I have given a lot of thought to posting a response to this thread, after first finding it last month. As the "report" referenced and linked at the start of this thread is based on the opinion of a blogger, but it could easily be given more credence than it might be due, I have concluded that certain points need to be addressed. Almost a thousand people have viewed this thread, and that same number of people has been provided an incorrect portrayal of the events of that tragic day.
As to the Alaska Dispatch blog posts linked earlier in this thread, I would suggest that they are ill informed, poorly researched, and selectively presented in a fashion that serves the blogger's goal of sensationalizing a tragic situation in a fashion that makes him look like an "expert." In this post-truth era that we sure seem to be entering, such a strategy has been proven to drive up readership and therefore advertising, but does little to help climbers make informed choices and decisions.
In full disclosure: my name is Todd Rutledge and I am the Director and co-owner of Mountain Trip. I have been guiding on Denali or organizing expeditions on the mountain for 18 years. Mountain Trip has guided Denali every year for the past 38 years, and this was our first climbing fatality on the mountain.
The accident that occurred in May, 2011 on Denali was a very sad culmination of numerous factors that cascaded in such a fashion that there would be no good outcome. The most experienced guide working on Denali, who could well be the most experienced Denali guide EVER, led the team. As he told the NPS, his focus that summit morning was on the hazards of the route above and he forgot to pack a couple of items that he has always carried. Summit morning was cold, busy and he was focused on things like how many pickets he would need for the Autobahn and how he would mitigate the steep, probably firm and icy slope near Zebra Rocks.
Mountain Trip had supported the original team of six clients with three guides, well above the “norm” on Denali. That morning, there were three guides with five clients, a well-supported team. One client had descended with another MT team a few days earlier.
Two of the guides had previous Denali experience, with something on the order of 60 Denali trips between them. The lead guide is an AMGA Certified Alpine and Ski Mountaineering Guide, a Certified New Zealand Alpine Guide (Level II), and has been an AMGA instructor for their certification courses. He has 50+/- Denali expeditions to his credit since 1979, making him one of, if not the most experienced guide on the mountain- ever.
When the team departed, they left their less experienced assistant guide at high camp with a healthy, capable client who did not want to go higher, per NPS contract requirements. A few hours into the summit day, a client suffered cold injuries to his fingers, requiring one of the summit guides, who had several years of Denali experience, to bring him down. The lead guide continued with three climbers, paralleling another guided party with a guide and four climbers.
Their decision-making all the way to the summit was well within industry norms, as it was a beautiful, albeit cold, day and the wind only began to increase as they literally approached the very summit. There is no reason to believe "summit-fever" had anything to do with their continuing to the top, other than to re-engineer the events from the comfort of one's armchair. Why would a team not continue toward the top on a beautiful evening, with just a breath of wind?
The wind began to increase as they arrived on the summit, blowing 10-15 mph. They spent little time on top, began their descent and stopped to re-hydrate from a thermos of hot drinks just minutes before the fall. Everything was going well up until the moment of the fall, which seems to have been the result of one of the clients hooking a crampon point on a gaiter.
After the fall, three of the four on the rope were seriously injured. The NPS report, on which the blogger extrapolated his baseless conclusions, was itself incomplete in some very crucial areas.
The NPS investigators based their conclusions regarding the guide’s decision making and the consequences of his having forgotten a few pieces of gear on a level of injury that was much, much lower than what actually occurred to the guide. Why they did not have or apparently seek out the truth about his injuries is unclear, but they based all of their conclusions regarding his decision making after the fall on the following level of injury:“(The guide) might lose a tip of one finger to frostbite.”
(p. 16 of the NPS report)
The information that the NPS investigative team apparently did not have in their possession is that the guide actually lost the tips of ALL four fingers on his right hand to frostbite, each to the distal knuckle or worse.
A highly respected frostbite expert, altitude medicine doctor, and experienced high altitude climber examined the evidence of the guide’s injuries and summed up his opinion of the guides physical limitations as follows: “The photos, the description from around the time of injury and the eventual outcome make this an easy assessment. (The guide) had use of his wrists, and his hands were probably able to act like claws. But he would have had very limited use of his fingers. In particular, he would have no dexterity of his fingers. He would not have been able to tie knots in a rope or operate carabiners, for example. He could probably plant an ice axe, but could not have successfully belayed a climber nor accomplished a self-arrest. He could not hold onto a rope except by wrapping his arms around it, and he could not have played out a rope. I doubt he could have used a shovel; perhaps for scraping, but not for digging in hard-pack snow."
Also largely omitted in the NPS report are the mechanism of injury for, and signs and symptoms of, a head injury, including a documented 4cm abrasion to the guide’s forehead. He also suffered broken ribs in the fall.
The decision making after the fall MUST
be considered in light of the true extent of the injuries sustained by the guide. His decisions were all intended to find the best possible outcome, given his limited ability to function and the conditions of the other team members and weather at the time. It would be incredibly hard to put oneself in his situation at the time, especially from the comfort of home in front of a computer, but it is important to remember that we are discussing the decisions of someone who is both trained at the highest levels and has over 30 years of experience on the mountain.
Did he screw up contractually by not having some of the required gear? Certainly. He knew of the requirement and had always followed it on his previous 13 Denali expeditions with Mountain Trip.
The NPS report states that the guide would have been able to protect his clients by digging a snow shelter, had he brought those tools. Could this really have been the case, given his inability to use them? Not according to the guide, the least injured client, or the frostbite expert.
The NPS report also states that had the guide retrieved the climbing rope, he could have provided protection for the two ambulatory clients. The guide stated that he could not have physically provided such protection, and the opinion of the frostbite expert also supports this conclusion.
So what can we learn from all this?
We have taken the accident very, very seriously and have analyzed the possible contributing causes very closely. We have attempted to be as transparent as possible about the events of that day so that all potential Denali climbers can understand that this tragedy was a devastating and a stark reminder that no amount of preparation can make big, cold mountains completely “safe.”
Things will still go horribly wrong in the mountains. While it might help us all feel better about going into hazardous places by fixing blame on someone else’s decisions so that we can rationalize our risk taking (because that won’t happen to me!); ultimately, no amount of experience, training, checklists or regulations can guarantee safety in the mountains. Ultimately, we climbers can only do our best to mitigate the hazards by educating ourselves, developing systems to reduce potential failures, and critically analyzing past accidents in an effort to distil the points where we can positively affect the outcome.
Operationally, we have put systems into place that reduce the potential for human error, through the thoughtful application of checklists taken from other high-risk industries and “Highly Reliable Organizations.” Other procedures have been implemented that are designed to promote better communication amongst team members in the hopes of identifying potential problems before they become failures.
We critically review decisions made on every expedition and use those lessons learned to help update our procedures and Risk Management Plan regularly, in the hope that we can have another 37 years of guiding big, cold mountains without another accident.
I am happy to discuss any of this, with anybody, at any time. Please feel free to contact me directly at [email protected]