The climbing world is mourning yet another loss this week. The slowly unfolding tragedy involving Sue Nott, 36, and Karen McNeill, 37, inspired prayers from around the globe. But in the end, time was not on their side.
On May 12, Nott and McNeill set out from Kahiltna base camp to climb the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker (17,004 feet). Widely considered one of the most challenging and aesthetic lines in the Alaska Range, the Infinite Spur has received few ascents since it was first climbed in 1977 by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe. The women were well prepared for this endeavor -- both had impressive résumés of challenging alpine climbs around the world.
According to Mark Westman, a National Park Service ranger, Nott and McNeill were carrying food and fuel for about 14 days. They also carried an FRS radio for nightly weather updates and emergencies. Reaching the climb requires a seven-mile approach over difficult terrain, including a substantial pass, while carrying enormous packs. On the morning of May 14, they met other climbers at the base of the climb -- the last time they would be seen or heard from.
Since it isn't unusual for climbers to be out of touch during an ascent, friends did not begin to worry until May 24. Even so, it isn't unreasonable for experienced climbers to stretch their supplies in the case of bad conditions. High winds and heavy snows were reported during much of this time, and it is routine to burrow into the snow and lay low until the storm abates. So a formal search was not declared until June 1, 22 days following their departure.
The National Park Service used a LAMA helicopter to carefully inspect the route and possible escape routes a total of six times from June 2-4. On one of these flights, rescuers discovered Nott's pack near the base of the Spur with its contents strewn about. Examination revealed that she had lost her sleeping bag, jacket, the radio and supplies. However, the rangers concluded that, based upon its location, the pack likely fell early in the ascent -- most likely, around the 11,000-foot level. Footprints on the ridge indicated that the pair had continued upward despite the lost pack.
On June 5, tracks in the snow were confirmed at 16,400 feet that could only have come from Nott and McNeill; nobody else had been on the route this season. This point was near the summit and above the areas of avalanche hazard. Hope continued since Nott had climbed Mount Foraker the previous year and was familiar with the safest descent route. Perhaps, they could hang on.
However, on June 6, another multi-day storm set in with blizzard conditions and winds exceeding 60 mph. This final straw dashed any hopes of survival and the search was declared a recovery mission on June 10.
The National Park Service estimates that a storm from May 18-19 dropped about three feet of snow on the route, while another storm on May 21 brought more snow. It is likely Nott and McNeill reached the top of the spur around May 22, but there is still an arduous slog to the summit. From the May 25-28, winds were blowing about 70 mph with gusts exceeding 100 mph, making travel impossible. By this time, the women would have been without food and water for several days while already physically exhausted from the climb. It is likely they were already incapacitated by the time the first helicopter flights commenced since any attempt at signaling would likely have been spotted.
On June 18, a memorial service was held in Sue Nott's hometown of Vail, Colo.; several hundred friends and relatives attended. A service is planned in Karen McNeill's adopted home of Canmore, Alberta (she was originally from New Zealand), on June 20.
Both athletes were sponsored for many years by Mountain Hardwear and they worked closely with the company on product development and marketing. Their loss has been felt deeply by many at the company and a suitable memorial is in the works. While details are still being ironed out, it is likely that the proceeds from the multi-athlete slide show called the Sharp Point Tour will go toward a grant established to honor Nott and McNeill. Lowa Boots, which also sponsored Nott, is also planning to contribute to a worthy cause on her behalf.
SNEWS® View: Another tragedy hits the outdoor industry -- it hasn't been a very happy year. Let's pray it improves. Nott and McNeil were among the most talented alpine climbers in North America. All who knew them are deeply saddened, of course, but the women also inspired countless other climbers whom they never met.
The loss of Doug Combs just a few months ago was profoundly felt at K2 and Marmot, as well as the broader skiing and climbing community. All too recently, in 1999, it was Alex Lowe who worked closely with The North Face, whose loss shocked the world. Sadly, this will not be the last memorial or epitaph SNEWS® will write. As these unfortunate cases reveal, the death of sponsored athletes command worldwide attention on high-risk activities. Which leaves us to wonder, just how many companies that sponsor professional adventurers have a disaster plan in place to help them, and their sponsored athletes' families, deal with the outcome of major accidents (or ethical transgressions) and the resulting (sometimes negative) media attention?