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Spring peril

As warmer weather thaws icy terrain, solo mountaineers face greater risks.

June 01, 2004|Chuck Thompson | Special to The Times

Even the novice hiker knows not to climb alone. Especially when the conditions include ice during the spring thaw. At high elevations, warming temps can make frozen footing vanish as fast as a winter white-out. As the weather improves, it's tempting to push higher, but that can also increase the risk for mishaps. The dangers were brought home last month when ski mountaineer Jason Harper decided to take on one of Alaska's tallest peaks alone and in unusually warm conditions.

The 27-year-old was last seen by bush pilot Harley McMahan, who dropped him May 4 on the slopes of 16,237-foot Mt. Sanford in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Harper established a base camp on a ridge at about 7,000 feet. Wearing crampons and carrying ice ax, rope, snow shovel and skis, he left the camp May 5 for a one-day ascent of the summit, a formidable 9,000 feet of elevation gain. From the summit he planned to ski back to the base camp.

When Harper failed to show for his May 9 pickup, McMahan contacted park officials. An intensive five-day search was called off May 16 when weather deteriorated. Harper is presumed dead.

Searchers speculate that Harper fell into a crevasse, perhaps after attempting to cross an ice bridge, which then collapsed. Though Mt. Sanford isn't considered a difficult or technical climb, the route to the summit is flanked by thousands of icefalls and other hazards.

"If you fall into a crevasse by yourself, it's a pretty serious situation that you're likely not going to get out of," said park spokesman Smitty Parratt.

Harper began his climb fairly late in the spring, when warmer temperatures expose crevasses and create less stable snow and ice. Late March to April is the traditional climbing period for Mt. Sanford.

Shifting weather adds an extra component of risk to traversing snow or ice this time of year, particularly when you're going solo. Still, Harper was no novice to solitary climbs or icy conditions. He had completed major solo trips through the Chilean Andes and lived for five weeks in snow caves in Alaska's Wrangell Mountains.

Harper was a committed ski mountaineer, someone who climbs peaks to ski down them. The Boise, Idaho-raised skier spent his last two months living in a tent in Valdez, Alaska, so he could add Mt. Sanford to an impressive list of peaks he'd climbed and skied around the world. Given Harper's experience in the wild, it's not surprising that he ignored conventional wisdom in attempting Mt. Sanford on his own. Though his family knew his general plan, Harper didn't register with the national park office before his climb. Climbers are encouraged but not required to register. Many do not.

"The main contributing factor [to Harper's disappearance] is that he was traveling alone," Parratt said. "There's also the question of rapid gain in elevation. He was doing the trip very fast, which can cause confusion and poor judgment."

Swift ascent can short-circuit the decision-making process. "You might not think through the consequences of an action," said Sue Purvis, owner and operator of Crested Butte Outdoors and an instructor of wilderness rescue training in Crested Butte, Colo. She suggests that a climber above 10,000 feet ascend no more than 1,000 to 3,000 feet a day and rest every 3,000 to 5,000 feet.

Harper tried to drum up a partner for the trip, but found no takers. At least one bush pilot refused to fly him into the park.

"Patience wasn't his virtue," said Dan VanDerMeulen, a fellow skier based in Valdez. Harper spent his last few weeks hanging out and skiing with VanDerMeulen.

"The guy's determination was astounding. If somebody told him he couldn't do something he'd be like, 'Uh, we'll get it done.' He believed he could walk through fire."

Harper understood the risks involved -- he'd spoken about them with VanDerMeulen -- but like many of his fellow peak skiers, he believed them to be relatively low.

"People travel alone on glaciers all the time," VanDerMeulen said. "But you start spending weeks and then an entire season on glaciers and it's gonna catch up with a guy. Harper understood all this, he weighed the odds and he went for it."

On the day of his final ascent, Harper's last views of Earth would have been magnificent. The shoulders of Mt. Sanford provide commanding vistas of 13,887-foot Mt. Wrangell, expanses of Canada's Yukon Territory and, in perfect conditions, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park.

"I guess he's where he belongs," said Carma Burnett Carew, Harper's ski coach in Idaho for more than 10 years. "It's fitting that he's up on the mountain, because that's what he loved to do."

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