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Swiss man's estate sues over Denali climbing death

Nearly two years after a Swiss climber froze to death after a fall while descending Mount McKinley, the man's family is suing a mountain guiding company, claiming negligence resulted in his death.

Attorneys for the defendant, Colorado-based Mountain Trip International, said in federal court papers filed Wednesday that climber Beat Niederer, on a guided group expedition to climb McKinley in 2011, was aware of the substantial risk involved in attempting a summit of the highest peak in North America and knowingly assumed that risk.

The company is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, which asks for at least $75,000 for Niederer's widow and two children, with the exact amount to be determined in court.

Niederer, 38, died after reaching the summit on May 11, 2011. The lawsuit says he had prior climbing experience but never at altitudes much higher than 14,000 feet. The summit of Mount McKinley stands at 20,320 feet.

Niederer applied for the trip in February 2011, according to the lawsuit. The expedition began a little more than two months later.

A 2012 National Park Service investigation report on the incident -- which involved the highest-ever helicopter rescue of its kind on the mountain, saving the life of another climber in the group -- said the real trouble started with a fall shortly after the four had reached the summit and were on the way down. But flawed decisions by the guide, David Staeheli, on traveling light that day and the way Staeheli dealt with the unfolding situation after the fall included critical mistakes, the report said.

The lawsuit, filed in February, alleges the climbing team was not properly outfitted and lacked the means to stay together and protect itself from the hazardous conditions and wind.

The Park Service report noted that, as the group left for the summit that day from their camp at 17,200 feet, Staeheli told them to pack light. According to the team that investigated the incident, he later claimed to have forgotten three pieces of equipment required under his company's guiding permit: a shovel, snow saw, and an insulated pad.

According to the Park Service, the day Staeheli's group pushed for McKinley's summit was the coldest during the main 2011 climbing season, with recorded temperatures of 28 below at 14,000 feet. It was likely colder and windier higher up.

After reaching the summit, the men were roped together and on the way down Pig Hill when one of the climbers tripped and fell, pulling the others off their feet. The lawsuit says they tumbled several hundred feet down, with no snow pickets in place that could have helped stop the fall.

At least three of the men -- Niederer, Staeheli and climber Jeremiah O'Sullivan, who had broken a leg -- were hurt. Staeheli tried to call for help on a satellite phone but it was damaged. He left his heavy coat with O'Sullivan as he went to catch up with Niederer and climber Lawrence Cutler.

According to the Park Service report, giving away his coat was a "humane gesture," but it meant Staeheli would not be able to descend slowly with the remaining members of the group. Plus, the injured Niederer was lagging behind, the report said.

Staeheli waited for Cutler at an area known as Zebra Rocks but did not wait for Niederer before continuing on, the lawsuit alleges. It says Cutler became separated from Staeheli and Niederer was not told how to descend that area.

Mountain Trip acknowledges that Staeheli descended but denies the other claims.

Staeheli and Cutler made it to camp at 17,200 feet, separately, on the morning of May 12, but Niederer was found dead higher up. O'Sullivan was lifted off the mountain the night of May 12 by a Eurocopter AS-350 B3 helicopter on contract to the Park Service for the climbing season.

The Park Service's report said a fall during descent, with a team roped together and using no fixed protection like a snow picket or ice screw when climbers are tired, is the most common cause of an accident on the mountain.

It found the team was unprepared "by not carrying any snow tools with which to dig or construct an emergency shelter and a sleeping bag to deal with an emergency high on the mountain."

"This investigation team believes that had adequate survival gear, as stated in this report, been carried the outcome of this accident could have been much less severe," the report states.

The report listed the direct cause of Niederer's death as "hypothermia due to environmental exposure," compounded by blunt force injury to the head and trunk, including rib fractures from the fall.

It said Staeheli giving his heavy coat to O'Sullivan put Staeheli "on a fine line of not being able to keep warm in the increasing wind and cold. He was now in a survival situation and could not walk down slowly with Cutler and Niederer."

Staeheli, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case Thursday.

In its response to the suit, Mountain Trip denies that protection such as snow pickets in the area would have necessarily stopped the fall. It acknowledges the team left camp without foam pads, shovels or snow saws but says that equipment wouldn't have made a difference in the fall.

After the fall, a saw or shovel wouldn't have worked to build a shelter because the snow was too hard to penetrate, and Staeheli's hands were severely frostbitten from taking off his mittens while using an ice ax to try to arrest the fall, the company said in its response.

 

 

This story was written by Daily News reporter Casey Grove, who can be reached at 257-4589 and caseygrove@adn.com, and Associated Press reporter Becky Bohrer.

 

 



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