Climber dies on descent from Denali Pass
One member of a two-person climbing team perished in an early season climbing fall on Mt. McKinley in recent days.
The fatal fall likely occurred on May 5, after the climbing parties became separated during a descent from Denali Pass in stormy weather.
Mike Fuchs, 34, of Berlin, Germany and Sylvia Montag, 39, of Tacoma, Wash., began their ascent of the Muldrow Glacier route on April 15. They reached Denali Pass at 18,200-feet elevation on May 3, where they encountered strong winds that forced them to camp for two nights near the Pass.
According to the National Park Service, Fuchs contacted rangers at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station via satellite phone from the 17,200-foot High Camp on the West Buttress around 11 a.m. on May 5.
Fuchs reported that the two had become separated as they descended from Denali Pass to the 17,200-foot camp.
The two were not roped together, nor did they not have radio communications with one another.
Fuchs described that both parties were weakened from the multiple nights spent at Denali Pass, and each possessed only partial survival gear.
In addition to his personal gear, Fuchs possessed the team’s satellite phone and camp stove, while Montag had the tent, limited food, and her personal gear.
Due to limited visibility and high winds estimated between 40 to 60 mph, Fuchs took shelter in the NPS ‘rescue cache’, a metal storage locker for emergency supplies and equipment at 17,200-feet.
Fuchs phoned back the following morning, May 6, and requested a rescue for both himself and for Montag, who he hoped was camped at Denali Pass. The weather on May 6 remained windy with low visibility, and an NPS helicopter rescue was not feasible. Furthermore, a ground rescue was not possible as Fuchs and Montag were two of the earliest Denali climbers of the 2014 season, and at the time were the only climbers above 14,200 feet on the mountain. The only NPS ranger patrol on the mountain was camped at 7,800-feet.
The morning of Wednesday, May 7, Fuchs called reporting slightly calmer winds and clear skies at 17,200-feet. He also reported that he had still not seen his climbing partner descending Denali Pass. Clouds and poor visibility below 17,200-feet hampered a rescue during the day on Wednesday, though a Hercules C-130 from the 210th Rescue Squadron was launched at 12 p.m. by the Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage to provide aerial reconnaissance and weather reports.
The C-130 crew reported no sighting of Montag near Denali Pass.
Taking advantage of a clearing trend Wednesday evening, Denali National Park’s high altitude A-Star B3 helicopter pilot and an NPS mountaineering ranger flew to Denali Pass, with the 210th Rescue Squadron’s Hercules C-130 flying as a cover aircraft.
After several passes of the area, the A-Star B3 crew spotted Montag’s remains 800 to 1,000 feet below the Denali Pass traverse on the Peters Glacier. Fuchs was observed by the flight crew standing near his camp at 17,200-feet.
The NPS helicopter returned to the Kahiltna Basecamp at 7,200-feet to drop off the mountaineering ranger. Pilot Andy Hermansky then flew back to the 17,200-foot camp to evacuate Fuchs using a rescue basket attached to a shorthaul line under the helicopter.
Fuchs was flown to the Kahiltna Basecamp for a medical assessment, then evacuated to Talkeetna State Airport and released.
Sylvia Montag’s remains will be recovered when an NPS ground team reaches the 17,200-foot camp.