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Part 2: Tragedy on Mount McKinley: Only bad choices left

Craig Medred

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series examining a 2011 climbing expedition gone awry on North America's tallest mountain. Read Part 1: Anatomy of a tragedy high on Alaska's Mount McKinley

 No one should have died on the MT2-Staelheli Expedition to Mount McKinley last May. Death came not due to an accident, a National Park Service report has concluded as reported in the first part of this series, but as the result of what happened afterwards.

Dead climber Beat Niederer was not the climber seriously injured in a fall near the summit; he was the climber abandoned by a guide he hired to keep him safe.

A 53-page analysis of the incident commissioned by the Park Service makes it clear this was neither a willful nor malicious decision on the part of Alaska guide Dave Staeheli. But it happened.

After a lengthy examination of the death of Niederer and the injuries to other climbers in the Staeheli group, experts summarized their findings with the conclusion that "this investigation team believes that had adequate survival gear ... been carried, the outcome could have been much less severe....The results of this guiding accident on Denali involving the death of one client and the extreme frostbite to another may have been prevented.''

Miraculous survival

Mountain climbing guide David Staehlei (MountainTrip.com photo)

At the time of the accident, Staeheli was a guide working for Mountain Trip, a company based in Ophir, Colo. The Mountain Trip client most severely injured in a fall not far below the 20,320-foot summit of North America's tallest peak miraculously survived due in part to the efforts of his guide, but Irishman Jerry O'Sullivan's broken leg high on the mountain set off a cascade of events that ended in the death of Niederer, one of two other climbers under the guidance of the 56-year-old Staelheli, a noted climber and a guide with vast experience on the McKinley.

Staeheli said this past week he has not read the report. He has been having health problems. "I probably have cancer now,'' he said, "and I'm not doing anything that raises my stress.''

He confessed that he just doesn't want to deal with what happened. 

"I wish I would have gone slower,'' he said. "I basically destroyed myself physically working too fast. I frosted my hands, so I was ineffective at so many other things. Too many things needed fingering....

"Have you ever been faced with nothing but bad choices, and you have to pick one? It kind of gives you a sick feeling in the stomach.''

All of those bad choices confronted the guide because he took with him to the summit almost no equipment for dealing with a crisis requiring a bivouac. Because Staeheli had no way to shelter and insulate O'Sullivan after the accident rendered his client immobile, the guide did the only thing he thought he could do to help the man. He took off his parka and wrapped it around O'Sullivan.

Futile gesture

That turned out to be a futile gesture. Because O'Sullivan was not zipped into the garment, it blew away not long after Staeheli left the client near 19,500 feet in a building storm. O'Sullivan survived anyway. Without shelter and wearing only the clothes he'd put on for his trip to the summit, he clung to life for almost 17 hours until a break in the weather allowed a high-altitude helicopter to perform a daring rescue.

A 40-year-old mechanical engineer from County Cork, O'Sullivan lost the fingers of both hands and the toes of one foot to frostbite, but he pulled through. Thirty-eight-year-old Niederer, a Swiss politician, was not so lucky. Abandoned by Staeheli on the descent, he was found dead near 18,200 feet. An autopsy concluded he died of exposure.

A parka-less Staeheli might well have suffered a similar fate himself had he not left Niederer and 45-year-old Lawrence Cutler on their own above Denali Pass.

Having given away his parka in hopes of saving O'Sullivan, Staeheli needed to make it back to high camp quickly or risk death from hypothermia. He told investigators the situation at that point was "'effectively every man for himself,''' and he was 'in doubt that I was going to to survive.'"

Once Staeheli gave up that parka, "he didn't have any options,'' said Daryl Miller, one of the those who completed the accident analysis for the Park Service. Miller is an internationally recognized mountain rescue professional and former McKinley ranger. He was joined on the investigatory panel by Brian Okonek, a pioneering McKinley guide and former owner of Alaska-Denali Guiding in Talkeetna, and Ralph Tingey, a still active climber and retired associate regional director for operations with the National Park Service in Alaska. 

Questionable decision making

The Park Service manages McKinley as part of Denali National Park and Preserve. Mountain Trip is one of only six companies allowed to guide on the mountain.

