If the weather this season is as cooperative as it's been the last two seasons, the chances of climbers reaching the top of Mount McKinley could be better than average.
No one has yet stood atop the 20,320-foot peak this year, although 130 climbers are on the mountain right now -- including a few that are at 17,000 feet and waiting for wind to subside so they can make a summit attempt.
Historically, 52.2 percent of climbers who take on Denali make it to the top of North America's highest peak -- a figure that has crept up half a percentage point that last two years. In both 2008 and 2009, 59 percent of climbers -- a total of 1,437 out of 2,433 -- reached the summit to provide a slight boost to the pre-2008 success rate of 51.7 percent.
The key to the recent success?
"Weather and luck," said Maureen McLaughlin, spokeswoman for Denali National Park. "A long week or two of bad weather when people are up high on the mountain can make or break an annual summit percentage, but last year we had consistent weather, and we didn't have any long duration of storms. Most teams can wait (out a storm) three or four days, but they can't wait seven or eight days."
The average length of a Denali climb is 16.4 days, according to Denali National Park statistics.
Although by this time last year a handful of climbers had already reached the top of McKinley -- eight had summited by the end of April -- the season is in full swing. And things will get busier in the coming weeks.
Climbing typically hits a peak in late May and early June, when teams are headed both ways on the mountain -- some ascending, some descending. The three busiest summit days came during that period last year, when 77 climbers reached the summit on June 7, 71 arrived on June 9 and 66 made it on May 25.
While rangers started setting up operations at the 7,200-foot base camp on April 26, a ranger patrol didn't reached the 14,000-foot camp until Tuesday, McLaughlin said.
"They've been digging out all the gear that the military positioned in there and setting up communications tents and medical tents," she said. "They have a lot of digging to do in the next couple days."
As of Thursday, the park service has recorded 1,148 registered climbers, and the number could still grow, McLaughlin said. That figure is down a bit from last year's 1,161 and even more from 2008's 1,272, the last season before the economy sagged.
While the split between America and international climbers is usually 60-40, this year's is closer to 50-50, McLaughlin said. And once again, there is a sizeable group of climbers from Poland registered. Last year, a record number of 47 Poles -- the biggest contingent from any foreign country -- came to Alaska to climb Denali.
That milestone coincided with the first Polish translation of the Denali Mountaineering Booklet, McLaughlin said. "It might be that more information is getting to Poland now," she said.
Last year's 682 summits broke the 18,000 barrier for all-time summits since 1903, bringing the total to 18,207.
Meanwhile, the mountain's death toll climbed to 106 with the deaths of four climbers, including two former recipients of the Denali Pro Award, which recognizes climbers who help climbers in distress and demonstrate high standards of safety, self sufficiency and clean climbing.
The award has been renamed the Mislow-Swanson/PMI Denali Pro Award in honor of climbers John Mislow of Newton, Mass., and Andrew Swanson of Minneapolis, who fell thousands of feet to their death in June while roped together on McKinley's West Rib.
The 2009 award was awarded to Colorado climbers Sarah Fritz and Irena Overeem, who initiated and led a technical rescue of an injured climber who broke his leg and ankle after falling 60 feet on the Moose's Tooth. Fritz strapped the injured climber to her back and, with a belay provided by Overeem and a few others, rappelled 600 feet to get the injured man to the base of a couloir, where a sled and more help awaited.
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.