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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Headfirst Down the McKinley

A sudden swim in a glacier-fed river nearly finishes a ranger.

by: Steve Howe

Tracy Ross couldn't have been more excited about the five-day mountaineering patrol she had just embarked on in Denali National Park. It was July 1998, and the 27-year-old had joined climbing ranger Kevin Moore, his girlfriend, Kathryn, and volunteer ranger Joel Geisendorfer on a trip that would take them from Wonder Lake to the McKinley River bar, where the group planned to ford a mile-wide series of stream braids, and then climb 11,940-foot Mt. Brooks.

"The McKinley was running really high," says Ross, now BACKPACKER's senior editor. Fed by the Muldrow Glacier, the river was a frigid 40°F. "It was also a cold, yucky day, but this was our window and we had to go," says Ross.

With a snow-and-ice climb on tap, Ross's pack was filled with the usual backpacking gear, plus crampons, an ice axe, a rope, and a pair of plastic boots. "It must have weighed 60 pounds, and I was about 125," she remembers. The first few channels went fine. Then they reached the deeper, faster main channel. "We linked up like a conga line," Ross says. "Kevin went first; then Kathryn, Joel, and me."

Geisendorfer and the others undid their hipbelts and sternum straps, following safety protocol. Ross kept hers buckled because the load was so top-heavy. "I knew this was a dicey decision, but I had to choose between being unbalanced with the pack unbuckled, and buckling up, which felt more secure."

In the main channel, with water surging against their ribs, Geisendorfer stumbled, then lunged forward. "That yanked me and I stumbled, too," Ross remembers. The current tore Geisendorfer and Ross off the end of the line. "Suddenly, I'm being dragged backward down the McKinley with a full pack on. I look back and my team's just staring–not that there was much they could do. I remember thinking 'WTF!' and instantly panicking." Geisendorfer slipped out of his pack and floated on it. He vivdly remembers Ross getting tumbled through the water. "Every time her face popped up, she'd do this wild glare, then get rolled again," he says. Floating back-ward and fighting to undo her buckles, Ross gasped from the cold and tried to breathe. "I got the hipbelt undone," she says, "but not the chest strap. And that was disastrous."

With her pack full of water, and hanging off her chest, Ross turned feet-forward and tried to stand. Her foot caught on the river bottom, and the current dish-ragged her upper body downstream. "I needed both arms to keep my head up, but I had to keep reaching for the chest buckle," she says.

Ross started to weaken. "My head was above water, but I was heading for a swift, deep bend in the river that was definitely going to suck me under." Convinced she was about to drown, Ross made a desperate last-ditch effort. "It took me a second to realize the buckle had popped open," she recalls. "Then I just exploded out of the water." On the bank, Ross took an inventory: no broken bones, but the shivers lasted for three hours and the bruises for a week.

Near-Fatal Flaw: "Never tie or strap yourself to anything in moving water, and that includes a backpack, a boat, or even something on the shore," says Chris Stec, assistant director of Safety, Education and Instruction for the American Canoe Association.

Voice of Experience: "I shouldn't have had the pack buckled, and maybe we shouldn't have tried to cross," says Ross. "I admit I was really ambitious, but I also put my trust in Kevin and Joel. Now, no matter how awkward it feels, I always voice my concerns in the backcountry."

Tips From a Pro: "River crossings are one of the wilderness's biggest threats," says Stec. Here's how to minimize your risk.

  • If your intended route involves committing river fords, always allow extra time to wait out high water or search for alternative crossings.
  • If the water is too high and time is tight, head upstream, passing tributaries, to find lower flows.
  • Avoid crossing at bends in the river, where water tends to be deepest. Throw a rock to judge depth: a "ker-plop" means deep water, so if you hear it, keep scouting.
  • Use your group to cross rivers wisely. For example, a tripod technique (three people facing inward, locking arms to shoulders) is more stable than a conga line. If you do fall, point your body downstream, keep your feet near the surface, and backstroke toward a safe onshore position.
  • Think of ways to mitigate dangers unrelated to the river. If your pack is too heavy, redistribute some of the weight to stronger hikers, so you can follow proper safety protocol (unbuckling straps before crossing). And if a decision feels wrong, make yourself heard: Being part of a group doesn't mean always going with the flow. An extra day rarely matters–the mountains aren't going anywhere.

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Star Star
Apr 11, 2014

wow that is amaxing i loved that story

Nov 18, 2010

Why not tie lines use one to Wade across. Then secure the other end of the line and shuttle the packs. Then last guy untied the line and uses it to cross? If the guy falls the water movement along with the line should pull him to the river bank?

Jerry Doyle
Oct 07, 2010

Thank heavens you survived!! It is easy for the rest of us retrospectively to critique your situation, but I'm like Michael above with "my" first thought being why didn't your team do an assessment of each individual's physical strength and carrying capacity to decide if a need existed for "redistributing" the weight of packs being carried. Your pack simply was too heavy; half your total body weight and I question if you are a weight lifter with the concomitant body strength to go along with such a weight load. We all make mistakes, and you, like the rest of us, learned from those mistakes. Thank God you lived to tell us yourself of what happened.

Jerry D
Alexandria, LA, USA

May 09, 2009

Interesting reading the advice. Here in New Zealand we do a lot of river crossing and the current techniques are quite different. All of our clubs run in-house river crossing courses and our Mountain Safety Council researches techniques and passes on recommendations through courses and other media.

We keep the hipbelt done up so you can lean back and use the pack as a raft. We practise this packfloating technique on courses and use it from time to time in deep crossings on our trips. The sternum strap though is undone, the reason being obvious in Ross's description. The group crossing technique we use is adapted from the indigenous Maori method of linking up parallel to the current of the river. For our mutual support linking up, we slip our hands in between our neighbour's back and their pack to grasp their far packstrap. This forms a tight, unweildy unit but is very secure as we want to stay connected. And yes, the smaller members are placed in the middle of the group with the larger members upstream to break the current, support the current breaker and reduce the current on the smaller or weaker middle members.

I would not attempt to cross a river with significant current (faster than following a stick down river at walking pace)deeper than a couple of inches just above my knees. Also people need to be aware of the internal motivations that pressure one into wanting to cross the river instead of waiting it out.

We also practise the technique of releasing the hipbelt buckle and slipping out of the pack in rivers of significant current and depth on our courses.

Dec 08, 2008

My first thought was why put the most vulnerable person at the END of the line? At 125lbs carrying a 60lb load she should have had some weight taken off AND put in the middle of the line, surely.


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