Summer museum exhibits focus on Denali

Mike Dunham
The view from near the top of Mount McKinley is on display in "Ascent 20,320: Science on the Slopes of McKinley" at the Anchorage Museum.
Snow goggles from the 1930s are part of the exhibit.
"Muldrow Glacier and Mt. McKinley," photographed in 1938 by Bradford Washburn, is on view in "Bradford Washburn: Glories of the Greatland."
Photo courtesy the Anchorage Museum
"Muldrow Glacier and Mt. McKinley," photographed in 1938 by Bradford Washburn, is on view in "Bradford Washburn: Glories of the Greatland."
Photo courtesy the Anchorage Museum
"Muldrow Glacier and Mt. McKinley," photographed in 1938 by Bradford Washburn, is on view in "Bradford Washburn: Glories of the Greatland."
Photo courtesy the Anchorage Museum

May 1 will bring the start of general climbing season on Mount McKinley and the switch to summer hours at the Anchorage Museum.

Yes, there's a connection.

McKinley -- its history, gear and presence in art -- is the subject of several displays at the museum this summer.

On any given visit to the museum one is surrounded by multiple images of the now-calm volcano that Alaskans prefer to call Denali. The massive Sydney Laurence portrait of the mountain is something like the centerpiece of the museum, but two other Laurence McKinleys stare back at it from an adjacent gallery.

More McKinleys are found in the "Romantic North" exhibit of landscapes by some of Alaska's "old masters." There's one by Ted Lambert and one by Jules Dahlager.

Classic photographs of the mountain are included among the 40 or so pictures in "Bradford Washburn: Glories of the Greatland," which opened on Friday.

"Ascent 20,320: Science on the Slopes of McKinley" documents studies undertaken on the slopes over the past 100 years, what was learned and -- just as fascinating -- what it took to equip and supply such expeditions.

Then there's "The High One: Reaching the Top," something like the curio cabinet of Denali climbs. In addition to photos and moving images, there's a sculpture of the mountain tracing the major routes. Visitors can hoist a wood-frame canvas backpack from 60 years ago and compare its weight with a modern alpine pack.

The display includes souvenirs like the mountain diary of Judge James Wickersham (1903); heavy steel crampons used by the Sourdough Expedition to reach the north summit (1910-11); the thermometer carried by Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens on the first successful ascent of the higher south peak (1913); the complex camera, as big as an old portable television set, used by Bradford Washburn for his sensational aerial photographs in the 1940s (also his leather face mask stuffed with rabbit fur); and "Bridgit," a 20-foot long aluminum frame carried by David Johnston on his 1996 solo climb as insurance against falling into a crevasse. (Johnston also found it a great way to dry out his sleeping bag while on the move during the day.)

All of this McKinleyana follows on the heels of Tim Remick's series of giant, stark mug shots of climbers taken shortly after they returned to base camp on the mountain, "After: Portraits from Denali," and "George Browne: The Art of Altitude." Those exhibits closed earlier this month.

That visual impact of Denali is jaw-dropping is indisputable, even for old Anchorage hands who have become jaded with the sight of the four-mile- high massif during their commute to work on clear days. But what does it feel like to be on North America's highest mountain?

Colby Coombs of the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna will talk about that at a free lecture, "Surviving Denali," on Friday.

Coombs, who apprenticed with master guide Brian Okonek, first climbed the mountain in 1985 when he was 18. "I shoveled a lot of driveways to earn the money," he said. "I was really into climbing."

Since then he has summited 15 or 16 times, by his count, helping others to reach the top and, along the way, co-authoring a guidebook to the popular West Buttress route along with Washburn himself.

In the talk, he said, he will cover a range of topics: preparing for a climb, route finding, camping techniques, illness avoidance and "how to proceed cautiously."

"Just things I've learned over a couple of decades of climbing the peak," he said. "And not just me."

The talk is not about history, he stressed, but "more how to climb the mountain safely and have all your fingers and toes when you get back."

The perils of the region are not to be taken lightly. "There is no trail," he said. "If you're expecting a wandering trail through a crevasse area, that would be a false expectation. It can snow three feet overnight and, if it does, you're going to be route-finding."

Despite concerns about altitude sickness, and even fatalities from it, the real foe is wind, Coombs said. "It can be -40 and that's no big deal. But -40 with a 40 mile per hour wind, that's a whole different ballgame."

Every year some climbers find their tents blown away, so Coombs tells newcomers how to build igloos. "That's a skill you don't see used in many places," he noted.

One reason why mountaineers with experience elsewhere may not consider igloo-building is the snow on many mountains tends to be granular "sugar" snow, crumbling into bits when disturbed. McKinley, on the other hand, "has really good snow. Blocks come out like Styrofoam. It's not uncommon to build a quarry and dig two layers deep. It's a good medium for building."

Alaskans sometimes joke about how crowded McKinley is becoming, with climbers from around the world flocking to it each spring. There's no need to worry, Coombs said.

"There are no crowds on Denali. The whole season's number can be the same as one day on Mount Rainier. At the base camp on Everest there are public satellite phones, huge tents there for the whole season. You can sit down and have a meal prepared for you. At Aconcagua" -- in the Andes, the highest summit outside of Asia -- "they brag about having flush toilets.

"Denali is stripped of all that. It's the same mountain it was years ago."

The pristine wilderness experience is an important part of the lure of McKinley, Coombs said. "I kind of like that there's a higher authority keeping it this way."

But equally important is the fact that, even in the age of high-altitude rescue helicopters and global positioning devices, the Denali climber is ultimately on his or her own.

"For me, originally, climbing was just a healthy escape from the city that had a realness that didn't exist in the gym," Coombs said. "It's not a video game or a sport where you retire to the locker room when the whistle blows. It's just you, your teammates and whatever is on your backpack.

"If you love a winter environment that requires a lot of problem solving, where you are the immediate recipient of either good decision making or bad decision making, then Denali is an awesome place."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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