Snow conditions on Mount Foraker unstable at time of brothers' fall

Posted: Wednesday, June 19, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Three Anchorage-area brothers who died while mountain climbing in Denali National Park and Preserve were attempting Mount Foraker under difficult conditions, park officials said.

Kevin Strawn, 27, Travis Strawn, 21, and Colby Strawn, 15, had hoped to complete a 17-day trip to the summits of both Foraker and nearby Mount McKinley, the tallest peaks in the Alaska Range.

They were on the third day of their climb Thursday up the southeast ridge of 17,400-foot Foraker when they fell to their deaths.

Park rangers described snow conditions as so unstable other groups that recently tried to reach the summit decided to turn around.

The Strawns radioed the base camp on Kahiltna Glacier on Thursday to report they were at 10,500 feet. Officials speculate that later the same day they fell almost 2,000 feet down a slope, coming to rest at 8,500 feet. Their bodies were recovered Monday evening by a National Park Service rescue helicopter.

The cause of the accident is unknown, but avalanche debris was spotted in the area.

The southeast ridge route is steep and prone to avalanches, said Daryl Miller, Denali's south district ranger. No climbers have reached the summit via that route in a couple of years, he said.

The condition of the snowpack on the mountain can change every couple hundred feet. Miller said recent climbers described the snow as unconsolidated and slushy.

''That's been a red flag for several other groups that turned back,'' Miller said.

The two older Strawn brothers were experienced mountaineers and had reached the 20,320-foot summit of McKinley, North America's highest peak, in 1999.

''They had enough experience to make good decisions,'' Miller said. ''There are some things we'll probably never know for sure, including what actually caused the fall.''

The brothers were the only climbing party on Foraker last week, so there are no witnesses to what happened. They were found roped together on top of the snow and appear to have tumbled down a slope that Miller estimated to have an angle of about 40 degrees. That is in the range of slopes most prone to avalanche.

It's common for groups of climbers to rope themselves together for safety, Miller said, but that tactic might have been a problem because the snowpack on Foraker is poor. Climbers roped together usually drive stakes, called pickets, into the snowpack and tie off to protect against falls. But the snow has been soft recently.

''My guess is because the snow conditions were really bad, pickets would be something you couldn't use,'' Miller said. ''If you are not using pickets, just climbing, then if a person falls and you're roped together, you're pretty much getting dragged and you can't stop.''

Only about 40 people a year attempt to reach Foraker's summit and only about 30 percent reach the summit.

The Strawns, the last group to attempt Foraker this season, were ambitious, Miller said.

''Very few people climb both Denali and Foraker in the same year,'' he said. ''It's just really hard to do.''

The deaths are the first on Foraker since 1992. A total of 17 people have died while climbing it since the first fatal accident in 1976. Most of the seven fatal episodes were caused by avalanches, Miller said.

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