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Alaska climber helps check earthquake damage at Washington Monument

Craig Medred
Wikipedia photo

Talkeetna's Brandon Latham looked down on America from a whole new perch Tuesday.

A National Park Service climbing ranger on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley much of the year, he was atop the nation's pointiest peak, the tip of Washington Monument. Latham was on temporary assignment as safety officer for a company inspecting the National Park Service-managed structure for earthquake damage

A first-time visitor to Washington, D.C., Latham said it was spectacular to be atop the Monument looking down the National Mall in one direction toward the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol the other way.

"The view was very good,'' he said. "Something completely different from the Alaska Range.''

In the Alaska Range above Latham’s Susitna Valley home, there is already fresh snow with forecasts of more to come. The temperature in the nation's capital was in the 70s.

"Much more balmy than the Alaska Range,'' Latham noted.

Only someone adapted to the 49th state would complain about muggy temperatures in the 70s, but Latham observed "the air here is like swimming in a swimming pool.''

Blame the September rains. Latham said they delayed work on the Monument Tuesday. There was "a morning storm cell'' that had to move through, he said, before contractor David Megerle could start rigging the Monument to allow workers to rappel down its side to check for damage from the unusual earthquake that rocked the area in August. 

After the rain stopped, Latham said rangers popped a hatch atop the 555-foot, 5-1/8-inch tall obelisk "and you're pretty much standing on top of the Monument.”

Below him, the roads and buildings of the capital city spread out for 30 miles in all directions. The view contrasted sharply with the wilderness panoramas Latham is accustomed to in Denali National Park and Preserve. But it was equally impressive.

Latham saw enough to "wish I had a little more time to see the city.'' But he’s due back in Alaska shortly. The D.C. gig was only long enough to make sure someone intimately familiar with rope work was on hand to oversee activities as the Monument inspection began.

"I'm mainly here for safety,'' Latham said. "My work is mainly inside the building.'' 

But the chance to scramble around on the outside of the iconic stone structure was tempting for a kid who grew up in Louisiana. Latham got his start in climbing by learning how to negotiate the human-stacked rock of bridge abutments in the south. It got in his blood.

He took off for Colorado to explore the Rocky Mountains after he got out of high school, and from there it was on to Yosemite Park, Alaska and the world. Latham was an instructor with Rigging for Rescue, Yosemite Search and Rescue from 2000-2007.

He first came to Alaska as a seasonal mountaineering ranger at Denali. He has climbed in New Zealand, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Thailand, Australia, Tasmania, and throughout the US.

But, he confessed on Tuesday by cell phone from the Capitol, he'd never quite climbed anything like he Washington Monument before.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com