American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

"Interfering with Agency Function" — Unnecessary Helicopter Evacuation, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

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  • Publication Year: 2010

INTERFERING WITH AGENCY FUNCTION" – UNNECESSARY HELICOPTER EVACUATION

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

On June 1st, a female Lithuanian climber (47) was air evacuated from the 14,200-foot camp on Denali’s West Buttress. NPS rangers made numerous attempts to help her descend under her own power, but she refused all options except for air evacuation. Because of her actions, she placed NPS Rangers and others in a potentially hazardous situation. The climber was cited under 36 CFR 2.32 (a)(3)—“Interfering with Agency Function,” which carries a maximum sentence of $5,000 and six months of jail time.

She left the country before the date of her court appearance.

Analysis

The climber’s chief complaint was a minor foot injury caused by over use and poorly fitting boots. She underestimated the challenges of climbing the West Buttress on Denali and the necessity of self-reliance in the remote mountains of Alaska. She did not understand the risk involved with rescue operations, including air evacuation from 14,200 feet. She also did not understand the safety hazard she imposed on rescue personnel and other climbers. The hazardous situation that she created was difficult to manage and had serious potential to place a lot of people at risk. Failure to see rescue operations in Alaska as different from areas where the risks of rescue may be more easily mitigated is negligent. She was air evacuated because of the potential risk she created for those around her at the 14,200-foot camp.

The following excerpt was taken directly out of the Mountaineering in Denali National Park and Preserve Registration Requirements, Safety Rules and Regulations booklet. This booklet is required reading as part of the registration process. During the orientation given on May 21 in Talkeetna, all members of her expedition were asked if they had read the booklet and all indicated they had. The following is in the section labeled “Search and Rescue Requirements”:

“It is the policy of Denali National Park and Preserve to assist those in need, when, in the opinion of park personnel apprised of the situation, it is necessary, appropriate, within the reasonable skill and technical capability of park personnel, and provides searchers and rescuers with a reasonable margin of safety. Search and Rescue Operations are conducted on a discretionary basis. The level and necessity of the response is determined by field personnel based on their evaluation of the situation. Rescuer safety is always our first priority. Denali National Park and Preserve expects park visitors to exhibit a degree of self-reliance and responsibility for their own safety commensurate with the degree of the activities they undertake. A climbing party high on Denali or other Arctic mountains cannot depend on any assistance in the event of an emergency. Due to complexity of a rescue it could be days before rescue personnel could arrive on scene for a rescue. For all practical purposes, a climbing party is alone and must depend upon its own resources if an emergency situation arises.”

The most disconcerting aspects of this incident were the wave of people affected and the level of risk caused by a very minor situation. It is frustrating to the many who were involved that she decided to give up. Her injury was such that she could have walked down under her own power, but she refused to do so. The effort and energy expended on this climber put the NPS Rangers in a difficult and potentially dangerous position had there been another true emergency. It became obvious that the only person she was concerned about was herself.

The expenses for the NPS rescue helicopter are continually criticized. To take advantage of this life-saving tool only jeopardizes its use in the future for true emergencies. On a mountain that demands respect and teamwork, she caused her teammate and the NPS unnecessary hardship and made it obvious that she did not understand what the expected ethics are in mountaineering endeavors.

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