Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Colby Coombs

Colby Coombs was interviewed on May 29, 2000 by Dave Krupa at Daryl Miller's home in Talkeetna, Alaska. In this interview, Colby talks about mountaineering, his connections with the natural world, climbing in Alaska, and his work to educate others about proper climbing techniques and preparation skills. Most importantly, he provides a detailed account of a 1992 climb of Mount Foraker where his climbing partners, Ritt Kellog and Tom Walter, were killed by a slab avalanche and Cody was injured, and shares lessons he learned about controlling risk and paying attention to weather.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-17-11

Project: Denali Mountaineering
Date of Interview: May 29, 2000
Narrator(s): Colby Coombs
Interviewer(s): David Krupa
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.

Sections

1) Personal background

2) Scholarly career and his relationship with nature

3) Learning about climbing with friends at college

4) What struck him as different about Alaska

5) Describing the Okoneks

6) Brian Okonek and Colby's second trip to Alaska

7) Planning the 1992 climbing trip

8) Training for mountaineering at college

9) Mountaineering in Alaska

10) Planning the route for the 1992 trip

11) The first part of the climb on Mount Foraker

12) The accident on Mount Foraker

13) Post-climb plans of the group

14) The avalanche, and advice for young mountaineers

15) Conditions in the Alaska Range and making critical decisions

16) Conditions surrounding the accident

17) What he wishes he and his team had done

18) What happened when the avalanche hit

19) Waking up after the avalanche

20) How he finished the descent

21) Changes in his climbing style due to injuries from the avalanche

22) How his faith in God helped him through his descent

23) What he would like others to learn from his accident

24) How the accident has affected his life as a climber

25) How he has recovered

26) His role as an educator and a guide, and the Alaska Mountaineering School

27) The idea of a mountaineering school

28) How the school was established

29) His relationship with his wife, Caitlin Palmer

30) Relationship between guides and the National Park Service

31) Guided groups helping with rescues

32) Why he is surprised that more accidents do not happen

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.

Transcript

Section 1: London, England\ wilderness -- interest\ New Hampshire\ backyard -- woods\ growing up\ Washington, D.C. \ campus -- mountains\ backpacking -- overnight\ high school -- choice\ program -- outdoor\ Boston, MA\ wilderness -- love\ skills -- learned\ ascents -- winter\ Presidential Mountains\ ice axe\ crampons\ Appalachian Mountains\ junior high -- Shenandoah\ Colorado -- school\ Rocky mountains|

Section 2: high school -- junior\ NOLS -- North Cascade Mountains\ glacier -- travel\ senior -- project\ McKinley\ Alaska Denali Climbing\ Okonek, Brian -- mentor\ gear -- hand made\ pack -- frame\ ego\ strength\ boundaries\ skill -- level\ Talkeetna, AK\ Okonek, Brian\ Okonek, Diane\ college -- summer\ NOLS -- instructor's course\ experience\ guide|

Section 3: guiding\ education -- outdoor\ strengths -- teaching\ woods -- playing\ peak -- climbing\ view\ climbing -- winter\ mosquitoes\ people\ skill -- level\ terrain -- exposure\ systems -- rope\ incentive\ ice axe\ crampons\ climbing -- technical\ places -- new\ training\ college -- rock climbing\ ice climbing\ climbing -- technical\ ascents -- technical\ roommates\ people -- experienced\ protection -- placement\ systems -- anchor\ difficulty -- higher|

Section 4: courses -- none\ NOLS -- mountaineering\ Alaska\ scale -- larger\ high school -- Appalachians\ Himalayas\ Rockies\ climb -- guided\ clients -- number\ May -- cold\ rescues -- help\ high camp -- weather\ weather --wind\ weather -- temperature\ cave\ storm -- survival\ tents -- lost\ Denali -- extreme\ summit day|

Section 5: Okonek, Brian\ Talkeetna, AK\ company -- guiding\ life -- quality\ politics -- local\ Climbers' Memorial\ Miller, Daryl\ Robinson, Roger\ Okonek, Diane\ honesty\ hardworking\ standards -- high\ business -- standards\ clients -- screening\ mountain -- operation\ walls -- biggest\ camps\ knowledgeable\ Denali -- history\ mountaineering\ National Park Service\ Alaska\ dogsleding\ business -- secondary|

Section 6: Okonek, Brian\ ascents -- first\ Alaska Range\ Okonek, Jim\ father\ pilot\ influence -- excellent\ Talkeetna, AK\ NOLS -- Palmer, AK\ course -- mountaineering\ Mt. Brooks\ Mt. Silverthrone\ Boston, MA\ client\ accident\ McKinley -- guiding|

Section 7: Kellogg, Ritt\ trip -- planning\ climbing -- partners\ friends\ Alaska\ Walter, Tom\ team -- joined\ Mt. Foraker -- climb\ elder\ climbing -- experience\ expedition -- big\ mountaineer -- aspiring\ Alaska -- hazards\ area -- serious\ climbing -- progression|

