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Two years after Swiss climber perished on McKinley, wrongful death suit filed

Craig Medred
Beat Niederer was on a climb with Mountain Trip in May 2011 when first a fall and then a storm led to tragedy near the 20,320-foot summit, but many complicating elements contributed to what happened that day. An investigation later concluded Niederer died because he followed the advice of his guide to stay at Denali Pass near 18,200 feet and await a rescue impossible under the circumstances. Scott McMurren photo

Almost two years after the death of a Swiss climber abandoned high on Mount McKinley by his Alaska guide, the family is bringing suit claiming the failings of a Colorado-based Denali National Park concessionaire led to the death of 38-year-old Beat Niederer.

Niederer was on a climb with Mountain Trip in May 2011 when first a fall and then a storm led to tragedy near the 20,320-foot summit, but there were all sorts of complicating elements that contributed to what happened that day.

An investigation commissioned by the Park Service later concluded Niederer died because he followed the advice of his guide to stay at Denali Pass near 18,200 feet and await a rescue impossible under the circumstances. The same guide, Alaska Dave Staeheli, however, played a key role in enabling another climber to survive.

Staeheli set 41-year-old Irishman Jerry O'Sullivan up in the best possible way to survive an overnight bivouac on the mountain and then went for help. O'Sullivan miraculously hung on for 17 hours without shelter before helicopter pilot Andy Hermansky snatched him from near the summit in a daring high-altitude rescue.

O'Sullivan later spent weeks in an Anchorage hospital while doctors unsuccessfully tried to save his frostbitten hands. He ultimately lost all his fingers and thumbs and part of one foot, but O'Sullivan easily could have died. A third climber in the party, 45-year-old Lawrence Cutler from New York, also was abandoned by Staelheli after the guide went to get help for O'Sullivan. Cutler came through with comparatively minor frostbite after ignoring the guide's directions to wait for help at Denali Pass. Instead, he made a dangerous solo descent to high camp at 17,200 feet on the mountain.

Questioning Mountain Trip's performance

Since almost the day after the accident, a good friend of Neiderer's has questioned the performance of Mountain Trip, a company for which Staeheli was the oldest, most experienced and longest-serving guide. As a personal representative of the Neiderer family, friend Stephan Ramseyer retained one of the state's best law firms, Freidman Rubin, to file the complaint in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

It alleges the Swiss climber died because of "Mountain Trip's negligent and/or reckless disregard" for the duties due a client. It seeks more than $150,000 for Niederer's widow, Sabine, and the couple's two children, a son, age 10, and a daughter, age 7.

Attorneys familiar with such litigation say it’s likely to go to $1 million or more if the case goes to trial and the family prevails. Mountain Trip does require clients to sign a waiver of liability, but such waivers are not iron clad. They do not protect against recklessness and negligence.

Friedman Rubin attorney Jeffery Rubin lays out exactly where, why and how he thinks Mountain Trip was reckless in a 14-page complaint. Mountain Trip has contested such allegations from the start.

'Well within industry norms'

Company owner Todd Rutledge did not respond to a message left on his personal cell phone or to an email on Friday for this story, but he has spoken out about the climb in the past.

"Decision-making all the way to the summit was well within industry norms, as it was a beautiful, albeit cold, day and the wind only began to increase as they literally approached the very summit," he wrote on the website SummitPost.org in the fall of 2012. "There is no reason to believe 'summit-fever' had anything to do with their continuing to the top, other than to re-engineer the events from the comfort of one's armchair. Why would a team not continue toward the top on a beautiful evening, with just a breath of wind?"

That post came in response to an Alaska Dispatch commentary noting that on a guided climb there is only one person truly responsible for what happens -- the guide.

In that post, Rutledge conceded that Staeheli failed to carry with him the emergency gear the Park Service demands guides take to the summit in case a client gets in trouble, but then dismissed the gear as meaningless.

"Did he screw up contractually by not having some of the required gear?" Rutledge wrote. "Certainly. He knew of the requirement and had always followed it on his previous 13 Denali expeditions with Mountain Trip.

"The NPS report states that the guide would have been able to protect his clients by digging a snow shelter, had he brought those tools. Could this really have been the case, given his inability to use them? Not according to the guide, the least-injured client, or the frostbite expert."

Neiderer, of course, is not alive to say whether he would have been able to dig out a snow shelter for the group if Staeheli had brought the Park Service-required shovel. And Rutledge's post itself raises questions about Staelheli's assessment of who was capable of doing what.

"Also largely omitted in the NPS report are the mechanism of injury for, and signs and symptoms of, a head injury, including a documented 4-centimeter abrasion to the guide’s forehead," Rutledge wrote. "The decision-making after the fall MUST be considered in light of the true extent of the injuries sustained by the guide. His decisions were all intended to find the best possible outcome, given his limited ability to function, the conditions of the other team members and weather at the time."

Brain injury?

Investigators have discussed the possibility Staeheli's judgment after the fall high on the mountain might have been impaired because of a brain injury. But Ramseyer, a juvenile justice prosecutor in St. Gallen, a university community of 72,000 near Switzerland's eastern border with Germany and Austria, in the lawsuit questions decisions made long before the fall that sent Staeheli and his three clients tumbling 500 feet or so down the mountain.

The complaint notes the failure to take the Park Service-required shovel, an ensolite pad, and sleeping or bivvy bags, and claims that on top of that Staeheli knowingly led his group into an oncoming storm.

