"Take a good look at that green," pilot Dave Lee said over the
intercom of the Cessna 185 as we neared Mount McKinley. "You
won't see it for a while."
I peered out the window at the spruce-covered Alaskan taiga
below. Since leaving the Talkeetna airport 30 minutes earlier,
we had been approaching the broad, snowy sweep of the Alaska
Range. At its center, like a whitewashed Mayan pyramid, stood
Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet high, the tallest peak in North
McKinley--also called Denali, which means "the Great One" in the
Athabaskan language--has developed a reputation as one of the
most hazardous mountains in the world. Since the first recorded
fatalities on McKinley (Allen Carpe and Theodore Koven fell to
their deaths during a 1932 expedition) a total of 86 people have
died climbing the peak.
Despite its dangers McKinley draws mountaineers like a magnet:
1,220 last year and an expected 1,200 this year. That may not
sound like a huge crowd, especially compared to the roughly
10,000 climbers attracted annually to Mount Rainier in
Washington State. But McKinley climbers must commit two to four
weeks to reaching its summit, compared with only two days on
Rainier. Because of the short May-to-July climbing season, up to
500 people at a time are camping on McKinley and its approaches,
generating trash and human waste while risking frostbite, falls
into crevasses, and deadly altitude-related illness.
June 9, 1996
Last June, I set out to climb McKinley with Tim O'Brien, a
fellow member of Seattle Mountain Rescue, a volunteer
search-and-rescue group that operates in the Cascade mountains.
We found McKinley to be surprisingly clean, extremely crowded in
places and more treacherous than we had anticipated.
Like most McKinley mountaineers, we planned to climb the West
Buttress route, a 16-mile path that starts at the
7,200-foot-high airstrip on the giant Kahiltna Glacier and winds
its way up ice fields and rock ridges to the summit. In addition
to a 60-pound pack, we each hauled a loaded orange plastic sled.
Our oppressive loads comprised supplies for three weeks:
freeze-dried spaghetti, instant oatmeal, beef jerky, candy bars,
pesto pizza for my little outback oven, climbing gear, medical
kits, clothing sufficient for the -30[degree] temperatures we
expected, a bottle of Yukon Jack, and books (including--not
prophetically, I hoped--The Birthday Boys, Beryl Bainbridge's
bleak novelization of the doomed Scott expedition to the
In the days before our departure we (and, more important, our
spouses) had been unnerved by newspaper accounts of the latest
carnage on the West Buttress. In early May, for instance,
37-year-old Brian McKinley fell to his death while descending
from 18,200-foot Denali Pass. Then, right before Memorial Day,
three climbers from the Seattle area died near Windy Corner, a
notorious landmark at 13,300 feet where gales have picked up
entire rope teams and slammed them to the ground. The
Seattle-area mountaineers froze to death when the ice and snow
around the crevasse in which they apparently had taken shelter
from a storm shifted, trapping them in an icy crypt.
The grim tally continued as we climbed. Late one night while we
were at the 11,000-foot camp, two big Army Chinook helicopters
clattered overhead, trying to reach a party of three Spanish
climbers stranded near the 19,200-foot level of the West Rib, a
route just south of the West Buttress. Before the choppers could
land, one of the Spaniards slipped, falling 4,000 feet to his
death. Rescuers found the other two men near death. Barely a day
later we heard the two Chinooks across the Kahiltna Valley, near
17,400-foot Mount Foraker. There Alaska Range veteran John
Montecucco had fallen 1,500 feet while skiing the steep Sultana
Ridge and had broken his ankle.
How to pay for such rescues has sparked considerable debate
within the National Park Service and the climbing community. In
1992, the most gruesome year ever on McKinley, 11 climbers were
killed--among them Terrance (Mugs) Stump, a highly respected
McKinley guide. That grisly record and the $431,000 in
taxpayers' money spent that year extricating dead and injured
climbers from the mountain led the Department of the Interior,
which administers the National Park Service, to make a number of
changes in the way climbers are dealt with on McKinley.
In 1995 the Park Service began charging mountaineers $150 per
person to climb McKinley and Foraker. With this money, the Park
Service said, it could defray the cost of maintaining a ranger
station at 14,200 feet and improve climber-education
efforts--especially those aimed at foreigners, who account for
such a disproportionate number of McKinley's victims. About 10
years ago one steep ice chute was named the Orient Express
because of the high number of Asian casualties there.
For our $150 Tim and I each received by mail a small pamphlet on
climbing McKinley. In Talkeetna we watched an old 20-minute
video apparently edited to scare the bejesus out of people; much
of it consisted of pictures of dead guys. Then we chatted with a
ranger who looked us over and asked about our equipment.
Several mountaineers I talked with accepted the fee as a
necessary evil. "It's a privilege to climb this mountain," said
Laury Levy, a Chicago man climbing with a guided party.
"Considering the cost of equipment for this trip, it's barely a
new set of crampons." Still, many climbers see the fee as an
effort to recoup rescue costs. If it is, it marks a significant
policy change in the U.S., where the National Park Service, the
U.S. Forest Service, county sheriffs and volunteer groups have
long undertaken even massive rescue efforts for free.
