While most of our attention has been drawn to the Himalaya over the past few weeks, some daring climbers have been making spring attempts on Denali. One of those climbs went bad last week, leaving one climber dead and four others injured on the West Buttress of the mountain.
According to this story at the Alpinist, six climbers set off for their final summit push on the 6196 meter (20,327 ft) Denali on May 11th. They began the day at High Camp, located at 5242 meters (17,200 ft), in conditions that were said to be excellent, although high winds were in the forecast for later in the day. One member of the group elected to stay in camp due to the forecast, while Tony Diskin, Jeremiah O’Sullivan, Beat Niederer and Lawrence Cutler, along with their two guides Dave Staeheli and Henry Munter, headed for the summit.
Part way up the mountain, Diskin turned back. Suffering from frostbite on his fingers, he was assisted down the mountain by Munter. When the pair arrived at High Camp, they gathered up the climber there, and moved further down the mountain. Meanwhile, the others continued to go higher, eventually reaching the summit late in the afternoon. On their descent, O’Sullivan tripped and fell, dragging his teammates, who were all roped in, down the glacier for about 300 feet. He broke his leg in the fall, and the report says that Niederer also dislocated a shoulder and that Staeheli broke a rib.
With the team in bad shape, Staeheli attempted to call for help, but was unable to get a radio signal and the satellite phone was damaged in the fall. The guide sent Niederer and Cutler, who was uninjured, down the mountain to seek help, while he attempted to drag O’Sullivan in a bivy sack, giving up after just a few hundred feet.
At about this time, the winds began to pick up and temperatures began to drop, so Staeheli made the decision to go down to High Camp with Niederer and Cutler to try to organize a rescue, leaving O’Sullivan on the mountain above 19,000 feet. They stumbled down the mountain, and at one point, Staeheli and Cutler became separated from Niederer, who went missing somewhere on the descent. Stumbling into High Camp, the guide and his lone remaining client, were aided by another team that has also gone up to the summit that morning.
The weather took a turn for the worse and a rescue wasn’t possible until the following day. Helicopters were able to go up the mountain, where they pulled both O’Sullivan and Niederer off the high slopes of Denali. O’Sullivan was alive, but need immediate attention, while Niederer showed no signs of life at all, and was later declared dead. At this time, the cause of his death is not known.
For the full story, be sure to read the account by the Alpinist. It is a sad tale, with a set of circumstances that put the guides and other climbers into a bad position. It was almost as if things were going to turn sour no matter which decision they made. This will no doubt be one of those mountaineering stories that are debated for a long time.
My condolences to Niederer’s friends and family for their loss.
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