Special Dangers Face McKinley Climbers
The National Park Service copes with another season of rescuing poorly prepared climbers who take on North America's highest peak
TALKEETNA, ALASKA — A YEAR after the deadliest season on Mount McKinley, the National Park Service is boosting patrols, sharpening rescue skills, and redoubling safety education for North America's tallest peak.
The team of elite mountaineering park rangers stationed here in Talkeetna, Alaska, the launching site for most McKinley expeditions, spent part of the spring practicing pickups while dangling from the end of a 100-foot rope in nearby hills.
Each ranger will be accompanied on his mountain patrol this summer by up to three elite rescue specialists from the Air National Guard in Anchorage, Alaska. Also stationed here is a dedicated Talkeetna-based high-altitude helicopter whose pilot learned rescue skills plucking survivors from behind battle lines in Vietnam. Military helicopter crews from Fairbanks serve as backups.
"As far as expertise, I don't think there's anybody anywhere that has the crew that we have," says J.D. Swed, chief mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park, during a break in recent rescue training. "We're absolutely pushing the envelope open further and further as far as rescue is concerned."
That, critics say, is part of the problem on the 20,320-foot peak known by Alaskans as Denali, the Athabaskan Indian name meaning "The High One."
Debates are growing over the government's responsibility for rescuing climbers on the mountain: Unlike the practice at most of the world's major climbing peaks, no fees, bond, or insurance are required of those who scale it.
"That's really getting into a touchy subject, especially around here, especially with the taxpayers," grumbled a burly local man in the rustic Fairview Inn, the linchpin of Talkeetna's tiny downtown district. "All those people want to climb those hills, and when they get into trouble, they expect to be rescued."
The Park Service says it spent $206,000 and the military spent $225,345 rescuing climbers or retrieving bodies from McKinley last year.
That is a small amount compared with the entire Park Service's 1992 search-and-rescue costs of $3 million and pales next to annual search-and-rescue spending by the United States Coast Guard and other federal agencies, Park Service officials say.
Many mountaineers here say the campaign to single out McKinley climbers for rescue fees is unfair.
"There's lots of outdoor recreationists who don't get charged, and they do a lot of silly things," says Todd Miner, head of the University of Alaska Anchorage's wilderness studies program.
Often the debate takes on a nationalistic tone.
"Americans we rescue are already paying for it. They're taxpayers," says Lt. Col. Larry Brooks, commander of the Air Guard rescue squad backing up Denali mountaineering rangers.
He sympathizes with critics who resent the costly and sometimes risky rescues launched for foreign climbers, he says. Like others, he considers many of the foreign climbers on McKinley to be more reckless than US mountaineers.
"I don't think they have the respect and the understanding of how complicated this mountain can be," he says.
Statistics support that argument. Foreigners account for about one-third of McKinley's climbers, but since 1986 they have accounted for 26 of the 29 deaths on the peak and up to three-quarters of the rescues annually.
Climbers with experience or designs on the Himalayas sometimes dismiss the dangers on near-Arctic McKinley, which is whipped by storms unheard of on more southern peaks, experts say. McKinley's summit elevation, some 6,000 to 8,700- feet lower than the Himalayas, is also deceptive, because the atmospheric layer is thinner near the poles than it is near the equator, they say.
Foreign climbers may also be pushing harder than their US counterparts to reach the peak because a return trip to Alaska is more expensive and difficult for them.
There are some signs that Europeans are taking McKinley more seriously than they did in the past.
"Its reputation is a very cold mountain," says Christian Labie, a Belgian exploring Talkeetna after skiing McKinley's flanks with two French companions.
But changing the attitude of some Korean climbers - the nationality most likely in recent years to get into trouble on the mountain - will be a longer process, Mr. Swed believes.
Mountaineering is hugely popular in South Korea, where tens of thousands of people belong to alpine clubs, says Swed, who made a special trip to Seoul this winter to speak about the mountain's challenges. He says social and economic pressures may be largely to blame for the Koreans' troubles.
To attempt McKinley's summit costs the average Korean climber $10,000, Swed says, and corporate sponsors - often the climbers' employers - pick up the tab. That means extra pressures for success. "If they don't summit, they bring dishonor on their company," Swed says.
Many Koreans also consider McKinley a training climb for the Himalayas, he discovered.
"That's the problem. They prove themselves here. They don't necessarily take small steps to get here," says Swed, who is trying to convince the Koreans to try Oregon's Mount Hood or Washington's Mount Ranier before they attempt the Alaskan peak.
Swed anticipates another future problem beyond overambitious Koreans: a wave of would-be mountaineers with skills honed in now-fashionable climbing gyms - facilities with artificial rock walls designed for indoor ascents - but little experience in the Alaskan outdoors.
Last year's death toll of 11, if anything, has intensified interest in climbing McKinley. Officials and local businesses are bracing for a crowd that could beat last year's record 1,070 who ascended the peak. The climbing season runs from late April to early July: As of May 30, rangers reported, 835 climbers have been on the mountain, and one American climber has died.
Meanwhile, three US television networks, a Quebec filmmaker, and a US reality-based rescue television show hope to produce specials from the mountain, the Park Service reports.
A Princeton University group is mounting an expedition to raise money for AIDS research, and other climbers are fundraising for similar causes. A Santa Barbara radio station has inquired about setting up to air daily broadcasts from the mountain as a local celebrity makes his ascent; the Park Service has also fielded requests from publicity-seeking parasailers who want to use the mountain to promote a message.
All this raises a new danger - the overcrowding and hyping of North America's tallest peak. In recent years, The High One has been no place for a solitary wilderness experience, mountaineers concede.
"I've been twice on McKinley in summer. I will never go again," says Labie, who prefers off-season travel to the mountain. "There is so much space in Alaska where you can find wilderness, it is not necessary to go in Denali National Park."