European climbers who visit McKinley seem bemused by the debate
over the fee. One evening I visited a group of British military
personnel trying the West Buttress. "We have climbing insurance,
very good insurance," Geoffrey Hulme, an affable man in his
40's, told me as he pulled his insurance card out of his wallet
to show me the breadth of his coverage. U.S. climbers, though,
are skeptical of such insurance, despite its popularity in
Europe. Many believe it might actually increase the frequency of
rescues by encouraging those in relatively minor trouble to call
for help. There are other problems with insurance, as Hulme
himself noted. "I've heard about a helicopter flying to look for
some climbers who were in trouble," he said. "When the rescuers
found the climbers didn't have any insurance, the helicopter
turned around and flew away."
That tale cuts to the heart of the matter, said Daryl Miller, a
Park Service ranger on duty in the collection of orange tents
that makes up the ranger and medical compound at 14,200 feet.
"Suppose there's a guy out there who needs help," Miller said,
as a gaggle of climbers peered through spotting scopes at the
Chinooks plucking Montecucco off Foraker. "What are we supposed
to do, nothing? What do we tell a son or mother or father or
daughter whose loved one is [trapped] at 14,000 feet? Are we
just supposed to say they're dead? That's not how we do things
in this country."
But while Miller supports the Park Service's efforts to bail out
climbers in trouble, he also believes that McKinley's
mountaineers need to be more aware of the hazards of climbing at
20,000 feet, 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. "We had one
fellow who died on the mountain," Miller said. "He didn't have
enough clothing, he didn't even have a shovel for digging his
tent out of the snow. [Before his climb] we spent an hour with
him, trying to talk him into seeing one of the guides about
getting more equipment."
It doesn't help that an almost carnival atmosphere on the
mountain masks the danger. The busy 14,200-foot camp, where
climbers spend four or five days acclimating to the elevation
and schmoozing, has earned the nickname Club Denali. Tents
festooned with the flags of Korea, Japan, Germany, Spain, Great
Britain and other nations squat in snow-block fortifications.
Radios boom Pearl Jam from Anchorage radio stations.
Snowboarders and skiers swoop down the steep slopes higher up as
crowds gathered outside their tents shout encouragement (or
disparagement). Occasionally a cellular phone rings.
Indeed, big mountain climbs that a decade ago were serious
undertakings now are treated as if they were no more dangerous
than a weekend hike. The recent tragedy on Mount Everest, in
which eight climbers died when they were caught in a vicious
storm near the summit, may remind us of the dangers of scaling
big mountains, but it probably won't dissuade adventurers from
making more attempts.
During a rest stop at 15,600 feet I chatted with 15-year-old
Stephanie Hanson of Talkeetna, who was hoping to become the
youngest person to summit on McKinley. She had 12-year-old
Merrick Johnston of Anchorage nipping at her heels to lower the
mark even further. Both youngsters made it, to the chagrin of
head climbing ranger J.D. Swed. "Next year it's going to be an
11-year-old who wants to climb it," Swed groused. "But at some
point we're going to be putting these people in body bags."
After all, McKinley remains a cruel place. Hunkered down at
14,200 feet in a storm, we listened over our CB as Miller tried
to determine the whereabouts of seven Taiwanese climbers who had
left the 17,200-foot camp the previous day just before a
blizzard swept the summit. Ultimately four of them made it back
to their camp. The others felt it was too risky to move from
their position at the dangerously high altitude of 19,400 feet
and decided to stay in an effort to weather the storm. Two
survived--barely. The third died in the 100-mph winds.
For us the final ascent proved uneventful, yet it underscored
the mercurial nature of the mountain. After two nights the winds
that had roared overhead like a 747 calmed. We joined a long
line of climbers ascending the fixed line on an ice headwall at
16,000 feet, then climbed the rocky, exposed West Buttress. Two
days later, wearing down suits stuffed with candy bars and water
bottles, we made the treacherous traverse to Denali Pass and
moved up the steep, snowy slopes below the Archdeacon's Tower, a
craggy rock formation. At 19,000 feet we crossed the low point
of a minor ridge. There the dead Taiwanese climber lay stretched
out next to the path, half covered with snow, his face frozen in
an impassive mask. I wondered what had motivated his group to
climb in the teeth of a furious storm, and I tried to imagine
his thoughts as he lay, tired, in the shrieking wind, feeling
the cold slowly take over his body. I have heard climbers
discuss a friend's death in the mountains with the remark, "He
died doing what he loved." But I don't think anyone peering into
the abyss high on a mountain thinks that way. I know I would
not, and neither, I wager, did Chiu Jui-Lin, 29 years old,
thousands of miles from home, trapped in a world of ice.
Two hours later we slowly traversed the airy summit ridge and
joined a dozen jovial climbers on McKinley's pointed apex. A
group from the Hong Kong police force planted flags, and a happy
Japanese climber lifted his arms and shouted, "Banzai!
Sixty-four!" It was his 64th birthday.
By the time we descended at 4 p.m., the dead Taiwanese man was
gone; the Park Service's helicopter had flown up and retrieved
the body. A sharp storm hit the next morning, and while
reerecting our tent at 17,200 feet after an aborted attempt to
descend, I suffered frostbite on the tips of four fingers.
Still, by the next evening Tim and I were piling into our
Talkeetna Air Taxi, then soaring past the granite buttresses of
the Alaska Range. Tim grinned delightedly as the plane nearly
nicked the ridges with its wingtips while a third passenger--a
dropout from a professionally guided party--clutched Tim's seat
back in terror.
Then we were out of the mountains and over the woodlands, where
rivers boiled brown from mid-June glacier melt. Tim looked back
"There's your green," he said. It took me a while to readjust to
Douglas Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent for The