Conquering Mt. McKinley

Two Russians become the first paraplegics to reach the 20,320-foot peak of Alaska's tallest mountain

Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2002

Two Russians used ropes and sleds to dead-haul themselves up the highest mountain in North America and become the first paraplegics to summit Mount McKinley.

In going where no other paraplegics have gone before, Grigory Zarkov and Igor Ushakov in June joined a growing number of mountaineers scaling Mount McKinley to make a point, said Roger Robinson, lead mountaineer ranger for Denali National Park and Preserve about 140 miles northwest of Anchorage.

Over the years, McKinley climbers have included a blind person, a man with no feet, a man with no hands, breast cancer survivors and people with multiple sclerosis.

Upon reaching the 20,320-foot summit, Zarkov said he felt an overwhelming emotion, and it wasn't elation.

"Tiredness, huge tiredness," said the 45-year-old shoe repairman from Kumertau in the Republic of Bashkirya. Zarkov broke his back in 1986 in a 40-foot fall at a cable manufacturing plant.

Ushakov, a 24-year-old computer programmer trainee from Kursk, said he was filled with pride upon reaching the top. Ushakov was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 1996.

"Being disabled, I wanted to prove that disabled people can reach highest mountain as normal people," he said.

One foot at a time

Sitting in titanium-frame chairs atop skis, Ushakov and Zarkov used fixed ropes to pull themselves a foot at a time up the steepest stretches of the West Buttress route, where slopes are 50 to 55 degrees. On flatter stretches, they pushed their sleds forward with ski poles.

They reached the summit at 4:40 p.m. on June 15.

"They were the envy of the disabled," said Oleg Banar, 46, of Kharkov in the Ukraine, lead mountaineer of the 11-member expedition. "They have very strong spirit."

Robinson said Mount McKinley, which is also called Denali, is a potentially dangerous mountain that shouldn't be tackled except by climbers who are fit and have previous mountaineering experience.

Not that he has had to worry.

"All the years I've worked we have never had a problem with these groups," he said. "Not a single one of these people has come to us and asked to be treated differently."

The groups prepare well and once on the mountain don't make stupid moves trying to get to the top, perhaps because they have other objectives in mind, Robinson said.

The Russians spent 42 days on McKinley. Fixed lines were put in place by the able-bodied members of the team so that sharp ridges and rock outcrops - dangerous to negotiate in the sleds - could be avoided. Snow caves and igloos were built at 15,500 feet and 20,000 feet so that Ushakov and Zarkov could get extra rest.

Zarkov said the last 320 feet to the summit was the hardest because the thin air made him feel extremely weak. Ushakov said that several times while he was coming down his sled tipped over and only a safety line kept him from sliding off the mountain.

Ushakov and Zarkov's feat sends a message about the abilities of disabled people all around the world, said expedition leader Matvey Shparo, 27, of Moscow, whose family-business Adventure Club planned the climb.

In 1997, Shparo led an expedition of disabled climbers up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Two years ago, he led a ski expedition of disabled athletes across Greenland.

Heroes in Russia

This climb captured the hearts of the Russian people, he said.

"The whole of Russia was watching out for them," Shparo said.

Ushakov said he hopes the climb lifts barriers for other disabled Russians.

"By this action, I want to make life a little bit better for disabled in our country," he said.

Mount McKinley is a tough mountain, even for world-class climbers. About 1,200 people attempt the summit each year but only about half make it. Ninety-two climbers have died, including Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura, who in 1984 became the first person to solo summit in winter. He disappeared on the way down, probably blown off the mountain by winds that routinely exceed 140 mph, Robinson said.

The National Park Service does about 10 rescues a year. But sometimes rescue is impossible, he said.

"We tell everyone the same thing. If they get into trouble, they need to get themselves down on their own with their own skill and ability."

Battling MS

Climb for the Cause put together a seven-member team this summer to demonstrate what people with multiple sclerosis can achieve.

Wendy Booker, a 48-year-old interior designer from Manchester, Mass., acknowledges she wanted to call it quits at 14,000 feet.

"I sat at the 14,000 camp for a long time and said, 'I'm done,' " but then she thought how far she's come since April 1998, when she stepped into a design window and her leg gave way.

Booker is numb on the left side of her body from her toes to her rib cage. But she said having MS was not a factor on McKinley.

"I compensate. I just have to concentrate harder," she said.

Climb for the Cause began its ascent on May 16. Booker was 22 days on the mountain. She made it to 14,200 feet.

"That Denali, it defines itself," Booker said. "If I ever end up in a wheelchair, I've had a great time getting there ... Anytime I am doing my best of anything is the time I am not thinking about MS."

Clay Roscoe, 33, of Philadelphia, made it to 17,200 feet - higher than any other of the MS climbers - before a whiteout and 60 mph winds thwarted his attempts to reach the summit.

"We're not saying everyone with MS should climb mountains. We're saying ... stay active, stay positive."

Booker said she wants to take on McKinley again next summer.

"I came right off and said we have to do this again."

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