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A life is taken on Denali

Craig Medred

With one client dead on Mount McKinley and another in an Anchorage hospital, Mountain Trip co-owner Todd Rutledge from Ophir, Colo., was in the tiny Alaska climbing community of Talkeetna on Friday still trying to sort out what had happened to the company's ill-fated "April 24 Team."

Led by Alaskan Dave Staeheli, arguably the most experienced climbing guide in the Alaska Range, the 24 Team got into trouble late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning after setting out from McKinley's 17,200-foot high camp for the 20,320-foot summit of North America's tallest mountain. Along the way, they were hit by winds that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Usually the jet stream winds that drop onto the upper elevations of McKinley are obvious by the clouds that accompany them, Rutledge noted. A big lenticular cloud can often be seen squatting over the summit warning of danger even when the winds are calm at lower elevations. But there was no sign of that when the April 24 Team set out for the summit Wednesday.

"We were monitoring the (mountain) webcams," Rutledge said, "and talking to folks as soon as we heard (there was a problem). There were no big plumes. Nothin'. With this thing, there were no clouds, just crystal clear skies."

And yet there were deadly screaming winds. The climbers who survived the disaster that struck the 24 Team and other climbers who were encamped at 17,200 pegged the gusts at 60 to 70 mph. Winds of that speed can knock people off their feet. The conditions were such, Rutledge said, that Staeheli made a decision to turn his group back for shelter almost 1,000 feet short of the summit.

What happened next is unclear. Staeheli was still on the mountain Friday. Rutledge didn't expect to get a chance to debrief the guide until Saturday in Anchorage. Before then, Rutledge hoped to talk to a client recovering at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Rutledge said the National Park Service has asked him not to identify anyone until the dead climber's next of kin of the dead was notified. The Park Service's Maureen McLaughlin said late Friday the agency was having difficulty reaching the dead climber's family.

McLaughlin, however, was able to report that the last of the Mountain Trip clients and Staeheli had been evacuated from 17,200 by the agency's high-altitude rescue helicopter. Staeheli, who is believed to have suffered a broken rib in the fall, and the client were hoping to make it to Talkeetna sometime Friday and then head for Anchorage. A detailed report on what happened will await the guides' arrival.

There are any number of factors that could have led to the fall that took down the rope team. The wind could have knocked someone over. There could have been a slip. Or a relatively inexperienced climber could have caught the point of a crampon, an extremely easy thing to do on the descent, and tripped.

Once anyone on a rope team falls, for whatever reason, the climber who fell and the nearest climber need to react automatically and almost instantaneously employ their ice axes to arrest a fall, because if more than one climbers starts sliding it is almost impossible for the others on the rope to save the situation. The worst accident in Anchorage-area climbing history happened just this way in July 1997 when an inexperienced climber participating in a University of Alaska Anchorage climbing class slipped on the snow in the north couloir of Ptarmigan Peak in the Alaska Range. His fall took out an entire rope team. That rope team took out three more teams. Everyone slid and bounced almost 1,500 feet into a field of scree. Two people died; 12 were injured -- some seriously.

Team 24 was luckier on McKinley. Their fall ended with only one climber seriously hurt. Staeheli set to tending to the injured man, who would later be safely rescued. The guide fashioned a hole in the ice and snow to shelter the man, and then got him into a nylon sack known as a bivy bag to protect him from the wind.

Sometime while this was being done, however, the other two clients headed off on their own. Rutledge said he doesn't know if Staeheli told them to go, or if they made up their own minds to leave. "Dave is still in the range," Rutledge said. All Rutledge knows at this point was that Staeheli was facing big problems in rapidly "deteriorating weather."

"It was a bad situation," Rutledge said. "I can come up with multiple scenarios in my head as to what might have happened," but Staeheli is the only one who really knows what transpired.

"In the wind, I can see saying (to clients), 'Head down a ways and wait for me," Rutledge said. Whether that is what Staeheli did, however, is unknown. All that is known at this point is that one of the clients eventually showed up near the top of "The Autobahn," a fast and dangerous route from high camp down to the medical camp 3,000-feet almost directly below. Other climbers spotted him there and went out to guide him safely into high camp.

Later, Staeheli showed up at 17,200 to discover that in addition to having one injured client now awaiting rescue high on the mountain, he had another client lost. When eventually found, that client was dead. How he died is not known. His body has been recovered and flown off the mountain by the Park Service. An autopsy will determine how he died, but the third client who was being evacuated with Staeheli Friday might be able to shed some light on what happened.

A veteran leader of more than a dozen expeditions up McKinley, Rutledge knows how quickly things can go wrong on the mountain. There seems to be a fatality or three almost every year on McKinley, but climbers keep coming back. There were several hundred on the mountain this week with hundreds more pre-registered to climb. It is rare that clients of guided expeditions die, but it has happened before.

This does, however, appear to be a first for Mountain Trip, which has been more often involved in helping rescue other climbers than in being the focus of rescue efforts. Rutledge has been involved with the company for more than a decade. He and friend Bill Allen bought out company founder Gary Bocarde from Anchorage in 2004. A legendary Alaska mountaineer, Bocarde remains an adviser to Mountain Trip, though he now splits his time between Anchorage and Utah.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com