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Wind-battered Mount McKinley keeping climbers short of summit

Fierce winds battering the upper reaches of Mount McKinley have made the early climbing season on North America's tallest mountain an exercise in huddling up and waiting. Or turning back.

So far, according to a daily climbing report issued by Denali National Park, only one climber has "officially" reached the summit in 2015. That's Lonnie Dupre, the Minnesotan who completed his record-setting solo winter ascent Jan. 11 after more than three weeks of climbing alone.

Typically, winter climbing is far more difficult and dangerous than in May, the heart of the season when up to 1,200 climbers aim for the summit.

But this May, persistent winds have rebuffed nearly every climber. The Denali National Park and Preserve field report issued Wednesday said there were 429 climbers on the mountain and another 112 who have finished climbing. Only Dupre had reached the top.

That's a miniscule success rate of 0.89 percent.

"So few teams have gotten to high camp this year," said Maureen Gualtieri, a public information officer at the Park. "And it's proven so windy, they've come back down."

Strong gusts

While gusts of more than 50 mph have been measured at the 14,200-foot level, "I've heard estimates of 100 mph, enough where they couldn't stand up," Gualtieri said. "That's why a lot of them have turned around."

The Park Service maintains equipment to measure wind speed, temperature, precipitation and barometric pressure as high as 14,200 feet -- but not at the 17,200-foot high camp.

"Hopefully, that's starting to change a bit," she added. "We've had a lot of teams going up yesterday afternoon and today."

Gualtieri said they've heard reports of three summits within the last two weeks -- a team of two and a solo climber, all of whom reached the summit in a long push from 14,200 feet. But the Park Service doesn't officially record the outcome of the ascents until climbers return from the mountain.

"It's a little early to count it as a bad year," said Bill Allen, a guide with the Colorado-based firm Mountain Trip who's guided more than 20 expeditions up the mountain over the course of his career. "If you have two to three weeks of decent weather during the season, the success percentage will go through the roof."

All together, 19 Mountain Trip expeditions up McKinley are planned for this year.

"I'm pretty confident we'll get some breaks," Allen said. "I'll be there in a couple of weeks, and I'm expecting sunshine."

Disaster averted

On Monday, a trio of McKinley climbers avoided a potential disaster when "a hard slab avalanche was triggered by a skier in a party of three" and carried the trio some 500 feet downhill.

"Luckily," the Park Service summary noted, "no serious injuries were reported. The results could have been much worse.

"The three skiers were headed toward the Rescue Gully below the 17,200-foot camp on the West Buttress (the most popular route up McKinley). The slide took place above the trail for the West Buttress, just east of the fixed lines at 15,300 feet.

"The skiers were swept to 14,800 feet on the West Buttress. Debris swept over the trail ... leading to the fixed lines on the West Buttress."

There are about 1,000 feet of fixed lines above 14,200 feet used by climbers along with wands in the snow to help with finding routes.

955 climbers registered

Last season, only 36 percent of the 1,204 McKinley climbers reached the summit, the lowest success rate since 1987. The last time climbers were shut out from the summit was the three-year run from 1955-57, when a total of 30 climbers tried.

So far this year, 955 climbers have registered to climb the 20,320-foot peak.

The persistent high winds have also prevented mountain rangers from recovering 39-year-old Argentinian climber Javier Callupan, whose body was discovered May 10 at the 17,200-foot high camp.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com.