Welcome to SP!  -
The Tragedy of the 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition
Trip Report

The Tragedy of the 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition

  Featured on the Front Page
The Tragedy of the 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Alaska, United States, North America

Object Title: The Tragedy of the 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition

Date Climbed/Hiked: May 29, 1979

Season: Summer


Page By: Sierra Ledge Rat

Created/Edited: Aug 22, 2008 / Dec 2, 2009

Object ID: 434125

Hits: 18723 

Page Score: 98.47%  - 83 Votes 

Vote: Log in to vote



1979 Korean McKinley Expedition
West Rib, Mount McKinley, Alaska, USA
May 15, 1979 through June 11, 1979

Ko Sang Don, 36, expedition leader (deceased)
Kim Un Young, 46
Park Hoon Kyu, 31
Lee Ill Kyo, 24 (deceased)
Young Chu, 24
Harry Maringas, 19 (USA)

The 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition was led by Ko Sang Don, who successfully climbed Mount Everest two years previously. He was joined by three other climbers from the Republic of Korea (South Korea): Kim Un Young, Park Hoon Kyu and Lee Ill Kyo. The expedition was sponsored by the Los Angeles-based newspaper Korea Times.

They invited two Americans to join them: Young Chu and me. Young Chu had recently moved from Korea (where he was well known) to the USA. We were climbing partners and had been planning an expedition to Mount McKinley ourselves.

This expedition took place in a time when Gortex had just been introduced and plastic climbing boots were a thing of the future. We climbed in double leather boots, wool, polypropylene and nylon. We used semi-seige tactics. The advance team went a day ahead and fixed ropes on the more difficult pitches. The support team followed with the heaviest loads and retrieved the ropes.

Sadly, Ko Sang Don, Park Hoon Kyu and Lee Ill Kyo triggered a small avalanche on their way down from the summit and fell several thousand feet down the Orient Express. Ko Sang Dong was killed in the fall and Lee Ill Kyo died shortly thereafter from his injuries. Park Hoon Kyu survived the fall but suffered severe debilitating injuries.

This is the story of the last two weeks of their lives.

1979 Korean
McKinley Expedition


All photographs were taken with a Rollei 35 using Kodachrome 35mm slide film. The camera has an f3.5 40mm lens. I used a Nikon Coolscan 5000 to convert the transparencies to digital images. Then I used Abobe Photoshop CS2 to remove dust specks and correct color and contrast in the final images.

Rollei 35 Camera

May 13, 1979 - Talkeetna

The 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition assembled in Anchorage, Alaska. After a few days or organizing gear and food, we packed everything into two trucks and drove north to Talkeetna. We arrived there at noon and immediately we headed for the airstrip to find our bush pilot Cliff Hudson. There at the airstrip, in an old dilapidated shack he called his "hangar," was Cliff Hudson himself. The place was choked with garbage, animal traps, fuel cans and more garbage. The place did not inspire confidence.

Cliff told us that it was snowing hard on the glacier so there was nothing to do until he received the four o’clock weather report from the radio operator at the Southeast Fork landing strip. Disappointed, we set about the difficult task of amusing ourselves until four o’clock.

The tour of downtown Talkeetna took five minutes. At the Fairview Inn there was sign on the front door: “Hippies use side door.” So, being a hippie, I went to the side door and found that it was locked. At the Sandwich Shop there was the “Jimmy Carter Contract Fund” donation jar, stuffed full of cash. The entire town was organized around a sea of mud they called “Talkeetna International Airstrip” and the summer business of flying climbers into the mountains. The grassy fields surrounding the airstrip were dotted with unkempt tents of other expeditions waiting for their turn to fly to Mount McKinley.

Four o’clock rolled around and it was still snowing heavily on the glacier. The storm lasted two days.

Downtown Talkeetna

Cliff Hudson's

May 15, 1979 - Flying to McKinley

At 9:00 a.m. the weather looked good. We stuffed the small Cessna airplanes with our gear. The pilot hit the throttles and we were airborne. Mount McKinley was obscured by clouds but we flew through “One Shot Pass” without difficulty. When the landing strip on the Southeast Fork came into view, there was blowing snow and the light was flat. The pilot decided to attempt a landing.

We hit so hard that I thought we had crashed. But the plane bounced back into the air and yawed sharply. The pilot managed leveled the wings and straightened the airplane before we hit hard again. The plane bounced back into the air a second time and then came down hard again. We skidded down the snow and finally came to a halt.

The pilot cried out, “Ah, another one of those fucked landings! Well, we’re alive and that’s all that counts!” Welcome to Mount McKinley.

