Tough season on McKinley tests veteran climbers

Of 1,202 registered climbers, 573 made it to the summit this year

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Untold crevasse falls later, a Mount McKinley climbing season haunted by the winter of 2006-07 is winding to an end.

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Of the more than 1,200 climbers on North America's tallest peak this year, there was hardly one that didn't report punching through or falling through a snowbridge - or watching someone else do so - on the Kahiltna Glacier. Even Denali National Park climbing rangers, who try to set a safe route up the Kahiltna, had problems.

"We had a ranger team that had a crevasse fall," ranger Daryl Miller in Talkeetna said.

The reason?

A trapdoor-filled lower Kahiltna due to limited snow and high winds that roared around McKinley when a high-pressure system settled over Southcentral Alaska late in February.

Glacial cracks normally bridged by snow several feet thick were instead layered over with a surface considerably thinner.

"We had one (crevasse fall) with a broken arm, a Canadian team," he said. "Another went 60 feet in, and his partner couldn't get him out. So rangers skied down (from the Kahiltna base camp) to help get him out."

Mostly, though, climbers were able to extract themselves or their companions, usually more than a little rattled but none the worse for wear after the cheap thrill.

Serious crevasse falls have been known to intimidate more than a few climbers, but most people take the near misses in stride.

This danger is, after all, the reason climbers rope up for glacier travel.

Aside from persistent problems with poorly bridged crevasses, Miller reported a busy but fairly normal season on the slopes of the 20,320-foot peak with 1,202 people registered to climb. That was a drop from the record 1,340 last year and well below Denali National Park and Preserve's newly instituted cap of no more than 1,500.

With only a couple of parties left on the mountain by mid-July, and the Kahiltna base camp dismantled and removed, the Park Service was reporting 573 climbers made the summit.

That is just a little below the historic average of 50 percent for those who struggle through the thin air to reach the highest point in North America.

Uncooperative weather, those pesky crevasses and an aging population are all implicated.

Park rangers were involved in 20 rescues on the mountain, Miller said, "which is a little more than average."

And they saw some different things - heart attacks, for one, and snow blindness for another.

"I've never seen snow blindness before," Miller said.

There were several cases this year, apparently due to climbers neglecting to wear glacier glasses in conditions of thin overcast.

Indications are that climbers on McKinley are following national trends toward older people in outdoor recreation, Miller said. The sport used to be dominated by the under 40 crowd. Now, particularly in guided parties, "it not uncommon to see them in their 50s," Miller said.

Some men have taken early retirement or are nearing retirement and are looking to fulfill a lifelong dream. Others are longtime climbers, old in body but refusing to age in spirit.

One of those was 76-year-old Michio Kumamoto from Tokorozawa, Japan. Kumamoto this year set a new record for the oldest climber to reach McKinley's summit.

He celebrated his birthday June 17 while climbing with three companions, the youngest of whom was 61. The Tokyo-JAC team reached the top on June 29.

Despite the climbers' ages, Miller said, they were a strong and fit team. Others do not quite fit that mold, he added, but fortunately most of them tend to hire guides who help usher the less fit up the mountain and, sometimes, tell them when the time has come to turn back.

No guided climbers were involved in fatalities on McKinley this year. There were, however, two unguided climbers who died in a roped fall at about 19,000 feet, and three other experienced climbers who died in accidents on mountains in the Alaska Range near McKinley.

There have been an increasing number of those sort of deaths during the McKinley climbing season of spring and early summer.

Though the trudge up McKinley's West Buttress attracts far and away the bulk of mountaineers to the 49th state, a number of technical and demanding routes on peaks surrounding the base of the mountain have been drawing more and more professional and semi-professional climbers over the past decades.

Lara-Karena Kellogg from Seattle was one of them. A forest fire researcher by profession and a former Park Service climbing ranger, she found her true love in the adventure of climbing big mountains.

She was two weeks shy of her 39th birthday when she rappelled off the end of a rope on 8,130-foot Mount Wake and fell to her death. She and climbing companion Jed Brown, 23, from Fairbanks, were retreating from the mountain at the time in the face of bad weather and avalanches. Kellogg failed to put a safety knot in the end of her rope, apparently out of fear the knot might lodge in a crack in the rock on the sheer face of mixed ice and rock she was descending.

"She rapped to the traverse, then out of sight," Brown later wrote on a blog. "A couple minutes went by, then I heard a scream, the sound of falling, then a thud. As reality sank in, I tried to calm my nerves."

Kellogg's friend Mike Gauthier, chief climbing ranger at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, praised her as a wonderful and compassionate woman with excellent mountain skills. She'd climbed Rainier 27 times, and regularly volunteered in search and rescue missions there.

The climbers swept to their deaths by an avalanche on Mount Barille were 33-year-old Andre Callari of Salt Lake City and 32-year-old Brian Postlethwait of Park City, Utah. They were attempting the Japanese Couloir, a day climb, on the east face of Barille. Another climbing party in the Ruth Gorge found their skis near the base of the route and reported the men overdue.

A Park Service helicopter later flew to the area and found footprints leading into avalanche debris. Mountaineering rangers recovered the bodies a couple days later and flew them out. Both were experienced mountaineers.

The only two climbers to die on McKinley proper were 36-year-old Mizuki Takahashi and 27-year-old Brian Massey, a firefighter from North Bend, Wash.

Takahashi was an experienced climber who had twice soloed Rainier and bagged more than 50 other summits since getting a relatively late start in the mountains.

She and Massey were roped together when they tumbled about 2,000 feet down a slope near the Messner Couloir at about 19,000 feet on McKinley. Park rangers at High Camp at 17,200 feet witnessed the fall, but could not tell what precipitated it.

The two were off the normal climbing route, and there was some thinking they might have been trying to traverse the mountain to get back to the West Buttress route when one of them slipped and, being roped, yanked the other off the mountain as well.

Takashaski was dead when reached by rangers where the fall ended not far from High Camp. Massey was alive, but unconscious. He was taken to High Camp but never regained consciousness before dying.

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