US climber dies on Mount McKinley after separation from her partner, attempted descent

Dan Joling / The Associated Press
May 9, 2014 11:39 AM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A Washington state climber has died descending Mount McKinley after falling down a hard-packed stretch of mountain that has claimed 11 other lives.

The body of Sylvia Montag, 39, was spotted Wednesday night by a helicopter crew after strong winds subsided and allowed flights.

Montag had become separated from her climbing partner and may have died as early as Monday, the park service said.

Montag and Mike Fuchs, 34, of Berlin, Germany, were posting audio and written accounts of their early season attempt to climb North America's highest peak.

Montag was a licensed doctor in Washington. She was an experienced high-altitude climber, but she had not attempted the 20,322-foot (6,195-meter) peak before, National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri said.

They began their ascent April 15 on Muldrow Glacier. On Saturday, the climbers reached Denali Pass, a notch in the mountain at 18,200 feet (5,550 metres). Strong winds that Gualtieri said were at least 50 mph (80 kph) forced them to camp for two nights near the pass.

The climbers decided to move down Monday, but they became separated.

Fuchs at 11 a.m. called park service rangers at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station by satellite phone from the 17,200-foot (5,240-meter) High Camp on the West Buttress of the mountain and said he had lost contact with Montag. They were not connected by rope and did not have radio communications.

Both were weakened from multiple nights spent at Denali Pass, Fuchs said, and their gear was divided. Fuchs had the team's satellite phone and camp stove. Montag was carrying the tent and limited food besides her personal gear. It was not snowing, but winds continued to pound the climbers and visibility may have been affected by clouds.

The traverse between Denali Pass and the High Camp has been the site of 11 other deaths, Gualtieri said. Climbers must ascend or descend diagonally across the route.

"It can be icy in spots, but (it is) generally hard-packed snow and not very forgiving," she said.

Without a tent, Fuchs took shelter in the park service "rescue cache," a metal storage locker that contains emergency supplies and equipment.

He phoned again Tuesday and requested a rescue for him and Montag.

The wind and low visibility prevented flying by a park service helicopter. A ground rescue also was not possible, the park service said. Fuchs and Montag were the only climbers above 14,200 feet (4,330 metres), and the only park service ranger patrol was camped at 7,800 feet (2,380 metres).

Fuchs on Wednesday morning reported calmer winds and clear skies. But clouds and poor visibility below 17,200 feet (5,240 metres) again prevented an immediate rescue. A clearing in weather conditions that night allowed a flight of the park's high altitude A-Star B3 helicopter. A pilot and ranger on board spotted Montag's remains on the Peters Glacier about 1,000 feet (300 metres) below the traverse to Denali Pass.

After dropping the a ranger off at Kahiltna Base Camp at 7,200 feet (2,195 metres), pilot Andy Hermansky flew to the 17,200-foot (5,240-meter) High Camp and lifted Fuchs by rescue basket attached to a short-haul line under the helicopter.

Fuchs was flown to the Kahiltna Base Camp for medical evaluation and moved to Talkeetna.

Montag's body will be recovered by a park service ground team, the agency said.

____

Joling reported from Anchorage, and Le reported from Seattle.


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