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Tragedy on Everest has echoes on Alaska's Mount McKinley

Craig Medred
Kahiltna Glacier, shown here on April 26, 2013, is the main jumping-off point for climbers hoping to summit 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. Courtesy Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star

As the small town of Talkeetna girds for the start of the Alaska climbing season, there comes from the Far East a reminder of the inherent dangers of the high mountains.

Thirteen climbers died Friday and three others were missing after an avalanche swept a route to the 29,935-foot summit of Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, in the Himalyas. The dead climbers, Sherpa guides all, were setting fixed lines in the Khumbu Ice Fall below Camp 2 at 21,000 feet. The area is known for ice falls and avalanches, but climbers there have luckily avoided catastrophe since a 1970 snow slide killed six Sherpas.

There were reports from the scene on Friday that climbers were aware of unstable snow above the Khumbu but went to work fixing lines anyway. The Everest climbing seasons are short -- April to May and September to October -- and the Nepalese Sherpas depend heavily on climbing for their livelihoods.

Then, too, there is a complacency that grows among all mountaineers when dangerous areas go for years without fatalities. The fact that no one has died begins to make those areas seem less dangerous even though the risks remain the same.

Four Japanese climbers died in an avalanche on the lower slopes of Mount McKinley in June 2012 after failing to heed warnings that an area called Motorcycle Hill, above McKinley's 11,000-foot camp, might be unstable. Motorcycle Hill does not regularly avalanche. But it is steep enough that it can, and unusually heavy snows in 2012 set the stage for the disaster into which Yoshiaki Kato, 64; Tamao Suzuki, 63; Masako Suda, 50; and Michiko Suzuki, 56, stumbled. It was the worst climbing accident on North America's tallest mountain in more than two decades.

Climbing season is not yet underway on the Alaska mountain. The National Park Service is just now gearing to install its Kahiltna Glacier base camp. Rangers and air taxi operators usually set up a seasonal campsite near 7,200 feet around the end of April.

Activity on the 20,320-foot summit peaks between mid-May and early-June. Though significantly lower in height than Everest, McKinley climbing is rendered difficult by the mountain's extreme northern location. It's much colder than Everest and the air is thin even at lower elevations.

As on Everest, someone dies on McKinley almost every climbing season. The mountain enjoyed an unusually lucky season last year. Only one climber died, and a record 783 reached the summit. The 68 percent success rate of the 1,151 climbers who tried for the summit matched a number set in 1977.

Good weather was credited.