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Part I: Anatomy of a tragedy high on Alaska's Mount McKinley

Craig Medred

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series examining a 2011 climbing expedition gone awry on North America's tallest mountain. Read Part 2: Tragedy on Mount McKinley: So many things gone wrong

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. He paid for that decision with his life, according to a newly released accident investigation. The 38-year-old Swiss politician and another climber were told to stay at Denali Pass to await rescue, according to the report.

Lawrence Cutler, 45, of New York state, ignored those directions from Alaska guide Dave Staeheli, made a risky solo descent to high camp at 17,200-feet on the mountain, and survived. Neiderer stayed. His body was later recovered at the Pass.

"Neiderer was found with his pack on and his ice ax,'' reads the official report of the accident involving "the Mountain Trip concession guide David Staehlei and death of client, Beat Niederer. Ranger Kevin Wright was short hauled by helicopter to Denali Pass to retrieve Neiderer's body....Wright stated that there were a number of crampon tracks in the snow around the body, and it was apparent he had walked to where he was found and not fallen and slid there....The Autopsy Report Opinion states, 'The cause of death in this 38-year-old man is attributed to hypothermia due to environmental exposure.'''

In short, Neiderer froze to death while waiting for help, as he was told to do.

Mountain climbing guide David Staehlei (MountainTrip.com photo)

The report is critical of Staeheli, although former ranger Daryl Miller said everyone involved in the investigation was sympathetic to the plight in which the guide found himself after client Jerry O'Sullivan, a 41-year-old Irishman, slipped and fell on the descent from the 20,320-foot summit of North America's tallest mountain. 

"I feel really bad for everyone,'' Miller said. "I've known Dave for a long time. I know when the families read it (this report), it's going to be troubling."

O'Sullivan's fall triggered a chain reaction that pulled the entire Staeheli rope team off the mountain. O'Sullivan, Staeheli, Neiderer and Cutler tumbled an estimated 300 to 500 feet. All were injured. O'Sullivan was the worst off with a broken leg.

He had to be left near 19,500 feet on the mountain because the climbing team could not get him any lower. It was a miracle he survived, though he was maimed for life. "He should have been dead,'' Miller said. "He's one tough guy.''

Somehow O'Sullivan clung to the mountain and life almost 17 hours until Andy Hermansky, a helicopter pilot on contract with the National Park Service, could make a daring, high-altitude rescue. O'Sullivan was flown almost immediately to an Anchorage hospital. He spent weeks being treated by the world's top specialists on cold-weather injuries, but they could not save his hands.

"O'Sullivan's frostbite required that all his fingers and thumbs on both hands and and part of one foot had to be amputated,'' the 53-page report notes.

Written by Miller, an internationally recognized mountaineering ranger who's now retired; Ralph Tingey, retired Associate Regional Director of Operations for the Park Service and a still active climber; and retired guide Brian Okonek, former owner of Alaska-Denali Guiding in Talkeetna, the report paints a startling picture of the otherworldly nature of the high slopes of McKinley. And it echoes the long-ago observation Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, a McKinley pioneer, made about travel in extreme Alaska weather:

"The old-timers in Alaska have a saying that '(everything) is all right as long as it is all right.'''

Stuck organized the first expedition to summit McKinley. He followed young protege Walter Harper onto the summit in June 7, 1913. They were joined by Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum. All descended safely. It was all right. There were no accidents, and the weather was generally friendly.

It was not so for Neiderer, O'Sullivan, Cutler and Staelehi, the longest-serving guide on McKinley.

Staeheli, 57, started his career with the late and legendary Ray Genet at Genet Expeditions when the commercial climbing business on McKinley began to take off in the 1980s. The Mountain Trip website describes him as a "fearless leader and veteran Denali guide.... Dave is the most experienced Denali guide working on the mountain these days, having worked his first guided trip in 1982.  He is somewhat of an Alaskan legend and we are very fortunate to have him as one of our senior guides and mentors."