We unloaded both aircraft and started running loads up the Kahiltna Glacier. About 3 miles up the glacier we found and abandoned igloo complex at 7,500 feet. We moved in.

Loading the plane

Southeast Fork
Landing Strip

May 16, 1979 - Base Camp

May 16, 1979

The scenery at the landing trip was amazing. I wanted to walk around a bit and enjoy the view, but the expedition would have none of that. I quickly learned that this expedition was all work and no play. It was time to pack the gear and start moving loads up the glacier.

We split into two groups, a division that continued during the remainder of the expedition. Ko, Park and Lee went ahead to establish the route. Kim, Chu and me followed with the heaviest loads.

We established a Base Camp at the intersection of the Kahiltna Glacier and the Northeast Fork at 8,000 feet. We ran several loads up our new Base Camp.

Base Camp

May 17, 1979 - Girl Slaves

We spent the day running loads to our Base Camp (8,000 feet). We ran into a group of four climbers, two men and two women. They just returned from a 23-day alpine-style traverse of Mount McKinley. They said they had done this by raiding other people’s food caches and stealing their food. The two guys wanted to borrow our skis in order to reach their cache further up the glacier. In exchange, they would give us the two girls for the day to perform whatever “services” we wanted.

We sent the girls down the glacier to pull our sleds up to Base Camp.

Kahiltna Glacier

May 18, 1979 - Northeast Fork

The temperature overnight bottomed out at 20 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Ko, Park, Lee and Kim headed up the Northeast Fork (“Valley of Death”) with sleds to establish our next camp at 9,000 feet. Chu and I followed with monster loads.

Northeast Fork

May 19, 1979

We spent the day running loads from Base Camp up to our camp at 9,000 feet.

Mt. McKinley from
Base Camp

May 20, 1979 - Advance Base Camp

When we woke up the temperature inside of the tent was 35 degrees below zero. Ko, Park and Lee went ahead to establish a route through the Northeast Fork icefall. They established Advance Base Camp at the bottom of the “crux couloir” of the West Rib. Chu, Kim and I ran loads up to the base of the icefall.

Northeast Fork Icefall

Northeast Fork Icefall

May 21, 1979 - Icefall

We ran two loads up through the Northeast Fork icefall to Advance Base Camp.

Snow Bridge in the icefall

Climbing in the icefall

The start of the West Rib

May 22, 1979 - Camp I

Ko, Park and Lee climbed the “crux couloir” and chopped a tent platform at the top of the couloir (Camp I). Chu, Kim and I carried more loads up through the icefall to supply Advance Base Camp.

May 23, 1979

The entire team started up the “crux couloir” to Camp I. Ko, Park and Lee stayed at Camp I while Chu, Kim and I descended back to Advance Base Camp.

Ascending the Crux Couloir

Camp I

Looking Down

May 24, 1979 - First Ice Dome

We awoke to a raging storm. Ko, Park and Lee climbed the first ice dome, fixing ropes, to try to establish Camp II on the saddle between the first and second ice domes. Chu, Kim and I climbed the “crux couloir” again with more loads. Ko, Park and Lee were not able to get to the top of the first ice dome because of the blizzard and high wind. They descended and all six of us slept in the three-man tent on the ledge at Camp I.

Belay in the Crux Couloir

Lunch Break

Mixed Ground

May 25, 1979 - Second Ice Dome

The weather was beautiful and clear. We ascended the first ice dome and established Camp II at 13,500 on the saddle between the first and second ice domes. Chu, Kim and I rappelled back down to Camp I while Ko, Park and Lee remained at Camp II. In the middle of the night their tent collapsed into a shallow crevasse and they had to move.

Mixed Ground

Mixed Ground

Kim waiting his turn

Starting up the
First Ice Dome

1st and 2nd Ice Domes

View of Mount Foraker

Nearing the Top
of 1st Ice Dome

Saddle Between Ice Domes

May 26, 1979 - Up to 15,500 Feet

The weather was perfect again. Ko, Park and Lee climbed over the second ice dome and fixed ropes all the way up to Camp III at 14,000 feet and then Camp IV at 15,500 feet. Chu, Kim and I ran another load over the first ice dome, from Camp I to Camp II (13,500 feet), and cleaned the fixed ropes from the first ice dome.

Climbing the 1st Ice Dome

View from 1st Ice Dome

Laden with Ropes

May 27, 1979

Ko, Park and Lee descended to Camp II (13,500 feet) and ran more loads up to Camp IV (15,500 feet). Chu, Kim and I ran more loads from Camp II (13,500 feet) to Camp III (14,000 feet).

