Tacoma Climber Dies On Denali

Sylvia Montag approaches Karsten's Ridge on Denali. (Photo via fox-challenge.de)
Sylvia Montag approaches Karsten’s Ridge on Denali. (Photo via fox-challenge.de)

Just days into climbing season, a mountaineer has died in an an accident high on Denali. Sylvia Montag, 39, of Tacoma, Washington, became separated from her climbing partner around May 5.

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Sylvia Montag and her climbing partner, Mike Fuchs, a 34-year-old mountaineer from Berlin, Germany, were climbing near Denali Pass on May 3 at just over 18,000 feet when the weather forced them to turn away from the summit and set up camp to shelter from the high winds. After waiting out the weather for two days, Montag and Fuchs began their descent down the West Buttress of Denali.

During the expedition, Mike Fuchs updated a blog on the pair’s progress. The last entry in the blog is from the night of May 4. Mike Fuchs described winds over 60-miles-per-hour and temperatures lower than 10-degrees below zero. He noted that the pair was down to about three days of food.  That was probably enough to descend the mountain, but it likely ruled out any further summit attempts.

Click here to read Sylvia Montag and Mike Fuchs’ blog.

At 11:00 a.m. on Monday, May 5, the National Park Service says that Fuchs reported via satellite phone that he and Montag had become separated and both had limited supplies, but he did not request a rescue. Fuchs had taken shelter in a storage locker kept at high camp, around 17,200 feet.  On Tuesday, May 6th, Fuchs called the National Park Service again to request a helicopter rescue.  He said he still had not heard from Montag. Maureen Gualtieri, spokeswoman for Denali National Park, says that the phone calls, as well as the blog, provided useful information for rescue personnel.

“That helped the rangers here establish a timeline, how they were acclimatizing, where they had spent certain nights,” Gualtieri said. “That information was helpful in figuring out where we’re at:  how much food they might have left, what kind of equipment, or even more than that, even what sort of apparel they were wearing, so if we had to do an aerial search, we’d know what we were looking for.”

High winds and poor visibility prevented the Park Service from launching its rescue helicopter on Tuesday. Because Montag and Fuchs were climbing very early in the season, mountaineering rangers were not yet in position to help on the ground, either.  On Wednesday morning, the weather cleared enough for the rescue helicopter to launch. Dave Weber is a mountaineering Ranger for the Park Service, and was on board the helicopter

“The information we were going on from her climbing partner is that the most likely last-known spot was in Denali Pass, around 18,200 feet,” Weber said. “That’s the beginning of the descent portion of the Autobahn area, that takes you down to 17,200 camp.”

“We searched the Denali Pass area and then moved down further into what a likely fall line would have been from the Autobahn.”

Montag’s remains were spotted between 800 and 1,000 feet below the normal trail used on the traverse known as the Autobahn.  The Park Service believes she fell while descending from the pass sometime on May 5.  The area where Montag fell is one of the more dangerous areas of the mountain.  Twelve people have died in similar accidents near the same spot in the last 70 years.

Montag and Fuchs were not roped together while descending through the dangerous terrain. While that is not necessarily an uncommon practice, Dave Weber says the Park Service generally advises against it.  Weber also says that descending through the area early in the season poses extra risks.

“Earlier in the season, we tend to have icier conditions up high, so the footing tends to be much more difficult,” Weber said. “It’s nearly impossible to self-arrest with your axe if you do start to slip or if you do fall.”

“Given that, we’re very adamant that people take great caution and use protection along that traverse.”

Before they are allowed to attempt Denali, climbers must check in with the ranger station in Talkeetna and receive a briefing that covers the risks and features of the mountain. Dave Weber says that Fuchs and Montag’s briefing did not give any indicators that they were unprepared for the climb.

“Looking at their resumés, they did seem to have the appropriate experience to be on a mountain like Denali, so that wasn’t one of the things that we were clued into like we are in some instances where people are under-experienced or there’s disparate experience between members of the party, where you have somebody that’s very experienced and someone that’s not,” Weber said. “They seemed to be a very well-suited pair for this.”

Mike Fuchs was rescued from high camp on Wednesday and flown first to base camp and later Talkeetna.

The atmosphere at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station was somewhat subdued on Friday.  The sense is that everyone their hopes that this first climbing tragedy of 2014 is also the last.