Mountain Trip owner Bill Allen said he feels sorry for everyone involved in the incident. He conceded some of Staeheli's decision-making on the mountain appears questionable in retrospect, but he noted the extremely harsh environment and the ease of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

With a client down with a broken leg and the weather deteriorating -- winds high on McKinley were to hit 70 to 80 mph within hours of O'Sullivan's fall -- Staeheli was tasked with making tough decisions in a dangerous setting, Allen said. If Staeheli had to do over again, he would pretty surely do it differently, Allen added, but that's not an option.

"It's been a tough situation for everyone,'' Allen said. "It's a very shitty way for Dave to go out.''

Staeheli is not guiding this year as he battles those health problems. Friends say he is likely to retire from a profession that has been the cornerstone of his life since the start of the 1980s.

Once one of the most famous guides on the mountain, he now has a legacy tarnished by the death of a client and the black mark of an accident analysis that comes down heavily on the guide in charge.

A fall while descending on the snow with a team roped together without fixed protection -- such as a snow picket or ice screw when climbers are fatigued, is the most common cause of an accident on Mount McKinley, the report states. "A running belay could have prevented the injuries in this fall.''

Contributing causes

O'Sullivan's fall, the report says, was "the immediate cause of the accident.'' Had the fall been stopped by a rope fastened to a picket or screw before it took a four-man rope team 300 to 500 feet down so-called Pig Hill, the Staeheli group could have descended safely to high camp after reaching the summit.

But the report doesn't stop at merely faulting Staeheli for failure to put in protection, it goes on to say "the underlying causes of the death of Beat Niederer and Jerry O'Sullivan's extensive frostbite are more complex."

The report cites a variety of "contributing causes.'' Some of those "contributing causes,'' in turn, pose problems for Mountain Trip, the company responsible for supervising Staeheli and two assistant guides -- Henry Munter and John McGee from Girdwood -- on the mountain. 
"Staeheli's team did not carry a spade shovel or snow saw,'' the report says. "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.''

Likewise, the report says, "The Staeheli roped team 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.'' 

The investigation also found "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.

Staeheli did have with him a two-person bivouac sack, as required. But the report questions his decision to go for the summit without a sleeping bag.

"Even though the contract did not require that a sleeping bag had to be carried,'' the report says, "given the extremely cold temperatures that day, carrying a sleeping bag would have been prudent.
 A bivouac sack would not provide adequate warmth for an immobilized patient, and it quickly blew away in the strong winds. Without the option of a sleeping bag and a bivouac sack, O'Sullivan's chances of survival were greatly diminished in the open.''

A miracle?

Many climbers and guides consider it a miracle of sorts that O'Sullivan lived, though there have been similar incidents. Climber Beck Weathers literally came back from the dead after being abandoned while in a "hypothermic coma" near 26,000 feet on Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, in 1996. Doctors remain at a loss as to what exactly roused Weathers from the coma and prompted him to drag himself to safety.

Most who are left in the cold at high altitude succumb to the environment, as did Niederer, who appears to have stayed at Denali Pass until his death awaiting rescue, per the advice of his guide. "Cutler,'' according to the accident report, "said Staeheli told him and Niederer they would (all) descend to Denali Pass where Staeheli would try to find them a place to stay while he descended the Autobahn to high camp for help. Cutler also said Staeheli told the two of them that they could die if they descended from Denali Pass down the Autobahn on their own.''

Staeheli didn't remember exactly what he told the two, but he told investigators he probably said something to the affect that "the Autobahn is a fairly hazardous place.'' Cutler last saw Staeheli descending the mountain below Denali Pass. He then waited an estimated half-hour for Niederer before deciding that he if stayed there, he would die.

He made a harrowing solo trip to high camp. No one ever talked to Neiderer again, but the crampon tracks around his body at Denali Pass indicated he walked to where he died and then stayed there until overcome by hypothermia.

After O'Sullivan's fall, the accident report alleges Staeheli lost command of the situation.

RELATED: Part 1: Anatomy of a tragedy high on Alaska's Mount McKinley

"The four climbers never did get together as a group to assess everyone's injuries and develop a plan of action,'' the reports says.

