Denali draws diverse climbers

Alaska Mountaineering School helps prepare visitors for adventure

Posted: Monday, June 15, 2009

DENALI NATIONAL PARK - On any given day, base camp at Mount McKinley is the most diverse place in Alaska. Climbers challenging North America's tallest peak run the gamut from local men exploring their backyard to international post-doctoral students avoiding the real world.

Denali has been staring Jesse Tanner in the face since birth. The life-long Valley resident is by no means a professional mountaineer, but the temptation proved too much. Before he got too old, he said, the real estate agent took the required three weeks off to accomplish his childhood goal.

Without much high elevation climbing experience, Tanner enlisted the help of Alaska Mountaineering School for a prep course. Like a lot of Alaskans, he said, he has many different hobbies but is not an expert at one. The course prepared him for crampon travel over ridges only slightly wider than his foot, single rope crevasse rescue and self-arresting when sliding down hundreds of feet of snow and ice.

What no course could prepare him for, however, was the notorious weather patterns the mountain creates.

He hired AMS guiding services and made it to the mid-mountain camp at 14,200 feet without too much difficulty. That's when the winds changed.

"We had 80 mile-an-hour winds. The rangers had never seen winds like that at 14,200 feet," Tanner said. "It ended up destroying eight tents. It blew one tent 100 yards out of camp."

Tanner was stuck at camp for 11 days, eight of which were inside a tent with two guys who he described as "somewhat stinky dudes."

"That was a big mental part of the climb itself, being stuck in a tent for eight days straight," Tanner said. "At the end of that, we were supposed to get fired up and try to fire up the mountain because we had a small window of opportunity."

Tanner's group moved up to high camp at 17,200 feet and made their bid for the summit the next day. The round trip from high camp takes about 14 hours, only about 15 minutes of which is spent at the summit, he said.

As soon as they returned from the summit, the next day they powered all the way back to base camp at 7,200 feet. Tanner admits he was sore, but he said the physical aspect wasn't the hardest part of the climb.

"Patience," he said. "You get all worked up to do this thing, and then you end up waiting in a tent for days on end."

This lesson will prove particularly difficult for Jason Harding and Seth Michael. The two are tackling the mountain by themselves and with all the impetuousness of youth.

Harding, a college student at the University of Montana, and Michael, a new enlistee in the Air Force, chose to forego a guiding service and strike out for the summit on their own. With only Mount Rainier on their climbing resumé, Denali will be the first big climb for either one.

"Guides are for people who don't have time to figure everything out," Harding said. "It takes a lot to plan all the food and gear, the route and the time to spend at each camp. But I'm in college, so I have plenty of time to do that."

"Besides," added Michael, "guides cost more money than we have."

Asked what they plan to eat, they say they have 20 days worth of oatmeal each, candy bars, plenty of rice and Top Ramen noodles and two blocks of pepper jack cheese.

The duo did not spend the customary day in base camp most climbers use to acclimatize and practice snowshoe and rope travel. Instead, they packed up their tent early the morning after they landed and headed for the next camp at 7,800 feet.

In striking contrast, a group with plenty of experience and having traveled the farthest to get to there, never left base camp.

"I guess you could call us base camp regulars," said Vivian Scott in a thick British accent above the reggae coming from portable iPod speakers.

Scott, along with Steve Fortune and Tony Stone, are all post-doctoral students studying in Scotland. They moved into base camp three weeks ago and have a dingy glow suggesting they've been living in a tent on a glacier for way too long.

They have no interest in climbing to the top of Denali. They are not what they termed peak baggers. Instead, they have used base camp to climb the more technical routes of other mountains in the area.

Fortune spoke with reverence about the Moonflower route of Mount Hunter. It took them two days to get up and down the shear face of ice, sleeping hooked into tiny ledges cut with their ice axes. Scott added they conquered Mount Francis in a day, and they will head up Mount Foraker if time and weather permits.

But they all agreed the highlight of the trip was helping the park rangers with an evacuation of a climber who had a heart attack. They went up to the Denali camp at 11,000 feet for some backcountry skiing. When they came down, the rangers they recognized from base camp were helping an elderly climber into a sled. The rangers knew the trio was very skilled, so they enlisted their help and got the climber back to base camp safely.

Asked how much longer they will stay, Stone just shrugs his shoulders.

"Until the food runs out, I guess. We already had to take donations from returning climbers," he said. "Really, were just trying to avoid the real world for as long as possible."

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