June 21, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 25

Climber: Jenna Bush, not injured trio, given priority

The National Park Service escorted celebrity journalist Jenna Bush around Mount McKinley while three climbers seriously injured in an avalanche waited for a helicopter rescue at 14,000 feet, according to Florian Hill, a Haines-based mountaineer and professional climber.

Florian Hill

Denali National Park spokeswoman Kris Fister this week characterized the climbers’ injuries as “very minor,” describing them as “a twisted knee, a sore elbow, and no broken bones.” She added that the situation was “certainly non-life threatening.”

But Hill, a lifetime climber who was making a solo ascent and his third trip up McKinley, said the three climbers with whom he was caught in an avalanche were injured so severely they couldn’t move “a centimeter” after reaching 14,000.

Two of them required hospitalization and were still not walking as of press time Wednesday, Hill said. The four were hurt in a slide that came June 12, less than a day before another avalanche killed three Japanese mountaineers at a lower elevation on the mountain.

Hill, who continued his descent after parting with the other three at 14,000, said he met Bush, a correspondent for “Good Morning, America,” on June 14 at a camp at 7,000 feet, while he was still dazed by his injuries and by painkillers. “I was just thinking of the three guys who became my buddies… We survived an avalanche together. They’ve got serious injuries, they’re at 14,200 feet waiting to be rescued, and this helicopter is cruising around on the airstrip making some stupid bullshit-for-television show.”

Whether Bush was being ferried in the park’s rescue helicopter was unclear this week. Fister said Tuesday the film crew had used the rescue helicopter, but park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin on Wednesday said Bush was using private aircraft.

Hill said he never saw Bush in the rescue helicopter but a woman with a film crew at 7,000 feet told him that the helicopter wasn’t there for an emergency, but for the TV program.

The three injured, Anchorage-area climbers were lifted off the mountain June 15 by a helicopter making a supply trip to 14,000 feet, according to the park service.

The climbers told Hill they were notified of the flight just 15 minutes before departure and had to abandon equipment at the camp there.

Hill would not identify the other climbers, saying they feared losing future climb privileges if they spoke out. But in recent conversations with them, he confirmed that their request to get off the mountain was firm and unwavering.

Parks service officials gave a significantly different account.

Hill said he and the three other climbers were injured in an avalanche near 15,000 feet. They had tied themselves together while descending in a snowstorm. The slide that buried them under an estimated three feet of light snow was the second that engulfed them that day. An earlier one buried them waist deep.

Hill said they managed to dig themselves out of the second slide, but were seriously hurt. His vision went black for a time afterwards, perhaps due to a concussion. The other three had leg, hip and lower body injuries he described as severe.

Disoriented and hurt, the group continued down, stoked by adrenaline and fear of another slide, he said.

Hill said that immediately on reaching the camp at 14,000 feet, the other men told the park service rangers they wanted a rescue helicopter as soon as possible, due to injuries and that prevented them from continuing. “But (parks officials at the camp) said, ‘Oh, the helicopter is not flying, and we are very conservative with decisions of rescuing.’ They also told us we needed to wait four or five days to see if the injuries…improve so we can continue.”

But for Hill, it was “totally clear” that the men wouldn’t be able to make it down any time soon. “They couldn’t even stand up,” he said. “There’s no way they could’ve continued in a few days.”

After a few hours, Hill left the 14,000-foot camp and made an eight-hour descent, ending at a 7,000-foot elevation airstrip where climbers are dropped off and picked up. He awoke to see what he believed was the rescue helicopter and moments later was introduced to Bush.

Fister on Tuesday told the Chilkat Valley News that the park service’s helicopter had been used to escort Bush for the TV segment. But Fister said the three, injured climbers at 14,000 feet declined the option of being rescued. “Our staff checked, but they weren’t in any hurry to come down,” she said.

Hill was with the climbers only a few hours at the 14,000-foot camp, but he said when he departed they were determined to be flown off the mountain. “They said, ‘We want to be rescued as soon as possible.’ I heard them say it.”

Fister said that the park has one rescue helicopter and that situations requiring its use are prioritized. She said Bush was not given priority over the injured climbers. “Had they wanted to come off, they would have had priority.” She said that if they wanted help, the park would have given it to them. “I would have been totally shocked” if Bush was flying around while injured climbers wanted help, she said.

Hill, 28, is a professional athlete sponsored by Adidas who has contributed articles to National Geographic. He said he has friends who are rangers on the mountain and he was hesitant to criticize them or the park service, as they often deal with inexperienced climbers.

An Austrian national who has spent a half-dozen summers in Haines, Hill said he came forward this week hoping to emphasize avalanche danger and the importance of awareness and education, particularly for the valley’s youth. He believes he passed through “ski hill,” the zone where the Japanese climbers died, just a few hours before the snow slid there.

Avalanches were not known to occur there, he said.

Local mountaineer John Svenson, who’s been on McKinley 15 times, said he’d also never heard of avalanches there. Svenson said it sounds like a “fluke season” on the mountain. Hill’s survival, he said, may have been “pure luck.”

Odds are surviving burial by avalanches around Haines are made slim by the area’s often wet, heavy snow. Skiers compare it to immersion in cement and say it can make even breathing difficult and movement impossible.