"Climbing at altitude can be a slow and extremely fatiguing affair, particularly in the cold," the suit says. "The typical time for a climb to the summit and return to high camp is approximately 12 hours. For the MT-2 (Mountain Trip-2) team, if it climbed at less-than-average speed, it would be climbing into the adverse weather conditions predicted."

And the team did climb at less-than-average speed. The team was slow to Denali Pass, and then paused there to reorganize as a client with frostbitten hands turned around to go back to high camp with an assistant guide. Instead of two guides each with two clients on a rope, Staeheli was left to shepherd Niederer, O'Sullivan and Cutler to the top on his rope.

When the clients later fell, the guide would be unable to arrest their slide down the mountain. Whether having two clients on the rope instead of three would have changed things, no one can say.

No retreat

As Staeheli's four-man rope team toiled toward the summit, the complaint alleges that it was slowed by Cutler, who continued on only at Staeheli's urging.

"Rather than deciding to retreat and try again on another day with the stronger clients, Niederer and O'Sullivan, Staeheli allowed Cutler to choose between stopping and descending or continuing to ascend,'' it says. "Staeheli suggested that if they got to an area known as 'The Football Field' and Cutler was not feeling better, Staeheli would leave Cutler there, while the remainder of the party climbed to the summit."

It took the team almost nine hours to reach The Football Field, where everyone took a break to discuss whether Cutler was slowing the team, according to the complaint. More than two hours later, closing in on having been 12 hours on the trail, the team finally made the summit.

A group from the Alaska Mountaineering School, which had left high camp behind the Mountain Trip climbers and passed them along the trail, had already been to the top and was long gone. The Mountain Trip group spent about 10 minutes on top before starting down. The fall came just minutes after on what’s known as Pig Hill.

O'Sullivan fell, started to slide and pulled everyone down. The team tumbled until the slope eased. Then the decision-making got difficult.

"Without shovel and snow saw, the expedition had no way to dig in or create shelter to keep the expedition together and out of the force of the increasing wind," the complaint notes. "Without a sleeping bag or ensolite pad, the expedition had no way to insulate O'Sullivan or other party members from the ground and cold temperatures."

Staeheli tried to call for a rescue but couldn't get the satellite phone to work.

"Even if a call had been completed,'' the complaint notes, "no quick response could occur because of the team's location high on the mountain, the time necessary to mobilize a rescue and the weather conditions. To safely await rescue would have required the building of a shelter, which (the group) lacked the tools for as a result of Mountain Trip's non-compliance with its concession agreement and Park Service requirements."

Conditions worsen

Staeheli tried to make up for the lack of equipment by wrapping the injured O'Sullivan in his parka, but it somehow blew away, leaving Staeheli thinly clothed for the conditions. From there the situation went from worse to dire with Staeheli eventually abandoning Cutler and Neiderer in a rush to get to high camp to save himself and try to organize a rescue, though there were no climbers in high camp capable of heading up the mountain into a storm on a rescue.

"The injured Niederer, who until the fall was the strongest climber of the clients, was unable to keep up with Staeheli or Cutler," the complaint says. "He perished at Denali Pass from exposure to cold temperatures and high winds. O'Sullivan survived with severe frostbite injuries. He was rescued from the Football Field at 7 p.m. on May 12, 2011 after the summit winds had died down enough to make high-altitude helicopter rescue possible."

That was almost 32 hours after the Staeheli-led group left high camp for the summit. Staeheli is now retired from guiding.

Mountain Trip continues to guide on McKinley. Park Service spokesman John Quinley said the company has a contract through the end of this year. The federal agency and Mountain Trip have been in discussions about its contract since the 2011 accident. Park Service officials said they were not at liberty to discuss contract negotiations.

Changes at guiding service

Mountain Trip's website outlines changes in place on McKinley this year under the headline:

"HAVING 3 GUIDES IS IMPORTANT!

"We have a long history of thinking outside the box, in a ceaseless effort to offer our climbers the best possible experience on Denali. In 2013, we will offer both our traditional nine-climber, three-guide expeditions, as well as smaller, six-climber, three-guide teams.  We feel that having three guides on a team is very important to the success and security of a Denali team. Each season we see teams with two guides end up having only one guide on summit day, which really limits a team’s options."

Seven of the 11 trips the company is guiding on the West Buttress this year are six-client, three-guide climbs. The West Buttress is the easiest and most popular route to McKinley's summit. The Staeheli led expedition followed that route; it began as a three-guide, nine-client climb.

The Mountain Trip website also hints at increasing pressure the Park Service has been putting on the company to change the way it operates, saying of its "Highly Supported Denali Expedition'' that "for 2013, we will offer one such expedition. Due to upcoming changes in how we are able to guide on Denali, this will be the last such trip we foresee being able to offer."

The 22-day, $11,000 "highly supported" expedition is what might be considered the ultimate "gentleman's climb" of the mountain.

"We will limit the team to six climbers and will send along guides to create a one-to-one ratio. Our aim is to reduce your load to just your personal kit and your part of your tent, instead of the typical 120-plus-pound loads of food, fuel and group kit that most climbers have when departing base camp," the website says. "With a larger staff of guides on the team, we can reduce or eliminate the need for climbers to dig out kitchen pits and tent platforms, which is some of the more grueling work on a traditional Denali expedition. We will work with you in the months preceding your expedition to make certain that you have the very lightest kits possible to further reduce your loads. Although the quality and variety of our expedition menus is legendary, we ware happy to work with you to tailor the expedition food to your tastes."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com