Utah climber accused of making false report to get helicopter evacuation off Denali

A Utah doctor accused of falsely reporting that another mountaineer was ill in an attempt to be evacuated during his climb of Denali this spring now faces federal charges.

Jason Lance was climbing the West Buttress, the most frequently climbed route on the mountain, with Adam Rawski on May 24, charges filed against Lance said. The men were not registered climbing partners but had paired up for a summit attempt from the 14,200-foot high camp, the court document said.

Rawski began to experience altitude sickness between 18,600 and 19,200 feet high, just above Denali Pass, the charges said. Lance had taken Rawski’s satellite communication device at some point, the charges said.

He left Rawski with two other climbers and continued toward the summit alone, according to the charges.

The other two climbers abandoned their attempt at summiting to help Rawski safely descend, the charges said. Lance at some point abandoned his own summit attempt and rejoined the group, the charges said.

The climbers began descending Denali Pass with Lance in the lead and Rawski behind him, according to the charges. Both men were unroped.

Rawski fell from the top of the pass around 18,200 feet, “tumbling approximately 1,000 feet down the Autobahn,” the charges said.

Lance realized Rawski was not behind him and saw a climber motionless below, according to the charges. He messaged for help using the satellite communication device.

Denali National Park’s high-altitude helicopter was conducting surveys nearby when Rawski fell and rescuers were able to reach him less than 30 minutes after the call, park officials said at the time. He was taken to Talkeetna for life-saving treatment.

After Rawski was flown off the mountain, Lance sent a message to the state rescue coordination center that said no one was injured but he was stuck without equipment after Rawski’s fall, the charges said. He reportedly asked to be evacuated off the mountain.

After he was told by the park service to use a rope and begin descending, Lance said they couldn’t safely descend, the charges said.

“The helicopter cannot come to your location and is not flying any more tonight,” the park service messaged him in response. “Do you have a rope with you? Your only option tonight is descent.”

Lance then messaged officials, “Cant descend safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia. Cant you land east of pass?” according to the charges. The park service launched a helicopter but returned when climbers in a separate group told them the three climbers had begun descending, the charges said.

The two other climbers who were with Lance said that they never experienced shock or hypothermia during the climb, charges said. They “reported that they spent hours attempting to convince Dr. Lance to rope up and descend with them from 18,200 feet to 17,200-feet high camp after the trio watched (Rawski) fall,” the charges said.

Lance had insisted they stay put and wait for rescue and said the park service was obligated to rescue them because they’d paid a fee, the charges said. After several hours, the two climbers convinced Lance to descend with them, according to the charges.

When a Denali mountaineering ranger interviewed Lance the next day at his camp, he refused to hand over Rawski’s satellite communication device, the charges said. He deleted messages from the device after being told not to, according to the charges.

He is facing a charge of interference with a government employee and violating lawful order for refusing to hand over the device at the request of the ranger and for deleting messages, the charges said.

Lance is facing a third charge of false reporting for claiming another climber was experiencing shock and hypothermia in order to prompt a rescue, the charges said.

He is scheduled for an arraignment hearing on the three misdemeanor federal charges on Dec. 6.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.