Climber Dies After Accident on Denali (Mt. McKinely)

This is a short summary of events. For ongoing coverage visit the Alpinist.
Photo courtesy of mikep on Flickr.

One week ago, on May 11th, a team of five climbers and two guides began their final ascent to summit Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley) in Alaska, which, at 6194m, is the tallest mountain in North America. When they left camp they had about 1000m left to climb and the weather looked “perfect”.

The forecast, however, called for wind and one team member opted to stay in camp. The remaining six began their ascent of the West Buttress.  After ascending about 300 m to the area near Denali Pass, team member Tony Diskin decided to turn back because of frostbite on his hands. He returned to the camp with assistant guide Henry Munter. The three then descended from high camp to the next camp down, located around 4300 m.

The remaining three climbers, Jeremiah O’Sullivan, Beat Nierder, and Lawrence Cutler, went on to summit Denali with their guide Dave Staeheli. About 200 m below the summit, near “Pig Hill”, O’Sullivan tripped pulling the entire team, which was roped together, down 300 feet of glacial ice. O’Sullivan broke his leg, Staeheli broke a rib, and Niederer dislocated his shoulder. Cutler came away from it relatively unhurt.

They tried to radio for help, but could not get a clear signal. They tried to use their satellite phone, but the antenna was broken. Staheli sent Nierder and Cutler down the mountain to find a spot with better reception while he stabilized O’Sullivan and tried to drag him down the mountain in a bivy sack. After several hundred feet he gave up. It was too difficult.

At this point the weather was still fair, so Staeheli decided to leave O’Sullivan and take Cutler and Niederer to camp in hopes that he could organize a rescue there. At around 5600m near a place called “Zebra Rocks” Niederer became separated from the group. By this time the temperature had dropped to -28 degrees Celsius and winds were blowing up to 48 km/hr.  Staheli gave Cutler directions on how to get back to camp and went off by himself.

After Staheli reached camp, wind speeds increased to over 90 km/hr. Despite this, Cutler still managed to find his way.  At the camp the two men met another team of climbers who had summited the mountain earlier in the day.

The next day winds prevented a helicopter from reaching O’Sullivan until 5 p.m., nearly 21 hours after the accident. He was airlifted to base camp, and then to a hospital in Anchorage.

Unfortunately, Niederer was found dead at around 5500m. The cause of death is not yet clear.

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