A Utah doctor who couldn’t hack it while climbing Alaska’s Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America, now faces federal charges for allegedly making a false report of hypothermia so that he could be airlifted off the mountain instead of descending on his own, Alaska Public Media reports.
According to the criminal complaint (via the Daily Beast), Dr. Jason Lance was attempting to summit Denali on May 24 alongside “A.R.,” another climber he had met that day at the 14,200-foot Camp 3. Somewhere between the elevations of 18,600 and 19,200 feet, Lance allegedly noticed A.R. exhibiting signs of altitude sickness; per the complaint, the doctor decided to leave his partner with another pair of climbers and continue onwards. The second team, seeing A.R.’s state, abandoned their own summit attempt to help him descend. At some point, Lance also gave up on his climb and rejoined A.R. and the second team heading back down the mountain. All four climbers were descending around Denali Pass when A.R. — who was, like Lance, reportedly not using safety ropes — fell off the pass and tumbled 1,000 feet below. A.R. was rescued in an unresponsive, injured state by a nearby Denali National Park Service (NPS) helicopter after Lance called for help using A.R.’s Garmin satellite communication device.
Apparently inspired, the doctor began looking for his own ride down, according to the complaint. After A.R. had been airlifted away, Lance used the satellite communicator to message the International Emergency Response Coordination Center: “No injuries. stuck without equipment after climber fall. Request assisst [sic] for evac.” He was told to message Denali NPS instead. Later, NPS messaged him directly, telling him that he needed to rope up and start descending, using the route’s fixed pickets if necessary. Lance claimed that they couldn’t safely descend. NPS, whose official policy is to only send rescue for critical emergencies, replied: “[t]he 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.”
Lance texted back: “Cant decend [sic] safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia.. Cant you land east of pass?” But the “patients” he was allegedly referring to, the other duo of climbers, were not suffering from hypothermia or shock, they later reported. The team said they had spent hours trying to convince Lance to descend with them to camp after they had witnessed A.R.’s fall. Per the complaint, “Team Two reported that DR. LANCE insisted the three stay put, told Team Two that the NPS was going to rescue them, and that the NPS was obligated to do so because ‘we’ve paid our fee.’”
In fact, NPS did send a helicopter — without telling the climbers — after Lance claimed hypothermia and shock, but after receiving reports that the climbers had started to descend on their own, the helicopter turned back around.
The next day, a ranger interviewed Lance at camp regarding A.R.’s accident and then attempted to collect all of A.R.’s personal belongings, including the Garmin device. According to the complaint, Lance refused multiple times. He then reportedly made a show of searching for the device that the ranger told him he could see very clearly inside the tent. (Feel free to imagine this all as a slapstick comedy, as that’s how I’m envisioning it.)
The doctor then allegedly fiddled with the device while the ranger told him not to delete any messages from the device. Lance responded by zipping the tent closed, saying something about privacy violations, and stating that the NPS “should have rescued him the previous night,” while the ranger repeated that Lance was not to delete any information from the device, according to the complaint.
The day after that, the ranger contacted Lance again about the hypothermia and shock claims, telling him that one of the other climbers reported that they hadn’t experienced hypothermia at any point. The complaint states: “DR. LANCE responded that he is a licensed and trained physician and that he would recognize early hypothermia better than Climber 1, and that he (DR. LANCE) did not need to be lectured on hypothermia. Ranger Erickson asked DR. LANCE what medical treatment he provided to Climber 1 for hypothermia. DR. LANCE again stated that he did not need to be lectured on hypothermia.”
A subsequent investigation revealed that Lance had deleted messages stating that there were “no injuries” and claiming a different reason for wanting helicopter rescue (not having the equipment to descend), the complaint states. Lance now faces three misdemeanor charges: interference with a government employee, violating a lawful order, and knowingly making a false report.
What happened on Denali — A.R.’s fall, as well as all the events leading up to and following the accident — was apparently so aggravating to Denali rangers that they published a NPS blog post on May 27 (the day after Lance allegedly reasserted his medical qualifications to a ranger) reflecting on “some troubling trends” they had noticed from climbers, including “a disturbing amount of overconfidence paired with inexperience.” The blog post took note of the fact that more climbers were attempting unreasonable summit attempts, the dissolution of climbing teams who barely know each other when one member decides to stop but the other wants to keep going, and “a remarkable lack of contingency plans” that result in totally depending on other climbing teams and NPS rescuers.
“A number of climbing teams have had their own summit bids disrupted or ruined by the need to care for these climbers,” the post continues (take that, DR. LANCE). “Rescue is not guaranteed, and your emergency plan should not be contingent upon the NPS. Rescuer safety will always be our first priority, and weather or lack of resources often preclude us from coming to help. The NPS policy is to only respond to immediate threats to life, limb, or eyesight.” And finally: “You do not want to be the subject of the next Denali National Park news release.” Forget the misdemeanor charges, being the subject of a scathing-but-eloquent NPS public service announcement might be even worse.