A mountaineering medical doctor called in a false report of hypothermia after attempting and failing to summit Denali, the tallest peak in North America, so he could be “rescued” by helicopter instead of descending on his own, according to a criminal complaint filed in Fairbanks, Alaska federal court.
The three charges now facing Dr. Jason Lance, an Ogden, Utah radiologist, stem from a May 24 incident that occurred more than 17,000 feet up Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley. That day, Lance and his climbing partner, who is identified in the complaint as “A.R.,” set out from Denali’s Camp 3, at 14,200 feet, to try and reach the top.
The views from Camp 3 are said to be spectacular. However, the American Alpine Institute also describes it as a “very windy and inhospitable place,” and says that “more than one team has been stuck at 14 [thousand feet] for a week waiting for the wind and weather to abate higher on the mountain.” At 17,200 feet, climbers begin to experience winds in excess of 70 mph and temperatures that routinely drop to -30 Fahrenheit and below. The trek from this stage to the summit—at 20,320 feet—and back takes most climbers 13-14 hours, and is extremely difficult.
Denali was off-limits to climbers during much of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since it reopened for the 2021 season, rangers said they have seen a “disturbing amount of overconfidence paired with inexperience,” leading to a sharp spike in serious accidents and emergency rescue calls.
“Rescue is not guaranteed, and your emergency plan should not be contingent upon the NPS,” the National Park Service said in a blog post. “Rescuer safety will always be our first priority, and weather or lack of resources often preclude us from coming to help. The NPS policy is to only respond to immediate threats to life, limb, or eyesight. Anything that we deem falls outside these categories, we will leave you to figure out on your own, and this year we have already turned down rescue requests that don’t meet these criteria.”
Lance and A.R. were somewhere between 18,600 and 19,200 feet when Lance, 47, “observed A.R. begin to exhibit symptoms of altitude sickness,” the complaint states. Realizing that A.R. was too sick to continue, Lance left him behind with a second pair of climbers, took A.R.’s Garmin satellite text-messaging device, and continued on by himself toward the summit, it explains.
The other duo then decided that A.R., 31, was in serious trouble, and abandoned their own summit attempt to help A.R. get back down to safety.
At some point later, Lance also gave up on making it to the top, says the complaint. He rejoined the second team of climbers and the flagging A.R., who were nearing Denali Pass, at 18,200 feet.
The four climbers descended with Lance in the lead, according to the complaint. Neither Lance nor A.R. were using safety ropes, it says. Around 6 p.m., A.R. fell from the top of Denali Pass, “tumbling approximately 1,000 feet down the Autobahn,” a snowy, icy slope connecting the pass and the high camp at 17,200 feet.
Lance “soon became aware that A.R. was no longer behind him and saw a climber laying motionless at the bottom of the Autobahn,” the complaint continues. That’s when Lance triggered the SOS button on A.R.’s satellite device. Other climbers at Camp 3 also witnessed the accident, and reported it to Denali rangers. Luckily, an NPS high-altitude helicopter was in the midst of conducting glacier monitoring surveys nearby, and was able to respond quickly.
When rescue crews arrived on the scene, they found A.R., who was identified by officials as 31-year-old Adam Rawski of Barnaby, British Columbia, alive but unresponsive, with “multiple traumatic injuries.” He was airlifted to a hospital in Anchorage in critical condition, but survived. Another climber who witnessed the fall later described it as “something I’ll never forget.”
At about 7 p.m., once Rawski had been evacuated, Lance used Rawski’s satellite device to contact Garmin’s International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC), texting, “No injuries. stuck without equipment after climber fall. Request assisst [sic] for evac.” IERCC responded with a message telling Lance, who was still with the other two climbers, to message Denali National Park rangers directly, and provided an email. Less than an hour later, Denali NPS messaged Lance, advising him, “If you have a rope available, you need to rope up and start descending. You may remove the fixed pickets and bring them with you to use further down if necessary.”
Lance responded, according to the complaint, stating, “there are no pickets available. We cannot safely descend.” Rangers texted back, telling Lance, “The helicopter cannot come to your location and is not flying any more tonight. Do you have a rope with you? Your only option tonight is descent.” But Lance continued to push back, messaging rangers, “Cant decend [sic] safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia... Cant you land east of pass?” the complaint states.
