Ogden climber sentenced for actions in Mount Denali rescue, investigation
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with responses from Lance.
An Ogden doctor has been sentenced to a five-year ban from climbing Mount Denali in Alaska after he pleaded guilty to disrupting an investigation into a climbing partner’s 1,000-foot fall there.
U.S. Magistrate Scott Oravec in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Thursday imposed the ban on Jason Lance, 48, and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine and give $5,000 to the Denali Rescue Volunteers. Lance on March 4 agreed to a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violating a lawful order. In return, two other misdemeanor charges were dismissed: interfering with a rescue operation and making a false report.
In a phone interview Friday night, Lance said he pleaded guilty only to an investigator “having to ask me twice” to return a fellow climber’s emergency phone.
In charging documents, federal prosecutors said Lance, who lives in Mountain Green and practices in Ogden, falsely reported a climber had hypothermia in the hope of getting a helicopter lift down from the rugged mountain, then being uncooperative when questioned by a park ranger.
Lance attempted to summit Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, on May 24, 2021.
Court records said he was with another climber who experienced altitude sickness as they moved beyond 18,600 feet. The other climber stayed with another group of two as Lance continued upward. The two other climbers abandoned their effort so they could help the ill climber descend.
Lance later abandoned his climb and rejoined the other three. As they traversed Denali Pass, the ill climber fell, tumbling 1,000 feet. Lance had that climber’s satellite communications device and he made an emergency call. The climber was found alive but unresponsive and was taken from the mountain by helicopter.
“We were all in psychological shock,” Lance said Friday. “We thought he was dead.”
Charging documents said Lance later radioed for help descending, saying he was not injured but was hampered by the other climber’s equipment. Park authorities responded that a helicopter could not return so late in the day and his only option was to keep climbing down.
At 8:47 p.m., according to the charges, Lance radioed Denali park officials, “Can’t descend safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia. Can’t you land east of pass?” Because shock is a dangerous condition, park rangers launched a helicopter, but it soon turned around when guides at 17,200 feet reported Lance and the other two climbers were descending under their own power.
Charging documents said the other two told park rangers they had spent hours trying to persuade Lance to descend with them, but he allegedly insisted they stay there and that park rangers were obligated to rescue them. They finally convinced him to climb down, after he had made the alleged hypothermia report.
Lance said Friday the other two misdemeanors were dropped because the evidence proved he did not make a false report and that one of the other climbers was, in fact, in distress. “The witness admitted to having hypothermia and psychological shock,” he said.
A park investigator interviewed Lance at the 14,000-foot camp the next day and later reported that Lance repeatedly refused to turn over the injured climber’s satellite radio. The investigator said he found the refusal to be suspicious because Lance did not know the other climber well — they had just teamed up before the summit attempt.
The ranger said he watched Lance go into his tent and pick up the radio, allegedly in a secretive manner, and also picked up his cellphone and began making swiping motions on it. The ranger told Lance not to delete any messages on the radio. Lance allegedly zipped the tent closed, telling the ranger he was violating his privacy. After the ranger told Lance he could face charges if he tampered with the radio, Lance opened the tent flap and gave him the device.
Lance said Friday he had good reason to want to keep the device because he and the other climbers still had to descend from the 14,000-foot level.
“Impeding the investigation of a near-fatal accident and attempting to secure helicopter rescue under misleading premises evinces a selfishness and indifference to the scarcity of public safety and rescue resources that is unacceptable anywhere, let alone on the tallest peak in North America,” U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. of the District of Alaska said in a prepared statement Friday.
“That’s how they wanted to spin it,” Lance said, maintaining that his only offense was not giving the ranger the emergency phone on his first request.