AD Main Menu

Craig Medred: Fatality hangs like a ghost on Denali climbers' Facebook page

BOB HALLINEN

Editor's note: The sites referenced here were updated after this story's publication. Please read the update appended below.

UPDATE, 9 a.m. Thursday

Today, a more than a week after Sylvia Montag Kawina disappeared on Mount McKinley, Fuchs finally posted a short note on his website, also linking to it from the expedition's Facebook page. This is what it said:

Just only some days before our finishline (sic) of our project to traverse Denali/Mt McKinley, my climbing partner Sylvia fall at an altitude of more than 18.000 feet and lost her life.

I am very sad and often think back to our uncountable wonderful moments to climbed this huge mountain.

Thanks to all believed in this special project and supported us with so much heart’s blood, material and also mental.

My thoughts are with Sylvias family and her friends.

Mike

 

The lingering question of how exactly the two became separated high on the mountain prior to Kawina's death remains unanswered.

ORIGINAL COLUMN:

Somewhere out there, grieving German mountaineer Mike Fuchs is struggling with what to post next to his Facebook page: Fox-Challenge.de

Nothing new has appeared there since May 4 when there came this report from high on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley:

Position: Denali Pass, 5550 Meter.

We made it! Our aim to traverse Denali is nearly completed.

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 km/h, the wind beats us very strong. We have no chance to go further 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 flyer (sic) away by building the wall. So the wind has got full power at our tent. Everything is shacking 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. (Correcture (sic) at 7:47 pm it is not possible to go down, still big storm and no good visibility) We still have food for three days, two Oat Snacks and 160g nuts with fruits. Temperature -24 degree C plus 100 km/h windchill for going to toilette.

Photo: Mike in his sleeping bag thinking of chocolate, Steaks, Bread, Butter, cheese, ham, Nutella, döner, orange juice, beer and much more food.

A day later, 39-year-old Dr. Sylvia Montag Kawina -- Fuchs' climbing partner and the photographer who took the sleeping bag photo and sent it to the world via satellite phone from near 18,200 feet on McKinley -- was dead.

Two days after that, Fuchs was located at the McKinley high camp near 17,200 feet and hoisted to safety by the National Park Service's high-altitude rescue helicopter. He was back in Talkeetna later that day. Dispatch efforts to reach Fuchs since have proven futile. Meanwhile, the Facebook page, where the Fuchs--Kawina team had been posting regular updates on their plan to traverse North America's tallest mountain from north to south, has remained frozen in time.

Death in the Age of Communication does not appear to be among the problems the climbers contemplated. But for those who decide to in any way provide live coverage of their own expeditions from here on out, it should be.

As is usual with unexpected death, Kawina's has left Facebook friends with lingering questions as to what happened.

"Do you have any news?'' one posted on the Fox-Challenge page. "All I know is what I read in the news reports online yesterday,'' answered another. "I just happened to see Sylvia's name and it was quite a shock."

Where the story goes from there is unclear. The website the pair set up to cover their expedition -- fox-challenge.de -- offers no closure for friends or followers. Instead, it documents only a harrowing journey up the north side of the mountain that ends, as with the Facebook account, at Denali Pass.

There are indications the climbers might have pushed themselves deep into their physical reserves by the time they reached 18,200,  but whether that played a role in what happened after remains unknown.

"Position: Same as two days ago,'' one of the pair posted on May 1. "Yesterday we had to climb up to Brown(e) Tower and yes, we have been there. After 8 hours of climbing up to an altitude of 4,450 meter, there was no time to go back to our tent 800 meters below, so we had to stay behind a big stone to protect us from the elements. Snow, wind and less than -20 degree. Everything we have to protect us from the cold was not there, only some some Snacks, nuts and half a liter of tea. Everything is OK, and all fingers are still working but we can tell you, do not do something similar, it was a horrible long and very cold night!"

