While a 2011 fatal climbing accident in Denali National Park led local Park Service officials to deny the outfitter involved in the matter "preferred status" for permit renewal, officials in the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters overturned that decision.
In short, the Park Service's associate director for business services concluded that one fatality over a seven-year period (2005-2012) should not be held against Mountain Trip International when the time comes for its permit renewal.
"After a review of the record, I have determined that MTI has operated satisfactorily on an overall basis during the term of its contract and is a preferred offeror for the purposes of a right of preference in renewal for Mountaineering Guide Services in Denali National Park," wrote Lena McDowall to the company's owners.
The incident that led Denali and Alaska Region officials to remove that preferred status from MTI occurred in May 2011 when a four-man climbing team tumbled 300-500 feet down "Pig Hill," suffering broken bones and contusions.
Lacking essential gear that would help them survive on the wind-blasted face of the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, and possibly disoriented by their fall, the group's fate was decided by the extreme weather and poor decisions, according to a National Park Service investigation.
Many of those questionable decisions were laid on the shoulders of Dave Staeheli, a Mountain Trip guide who, according to the investigation, went up Mount McKinley ill-equipped to deal with emergencies, and who was forced by circumstances into abandoning his clients high on the mountain while he raced down for help.
In the end, 38-year-old Beat Niederer of St. Gallen, Switzerland, suffering from broken ribs and without insulated overpants, froze to death waiting to be rescued from Harper Glacier about 100 yards from Denali Pass and roughly 2,000 feet below the summit. Jeremy O'Sullivan, an Irishman who apparently caused the twisting fall when he stumbled while they worked their way down the 30-35-degree pitch of "Pig Hill," somehow survived 17 hours lying on the snow exposed to 70 mph winds and skin-freezing cold. He suffered a broken lower right leg and frostbite that forced doctors to amputate all his fingers, both thumbs, and part of one foot.
In the aftermath of the accident, Denali officials determined that MTI should lose its preferred outfitter status, and the Park Service's Alaska Region director, Sue Masica, upheld that decision. (Ms. Masica recently was named director of the Park Service's Intermountain Region based in Denver.)
In reviewing that decision, Ms. McDowall reviewed the outfitter's annual performance reviews from 2005-2012. The report for 2009 noted a recommendation from Denali officials that MTI be denied its preferred status after a ranger reported that an assistant guide for the outfitter had "descended solo and un-roped in violation of the terms of the contract." However, there was no written record that park officials gave the outfitter a "satisfactory" rating "with the understanding that MTI would change its practices to assure this type of incident would not happen again."
"If this conversation took place," noted Ms. McDowall, "it was not documented...."
In its probe of the 2011 accident, Denali officials wrote MTI to note that the investigation revealed "a systemic company practice of willfull disregard" for its contract requirements. Furthermore, park officials wrote, "the company culture and practice of willful disregard ... represents a serious non-monetary breach of the contract and may be grounds for an Unsatisfactory Annual Rating for 2011, and potential contract suspension."
But in her review (attached below) of the written record, including the annual ratings, Ms. McDowall held that MTI received satisfactory ratings in seven out of eight years, that from 2005-2010 the "park's comments on the concessioner's overall performance are very positive," that the outfitter's performance was rated "good" for 2012, and that "in several circumstances, MTI guides were commended for their actions on the mountain."
"AOR narratives in all years, with the exception of 2011, do not document concerns about service, safety, or the concessioner's willingness or ability to comply with contract requirements designed for visitor safety," she wrote.