After the accident last year, Mountain Trip held to the position that Staeheli did everything right as the guide on the ill-fated expedition. The new Park Service report raises questions as to that, but it is also outlines how thin the margins between life and death are in the hostile environment of a glacier-cloaked mountain in the far north.

The report notes the methodical, by-the-book manner the Staeheli-led expedition approached the summit, and the cautious approach they took after reaching high camp at 17,200 feet.

Very cold up high

"The team rested at high camp May 9 and 10,'' the report says. "The morning of May 11 (of last year) dawned clear, and the winds were calm.''

The temperatures were also cold. The day would never warm above minus-20. But the team had a window to go for the summit before the forecast arrival of high winds, a regular and dangerous occurrence along McKinley's summit ridge. If the team didn't go for the summit on May 11, it would likely be pinned down in camp the next day, and there's was no certainty then as to when another shot at the summit would materialize.

"The MT-2 (Mountain Trip-2) guides purposely waited to depart high camp until late morning when the sun would be shining on the first part of the ascent, making it easier to stay warm,'' the report adds. The bright sun at high elevation can feel warming even when the air temperature itself is extremely cold. But the cold quickly caused problems as the group plodded upward.

"It took the team three hours to climb to Denali Pass'' only 1,000 feet above high camp, according to the report. Client Tony Diskin "frostbit his hands on the way to Denali Pass. He had been wearing gloves instead of mittens. Staeheli sent him back to high camp with assistant guide Henry Munter.'' Instead of two guides sharing responsibility for four clients, Staeheli was now alone and responsible for three.

They continued on slowly. A climbing team from the Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) passed them on the Football Field, a generally flat area near 19,500 feet. The time was 8 p.m. The Staeheli group had been climbing for more than eight hours.

By the time they finally got onto the summit ridge, they had been on the trail for more than 10 hours, and the wind was beginning to pick up. In front of them, the report says, "the AMS-1 expedition reached the summit at (10 p.m.). The AMS-1 expedition spent only minutes on the summit because of increasing, cold winds.'' They were descending when they again passed Staeheli and his clients. That group finally made the summit at 10:45 p.m., according to the report, "and spent about 10 minutes there taking photos before starting down the mountain.''

As the group turned back and began the descent of Pig Hill -- the short headwall between the Football Field and McKinley's summit -- the winds were building, adding to the problems of fatigue and cold. It was here that disaster struck.

No pickets, running belay

"Part way down 'Pig Hill', O'Sullivan tripped and fell, pulling Cutler off his feet,'' the report says. "Staeheli attempted to self arrest throwing one mitten off to get a better grip on his ice ax, but was unable to stop the fall. The party had not placed pickets (as anchors) to allow for a running belay on their descent.''

In that way, the fall was eerily reminscent of the disaster on Ptarmigan Peak on the edge of Anchorage in 1997. Two University of Alaska Anchorage climbing instructors in that case ignored the need to anchor themselves to the mountain to provide protection for inexperienced climbers in the event of a fall. When one student slipped, he started a chain reaction that took out an entire rope team, which slid into another below and then another. Eventually, there were 12 people -- 10 students and two instructors -- tumbling thousands of feet toward the rock at the base of the peak's north couloir. Two of them died. The others suffered various injuries, some severe. The university eventually paid more than $1 million to settle legal claims, and the school's climbing program was disbanded.

It was not the first time roped climbers who ignored the need to place protection got into trouble, and it would not be the last.

"A fall while descending on snow, with a team roped together, and using no fixed protection such as a snow picket or ice screw when climbers are fatigued, is the most common cause of an accident on Mount McKinley,'' the latest investigation says.  "A running belay could have prevented the injuries in this fall.''

But the report also notes that few climbers bother with running belays on Pig Hill. Even the steepest parts of the slope are shallower than some double-black diamond ski runs, and the hill is relatively short at 300 to 400 yards in length. The accident record notes that after O'Sullivan tripped, the subseqent fall of the climbing team was only 100 to 200 yards "before coming to a stop where the slope-angle decreased....''

