The 2022 climbing season in the Alaska Range is again off to a grim start with the first man up Mount Denali dead and a woman earlier flown out of the range in a Colorado hospital trying to raise funds to save her badly frostbitten toes.
National Park Service officials on Friday identified the dead man as Austrian soloist Matthias Rimml, age 35. His body was spotted below Denali Pass at 18,200 feet.
The grim discovery came almost a year to the day after the 2021 adventure season in the Range started with death of a Colorado skier who plummeted into a crevasse while descending the Eldridge Glacier just east of Denali.
Trained as a carpenter, Rimml in the early 2000s turned to guiding in the Alps, thus becoming the fourth generation of his family to lead adventures into the Austrian mountains near the Swiss-Italian border, according to his resume, which listed him as a member of the Arlberg Mountain Rescue Service; a certified mountain, ski and canyoning guide, a ski and snowboard instructor, and an authorized avalanche blasting agent.
“My speciality (is) long, technically difficult combined tours,” he wrote. “With over 700,000 metres of altitude in winter, 200,000 metres of altitude in summer, with well over 90,000 kilometers by car and 130 overnight stays in mountain huts or bivouacs per year, I am constantly on the move with my guests in the mountain world.”
He died on vacation in Alaska.
How is not yet know for sure, but the slope between Denali Pass and the 17,200-foot high plateau above the Headwall on the popular West Buttress route to the 20,310-foot summit of North America’s tallest peak has been the site of many deadly falls over the years.
“Thirteen climbers, including Rimml, have died in falls along this traverse (to high camp), the majority occurring on the descent,” Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri reported. “Recovery efforts will not be attempted until an NPS ranger patrol is acclimated to high altitude and able to safely perform the recovery.”
Until that happens, it will not be known if Rimml died in the fall or was injured and succumbed to hypothermia high on the mountain. Temperatures on the peak remain bitterly cold even with spring arriving in much of the rest of Alaska.
Summit temperatures were reported to be pushing near 40 degrees below zero on Friday night and the Saturday forecast predicted a high of but 26 degrees below zero with 20 to 35 mph winds developing toward midday driving the windchill temperature down to 63 degrees below zero.
In such conditions, an injured climber doesn’t have much chance of surviving for long, and Rimml had not been heard from since calling a friend on a satellite phone to report he was just below Denali Pass on Saturday. Radio silence followed for three days before his friend contacted the Park Service and asked for someone to check on Rimml.
He’d left his 14,000-foot camp with food and fuel for 10-days, but the Park Service noted his “strategy was to climb alpine style, or travel fast with relatively light gear.”
It is a strategy that works fine as long as one keeps moving but can present difficulties if a climber is slowed by injury or weather. And the weather in the Alaska Range is often the biggest difficulty mountaineers face.
It earlier this year crippled Colorado’s Anna Pfaff, a 37-year-old nurse and expedition climber sponsored by The North Face.
On April 21, she and climbing partner Priti Wright completed the 4,000-foot Harvard Route up the West Face of Mount Huntington – a dramatic, pyramid shaped peak about eight miles southeast of Denali.
When the women returned to their base camp, however, Pfaff found her feet in bad shape.
“I knew I needed to warm my feet so I kept them protected in my minus-40 degree sleeping bag,” she wrote. “We made some dinner and rehydrated ourselves and I felt my feet improving slightly. That night was one of the coldest nights as was the next day.”
The climbers promptly notified Talkeetna Air Taxi they needed a pickup, but weather moved in making that impossible.
“The following night was even colder and when I woke up in the morning I looked at my feet and the sight almost made me vomit,” Pfaff wrote. “I called to (Wright) to come check them out, and I could see the shock on her face as we looked at the purple colored toes and blisters that had formed.”
The two women finally made it off the mountain on April 23, but the news upon entering an emergency room at an Anchorage hospital was not good.
“They admitted me to the hospital with pain medications even though I was not in pain,” Pfaff wrote. “I was having a roller coster of emotions at this point barely able to wrap my brain around what was going on. I remember them telling me I am going to loose my toes, and I lost my mind.”
Friends promptly arranged for her transfer to the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where the prognosis was somewhat more optimistic, according to her post:
“(They) told us there was nothing to be done but wait and see how my toes would heal.”
She has since returned to Colorado. A GoFundMe page organized by friends to help her raise funds to cover medical expenses says “she’s got a long road to recovery and plans to spend the coming months living near good care in the Front Range of Colorado.”
Alaska is a dangerous playground.