Utah doctor accused of faking hypothermia for rescue from Alaska’s Denali

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Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is North America’s tallest peak at 20,320 feet.
(AP Photo/Dan Joling)

DENALI, Alaska (KTVX) – A Utah doctor is facing federal charges after allegedly faking hypothermia while climbing a mountain in Alaska earlier this year.

Court documents filed in Fairbanks earlier this week show Dr. Jason Lance of Mountain Green, Utah, is facing three federal charges: interference with a government employee, violating a lawful order, and false report. Dr. Lance is listed as a radiology specialist at Ogden Clinic in Ogden.

Federal investigators say Dr. Lance was climbing with another person as they tried to summit Denali in late May 2021.

While Lance and his partner were not registered climbing partners, they had grouped up that day for a summit attempt from a camp at 14,200 feet. Between 18,600 and 19,200 feet, just above Denali Pass, Lance noticed his partner experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. According to Cleveland Clinic, altitude sickness occurs when the body reaches a high elevation without enough time to adjust. In severe cases, it can be life-threatening.

SLIDESHOW: Denali

Lance allegedly felt his partner, identified as 31-year-old Adam Rawski of British Columbia in a May press release from Denali National Park, was too sick to continue climbing, so he left Rawski with two other climbers to continue to the summit alone. The group abandoned their climb to help Rawski descend. According to court documents, sometime after separating, Lance rejoined Rawski and the two other climbers.

Lance then began leading the group down toward Denali Pass. At some point in the evening hours, Rawski fell from the top of the pass, tumbling about 1,000 feet down the Autobahn, described as “a steep, 1,000 foot snow and ice slope” that “leads climbers between the pass and high camp at 17,200 feet.”

Using his partner’s Garmin inReach, which he had taken from Rawski earlier, authorities say Lance triggered the SOS button when he realized Rawski was no longer behind him. Climbers at the nearby camp had also seen Rawski fall and reported it to the Denali National Park Service. The service’s high-altitude helicopter was called and quickly rescued Rawski, who was alive but unresponsive.

About an hour after Rawski’s fall, investigators say Lance sent a message with the inReach device requesting help getting off the mountain. The Garmin International Emergency Response Coordination Center responded and told Lance to message the Denali NPS directly. Less than an hour later, Denali NPS messaged Lance on the Garmin, telling him to “rope up and start descending.”

Lance later messaged NPS saying there were “no pickets available” to aid in their descent and asked if the helicopter could bring him and the two other climbers down. When Denali NPS told Lance they could not fly anymore that night, Lance replied they could not “descend safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia. Cant you land east of pass?”

Denali NPS sent the helicopter to rescue the trio but turned it around when guides said Lance and the climbers were descending Denali Pass on their own. Investigators say the two other climbers later told NPS they had not suffered any medical shock or hypothermia despite Lance’s claims. Instead, they “spent hours” trying to convince Lance to descend with them to a camp at 17,200 feet. Instead, Lance allegedly told them to stay put for NPS to rescue them because they were “obligated to do so because ‘we’ve paid our fee.'”

All three climbers did eventually descend to the 17,200 feet high camp without incident.

The next day, a Denali NPS ranger and law enforcement officer spoke with Lance about Rawski’s fall and the ensuing events. When the officer told Lance he was collecting Rawski’s belongings and needed the Garmin, Lance refused to give it to him. The officer noted the behavior as suspicious because Rawski and Lance did not know each other until they teamed up before their attempt to climb the summit.

Instead, law enforcement says Lance hid in his tent with Rawski’s Garmin despite repeated warnings to not delete any messages from the device. Lance told officers NPS should have rescued him the night before. According to court documents, when authorities reviewed the Garmin, they found deleted messages from Lance claiming different reasons why helicopter rescue was needed.

When investigators later spoke with Lance about the message he sent and the claims he made about needing to be rescued, Lance said his fellow climbers had hypothermia. When Lance was told one of the climbers said they did not have hypothermia, Lance told the investigator he is a licensed physician and would recognize the signs of hypothermia better than a climber.

A detention hearing has been set for December 6.

Also known as Mount McKinley, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. Found in south-central Alaska, Denali’s peak reaches 6,190 meters (20,310 feet) above sea level. It is the third-highest of the Seven Summits, or the tallest peaks on all seven continents, according to National Geographic.

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