Was Staeheli dazed?

Serious damage had, however, been done. O'Sullivan's leg was broken. Nidederer and Staeheli had cracked ribs. Cutler had strained his back. Worse, the team was in disarray and the weather was worsening. The report also suggests Staeheli could have banged his head.

"Staeheli could have been dazed by the fall and unable to make decisive, critical decisions in the aftermath of the accident,'' it says.

He was fumbling. When he got out the group's satellite phone to call for help, he broke the antenna trying to connect it. Cutler said Staeheil then asked him to go across the "Football Field" to Archdeacon's Tower (a rock named for Stuck) to see if he could raise the high-camp on a handheld radio. Cutler took Neiderer with him. Staeheli told investigators he was surprised to see the two climbers descending without him.

He had no recollection of asking Cutler to go make a radio call, and he made no effort to call them back to keep the group together. Instead, he put O'Sullivan in a bivvy sack and began dragging him about 100 yards to the edge of the Football Field.

"As he was moving him,'' the report says, "the bivouac sack blew away. Staeheli retrieved O'Sullivan's pack, (and) put it under him for insulation from the snow because he had not brought an Ensolite pad with him....'' Contracts with McKinley concessionairres require their guides to carry Ensolite pads in case of accidents like this. It is unclear why Staeheli didn't have one.

Lacking a pad on which to place O'Sullivan, without a shovel that might have made it possible to dig a trench to get O'Sullivan out of the wind, and having lost the bivy sack, according to the report, Staeheli "took off his own heavy parka and wrapped it around O'Sullivan for additional insulation. The parka blew away during the night. Staeheli said he thought about building a shelter for O'Sullivan but stated 'winds and environment did not allow for him to build one.' Staeheli did not have a shovel or snow saw with him, but thought the snow was too hard to dig a snow cave in anyway.''

Get down, get help

Having given up his parka, Staeheli put himself in serious danger of hypothermia. That decision dictated he get down to high camp fast to avoid the onset of hypothermia.

"Staeheli said he left O'Sullivan because there was nothing else he could do for him and his only option was to get down to high camp and get help,'' the report says. "At approximately midnight, Staeheli caught up with Cutler and Niederer on the northwest side of Archdeacon's Tower ridge. Cutler said that Staeheli told him and Niederer that they would (all) descend to Denali Pass where Staeheli would try to find them a place to stay while he descended the 'Autobahn' to high camp to get help. Cutler also said Staeheli told the two of them that they could die if they descended form Denali Pass down the 'Autobahn' on their own.''

Staeheli told investigators he doesn't remember a Denali Pass warning that harsh, according to the report, but conceded that whatever he said "was probably prefaced by 'the 'Autobahn' is a fairly hazardous place.''

With that, the three men started down, unroped toward the Pass. Staeheli was moving fast in an effort to keep warm. He was quickly ahead of the clients. Cutler said he tried to keep Staeheli in sight ahead and the slower-moving Niederer in sight behind. Eventually, he couldn't.

"Staeheli waited for Cutler to catch up with him at 'Zebra Rocks,' (at 18,600 feet)...,'' the report says. "Accounts of what occurred next differ among those involved.''

Leaving Neiderer behind

The time was about 1 a.m., and the high winds that were in the forecast had arrived. The report estimates them at 70 to 80 mph, enough to knock a man off his feet.

Cutler and Staeheli stayed at Zebra Rocks for about 10 minutes waiting for Neiderer. It was brutally cold and windy. They never saw Neiderer. They decided they couldn't wait any longer.

"Staeheli,'' according to the report, "told Cutler that they would descend on the Harper Glacier side of the ridge to avoid a steep icy section that they had come up during the ascent. Staeheli continued down, but Cutler had either not heard or understood the instructions and lost sight of Staeheli. The situation had become so desperate that Staeheli stated that it was 'effectively every man for himself,' and he was 'in doubt that I was going to survive.'"

