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Fatal Attraction
Douglas Gantenbein
June 10, 1996
Like Everest, Mount McKinley is deadly but irresistible to climbers
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June 10, 1996

Fatal Attraction

Like Everest, Mount McKinley is deadly but irresistible to climbers

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In 1995 the Park Service began charging mountaineers $150 per person to climb McKinley and Foraker. With this money, the Park Service said, it could defray the cost of maintaining a ranger station at 14,200 feet and improve climber-education efforts—especially those aimed at foreigners, who account for such a disproportionate number of McKinley's victims. About 10 years ago one steep ice chute was named the Orient Express because of the high number of Asian casualties there.

For our $150 Tim and I each received by mail a small pamphlet on climbing McKinley. In Talkeetna we watched an old 20-minute video apparently edited to scare the bejesus out of people; much of it consisted of pictures of dead guys. Then we chatted with a ranger who looked us over and asked about our equipment.

Several mountaineers I talked with accepted the fee as a necessary evil. "It's a privilege to climb this mountain," said Laury Levy, a Chicago man climbing with a guided party. "Considering the cost of equipment for this trip, it's barely a new set of crampons." Still, many climbers see the fee as an effort to recoup rescue costs. If it is, it marks a significant policy change in the U.S., where the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, county sheriffs and volunteer groups have long undertaken even massive rescue efforts for free.

European climbers who visit McKinley seem bemused by the debate over the fee. One evening I visited a group of British military personnel trying the West Buttress. "We have climbing insurance, very good insurance," Geoffrey Hulme, an affable man in his 40's, told me as he pulled his insurance card out of his wallet to show me the breadth of his coverage. U.S. climbers, though, are skeptical of such insurance, despite its popularity in Europe. Many believe it might actually increase the frequency of rescues by encouraging those in relatively minor trouble to call for help. There are other problems with insurance, as Hulme himself noted. "I've heard about a helicopter flying to look for some climbers who were in trouble," he said. "When the rescuers found the climbers didn't have any insurance, the helicopter turned around and flew away."

That tale cuts to the heart of the matter, said Daryl Miller, a Park Service ranger on duty in the collection of orange tents that makes up the ranger and medical compound at 14,200 feet. "Suppose there's a guy out there who needs help," Miller said, as a gaggle of climbers peered through spotting scopes at the Chinooks plucking Montecucco off Foraker. "What are we supposed to do, nothing? What do we tell a son or mother or father or daughter whose loved one is [trapped] at 14,000 feet? Are we just supposed to say they're dead? That's not how we do things in this country."

But while Miller supports the Park Service's efforts to bail out climbers in trouble, he also believes that McKinley's mountaineers need to be more aware of the hazards of climbing at 20,000 feet, 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. "We had one fellow who died on the mountain," Miller said. "He didn't have enough clothing, he didn't even have a shovel for digging his tent out of the snow. [Before his climb] we spent an hour with him, trying to talk him into seeing one of the guides about getting more equipment."

It doesn't help that an almost carnival atmosphere on the mountain masks the danger. The busy 14,200-foot camp, where climbers spend four or five days acclimating to the elevation and schmoozing, has earned the nickname Club Denali. Tents festooned with the flags of Korea, Japan, Germany, Spain, Great Britain and other nations squat in snow-block fortifications. Radios boom Pearl Jam from Anchorage radio stations. Snowboarders and skiers swoop down the steep slopes higher up as crowds gathered outside their tents shout encouragement (or disparagement). Occasionally a cellular phone rings.

Indeed, big mountain climbs that a decade ago were serious undertakings now are treated as if they were no more dangerous than a weekend hike. The recent tragedy on Mount Everest, in which eight climbers died when they were caught in a vicious storm near the summit, may remind us of the dangers of scaling big mountains, but it probably won't dissuade adventurers from making more attempts.

During a rest stop at 15,600 feet I chatted with 15-year-old Stephanie Hanson of Talkeetna, who was hoping to become the youngest person to summit on McKinley. She had 12-year-old Merrick Johnston of Anchorage nipping at her heels to lower the mark even further. Both youngsters made it, to the chagrin of head climbing ranger J.D. Swed. "Next year it's going to be an 11-year-old who wants to climb it," Swed groused. "But at some point we're going to be putting these people in body bags."

After all, McKinley remains a cruel place. Hunkered down at 14,200 feet in a storm, we listened over our CB as Miller tried to determine the whereabouts of seven Taiwanese climbers who had left the 17,200-foot camp the previous day just before a blizzard swept the summit. Ultimately four of them made it back to their camp. The others felt it was too risky to move from their position at the dangerously high altitude of 19,400 feet and decided to stay in an effort to weather the storm. Two survived—barely. The third died in the 100-mph winds.

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