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Two climbers die in fall on Mount McKinley

  • Author: Megan Holland
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published June 12, 2009

Two surgeons who were longtime mountain climbing partners have died after falling thousands of feet on Mount McKinley.

They were identified as Dr. John Mislow, 39, of Newton, Mass., and Dr. Andrew Swanson, 36, of Minneapolis.

The two were roped together and plummeted at least 2,000 feet to their deaths Thursday while on the Messner Couloir, the National Park Service said.

Their bodies were flown off the mountain Thursday night.

Considered seasoned mountaineers, they were given an award in 2000 by the Park Service during their previous unsuccessful attempt at the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, in the Denali National Park and Preserve. The annual award was for being safety conscious and helping other climbers in distress.

"He downplayed the riskiness of it," said Dan Menden, a friend and colleague of Swanson's in Minnesota.

The two men were alone and had begun an ascent of the West Rib on May 30. It was unclear if they had gone off-route on their way up or were coming down a different way when the accident happened. The Messner Couloir, which is to the north of the West Rib, is not a route typically used to get to the summit of North America's highest peak because it is a steep snow gully that drops from 19,000 feet to a 14,200-foot basin. Last year, only two of the 1,200 mountaineers who attempted to climb McKinley even tried it.

The couloir has been increasingly popular, though, as a place to ski down after summiting, but the men did not have skis, said Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin. She said it's possible they were traversing the ridge near the summit.

While on the mountain, Swanson called his parents every two days from his satellite phone, according to an Associated Press interview with his mother. They last heard from him Tuesday, when he said the plan was to summit on Wednesday. If they couldn't summit on Wednesday, the two planned to turn around and head down.

Another call announcing the summit was expected but never came, Eydie Swanson told the AP. That made her uneasy, but she reasoned that the satellite phone had given out.

The Park Service said another team saw the pair fall Thursday afternoon from 16,500 feet to 14,500 feet. But where they lost control and started dropping is not yet known, McLaughlin said.

Any number of things could have gone wrong on the mountain, which typically claims several lives a year. The two doctors' deaths are the third and fourth this climbing season, which began last month. The weather Thursday was good, with clear skies and light breezes, which should have been working in the climbers' favor.

McLaughlin said the Park Service will interview any teams that might have run into the doctors, but it's likely officials will never know why they were on the Messner Couloir or what caused the accident.

The doctors' cameras were intact and rangers hope to download the images to provide some insight into at least whether they made the summit or not. A little more than half of the hundreds of climbers who take on McKinley each season make it to the top.

McLaughlin said rangers are awaiting the arrival of family members before looking at the pictures.

She said that within minutes of the Thursday afternoon accident, those who had witnessed the fall alerted rangers. The bodies were located about half an hour's hiking distance from the 14,200-foot base camp, where climbers typically set up shop and get ready for their ascents.

Three nearby skiers were the first to get to the men. A team of rangers, including medics, arrived shortly after the skiers.

Swanson, a spine surgeon, worked at the Orthopaedic and Fracture Clinic in Mankato, Minn., alongside his father, Gene, and brother, Kyle, who are also orthopedic surgeons. Mankato, where Swanson grew up, is about 60 miles outside of Minneapolis.

Swanson had just returned from Ghana, where he had been going annually to do volunteer medical work, when he left for Alaska, Menden said.

Swanson's brother, Kyle, was traveling to Alaska on Friday to escort his brother's body home.

Mislow was a fifth-year neurosurgery resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard University's teaching hospital.

He had climbed Mount Everest, according to the alumni Web site for Princeton University, where he got his undergraduate degree.

Mislow's hospital put out a press release calling Mislow "a brilliant surgeon and researcher as well as a devoted spouse, father and friend."

His family asked for privacy.

Both Swanson and Mislow went to the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, but it's unclear if that's where they met each other and discovered their mutual love for climbing.

"Their good humor, selfless behavior and respect for the mountain earned them this award," the Park Service wrote at the time they were given the Denali Pro award.

Climbing North America's highest peak is in full swing now, with 339 people on the mountain. Typically about 1,200 mountaineers attempt it every year, with the average length of stay being 18 or 19 days, McLaughlin said.

The deadliest year was 1992, when 11 people died. Altogether, 106 people have died on McKinley since 1932, when the first two recorded deaths occurred, according to Park Service statistics.

Reach Megan Holland at or 257-4343.