Sunday, May 1, 2011

Climbing Denali: The mountaineering event of a lifetime

A climber sits on a ledge near Mount McKinley’s high camp on May 26, 2010. / Photo courtesy Tomek Kowalski

May 1 is the traditional opening for climbing season on Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak. Thousands of climbers from around the world will come to Alaska to take a stab at setting foot on its summit. Each man or woman who tries will have a different experience, and each will come away with a unique story. In this four-part series, we’ll look behind the scenes at last year’s season and share some climbers’ stories. Part 1 of 4

FAIRBANKS — At 17,000 feet, “normal” is a flexible word.

That high, each breath carries half the oxygen of a breath at sea level. A handful of steps leaves physically fit people breathless. Tiredness and exhaustion are common.

Temperature decreases with altitude, too. On average, the temperature falls 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for each 1,000 feet of elevation. At 17,000 feet, that works out to 59.5 degrees colder.

Normally, that’s a recipe for bleak isolation. But normal is a flexible word.

For three months each year, on North America’s highest peak, 17,000 feet isn’t an isolated location. It’s not a limit, a boundary or a marker. It’s simply a rest stop, the site of the last and highest camp for climbers whose goal is the top of Mount McKinley.

In the days between the last days of April and the middle of July, 17,000-foot camp’s isolation is shattered by the arrival of more than 1,000 visitors from nations around the world. For them, the shortness of breath and summer cold are normal factors of life on a quest to do something abnormal: setting foot on the highest point of this continent.

At 17,000 feet, climbers from Romania share rum with men from South Korea, who pass smoked fish to a woman from Washington state. They leave only footprints and take only photographs. Last year, almost 700 of them visited the camp twice, once in hope of reaching McKinley’s 20,320-foot peak, and once in relief that they did it.

Some people called last year a normal one on the mountain. But ask any of the climbers who reached its peak, and they’ll tell you the only normal thing about their experiences was that they were all exceptional.

Preparing the peak

Most visiting climbers arrive, try to summit and are gone in less than three weeks. For the handful of rangers and volunteers who work on McKinley, the effort lasts much longer.

The first step toward climbing season is Oct. 1, the date the Park Service begins accepting applications to climb McKinley the following year. John Leonard, the chief mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park, is the man in charge of the process. “Come October first, registrations start coming in, pretty slow at first, then it picks up as you get closer to season,” he said in a telephone interview from the Talkeetna ranger station, headquarters of the mountaineering rangers. “Rangers are reviewing those files as they come in,” he said.

The application form is two pages and requires climbers to list their previous experience and other basic information. On the second page is a stern warning: “Rescue is not automatic.”

The form for solo climbers goes into even more detail, asking the applicant to describe his equipment and his reasons for wanting to climb alone. But even if there are gaps on the climber’s resume, there’s not much the Park Service can do. “We’re not allowed to deny anybody based on experience level,” Leonard said, “so our only tool to try to limit potential problems is through education. … It’s trying to deal with a problem before it happens.

“We may in some cases recommend that they go and talk to one of our guiding concessionaires so they have some help for their trip. We may try to get them to go with a partner.”

As winter deepens, the rangers prepare their equipment. Administrator Maureen McLaughlin described the effort: “We start repairing everything, recategorizing inventory — what we have left over from one season, she said. “From that moment on, throughout the winter, we’ve already been starting to purchase in bulk some of our food items for the next year, getting our tents repaired.”

In March, the seasonal mountaineering rangers arrive in Talkeetna. “Some are in Alaska, some live here through the winter,” explained McLaughlin. “A few live various places throughout the Lower 48: one or two are in Jackson Hole (Wyo.).”

High-level winds and winter cold are still strong enough on McKinley to keep climbers away. That leaves a month for the mountaineering rangers to undergo refresher training. “That includes technical rescue training, medical training, incident command training and avalanche training,” Leonard said.

