A Utah doctor was banned from climbing Denali in Alaska after he pleaded guilty last month to hindering investigators after a rescue operation on the mountain. (Daniel A. Leifheit, National Park Service)
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SALT LAKE CITY — A northern Utah doctor has been banned from climbing Alaska’s tallest mountain for five years, after authorities accused him of interfering with a rescue operation last May.
Jason Lance, 48, of Mountain Green, in Morgan County, pleaded guilty in Alaska’s federal court last month to one misdemeanor count of violating a lawful order during an accident investigation. Lance was originally charged with three misdemeanors after he was initially accused of lying to emergency responders in order to get a rescue helicopter to fly him and others off of Denali, the tallest point in the United States. Lance later pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor after an amended charging document was filed in early March.
On Thursday, a federal judge sentenced Lance to pay a $5,000 fine, and he was banned from climbing Denali for five years, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska. Lance was also ordered to make a $5,000 donation to the Denali Rescue Volunteers, an Alaska group that conducts rescue operations.
Lance and others were trying to summit Denali in May 2021 via the frequently climbed West Buttress route. Along the descent, Lance’s climbing partner began showing symptoms of altitude sickness, but they continued to ascend with others, according to charging documents. Lance and the climbing partner were unroped when the partner fell from the top of Denali Pass and tumbled roughly 1,000 feet down a snow and ice slope called the “Autobahn.”
Lance soon noticed the man had fallen and could see him lying motionless at the bottom of the slope. Lance triggered the partner’s emergency beacon, as did others on the ascent who saw the fall. Lance had grabbed the partner’s emergency beacon earlier in the day. The Denali National Park Service quickly dispatched a high-altitude helicopter, which arrived less than 30 minutes after the distress signal, and rescuers took the fallen climbing partner to the nearby town of Talkeetna for life-saving treatment, the charges state.
The next day, a Denali mountaineering ranger, who is also a member of law enforcement, approached Lance at a lower base camp and asked Lance to provide all of the man’s belongings. According to the amended charging document, Lance said he was safeguarding the other man’s belongings to take back to the man’s family.
The ranger asked Lance for the man’s emergency beacon device, and Lance initially said no. The ranger again asked for the beacon, and Lance again declined, saying, “I need the (beacon) to safely descend to base camp and plan on giving it to (the man’s) family in Anchorage,” charging documents say.
Lance later went into his tent to get the device, and the ranger told him through the tent walls that if he were to delete any messages from the beacon, he could face legal repercussions, charging documents say. Lance later reemerged from the tent and handed the device to the ranger, telling the ranger he did not delete any messages from the beacon.
However, the charging document says that some messages were deleted from the device.
Investigators found that Lance had sent messages to Denali rangers requesting a second helicopter rescue after the first rescue. Lance sent messages requesting a helicopter. At first, he sent a message that his group lacked proper equipment to descend, and later he claimed that fellow climbers were going into shock and had early signs of hypothermia, charging documents say. That message launched an emergency response, according to earlier court filings, though an emergency helicopter was later turned around when a guide at a lower camp reported the climbers had descended under their own power.
Lance’s guilty plea is in connection to his refusal of “multiple direct orders” from the ranger to hand over the man’s emergency beacon, according to the amended charging document.
“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,” said Alaska U.S. Attorney John Kuhn, Jr. in a statement.
A search of Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing shows Lance has been a licensed physician in Utah since 2005.
Jacob Scholl joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. He covers northern Utah communities, federal courts and technology.