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Disproportionately deadly

Craig Medred

What began as a tragic and troubling season for climbing on North America's tallest mountain took a turn for the worse on Friday with the revelation that a second team of guided climbers had fallen near Denali Pass at 18,000 feet leaving two people dead -- including the guide -- and two seriously injured.

Mount McKinley guides, who operate on permits issued and carefully monitored by the U.S. National Park Service, have long had a stellar reputation on the 20,320-foot peak. Clients have died on expeditions in previous years, but usually only in ways well beyond the control of the guides -- heart attack, altitude sickness, and a bizarre and unexpected rock fall near 13,000 feet in 2004 that some think might have been linked to global warming.

Never in anyone's memory has there been a year like this with two guided rope teams of four people each tumbling off the mountain between the summit and high camp at 17,200 feet.

“I think people are pretty shocked, trying to figure out what's going on,” retired guide Brian Okonek said from Talkeetna Saturday. “It's terrible. I really feel for the families. I feel for the guides, the companies.”

Talkeetna, a town of 750 to 800 people just off the George Parks Highway 115 miles north of Anchorage, is the jumping off point for McKinley. The air above the community throbs this time of year with the sound of single-engine aircraft ferrying climbers from the local airstrip to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200-feet on McKinley, or hauling tourists around the McKinley massif on sightseeing tours. The streets are full of tourists and climbers coming and going, and what is happening on the mountain is usually the talk of town.

The talk started this year with a freak accident that left a Texas executive dead in the Ruth Gorge on McKinley's southern flank. Chris Lackey, a guided climber, had successfully completed a tricky route of snow and ice up the side of the 10,300-foot Moose's Tooth and was safely back in camp -- or so everyone thought -- when the camp was buried by an ice fall coming off the Tooth.

Four other climbers in camp with Lackey survived the accident largely unscathed, but he was mortally injured and died on a National Park Service helicopter while being rushed to a waiting air ambulance. Less than two weeks after Lackey died, there was another accident, this one involving a guided group of climbers below McKinley's summit ridge, which left one client dead, two injured and the guide himself badly frostbitten.

That accident began with a slip, a fall and a broken leg. Fifty-six-year-old Dave Staeheli, one of the oldest and most experienced climbing guide in the Alaska Range, managed the initial accident well. He got 40-year-old Irishman Jeremiah O'Sullivan into a bivy bag and gave O'Sullivan his parka to keep him warm. While he was doing that, however, two other clients who had been with him when all four climbers fell headed off toward high camp. One of them -- 38-year-old Swiss Beat Niederer -- never made it. He became separated from 45-year-old New Yorker Lawrence Cutler and perished. Cutler was later spotted near high camp and helped in by climbers who were there. A badly frostbitten Staeheli also stumbled in.

O'Sullivan was rescued the next day by the Park Service's high altitude rescue helicopter, which also found and recovered Niederer's body. Cutler and Staeheli were evacuated from 17,200-feet by the helicopter as well.

“It's just a very hard, very unforgiving environment up there,” Okonek noted. “Where Dave's (party) fell is not very steep, and it's not very exposed (but) with crampons, you don't have to slide very far to break a leg.”

Crampon points are prone to catching in ice when someone falls and starts to slide. If the foot suddenly stops and the body keeps going, something has to give. Climbers wear crampons high on McKinley because they offer the only safe way to walk across even relatively gentle pitches of snow mixed with slick ice. Crampons are a wonderful tool, but they are not without their own danger.

“It is incredibly easy to stumble on your crampon points,” Okonek said. There is a sad history of this happening to climbers descending McKinley as was the Staeheli party.

In the book “Surviving Denali: A study of accidents on Mount McKinley 1903-1990,” author Jonathon Waterman noted that most of the fatal falls in McKinley climbing history have come at or near Denali Pass on the descent. He warned of the dangers there, in particular extreme cold and altitude on slopes that might not appear dangerous under other conditions. “Altitude, arctic conditions and heavy packs make 35-degree snow slopes subjectively 55 degrees,” Waterman wrote.

Nothing has changed since the book was published. A 55-degree slope might as well be a cliff. For reference, expert ski runs usually end at 35 degrees. Double-black-diamond runs go up to 40 degrees. Anything beyond that is classified “extreme skiing.” And yet many still descend from Denali Pass thinking it not that steep.

It is easy, Okonek said, to get lost in a “total summit fog on the way down.”

That appears to be what happened to 67-year-old Luciano Colombo less than a week after the climbers in the Staeheli-led team fell. Colombo was descending unroped near Denali Pass when he slipped and then fell an estimated 1,000 feet to his death. Unroped climbers who slip must save themselves with an instantaneous ice-axe self-arrest when they go down, or they are usually doomed. There is, however, no risk they will take roped teammates down with them.

