James Nasti, 07-04-08

Climber dies on McKinley summit

By LISA DEMER, ldemer@adn.com

Published: July 7th, 2008 04:21 PM

They buried climber James Nasti on Sunday in a snowy grave just off the summit of Mount McKinley and marked it with bamboo poles, the kind you'd find in any garden shop.

He made it to the top of North America's tallest peak the evening of the Fourth of July on a guided expedition and seemed to be doing fine, was moving slowly, but so was everyone in the high, thin air, said Maureen McLaughlin, Denali National Park's Talkeetna-based spokeswoman for mountaineering operations. Climbers on McKinley don't use oxygen tanks.

There were no signs of the altitude sickness that can cause nausea and headaches and extreme fatigue, she said. No lead up at all.

Then, inexplicably, Nasti, a 51-year-old from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, collapsed and died on the 20,320-foot summit of McKinley.

"Here you have a good summit day. Everybody's climbing good. Everything is a picture perfect trip up to this point with nothing that would indicate there is going to be a problem," said Daryl Miller, the park's south district ranger.

Guides and an emergency medical technician who happened to among the Alpine Ascents International clients on the climb did CPR for up to 45 minutes but couldn't revive Nasti, according to the Park Service. They went up the popular West Buttress route.

"I would have to say it's probably one of the most unusual cases in the history on Denali to have this happen at the top and to have it with a person that exhibited solid -- a seemingly strong person all the way up," Miller said.

Nasti is the first climber to die on the McKinley summit, a flat area about the size of a single car garage, according to the Park Service.

His death is the third this season and the 101st on the mountain since the first fatality in 1932.

Park officials decided it would be too treacherous to try to bring his body across a 500-foot knife-edged ridge that climbers must negotiate just below the top. The weather had been nice, but winds were picking up and it was about zero degrees. Park rangers advised the rest of the Alpine Ascents group to descend.

The Park Service delayed news of his death while his body lay exposed at the top. No one was inquiring, and they didn't want to risk anyone flying overhead to catch a glimpse, take a photo or record video that could end up on the Internet, Miller said.

Other climbers with Alpine Ascents reached Nasti's body on Sunday and buried him in a snowy depression. That may be where he remains. His body could be recovered, but McLaughlin said it would be a technical and risky effort that will be up to Nasti's family and friends to organize.

The bamboo poles aren't expected to last near the summit, where winds can gust to 100 mph. But the guides also took GPS coordinates of the burial spot.

There are now 38 bodies on the mountain, a toll that's accumulated over many years, according to the Park Service. Some climbers vanish, like two Japanese climbers who disappeared in May climbing an especially treacherous route. Others, like Nasti, die in an area risky to reach.

"Some, we know a general location, but snow and elements have obscured it," McLaughlin said.

Nasti was on Alpine Ascent's Denali Team XI, led by guides Michael Horst and Suzanne Allen, according to the business's Web site.

The company's program director, Gordon Janow, referred questions to the Park Service.

The guides are both experienced mountaineers, and Seattle-based Alpine Ascents has guided on Denali for 15 years, according to the Park Service. They are a big outfit with a good reputation and operations around the globe, McLaughlin said.

One of the six clients on the trip had a stomach bug and turned back at about 8,000 feet, soon after they left base camp, Miller said. As the guides led Nasti and remaining four to the top, they posted regular "cybercasts" on Alpine Ascents Web site.

"We were able to fly in on the 20th with good weather. The next day it rained a little bit, we did some exercises around camp, we reviewed crevasse rescue and that sort of thing ... everyone is doing well and having fun," the guides said in their June 22 cybercast.

The Park Service didn't want to speculate on what caused the death.

"Mr. Nasti was from all accounts a very fit and well-acclimated man," McLaughlin said.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.