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Climbers already making their way up Mount McKinley

NPS photo

This story was corrected on May 2, 2012 to report that though one climber had completed his climb no one had as yet reached the summit of Mount McKinley.

Near 7,000 feet in the Alaska Range about 75 air miles northwest of the remote, by the standards of America, village of Talkeetna, a seasonal community known only by the name Kahiltna was this week springing to life. Over the course of the next two months, it will throb with the excitement of a proverbial Alaska gold rush town before fading back into the white nothingness of the glacier on which it is born and lives and dies.

Welcome to the Mount McKinley base camp, the focal point of Alaska mountaineering for the next two months. This is the portal of entry for most of the more than 1,000 people who come to climb North America's tallest mountain every year, but it is much more: Tourist attraction, National Park Service frontier ranger station, staging area for rescues for the peaks that claw at the Alaska sky all around McKinley, and, maybe most of all, airport.

Kahiltna Base, no more in reality than coordinates on a map atop the Kahiltna Glacier, exists by and for the airplane. In the early days of McKinley mountaineering, it didn't exist. The first ascents of the 20,320 mountain were made from the north side via the Muldrow Glacier with the support of dog teams, not airplanes. All of that changed in a big way not long after a team of climbers led by the late Bradford Washburn  -- a noted cartographer, photographer and climber -- pioneered the West Buttress route to the summit in 1951.

Nearly a “walk up” to the top, it quickly became the established route to the summit, though it is no easier or less dangerous than the Muldrow. As notes the Alaska Mountaineering School, “high altitude, extreme weather, steep icy slopes, and crevasses combine to make Denali one of the most difficult and severe mountains in the world to climb.” The relatively easy, by modern climbing standards, West Buttress route still kills people every year, the vast majority of them non-Alaskans who sometimes lack respect for the severity of mountain weather in the far north.

Summer really never visits the continent' tallest peak. Day-time temperatures experienced by climbers in the solar cooker of high-altitude sunlight reflecting off the snow-covered glaciers leading most of the way to the mountain top can reach into the 70s, but blizzards and winds strong enough to knock down any climber can blow up almost in a blink. A far friendlier place in May and June than in December and January, the mountain holds the power to launch life-threatening hostilities at any time. Climbers might find themselves sun-bathing one day and the next huddling in their tents, hoping the maelstrom outside doesn't swallow them alive.

But this is the reason most come to the mountain, to test themselves against Mother Nature in all her beauty and ferocity. The climbers, in turn, have created an industry for Talkeetna, a 93-year-old, one-time refueling stop on the Alaska Railroad. A community of less than 900 in the winter, it more than doubles in size in summer as climbers, tourists, seasonal park rangers, pilots and more return north like so many migrating geese. Before the summer is over, there will be plenty of people coming to fish for salmon or hike local trails or take a riverboat ride up the Susitna River to look at the massive rapids of Devil's Canyon, but the first wave comes to climb.

Climbing dates back to early 1900s

Fewer than 200 attempts at McKinley's summit were made in 1970. By 1980, the number had tripled. It continued to grow explosively until the Park Service in 2007 capped the number of climbers allowed on the West Buttress at 1,500 per season. Demand has since appeared to level out in the range of 1,200 to 1,300 a year. It is enough to keep Talkeetna and the Park Service, which now maintains a sizable ranger station in the community, busy.

Talkeetna-based Ranger Roger Robinson was on the mountain this week with a gang of volunteers helping set up the temporary camp at Kahitlna that serves as the operational headquarters for the ranger patrols that regularly troop up and down the mountain during the climbing season.  Lisa Roderick, who coordinates flight services for the airstrip, went in right behind him to begin setting up.  Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin noted Robinson had a pretty unique group with him this year. Three of them are related to the climbers who made the first summiting of McKinley in 1913.

“Ken Karstens and Raymond Schuenemann are both descendants of Harry Karstens,” she said. “Dan Hopkins is a descendant of Hudson Stuck.”

An Episcopal missionary, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck was a legendary figure in Alaska in the early 1900s. An Englishman who graduated from King's College London, Stuck lived a life of adventure in the north. He spent years roaming the state by dogsled and in 1913 organized the third serious expedition to McKinley along with young protege Walter Harper, an Athabascan Native from the Alaska Interior. Harper on June 7, 1913, became the first person ever to set foot on the summit of McKinley.

