Recovery of climber’s body could take 2 weeks

jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.comMay 13, 2014 

It could take up to two weeks to recover the body of Tacoma climber Sylvia Montag, who died in a fall May 5 on Alaska’s Mount McKinley.

Denali National Park and Preserve officials believe Montag, 39, died after falling 800 to 1,000 feet while descending from Denali Pass at 18,200 feet on the 20,322-foot peak.

Montag was climbing with Mike Fuchs, 34, of Berlin. A storm halted their summit attempt and the two became separated while trying to come down from the pass. Fuchs made it to a park rescue cache at 17,200 feet and eventually was flown off the mountain by helicopter.

To safely recover Montag’s body, the park’s mountaineering patrol members need to be acclimated to that elevation.

“Our most acclimated rangers are currently at 14,200 feet assembling our rescue camp,” park spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri said Monday. “In the next week, or possibly two, depending on weather, they will ascend to the 17,200-foot camp, then perform the recovery.”

Gualtieri said Montag likely died of traumatic injuries from the long, tumbling fall.

“As for what caused her fall, we can’t know for certain since it was not witnessed,” Gualtieri said. “However, we have unfortunately seen quite a few falls in this particular stretch of the route.”

There have been 12 fatal falls from Denali Pass, 11 of which occurred on the descent, she said. Factors that lead to falls include fatigue, high winds, hard-packed snow or icy terrain, and the 35-to-45-degree slope of the terrain that is traversed on a diagonal.

“If a climber is unroped and not clipped into fixed protection such as pickets (aluminum stakes driven into the snowpack that catch the rope in a fall), then it is very difficult to self-arrest a fall,” Gualtieri said. “The slope is steep and the snow is very hard-packed and difficult to find a purchase with an ice ax.”

Montag had worked as a urologist for MultiCare Health System from August 2012 until she left for the climb in April.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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