The danger with roped groups is that if someone slips, and the rest of the team isn't somehow tied to the mountain, everyone can go down. That is what happened to the Mountain Trip group led by Staeheli early in the month and to the Alpine Ascents International team being led down the mountain earlier this week by 34-year-old Suzanne Allen, a Seattle-based guide. Allen died in the fall along with client Peter Bullard, 45, from Shanghai, China.

Allen is the first guide to die on the mountain in more than a decade. The last to perish was assistant guide Chris Hooyman in 1998. The 21-year-old Hooyman fell after unclipping from a fixed line to go to the aid of a client struggling on the descent from high camp to the McKinley medical camp at 14,200 feet.

The only other guide to die in the past 20 years is the legendary Terrence “Mugs” Stump, who ventured ahead of clients on the descent of McKinley's South Buttress in 1992 to check the route across a glacial crevasse. He left an unfortunate amount of slack in the rope connecting him to his clients. Because of that, when the crevasse collapsed beneath him, he fell in deep and was then buried by additional ice and snow. His body is still on the mountain. The clients managed to make their way safely back to McKinley base camp.

As Okonek noted, it doesn't take much of a mistake to die on McKinley. Eleven people perished the year Stumps died. That year, 1992, was the worst year in McKinley climbing history. A national news magazine †questioned “is mountaineering on Mount McKinley a sport, or has it become a kind of athletic Russian roulette?”

Two years later, Denali National Park and Preserve begin requiring that climbers pre-register months in advance of climbing and amped up both educational efforts and rescue operations. The guide services provided a lot of assistance. Since the early 1990s, they have come to the aid of park service rangers involved in all sorts of rescues. The unfortunate death of Hooyman was considered by most a freak accident in what had become a pretty safe business.

“Guiding's a whole different ball game than climbing,” Okonek said. “The whole name of the game is risk management. Over the years, it's been pretty safe. Clients have been killed, guides have been killed, but overall, it's all been pretty safe.”

But he wonders if the odds are just now catching up to the many climbers making their way up McKinley every year: “is there some complacency because it's been so safe?”

Nick Parker of Anchorage, another retired guide who noq helps train pararescue specialists for the Alaska Air National Guard, wonders if there isn't more to it than that. "People primarily used to hire guides for safety in the mountains, he said in i an e-mail. "SAFETY.  (But) I noticed a shift to quicker ascents , fewer guide staff as i was leaving the AK range."

Some of the people Park helps train -- specialists from the Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron in Anchorage who were at high camp on McKinley this week -- helped with the rescue of the two survivors after the Allen party's fall. They are credited with keeping the most seriously injured climb alive overnight. He is now fighting for his life in an Anchorage hospital while many in the climbing community ponder what happened.

Full investigations of both of the accidents involving guided parties are underway. Chief mountaineering ranger John Leonard wants to get answers to what went wrong, but that is likely to take months. It appears the group Allen was leading was not using any protection against a fall in an area where it is common to clip into safety pickets. There is speculation the climbers might have wandered off route, which is easy to do.

On the descent, the guide is usually at the back of the rope with the lead client more than 100 feet out in front. It falls to the client to stay with the route and find the first of the safety pickets onto which to clip the rope to protect everyone behind. If the client misses the first of those pickets, the whole rope team can wander unprotected into dangerous terrain.

“That traverse of Denali Pass is always treacherous,” Okonek said. “If you get out there, and you've missed the beginning of the traverse, and they're not hitting the first pickets, and if nobody's yelled, 'I'm going to clip into the picket!' Some red flags have to go off,” because if somebody falls there before the team is clipped into the pickets, the fall is likely to set off “a terrible chain of events.”

That is what appears to have happened in the latest accident, although what exactly the events were preceding the fall remain unclear. Neither of the climbers involved have been interviewed as of yet, according to the Park Service.

“It's easy to sit here in the comforts of home and analyze things,” Okonek said, but it's a whole different world on the mountain where people are tired, cold and struggling with the altitude.

Bullard is only the 10th climber in history to die while on a guided McKinley expedition. Ten times as many climbers have died on unguided expeditions. About a quarter of all climbs are guided. The park service said Allen's team had originally been accompanied by two guides, a standard practice, but one had descended earlier with two ailing clients.

Allen had three times summited McKinley as a guide, according to Alpine Ascents International, the company she had worked for in the last seven or eight years.

“She was a stellar guide from day one,” company spokesman Gordon Janow told the Anchorage Daily News. “She was very education-oriented. She was teaching constantly what she knew about the mountains. It's very difficult but we all understand what it's like to love something so much you want to be involved in it, even if it comes with risks.”

Allen and Bullard bring to seven the number dead so far this climbing season in the Alaska Range. The May to July climbing season saw only four deaths on and around McKinley last year.

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