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The cold, hard truth: An Alaska guide's screw-ups killed somebody on Mount McKinley

Craig Medred

Sometimes in this strange business called news, it takes someone really getting a story wrong to make you recognize you didn't quite get it right either, to make you face the fact that in the process of trying to be fair and balanced, or even kind, you misrepresented important details or failed to emphasize important facts.

A week ago, Alaska Dispatch reported at length on a National Park Service investigation into the death of one climber, the maiming of another, and injuries to two more stemming from a 2011 accident just below the summit of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The first of a two-part series recounted what happened to the Mountain Trip group led by well known Alaska guide Dave Staeheli.

The second part outlined the many mistakes a team of investigators concluded were made during the climb, mistakes that contributed to the death of 38-year-old Swiss politician Beat Neiderer and the frostbite injuries that cost 41-year-old Irishman Jerry O'Sullivan all 10 of his fingers.

A week later, Anchorage's largest newspaper finally picked up the story and a reporter who doesn't know much about climbing or guiding wrote this in starting off his tale of death and suffering:

"Standing triumphant on Mount McKinley on May 11, 2011, the team of climbers atop North American's highest peak that night had no idea what terrifying decisions they'd face just below the summit."

I immediately saw red. Why? Because there are no group decisions on a guided climb anymore than there are group decisions in a trauma unit trying to save someone's life or the cockpit of an airplane suddenly in trouble. In those terrifying situations, the person in charge makes decisions because that is what he or she is trained and paid to do.

To even suggest that the group of four climbers on the summit last year would be making some sort of group decision or decisions that night shifts the focus away from where it belongs. None of what happened on McKinley involved group decisions. All of it involved decisions made by the man in charge: Dave Staeheli.

I've known Staeheli since he made a monumental, solo, winter ascent of McKinley's West Rib in 1989. He was young and brash then. Time ran the youth out of him the way it runs the youth out of all of us, but some of the brashness always remained. I admit to admiring that in a man, especially an older man. That and the fact he might have cancer now influenced my reporting on the McKinley accident in a way I didn't recognize until I read the account by someone writing about something of which they know little.

The newspaper coverage led me back to look at what we reported in Alaska Dispatch, and one of the things I wrote at the very start of the first part of the series was this:

"Near the summit of Mount McKinley in May of last year, after a summit bid turned into a dangerous fight for survival, Beat Neiderer followed the advice of his guide."

That's wrong. That's journalism soft-pedaled. Neiderer didn't follow "the advice of his guide." Guides don't give advice. They give orders. Neiderer followed the orders of his guide: He was told to get to Denali Pass and wait there until Staeheli sent someone up from high camp to guide the Swiss down.

Neiderer did exactly as he was told. He went to Denali Pass, and he waited there until he froze to death.

Forty-five-year-old Lawrence Cutler from New York survived only because he eventually made the decision to ignore the orders of the guide and set off for high camp on his own. He was the only one -- the only one -- other than Staeheli making decisions on the mountain that night, and to be honest, his decision wasn't a tough one. His options were pretty simple and pretty ugly: He could stay and surely die, as Neiderer did, or he could try to stumble down to high camp, knowing there was a good chance that might lead to his death as well.

Cutler decided it was better to go out fighting.

That Neiderer appears to have made the opposite decision is testimony to the most important element in this story -- the role, the power and the influence of guides.

I soft-pedaled that. The key element got caught up in all the fairness and balance and whatever else it is reporters hide behind these days when they don't want to simply state the ugly truth. I know guides of various sorts. Some have been friends over the years. They work in a tough business with a lot of responsibility and little pay. Guides, like surgeons, often hold people's lives in their hands. A screw-up can kill somebody. And yet the guides get paid a tiny fraction of what a surgeon gets paid.

Had a surgeon made the kind of mistakes Dave Staeheli made on the way to someone ending up dead, there would have been a big, fat malpractice lawsuit, and everyone would have been writing about how the surgeon screwed up. Nobody wrote about how Dave Staeheli screwed up because either they didn't understand the story or, like me, chose to soft pedal-what happened, figuring people could read between the lines.

Do mountains kill people?

Friends who climb and guide read Alaska Dispatch stories and figured things out easily enough. But the news isn't supposed to be written to be figured out, because many who read the news lack the expertise to figure it out. The news is supposed to be written so that someone of average intelligence can clearly understand what happened. Too many people came away from the Dispatch series with the impression that "oh my, the mountains kill people."