Climbing the 2nd Ice Dome

Top of 2nd Ice Dome
at Midnight

Camp III
(Top of 2nd Ice Dome)

May 28, 1979 - Up to 16,500 Feet

Ko, Park and Lee headed up the West Rib to establish Camp V at 16,500 feet. Their plan was to establish Camp VI at 18,000 on May 29th and then push for the summit on May 30th.

Chu, Kim and I spent the day running loads from Camp III (14,000 feet) to Camp IV (15,500 feet).

Steep Ice at 15,000 Feet

Rock Band

Jumaring Ropes

Young Chu

Lee and Park Arrive

Lee at 15,500 Feet

Always Upwards!

May 29, 1979 - Lost Contact

The weather was not good. There was a very strong, frigid wind. It was difficult to stay warm, you had to keep moving.

Ko, Park and Lee left Camp V (16,500 feet) with the intent of establishing Camp VI at 18,000 feet. In actuality they dropped their packs at 18,000 feet and pushed all the way to the summit.

Chu, Kim and I climbed up to Camp V (16,500 feet), arriving there on verge of hypothermia. We had to hold Chu’s feet over the camp stove in order to take off his frozen boots. At 7:15 p.m. the radio crackled into life with a call from Ko. They were on the summit! Ko signed off and said he would call us later when they descended to their packs at 18,000 feet.

We never heard from them again. All night we stayed up and tried to call them on the radio. All we heard was the static of the empty airways.

Sea of Clouds at Camp IV

Climbing Above Camp IV

Scrambing at 16,000 Feet

May 30, 1979 - The Rescue & Recovery

Tired from the long night's vigil, we awoke late at 8:30 a.m. We turned on the radio and found the airway was alive with the chatter of a rescue. We tried calling Ko again. Cliff Hudson answered our call, informing us that our team mates had taken a bad fall last night at 8:30 p.m. One victim was dead and one victim had been rescued. The third victim was left in a snow cave and the rescue team was going back up to get him. We couldn’t believe what we heard.

Immediately we left camp and traversed over the 14,000-foot basin on the West Buttress, from where the rescue operation was based. As we neared the tent city at 14,000 feet a lone skier came out to meet us. He offered us a quart of orange juice and gave us more bad news.

“I’m sorry,” he said, ”but another one of your team members has died. We went back up to the snow cave to get him, but he was dead. I’m sorry.”

Two dead! Unbelievable!

The entire population of the 14,000-foot camp watched in silence as we skied into their camp. We approached the bodies of Ko Sang Dong and Lee Ill Kyo and cried. We were directed to a tent where we found Park Hoon Kyu. He was conscious and alive but suffering from severe trauma and frostbite. We had to get him to a hospital.

The bodies of Ko Sang Don
and Lee Ill Kyo

Park said that they had just descended off the summit ridge, roped together. At about 8:30 p.m. they triggered a small avalance and were unable to self-arrest. The trio plummeted 3,000 feet down the Orient Express.

Diane Gay, a guide working Ray Genet, and Joe Redington witnessed the fall from their camp at 14,000 feet on the West Buttress. A rescue party, consisting of Ray Genet and Brian Okonek, plowed up to the victims in a roaring blizzard. At about 11:30 p.m. they found Ko, Park and Lee lying upside-down in the snow, tangled in their ropes.

Ko was dead, but Park and Lee were alive and badly injured. Park appeared to have the best change for survival, so they put Lee in a sleeping bag in a snow cave. They lowered Park down the mountain. Susan Butcher and Joe Redington were summoned to use their dog sled and dog team to rescue Lee and recover the body of Ko Sang Don. However upon returning to the snow cave, they found Lee had died. The rescue team recovered both bodies.

The National Park Service initiated a rescue operation. Two U.S. Army Chinook helicopters and an Air Force C-130 were dispatched by the military. The helicopters waited in Talkeetna for the weather to clear. At 1:15 p.m. one of the helicopters landed at 14,000 feet on the West Buttress. Park Hoon Kyu was loaded aboard, as were the bodies of Ko Sang Don and Lee Ill Kyo.

Park Hoon Kyu was taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage.

The press erroneously reported that Ko, Park and Lee were not wearing gloves or crampons at the time of the fall. However, those items were ripped from their bodies during the fall.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering erroneously reported that Ko, Park and Lee climbed to the summit from 14,000 feet, a gain of over 6,000 feet in one day. In actuality they climbed to the summit from 16,500 feet.

14,000 Feet on
the West Buttress

14,000 Feet on
the West Buttress

The newspaper report

The rescue helicopter

May 31, 1979 - Descent

Our next priority was to get Kim Un Young back to Anchorage to be with Park, since Park did not speak any English. We descended all the way down Base Camp at 8,000 feet.

