'Attitude' sickness halted Denali climber

Croatian was healthy but demanded airlift at 14,200 feet

May 19, 2010 

For six days last May on Mount McKinley, a climber from Croatia played chicken with Denali National Park rangers and volunteers. She was at 14,200 feet with no apparent injury or illness, but she insisted she wasn't going to walk off the mountain and demanded she be given air transportation. Rangers were willing to do just about anything, short of an air evacuation, to help her down.

In the end, the climber won. And the rangers who oversaw the whole ordeal still aren't happy about it.

Once Jadranka Luca-Mrden was flown off the mountain in the National Park Service's special high-altitude helicopter and she reached Talkeetna, rangers slapped her with a rare citation for "interfering with agency function" and creating a hazardous situation. The citation carries a maximum penalty of $5,000 and six months in jail, according to the National Park Service.

"When I gave it to her she said I was a big jerk," said John Leonard, a South District ranger responsible for Denali's mountaineering program. "She just left the country. It's my understanding that she didn't pay it."

And so ended a standoff that, as described by Leonard and mountaineer ranger Tucker Chenoweth, sounds like a case of high-altitude attitude sickness that included:

• Three 911 satellite-phone calls from Denali by Luca-Mrden;

• Numerous face-to-face encounters with Chenoweth and volunteers at the 14,200-foot camp, including an examination of Luca-Mrden by a registered nurse who found no sign of injury;

• Assistance from rangers and volunteers at 14,200 feet that included setting up a tent and providing food and water;

• A late-night satellite-phone call from Luca-Mrden to family or friends in Croatia, who then called someone they knew in Tacoma, who then called the 911 operator there, who then transferred the call to Alaska operators, who then called Leonard, who then reached Chenoweth at 14,200 feet. At 2 a.m., Chenoweth went from his tent to Luca-Mrden's, about a hundred meters away, where a head-to-toe assessment revealed pain in the woman's arch. "The 911 call provided her with a hot-water bottle," Chenoweth said.

• The hiring by the National Park Service of two climbing guides to descend with Luca-Mrden, her climbing partner and her gear. At the last minute, Luca-Mrden refused to go and the guides descended with Luca-Mrden's partner and her gear, but without Luca-Mrden, who decided to wait for a ride out.

"It's not an area where we like to go in and pick people off. It's a high-altitude area, and there's a risk in any sort of helicopter operation," Leonard said. "For about six days we took the stance that we were not going to fly her off. The last thing in the world we ever wanted to do was fly this person off. We're here to rescue people in true emergencies. This was a misuse and abuse of the system for us, because it was such a drain on our resources. We kept having to feed and take care of her and deal with her.

"... I tried every trick in the book to get her to walk down and so did the rangers in the camp. She was not going to leave."

Finally, Luca-Mrden was flown to the 7,000 foot base camp by the park service's high-altitude helicopter, which came to the 14,200-foot camp to airlift another climber who suffered a dislocated shoulder and other injuries in a fall. She took a fixed-wing plane to Talkeetna.

Efforts to contact Luca-Mrden to get her side of the story were unsuccessful.

FIRST 911 CALL AT 15,800 FEET

Leonard said Luca-Mrden attended the two-hour orientation that all climbers are expected to attend before beginning an ascent of Mount McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America. The meeting stresses self-reliance, he said.

Climbers must register with the park service and pay a $200 mountaineering special-use fee before beginning their McKinley ascent, but other than the orientation meeting, there are no other requirements.

Luca-Mrden and a male companion were climbing the West Buttress route, which is considered the least technical and is by far the most popular way up the mountain, with camps staffed by rangers and volunteers at 7,000 feet, 14,200 feet and usually 17,200 feet.

Chenoweth said Luca-Mrden made her first 911 call after she decided to turn back upon reaching the fixed lines that start at about 15,800 feet. Her partner went up; she went down.

He said she arrived at the 14,200-foot camp with a slight limp and with no assistance.

"I asked if she needed assistance and she said no. I asked if she made the 911 call and she said yes," Chenoweth said. "She indicated she wasn't in need of assistance other than her partner had her stove and her tent."

A volunteer agreed to give up his tent and move in with someone else in order to provide Luca-Mrden with a tent and a stove. Meanwhile, rangers tracked down Luca-Mrden's partner higher on the mountain and told him to return to 14,200 feet with the pair's gear. He agreed to do so.

Later that same night -- after Chenoweth and volunteers had rescued and brought into camp the climber with the dislocated shoulder -- Luca-Mrden called 911 again. That's the call that resulted in the 2 a.m. delivery of a hot-water bottle.

"Her 911 call was one of the most ridiculous things I've ever seen up there," said Chenoweth, who started working on Denali nine years ago as a volunteer and is in his fifth year as a National Park Service ranger. "She's in a camp surrounded by people, her call went all over the world, and she was a hundred meters away."

When Luca-Mrden's partner returned, Denali rangers arranged to pay two local guides already on the mountain to descend with the pair.

"She consents to this plan, we get everybody geared up, and they're leaving in the morning," Chenoweth said. "She refuses to go at the last minute.

"We explained the rescue policy, which in short says that rescue is discretionary, that we assume people are going to take care of themselves and self-reliance is a requirement on the mountain. We are forcefully explaining this ... and she refuses, refuses, refuses.

"By now it becomes completely obvious to me that there's only one option for her and that's flying her out. We exhausted every negotiation avenue we had."

WAITING OUT A STORM

For the next four or five days, bad weather kept the high-altitude helicopter from coming for the man with the injured shoulder. Meanwhile, Luca-Mrden held her ground.

"She just sat out the storm in our tent. We brought her food in the morning and the evening," Chenoweth said. "Even after waiting for four days, she had no motivation to walk down."

Chenoweth said he continued to urge Luca-Mrden to walk down, telling her she'd get to the base camp faster by walking down than she would by waiting for a break in the weather. Other climbing parties that passed through the camp on their descent offered to take Luca-Mrden with them, he said.

But she refused to budge.

"She wanted to pay somebody to (fly her out)," Leonard said, "and we told her we don't have commercial flights."

NOT A NORMAL MISSION

Both Chenoweth and Leonard, who has been a Denali ranger for 10 years, say they've never before encountered an able-bodied climber who flat-out refused to climb.

"People get scared and don't want to go down, but we're able to work with them," Leonard said. "This was a person who simply refused to move because she just didn't want to do it. It got to the point where she just decided she was done."

As a result, Luca-Mrden has been unofficially 86'd from Denali. Leonard said he will do everything he can to prevent the woman from making another attempt to scale the mountain.

"From my perspective it was a headache," he said. "For the rangers and volunteers on the mountain, it was a nightmare."

Chenoweth is still frustrated by the whole thing. The high-altitude helicopter can be crucial to rescue operations and has saved lives on Denali, but he worries critics may point to this episode and say it's being used frivolously.

"Any time that helicopter flies, it's a special use. It is not a normal mission to land on a glacier at 14,000 feet. There's a risk to everybody involved, and we use it sparingly," he said.

Chenoweth is worried, too, by the advent of so many safety nets that allow some adventurers to be less self-sufficient than they should be.

"Cell phones, sat phones, personal locator beacons -- they all add a sense of security. What we hope as rescue personnel is they don't become substitutes for decision-making skills," he said. "People have access now to guide books and all this information on how to climb Denali, and they want it to be predictable, they don't want any unexpected events or challenges. That's not why people climb big mountains. They climb big mountains for that element of the unexpected and, in Alaska, hopefully for the idea of being in the wilderness: I'm going to a place where I can only help myself."


Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.

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