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First McKinley climbers claim summit; hundreds more on the way

Craig Medred

Summer is on in Alaska. Forget the remnants of the record snow still burying the Chugach Mountains above Alaska's largest city.

The birds are back. The tourists are back. And the first mountaineers of the season have reached the top of North America's tallest mountain. Jeremy Ashen and Adam Bartlett from Vail, Colo., reported to the Talkeetna Ranger Station of Denali National Park and Preserve that they reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley via the popular West Buttress route on May 5. They reported cold conditions and some frostbite, but neither required serious medical attention.

Both men are now off the mountain, but many climbers are moving up McKinley. The National Park Service reports 159 climbers ascending with the number increasing daily. The number registered to climb is up to 1,000. Based on the last few years, about 1,200 are expected to eventually make a summit bid.

As usual, the early going has been tough. Of eight climbing teams come and gone from the high reaches, Ashen and Bartlett are the only ones to make the top.

Cold weather and winds play havoc with most early-season attempts. The summit success rate is expected to steadily improve as the weather warms. However, storms can blow away a McKinley climber's hopes at any time, but the odds of reaching the summit improve from now until mid-June when the bulk of the climbers hit McKinley. Of the 1,232 climbers who tackled McKinley last year, more than half -- 56 percent -- made the summit, according to Park Service records. Six, unfortunately, never came back. Five died in falls high on the mountain; another succumbed to a heart attack in high camp.

It was a rough year overall in the Alaska Range. Three other climbers died in the vicinity of McKinley, bringing the death count to nine – the most of any climbing season since 1992 when 13 died in the Alaska Range, 11 of them on Mount McKinley. Four died in each of the previous two years.

And yet, climbers keep coming to test themselves against one of the world's toughest mountain challenges.

More than 10 percent of the climbers on the mountain last year were women. There were likely a few of them among the 66 people who lined up June 6 to get on the summit.

That was the busiest day of the season at the top of the mountain. It came only a couple weeks after Sweden's Andreas Fransson completed a daring ski descent of the South Face, a McKinley first. This video attests to why. There was no margin for error.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com