Descending the West Buttress

June 1, 1979

Chu and I escorted Kim back to the landing strip. Kim was able to fly out immediately, thanks to some climbers who gave up their seats for him.

Chu and I returned to base Camp to remove our equipment and trash from the mountain.

Back at Base Camp

June 2 - June 10, 1979

Chu and I spent seven days collecting all of the gear and trash of the expedition and moved it all to the landing strip. Then we waited for two days for the weather to clear so that we could fly home.

Young and Frances

Young, Gunnar Naslund
and Frances

June 11, 1979 - Homeward Bound

We flew back to Talkeetna.

It was all over. The sound of falling snow and wind were replaced with that of automobiles and industry. Our magnificent views of the glaciers, blue sky, and snow-encrusted peaks were replaced with that of highways and buildings. We ran our toes through the green grass and smelled the summer flowers.

We tried to return to normal life in the wake of tragedy and severe disappointment.

Flying Home


Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 1980, pp. 19-21

Epilogue - Reunion in September 2008

In September 2008, three of the four surviving members of the 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition met in Korea. The meeting was the result of a string of chance encounters and coincident. Let me tell the story from the beginning.

After the accident in 1979, Chu Young and I returned to California. We climbed together for several years and even climbed El Capitan together. Young started a climbing equipment business (Mad Rock), got married and started having children. I buckled down to finish college. Young and I slowly became more distant and eventually we lost touch.

About that time, I started climbing with Bill Crouse. Bill and I climbed together in Yosemite and even climbed in Alaska. Bill has since become a world-class alpinist with seven ascents of Mount Everest as a climbing guide. Bill and I stayed in touch over the years but do not climb together anymore.

Two decades passed. In 2006 I started planning to attend an international caving symposium on Jeju Island, Korea, in September 2008.

During the summer before the symposium, there was a chance encounter half way around the world, an encounter that would shake my world. Chu Young and Bill Crouse were both attending an outdoor products trade show in Bejing, China. They struck up a conversation with each other over dinner and learned that they both had climbed with me. Bill put me in touch with Young for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Coincidently, Ko Sang Don, the leader of the 1979 Korean McKinley Expedition, was from Jeju Island and he was buried there. Park Hoon Kyu was also a native of Jeju Island and he was still living there. Young arranged to meet me on Jeju Island in Korea for a week of scuba diving.

Young and I met with Park Hoon Kyu on Jeju Island on September 12, 2008. We visited Ko Sang Don’s grave and memorial to pay our respects. We went to dinner afterwards to catch up on the last 30 years. It was a very emotional and happy time for all of us.

Nearly 30 years of survivor's guilt had plagued me and I was fearful of meeting Mr. Park again. But he immediately put me at ease with a big smile and a giant hug. As the only survivor of his rope team, Mr. Park had to deal with his own share survivor's guilt, too.

Reunion of Brothers

Ko Sang Don’s Memorial

Ko Sang Don’s Grave

Friends and Climbers


Park Hoon Kyu

Where is everyone now?

What happened to everyone during the last 30 years?

Ko Sang Don was a national hero after becoming the first Korean to climb Mount Everest in 1977. After his death in 1979, a memorial park was established on Jeju Island on the slopes of Mount Halla (Korea’s highest mountain). His grave and memorial are maintained by Korean climbers.

Lee Ill Kyo is buried somewhere on the Korean peninsula. We are still trying to locate his grave in order to pay our respects.

Park Hoon Kyu suffered devastating injuries and permanent disability from the accident. He had completely dislocated knee, a broken back and internal injuries. Frostbite claimed most of his left hand, three fingers on his right hand and all but one toe. His wife was pregnant at the time of the accident. He slowly recovered after multiple surgical procedures. Since returning to Korea he used his land to start a commercial citrus business, growing tangerines. He also became of professional photographer and even published a book of his work. His specialty is landscape photography. Currently he is retired and lives with his wife and son on Jeju Island.

Kim Un Young continued to work as a news reporter and is now retired in Los Angeles.

Chu Young has made a career out of cimbing. He went on to climb in Yosemite, the Himalayas, the Alps and Patagonia. His ascents include Pumori, Ama Dablam, the Nameless Tower, the north face of the Eiger, multiple A5 big wall routes on El Capitan and even an attempt on Cerro Torre. In the summer of 2008 at the age of 55 he climbed the Grand Capucin in 12 hours.

For more than 20 years Young Chu has been the behind-the-scenes manufacturer of name-brand climbing equipment such as Five Ten. In 2002 he started his own label (Mad Rock) but continues to manufacture other climbing equipment under other labels as well. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife. Young has two children attending college in the University of California system.

