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Despite fatal incident, McKinley guide service keeps permit

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

After concluding deadly mistakes made by legendary Alaska climbing guide Dave Staeheli on Mount McKinley in 2011 were all part of an accident, the Washington, D.C.-based head of concessions for the National Park Service has overturned a decision by Alaska park officials to take action against a guiding permit held by Mountain Trip International, his employer.

The ruling in favor of Mountain Trip comes only weeks after the company based in Ophir, Colo., settled with the estate of Beat Niederer, a 38-year-old Swiss national who died on the mountain after being abandoned by Staeheli. The amount of that settlement has not been disclosed, but is believed to be less than $500,000.

Staeheli, now retired, was Mountain Trip’s senior guide when he lost control of the 2011 expedition, eventually leading to the death of Niederer, the maiming of 41-year-old Irishman Jerry O'Sullivan, and frostbite injuries to 45-year-old Lawrence Cutler from New York. 

Move to eliminate preferred-operator status

After an investigation of the tragic incident in Denali National Park and Preserve, federal officials in Alaska moved to eliminate Mountain Trip's status as a preferred operator on McKinley. Mountain Trip is one of only six companies permitted to guide climbers on North America's tallest peak. Preferred status gives the company a right of preference over other companies when those climbing permits come up for renewal.

Mountain Trip appealed the change to its contract. The Alaska regional director for the National Park Service backed the Denali park staff. Mountain Trip then appealed to headquarters in D.C., where Associate Director of Business Services Lena McDowall ruled in late November that Alaska officials had overstepped their authority.

McDowall has been in charge of park concessions since January of last year. According to her resume, she has spent her career in business for the Park Service. She has an MBA from the University of California at Davis, and she decided park officials here were judging Mountain Trip too harshly.

"If viewed as an oversight, albeit it a tragic one, the guides' (Staeheli's) failure to carry all required equipment in the Pig Hill incident in 2011 along with MTI's failure to have a current commercial-use authorization in the Root Glacier incident," she concluded, "are not, balanced against seven years of satisfactory ratings, enough to declare the operator to have been unsatisfactory over the eight years the current owners of Mountain Trip International have been operating under this contract."

$500,000 of liability insurance

Anchorage attorney Rubin had challenged that "if" in a 14-page complaint filed against Mountain Trip in court in April of this year. It alleged that Niederer died not because of an oversight but because of "Mountain Trip's negligent and/or reckless disregard" for the duties due a client.

The suit was settled last month. Rubin said he is not allowed to talk about the settlement, but he admitted it was paid by the insurance company for Mountain Trip. The Park Service requires McKinley guide concessionaires to carry $500,000 in liability insurance. The agency is now considering doubling that standard.

Attorneys familiar with liability insurance negotiations said attorney fees for both sides that are party to an action come out of the pool of liability money, encouraging those who bring suit to settle quickly rather than watch much of the money go to battling lawyers. It may never be known how much Niederer's widow, Sabine, and her two young children received in the way of a settlement in the wake of a death a Park Service investigation blamed on Niederer following the advice of his guide.

Mountain Trip owner Todd Rutledge did not return a message left on the company's voice recorder. 

Niederer stayed where Staeheli told him to stay, and he died there, after the lightly clothed guide said he was going for help. Cutler ignored Staeheli's advice and survived. No help was ever sent Niederer's way. A Park Service report concluded Staeheli's actions doomed Niederer.

"The extreme cold conditions and the increase in the wind allowed no margin for error on the high reaches of the mountain during their descent from the summit," the report said. "There ... was no realistic help from the 17,200-foot camp in any time frame that would have relieved their situation and provided a rescue. Helicopters, including military, with the best-case scenario would have been many hours away in good weather -- and the high winds after the accident would have made any rescue attempt impossible until the weather improved.

"The Mountain Trip 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. 'Pig Hill' is one of the few potential places on the high mountain they may have had a chance to dig or construct an emergency snow shelter and all survive."

Inter-agency tensions

McDowall's decision did not sit well with those at the Talkeetna Ranger Station, home to the McKinley mountaineering rangers.
"Apparently the definition of 'satisfactory' differs in Alaska and Washington, D.C.," ranger John Leonard said. "The definition of 'satisfactory' performance in Alaska does not include two people dying and another person losing their hands and one foot.

