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McKinley climber's slam of Park Service and 'Today Show' way off base

Craig Medred
Scott McMurren photo

What really happened with the "Today Show" on Mount McKinley?

Florian Hill is a Ziess-sponsored Austrian climber who spends some time in Alaska, where he thinks you owe him and his friends a speedy rescue. You might recognize Hill's name from a story that appeared in at least one Alaska publication and was picked up by another.

Hill allegedly complained to the Chilkat Valley News that "the National Park Service escorted celebrity journalist Jenna Bush around Mount McKinley while three climbers seriously injured in an avalanche waited for a helicopter rescue at 14,000 feet."

The word "allegedly" is used there because Hill now says he never accused the Park Service of anything. More on that in a minute.

The Anchorage Daily News latched onto the original Chilkat News story and flushed out a few more details: "A professional Alaska mountain climber who was caught in a Mount McKinley avalanche June 12 that injured three other climbers claims their rescue was delayed while the National Park Service escorted "Good Morning America" correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former President George W. Bush, about the mountain in a rescue helicopter. Hill told the Chilkat Valley News the three injured climbers struggled to the 14,000-foot camp and obviously needed rescue but were told to wait for days to see if their injuries improved. Denali National Park officials deny the accusations, saying the climbers claimed they were in no hurry to leave the mountain."

The News highlighted Hill's claim that "he met Bush ... while he was still dazed by his injuries and painkillers. 'I was just thinking of the three guys who became my buddies.... We survived an avalanche together. They've got serious injuries; they're at 14,200 feet waiting to be rescued, and this helicopter is cruising around on the airstrip making some stupid bullshit-for-television show.'"

Hill appears naturally prone to more than a little bombastic language.

In now claiming he didn't say what the Chilkat News said he said, or didn't say it in the way the Chilkat News said he said it, he offered this via Facebook message:

"I am explicitly distancing myself from such pseudo-political discussions. Furthermore I am criticizing the press for their populist reporting."

What constitutes "populist reporting" is unclear, but in this case one might take it to be reporting that criticizes the actions of government. Hill says that is not what he intended to do. He said he talked to a reporter only to relate his experience in surviving an avalanche on McKinley.

"My interview with the Chilkat News has been misused in order to produce headlines," he said. "My true intentions for speaking about this topic were to exchange information. At no point in time did I accuse the National Park Service of failing to properly treat the injured mountaineers or even favor Jenna Bush. After arriving in the 7,000 (foot) camp I asked myself the question why the rescue helicopter was being used for filming while injured mountaineers are waiting for rescue. It was evident at all times that two of the three mountaineers would under no circumstances have been able to leave the mountain unassisted."

Whether the helicopter under contract to the Park Service for various purposes during the climbing season was ever used for filming is unclear, and Hill's "question" about its use seems to be little more than a sanitized version of the claim the helicopter was being used for "some stupid bullshit-for-television show.”

Dazed?

Maybe Hill is still "dazed by his injuries and painkillers." The injured climbers to whom he refers, according to others who were on the mountain, had non-life-threatening injuries. They were in medical camp at 14,000 feet being treated and awaiting a flight down when one became available. This is standard operating procedure for the Park Service on the mountain. There is no regular air service to 14,000 feet. The aircraft on-call get a summons only in the case of a life-threatening emergency.

Spokesman John Quinley of the Park Service concedes his agency might have created some confusion in responding to Hill's accusations, but he says Hill had the story wrong about the “Today Show” and Bush.

"We did get our wires crossed, and originally confirmed Jenna Bush rode in our helicopter," Quinley said via email. "We thought we had corrected the misstatement (but may have) fumbled the answer. But we know that Bush didn't fly with us. They rode with K2 (Aviation from Talkeetna.)"

K2 is one of several Talkeetna-based air taxis that specialize in McKinley flightseeing tours and glacier landings. K2 flew Hill onto the mountain. On May 28, Hill posted this on the company's Facebook page: "Happy to be back in Talkeetna and thankful to work with K2 Aviation."