In the meantime, more climbers are submitting applications as they decide on their schedules.

In April, helicopters from Fort Wainwright come to McKinley to drop off supplies and help the rangers establish their camps. Big CH-47 Chinook helicopters deliver gear and fuel to base camp, 7,200 feet up on Kahiltna Glacier, and to the 14,000-foot medical camp high on the mountain itself. “The Army out of Fort Wainwright supports our program pretty heavily with the use of the Chinooks up there,” Leonard said.

First to summit

For climbers looking for a challenge, the season in the Alaska Range doesn’t begin with McKinley. Peaks in Denali National Park’s Ruth Gorge attract some of the world’s best climbers each year, and many of them use the area to acclimate before climbing McKinley.

In 2010, three Japanese climbers — Kazuaki Amano, Nagato Takaaki, Masumoto Ryo, members of a semi-organized group known as the Giri Giri Boys — arrived in Alaska in early April. They spent the month in the Ruth Gorge, climbing named and unnamed mountains and establishing at least one new climbing route.

On May 1, they began their climb of McKinley, the first group last year to do so. One week later, they reached the mountain’s peak via the West Buttress route.

Their Alaska stay didn’t peak there. After partially descending the mountain, they returned to McKinley’s summit in an 80-hour scurry up the difficult Denali Diamond route, becoming the first people to summit McKinley twice in 2010.

According to Alpinist Magazine, which reported on the expedition, the group believes it is the first to reach McKinley’s summit via the 8,500-foot Denali Diamond route without aid, meaning they used ropes only for safety — not to advance upward.

The day after the Giri Giri Boys first reached the top of McKinley, two other climbers summitted, opening a climbing season that saw 670 successful summits from 1,222 attempts. Similar numbers are expected this year.

Most climbers — 1,135 — took the well-established West Buttress route to the top. Eighty-seven climbers chose different, more difficult routes.

Talkeetna terminal

Regardless of the route, for all but a handful of the climbers who attempt to climb McKinley each year, the road to the summit runs through Talkeetna and its flying services. Paul Roderick is director of operations for Talkeetna Air Taxi, the largest of the flying services that ferry climbers to McKinley. “Their first point of contact is us,” he said. “When they get here off of the van or the shuttle service from Anchorage, they’re right there with us, asking us questions: ‘Well, we don’t have snowshoes, we need maybe some fuel bottles, and we need extra gear’ or ‘Where can we buy overboots?’”

After any last-minute shopping, every prospective climber is required to attend a Park Service orientation. “We’re one of the only places where each climber is required to sit through a two-hour orientation,” Leonard said, “and those vary depending on the experience level and if the climber’s been here before. ... The gist of it is we expect people to come here and climb clean and follow that principle of leaving only footsteps and taking only pictures.

“And then we try to reinforce to them that the park service is not here as a safety blanket for them, and they need to make decisions based on what they think they can get themselves in and out of on their own. ... We just try to get them away from the 911 mindset, because we’re not in an urban environment where help is just a call away.”

After the orientation, climbers either resume shopping or wait for their flight service to say it’s time to board the flight to the glacier. If the weather is bad, it might take a while to get that call.

NEXT: Getting to the mountain.


May 1 is the traditional beginning of climbing season on Mount McKinley, but that hasn’t stopped several groups of climbers from getting an early start. The first climbers began the slog to the summit April 15, and as of Saturday, 66 people were on its slopes.

A handful were members of the National Park Service’s first high-mountain patrol of the year. It flew in Thursday, began an ascent Friday, and will set up a medical camp established annually at the 14,000-foot level.

The honor of being the first to the summit the mountain in 2011 hasn’t been claimed yet — though three climbers tried last winter.

According to the National Park Service, 952 people have registered to climb Mount McKinley so far this year, but that figure does not include climbers from guided tour groups. The Park Service expects about 1,100 people to attempt the mountain this year.

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Climbing Denali The mountaineering event of a lifetime 

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