The mountains do kill people. That's why those who want to return alive hire a guide. The guide's first and foremost job is to bring everyone back. Staeheli failed at his job. We've all tried to make excuses for him. I know the men who wrote the report. They have all been in bad weather high on McKinley. I've been in bad weather fairly high on McKinley. We all know how ugly it can get. It's easy to make excuses, and it's human to wish to do so.

But the excuses misrepresent reality. I was reminded of this in an e-mail from a client of Brian Okonek, a retired McKinley guide who was part of the National Park Service team investigating the Staeheli accident.

"In 1990 Brian Okonek guided me on a (McKinley) traverse," his former client wrote.  "Every three climbers had: two sleeping bags that zipped together, a stove, shovel (including Brian’s bloody heavy, steel spade) and food. We carried that bivy gear to the summit and back. That’s Brian."

The Staeheli group didn't have a single sleeping bag, nor a concession-permit required shovel, let alone "a bloody, heavy steel spade." Why not? Because Staeheli, and Staeheli alone, made the decision this gear would be left at camp. He was going fast and light to the summit. I know about fast and light. I've done a fair bit of fast and light travel with friends in the Alaska wilderness over the decades. I know what it's like to pig pile for warmth at night until you wake up shivering so bad you know it's time you have to get moving.

Fast and light is what you do with good and experienced friends you know and trust. Fast and light is not what you do with people who have hired you to ensure they make it through the journey in one piece. Daryl Miller, a retired McKinley mountaineering ranger for the park service and internationally recognized authority on high-mountain rescues, is pretty strongly of the opinion that if the Staeheli group had carried sleeping bags, heavier clothing and that "bloody, heavy steel spade," they could have pounded out a trench to get them below the wind at Pig Hill and survived the night high on McKinley after the fall that started the whole expedition swirling down toward death and permanent injury.

Others have done it, he noted.

Miller, another of the investigators on the Staeheli report, has also tried to make nice since the report was completed. He has suggested that maybe Staeheli hit his head after O'Sullivan tripped, fell and pulled down an entire rope-team of four. Maybe -- though I have to confess that I might have encouraged this belief in discussions with Miller before the Alaska Dispatch stories were written. I certainly wanted to believe that. I certainly wanted an excuse for why Staeheli made bad decisions.

But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter. Whether Staeheli hit his head or not, he was still acting like the man in charge after the fall. He was still giving orders. He wasn't so impaired that any of his clients noticed. They did as they were told. Then again, they really didn't have many options, because when Staeheli decided they'd go fast and light for the summit, he really put them all in a box with only one way out: Get down fast.

Staeheli got down fast; he survived. Cutler was slower getting down, but he survived, too, though badly frostbitten. Neiderer didn't get down fast; he followed Staeheli’s later orders to stay at Denali Pass and paid with his life. And O'Sullivan, who was abandoned on the mountain by everyone, well, it was nothing short of a miracle he survived.

"When we took Jerry out of the basket, he was as close to death as you can be but still be conscious," one of those who was at McKinley base camp when O'Sullivan arrived told me after the Alaska Dispatch series ran. "For your story did you speak to anyone who doesn't have a vested interest in presenting 'the facts' in a way to defend themselves?"

That particular climber didn't think our stories particularly accurate. He thought they misrepresented what really happened. He thought they might have allowed for just a little too much ass covering, for lack of a kinder, gentler description. He might be right. In trying to be fair and balanced, it's easy to lose sight of what's really important because the truth is sometimes such a damn ugly thing that not even the most hardcore of reporters wants to face it.

Dave Staeheli screwed up. We all screw up. It's human nature. The difference here is that Staeheli’s screw-up cost lives. That's the cold, hard, truth. It makes me feel lucky to be a journalist because we screw up all the time. It's in the nature of trying to process a whole lot of information on deadline. But, fortunately, when we screw up, nobody dies. It's a lot easier for us to say, "Sorry, I made a mistake," and move on.

I don't know how Staeheli moves on. I don't know what you do after something like this if you were the guide in charge. From the beginning, I felt for Staeheli. It colored the reporting. That was my screw up. Because that climber from McKinley was right in asking "did you speak to anyone who doesn't have a vested interest in presenting 'the facts' in a way to defend themselves?"

That's what I'm paid to do, just as Staeheli was paid to bring people back alive.

Craig Medred's views are his own. Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com