"When you have to tell mothers and wives that their loved one is dead, you develop a disposition, one that comes with a more thoughtful assessment of fact and understanding of what 'satisfactory performance' is, let alone what should be acceptable.”

Leonard, other rangers and a lot of experienced Alaska climbers remain troubled by Staeheli's action on the mountain. An authoritative member of the McKinley guiding community, he ordered Niederer and Cutler to stay at Denali Pass and wait for help even though there was no hope of help coming soon enough to save the two men.

Cutler, the American, ignored the order, struggled back to high camp and survived. Niederer, whose response was conditioned from life in a country where mountain rescues are an everyday thing, obeyed the order, stayed at the 18,000-foot pass as a storm raged, and perished from exposure. 

Staeheli has never explained what he was thinking when he gave the two men the order to stay knowing that there was no one below in high camp in position to launch a rescue.

No shovel or snow saw

Niederer, Cutler, O'Sullivan and the now-58-year-old Staeheli were all victims of a life-threatening accident that came as a storm closed in on the 20,320-foot summit of McKinley in May 2011. On the descent from the top, O'Sullivan tripped and fell, forcing a rope team of four climbers into a slide down the mountain. The fall left O'Sullivan with a broken leg. The others were battered.

Chaos ensued as Staeheli tried to sort out what to do. While he was trying to create a bivouac for the injured climber near 19,500 feet on the mountain, the guide's parka blew away, putting Staeheli in a precarious position. And the Park Service investigation after the accident concluded that the guide had already handicapped himself by failing to carry equipment guides are required by contract to carry.

"Staeheli's team did not carry a spade shovel or snow saw," investigators wrote in the 53-page report.  "Without a spade shovel, the team had reduced (its) options and could not efficiently dig in (for protection against a storm) if an emergency rose. A spade, shovel or equivalent and a snow saw are required by the Concession Contract."

The Staeheli party, the report added, "did not carry an Ensolite pad on which to place O'Sullivan after his fall to help insulate his body against the cold when he was left on the mountain. An Ensolite pad is required by the Concession Contract."  And it added that "the Mountain Trip assistant guide at the 17,200-foot high camp had no FRS (Family Radio Service) radio to communicate with the lead guide in case of emergency. The Concession Contract requires all guides to carry a communication device."

The investigation was conducted by veteran McKinley guide Brian Okonek from Talkeetna; retired mountaineering ranger Daryl Miller, an internationally recognized figure in mountain rescue; and veteran climber Ralph Tingey, once the associate regional director for the Park Service in Alaska, who has spent much of his adult life in Alaska.

Staeheli told them he simply forgot the required gear. The investigators, at least one of whom wanted to consider criminal charges against the guide, were skeptical. It is not uncommon for climbers on McKinley to lighten their loads for the summit bid by leaving behind equipment considered less than vital.  It is something of a safety trade off, given that lightly loaded climbers travel faster than heavily loaded climbers.

Climbers traveling light and fast have a better chance of getting to the summit and back to the shelter of high camp if a storm approaches; slower-moving, heavily loaded climbers carrying extra survival gear have a better chance of surviving if caught by storm high on the mountain while trying to make the summit. Staeheli knew a storm was coming when he set off for the summit with his clients.

O'Sullivan survives, loses toes and fingers

The Park Service report questioned his failure to pack a sleeping bag along. A sleeping bag is a 5-pound piece of equipment generally unnecessary on a summit bid. But it would have made a huge difference to O'Sullivan in this case. 

Only by a bit of miracle did O'Sullivan survive a night out before being plucked from near the mountain's summit in a daring helicopter rescue. Sadly, as a result of that night on the mountain, he lost all of his fingers and all of the toes on one foot to frostbite

McDowall didn't see that or Niederer's death as enough of a reason to take any action against Mountain Trip, and she questioned whether Park Service employees were telling the truth about a 2009 experience with Mountain Trip.

"A park ranger reported on an incident where an MTI assistant guide descended sole and unroped, in violation of the terms of the contract," her six-page determination of the appeal reads. "The park's memo recommended that MTI not be a preferred (contractor) for right preference states that they gave MTI a satisfactory rating in 2009 with the understanding that MTI would change its practices to assure this type of incident would not happen again. If this conversation took place, it was not documented ... MTI in its appeal states that there was no communication from the park."

Leonard said McDowall consulted with Mountain Trip representatives in the nation's capital before making her decision. Alaska officials, he said, were never asked to respond to claims the company made there.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.