Climbers meet bear at high altitude

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- Imagine the surprise of a Welsh mountain-climbing team -- they were making their way up the snow-covered slopes of Mount McKinley last week when they ran into a bear at 8,000 feet.

The group encountered the animal on the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, said Annie Duquette, base-camp manager for climbers of the nation's highest peak.

``It's kind of scary,'' she said. ``Obviously (the bear) is lost, and he's probably hungry.''

The first report pegged the bruin as a grizzly -- or brown -- bear. But after speaking to the Welsh climbers by phone at a 14,000-foot camp, park ranger Daryl Miller said it was probably a black bear.

Wildlife biologists said that might be even stranger than seeing a grizzly. Grizzlies have been known to trek across the Alaska Range. There are no records of black bears doing the same.

The bear sighting set off a buzz along the popular West Buttress route, where hundreds of climbers trekking toward the summit are also keeping an eye out for the bear.

``We sort of think it's like Big Foot now,'' Duquette said.

Park service rangers, who patrol the mountain within the Denali National Park and Preserve, said the bear hasn't been seen since it was spotted five days ago.

While unusual, running into a bear on the Kahiltna Glacier is not unheard of. Five or six years ago, two volunteer climbing rangers stumbled upon a bear close to 14,000 feet high on the slopes of McKinley.

Wildlife biologist Fred Dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks said he could imagine a bear becoming a real problem along the popular McKinley climbing route if it figured out how to identify food caches climbers stash on their journey to the summit.

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