Rangers were concerned about climber's age, experience

Posted: Tuesday, July 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The solo climber who fell to his death on Mount McKinley early Sunday was a 61-year-old Canadian whose age, resume and equipment had raised concerns among Denali National Park mountaineering rangers.

Michael Heck of Whitevale, Ontario, died falling 1,000 feet down an icy slope as he descended from 18,200-foot Denali Pass, the National Park Service said Monday.

Whitevale is the oldest known person of the 92 people who have perished climbing the continent's tallest mountain since 1932, according to agency records. Heck is the first person to die on McKinley in four years.

Though some climbers witnessed the fall from a camp at 17,200 feet, there was no way to know why Heck lost his footing, park ranger Roger Robinson said Monday from Talkeetna

''Maybe he was tired from a long day, maybe he was ataxic (uncoordinated) from the altitude. It's hard to say,'' Robinson said. ''It's easy to trip up on yourself.''

McKinley rangers generally try to discourage people from climbing the 20,320-foot mountain solo. They contacted Heck before he arrived, and he told them he hoped to find a partner, Robinson said. But he came to Talkeetna alone.

On his McKinley registration form, Heck noted that he had climbed three Mexican volcanoes but mentioned nothing else, Robinson said.

''There has been concern about him from the day he arrived because of his lack of experience,'' the ranger said. On the mountain he was observed with ''kind of ancient climbing gear,'' Robinson said, including crampon straps that appeared to need repair.

Gordy Kito, also a McKinley ranger, spent some time talking with Heck at the mountain's base camp after the climber arrived there June 19. Heck told him he'd done lots of climbing while growing up in Great Britain.

Kito nevertheless felt uneasy.

''More than anything, I think it's just kind of you get something in your head that's not right,'' Kito said.

Heck climbed solo but in full view of other people. On Saturday, his 11th day on the peak, he left the commonly used high camp at 17,200 feet for the summit.

It's likely Heck reached the top, Robinson said. He was seen high on the summit ridge by a team on its way down. He was the last person to leave the summit area that day.

''There were folks concerned about him because he was so late, and some people were watching for him,'' Robinson said.

About midnight, he appeared in Denali Pass. Ranger John Leonard and other climbers saw Heck.

Leonard and two volunteer rangers, one of whom is a U.S. Marine paramedic, went to rescue Heck. They confirmed, instead, that he had been killed by the fall, Robinson said.

The slope below Denali Pass, particularly for climbers traversing it on the way down, is a known hazard. It averages about 35 degrees but steepens in places to 45 degrees of mixed ice and soft snow.

''It would be like tipping a soft ice rink on its side,'' Robinson said. ''Boy, you start to tumble on that, you're not going to stop.''

Heck is the sixth person to die from a fall there since 1980, according to the Park Service. All were descending.

Already this year, Robinson said, at least half a dozen climbers have tumbled while descending from the pass, including two Spaniards seriously injured in mid-May.

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