On his own Facebook page he wrote: "Deeply grateful, to be supported by my friends from K2 Aviation -- excellent flight service." He subsequently boasted about surviving the aforementioned avalanche: "An ominous dance with death just before dawn!

"We survived an avalanche on Denali. I don't remember how I made it through ... but one thing is certain, when the pack of snow cracks over you and your lungs crying for oxygen, you won't be the same person who walked in!!! — with adidas eyewear and Adidas Outdoor at Denali."

Hill on his page claims to be an "ambassador" for not only Zeiss, but Adidas and Rewitec Gmbh, a German technology company that specializes in nano-coating machine parts to lubricate them. "Ambassador," in the context it is used here, is a polite word for someone who is best described as a "media whore," someone whose "job" is trying to attract attention to further the interests of his sponsors.

So what we have here is a media whore attacking the Park Service for helping the media -- in this case the “Today Show” -- report on McKinley climbing. What exact support the Park Service provided “Today” is unclear, but it is common for the agency to help out the media -- sometimes for free, other times on a fee basis.

Haines-based mountaineer

In the interest of full disclosure here, when I climbed on McKinley as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News some years back, the agency waived the required $350 climbing fee. I was on the mountain to write about climbing. Media defenders argue it is an unfair burden to require reporters to pay a federal agency to cover the "news." Media critics argue the media should pay like everyone else.

What the Park Service did or did not do to help Bush is not the most interesting thing here. More fascinating is that the Chilkat Valley News identified Hill as a "Haines-based mountaineer." Why is that interesting? Because Haines is the old home of Bill Allen, one of the owners of Mountain Trip, a McKinley climbing company now in a tussle with the Park Service.

State corporate records still list "7 Mile Mud Bay Road, Haines" as the physical address for Allen, though he has moved to Colorado for most of the year. He does, however, maintain connections in Haines, and some Mountain Trip guides seasonally work out of that community as ski guides. A bunch of them have reason to be angry at the Park Service these days because it is threatening to take away Mountain Trip's permit to operate on McKinley.

No telling what someone might have said to Hill about all of this. No telling what Hill might have decided to do to get even and win favor with another potential sponsor, though this is about the worst kind of help Allen and Mountain trip co-owner Todd Rutledge need at this point. Hill cut off communication before he could be asked much more about this. His last Facebook communication said only this: "I am busy in these days. I will write a counter statement as soon as possible. And that will be the last statement from my standpoint about this topic.

"I don't know Bill personally."

And Bill has got to wish he'd never heard of Hill.

Mountain Trip is in trouble with the Park Service because of the death of one client and the serious injuries suffered by two others when a 2011 climb under the leadership of Alaska climbing legend David Staeheli went badly awry.

Some have suggested that Staeheli should charged with reckless endangerment or worse for what happened on the mountain. Critics outside the Park Service have asked how it is that a decision by an old man on the Yukon River to confront rangers over a "safety check" on his own boat becomes a federal case, and nothing happens when a Park Service concessionaire -- given a contract to try to protect the safety of park visitors -- leaves one climber dead, one maimed and one seriously injured on McKinley?

Neither the death nor the injuries can be blamed on Allen and Rutledge, a couple of good guys just trying to run a business, but doing something with their permit might, in the eyes of Park officialdom, be the only way to send a message to other McKinley guides that safety, not peak-bagging, comes first on McKinley.

Self sufficiency?

It's hard to avoid the thought that Hill might have heard some of it and decided to take a shot at the Park Service, or maybe he was upset that he and his new friends didn't get the free flight off the mountain in a speedy manner.

There seem to be more and more visitors to the Alaska wilderness who expect someone to promptly bail them out when things go wrong. This used to be a state where self-sufficiency was not only valued, it was expected.

There are a lot of bad things to be said about the Park Service here. I've said some of them in the past, and some in the agency don't like me for it. But to suggest that the agency in this case endangered the life of anyone because it was too busy escorting the media around the state in this case appears, to use Hill's word, "bullshit."

Craig Medred's opinions are his own. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com