Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Denali Part 1: The Accident on Motorcycle Hill

On June 5, 2012, Aaron and I were camped at Camp 3 at 11,000 feet.  Camp 3 is located at the base of one of the steeper "hills" on the West Buttress route, a hill named "Motorcycle Hill." Motorcycle Hill is flanked with crevasses and seracs, but the hill itself is quite wide.  While we were there, skiers and boarders rode all over the hill.  That said, there were multiple holes and cracks on the hill indicative of crevasses.

Motorcycle Hill from Camp 3.  Note the crevasse above the shadow.

On our first carry from Camp 3 to Camp 4 (14,200 feet), Aaron and I encountered a group of five Japanese climbers.  They, like us, had just ascended Motorcycle Hill.  They were roped together, resting just above Kahiltna Pass.  As we approached, the older man at the back-end of the rope smiled, and a conversation ensued, part in English and part in Japanese.  The Japanese climbers were from Miyagi Prefecture, a place with which I was familiar.  Sendai (the capital of the Miyagi Prefecture) was close to where I had served an LDS mission.  Sendai was also the place that was recently struck by a very large earthquake.  They were proud to have survived the earthquake.

When we met the Miyagi climbers, they had been on the mountain for 9-10 days.  They asked us how long we had been on the mountain (4 days at the time), and they were complimentary.  They said that we looked very young and asked us how old we were.  We told them.  The man on the back-end of the rope said that he was in his late sixties!  He told us we could easily be his sons.  He remarked that in Japan, you don't get to do anything fun until after you retire.

As we moved by the Miyagi team's rope, we greeted and were greeted by two female climbers.  They weren't as old as the man on the back-end of the rope, but they weren't young either.  They encouraged us onward, saying "Ganbatte ne!" (to persevere; to go for it).  At the front of the Miyagi team's rope was a seemingly stoic man.  His hair was longish, graying, and pulled back.  He had a beard, and a large sore on his lip.  Although he was older in years, his stature was bullish.  He looked like he was very strong.  And I surmised that he was the Miyagi team's leader; that's why he was on the front of the rope.  Even as I sit here today, I remember his face and his posture very clearly.  Immediately after I passed him, I wished I would have had the courage or taken the time to take his portrait.  He would have passed for a samurai.  Maybe he was.

One week after this encounter, this team of Miyagi climbers was swept away in an avalanche on Motorcycle Hill.  Four of them perished; one, the man on the back-end of the rope, survived.

Based on my own contemporaneous observations on the mountain and conversations with friends of the Miyagi climbers and people who assisted in the rescue, I've pieced the following story together.  It may or may not be completely accurate, but I think it offers more than what is available in the mainstream news.

The Miyagi team moved up to Camp 4 (14,200 feet) on June 5, 2012. Their camp was located at the lower end of Camp 4 on the fixed-line side of "Main Street."  On June 7 or 9, 2012, the Miyagi team climbed to around 17,000 feet to cache equipment and food, and then returned to Camp 4.  Relatively large amounts of snow fell on June 10 and 11.  By the morning of June 12, the snow stopped.  It was somewhat windy, but but the skies were clearer.  It looked as if the storm and the unsettled weather had come to an end.

June 12 was a difficult day for Aaron and I.  Aaron wanted to make a summit bid.  I was reluctant.  From Camp 4, we could see that there were high winds on the summit.  In the morning, a plume of snow was constant above the summit, indicative of high winds.  However, by afternoon, the plume had disappeared.  The afternoon of June 12 turned out to be a nice, clear day.  All afternoon Aaron and I stomped through camp muttering over and over again, "We should have gone for it.  We should have gone for it!"

I am confident that this break in the weather factored into the Miyagi team's decision to descend the mountain.  While Aaron and I were torturing ourselves with what could have been, a large portion of Camp 4 mobilized and began to ascend the fixed lines.  In the mid-afternoon of June 12, I counted 46 people climbing up or towards the fixed lines. Some of these people were climbing, intending to cache food and gear.  Others were climbing to 17,000 feet where they would camp and wait to make their summit attempt.

I don't know why the Miyagi team decided to descend.  Possibly sickness.  Surely exhaustion played into their decision.  By June 12, they had been on the mountain for around 17 days.  Although they had cached gear and food at 17,000 feet, they did not have the motivation or the strength to go and retrieve it.  On June 12, they made the decision to abandon their 17,000 foot cache and to descend the mountain.  The Miyagi team departed Camp 4 in the afternoon/early evening of June 12.

