Free or Fee? Climbing McKinley May Cost ...

High rescue expenses spur Park Service to propose charging each mountaineer

CLIMBERS attempting North America's tallest peak will have to fork over $200 to help defray management costs - especially rescues - if a controversial policy proposed last week by the United States National Park Service is approved.

The proposal - targeted for 1995 - includes both 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley and 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker in Alaska's Denali National Park. The fee would mark the first time that climbers would be charged for scaling a mountain in the US.

The policy would require climbers to register at least 60 days before starting a climb, giving mountaineering rangers time to educate them about dangers. Both peaks already require registration, but that can be done just before the climb.

The proposal fits into a wider campaign by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to raise public-lands user fees - including controversial grazing and mining fees and several fees for parks, proposed in Interior's 1995 fiscal year budget. Already, rafters on the Grand Canyon's Colorado River must pay a $75 fee.

Advocates say the need for cost-recovery in national parks is dire. Recreational visits jumped 44 percent from 1980 to 1992, while facilities frayed. The Park Service has estimated its maintenance backlog ranges up to $4 billion, and more cuts are impending.

In Alaska, the Park Service says the climbing-fee proposal is likely to spark anger. ``I think the general population of climbers will, at first, be shocked that there's a user fee,'' said J.D. Swed, Denali's chief mountaineering ranger.

Whipped by sub-Arctic storms, McKinley - Denali (``The High One''), by its Athabascan Indian name - and Foraker have, in recent years, been the sites of dramatic high-altitude rescues and a rash of climber deaths. In 1992, a record 11 people died on McKinley, two on Foraker.

Park Service mountaineering costs run at about $607 per climber, Mr. Swed said. Last year, a record 1,108 people climbed McKinley and 20 attempted Foraker, while some 260 scaled other peaks in the park.

The Park Service lists costs as some $200,000 for a high-altitude helicopter from Talkeetna, the launch-site town for most expeditions; $160,000 for staff and equipment in Talkeetna and at the 14,000-foot ranger camp; and an average $131,000 a year in rescue costs.

Compared to the $2,000 to $3,000 price of a McKinley expedition, a $200 fee is small. It's less than round-trip air fare from Talkeetna to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Glacier base camp. (The reliance on air access - almost no climbers go to the camp by foot - makes McKinley the easiest site for testing the fee plan, though Washington's Mt. Rainier was considered.)

Fees are imposed on many mountains outside the US - ranging from $80 for Argentina's Aconcagua to a $50,000-per-party minimum for Nepal's Mt. Everest.

But many McKinley climbers resent being especially targeted by the government. ``We don't object to the government trying to find some creative ways to get a pay-as-you-play program,'' said Charley Shimanski, American Alpine Club executive director. ``What we do object to is any user group being singled out.''

He dislikes climbers being portrayed as wild-eyed adventurers taking irresponsible risks. ``The kind of climbers who climb Denali maintain pretty good climbing ethics,'' he said. ``A good, extreme mountain climber is going to want to crawl out before they ask for a helicopter ride.''

STILL, there are complaints that some foreigners hold less-strict ethics. They make up only about one-third of McKinley's climbers but account for a very high number of its rescues; of 23 deaths since 1988, 20 were of foreigners, who don't pay US taxes, critics point out.

But the fee plan has spawned forecasts of complications. Some predict ill-prepared climbers will interpret their fee as an entitlement to rescues. Others say it may cause the Park Service to assume a legal rescue obligation. And some say the Park Service should abandon mountain rescues altogether. ``Maybe the time has come for tough love,'' the Anchorage Daily News's Craig Medred wrote March 2. ``Just give [people] fair warning, and require them to sign a waiver recognizing the dangers of the mountain, and noting the 1-in-100 chance of coming back in a body bag.''

But Polish climber Krzysztof Wiecha - rescued on McKinley in 1991 but preparing for another ascent despite having lost his feet to frostbite - said it would be unfair to withhold all rescues of mountaineers.

``We talk about the humanity, or we talk about money only,'' he said. ``If there shouldn't be any rescue at all, why should people rescue people who are lost on the ocean, or who are just lost hiking?''

Swed says abandoning rescues on popular McKinley is unrealistic: ``We don't think that society is willing, at this point, to stand back and let people die when the simple calling up of a helicopter and having a pilot fly up there can save them.''

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