It notes there was confusion between Staeheli, Niederer and Cutler. The guide told investigators he was "surprised when Cutler and Niederer descended (toward Archdeacon's Tower) without telling him.'' But Cutler told investigators Staeheli told him to do that to try to get a "better line-of-sight contact to call (high camp) on the FRS radio again.''

Acting at Staeheli's direction, Cutler said he descended to Niederer. The two retrieved their packs, and set out for Archdeacon's Tower. They were never able to make radio contact. That is not unusual in mountainous terrain, the report said. It probably didn't matter. "McGhee (the assistant guide) did not have a radio at high camp to listen for Staeheli's progress," the report says. The trio might have been able to call for help on a satellite phone, but Staeheli broke it.

"Cold, poor light, lack of familiarity or stress of the accident may have contributed to breaking the satellite phone antenna while attempting to attach it to the phone,'' the report says. And "even if a mayday call had been successful, the actual timing of the rescue would have been no different due to the weather conditions following the incident.''

The latter fact raises large questions as to why Staeheli even wasted time telling the clients to attempt a call to high camp. And it is unlikely they acted on their own.

They did not know the terrain. They could not have known where to go to get, as Cutler put it, "better line-of-sight contact'' with high camp. It would appear possible that Staeheli, who was also injured in the rope-team fall, just wasn't thinking straight due to injury, a problem certain to be compounded by the weather.

On the morning Staeheli and his clients left the 17,200-foot-high camp in the calm bound for the summit the temperature was 20-below, and the forecast called for night-time winds up to 70 or 80 mph. They arrived much as predicted with the Staeheli group still near the summit.

Those winds swept away the bivouac sack in which Staeheli wrapped O'Sullivan. Allen said Staeheli couldn't get the climber secured in the two-person sack because Staheli's hands were frostbitten and barely working. Mountain Trip guides carry the two-person sack because they can crawl in with a hypothermic client to help warm them up, but the oversize bag is also prone to catching a lot more wind.

Why Staeheli never tried to enlist the help of Cutler and Niederer in getting O'Sullivan zipped into the bag, or getting Staeheli's parka zipped onto O'Sullivan so it wouldn't blow away, is unclear.

"Once the accident happened, the team was separated,'' the report says. "It never again assembled for a group planning meeting, community digging, warmth or to provide shelter for O'Sullivan.''
 The report says Staeheli didn't even waste time going back to get the rope he left on Pig Hill while dragging O'Sullivan about 100 yards down to a flat area called the Football Field, where a helicopter was later able to pick the climber up in a basket. "Staeheli's decision not to return and retrieve the rope because of his frostbitten hands meant he would not be able to protect his clients on the descent,'' the report said. 

Without the rope to protect against crevasse falls on the 30-degree slope of the Autobahn, Staeheli had little choice but to tell his clients to wait up high at Denali Pass for rescue. Niederer waited and died. Cutler made a risky descent of the snow and ice and nearly fell into several crevasses. But he survived.

Dazed?

"Waiting at Denali Pass without sleeping bags, there was little chance of Cutler and Niederer surviving the extreme wind and subzero temperatures ... while they waited for help,'' the analysis concludes. "Staeheli's decision to leave everyone on their own and descend to high camp was formed by not carrying adequate survival gear for the conditions found on the upperpart of McKinley.''

The guide tried to remedy the lack of gear by giving O'Sullivan his own parka, the report says, but "without his parka, Staeheli could not stay warm enough traveling at the slower client's pace and felt if he did not move faster, he may not make it back to high camp. ...He felt his own life was in danger which required abandoning his clients to save himself in order to get help...

"Staeheli could have been dazed by the fall and unable to make decisive, critical decisions in the aftermath of the accident.''

Allen refused to comment on any conclusions drawn in the report. He is in delicate negotiations with the Park Service over his guide concession. Staeheli put the company in breach of its contract when he failed to take Park Service required gear -- the shovel or spade, the snowsaw and the Ensolite pad -- with him on his way to the summit.

"We didn't have the required equipment,'' Allen admitted.

Staeheli said he simply forgot it. Allen said he has re-emphasized to all of his guides that the company is contractually bound to carry gear. "We're giving our people red laminated cards with the checklist on it,'' he said. "We told everyone to reconfirm that everyone has all the required gear.'' 