Between 8 pm on June 12 and noon on June 13, we experienced weather on Denali to a degree that we had not previously known.  That night, at 14,000 feet, wind gusts reached 70 mph.  Our tent was nearly buried several times and would have been had we not cleared snow off and around it.  Laying inside the tent, I watched it bow over and waited for it to snap, or simply kite off into the wind.  I wished that we had built bigger snow walls.  In the morning, we tunneled out of our tent and looked around to the extent that we could.  The snow was falling horizontally.  Everyone was wide-eyed.  In the previous days, we thought we had come to know Alaskan weather.  While we had  heard about the wrath of Denali storms, never did we expect that.  I heard that a prominent and well-weathered Denali guide, Mark Westman, who spent the night at 17,000 feet remarked that the night of June 12 was the worst he had ever spent on the mountain.

Our tent on June 12.  

Only later did I realize that while we were cowering in our tents, the Miyagi team was exposed to the June 12 storm.  Between Camp 4 and Camp 3 is a point called Windy Corner.  It is at the top of a pass where the West Buttress Route turns and skirts seracs and large crevasses. If the winds are high at Camp 4, they are likely higher at Windy Corner.  

Crevasses below Windy Corner.

The Miyagi team made it past Windy Corner and all the way to Kahiltna Pass where they began to descend Motorcycle Hill.  The lone survivor of the Miyagi team, Hitoshi Ogi, reported that the Miyagi team got caught in an avalanche on Wednesday morning, June 13, 2012, around 2 a.m.  People might wonder why the Miyagi team was descending in the middle of the night.  But on Denali, it is not uncommon to travel at that hour.  In June, it never gets dark.  Moreover, it's safer to travel the lower glaciers during the early morning hours when the snow bridges (over crevasses) are frozen.  

Given the terrible weather, the Miyagi team must have been desperate as they reached Kahiltna Pass.  Although it was not dark, they were likely travelling in whiteout conditions.  They were likely moving "wand-to-wand," breaking trail through deep snow.  By the time they reached Motorcycle Hill, nearly 10 hours had elapsed since they left Camp 4.  It appears that as the Miyagi team descended Motorcycle Hill, an avalanche swept them into a crevasse, burying all but one--the man on the back-end of the rope.

This photo of the crevasse on Motorcycle Hill was taken on June 15, 2012.  

The Miyagi team were not the only avalanche victims on June 13.  After a harrowing night at 17,000 feet on June 12, several teams made the decision to descend.  Some of them had lost their tents to the wind.  Some of them did not have functioning stoves.  In the afternoon of June 13, at least three separate parties stumbled into Camp 4.  The first party was a group of four from the University of Alaska.  Two members of this group had lost their packs in an avalanche.  This group was later flown off the mountain by the park service.  Another group, Colombians I think, was also churned by an avalanche on their way to Camp 4.  Of this group, there were knee injuries and a laceration--crampon stuck in a thigh.  This group was also flown off the mountain.  Another group, Polish I think, descended to Camp 4.  In the whiteout, they got off-route, but luckily and before they walked into a crevasse or into an avalanche path, the weather cleared enough for people at Camp 4 to direct the Polish team to safety.

On June 13, Mr. Ogi emerged from a crevasse on Motorcycle Hill.  The crevasse was approximately 100 feet deep.  The rope that attached Mr. Ogi to his other four teammates was reportedly broken.  After Mr. Ogi emerged, he descended to base camp at 7,200 feet, finally arriving the afternoon of June 14.

There are two mysteries.  The first has to do with the rope.  How did it break?  Or, did it break?  Was it cut on a crampon, a picket, or an axe?  There aren't any rocks or naturally sharp objects on Motorcycle Hill.  Was the rope already weakened or cut?  Or, did the force of a fall break the rope?  That is hard to conceive. Except for the crevasse, there there are no areas on the hill where a free or high factor fall could happen.  Was the rope cut after the accident?  On June 16, a Denali ranger descended into the crevasse and discovered the end of the broken rope.  His attempts to follow the rope were thwarted by falling ice and hard ice that encased the rope and ultimately the other four Miyagi team members.

