ANCHORAGE — 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.
One of the four froze to death high on the mountain. Another rode in a basket dangling from a helicopter in one of the highest altitude rescues of its kind. The other two, including the expedition’s guide, narrowly escaped with their lives.
The trouble started with a fall, according to a report released by the National Park Service in March of this year. That mishap was compounded by a series of flawed decisions on the minimal gear the men carried and how their guide dealt with the situation, according to the report and the people who compiled it.
“It’s just a tremendously harsh environment,” said Brian Okonek, a retired McKinley guide with more than 20 years’ experience and a consultant on the report. “As a human being you’re really just out on the edge, and you depend on everything you bring with you to survive in those situations.”
“Everyone on the mountain is on the edge and just a step away from having problems, and most people get away with it. But all it takes is a series of things like what happened here.”
The Mountain Trip expedition was led by experienced guide David Staeheli. The trip was uneventful as the men acclimatized and carried supplies up the mountain’s flanks for two weeks, starting in late April. They dug out a high camp at 17,200 feet and rested for two days before making an attempt at the summit, the report says.
May 11 saw the coldest temperatures recorded during the 2011 climbing season. It was 28 below at 14,000 feet that Wednesday and colder farther up the mountain, according to the Park Service.
The survivors later told an investigator that, despite the bitter cold, Staeheli told his clients to pack light.
Whether Staeheli forgot, as he said, some of the equipment required under his company’s guiding contract — a shovel, snow saw, insulated pad — or made a decision to travel light for the sake of quickness, leaving behind the gear would loom large over the climbers’ fates.
Hours later, nearing treacherous 18,200-foot Denali Pass, Staeheli and an assistant guide realized one of their climbers had frostbitten hands. Staeheli sent the man and his assistant back down the mountain, the report says.
“It was a cold day, and the fact that one person already had frostbite, at a minimum, should have been a big red flag,” said John Leonard, the Park Service ranger who oversees climbing on the mountain.
Still, the rest of the group pushed on.
The Alaska Mountaineering School team passed Staeheli’s group on a flatter, section of the climb called the Football Field at about 19,500 feet. They reached the summit first, staying only a few minutes because of the strong wind, the report says.
Staeheli and his three clients passed the first group about 300 yards below the summit, the report says. It was just before 11 p.m. when they were on top, taking pictures for about 10 minutes.
“It was twilighty,” said Leonard, who saw some of the photos. “Light enough where you don’t need flashlights but dark enough to obscure vision.”
As the group descended the small, roughly 30-degree Pig Hill below the summit, one of the climbers, Jeremiah O’Sullivan, tripped. One of his crampons — toothed devices strapped to boots for traction — caught on a small ridge of hardened snow, said Okonek, the retired guide.
“He lurched forward and fell, and it was hard enough, wind-scoured snow that it was a very slick surface,” Okonek said. “It was a chain event. It pulled off the climber that was above him on the rope. It pulled off their guide, and they all started sliding down the mountain.”
The men tumbled down the slope 300 or 500 feet. All were battered and exhausted. O’Sullivan had a broken right leg. His fellow climber Beat Niederer suffered several broken ribs. Staeheli had a broken rib and frostbitten hand.
The wind by now was building to 30 mph gusts, the report says. Staeheli tried to assemble a satellite phone he carried, but the antenna broke. He gave a radio to the remaining, least-injured climber of the four, Lawrence Cutler, but the report notes a discrepancy in the survivors’ stories about what happened next.
Cutler said Staeheli told him to take Niederer and the radio to another ridge and try to hail rescuers. Cutler said he helped Niederer — until his injury the strongest member of the team — descend as he unsuccessfully tried to call for help on the radio.
But Staeheli said he hadn’t talked to the men about descending and was surprised when they did. Staeheli may have injured his head, said another consultant on the report, former mountaineering ranger Daryl Miller.
“He could’ve had a concussion,” Miller said. “What he told either Cutler or (Niederer), he was unclear. He didn’t remember some things he said.”
And the weather took away every option the men had, Miller and Okonek said.
“They’re all fatigued, they’re all dazed,” Okonek said. “They’re like, ‘Holy cow, what do we do now?” and anybody would be, to find yourself in a situation with no good option.”
Staeheli dragged O’Sullivan 100 yards to the Football Field. He put the injured climber into a bivouac sack, but that soon blew away, the report says. Then Staeheli took off his own parka and gave it to O’Sullivan.
“It was a humane gesture, but it put Staeheli on a fine line of not being able to keep warm in the increasing wind and cold,” the report says. “He was now in a survival situation and could not walk down slowly with Cutler and Niederer.”
Staeheli had also lost the group’s climbing rope shortly after the fall.
