William Hearne 05-07-09

61-year-old climber collapses and dies on way up Denali

By CRAIG MEDRED, cmedred@adn.com

Published: May 8th, 2009

The climbing season on North America's tallest mountain has barely begun, and already Mount McKinley has claimed its first victim.

The National Park Service reported today that 61-year-old William Hearne died on the approach climb along Kahiltna Glacier to the 14,000-foot camp on the mountain.

The terrain on the way to 14,000 feet is not overly steep, but the ever-increasing altitude from base camp at 7,200 takes a toll on even the most physically fit.

Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin reported Hearne, of Fairport, N.Y., was with a guided expedition traveling near Windy Corner on Thursday when he collapsed and then died, apparently of natural causes.

Windy Corner is named for the ferocious winds that sometimes develop there, but it is beautiful place when the weather is mild. It was reportedly a good day for climbing there Thursday, with winds of less than 20 mph and the temperature around zero.

Hearne was with six members of an expedition guided by Mountain Trip. They were ferrying supplies upward from an informal campground at 11,200 feet, below what is called Motorcyle Hill, and it is standard to carry equipment from that camp to just past Windy Corner, cache it, then return to camp to rest for the day.

For days on end, McKinley climbers make these up-and-back climbs from camp to camp to get enough food, fuel and gear in position to support an eventual assault on the summit. None of the ferrying climbs are thought of as particularly dangerous, although there are always risks of falling in a crevasse or, in a few places, slipping and plummeting off the West Buttress.

Hearne, however, apparently just collapsed.

McLaughlin reported he was near 13,500 feet, returning toward the 11,200 camp, when Hearne went down at about 4 p.m. Mount McKinley's summit is at 20,320 feet.

"The expedition guides immediately began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and were soon assisted by two National Park Service mountaineering rangers who happened to be at Windy Corner retrieving gear," she said. "CPR was performed for over 30 minutes, but Hearne never regained a pulse."

Dozens of climbers are often on McKinley's West Buttress route this time of year, and a variety of Park Service personnel were among them Thursday. McLaughlin said a paramedic and a nurse who were climbing with a Park Service patrol were on the scene with Hearne by 4:30 p.m., but they, too, were unable to help.

Shortly after 4:30, she said, the paramedic and the nurse consulted with a Park Service-sponsored doctor by cell phone, and Hearne was pronounced dead.

The Mountain Trip climbers headed back to their camp. Park Service rangers stayed to secure Hearne's body at 13,500 feet, awaiting a helicopter evacuation.

More than 150 climbers are now on the mountain, McLaughlin said, but the climbing season is barely beginning. More than 1,050 are registered to climb in the months ahead.

Ten mountaineers have attempted to summit so far. Eight have succeeded.