“Because medical shock is a serious and potentially fatal condition, Denali NPS launched a helicopter with rescue supplies to reach the three climbers, but did not at that point inform Dr. Lance it had done so,” the filing continues. “Shortly after launch, the helicopter turned around because guides at 17,200 ft camp reported that the three climbers were descending from Denali Pass under their own power.”
When they got back down to a lower altitude, the pair of climbers who had been with Lance told rangers that “neither of them had suffered from any form of medical shock or hypothermia at any point during their ascent or descent contrary to Dr. Lance’s claims to Denali NPS,” the complaint states. “Both [climbers] reported that they spent hours attempting to convince Dr. Lance to rope up and descend with them from 18,200 ft to 17,200 ft high camp after the trio watched A.R. fall. [The climbers] reported that Dr. Lance insisted the three stay put, told [the climbers] that the NPS was going to rescue them, and that the NPS was obligated to do so because ‘we’ve paid our fee.’”
Eventually, the two climbers said, they were able to convince Lance to descend with them. They all made it to Camp 3 “without incident,” the complaint states.
The next day, a Denali ranger interviewed Lance in his tent at the camp. The ranger told Lance he was collecting A.R.’s belongings so they could be returned to him, and asked Lance for A.R.’s Garmin satellite device. But Lance refused, according to the complaint. The ranger explained that it was his job to safeguard A.R.’s personal property, to which Lance allegedly replied, “No, I’m not giving it to you.”
The ranger found this suspicious, according to the complaint, “because Dr. Lance and A.R. did not know each other well and had only just teamed up prior to their summit attempt.” After the ranger’s third request for the device, Lance spent “approximately 5 minutes searching through his duffel, backpack, tent, and vestibule,” the complaint says. However, the ranger could see the device beside Lance’s sleeping pad, and pointed this out to Lance, according to the complaint.
“Dr. Lance instead reached into his backpack, pulled out his cell phone and then re-entered his tent,” it states.
Following some more back-and-forth between the ranger and Lance, the ranger told Lance not to turn on “or manipulate the...device in any way,” and warned him not to “delete any messages,” the complaint explains. At this point, Lance allegedly used his backpack to block the ranger’s view into his tent. The ranger again cautioned Lance not to delete anything from A.R.’s Garmin device. According to the complaint, the ranger “then observed Dr. Lance ‘swiping’ on his cell phone while telling [the ranger] that he had no right to violate his...privacy.” Lance proceeded to zip up his tent, trying to end the conversation, the complaint says.
“[The ranger] informed Dr. Lance through the tent walls that if Dr. Lance were to delete any messages, he could face legal repercussions,” it goes on. “Dr. Lance responded with statements about his privacy and stated that NPS should have rescued him (Dr. Lance) the previous night.”
A few minutes later, Lance unzipped his tent and handed the ranger A.R.’s device. The ranger asked Lance “if he had something to hide by deleting messages from the device,” the complaint states. “Dr. Lance did not reply.”
Rangers subsequently obtained a search warrant and subpoenaed Garmin for the messages Lance sent from Denali. This revealed that “multiple additional messages between Dr. Lance and IERCC had been deleted from the...device, including a message sent less than two hours earlier in which Dr. Lance stated there were ‘no injuries’ and claimed an entirely different reason that helicopter rescue was necessary, namely, because they lacked proper equipment to descend,” the complaint notes.
Lance is now facing three misdemeanor counts: Interference with a government employee, violating a lawful order, and making a false report.
Reached by phone on Wednesday by The Daily Beast, Lance said he was not aware that a federal complaint had been filed against him and declined to comment further before familiarizing himself with the charges. In a follow-up text message later in the day, Lance said, “The allegations are baseless. Some of the information in it is inaccurate. There’s also other stuff that went on that’s not mentioned. I’m appalled, really.”
A.R. was unable to be reached. A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lance is scheduled to appear before a judge for a detention hearing, via Zoom, on Nov. 29.