Introduction1979 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 19, 1979
We spent the day running loads from Base Camp up to our camp at 9,000 feet.
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.
May 21, 1979 - Icefall
We ran two loads up through the Northeast Fork icefall to Advance Base Camp.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.