Stormy weather wreaks havoc -- only 36% of McKinley climbers reach summit

The summer of 2014 will go down as a good year for shoveling snow in the Alaska Range and a bad year for climbing Mount McKinley.

Denali National Park rangers who just finished crunching the numbers for the season report a success rate of only 36 percent for the 1,204 mountaineers trying to reach the summit of North America's tallest peak.

Most years, slightly more than half of those who try reach the top. Not since 1998 has the success rate fallen so low. By contrast, 68 percent made it 2013 when the weather gods smiled on Alaska.

It was all the opposite this year, and it could have been worse.

The climbing season began in late April, the 2014 Annual Mountaineering Summary notes, with "a prolonged stretch of unseasonably warm and dry weather.''

Climbers who got on the mountain early had the weather on their side. Ninety-nine of those who started toward the summit in late May reached the top on June 4. It typically takes two to two-and-a-half weeks to get up the popular West Buttress route to the 20,237-foot summit if all goes well.

Heavy snowfall

June 4 was the busiest day at the top of North America, with 99 climbers at the summit at one time or another. The second busiest day didn't come until June 14, when fewer than half that number reached the summit.

Late May and early June is normally the peak of the climbing season. Unfortunately for climbers, it was at about that time that the weather in Alaska decided to wreak havoc in the range.

"Near the end of May, the weather pattern shifted to a very wet and stormy regime, which continued throughout June and July, bringing a series of large snowfalls to the Alaska Range and hampering most significant climbing activity through the range,'' ranger Mark Westman reported.

Heavy snows forced climbers to spend a lot of time breaking trail between camps on the main route up the south side of the mountain and digging out tents to keep from getting buried in those camps.

A lot of people ended up tossing in the shovel and going home unsuccessful despite the fact that most had come from far away, and spent a lot of money trying to join the ranks of the 20,000 who can claim to have stood atop the continent's highest point.

Majority came from Outside

Almost 90 percent of the climbers came from Outside this year. Almost half of them -- 45 percent -- were foreigners. More than 40 percent came from other continents.

The average age was 38, and 87 percent of climbers were male, although the only one to die on the mountain this year was a woman. The climbing season had barely begun when 39-year-old Dr. Sylvia Montag Kawina somehow became separated from her climbing partner, a German adventurer, near 18,000 feet and fell to her death.

There were two more serious falls involving four people later in the season, but in all the cases the climbers' partners and the National Park Service were able to pull off successful rescues. The Park Service's high-altitude rescue helicopter, which is staged in Talkeetna during the climbing season, was able to retrieve and bring to safety several others suffering from medical emergencies.

As is often the case on McKinley, injures attributed to cold or altitude far surpassed those related to climbing accidents.

"Perhaps reflective of the fact that fewer climbers reached the upper elevations of Denali (one of several Alaska Native names for the peak) in 2014, rangers treated few cases of high-altitude illness this season. ...,'' the climbing summary reported. "On the flipside, the historical annual average of patients treated for frostbite injuries is 18 percent, however, the cold temperatures and persistent storms of 2014 likely led to the increased incidence of cold injury (30 percent)."

A lot has changed since McKinley was first successfully climbed in 1913. A once hard-to-reach mountain has become a tourist attraction. But one big thing remains the same.

On McKinley, the weather still rules.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com