The second mystery has to do with why Mr. Ogi waited until he reached base camp at 7,200 feet to report the accident, officially. There are several established camps between Motorcycle Hill and base camp.  At the bottom of Motorcycle Hill, less than a quarter mile from the crevasse that swallowed the Miyagi team, is Camp 3 (11,000).  Camp 3 is always inhabited by climbers.  Why didn't Mr. Ogi report the accident to his fellow climbers at Camp 3?  Surely, he could have received assistance from climbers at Camp 3.  Perhaps Mr. Ogi did not want to rouse a sleeping Camp 3?  Perhaps he was in shock?  Even before Mr. Ogi reached Camp 3, one man reports that he encountered Mr. Ogi on Motorcycle Hill.  That man says that Mr. Ogi did not give any indication that an accident had occurred and wonders why Mr. Ogi didn't ask for help.

As Aaron and I descended the mountain on June 15, we met two climbers who reported that they had encountered Mr. Ogi on his descent, probably around 7,800 feet, or Camp 2.  They reported that an Indian man was assisting Mr. Ogi by looking for access to a satellite phone, presumably to report the accident.  They reported that they or others in the camp had given Mr. Ogi shelter the night of June 13 since Mr. Ogi did not have a tent.

To a certain extent, I admire Mr. Ogi's self-sufficiency.  He didn't get flown off the mountain.  He didn't ask to be flown off the mountain.  Yet, his entire team had been killed, he had fallen into a crevasse, and then climbed out of that same crevasse.  On the other hand, it is strange.  Was it the language barrier?  Not completely, because Aaron and I had conversed with him in both English and Japanese.  One ranger attempted to explain Mr. Ogi's actions by referring to his "culture."  Yes, Japanese people tend to be proud, determined, and self-sufficient.  But nothing, as far as I know, in the culture discourages asking for assistance, especially under those circumstances.  I wonder if Mr. Ogi's recent experience with the earthquake somehow dictated his actions on Denali?

I hope it's not too rude to speculate.  My desire is simply to understand.  The Miyagi team were very capable human beings.  They were climbers.  They were caught in an unfortunate and tragic situation, one that could befall any climber.  My thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.


Poyuki said...


Hi I'm Ricardo, you and your brother passed me on summit day on the way up Denali Pass( I asked if you lived in Sandy). Excellent post, it really shed some light on this tragedy. Hope you and your brother are well back in Utah.

Keep up the good work!



Joseph.Szasz said...

Thanks for the post way more informative than ever other report thus far.

Unknown said...

Latvian Summer 2012 team descented from High Camp to camp 4 at 12th June ( in front of Polish group ) and made a track further ahead down at 13th. The snow conditions were extremely dangerous. Under Camp 3 I saw footprints in the snow left buy only one man. I remember those footprints, because they were firstleading down footprints in that day ahead of us, they started from camp 3, which we left around 4pm and they were left by man who moved down in ... lets say not directly down. Footprints were roaming around trail completely devoid of, but not leaving it too far away.

Unknown said...

Great read! We must have run into you guys up there at some point. My partner and I are from Ogden- we were camped next to the Japanese team for a brief time at 14k. They were super nice and really excited about all the via packets we gave them before we descended! When I heard the news about the Japanese team caught in the avalanche I new it had to be them. Anyway, hope your trip went well.



denaliclimber said...

My team was back ferrying to caching spot just above windy corner about 4-6pm on day of the storm. Vis was bad and snow was deep -- very laborious just to make downhill progress and even worse coming back up. My team passed the Japanese team on their descent between 14 camp and 11 camp not far from 14. They were traveling slow but were on route at that time ... can imagine that they may have gone astray or lost their way on the polo fields or in a place where there are no good handrails in bad visibility. Snow was so heavy that all signs of the trail were gone. Tragic story, so sad for the loss.

denaliclimber said...

My team was backferrying from 14k to just above windy corner on the day of the storm between 4-6pm. Passed Japanese team during their descent not far from 14k camp. They were going slow but on route. Snow was so heavy and deep that there were no signs of previous trail and making downhill progress was hard and very energy intensive. (Took my team twice as long to ferry as expected.) Vis was bad. I can imagine that with bad vis a place like the polo fields would be easy to get off route and go astray? I bet that by the time they got to the top of Motorcycle Hill they were so tired, cold and psyched to be there that they weren't thinking about all the new snow and the dicey avy conditions. Tragic incident, so sad for the loss.