Doctor charged after calling 911 with fake hypothermia report so he could be rescued by helicopter

A doctor has been charged with three crimes after he allegedly faked hypothermia to try and summon a helicopter to collect him while he climbed Denali.   

According to a criminal complaint filed in Fairbanks, Alaska federal court, Dr. Jason Lance, an Ogden, Utah-based radiologist, is now facing the charges following a May 24 incident that occurred over 17,000 feet up Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley. The Alaskan peak is the United States’ tallest mountain, with its summit reaching 20,320 feet. 

Lance, 47, is said to have tried to hail the chopper while descending from the mountain after giving up on his attempt to reach its peak, and complaining that he lacked the correct equipment to descend.  He was accompanied at the time by two friends, Adam Rawski, named in court documents as AR, and another unnamed climber. 

After being told by park rangers that the helicopter ‘Cannot safely descend,’ he wrote back saying: ‘Cant decend [sic] safely. Patients in shock. Early hypothermia… Cant you land east of pass?,’ according to the complaint seen by the Daily Beast. 

On descending to a safe altitude, Lance, who denies the charges against him, and the two climbers he was with were met by park rangers.

The two climbers he was with 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,’ according to the complaint.

Pictured: Dr. Jason Lance, an Ogden-based radiologist, is now facing the charges following a May 24 incident that occurred 17,000 feet up Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley

‘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.’”

Lance is then said to have hidden himself in a tent and ignored a ranger’s orders not to delete messages from a Garmin satellite phone. A subsequent subpoena of the device is said to have revealed a message from Lance saying the real reason he’d summoned the chopper is that he lacked the equipment to get back down the mountain. 

The 47-year-old doctor and his 31-year-old friend and climbing partner, identified in the criminal complaint as Adam Rawski, set out from Denali’s Camp 3, at 14,200 feet, to try and reach the mountain’s summit.  

On the day of Lance and his friend’s climb, the American Alpine Institute issued a warning describing his intended next stop, Camp 4, as ‘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.’ 

This graphic shows where the climb started - Camp III - with the attempt to reach the summit later abandoned

This graphic shows where the climb started – Camp III – with the attempt to reach the summit later abandoned 

At around 17,200 feet, climbers begin to experience temperatures that drop below -30 degrees Fahrenheit and winds over 70 mph.  

The climb from 17,200 feet to the summit, which is another 3,120 feet, and back is extremely difficult, and can take even the most experienced climbers 13-14 hours to complete.

The complaint states that Lance and Rawski, named in documents as AR, were between 18,600 and 19,200 feet when Lance ‘observed AR begin to exhibit symptoms of altitude sickness.’ 

Lance then left him behind with a second pair of climbers after realizing that Rawski was too sick to continue, and took Rawski’s Garmin satellite text-messaging device before continuing on by himself toward the summit. 

Lance eventually gave up on making it to the summit of the mountain, the complaint states.

He then rejoined the second team of climbers and Rawski, who were nearing Denali Pass, at 18,200 feet. 

The four climbers descended the mountain with Lance at the front, according to the complaint, with neither Lance nor Rawski using safety ropes.

At around 6 pm, Rawski fell from the top of Denali Pass, ‘tumbling approximately 1,000 feet down the Autobahn,’ an icy slope connecting the pass to the high camp at 17,200 feet. 

The trek from this stage to the summit—at 20,320 feet—and back takes most climbers 13-14 hours, and is extremely difficult. 

Other climbers at Camp 3 witnessed Rawksi’s accident and reported it to Denali park rangers.

An NPS high-altitude helicopter happened to be in the midst of monitoring nearby glaciers, and was able to respond to the scene quickly. 

Rawski was alive but unresponsive, with ‘multiple traumatic injuries,’ and was airlifted to a hospital in Anchorage in critical condition. Another climber who witnessed the fall said it was ‘something I’ll never forget.’

An hour later, once Rawski had been evacuated, Lance used Rawski’s satellite device to contact Garmin’s International Emergency Response Coordination Center, texting them ‘No injuries. stuck without equipment after climber fall. Request assisst [sic] for evac.’

IERCC then responded with a message telling Lance, who was still with the other two climbers, to message Denali National Park rangers directly, and provided him with an email address.

Minutes later, Denali NPS messaged Lance to advise 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.’

‘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. 

A file photo showing a Denali rescue chopper similar to one Lance is said to have summoned to help him

A file photo showing a Denali rescue chopper similar to one Lance is said to have summoned to help him 

‘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.’ 

The three men made it safely to the bottom, and were intercepted shortly afterwards.  

During much of the COVID-19 pandemic, Denali had been off-limits to climbers, however most of Denali’s campgrounds were re-opened in 2021.

Since reopening for the 2021 season, park rangers said they have seen a ‘disturbing amount of overconfidence paired with inexperience,’ in climbers, which has caused a massive increase in emergency rescue calls and serious accidents. 

‘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 was charged with resisting and intentionally interfering with a government employee and agent engaged in an official duty, or on account of the performance of an official duty.

He was also charged with violating the lawful order of a government employee and agent authorized to maintain order and control public access and movement during search and rescue operations and law enforcement actions, and knowingly give a false report for the purpose of misleading a government employee or agent in the conduct of official duties, and made a false report that caused a response by the United States to a fictitious event,  

Lance is scheduled to appear before a judge for a detention hearing, via Zoom, on November 29. 

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