Summary of Events of May 11-12

Hello Everyone,

Sorry for the delay, but we feel we owe it to all of you to present a summary of the events of the April 24th team’s summit day.  To this end we have interviewed the guides and many of the climbers who were on the upper mountain that day.  We also have most of the interviews that the NPS conducted in their investigation of the events.  The following summary is based on interviews and conversations with Dave Staeheli, Henry Munter, Jack McGee, Tony Diskin, Jerry O’Sullivan and Lawrence Cutler.  All photos are from Jerry O’Sullivan:

Richard and Henry at high camp with the Autobahn behind them. Denali Pass is the low saddle to the right of the black rocks.

On the morning of May 11th, guides Dave Staeheli and Henry Munter, along with Tony, Jerry, Beat, and Lawrence departed high camp on a beautiful, windless morning.  Tony opted to wear his gloves so as to have increased dexterity while clipping the climbing rope through the numerous pickets on the rising traverse above high camp known as the Autobahn.  His hands were cold at first, but after a while no longer felt cold, however, this seductive sensation was actually one of numbness and he suffered frostbite to his hands by the time the group reached Denali Pass.  Henry descended with him back to high camp, picked up Richard who had remained behind not feeling well and continued down to 14,200′ for medical treatment.

Lawrence and Dave below the summit

Lead guide Dave Staeheli, continued to the summit with the remaining climbers.  Another guided party was essentially en route with them, and summited some 15-30 minutes before our team.  They were the only parties attempting the summit that day.  The temperatures were cold, but until they were less than an hour from the top, there had been no wind.  As they took in the sublime light of late evening just below the Arctic Circle, a 15-20 mph breeze did not permit much time on the summit.

Jerry on the summit

Jerry on the summit

Lawrence on the summit

On the descent, roughly a rope length below the ridge, one climber tripped, pulling another climber off his feet and Dave was unable to arrest their falls on the very hard, wind-packed snow, so the entire team began to tumble.  After 60-90 vertical meters of falling on hard, wind packed snow and sastrugi, three of the four were injured.  Jerry suffered a boot-top spiral fracture, Beat a dislocated shoulder and other, yet to be determined injuries, and Dave suffered a broken rib, as well as cold damage to his hands, as he had flung off his mittens in an attempt to better grasp his axe in an attempt to self arrest during the fall.

Dave attempted to call out on his FRS radio, but could not raise anyone.  His satellite phone was broken and no longer functional.  He passed the radio to Lawrence with instructions to continue calling Mayday.  As he attended to Jerry and his broken leg, the two other climbers began walking down to their packs on the Football Field.  Dave tried several methods of getting Jerry to a more appropriate landing zone for a helicopter evacuation, and had the most luck by dragging him from a cordalette attached to their harnesses.  While this was occurring,  Lawrence and Beat began hiking across the Football Field, in the hope of having better luck with the radio and finding some shelter from the wind in the rocks of the low-lying Archdeacon’s ridge on the far side of the flat expanse.

Looking across the Football Field from about the site where the climbers stopped falling. This was shot on their ascent, about 1:45 from the top. The team's trail is just visible at the far left of the image, leading to the low, Archdeacon's ridge.

Dave could not use his hands by this point, as they were severely frostbitten, despite his having recovered his mittens.  The wind was now 20 mph, gusting to perhaps 30.  Dave decided that it was not worth climbing back up to the climbing rope, as he was certain his hands would not function to pick it up, and he knew he could not use it as a tool if his hands would not be able to tie a knot or clip it to himself or anyone else.  In an effort to provide as much care as possible, he gave his summit parka to Jerry, wrapped him in a sort of bivouac sack called a guide’s tarp, placed him on both his and Jerry’s backpacks, and departed to catch Lawrence and Beat.

Dave caught up to the two others on the far side of Archdeacon’s ridge, assessed Beat’s injuries and felt he was not able to reduce the shoulder in his current condition.  He briefed them about their upcoming descent, outlined a plan to find shelter for Beat and Lawrence in the rocks of Denali Pass while he descended the Autobahn to get help, and the three continued down.  Over the next hour or so, the team made it to roughly 18,800′, about 200′ above Zebra Rocks and 500′ above Denali Pass.  The wind was steadily increasing, and due to the injuries sustained in the fall, Beat was falling farther and farther behind, requiring Dave and Lawrence to stop and wait on several occasions.  The last time they were together was at this point.

After re-grouping at 18,800′, the three began the relatively short descent to the top of Zebra rocks, where Dave and Lawrence waited for 10 minutes or so for Beat.  Dave had been uncertain as to his ability to make it back to high camp for some time, as his core temperature was dropping quickly without the insulation of his parka.  He felt that he needed to get down to get help for Beat and Lawrence and to initiate a rescue for Jerry.  He thought that an NPS patrol that had been at the 14,200′ camp for some days would have ascended to high camp during the clear calm of their summit day.  He reconnoitered a route past the steep section at Zebra rocks that swung out to the descending climber’s right, thinking that the Lawrence was with him.  Lawrence instead began to descend their climbing route, through a relatively steep section by Zebra rocks.  Dave saw him begin this descent and waited some 10 minutes below Zebra rocks, but his rapidly cooling core temperature necessitated continuing his descent while he was still able.  The winds were now gusting 40+ mph.

Dave arrived at high camp at 3:30 am and told our assistant guide Jack McGee about the desperate need for a rescue party.  Jack, who had spent the day in camp after Richard left, borrowed a satellite phone from the neighboring guided party and called in the Search And Rescue to the National Park Service.  The neighboring guide had endured his own 14 hour summit day and there were no other resources in camp willing to ascend to assist the three climbers up high, as the NPS team Dave had hoped would be there was still back at the 14,200′ camp.

Meanwhile, Lawrence had continued his descent and after waiting at Denali Pass for some time trying to find shelter from the wind amongst the rocks, down-climbed  much of the Autobahn solo.  At roughly 6:20 am, Jack and the neighboring guide ascended to the bottom of the Autobahn to accompany Lawrence for the remainder of his descent into high camp.

The following day, the NPS picked up Jerry in a spectacular effort and the highest helicopter rescue in North America, and flew a Ranger up to Beat who, tragically, had not made it through the night on the Upper Harper Glacier, on the back side of Denali Pass.  We are awaiting the Medical Examiner’s report as to the cause of his death.  Beat had shown incredible fortitude in descending as far as he had with his injuries.  He had done his best to get to Denali Pass, as per their plan, but in the storm had ended up somewhat behind the Pass.

As of now, Dave has significant frostbite to his hands, Jerry has very severe frostbite to his hands and feet, Lawrence suffered moderate frostbite to his face and muscular injuries to his back.  Tony, who descended from Denali Pass, suffered moderate frostbite to both hands.

This episode is a grim reminder of how thin a line we walk on the upper reaches of Denali.  I’m not entirely certain what lessons can be learned, as there seemed to be no good options open to the team.  Perhaps a cached sled on the upper mountain might have changed the outcome and this is something we might talk to NPS about.

The death of Beat is terribly sad and is horribly unfortunate.  By all accounts he was the sort of person I would have been honored to have as a friend, and he was doing his best to balance his love for the mountains with being a father to two children.  Too many malevolent factors came together that night and we are devastated by the loss of our team mate.

Big mountains, such as Denali, are unforgiving at times, and while spending time on them makes some of us feel more alive, this event should give us all pause to reconsider our priorities when considering venturing onto their slopes.  Our hearts go out to his family, friends and all who had the pleasure of knowing him.

Beat Niederer at the Talkeetna Air Taxi staging area.

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