Section 8: rock climbing -- afternoon\ Colorado College\ Colorado Springs, CO\ weekends -- mountains\ Sangre De Cristo Mountains \ mountaineering\ rock climbing\ ice climbing -- technical\ training\ Walter, Tom\ attitude -- great\ skill -- level\ experience\ confident\ routes -- new\ Pakistan\ accident -- potential\ consequences -- severe|

Section 9: Alaska -- mountaineering\ dynamics -- group\ communicating\ goals -- individual\ safety\ Mt. Foraker -- climb\ Mt. Hunter -- North Face\ Mt. Hunter -- West Side\ Walter, Tom\ route -- new\ Kellogg, Ritt\ Kennedy-Lowe Route\ West Ridge\ serac -- ice fall\ earthquake\ flight\ Mt. Foraker -- East Face\ basecamp\ Pink Panther -- route|

Section 10: glaciers -- hanging\ ridge -- buttress\ basecamp\ Finnish variation\ buttress -- final\ bypass -- couloir\ protection -- rock\ accident -- terrible\ tragedy\ climbing -- excellent\ difficulty\ route-- good\ weather -- inclement\ beginning -- delay\ snow\ weather -- improved|

Section 11: route -- finishing\ stretch -- final\ top-out -- camp\ Mt. Foraker -- summit\ weather -- conditions\ buttress -- rock\ climbing -- moderate\ technique -- French\ South East Ridge -- descent\ visibility -- zero\ route -- history\ Mt. McKinley\ ice\ side -- leeward\ ridgeline -- sharp\ snow --unstable\ Walter, Tom\ white-out|

Section 12: protection -- none\ rope -- anchor\ mountaineering -- taboo\ team -- rope\ Walter, Tom\ ice -- honeycombed\ ice screws\ pickets\ speed -- safety\ route -- steep\ weather -- storms\ Alaska Range\ food\ fuel\ water\ packs -- weight\ accident -- consequences\ safety -- effort\ visibility\ cold\ fatigue\ face -- ice\ camp\ ridge -- bivy|

Section 13: time -- daylight\ helicopter -- Lama\ Walter, Tom\ axe\ ?, Lisa\ kayaking -- sea\ Kellogg, Ritt -- Outward Bound\ NOLS\ advice\ mountaineering -- Alaska\ patience\ visibility\ climbing -- catch 22\ snow -- stability\ evaluation\ glaciers -- vertical\ snow -- quantity\ glaciation -- active\ weather -- storm|

Section 14: avalanche -- slab\ glacier -- hanging\ cornice\ wind -- deposited\ snow\ hazard -- precipitation\ accumulation\ wind \ hazard -- avalanche\ Alaska Range -- topography\ ridges -- cornices\ attitude -- caution\ teaching\ belay\ slope -- dig\ stability -- assessment|

Section 15: quality -- unique\ Alaska Range -- light\ conditions\ wind -- fatigue\ climb -- progress\ judgement -- impaired\ discipline\ accident\ weather\ climb\ visibility\ buttress -- rock\ protection -- running\ visibility|

Section 16: fatigue -- influence\ mountains -- accident\ mistake\ protection -- running\ visibility\ conditions -- ice\ slope -- ice\ camping \ ice axes -- cave\ partners -- dead|

Section 17: route -- slope\ slopes -- final\ calculation -- careful\ buttress -- rock\ wind -- load\ slope -- steep\ ice\ wind\ avalanche\ white-out\ bergschrund -- camp\ plan -- prudent\ rope -- tension|

Section 18: slack -- sudden\ alarm\ snow -- powerful\ self arrest -- attempt\ downhill -- sliding\ airborne\ unconscious\ light -- changed\ morning\ avalanche\ hanging|

Section 19: Walter, Tom\ movement -- none\ rope -- caught\ Kellogg, Ritt\ ?, Cliff\ face -- ice\ condition -- dead\ Fesler, Doug\ Fesler, Jill\ Avalanche Safety Center\ recoveries\ mask -- common\ blessing\ nerves\ face -- expression\ descent\ mindset\ bones -- broken\ condition -- severe\ survivor -- strategy\ error -- room|

Section 20: survival\ emotions\ climbing -- accident\ death\ fear\ pain\ ankle -- broken\ scapula --broken\ neck -- broken\ tent -- sitting\ focus\ step -- next\ route\ mentality -- unstoppable\ disabilities -- physical\ state -- emotional\ mind -- frame|

Section 21: boots -- plastic\ swelling\ ankle -- bending\ shoulder -- pick\ neck -- broken\ neck -- turning\ body --rotating\ sitting -- technique\ neck -- muscles\ techniques -- adjusted\ mountain -- familiar\ war -- Kuwait\ injured\ environment -- familiar\ food -- ration\ fuel -- rationed\ stove\ tent\ clothes\ Kellogg, Ritt\ Walter, Tom\ impact -- minimum\ technique -- abandoned\ weight -- critical\ helmet -- smashed\ trash -- tossed|

Section 22: God -- faith\ blame -- factor\ avalanche\ faith -- strength\ religious\ helpful\ state -- mental\ pray -- help\ effort\ mother -- connection\ death -- coping\ responsible\ parents\ wife\ severity\ nervous\ grief -- parents|

