A Utah doctor is accused of lying to rangers about a member of his party suffering from hypothermia while climbing Alaska’s Denali in an attempt to get a helicopter rescue, then trying to cover his tracks by deleting messages he sent to rescuers.
The bizarre incident began on May 24 when Dr. Jason Lance, a radiologist and medical imaging doctor with the Ogden Clinic, attempted to summit the highest peak in North America with a climbing partner identified by the Daily Beast as Adam Rawski.
Lance and Rawski had grouped up that day to make a summit push from the camp at 14,200 feet, according to court records. But just above Denali Pass at roughly 19,000 feet, the 47-year old doctor noticed Rawski was exhibiting signs of altitude sickness. Lance left Rawski with a separate group of two climbers, and continued toward the summit alone. Lance had with him Rawski’s Garmin inReach, a satellite communication device.
Once Lance departed the group, the climbers abandoned their own summit attempt to help Rawski descend.
Lance would eventually abandon his solo summit attempt, linking up with Rawski and the other climbers who were nearing Denali Pass. The group continued toward the pass, both Rawski and Lance without a safety rope, according to court documents.
That’s when Rawski fell.
At about 6 p.m., officials say he began “tumbling approximately 1,000 feet down the Autobahn,” the steep, icy route that connects the pass and the highest camp on Denali.
One of the climbers who saw the fall said it was “something I’ll never forget,” according to the Daily Beast.
It’s unclear in the records if Lance was aware his partner fell, but upon seeing a climber laying motionless at the bottom of the Autobahn, he activated the SOS button on Rawski’s Garmin inReach, which he still had with him.
Other climbers at the camp noticed Rawski’s fall and reported it to rangers. The park’s high altitude helicopter was already conducting glacier monitoring surveys at the basecamp, and the court records say they were able to respond within 30 minutes of the initial notification.
Rawski was alive but unresponsive, and was transported via helicopter in critical condition to the nearby — by Alaska standards — town of Talkeetna. No updates on his condition were available.
Roughly an hour after the fall, Lance again used Rawski’s Garmin inReach to message the International Emergency Response Coordination Center. “No injuries. stuck without equipment after climber fall. Request assisst (sic) for evac,” he said, according to documents.
The center told Lance to contact rangers at Denali. At 7:51 p.m., court records say rangers messaged him.
“If you have a rope available, you need to rope up and start descending. You may remove the fixed pickets and bring them with you to use further down if necessary,” they said, according to court documents.
Before Lance responded, officials say one of the climbers he was with sent a message that there was an “Accident on upper mtn (sic). Our team is all ok,” contradicting what Lance was about to tell rangers.
“There are no pickets available. We cannot safely descend,” Lance told Denali officials.
“The helicopter cannot come to your location and is not flying any more tonight. Do you have a rope with you? Your only option tonight is descent,” rangers told Lance at 8:26 p.m.
Lance responded about 20 minutes later: “Cant decend (sic) safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia.. Cant you land east of pass?”
Medical shock is a potentially fatal condition, and Lance’s claim prompted rangers to launch a helicopter with rescue supplies to reach him, and the two climbers that had helped Rawski descend. However, shortly after it took off, guides at the camp below the Denali Pass informed rangers that the three were descending under their own power.
The two climbers “reported that neither of them had suffered from any form of medical shock or hypothermia at any point during their ascent or descent, contrary to Dr. Lance’s claims,” court documents read.
Instead, prosecutors allege the two spent hours attempting to convince Lance to “rope up and descend with them.” But Lance insisted on staying put, they said, telling them that a helicopter was going to rescue them. The doctor went as far to say the park service was obligated to do so — “We’ve paid our fee,” he allegedly told the group. The trio would eventually make it off Denali Pass and to the camp without incident.
The following day, a Denali National Park Ranger met Lance at his tent at the camp where he and Rawski had originally met up. That’s when the ranger says Lance began acting suspicious.
The ranger “was collecting and safeguarding all of (Rawski’s) personal belongings to transport the items back to him or his family,” the documents read. When he asked Lance for the Garmin inReach, Lance responded “no.”
Lance exited his tent and began searching through his bags — but the ranger could see into Lance’s tent, and noticed the antenna of the Garmin inReach. The ranger pointed it out to Lance. But Lance simply reached into his backpack, pulled out his phone, then went back into his tent.
The ranger “told Dr. Lance not to turn on or manipulate the inReach device in any way, and told him ‘do not delete any messages from the device.’ Dr. Lance then placed his backpack in a way that blocked some of the view into the tent. (The ranger) could clearly see around the backpack from his position outside the tent and vestibule and watched Dr. Lance holding the Garmin inReach device in his left hand and his cell phone in his right hand,” documents read.
The ranger saw Lance “swiping” on his cellphone, while saying “that he had no right to violate his privacy.”
The ranger “informed Dr. Lance that he was outside his tent and was not violating his privacy. Dr. Lance responded by leaning forward and zipping up the vestibule to the tent,” court documents say.
When the ranger warned Lance that he could face legal repercussions if he deleted any messages, he told the ranger the park service should have rescued him the night before. About 5 minutes after going into the tent, Lance emerged, handed the ranger the Garmin inReach, and did not respond when asked if he had anything to hide.
The following day, the same ranger contacted Lance about the message he sent to Denali officials, claiming one of the climbers he was with was “suffering from hypothermia and shock.”
The ranger told Lance the climber reported they never had hypothermia. Lance told the ranger he is a licensed and trained physician, that he would recognize early hypothermia better than the climber, and that “he did not need to be lectured on hypothermia,” records state.
An investigation would later find the initial messages between Lance and the International Emergency Response Coordination Center, where the doctor said there were “no injuries” and that the reason they could not descend because they lacked the proper equipment, had been deleted.
Lance is facing charges in the U.S. District Court, District of Alaska — interfering with and violating the order of a government employee and filing a false report.