AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

First fatality of Alaska climbing season a Texas exec

Craig Medred

An executive with one of the largest electric companies in the country, 39-year-old Chris Lackey was on an adventure to Alaska when he was killed by an ice fall from the flanks of the Ruth Gorge Thursday in the first serious accident of the 2011 Alaska climbing season.

The National Park Service reported Saturday that the Houston, Tex. GenOn Energy executive was with one of two guided parties camped overnight near a regularly used landing strip near what is commonly called the "Root Canal" off Ruth Glacier.

Overnight, the 10,300-foot Moose's Tooth -- a prominent and well-known peak in the Mount McKliney area -- shed a large serac that brought an avalanche of snow and ice down on the sleeping climbers.

"Both camps were buried in the debris, and everyone was thrown from their tents," a park service press released said. "The four uninjured climbers were able to quickly extricate themselves and attend to Lackey, who was found to be unconscious and barely breathing."

His companions began first aid and got on a satellite phone to call for help. The Park Service, however, was unable to launch a rescue until morning.

A rescue helicopter was on the scene early, but rangers determined on the way to meet an air ambulance on the George Parks Highway that Lackey had died.

His body was flown to Talkeetna, and the helicopter returned to the Ruth to evacuate the surviving climbers, who'd lost most of their gear in the avalanche. They too were from to the small, roadside community of Talkeetna where Denali National Park and Preserve maintains a ranger station. It is the focal point for climbing in the Alaska Range in, on and around the 20,320-foot McKinley, North America's tallest peak.

The busy climbing season in the area is just beginning. Lackey was a veteran climber. His resume noted that he worked two climbing seasons as a guide for Rainier Mountaineering in Ashford, Wash., in 1991 and 1992, and led 25 trips to the 14,411-foot summit of Rainier via four different routes.

Though he finished college at the University of Oregon and went on to get an MBA at Texas A&M before entering the business world, Lackey maintained his connection to mountaineering. His Facebook page noted his interests in sports as rowing and alpine climbing. His last post on Facebook was April 9 when he wrote simply, "I love my wife."

Several guide services now support climbers watching to challenge the rock walls and fingers of ice that rise to form the walls of the Ruth Gorge. One of them describes the area as "reminiscent of Patagonia, but with better weather. The vast glaciers and towering alpine rock faces give breathtaking scenery and phenomenal mountaineering opportunities. The Ruth offers a superb arena to improve one's alpine skills."

Many journey to the Ruth to train for bigger expeditions. As the guides service noted, "this trip teaches and reinforces the skills required for climbing serious peaks around the world."

Lackey's Facebook page noted the excitement with which he was looking forward to joining a climb there. On March 23, he posted that he planed to climb "Ham and Eggs," a 3,000-foot, vertical route of ice and snow and an Alaska Range classic.

"Fly in on an ice plane," he wrote, "land high on the glacier and spend 2 days preparing and 3 days climbing. Been training for a long time and am getting close." He ended the post with a smiley face.

Talkeetna Air Taxi reported this week that climbing in the gorge was just beginning to gear up for the season. "Recent conditions in the Root Canal look good," the company website said. "There still has not been an ascent but two parties are making an attempt ... Base Camp that will open 'officially' on April 28th."

Lackey left a wife and two children in Houston.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com