A day later, the going was little better when Fuchs posted from high on the Muldrow Glacier route near the rock outcrop at about 16,000 feet named for explorer Belmore Browne, who in 1912 came within a few hundred feet of becoming the first person to summit McKinley.

Fuchs reported:

It is midnight. My breath is fast; the legs do not want to climb and walk anymore. I look back into the dark night and my eyes search for Sylvia. At the last fix rope we made, she took a break. Now she might be 200 meters behind me. I have no power to scream and the heavy wind would destroy my words anyway. My left arm still hold the ice axe but not my hands hold it, just the glove, an icy glove formed by the last hours of climbing up to Brown(e) Tower.

 

Every 20 meters I look back, nothing. My eyes went up to searching for a campsite. Steem, steem steem (sic).... I look back; is it possible to go back and searching for her? No power. My legs go step by step, I think of all the beauty I got in my life, think why the hell i have to do this.

All the literature about this route told us it is grade two, what we have seen dive days ago when coming to the starting of the Muldrow glacier we were shocked. The half of the Karstens Ridge relief was proberbly (sic) changed. We tried to find a route for our climbing level but it comes to an end that we have to go climbing, real climbing. Up to 70 percent and some parts vertical with both sides of the ridge 1000 meters down next to us.

We started at at 10 in the morning for this 1.5 kilometer distance. It took hours and hours to go 60 meters than make a fix point with an snow anchor, and pull the pulks and other Equipment up to the anchor. Than go another 60 Meter and do the same. It is not possible to do it another way because of the steem area we are going. It is 1:30 am and i finally found a place I can set up the tent, not big space but enough; it is very close to the Stone we survived the night two days ago. The wind is strong and the tent want to flyer (sic) away, with the last power I can press some pegs into the frozen ground.

In the dark night, I hear a voice. Sylvia is only 40 meters away. We got it. At three o clock in the morning we sleep. Saturday we will go up to Denali Pass, 1000 Meters altitude on 5 km distance....And the following days can be a summit day.

They would never make the summit. They would reach Denali Pass only to get pounded by another storm, and then decide to retreat -- their only option really -- via the usually well-traveled West Buttress route.

Only the route is little-traveled at the start of May. The climbing season hasn't really begun. The 1,000-feet drop along the so-called "Autobahn" from the Pass down to high camp is not yet fully festooned with bamboo wands to help mark the best route, nor outfitted with the occasional aluminum pickets driven into snow and ice that can be used to clip in a safety rope on the descent.

Thus Fuchs and Kawina were forced to descend all alone and unprotected on a stretch of mountain known for deadly falls. About the Autobahn, Denali Park says this:

Conditions on the "Autobahn," which is the snow and ice slope leading from High Camp at 17,200-feet to Denali Pass at 18,200-feet, can vary from deep snow (avalanche danger) to hard ice. Climbers should be prepared to place their own protection as needed on the upper mountain.The Autobahn has been the scene of more fatalities on Denali than any other part of the mountain.

When Fuchs lost track of Kawina in a storm here, it marked the last time he would see her alive. And now the question about how they came to part ways hangs out there unanswered in cyberspace, the climb still trapped in time before that the critical moment when things went so wrong.

You have to feel for Fuchs. This is a tough thing to deal with even if you haven't been live-blogging your adventure, but it's somehow wrong to leave everything unfinished like this.

Though Fuchs and Kawina started this story jointly, there is only one of them left to finish it now. This is a painful responsibility, but it is a responsibility.

All of which ought to give more than a few people pause about going live with their adventures. What do you do if something does go wrong? What is your back up plan? Have you considered signing over to someone emotionally unencumbered the responsibility of finishing what you've begun if the worst happens?

There is a difference here between inviting someone in to tell your story or doing it yourself after everything is over, and living that story yourself live online. It might at first appear a small difference, but as Fuchs is finding out now, it is really huge.

Because a story once begun begs to be finished somehow.

 

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

 

 

 



Anchorage