The cold, hard truth: an alaska guide’s screw-ups killed somebodyon mount mckinley

Sometimes in this strange business called news, it takes someonereally getting a story wrong to make you recognize you didn’t quiteget it right either, to make you face the fact that in the processof trying to be fair and balanced, or even kind, you misrepresentedimportant details or failed to emphasize important facts. A week ago, Alaska Dispatch reported at length on a National ParkService investigation into the death of one climber, the maiming ofanother, and injuries to two more stemming from a 2011 accidentjust below the summit of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The first of a two-part series recounted what happened to the Mountain Trip group led by wellknown Alaska guide Dave Staeheli. The second part outlined the many mistakes a team of investigators concluded were madeduring the climb, mistakes that contributed to the death of38-year-old Swiss politician Beat Neiderer and the frostbiteinjuries that cost 41-year-old Irishman Jerry O’Sullivan all 10 ofhis fingers.

A week later, Anchorage’s largest newspaper finally picked up the story and a reporter who doesn’t know much about climbing or guidingwrote this in starting off his tale of death and suffering: “Standing triumphant on Mount McKinley on May 11, 2011, the team ofclimbers atop North American’s highest peak that night had no ideawhat terrifying decisions they’d face just below the summit.” I immediately saw red. Why? Because there are no group decisions ona guided climb anymore than there are group decisions in a traumaunit trying to save someone’s life or the cockpit of an airplanesuddenly in trouble. In those terrifying situations, the person incharge makes decisions because that is what he or she is trainedand paid to do. To even suggest that the group of four climbers on the summit lastyear would be making some sort of group decision or decisions thatnight shifts the focus away from where it belongs.

None of whathappened on McKinley involved group decisions. All of it involveddecisions made by the man in charge: Dave Staeheli. I’ve known Staeheli since he made a monumental, solo, winter ascentof McKinley’s West Rib in 1989. He was young and brash then. Timeran the youth out of him the way it runs the youth out of all ofus, but some of the brashness always remained. Water Sprayground

I admit to admiringthat in a man, especially an older man. That and the fact he mighthave cancer now influenced my reporting on the McKinley accident ina way I didn’t recognize until I read the account by someonewriting about something of which they know little. The newspaper coverage led me back to look at what we reported inAlaska Dispatch, and one of the things I wrote at the very start ofthe first part of the series was this: “Near the summit of Mount McKinley in May of last year, after asummit bid turned into a dangerous fight for survival, BeatNeiderer followed the advice of his guide.” That’s wrong. That’s journalism soft-pedaled. Water Sprayground

Neiderer didn’tfollow “the advice of his guide.” Guides don’t give advice. Theygive orders. Neiderer followed the orders of his guide: He was toldto get to Denali Pass and wait there until Staeheli sent someone upfrom high camp to guide the Swiss down. Neiderer did exactly as he was told. China Water Pool Slides

He went to Denali Pass, and hewaited there until he froze to death. Forty-five-year-old Lawrence Cutler from New York survived onlybecause he eventually made the decision to ignore the orders of theguide and set off for high camp on his own. He was the only one –the only one — other than Staeheli making decisions on themountain that night, and to be honest, his decision wasn’t a toughone. His options were pretty simple and pretty ugly: He could stayand surely die, as Neiderer did, or he could try to stumble down tohigh camp, knowing there was a good chance that might lead to hisdeath as well. Cutler decided it was better to go out fighting.

That Neiderer appears to have made the opposite decision istestimony to the most important element in this story — the role,the power and the influence of guides.

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