Fall during nasty storm claims first McKinley climber of the season

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News
Bob Hallinen

The climbing season on Mount McKinley has barely begun, and the National Park Service is already reporting a climber dead in a fall near Denali Pass at 18,200 feet.

The agency says it spotted the body of 39-year-old Sylvia Montag of Tacoma, Wash., some 800 to 1,000 feet below the pass on Peters Glacier late Wednesday.

Montag had been reported missing Monday. Climbing partner Mike Fuchs, 34 and from Berlin, placed a satellite phone call to the Talkeetna ranger station to report she'd gone missing on the descent from the pass.

Though the park service provided a Tacoma address for Montag, who once worked as an organizer for mountaineering expeditions to the Himalayas, a Washington state-based company that helped sponsor her climb described Montag on its website as a German climber.

Tentmaker Hilleberg reported in April that Montag and Fuchs were planning a traverse across McKinley's summit from north to south, "a daunting mountaineering project, in end-of-winter conditions, self-supported and in lightweight style."

The park service said the duo started up the Muldrow Glacier on the mountain's north side on April 15 before the McKinley base camp went in on the Kahiltna Glacier on the mountain's south side. They duo reached Denali Pass around May 2.

"We made it! Our aim to traverse Denali is nearly complete," the duo reported on their Facebook page that day. "But, since two days we are sitting in a huge storm on the top of the pass and try to block against the power of nature. With more than 100 kilometer/hour, the wind beats us very strong. We have no chance to go farther at the moment.

"Just sitting there in our strong tent and hope that it will stand another night. Here at Denali Pass there is nothing where we can hide, just only snow, ice and small stones. To build a wall of snow blocks to protect us is not possible because we fly away by building the wall. So the wind has got full power at our tent. Everything is shaking, and it is loud inside.

"When we get a small weather window for about 50-80 minutes, we try to go down at the other side."

The noise and fury of a storm high on McKinley is hard to describe. Conditions are life-threatening, and at some point, descent becomes the only hope.

Montag and Fuchs, according to the park service, spent two days camped within a few hundred feet of the 20,320-foot summit of North America's tallest peak before deciding they needed to go for the McKinley high camp at 17,200 feet on the well-traveled West Buttress.

Somewhere between there and Denali Pass, the two became separated. Fuchs made it into high camp and called the park service on the satellite phone the pair had been using to file Facebook posts.

"The two were not roped together, nor did they not have radio communications with one another," reported park spokesperson Maureen Gualtieri. "Fuchs described that both parties were weakened from the multiple nights spent at Denali Pass, and each possessed only partial survival gear."

Traveling unroped on the descent from Denali Pass is dangerous but not unusual. Experienced climbers sometimes do it to avoid the risk of a fall by one endangering the other -- something that has happened in the past.

At high camp, the National Park Service reported, Fuchs took refuge in the park service's "rescue cache," a metal storage locker that contains emergency supplies and the equipment necessary for high-altitude rescues. Nasty weather continued to pound the mountain.

Fuchs reported from there that Montag was missing with the tent, limited food and her personal gear somewhere above him on the mountain in 40 to 60 mph winds with limited visibility. At the time, the hope was that she had been able to make camp somewhere.

When Montag failed to show at high camp on Tuesday, Fuchs phoned the park service and asked for rescue for both himself and his climbing partner, but because of the weather, the park service's Talkeetna based high-altitude helicopter was unable to fly, and there were no other climbers on the mountain in position to help.

A park service ranger patrol had just arrived on slopes of McKinley and was camped at 7,800 feet on the Kahiltna Galcier.

By Wednesday, with Fuchs calling to report the winds easing and the skies clearing high on the mountain, the Alaska Air National Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron launched a Hercules C-130 search plane from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson just outside of Anchorage, but the crew was unable to spot Montag.

Later that day, however, "Denali National Park's high altitude A-Star B3 helicopter pilot and an NPS mountaineering ranger flew to Denali Pass with the 210th Rescue Squadron's Hercules C-130 flying as a cover aircraft," Gualtieri reported.

"After several passes of the area, the A-Star B3 crew spotted Montag's remains 800 to 1,000 feet below the Denali Pass traverse on the Peters Glacier. Fuchs was observed by the flight crew standing near his camp at 17,200 feet."

A-Star pilot Andy Hermansky subsequently dropped the ranger off at the Kahiltna base camp to lighten his load and then flew back to 17,200 feet to lift Fuchs out of the high camp in a rescue basket. The climber was delivered to the Kahiltna base camp, where rangers did a quick medical check before he was flown back to Talkeetna.

Fuchs had no serious injuries, according to the park service. He was last reported on his own in Talkeetna. The agency said an attempt will be made to recover Montag's body when a park service team reaches the 17,200-foot camp. That is expected to take at least a week.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.