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Elite Alaska pararescuemen first to reach McKinley summit this year

Ben Anderson
There were more than 200 climbers somewhere on McKinley -- often also referred to by its other name, Denali or "The Great One" -- as of Tuesday night. That's nearly a quarter of the total number of climbers registered to tackle the peak sometime this year. Jacob W. Frank/NPS photo

It may still feel like winter in much of Alaska, but on Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, the climbing season is really heating up. And on Saturday, a group of local climbers became the first to reach the summit of the much-climbed peak.

There were more than 200 climbers somewhere on McKinley -- often also referred to by its other name, Denali or "The Great One" -- as of Tuesday night. That's nearly a quarter of the total number of climbers registered to tackle the peak sometime this year.

Despite the arrival en masse to Denali Base Camp, located at an elevation of 7,200 feet, no one had made a successful trip to the summit and back until that group of five -- reportedly made up of pararescuemen from the elite 212th Rescue Squadron based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson -- finally hit the 20,320-foot mark on the mountain before making their way back down over the weekend.

Denali National Park and Preserve spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said the date for the first summit was "about average," but noted that persistently chilly weather likely wasn't helping climbers making an early-season run at the peak.

"There are years where the first ones (to reach the summit) came later, but it’s still pretty cold up there," McLaughlin said anecdotally, noting that it had snowed just days earlier in Talkeetna, a popular jumping-off point for mountaineers headed for Denali. Winter has continued its hold on much of Alaska, especially in the Interior of the state and including Denali National Park.

The season is still picking up, though. In 2012, 174 climbers reached the summit in May, with another 280 arriving in June.

The month of May, like any other time of year on the unforgiving slopes of McKinley, can also be deadly. The first death on McKinley last year came on May 19, when a climber fell more than 1,000 feet while trying to retrieve a backpack that had begun to slide downhill.