Daniel Raworth, May 24, 1998
Mike Vanderbeek, May 24, 1998
Chris Hooyman, June 6, 1998
Naomi Uemura, 1984

Anchorage Daily News
Tuesday, June 09, 1998
by Peter Porco, Daily News Reporter

A month of high winds and slippery footing has created a new zone of death and disaster on Mount McKinley.

Along a relatively small section of the West Buttress ridge, three climbers have fallen in two weeks, resulting in one confirmed fatality, one man missing and presumed dead, and a desperate search for the third.

The latest casualty, 21-year-old Seattle mountain guide Chris Hooyman, lost his balance late Saturday morning while descending the buttress ridge at about the 17,000-foot level and fell down the north slope toward the Peters Glacier, the National Park Service said.Heavy snow and high winds kept rescuers pinned down Sunday, but a pair of climbers took advantage of a break in the weather early Monday evening and tried to look for Hooyman, said McKinley ranger Daryl Miller.

Brent Okita, a guide for Hooyman's employer, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. of Tacoma, Wash., and volunteer ranger Dr. Colin Grissom climbed to the ridge top with 1,800 feet of rope, Park Service spokeswoman Jane Tranel said.

Okita descended 1,100 feet of the north slope but found nothing, Miller said.

"He can see the bottom, to the glacier. He can see crevasses and seracs, but he can't see any sign of anybody or any articles of clothing," Miller said.
Okita was climbing back up late Monday. He and Grissom, joined by two other volunteer rescuers, were re-evaluating their options, he said. "The weather's coming back up," Miller said Monday night.

Hooyman was one of two guides who were escorting four clients, said Rainier president Jerry Lynch The six had reached the summit Saturday and left High Camp at 17,200 feet Sunday morning, Lynch said.

Hooyman was last on the rope, Tranel said. The client in front of him had trouble keeping his balance.

"One of the climbers stumbled. He had trouble getting up, he fell again, so Chris unclipped, and that's when the fall occurred," she said.It wasn't clear why Hooyman unclipped from the rope, Miller said. Winds at the time were a relatively calm 30 mph, he said.

On May 24, Canadian climber Daniel Raworth, 25, tripped at 16,600 feet, also while descending the crest of the West Buttress. He tumbled down the north slope for nearly 1,000 feet. Within hours, volunteer ranger Mike Vanderbeek, 33, of Talkeetna climbed down the slope with another ranger to look for Raworth.

Hundreds of feet below the ridge top, however, Vanderbeek lost his hold on a hard icy slope, fell and disappeared. Searchers found his pack, ice ax, broken crampons, eyeglasses and other gear, but they did not find him.

Raworth's body was recovered several days later.

Both men had fallen through a band of rocks, and it is likely Hooyman did, too, Miller said. The two fatalities have brought McKinley's 67-year death toll to 91 and are the first known to have occurred on that particular part of the 20,320-foot mountain, Miller said.

The east-west spine of the West Buttress is less than two miles long. The standard route mounts the last half of it, climbing from 16,200 to High Camp at 17,200 feet.

The buttress offers the most challenging technical climbing of the 16-mile route that bears its name, a route that draws more than 80 percent of McKinley's climbers. Most of the route is glacial, and alpinists have been known to scorn it as an easy "walk-up."

But the ridge, with its distant views north and south, is among the most striking features of the entire mountain. "That's the most beautiful portion of the West Buttress (route)," said Tyson Bradley, a 32-year-old McKinley guide. "It's the classic part of the route. It's the one where you have your slide show and people say, 'I want to walk above the clouds like that.' "

When climbers fall on a slope of the West Buttress, it's usually on the south side. Dramatic falls, including an occupied tent blown off the ridge crest in 1989, have occurred down the north side.

"It is ironic if you look at one thing -- there's never been a fatality on that ridge," Miller said. He added that Japanese climber Naomi Uemura, who disappeared in 1984 and was never found, may have perished by falling to the Peters Glacier.

"Oh, it's very easy to fall off" the ridge, said Diane Okonek, a proprietor of Alaska-Denali Guiding, one of six concessions authorized to guide on McKinley. "It's a steep narrow place."

Okonek speculated that storms that have raked the upper mountain for about a month have deposited fresh snow and also blown it off."The wind carves it out," she said. "It changes overnight from being a snow slog to being a steep icy ridge with rocks sticking out. It's easy to catch your crampons."

Bradley, a guide for Okonek who recently returned from the mountain, said that while the wind-blown snow has fallen onto the lower glaciers and smoothed over the crevasses, high winds have polished the upper slopes.

"It's quite icy this year," Bradley said. "More patches of blue ice are showing, even from 11,000 feet on up."

The buttress is especially tricky, he said.