"Take a good look at that green," pilot Dave Lee said over the intercom of the Cessna 185 as we neared Mount McKinley. "You won't see it for a while."
I peered out the window at the spruce-covered Alaskan taiga below. Since leaving the Talkeetna airport 30 minutes earlier, we had been approaching the broad, snowy sweep of the Alaska Range. At its center, like a whitewashed Mayan pyramid, stood Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet high, the tallest peak in North America.
McKinley—also called Denali, which means "the Great One" in the Athabaskan language—has developed a reputation as one of the most hazardous mountains in the world. Since the first recorded fatalities on McKinley (Allen Carpé and Theodore Koven fell to their deaths during a 1932 expedition) a total of 86 people have died climbing the peak.
Despite its dangers McKinley draws mountaineers like a magnet: 1,220 last year and an expected 1,200 this year. That may not sound like a huge crowd, especially compared to the roughly 10,000 climbers attracted annually to Mount Rainier in Washington State. But McKinley climbers must commit two to four weeks to reaching its summit, compared with only two days on Rainier. Because of the short May-to-July climbing season, up to 500 people at a time are camping on McKinley and its approaches, generating trash and human waste while risking frostbite, falls into crevasses, and deadly altitude-related illness.
Last June, I set out to climb McKinley with Tim O'Brien, a fellow member of Seattle Mountain Rescue, a volunteer search-and-rescue group that operates in the Cascade mountains. We found McKinley to be surprisingly clean, extremely crowded in places and more treacherous than we had anticipated.
Like most McKinley mountaineers, we planned to climb the West Buttress route, a 16-mile path that starts at the 7,200-foot-high airstrip on the giant Kahiltna Glacier and winds its way up ice fields and rock ridges to the summit. In addition to a 60-pound pack, we each hauled a loaded orange plastic sled.
Our oppressive loads comprised supplies for three weeks: freeze-dried spaghetti, instant oatmeal, beef jerky, candy bars, pesto pizza for my little outback oven, climbing gear, medical kits, clothing sufficient for the -30° temperatures we expected, a bottle of Yukon Jack, and books (including—not prophetically, I hoped—The Birthday Boys, Beryl Bain-bridge's bleak novelization of the doomed Scott expedition to the Antarctic).
In the days before our departure we (and, more important, our spouses) had been unnerved by newspaper accounts of the latest carnage on the West Buttress. In early May, for instance, 37-year-old Brian McKinley fell to his death while descending from 18,200-foot Denali Pass. Then, right before Memorial Day, three climbers from the Seattle area died near Windy Corner, a notorious landmark at 13,300 feet where gales have picked up entire rope teams and slammed them to the ground. The Seattle-area mountaineers froze to death when the ice and snow around the crevasse in which they apparently had taken shelter from a storm shifted, trapping them in an icy crypt.
The grim tally continued as we climbed. Late one night while we were at the 11,000-foot camp, two big Army Chinook helicopters clattered overhead, trying to reach a party of three Spanish climbers stranded near the 19,200-foot level of the West Rib, a route just south of the West Buttress. Before the choppers could land, one of the Spaniards slipped, falling 4,000 feet to his death. Rescuers found the other two men near death. Barely a day later we heard the two Chinooks across the Kahiltna Valley, near 17,400-foot Mount Foraker. There Alaska Range veteran John Montecucco had fallen 1,500 feet while skiing the steep Sultana Ridge and had broken his ankle.
How to pay for such rescues has sparked considerable debate within the National Park Service and the climbing community. In 1992, the most gruesome year ever on McKinley, 11 climbers were killed—among them Terrance (Mugs) Stump, a highly respected McKinley guide. That grisly record and the $431,000 in taxpayers' money spent that year extricating dead and injured climbers from the mountain led the Department of the Interior, which administers the National Park Service, to make a number of changes in the way climbers are dealt with on McKinley.