It does not appear, however, as if he ever shared this information with the clients. Cutler said nothing about being so warned, and Staelhi hadn't seen Niederer since leaving him nearly an hour earlier. Cutler told investigators that after he and Staeheli talked, Staeheli took off. The client reported last seeing the guide on his way down near Denali Pass at 18,200 feet. "He did not see Staeheli again until he (Cutler) reached him at camp hours later,'' the report says.

Staeheli himself arrived in camp at 3:30 a.m. and tried to get a rescue organized, but assistant guide John McGee, who was waiting there, lacked a radio. McGee had to go to the Alaska Mountaineering School camp to borrow a satellite phone. He used it to call Mountain Trip manager Bill Billmeier. The Park Service, according to records, was 15 minutes later notified disaster had struck one of the company's climbing teams high on the mountain.

Above high camp at Denali Pass, Cutler was trying to decide what to do next.

He'd been warned of the dangers of descent, but the winds were screaming, and he could find nowhere to hide from them. After waiting for Niederer for half an hour, the report says, "he finally decided he had to descend to stay warm and started down the Autobahn.''

Nightmarish descent

It was an ugly and nightmarish descent. Pickets left behind after the 2010 climbing season now marked a dangerous, crevasse-filled route. In the storm, Cutler missed new pickets placed above the crevasses and started following the old route until he encountered a gaping hole in the ice.

"Cutler had to climb up the slope several times to avoid crevasses and to get back on the correct route,'' the report says. "He was constantly scared that he might fall. The wind became so strong as he descended the 'Autobahn' that he had to go into a self-arrest position (on the ground atop his ice ax driven into the glacier) multiple times to keep from being blown off the slope. Blowing snow made it difficult to see.''

Cutler kept going. He was about a third of the way down the Autobahn at 4:30 a.m. when he was spotted by others in high camp. McGee and a guide from the Alaska Mountaineering School went out to help him into camp as the storm intensified.

"After Cutler's return,'' the report says, "the winds continued to increase at high camp, destroying the snow walls around the tents and damaging the tents. The winds became so strong that McGee said he worried about his own survival in camp.''

Everyone was pinned down. There was no hope of launching a ground-based rescue. The Alaska Air National Guard, based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage, was tasked with getting a C-130 Hercules search plane airborne to find out what could be seen. At 9:16 a.m on May 12, the crew of the C-130 spotted O'Sullivan on the Football Field. About an hour later, they spied what the crew believed to be Niederer near Denali Pass.

There was nothing anything anyone could do but wait.

O'Sullivan, the only one still alive on the mountain above 17,200 feet, got lucky. The winds began to ease. By 5 p.m., Hermansky was able to fly over the stricken climber, but he could not land. He flew back to the 14,200 camp to confer with ranger Erickson on whether they could "short haul'' evacuate O'Sullivan. There weren't really any other options.

"At approximately (7 p.m.), the helicopter returned to the Football Field with a Coast Guard rescue basket attached to the end of the short-haul line,'' the report says. "O'Sullivan had crawled approximately 500 to 800 feet to the southwest of the normal trail to the summit seeking shelter from the wind....''

Hermanksy put the basket onto the ground near him there and hovered. O'Sullivan, in a June 2011 interview with Alaska Dispatch while still recovering in Anchorage, said he didn't remember seeing the basket coming, but would never forget it.

"I don't exactly know how I got into it," he said then. "There was a strap. I remember looking at something, thinking about hooking in." He didn't remember if he did. He didn't even think about what would happen next. And then he was flying.

"He was flown down to base camp (at 7,200 feet) hanging below the helicopter sitting in the basket,'' the report says. Within an hour, he was on his way to Anchorage to begin a long recovery. 

Ranger Wright, meanwhile, was on his way to retrieve Niederer's body, and Park Service officials were taking the first steps in the long process of determining what exactly went wrong. They would find more than one contributing factor.

Read Part 2: Tragedy on Mount McKinley: So many things gone wrong

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com