Michael Heck, 06-30-02

Denali climber falls to his death
McKINLEY: Others watch as soloist plunges 1,000 feet during nighttime descent.
By Nicole Tsong, Anchorage Daily News (Published: July 1, 2002)

A solo climber descending Mount McKinley in Denali National Park tumbled 1,000 feet to his death early Sunday, the National Park Service said.

It is the first death on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley since 1998, the National Park Service said.

The Park Service is not identifying the climber until his relatives are notified. Spokesman Doug Stockdale said the climber was not an American.

The man was descending near 18,000 feet on treacherous Denali Pass on the West Buttress route when he fell. Before that, he was seen by other climbers just below the summit at 20,100 feet.

Denali Pass is steep and icy with a slope of up to 45 degrees, Stockdale said.

"It's a challenging part because of the steep angle, and it's a traverse going across," he said. "And . . . there's ice, which complicates things."

According to Park Service records, this is the sixth death on the pass since 1980. Mount McKinley is North America's tallest mountain.

Climbers and a Park Service ranger at the 17,200-foot camp saw the man plummet from the slope just after midnight. A ranger was able to reach the body and confirm the climber was dead around 2:30 a.m., Stockdale said.

Weather, which was clear at the time, likely wasn't a factor in the accident, he said.

But variable weather since has hampered the recovery. The body had not been brought down from the mountain as of Sunday afternoon.

The climber flew into the Mount McKinley base camp on June 19 from Talkeetna, but not much else is known about his climb, Stockdale said. He is reported to have climbed other mountains, possibly in Latin America.

The climb to the summit can be difficult to pace, said Bruce Andrews, a guide for Alaska Mountaineering School and Alaska Denali Guiding in Talkeetna. Climbers get exhausted during the 12 to 14 hours it takes to summit from the high camp and return.

That can lead to mistakes like catching a crampon on clothing or stumbling on the terrain, he said.

"Generally we see people putting maximum output to get to the summit and are not leaving enough in the reserve tank for the descent," he said. "They're very tired, and these sort of things happen."

And the man was climbing alone, which meant he didn't have a backup rope system with other climbers, Andrews said.

"There aren't any handrails up there for a soloist," he said.

The last known fatalities on Mount McKinley occurred in 1998. A climbing guide fell to his death in June that year while descending the West Buttress Ridge. A Canadian also slid to his death down the same stretch of mountain earlier that year. And hours later, a volunteer park mountaineer ranger who was trying to rescue the Canadian disappeared down the same slope.

In 1997, one climber died on the mountain. In 1996, two died, in 1995 six. A record 11 climbers died on McKinley in 1992.

Sunday's death is not the first fatality for Denali National Park this year, however. On June 17, three Anchorage-area brothers attempting to summit Mount Foraker fell 2,000 feet to their deaths.

Mount Foraker is the second-tallest peak in the Alaska range and the third-tallest in Alaska, but it is considered a more technically challenging climb than McKinley.

More than 1,200 climbers registered to climb McKinley this year. According to the Park Service, 183 climbers are still on the mountain.

Climber worried rangers
DEATH:The 61-year-old Canadian's age, resume and gear caused concern.
By Peter Porco, Anchorage Daily News (Published: July 2, 2002)

The solo climber who fell to his death on Mount McKinley early Sunday was a 61-year-old Canadian whose age, resume and equipment had raised concerns among Denali National Park mountaineering rangers.

Michael Heck of Whitevale, Ontario, died in a fall of about 1,000 feet down an icy slope soon after beginning his descent from 18,200-foot Denali Pass, the National Park Service said Monday.

He is the oldest known person of the 92 people who have perished climbing the continent's tallest mountain since 1932, according to agency records. Heck is the first person to die on McKinley in four years.

Though some climbers witnessed the fall from a camp at 17,200 feet, there was no way to know why Heck lost his footing, park ranger Roger Robinson said Monday from Talkeetna

"Maybe he was tired from a long day, maybe he was ataxic (uncoordinated) from the altitude. It's hard to say," Robinson said. "It's easy to trip up on yourself."

Heck's body remained on the mountain Monday at 17,300 feet, he said. A Park Service high-altitude helicopter standing by to retrieve it was grounded by weather.

McKinley rangers generally try to discourage people wanting to climb the 20,320-foot mountain solo. They contacted Heck before he arrived, and he told them he hoped to find a partner, Robinson said. But he came to Talkeetna alone.

On his McKinley registration form, Heck noted that he had climbed three Mexican volcanoes but mentioned nothing else, Robinson said.

"There has been concern about him from the day he arrived because of his lack of experience," the ranger said. On the mountain he was observed with "kind of ancient climbing gear," Robinson said, including crampon straps that appeared to need repair.

Gordy Kito, also a McKinley ranger, spent some time talking with Heck at the mountain's base camp after the climber arrived there June 19. Heck told him he'd done lots of climbing while growing up in Great Britain.

Kito nevertheless felt uneasy. "More than anything, I think it's just kind of you get something in your head that's not right," Kito said.

Heck climbed solo but in full view of other people. On Saturday, his 11th day on the peak, he left the commonly used high camp at 17,200 feet for the summit.

It's likely Heck reached the top, Robinson said. He was seen high on the summit ridge by a team on its way down. He was the last person to leave the summit area that day.

"There were folks concerned about him because he was so late, and some people were watching for him," Robinson said.

About midnight, he appeared in Denali Pass. Ranger John Leonard, on patrol with two volunteers, saw Heck. Other climbers were also awake, cooking in the plentiful light.

"John sees him move around the corner, he looks like he's moving OK, and goes into his tent," said Robinson, who spoke with Leonard afterward. "Then someone says, 'He's falling.' John pops out and sees the last part of the fall."

Leonard and the volunteers, one of whom is a U.S. Marine paramedic, went to rescue Heck. They confirmed, instead, that he had been killed by the fall, Robinson said.

The slope below Denali Pass, particularly for climbers traversing it on the way down, is a known hazard. It averages about 35 degrees but steepens in places to 45 degrees of mixed ice and soft snow.

"It would be like tipping a soft ice rink on its side," Robinson said. "Boy, you start to tumble on that, you're not going to stop."

Heck is the sixth person to die from a fall there since 1980, according to the Park Service. All were descending.

Already this year, Robinson said, at least half a dozen climbers have tumbled while descending from the pass, including two Spaniards seriously injured in mid-May.

Rangers recover body of Canadian climber from Mount McKinley

7/10/02, ADN

The body of a Canadian climber who died on Mount McKinley last month has been recovered, the National Park Service said.

Rangers took the body of 61-year-old Michael Heck off the mountain about 8 p.m. Sunday.

Heck, of Whitevale, Ontario, fell 1,000 feet to his death down an icy slope June 30 as he descended from 18,200-foot Denali Pass.

Rangers said they don't know exactly what caused the fall since Heck was climbing alone.

Heck is the oldest known person of the 92 who have perished climbing the continent's tallest mountain since 1932, according to agency records. Heck is the first person to die on McKinley in four years.

-- The Associated Press