Guide Company Blamed for Death on Denali

     HONOLULU (CN) – A Swiss climber died on Mt. McKinley after a mountaineering guide company left him to die on a paid expedition to Denali National Park, his widow and children claim in court.
     Beat Niederer died on the expedition led by Mountain Trip International, his widow Sabine Niederer and two young children claim in Federal Court.
     Bear Niederer, of St. Gallen, 38, had climbing experience, but not at altitudes above 14,000 feet and not in Arctic conditions, his widow says in the complaint.
     She claims Mountain Trip lacked proper equipment that could have saved his life.
     Climbers gathered in Anchorage, drove to Talkeetna and were flown to Kahiltna Glacier, aiming for a 17,200-foot-high camp at Denali Pass.
     The terrain is characterized by crevasses, extreme weather and avalanches.
     Mountain Trip has a concession agreement with the National Park Service, which requires that Mountain Trip not leave clients unattended, according to the complaint.
     “The Park Service requires each Mountain Trip summit rope team carry certain minimum levels of equipment to reduce risk and increase the chance of surviving in the event of an emergency,” the complaint states.
     This equipment includes an ensolite pad for insulating an injured climber or splinting a broken limb, a sleeping bag or bivouac sac, a shovel, pot stove, fuel and a medical kit, and must be carried to the summit of Mt. McKinley, the widow says.
     She claims the MT-2 summit team, which included her husband, left high camp without the required equipment.
     Beat Niederer’s team was led by lead guide, David Staeheli, and they began hiking on April 25, 2011, according to the complaint.
     Staeheli is not a party to the complaint.
     Citing Mountain Trip promotional material, the complaint says the company advertises itself by saying: “The safety of the clients and guides is our number one priority! Risks will not be taken just to get to the summit. The guides do their best to attain the summit, but not when the group’s safety is compromised. The whole experience and safety are what is most important.”
     The round-trip from high camp to the summit in minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit was to take 12 hours, the widow says.
     She adds: “Climbing at altitude can be a slow and extremely fatiguing affair, particularly in the cold.”
     She claims that Staeheli called the conditions that day the “second worst conditions ever” in his 30 years on the mountain.
     At one point, “The wind was increasing with speeds estimated at 15 to 25 mph and temperatures between -20 and -30 degrees Fahrenheit. In such temperature and wind conditions, frostbite and hypothermia can occur in scant minutes,” the complaint states.
     The widow says that descents can be more hazardous than climbing, due to hypoxia and fatigue. Between 1903 and 2006, 61 percent of Denali fatalities came on the descent, according to the complaint.
     Her husband made the summit McKinley on May 11 and the team began the descent. One member got frostbite; three clients, including her husband, were roped together and to Staeheli, the widow says.
     “Niederer, the strongest of the client members, led the way down,” she says. But she says her husband “was provided no direction on how to descend from Zebra Rocks to Denali Pass.”
     The group took a rolling fall for 300 to 500 feet. Niederer dislocated his shoulder, fractured his ribs and cut his face. Staeheli’s satellite phone was damaged in the fall, and the remaining Family Service Radio “was doomed to failure,” because others did not have radios themselves, according to the complaint.
     The widow claims that Staeheli did not assess her husband’s injuries, nor wait for him, but kept descending with another client to try to survive.
     “The injured Niederer, who up until the fall was the strongest climber of the clients, was unable to keep up with Staeheli and Cutler,” the complaint states.
     Niederer died of exposure on May 12.
     The family seeks damages for wrongful death and negligence.
     They are represented by Jeffrey Rubin, with Friedman Rubin, of Anchorage.

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