Tacoma woman dies on Mount McKinley

Staff writerMay 10, 2014 

A Tacoma woman is believed to have died in a fall Monday while descending Denali in Alaska. The body of Sylvia Montag, 39, was discovered by searchers Wednesday night.

Montag was climbing with 34-year-old Mike Fuchs of Berlin, Germany, when they became separated in a storm while descending from Denali Pass, Denali National Park spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri said in announcing the accident Friday.

A urologist in Tacoma, Montag was an experienced high-altitude climber, but she had not attempted the 20,322-foot peak before, Gualtieri said.

Montag had worked for MultiCare Health System, but left the health care provider earlier this year.

Jesse McLaughlin recently met Montag while both were training at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu at a gym in Tacoma. She trained there three or more times a week, he said.

"She was the toughest person in that group of tough people," McLaughlin told The Associated Press. "She was training for the climb. She was a fun part of our mat club."

Among the first climbers of the season to attempt to summit Denali, Montag and Fuchs began their ascent up the Muldrow Glacier route on April 15. They had reached Denali Pass at 18,200 feet on May 3, but were forced by strong winds to halt their ascent, camping for two nights near the pass.

On a Facebook page chronicling their climb, the pair wrote Sunday:

"With more than (60 mph) the wind beats us very strong. We have no chance to go further at the moment. Just sitting there in our strong tent and hope that it will stand another night. Here at Denali Pass there is nothing where we can hide, just only snow, ice and small stones. To build a wall of snow blocks to protect us is not possible because we fly away by building the wall. So the wind has got full power at our tent. Everything is shacking and it is loud inside.”

An attempt to descend Sunday night was foiled by the weather.

“It is not possible to go down, still big storm and no good visibillity,” an update to the post said.

At that time, two wrote they still had food for three more days, but were dealing with temperatures around -11 degrees and wind chill around -50 degrees.

At 11 a.m. Monday, Fuchs used a satellite phone to report he and Montag had become separated while coming down from the pass to High Camp at 17,200 feet on the mountain.

The two were not roped together, nor did they not have radio communications with one another, Gualtieri said. Fuchs told rangers the two were weakened from the multiple nights spent at Denali Pass, and each possessed only partial survival gear. In addition to his personal gear, Fuchs was carrying the team's satellite phone and camp stove, while Montag had the tent, limited food and her gear.

Because of limited visibility and with winds reaching 40-60 mph, Fuchs took shelter in the National Park Service’s “rescue cache,” a metal storage locker for emergency supplies and equipment at the camp.

On Tuesday morning, Fuchs called back and requested a rescue for himself and Montag, who he hoped was camped at Denali Pass.

The weather that day was still windy with low visibility, and a Park Service helicopter rescue was not feasible, Gualtieri said. A ground rescue was not possible because the two were some of the earliest climbers of the season. At the time, they were the only climbers above 14,200 feet and the only Park Service ranger patrol on the mountain was camped at 7,800 feet.

On Wednesday, Fuchs called and reported calmer winds and clear skies. He also said he had still not seen Montag descending from the pass. Clouds and poor visibility at lower elevations hampered a rescue during the day.

A clearing trend Wednesday evening finally allowed the park's high altitude helicopter to fly to the pass. After flying over the area several times, the helicopter crew spotted Montag's body 800-1,000 feet below the pass on the Peters Glacier. Fuchs also was seen standing near his camp.

The traverse between Denali Pass and the High Camp has been the site of 11 other deaths, Gualtieri said. Climbers must ascend or descend diagonally across the route.

"It can be icy in spots, but (it is) generally hard-packed snow and not very forgiving," she said.

Fuchs was lifted off the mountain in a rescue basket attached to a line under the helicopter and flown to the Kahiltna Basecamp. He was then taken to Talkeetna State Airport and released.

Montag's body will be recovered when an park ground team can reaches the area.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jeffrey P. Mayor:253-597-8640

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