The Park Service is also reconsidering its guidelines in the wake of the accident. Investigators suggested the agency take a number of steps to make climbing safer for the McKinley climbers who hire a guide. About a quarter of all climbers now to do that. To help protect them, the report recommends:

• Requiring guides to carry "at least one sleeping bag and one bivouac sack'' for each rope team on the way to the summit.

• Amending the existing requirement for a "spade, shovel or equivalent'' to say "a steel shovel.'' The report says it appeared that Staeheli "felt the snow was too hard to dig. Light snow shovels are not strong enough to dig a trench or snow cave in wind-hardened snow." Almost every seasoned climber in Alaska has experience with breaking an aluminum shovel in such conditions. They would probably prove useless for punching out a trench high on McKinley, but a steel shovel would be worth a go.

• Including a discussion of "turnaround procedures'' at annual meetings between the park and guide concessionaires. Investigators "felt that there were several times during this particular ascent when it would have been prudent to abandon the summit attempt and turn the team back to high camp," noting how slow the Staeheli group was moving toward the summit, problems with frostbite even before O'Sullivan's fall, and the increasing wind on the way up.

• Training guides that in the case of accidents high on McKinley, as with avalanches anywhere, leaving to get help "is not a viable option.'' Leaving someone buried in an avalanche to go for rescue almost always dooms them to death. The report notes: "Leaving clients alone, in any situation, creates extreme risk and hazard. Guide training should emphasize that clients, even in an accident, must be kept together and their safety ensured.'' John Leonard, now the chief ranger for McKinley and a former guide, noted clients often lack more than a marginal idea of where they are on the mountain. Usually, he said, they trudge upward behind the guide, making little note of landmarks that might help them get back down if an accident happens.

• Re-emphasizing with guides the importance of running belays. "This team could have used running belays while descending Pig Hill,'' the report says. "Had snow pickets been in place and the rope clipped to them, the fall might have been stopped, and the consequences may have been avoided.''

• Educating all climbers on the importance of securing mittens and gloves to their body. "Time and again,'' the report notes, "mittens have been lost on the mountain,'' resulting in severe frostbite. O'Sullivan lost one of his mittens before he lost his fingers. Staeheli lost one of his frostbit fingers, but was then lucky to find the mitten near him after the fall. That bit of luck saved him from an even worse cold injury.

Leonard, who now oversees climbing on the mountain, said his main reaction after reading the report is that safety on the mountain must be be re-emphasized. 

"That's definitely a tough one,'' added Elwood Lynn, assistance superintendent for operations at Denali, who noted the push-pull between clients and guides that often occurs on pricey expeditions. "On the one hand, they're paying you to get them to the summit,'' he said, "and on the other hand, they're paying you to keep them safe.''

 Lynn is the man who oversees park concessions. He has put Mountain Trip on notice that they need to outline a plan for what the company plans to do to ensure that what happened in 2011 doesn't happen again.

"Depending on their response,'' he added, "we decide whether we have to act.''

Allen said the company has already taken some steps and is considering others, but admits he's in a tough spot. There is only so much the company can do, he said. All the guides are required to read the concession and permit contracts and promise to abide by them. But once on the mountain, they are on their own.

McKinley is nothing like any office. It is a high, often lonely place, where Mother Nature still rules.

Guides simply cannot make climbing totally risk free. McKinley is a dangerous place. A bizarre accident in 2004 killed a client descending the mountain with a team from Alaska Mountaineering School. Until Englishmen Clint West, 47, died beneath a rain of truck-size boulders and two others were seriously injured near Windy Corner, no one had even thought of rockfall as a serious danger on the mountain.

Sometimes accidents truly do just happen.

 But there are well-known and recognized hazards, Leonard said, and guides do have a huge responsibility to try to protect clients against those.

"The death of a client is unacceptable to the (National) Park Service,'' he said. "These are the things we take very, very seriously."

He and others are hoping that the one good thing that comes out of the analysis of the MT-2 Staeheli Expedition is that everyone understands safety first has to be the guiding philosophy of all guides working on Alaska's Mount McKinley.

RELATED: Part 1: Anatomy of a tragedy high on Alaska's Mount McKinley

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com