McKinley climbing season ends with 50-50 success rate

Almost 1,200 climbers have attempted to scale the mountain this year

Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The climbing season on Mount McKinley is winding down for the year.

During the height of the season in May and June, the base camp on Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet is home to hundreds of climbers, Park Service rangers, air taxi operators and tourists.

But the season is now all but over on North America's highest peak. The National Park Service ranger station on the glacier has been shut down for the year, the air traffic control station maintained by Talkeetna air taxis removed.

"Everything is off," chief mountaineering ranger Roger Robinson said.

Seventy-eight climbers remain on the mountain, said Pam Robinson at the Talkeetna Ranger Station for Denali National Park, but they are a comparative handful stretched over the 16 1/2 miles of trail along the glaciers and rock ridges toward the 20,320-foot summit.

At the peak of the season, the number of climbers along that route numbered in the hundreds. Communities of multicolored tents blossomed around established campsites where mountaineers congregated at 7,800, 9,500, 11,000, 14,200 and 17,200 feet.

As of Friday, Robinson reported that 1,197 mountaineers had been on and off the mountain. About 630, 53 percent, reported making the summit, she said.

Some of those still climbing are expected to boost the number of summitteers still higher.

Rangers said the numbers made this an almost perfectly average year on the mountain. Success rates have varied from a high of 65 percent in 2001 to a low of 36 percent in 1998 but average right around 50 percent for the season.

The climbing season was marred, however, by the first fatality in two years. Three descending climbers were hit by falling rock near Windy Corner near 13,200 feet in late June. Clint West, a 47-year-old American living in the United Kingdom, died.

Rope mates Mark Morford, 47, of Portland, Ore., and Gerd Islei, 56, of Germany, were injured. Morford broke his right thigh and a wrist. Islei had broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a ruptured disc in his back. They were flown off the mountain to an Anchorage hospital and are expected to recover fully.

Several other rescues on McKinley during the climbing season ended much the same way. "It's just how the luck goes," Roger Robinson said.

For the first time, nearly all the climbers carried along a clean-mountain can to pack out their human waste.

"This year, we have over 500 of them in circulation," Robinson said, "and they were all out at one time."

Comments from climbers were mostly favorable, he said. Many concluded it was more comfortable to sit on the cushioned rim of the can to do their business than to squat in the snow, and if it helped to keep the mountain clean, well, that was just an added benefit.

"It's working out well," Robinson said.

He said the cans, however, are proving difficult to clean for reuse. He's now looking for some sort of straight-walled can that can more easily be washed, hoping that what has been pioneered on McKinley can be expanded to the increasingly waste-fouled mountains of the Himalayas and South America.

"If climbers can do this at high camp on McKinley," he said, "they can do it anywhere."

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