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Woman ends reign on Alaska's highest mountain

Base camp caretaker leaves remote outpost after 10 years on the job

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

MOUNT MCKINLEY - The highest mountain in North America just isn't the same now that Base Camp Annie has left.

The jagged peaks that climb to 20,320 feet, the snow and glaciers, the biting sub-zero temperatures will remain, but without Annie.

After 10 years of operating the tiny outpost at 7,200 feet, helping thousands of climbers, greeting tourists and providing weather reports for sightseeing flights, Annie Duquette called it quits Monday.

She has been a fixture on the mountain from April 20 to the first part of July - the climbing season - every year since 1990.

``She's the only source of communication for weather,'' said Keli Mahoney, a co-owner and pilot for McKinley Air Service.

The weather on the mountain can change in minutes, and the air companies based in Talkeetna relied on her for constant updates for the dozens of flights a day. Her other key job was coordinating climbers who fly into the base camp, Mahoney said, but she also has served as a messenger and nurse, and she helped in rescues.

Duquette left with mixed feelings.

``My whole life is on this mountain. You have to have some strong feelings,'' she said.

As usual, the first thing she planned to do when she returned to her house in nearby Talkeetna was take a shower after two months of cleaning up with handy wipes.

A shower ``is a big deal,'' she said. She also was looking forward to some fresh food and a little more living space than the 12-by-12-foot tent with a small heater and cooking stove she called home for two and a half months a year.

And she was eager for more freedom. During her stay on the mountain, she was on about a 20-foot-long tether because she had to stay near the radio phone for weather calls. The phone cord is only about two feet long, and she could wander about 18 more feet away and still hear the ring. She also said she won't miss the middle-of-the-night trips to the outdoor bathroom in temperatures as low as 20 below zero.

For her hard work and perseverance, she was paid $7 by each climber - 1,218 had registered by last Friday for this season.

When she left the mountain, it was back to Talkeetna, where she has a park-ranger boyfriend and a job waiting in the office of one of the flightseeing companies.

Until Duquette came along, the air companies struggled to find someone to take the base camp job. She was taking one of the sightseeing flights with her father and ``once I came up here and saw how beautiful it was,'' she was hooked, she said.

She has been to the Himalayas in Nepal, where the tallest mountains in the world are located, but ``nothing compares to this for me,'' she said.

The previous base camp operator had died, so the job was open, and she grabbed it. Although her family thinks she has been a bit crazy to take on the unusual task for so long, ``to me it's not crazy,'' she said.

``To me it's been a wonderful adventure.''



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