UAS program hits its peak on Denali

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

A group of Outdoor Studies students and staff made University of Alaska Southeast history by climbing Denali, North America's highest peak in May.

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Courtesy Of The University Of Alaska Southeast
Courtesy Of The University Of Alaska Southeast

Students Acacia Edmiston, Sammy Becker, Travis Haskins, Yosuke Sano and Freddie Munoz made the grueling trek as part of the capstone course for the University's Outdoor Studies program. Chosen by the students themselves at the outset of their program this past fall, the expedition marks the ten year anniversary of the program at UAS.

"I had never really considered climbing Denali, but the infectious attitude and spirit of this year's ODS group quickly convinced me that this may be a real possibility," said Shea Mack, one of the three faculty members on the trip.

Accompanied by academic director Kevin Krein and program coordinator Forest Wagner, the group began their two week long expedition from base camp on May 12. As they made their way up, some team members experienced the effects of altitude sickness. By May 15, Travis Haskins had developed a case so severe, he was forced to descend. Sammy Becker and Acacia Edmiston were both feeling the effects, as well, but they continued with the rest of the group, reaching the main camp at 14,200 feet on May 20.

"It was crazy, there were like 80 people there," said Becker.

Krein described camp at that altitude as "very social," remarking that it is where acclimating to the altitude becomes a significant issue, and thus where most of the climbers on the mountain tend to accumulate.

"One thing that was neat for students on this trip was that there's so many people on (Denali) from Juneau. We saw Mike Janes, from the Alaska Avalanche Specialists, some of my old skier friends from Girdwood and some of Forest's friends from other expeditions," he said.

There, the group spent four days resting, after which Krein, Mack, Munoz, Sano and Wagner set out for the last camp at 17,000 feet. Becker and Edmiston elected to remain at 14,200 feet.

"It was the right decision for us. We had accomplished more than anything we'd ever done before," said Edmiston.

Three days later, on May 27, the five remaining climbers made their move on the summit. Krein recalled that the weather started out warm that day, but that it grew colder as the day progressed. He and Freddie Munoz turned back at 18,000 feet as a result of the temperature.

By 6 p.m. that evening, just three climbers out of the original eight successfully made the summit: Student Yosuke Sano and instructors Forest Wagner and Shea Mack.

Still, the expedition was a resounding success for the entire group.

"I felt the magnitude as we were leaving the mountain in the plane and I saw how big it was. We couldn't see the whole thing flying in; it was too foggy," Edmiston said. "Flying out was the first time that I had seen the whole mountain at once, and it was pretty impressive to see what we had accomplished."

As an exchange student from Tenessee, Edmiston joined the ODS program to further her experience in ecopsychology, a field that seeks to merge ecology and psychology to help forge a more sane and sustainable society.

"This is a good trip to look back on the last ten years; it shows how much the program has grown and gotten stronger," said Krein. A

On whether ODS will return to Denali in the future, he replied, "One of our ideas for the program is that we don't want to repeat capstones. Every group has to come up with a new idea."

Since its inception in 1999, the ODS program has done capstone expeditions in the Brooks range and the Wrangell mountains, as well as multisport trips, like last year's sea-kayaking/climbing expedition near Sitka. The 10-month program seeks to combine outdoor skills and academic coursework in order to provide a liberal arts approach to studying human interaction with the natural world. Students in the program develop skills and characteristics that are essential to success as an individual, a group member and a leader in outdoor and adventure settings. They also work to earn a Certificate in Outdoor Skills and Leadership. However, starting this fall, interested students will not only be able to earn a certificate, but they will also be able to earn a B.A.

One of the students from this year's program, Sammy Becker, who graduated from Wasilla High School in 2009, will be returning to UAS to partake of the new degree program.

"I think it's awesome! I'm really excited," she said. "Personally, I really want go to South America next, maybe Patagonia."

• News clerk Tyler Preston can be reached at

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