With the pandemic waning and travel resuming, people are back to suffering and dying the old-fashioned way in Alaska.
Already it has been a tough year in Denali National Park and Preserve approximately 130 miles north of Alaska’s largest city.
The climbing season in the Alaska Range had barely begun when 28-year-old ski mountaineer Mason Stansfield from Ouray, Colo., dropped an estimated 100 feet to his death in the Eldridge Glacier in the first week of May.
He was skiing unroped on a heavily crevassed glacier, a risky proposition anywhere in Alaska.
A couple of weeks later, 32-year-old Charlie Elverson from Rigby, Idaho, and climbing partner Bryan Ringgold, 31, from Logan, Utah, were crossing a mountain face above the Ruth Glacier when a serac above them broke loose.
They’d gambled the ice above their route on Reality Ridge south of Mount Denali would be stable in the cold at 5 a.m. It was a gamble common in the Range, and most who make it survive.
The two climbers from Outside got unlucky. The boulder size blocks of ice that rained down on them knocked Ringgold unconscious. When he came to, he found his climbing partner was dead.
Ringgold messaged Talkeetna-based park rangers to ask for a rescue. They have been having a busy season.
Denali busy with climbers again
Just a little over a week after rescuing Ringgold, they were called to Denali Pass – 18,200 feet high on the 20,310-foot peak. Climbers in the Denali “High Camp” at 17,200 feet had reported seeing a lone mountaineer tumble downslope almost 1,000 feet on the mountain above.
Climbing guides then in camp went immediately to his aid only to find him unconscious. The park’s high-altitude rescue helicopter and a ranger were summoned.
According to a park spokeswoman, they found 31-year-old Adam Rawski from Barnaby, British Columbia, Canada “alive but unresponsive due to multiple traumatic injuries.”
He was loaded into the helicopter and flown to Talkeetna where paramedics from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough managed to keep him alive until a LifeMed helicopter arrived from Anchorage, 80 miles by air to the south.
At last report, Rawski was alive but in critical condition in an Anchorage hospital. He was joined in hospital on Wednesday by Peter Flannery Schutt, name and hometown unavailable, who was hiking a steep, snowy slope near Kennecott in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve when, like Rawski, he slipped, tumbled and ended up seriously injured.
Kennecott, the site of a long-abandoned copper mine, is in the heart of the nation’s largest park and preserve almost 225 miles due east of Anchorage, and it is a location even more remote than the slopes of North America’s tallest peak.
It is about a two-hour flight from Anchorage to the area in a small plane or a drive of seven-plus hours. Remoteness makes it a difficult place to stage a rescue.
A Pave Hawk helicopter, an HC-130 tanker to refuel the tanker and pararescue jumpers from the Alaska National Guard based at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson just outside of Anchorage eventually had to be called to rescue Schutt.
He was “hiking with a friend when he lost footing and rolled hundreds of feet down a snow-covered slope near Donoho Peak,” said a prepared statement from park ranger Stephens Harper. “The fall triggered a snow slide which then carried the victim over a cliff into a ravine.”
Schutt’s unidentified partner was able to find him, reach the Park Service on a cell phone (a device that often doesn’t work in the Alaska wilds), and provide global positioning system (GPS) coordinates to guide rescuers.
Volunteers from the McCarthy-based Kennicott Wilderness Guides were the first to reach Schutt, according to the Park Service, and with advice via cell from Dr. Jennifer Dow, an emergency room physician in Anchorage and the Park Service Alaska Region Medical Director managed to stabilize the hiker while the Guard launched a rescue mission.
Pararescuemen were eventually lowered from the helicopter to where Schutt had come to rest. They loaded him into a litter and hoisted it to the helo, which delivered the man to a waiting air ambulance at the McCarthy airport.
Schutt was expected to survive. But search and rescue personnel were on edge heading into the Memorial Day weekend and the kick-off to the real start of an Alaska tourist season that seems to be revving back to life a year after COVID-19 threatened to kill it.
From Talkeetna on Thursday, Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri observed, “we’re looking at a stormy few days ahead with high hopes that (climbing) teams will remain tent bound with a handy shovel and a good book.”
“After a busy start to the week here in Talkeetna, we have taken some time to reflect upon some troubling trends that we have seen both from 2021 incidents and after speaking with climbers in the range,” it began. “It has been two years since we’ve had large numbers of climbers in the range and on the West Buttress (of Denali), and while we are just as excited as our fellow climbers to have a somewhat normal season, there are a few things we’d like visitors to keep in mind.
“We have seen a disturbing amount of overconfidence paired with inexperience in the Alaska Range. While climbers may have a good deal of experience at elevations up to 14,000 feet in the Lower 48, the remoteness and extreme weather we get in the Alaska Range make the experience here more challenging and dangerous. Please do not underestimate conditions, take the time to acclimatize and do not ascend too quickly. We have already had several SAR (search and rescue) events related to HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) this year.
“Another disturbing trend we are seeing is people attempting the summit from 14,000 feet. While it is totally reasonable to gain 7,000 feet of elevation in a day in Colorado and summit a 14’er, going from 14,000 feet to the summit of Denali is a whole different undertaking. There are very few mountaineers capable of moving fast enough to accomplish this safely. Exhaustion, untested physiological response to high altitude, rapidly changing weather, and insufficient gear on such a long push are all factors we have seen contribute to injuries and deaths for those attempting a summit out of the 14 Camp. Monday was a very real and sobering reminder of the dangers of this phenomenon.”
The post continued with another half-dozen paragraphs of warnings and pleading.
And yet, in some ways, the mountains might be the safest place to be in Alaska over the Memorial Day weekend. Far more people die every year on Alsaka’s roadways and waterways or in the sky.
The north can be deadly unforgiving of errors in judgment, and then, too, there are the rare accidents. No one can prevent the latter, but there are way too many of the former as the Denali rangers noted.
Along those lines, the Denali rangers also offered a warning that should be considered seriously by anyone venturing off the road system in these days of easy digital communication:
“Rescue is not guaranteed, and your emergency plan should not be contingent upon the NPS (National Park Service or other rescuers). Rescuer safety will always be our first priority, and weather or lack of resources often preclude us from coming to help.”
It seems only a matter of time, given the conditions in Alaska, before someone makes a call for help only to die in the wilderness waiting for the rescue that can’t get there.