As for me, Sierra Ledge Rat, I climbed for about another 10 years in the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, North Cascades, Iceland, Bugaboos and Alaska. I spent nearly 10 years in the military flying jets from aircraft carriers. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War was over, I left the military to pursue a career in medicine. My current interests include cave diving, vertical caving, free-heel skiing, whitewater kayaking and scuba diving. Since 2001 I have lived in the Appalachian Mountains with my girlfriend.



[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 1-20 of 25 « PREV 1 2 NEXT » 

Patrick BGreat TR!

Patrick B

Voted 10/10

That was a great TR! The images were spectacular. Anyways,you can always count on the press to not know what they're talking about.

Pat B.
Posted Aug 24, 2008 8:06 am

Sierra Ledge RatI posted an epilogue

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

Thanks for your support
Posted Sep 24, 2008 5:03 am

Sierra Ledge RatI posted an epilogue

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

Thanks chief! Haze grey and underway!
Posted Sep 24, 2008 5:05 am

perkinsmailAwesome Pics

Voted 9/10

Nice write up Harry. Whatever you did to get those pics posted was worth it - they really came out great.
Posted Aug 24, 2008 11:46 am

Sierra Ledge RatI posted an epilogue

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

Thank you for the kind words
Posted Sep 24, 2008 5:06 am

TJ311Great Trip Report


Voted 10/10

I agree... the pictures are stunning!
Posted Aug 24, 2008 3:46 pm

Steve LarsonWell done

Steve Larson

Voted 10/10

A dramatic tale, told without excess.
Posted Aug 24, 2008 11:44 pm

Sierra Ledge RatI posted an epilogue

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

Thank you for your support
Posted Sep 24, 2008 5:07 am

jgonzalezKorean McKinley trip

Hasn't voted

I thought the TR was good, but when people die tragically (is that redundant?) I'd like to know more about them and their accomplishments in life, and certainly almost 30 years after the event, would like to know how the injured climber progressed. Seems the loss of a life deserves a little more circumspection and thought. Sentiment is often the heart of a story. The pictures were fantastic, really recreated the climbing difficulties.
Posted Aug 25, 2008 5:25 pm

Sierra Ledge RatRe: Korean McKinley trip

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

I am going to visit Mr. Park in Korea next week. Culture differences may prevent me from writing an epilogue.
Posted Aug 25, 2008 10:12 pm

Sierra Ledge RatI posted an epilogue

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

After meeting with Mr. Park I felt comfortable writing some more details about life after the accident.
Posted Sep 24, 2008 5:09 am


Voted 10/10

I went to Everest in May 2005 (Also Denali in 1999)to get a chance to visit base camp and climb to camp 1. While in the ice fall I saw a small faded triangular orange flag with the letters 77 KEE and just now decided to Google it...31 years later I am saddened to know that such a great first time event ended tradegically. Thanks for the write up...
Posted Aug 31, 2008 5:29 pm

Sierra Ledge RatI posted an epilogue

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

Thank you for your interest and kind words, it means a lot to me
Posted Sep 24, 2008 5:10 am


Hasn't voted

I was Googling an old friend, and found this amazing account of a tragic expedition.
The author sounds just like my high school friend, who ended his yearbook picture blurb with "Los Angeles, Les Alps", and listed his pet peeve as "The East Coast".
Whether or not you're the same Harry, thanks for the story and outstanding photos. If you are the same Harry I knew, I'd love to hear from you and catch up!
N. Hayden (Curry), PHS '78
Posted Sep 10, 2008 10:51 am

Sierra Ledge RatThat's me!

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

PM sent!
Posted Sep 18, 2008 10:11 pm

drorfidgreat story


Voted 10/10

the climbing photos are magnificient, i liked the epilogue also... i guess that there you see what sharing experiences is all about. thanks for posting.
Posted Dec 8, 2008 11:56 am

Sierra Ledge RatRe: great story

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

thank you
Posted Oct 9, 2009 1:07 am

Bob SihlerGreat job

Bob Sihler

Voted 10/10

Don't know what else to say...well written and moving.
Posted Oct 8, 2009 10:43 pm

Sierra Ledge RatRe: Great job

Sierra Ledge Rat

Hasn't voted

thanks very much
Posted Oct 9, 2009 1:08 am

MarmadukeWhat a great read


Voted 10/10

Nice article. Were you invited because of Chu? And did you ever think about going back to Everest? And no Sherpas, so you carried 100% of your gear? Enjoyed, thanks!
Posted Jun 3, 2010 11:49 pm

Viewing: 1-20 of 25 « PREV 1 2 NEXT »