Mpls. doctor, climbing partner fall, die on Mount McKinley

  • Article by: AIMÉE BLANCHETTE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 12, 2009 - 10:47 PM

A Twin Cities-Mankato orthopedic surgeon fell to his death, along with his longtime climbing partner.

Andrew Swanson reveled in the difficulty of climbing peaks in Peru, Bolivia and Alaska. But his latest and most difficult climb -- Mount McKinley -- proved to be his last.

Swanson, a Minnesota doctor, and his longtime climbing partner, John Mislow, 39, were roped together Thursday when they fell 2,000 feet to their death on the 20,320-foot peak in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Family and friends of the 36-year-old said they couldn't have imagined losing Swanson, a "perfectionist," to the sport he loved. He called his mother every day of every climb. But on Thursday, he didn't call.

"We always worried about him, but he was so careful and thorough," said his sister Molly Britt. "He had the most brilliant mind, and so we thought nothing would ever happen to him."

Swanson split his time between Mankato and Minneapolis, where he had completed a fellowship with the Twin Cities Spine Center.

Specializing in spinal surgery, Swanson often traveled to Africa to help children who had been affected by tuberculosis. He returned from his last trip just four days before he left to attempt McKinley for the second time.

Since 1903, of 33,691 climbers, 16,163 have reached the top of the mountain. More than 100 have died trying.

Swanson is the second Minnesotan to die recently in a mountain climbing accident. On Monday, rescuers found the body of Wade Johnson, a 2007 Carleton College graduate from Arden Hills, who was buried by an avalanche with two other American mountaineers on a peak in southwestern China. They had not been heard from since May 20.

When a climber dies, it's a "shock" to the local mountaineering community, said Rod Johnson, owner of Midwest Mountaineering.

"It's a tragedy, but I don't think it deters anyone from climbing -- it's part of climbing," Johnson said. "You assume a certain amount of risk."

He said local interest in adventure climbing has remained fairly stable over the years.

His last climb

Shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, witnesses said they saw Swanson and Mislow, also a doctor, falling along a feature of the mountain called the Messner Couloir, a steep hourglass-shaped snow gully.

Swanson and Mislow, who lived in Newton, Mass., had become friends and partners in medical school at the University of Chicago.

The men had begun their ascent on May 30, up what is known as the West Rib route. The couloir where they fell is not on a route typically used by climbers.

Witnesses said they could not tell whether the men were ascending or descending or where their fall started, the Park Service reported.

Family members, however, are confident that the climbers made it to the top and were on their way down. They hope to know for sure when they retrieve memory cards from the climbers' cameras.

A witness radioed park rangers stationed at a base camp about 3,000 feet below where Swanson's and Mislow's fall ended. Although rangers, medics and a nurse reached the site in about a half-hour, the men were already dead, the Park Service reported.

Family members knew something was wrong because Swanson's parents hadn't heard from their son since Tuesday. He had been using a satellite phone to call his mother daily, and when she didn't hear from him she called the park on Wednesday to see if he was safe. Rangers got a visual on the climbers Wednesday and informed the families that they were OK.

But Thursday evening, the family learned of the fall.

An 'avid adventurist'

Swanson grew up in Mankato and practiced at the Orthopaedic and Fracture Clinic in Mankato along with his father, Gene Swanson, and older brother, Kyle Swanson.

For vacation, Swanson decided to take a few weeks off to climb Mount McKinley for the second time, said Dan Menden, the clinic's business administrator.

"We were excited for him, because he wanted to experience it," said Menden, who has known Swanson all his life. "But we were nervous, too, because we know it's risky."

During their unsuccessful 2000 attempt of the West Rib route to the summit, the climbing duo aided several different teams in distress; assisted a National Park Service patrol with multiple visitor protection projects; and demonstrated sound risk assessment in their climbing objectives, according to the Park Service.

They were recognized for their efforts with the Denali Pro Award, described by the Park Service as "an honor recognizing the highest standards in the sport for safety, self-sufficiency, and assisting fellow mountaineers."

"His inspiration [to climb again] must have come from wanting to complete something he started nine years ago," Britt said.

Climbing wasn't Swanson's only passion. He was also an intense cyclist and an accomplished pilot.

"He was passionate about life," said his sister Heidi Avedisian.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at First Presbyterian Church, 220 E. Hickory St., Mankato. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Staff writer Bob von Sternberg and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715

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