Section 23: students\ safety -- accidents\ effect -- ripple\ wave -- shock\ parents\ friends\ trauma -- accident\ descent -- forgotten\ memory -- short\ family\ relatives\ mountains -- death\ tragedy\ mothers\ fathers\ brothers\ sisters\ individual -- larger\ aware\ students -- ambitious\ partner\ reason -- none\ kid -- dead\ tragedy --- endured\ life -- nadir\ teacher -- effective\ words -- wisdom|

Section 24: climbing -- quitting\ risk -- manageable\ routes -- particular\ college -- eager\ glaciers -- hanging\ criteria -- stringent\ drive -- gone\ Mt. Foraker\ climb -- hardest\ Wyoming\ ascent -- winter\ ascent -- day\ Grand Teton -- North Face\ conditions\ life -- stop\ plans -- hold\ accident -- focus\ wheel chair\ crutches\ climbing -- prime\ jobs -- guiding\ jobs -- teaching|

Section 25: scale -- small\ upset\ normalcy -- important\ recovery\ life -- upside down\ years -- mellow\ accidents -- more\ wilderness -- mountains\ safety -- content\ desire -- burning\ routes -- harder\ challenge -- constant\ rock climbing -- safe\ mountaineering -- Alaska\ factor -- danger\ routes -- moderate\ climbs -- personal\ routes -- new\ Cassin Ridge\ weather -- bad\ Denali\ safety -- margin\ level -- comfort|

Section 26: motivation\ guiding -- teaching\ clients\ goal -- summit\ summit -- focus\ sickness -- altitude\ injuries -- cold\ measure -- preventative\ teaching -- dynamic\ weather -- storm\ shelters -- snow\ searching -- transceiver\ ascent -- peak\ flexibility\ group\ program -- best\ course -- idea\ goal -- education\ climbing -- peaks\ setting -- real\ application -- fun\ school -- students\ focus -- education\ trips -- guided\ Aconcagua\ break -- fun\ clients\ guides\ ascent -- guided|

Section 27: school -- establish\ skills\ NOLS -- teaching\ Outward Bound\ kids -- risk\ kids -- handicapped\ councelor -- camp\ Maine\ dishes -- washing\ education -- outdoor\ training\ Talkeetna, AK\ work\ Okonek, Brian\ Okonek, Diane\ community -- value\ school -- climbing\ NOLS\ Alaska Denali Guiding\ mentor\ Alma Mater\ competition\ differences -- important\ guiding\ courses -- longer\ areas -- other\ Palmer, Caitlin\ Mt. Crosson -- summit\ weather -- storm\ Mt. Hunter -- guiding\ guiding -- extreme\ objectives -- harder|

Section 28: situations -- hazard\ clients -- safety\ guiding -- tradition\ Kellogg, Peter\ Kellogg, Cindy\ Kellogg, Ritt\ Mt. Foraker\ help -- starting\ boots -- plastic\ gear\ equipment\ debt -- pressure\ Palmer, Caitlin\ met -- chance\ fundraiser -- dinner\ house -- fire\ McCullough, Brian\ McCullough, Whitney\ neighbors\ love -- immediate\ Talkeetna, AK\ McKinley\ Miller, Daryl\ University of Alaska, Anchorage -- teaching\ program -- wilderness\ expedition -- fundraiser\ Denali\ women -- breast cancer\ trip -- guided\ Alaska Denali Guiding\ Okoneks\ Maine\ Prescott College\ wilderness\ climbing -- interest|

Section 29: Palmer, Caitlin\ lifestyle -- transient\ relationship -- destroyed\ road trip -- rock climbing\ Yosemite\ Wyoming\ marriage\ Alaska Mountaineering School -- operation\ APU -- connection\ Anchorage, AK\ programs -- outdoor\ credit -- college\ McGivern, Dave\ course -- taught\ guide -- mountain\ Tordock, Paul\ instructor -- NOLS\ Ajango, Deb\ Smith, Blaine\ Denali\ network|

Section 30: relationship -- complicated\ National Park Service -- role\ activities -- climbing\ regulations\ registration -- procedure\ McKinley -- guiding\ school\ West Buttress\ snow machine -- use\ hunting\ guiding\ relationship -- good\ climbers\ guides\ rangers\ guides -- acclimated\ high camp\ waste -- human\ latrine -- cleanup\ park -- help\ guide -- steward\ clean -- safe\ fixed lines\ rescues\ priority -- safety\ team|

Section 31: emergency\ team -- guided\ climb -- summit\ rescue -- involved\ ethos -- help\ goals -- forfeited\ help -- needed\ climbing -- quality\ people -- foolish\ walls -- small\ tent -- exploded\ signs -- early\ problems -- altitude\ people -- route\ National Park Service\ issue -- growing\ numbers -- management\ parties -- guided\ rescues -- consumed\ climbing\ Okonek, Brian|

Section 32: habits -- poor\ experience -- gaining\ walls -- none\ gear -- everywhere\ Denali\ wind\ problem -- big\ accidents|