denali alaska mt. mckinley20,320 foot Denali, Alaska.  photo:  Ron Neibrugga,

Now that we are rolling into climbing/mountaineering/ski mountaineering season, we all need to be very aware of what’s out there and what the risks are.  We need to be thinking and re-thinking routes, descents, gear lists, weather, avy conditions, exit strategies, and rescue options. This terrible start to the Denali climbing season has definitely got my brain working.

On May 16th, Italian climber Luciano Colombo died on 20,320 foot Denali in Alaska.  Luciano was descending from 18,000 foot Denali Pass to 17,200 foot high camp when he fell 1,000 feet down the mountainside.  When NPS climbing rangers reached 67 year-old Luciano, he had died of his injuries.  Luciano was with two other partners and they were unroped at the time of the fall.  The traverse from Denali Pass to High Camp is along a 45 degree slope that was reported to be hard wind-blown snow at the time of the fall.  The weather at the time of the accident was calm and clear.

denali’s western buttress route

This photo shows much of the Western Buttress route:  11,000 ft camp, Motorcycle Hill, 14,000 ft Base Camp, you can almost see the fixed lines, High Camp, the traverse to Denali pass, & Denali pass itself is the obvious snowy saddle on the top of the mountain.  photo:

Luciano was unfortunately the 2nd fatality on the Western Buttress Route of Denali in a week.

On May 12, 38 year old  Swiss climber Beat Niederer was found dead at 18,000 feet. Beat had been part of a 3 client, 1 guide rope team that had sustained a 300 foot fall near “Pig Hill” at 19,500 feet on Denali on May 11, 2011.  The team had summited in good weather but began to experience high winds and temps of -20F after the accident.  One climber with a broken leg was left at 19,500 while the other three descended to high camp to get help.  On the descent, the remaining 3 were unroped and eventually split up.  The guide and one of the clients made it to high camp.  The other client, Beat Niederer never showed up.

Over 1,000 climbers are register to climb Denali this climbing season in 2011.

western buttress route denaliThe Western Buttress Route on 20,320 foot Denali, Alaska.  It’s the left route.

Here is a detailed account of the May 11th accident on Denali via

On May 11 a six-man team from Mountain Trip began their final push for the summit of Denali (20,320′), North America’s highest peak, via the West Buttress route. The team consisted of Tony Diskin, Jeremiah O’Sullivan, Beat Niederer and Lawrence Cutler, with their two guides Dave Staeheli and Henry Munter. The team left the 17,200-foot high camp under conditions described as “perfect” on May 11 despite a weather forecast that predicted wind (one other team member chose to remain at the high camp because of this forecast). Somewhere near Denali Pass (18,200′), Tony Diskin decided to turn back. Diskin wore gloves rather than mittens, and suffered frostbite on his hands. He descended back to the 17,200-foot camp with assistant guide Henry Munter where they met the other member of their party and descended to the 14,200-foot camp.

O’Sullivan, Cutler and Niederer continued upward with Staeheli, summiting the mountain in the late afternoon or early evening. The foursome was descending near “Pig Hill” at 19,500 feet when O’Sullivan tripped and fell, pulling the team down at least 300 feet of hard glacial ice. It was “immediately apparent” that O’Sullivan had broken his leg, but in the fall Staeheli also broke a rib and Niederer dislocated a shoulder and possibly sustained other injuries. Cutler was relatively unscathed. Staeheli, realizing that he could not rescue the group in its present condition alone, attempted to radio for help, but could not get a clear signal. He then attempted to call out on a satellite phone, but found that the antennae was broken. Staeheli sent Niederer and Cutler with the radio down to the Football Field (a flat area around 19,500 feet) in hopes that they would be able to call for help. Having stabilized O’Sullivan, Staeheli gave O’Sullivan his parka and placed the injured climber in a bivy sack. He then attempted to drag the immobile climber down to a site better situated for helicopter rescue, but gave up after several hundred feet.

At this point, winds were still light (20-30mph) and Staeheli believed he could reach the 17,200-foot camp in 1.5 hours and from there organize a rescue. Staeheli began to descend with Cutler and Niederer, leaving O’Sullivan at 19,500 feet. The rope remained above at the site of the fall and, by this point, Staeheli’s hands were too frozen to have been able to manipulate it. Staeheli descended with Cutler and Niederer who was moving slowly. Around 18,500 feet near a place called Zebra Rocks, Niederer was separated from Cutler and Staeheli. By now the air temperature was around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the winds were blowing at 20-30 mph. Staeheli briefed Cutler on how to descend the rest of the way to high camp, and then took off on his own. Soon after Staeheli reached high camp the wind speed dramatically increased to more than 60 mph. Cutler managed to reach the camp despite the winds but Niederer’s location and condition was unknown. Pat Ormond, the leader of a team that had summitted earlier that day, and Mountain Trip guide Jack McGee aided the two climbers and initiated the rescue process. But the winds prevented rescuers from leaving the high camp. At this point the accident timeline had pushed into the morning of May 12.

An Alaska Air National Guard HC-130 airplane was sent to assist, and was able to spot O’Sullivan at 19,500 feet, who was waving his arms to attract attention. The HC-130 was not able to find Niederer. The strong winds kept helicopter flight below 14,200 feet. By 5 p.m. on the 12th, nearly 21 hours after the fall, the winds slowed and a NPS helicopter and the HC-130 were able to fly over the mountain. The helicopter located Niederer near 18,000 feet and O’Sullivan near 19,500 feet. The helicopter returned and lowered a basket for O’Sullivan to climb into, and then transported him to the Kahiltna base camp where a LifeMed air ambulance carried him to a hospital in Anchorage. The NPS helicopter then returned with a ranger, who lowered down and attached Niederer to a canvas sling. At no point during the flight did Niederer show any signs of life. A CH-47 “Chinook” was waiting at the Kahiltna base camp to take Niederer for further medical assessment. NPS staff on board the Chinook confirmed that Niederer was dead, though the exact cause of death remains unknown. On May 13, Staeheli and Cutler were both helicoptered from high camp and treated for frostbite in addition to Staeheli’s broken rib.

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