Headfirst Down the McKinley

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

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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