charging climbers - particularly foreign climbers - for rescue costs. (cc:Mail report from John Quinley, Public Affairs, ARO, 5/21)

92-214 - Denali (Alaska) - Climbing Fatality

Terrance "Mugs" Stump, 41, a highly-regarded mountaineer and guide, died in an accident on Mount McKinley on May 21st. His death was the seventh in seven days on the peak. Stump, who was employed by Mountain Trip, Inc., was following two clients as part of a three-person rope team at about 14,400 feet on the South Buttress when they stopped, looking for the route. As Stump moved to the front of the line, the snow broke away under him. Stump's clients were able to arrest their descent only when the rope from Stump stopped pulling. One client descended into the crevasse twice in hopes of locating Stump, but was unable to find him. The pair then continued down the mountain and reported the accident on May 22nd. After hearing a description of the accident and the crevasse, rangers decided to make no recovery effort. (cc:Mail message from John Quinley, Public Affairs, ARO, 5/25)

92-233 - Denali (Alaska) - Four Climbing Fatalities

A search was begun for four climbers on Mt. McKinley after they were reported overdue. An airplane search was initiated, and the foursome was spotted making their way across an icy gully. The medical camp at 14,000 feet was notified by radio, and a ranger there watched the men through binoculars. As he watched, the four slipped and fell 3,000 feet to their deaths. The bodies were found at 16,000 feet, but it's not clear if they've yet been removed from the mountain. The accident brings the death toll for climbers this year to 11; the previous high was eight in 1967 and 1980. Details to follow. (Associated Press news report, 6/3)

92-233 - Denali (Alaska) - Follow-up on Climbing Fatalities

The four Canadian climbers who were killed on Mt. McKinley on May 31st were attempting to traverse the top of the Messner Couloir when the fall occurred. Body recovery by ground team was ruled out because of the extremely unstable snow conditions discovered by ranger Daryl Miller's team on Monday when it went to the site to confirm the deaths. Recovery was accomplished by the park's Lama helicopter employing a short-haul line and hook. (cc:Mail message from John Quinley, PA/ARO, 6/3)

92-234 - Denali (Alaska) - Climbers Rescued

On May 29th, rangers received word that two German climbers - Gerhard Seibert, 31, and Christoph Mach, 25 - on the mountain's West Buttress route were in trouble. Seibert was reported to have severe head injuries sustained in a fall, and Mach was said to have frostbitten hands. Three NPS volunteers, including a physician, helped them descend to 17,000 feet later that day. They were then picked up by the park's high-altitude Lama helicopter, transferred to an aircraft at 7,000 feet, then flown to a hospital in Anchorage. District ranger J.D. Swed was in the Lama; ranger Jim Phillips was on board the fixed wing cover aircraft; and Daryl Miller worked from the ranger camp at 14,000 feet. (Reuters news report, 5/29, and cc:Mail report from John Quinley, Public Affairs, ARO, 5/29)

92-300 - Denali (Alaska) - Climbing Fatalities

On June 18th, climbers Tom Walter, 34, Rick Kellogg, 25 and Colby Coombs, 25, were climbing the Pink Panther/SE Ridge route at the 13,500-foot level of Mount Foraker when an avalanche struck and killed Walters and Kellogg. Coombs was injured, but was able to descend the ridge to a climbers' camp at the 7,000-foot level of nearby Mount McKinley and report the fatalities on June 24th. All three were experienced climbers. This incident brings the number of climbers killed in the park this year to 13. All of the others were on Mount McKinley. The last fatalities recorded on Mount Foraker were in 1987, when four climbers died in an avalanche. (John Quinley, PA/ARO, 6/25, and Associated Press, 6/26)

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