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A Utah physician has been banned from climbing in Alaska’s Denali National Park after pleading guilty to requesting a helicopter rescue off North America’s highest mountain under false pretenses.
Jason Lance, 48, of Mountain Green, was also accused of destroying evidence of his misconduct in the May 2021 episode that drew attention to the dangers of high-altitude rescues.
Under the order imposed last week by U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott Oravec, Lance’s climbing ban will last for five years and Lance will also pay $10,000 in penalties.
“Impeding the investigation of a near-fatal accident and attempting to secure helicopter rescue under misleading premises evinces a selfishness and indifference to the scarcity of public safety and rescue resources that is unacceptable anywhere, let alone on the tallest peak in North America,” said U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. of Alaska.
About 1,000 climbers attempt Denali every year, with the most traffic on the West Buttress.
“Rescue on Denali is inherently dangerous for both rescuers and those being rescued,” said Brooke Merrell, acting superintendent for Denali National Park and Preserve. “Any rescue above 14,000 feet is a serious endeavor and should not be taken lightly or be expected.”
Lance had been climbing up Denali’s West Buttress with a partner, identified as A.R. in court papers, who had to abandon the climb after developing altitude sickness at around 19,000 feet above sea level. Taking A.R.’s inReach satellite communication device, Lance continued toward the 20,310-foot summit alone, while A.R. remained with another climbing group, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
Lance ultimately abandoned his summit bid and returned to the other climbers. While descending, the unroped A.R. slipped from Denali Pass, tumbling more than 1,000 feet down a steep icy slope. The fall was reported to park officials, who quickly mustered a high-altitude helicopter to extract the injured climber and send him for life-saving medical care in what Denali mountaineering ranger Chris Erickson would later describe as one of the most significant rescues in park history.
Media reports have identified A.R. as 31-year-old Adam Rawski of British Columbia. He survived the fall with critical injuries.
The story could have ended there with a happy conclusion, but Lance put Rawski’s inReach device to use for an improper purpose: requesting a helicopter extraction for him and other climbers from Denali Pass.
Lance notified park officials that he lacked the equipment to safely climb off the mountain and said two other climbers were suffering shock and hypothermia. These claims were misleading, according to prosecutors. Landing a helicopter on Denali Pass would have been extremely dangerous because of its high altitude and high winds.
The two other climbers convinced Lance to descend with them under their own power. Erickson confronted Lance at the 14,200-foot camp, instructing him to turn over A.R.’s inReach device. But Lance refused and appeared to “engage in actions” that led Erickson to believe that he was deleting messages from the device, according to the DOJ.
Later investigation revealed that messages had been deleted, including one requesting extraction sent to another rescue agency.
Lance was charged with three misdemeanor counts, one each of interfering with a rescue operation, violating a lawful order and making a false report. He eventually pleaded guilty to violating a lawful order, and the other charges were dismissed.