Anchorage, Alaska • A Utah doctor is accused of lying about sick patients in his climbing group to get a high-altitude government helicopter to rescue him from the highest mountain in North America after the failed a summit and destroying evidence.
Dr Jason Lance, who is a radiologist in Ogden, Utah, was charged Tuesday with three misdemeanors during his attempt in May to climb the Denali, a 20,310-foot (6,190-meter) peak located about 180 miles (290 km) north of Anchorage.
Lance declined to comment on the Associated Press on Thursday when contacted at his Ogden office. His virtual arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 6 in U.S. District Court in Fairbanks.
Lance and another man named in court documents as AR decided to form a team on May 24 at a camp at the 14,200-foot (4,300-meter) level to begin their summit along the West Buttress, described in court documents as the most popular rock climbing route on Denali.
Somewhere below the 19,200-foot (5,850-meter) level, Lance saw his partner begin to show symptoms of altitude sickness. Lance decided his partner was too sick to continue on the summit and left him with another group of climbers and continued on his own to the summit, court documents show. He also took the man’s satellite communications device, authorities said.
The other climbers gave up their own attempt at the summit to help the patient to descend.
Later court documents indicate that Lance abandoned his own summit attempt and joined the other three men on the descent as they approached Denali Pass at 18,200 feet (5,550 meters).
The four started to descend with Lance in the lead, AR behind him, then the other team. Lance and AR weren’t tied together.
Then, AR fell from the top of Denali Pass, plunging to about 1,000 feet (305 meters). Lance triggered the satellite communications device and reported the fall.
The high-altitude Denali National Park and Preserve helicopter responded and took AR to the paramedics waiting in the nearby town of Talkeetna.
After AR left the mountain, court documents indicate that Lance used the communications device to send this message to the manufacturer’s emergency response center: “No injuries. Stuck without equipment after climber fell. Request assistance (sic) for evacuation. The center responded by advising it to contact Denali National Park directly.
Almost an hour later, park officials told him that if he had a rope he would have to “tie it up and start descending.” He responded by saying that they couldn’t get off safely.
The park told him the helicopter was no longer flying that night and the only option was to descend.
After receiving this message, Lance responded 21 minutes later, “I can’t get off safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia. Can’t land east of the pass? “
Given this medical news, the helicopter took off but had not informed Lance. Shortly after the launch, he abandoned the mission when guides at the nearby high base camp reported that the three climbers were descending.
In subsequent interviews, none of the members of the other climbing team reported experiencing medical shock or hypothermia at any time. They also said they spent hours trying to convince Lance to descend 1,000 feet (305 meters) with them to base camp at 17,200 feet (5,240 meters).
Lance insisted they stay put and that the National Park Service was obligated to rescue them because “we paid our fees,” according to court documents.
The other team eventually convinced him to come down, which they did without incident.
The next day, Denali Mountaineering Ranger Chris Erickson, who is also a law enforcement officer, interviewed Lance at base camp. Erickson said he had to protect all of AR’s equipment, including his satellite communications device. According to court documents, Lance refused to hand over the device.
Although Erickson ordered him not to delete any messages from the device, authorities say he locked himself in his tent for five minutes before handing it over.
In a follow-up interview on May 26, Erickson told Lance that the other climbers in the group denied suffering from shock or hypothermia.
Lance replied that he was a licensed and trained physician and would recognize early hypothermia better than a climber. He added that he did not need to be lectured about hypothermia, according to court documents.
When he first received it, Erickson said the satellite communications device contained several messages Lance sent to park officials claiming a medical necessity for transport. However, deleted messages obtained via a search warrant served on the manufacturer showed several additional messages between Lance and the manufacturer’s rescue center. Among them was Lance’s proclamation that there were no injuries and that they simply did not have the proper equipment to descend, according to court documents.
Lance faces three counts of interference and breaking the order of a government employee and filing a false report.