He was followed to the top by Stuck, Karstens, who led much of the climb, and Robert Tatum. A dog-driving mail carrier, Karstens had run a freight-hauling business that helped pioneer a route between the early Alaska communities of Valdez and Fairbanks. He went on to become the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park, now called Denali National Park and Preserve.

McKinley or Denali?

The peak and the park that surrounds it have different names because of a long-running debate about what to call the mountain after it was officially named for President William McKinley in 1897. The naming is a credit to gold miner William Dickey, who was a fan of McKinley because the latter backed the gold standard as the basis for U.S. currency.

Before being named McKinley, the mountain was called Dinale by the Koyukon Athabascans to the north; Doleika by the Dena'ina Athabascans to the south; Traleika by the Aleuts to the west; Tenada by Ferdinand von Wrangell (the first man to name it on a map in 1839), and Bulshaia Gora (Great Mountain) by the Russians who snatched Alaska from Alaska Natives and later sold it to the U.S.

During the great Alaska lands debate of the 1970s, which led to preservation of 100 million acres of the state as part of the historic Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, it was decided the Native name for the mountain should be “Denali.” But a debate ensued about whether the mountain’s name should be changed from McKinley. Congress compromised. In recognition of the aboriginal inhabitants of Alaska (or at least those living to the north of it), the park would be named Denali in recognition of mountain, but the peak itself would retain the name McKinley. There is still debate in Alaska about whether to call the mountain McKinley or Denali. Both are in regular usage these days.

There are no disputes about the Harper Glacier on the north side of the mountain or Karstens Ridge which rises above it. Stuck named them for Harper and Karstens, who he considered instrumental in helping himself and Tatum reach the summit.

Preparing for the worst

McLaughlin said Dana Wright, a relative of Harpers, was in Talkeetna and planned to join Robinson at Kahitlna, but plans changed. Robinson, Wright and the others,  along with Samuel Alexander, from Fort Yukon and Steven Carleton, from Ottawa, Ontario, are preparing for a Centennial Expedition to the mountain next year to celebrate the first successful ascent, McLaughlin said. Alexander, a Gwich'in Athabascan, and Carleton, an Inuit Eskimo, are to represent the Alaska Natives who helped provide logistical support for the Stuck expedition. Alexander and Carlton are, at the moment, on the mountain with Robinson.

Chief mountaineering ranger John Leonard said the U.S. Army helicoptered the supplies for base camp onto the mountain earlier in last week. That has become a regular training exercise for the Fort Wainwright-based 52nd Aviation Regiment of the 16th Combat Aviation Bridge, which flies twin-rotor Chinook CH-47s with the power to perform heavy hauling at high altitudes and, when stripped down, rescues at even higher altitudes. The Chinooks have plucked an injured climber from a slope as high as 19,600 feet, only about 800 feet shy of the summit.

Hopefully, Park rangers say, that service will not be needed this year. But trouble has a nasty habit of blowing up in the weather on the mountain.

Nine of the 1,232 climbers who set out for McKinley's summit last year ended up dead. It was the third worst climbing season in history in terms of fatalities. Many were weather related.

The death toll would have been even worse but for the brave and somewhat amazing work of Alaska Air National Guard para-rescueman Sgt. Bobby Schnell of Anchorage. In the middle of the night in a tent in the 17,200-foot camp on McKinley, Schnell used a razor blade to perform an emergency tracheotomy credited with saving the life of a climber unable to breathe. Schnell and other members of the Air Guard's Alaska-based 210th Rescue Squadron regularly train on the slopes of McKinley, where they have been involved in a lot of heroics over the years.

Already this year, they have played a role in the rescue of a Korean climber who fell while descending Moose's Tooth, a popular peak near McKinley. He suffered serious injuries, but survived after being rushed to an Anchorage hospital. Climbing season, Leonard noted, does not wait for the official opening of the Kahiltna base camp.

One climber has already completed his McKinley climb and, even as base camp was being set up, there were 21 climbers on their way up the mountain. The Park Service's online log of climbing activity shows another 930 already registered to climb. More are expected. No one has reached the summit as yet.

Climbers are required to pre-register 60 days before climbing if they are new to the mountain. Those who've climbed since 1995 can request a seven-day exception to the 60-day pre-registration period. The Park Service notes only that “individuals seeking registration under the 'seven-day exception' must be on record at the Talkeetna Ranger Station as climbing in or after 1995. This rule is applied on an individual basis -- in order for the entire expedition to be eligible for the seven-day exception, all members must qualify.”

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.