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Mount McKinley climbing fees hiked to cover rescue efforts

The cost of climbing North America's tallest mountain is going up next year, but not as much as the National Park Service once proposed. The agency had sought to hit climbers with a $500-per-head fee for access to 20,320-foot Mount McKinley some 160 miles north of Anchorage.

Mountaineering officials at Denali National Park and Preserve said they needed a big boost from the existing fee of $200 to cover the costs of rescues on the mountain, but they're going to settle for what will generally amount to a 75 percent fee increase. The park, which at one time offered little in the way of rescue services on the mountain, has gotten into the rescue business in a big way in the past decade. A special, high-altitude rescue helicopter is now kept on standby in Talkeetna, the jumping off point for McKinley, during the climbing season.

The helicopter is costly. One former Denali ranger said that even with a $500 fee, the revenue collected from climbers wouldn't cover costs. About 1,200 people per year try to climb the mountain. A $500 fee would have brought in about $600,000 -- only about half of what it costs the park to staff and maintain its amped-up rescue operation. 

Some Alaska climbers suggested that if cost was a problem, the park service should just stop performing rescues. The agency ruled out that option, judging it unacceptable to most Americans.

But it backed off from the $500 fee, too, after taking a beating from climbers and others concerned about ever increasing fees to visit national parks and some of the country's other public lands. The park service said it will increase the fee to only $350 next year and provide a big break for younger climbers. Those under age 24 will be allowed on the mountain for a cost of only $250, the agency said.

According to a statement from media spokeswoman Kris Fister, the fee schedule for 2012 comes after "a multi-year public engagement process … (and) after a lengthy examination of current program costs, analysis of public comment, and collaboration with national climbing organizations."

The cut-rate fee for young climbers, according to the Park Service, is intended to support "both NPS and Department of the Interior youth initiatives and responds to public concerns about the potential impact of fee increases on young and less affluent climbers, students, and families."

The agency offered no discount for Alaska residents, although they have statistically shown themselves to be the least-rescued group of climbers on the mountain.

Along with the new fee comes an index for future fees likely to ensure they steadily rise. The park service said that from now on fees "will be adjusted periodically based on actual costs, not to exceed changes in the cumulative consumer price index."

The McKinley climbing fee dates to 1995 when the Park Service was ordered to develop a program to reduce the accident rate and loss of life on the 20,320-foot peak and nearby Mount Foraker, 17,400 feet.

That followed several rough years on the peaks above the Kahiltna Glacier. Thirteen people died in climbing accidents in 1992 with one more dead the next year. Seven more died in 1994 with the death rate held down only because the park staged 20 costly rescues.

The result of rescue costs was a $150 per climber fee to, according to the park service, "help offset mountaineering administrative costs associated with prepositioning and maintaining the high-altitude ranger camp at 14,200-feet on the West Buttress route, mountaineering patrol salaries, education materials aimed at reducing the number of accidents, transportation of supplies."

Since then, costs have gone up as the bureaucracy has grown. The fee was increased to $200 in 2005. It then covered 30 percent of program costs, but with costs climbing the percentage was down to 17 percent of by 2010. The park service has said it would like to move back toward the 30 percent contribution on the part of climbers, but the American Alpine Club, the Access Found, the American Mountain Guides Association, guides and individual climbers themselves have opposed a big fee increase.

Fister said the agency has, however, found some public support. Among 500 public comments sent the agency on the issue, she said, the majority indicated "they would support some aspect of a climbing fee increase, as long as the increase was reasonable and equitable." Some, however, wanted the fee discarded or boosted high enough to cover the full costs of search and rescue. The latter would have priced many mountaineers out of a McKinley climb, and park superintendent Paul Anderson couldn't justify that.

"Mountain climbing represents a longstanding tradition at Denali National Park dating back to the first ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1913," he said." Climbing fulfills one of our park's fundamental purposes. As such, we are committed to sharing in the cost of the program and continuing to allocate appropriate levels of the park’s base funding to the climbing program."

Fister said Phil Powers, Executive Director of the American Alpine Club, has endorsed the new, compromise fee as "an example of the kind of considered process that results in policy we can support."

Anderson, meanwhile, pledged the park would try to "institute many of the suggestions for operational efficiencies gathered during the public process."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com