“He simply told Jerry (O’Sullivan) ‘I’m going to leave you here and go down to high camp and get help,’ “ Okonek said. “It seemed that Jerry accepted that and that’s just the way it was going to be.”
It was the last thing Staeheli wanted to do, Miller said.
“But he’d reached a point where if he didn’t get down, nobody had a chance,” Miller said. “I think you reach a point, where you’re in one of the worst scenarios of your life, and if you don’t get moving, you’re going to die.”
Staeheli caught up to the other two men about midnight, the report says. Cutler told the investigators later that Staeheli proposed helping the men find shelter above Denali Pass, which he did not want them to descend without a rope, the report says.
Staeheli, without his parka, was getting cold. The wind was now gusting 70 to 80 mph, and he and Cutler had to wait often for the injured Niederer, the report says. At some point, the men became separated.
Staeheli said later it was ‘effectively every man for himself,’ and he was ‘in doubt that I was going to survive,’ “ the report says.
He struggled down Denali Pass with a poorly attached crampon but arrived at the 17,200-foot camp about 3 a.m., the report says. He told another guide three clients were still high on the mountain and needed rescue.
In the meantime, Cutler was alone at the top of the pass deciding what to do. After about 30 minutes he left behind Niederer, who was out of sight, and started a harrowing journey down the pass, the site of numerous fatal climbing accidents.
Cutler had trouble finding the correct route. Eventually, about 6 a.m., another guide at the high camp saw Cutler, the report says.
Leonard, the mountaineering ranger, had received a call about the accident in those early morning hours. Leonard said he was talking to the guide, Patrick Ormond, on a satellite phone when Ormond saw Cutler coming down the steep, treacherous slope.
“That’s an ultimate struggle for survival,” Leonard said. “Probably, at that time, it was colder than minus 20, winds were blowing 70 (mph). The winds were strong enough to blow you off your feet.”
Niederer was later found dead above the pass. An autopsy showed he succumbed to the cold. Footprints near his body suggested Niederer was mobile enough that he likely decided to stay there, Miller said. But the investigators couldn’t determine why, if that were the case, he chose to remain there. Staeheli declined to comment for this story.
The next day, the Alaska Air National Guard sent an HC-130 to the mountain, and the men aboard flew toward O’Sullivan’s position, scanning the mountain slopes, said Leonard, who waited patiently for any good news.
“They said, ‘Hey, we got a guy up here, and he’s waving at us,’ “ Leonard said. “It was like, ‘Holy mackerel! They’re still alive up there!’ I was happily surprised.”
A few hours later, when the wind died down, helicopter pilot Andy Hermansky flew up the mountain in the Park Service’s leased A-Star B3 helicopter. He and a ranger flew to O’Sullivan, confirmed he was still alive, and Hermansky flew down to the high camp to drop off the ranger.
“Our margins are just so thin. We have enough weight limit to pull a person off, but we don’t have enough to pull a person and a rescuer off,” Leonard explained.
The helicopter returned to O’Sullivan, dangling the basket next to the climber.
“That basket was just laying beside him, and he was just looking at it. And then he decided that was his ticket out,” said Miller, who talked to O’Sullivan about the rescue later. “I don’t know how he lived. I can’t imagine anybody else being able to do that. It defies all human survival.”
With O’Sullivan and the basket slung below the chopper in what’s called a “short-haul” technique, Hermansky flew the injured man to base camp, completing the highest-ever short-haul rescue on McKinley. O’Sullivan was transferred to a waiting LifeMed flight to Anchorage, the report says. Frostbite claimed all his fingers and part of his foot.
The helicopter and another ranger retrieved Niederer’s body, and Staeheli and Cutler were flown off the mountain the next day, the report says.
The report, aiming to avoid similar fatal accidents on McKinley, makes several recommendations. Those include requirements that guided teams carry more cold-weather gear.
Leaving behind that crucial gear — which could’ve kept the men warm, together and sheltered — was a critical mistake with little payoff, the men involved in the report said.
“It’s so much easier to sit here in a warm house and think of what they should have done. It’s much more difficult being there,” Okonek said. “Hopefully the lesson to learn here is that once the accident happened, they really needed survival gear.”
Still, even with all the loss of life, fingers and toes and the dramatic rescues, climbing McKinley is enticing for skilled climbers exactly because of the danger, Miller said.
“It really is a life experience. You don’t soon forget an expedition on Denali. It’s stunning. It’s just remarkable,” Miller said. “The people who are going there are healthy, vivacious, enjoying nature at its rawest. But it’s a risky place, people will still get hurt, and people will still die.”
“There’s very few sports where people are dying doing what they live to do.”