ANCHORAGE - Canadian climber Luc Benoit had worked his way about 15,000 feet up Mount McKinley's steep and treacherous West Rib on a gorgeous Wednesday evening when he drove his ice ax into some mixed rock and ice to hoist himself along.
It didn't hold.
Benoit, who was climbing alone, fell backward and tumbled an estimated 1,000 feet down the face before a narrow, flat section stopped him. Though shaken and bruised, with an especially sore shoulder, Benoit was a lucky man.
"I'm surprised," Denali mountaineering ranger Kevin Wright said on Friday. "Several people familiar with the route told me, 'How can you possibly fall that far and not go all the way to the bottom to your death?' You have to hit everything perfectly."
Not only was Benoit, 40, alive, he was healthy enough to descend another 1,000 feet to a safer area to spend the night in minus-5 degree temperatures. While he lost much of his gear, Benoit still had his sleeping bag and his stove. Early the next morning, he radioed the Denali mountaineering rangers.
At midday Thursday, Denali National Park's A-Star B3 helicopter, piloted by Andy Hermansky, flew to the West Rib with Denali mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth. Unable to find a suitable landing zone, Hermansky performed what is known as a "toe-in" landing maneuver, hovering with only the tips of his skids touching the snow, while Chenoweth helped the climber aboard.
"It was a little bit out of the ordinary, but the pilots are trained for toe-in technique," Wright said. "They do it all the time heli-skiing and on other contract work. It's well within our abilities."
Only about 5 percent of the more than 1,000 climbers attempting McKinley each year ascend the West Rib, which Denali National Park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin described as more dangerous than the popular West Buttress route.
"We don't see many solo climbers on that route," Wright said.
In 2008, 42 of the 1,272 climbers who attempted the summit chose that route. Crossing glacier ice in the crevasse-strewn lower section "makes it dicey for solo climbers," Wright said. Farther up, the slope steepens to 30-55 degrees as climbers negotiate mixed ice and rock sections.
"I would say it's much more dangerous," Wright said. "There are just a few places on West Buttress where you could take a 1,000-foot fall. The entire West Rib is that way."
Benoit, of Montreal, was flown to the Kahiltna base camp at 7,200 feet where he was examined by a volunteer physician before being flown to Talkeetna in a plane and released.
This was Benoit's third time on McKinley. He previously summitted via the West Buttress route.