Climber dies in early season attempt to scale Alaska's Mount McKinley

Reuters News
Posted: May 09, 2014 6:08 PM

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) - A woman from Washington state has fallen to her death in an early-season attempt to scale Alaska's Mount McKinley after getting separated from her climbing partner in stormy weather, a U.S. National Park Service spokeswoman said on Friday.

Sylvia Montag, 39, of Tacoma, fell about 1,000 feet while descending the treacherous Denali Pass, likely on May 5, Denali National Park and Preserve spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri said.

"It tends to be an area where once one loses one's footing, it's difficult to self-arrest and stop that fall, so you keep falling," Gualtieri said.

Since 1980, 12 climbers have fallen to their deaths on the steep, often icy Denali Pass, 11 of them while heading downhill, Gualtieri said. In all, 122 climbers have died on Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, since 1932 of causes ranging from falls to exposure to illness.

Montag and her German climbing partner, 34-year-old Mike Fuchs of Berlin, began their climb of the Muldrow Glacier route on April 15. They reached Denali Pass, at an elevation of over 18,000 feet, on Saturday before encountering strong winds that forced them to camp for two nights, Gualtieri said.

When the winds died down somewhat on Monday, they attempted to descend to a more established campsite about 1,000 feet lower.

"Spending a few nights at high altitude like they did would definitely weaken someone," Gualtieri said. "They were quite fatigued when they were coming down and that may have contributed to the fall."

Upon reaching the lower camp, Fuchs realized that Montag was not behind him. Using a satellite phone, he called for emergency help, remaining hopeful that she had returned to their previous campsite.

A helicopter crew spotted Montag's body on Wednesday evening, shortly before Fuchs was taken off the mountain by rescuers. Her remains will be recovered once workers reach them, Gualtieri said.

The pair did not have radio contact with each other and were not roped together -- a measure the National Park Service suggests climbers take but that carries risks of its own, as one person falling can lead to all of those roped together to fall.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)