American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Denali Dilemma

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1977

Denali Dilemma

Robert Gerhard, Mount McKinley National Park

TWENTY years ago, in 1956, four parties attempted to climb Mount McKinley but none were successful in reaching the summit. Ten years ago, 22 climbers in five parties were on Mount McKinley. Ten of these climbers reached the summit. On July 6, 1976, in a single day, between 70 and 80 climbers stood on the highest point in North America.

In 1954, an injured climber on McKinley’s Muldrow Glacier had to be carried down the glacier from 11,000 feet to 5000 feet level before being evacuated by helicopter, as no helicopter available could make a higher landing. In 1960 and 1972, helicopters evacuated climbers from 17,000 feet on the West Buttress. These evacuations were considered to be very hazardous and near the performance limits of the helicopters. In 1976, the highest helicopter landing in North America was achieved when pilot Buddy Woods landed his Hiller helicopter virtually on the summit of Mount McKinley during a rescue mission.

Climbing activity in Mount McKinley National Park has been increasing dramatically every year for some time. 1976 was no exception with 587 climbers in 94 groups registered for climbing in the park. Five hundred eight were on Mount McKinley; 39 on Mount Foraker, and the rest were on lower mountains. One hundred fourteen of the 508 climbers on Mount McKinley were in parties led by professional guides. Forty- nine parties climbed a single route—the West Buttress. Many other parties, climbing different routes, used the West Buttress as a descent route. As many as 75% of McKinley climbers may have used the West Buttress route on their way up or down.

More routes on McKinley were attempted in 1976 than in any other year. The first ascent of Cassin Ridge in 1961 was termed as “the greatest achievement in American Mountaineering history.” Only several more parties had been on the route until this year when seven parties attempted it. A solo climber made one of the successful ascents of the ridge. Three groups were on the South Buttress, and the Northwest Buttress was attempted for the first time since its first ascent in 1954. Other parties climbed the Muldrow Glacier, the West Rib of the South Face, Pioneer Ridge, and a new variation or route on the South Face.

Six parties attempted to climb Mount Foraker by three differentroutes, but only one French party, making a first ascent of the south- southeast ridge, was successful.

Another first on Mount McKinley occurred when three hang-gliding enthusiasts (with a lot of help) spent a month dragging their 20-foot- long, 60-pound hang-gliders to the summit, then, after waiting for good weather, had 30-minute flights back down the mountain. A fourth flyer crashed on takeoff and tumbled 800 feet down the south face of the mountain.

Twenty Japanese climbing parties registered to climb either Mount McKinley or Mount Foraker. Other parties came from Germany, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Mexico, Spain, France, England, and Sweden. The youngest climber on McKinley in 1976 was 16 years old and the oldest was 68.

Unfortunately, accidents and rescue activity increased even more dramatically than the climbing. Four climbers died on Mount McKinley, and six Japanese climbers perished on Mount Foraker in two separate incidents. The National Park Service was involved in 21 rescue missions involving 33 climbers. Watching a helicopter fly in to evacuate another climber became nearly a routine activity for many parties.

Falls accounted for eleven of the accidents; pulmonary edema, nine; frostbite, six; avalanche, three; crevasse falls, two; and insulin shock, two. Several of the falls could be indirectly attributed to pulmonary edema, as they occurred during evacuation attempts. A number of pulmonary edema cases occurred with climbers who had reached 14,000 feet within five days or 17,000 feet within seven or eight days from the start of their climb. Climbing this fast is close to the recommended limits for proper acclimatization, and may in fact be too fast for some parties.

These rescues cost taxpayers a total of $82,200. Mountaineering accidents always make big news, and this year, because of the large number of incidents, many people (mostly non-climbers, but also some mountaineers) began demanding that the climbing parties who need to be rescued should pay the costs of their rescue. Others feel that all climbing parties should post a bond or show proof of insurance before being allowed to climb McKinley. Several outdoor organizations have proposed that all government agencies, except the military, stop providing assistance to parties that request a rescue. Many people feel that the National Park Service should re-institute the old regulations which gave us the authority to screen applicants and their equipment and deny them the right to climb if we did not feel they were qualified. A few climbers feel that guide services should not be allowed to operate on Mount McKinley since this activity allows less experienced climbers to be on the mountain.

What is going to happen on Mount McKinley next year and in sueceeding years? It seems certain that climbing activity will continue to increase. Is there a limit to the numbers of climbers that the West Buttress can tolerate? Many climbers feel already that there are too many people on the mountain. Proposals have been made to add additional lands to Mount McKinley National Park. If Congress accepts these proposals, the southern boundary of the park would be extended approximately twenty-five miles in the vicinity of Mount McKinley. The Ruth Glacier, Mount Hunter, Mount Huntington, the Moose’s Tooth, the Cathedral Spires would all become part of the park. Some climbers, in an attempt to restore the wilderness nature of the mountain, have already recommended that no air access be allowed in any of these areas. This would greatly reduce climbing activity on the south side of the range.

On April 10, 1976, a party of six Alaskan mountaineers left the highway south of Mount McKinley and began a fifty-day expedition which took them up the South Buttress route, down the Muldrow Glacier, and out to the park road between McKinley Park and Wonder Lake. Their legs were their only transportation the entire time, although they did have a cache of food and equipment flown in to the Ruth Glacier. Toward the end of May a party of three flew from Seattle to Anchorage International Airport and from there directly to the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Twelve days later, after a successful alpine ascent of the West Rib of the South Face and a descent of the West Buttress, they were back at the landing strip on the Southeast Fork, hoping that their connections would enable them to be in Seattle that night.

Was one of these climbs more “right” or more “traditional” than the other? Both used aircraft for support, although to very different degrees. Aircraft landings are prohibited within present park boundaries and this restriction is generally accepted. Will climbers accept such a restriction if the park boundaries are extended?

Many such questions are being raised about the climbing activity on Mount McKinley. Who will provide the answers? The National Park Service is charged with providing for, but regulating if necessary, public use on Mount McKinley, a mountain which belongs to the people of the United States. Should the Park Service stand back and let mountaineers regulate themselves or can any group regulate itself? I would prefer that the National Park Service regulate mountaineering activity as little as possible, with necessary restrictions being recommended by or agreed to by mountaineers and mountaineering organizations. In an attempt to get recommendations from climbers, a letter requesting information was sent to the leader of every party that climbed in 1976. Fewer than half of these leaders have responded which I interpret to mean that many climbers do not care how we “regulate the mountain.”

The National Park Service has been looking closely at the mountaineering situation this year, in an attempt to determine if new regulations or restrictions are necessary. At the present time, it does not appear likely that there will be time enough to implement any changes before the 1977 climbing season. What, if any, changes will be made for the 1978 season, is not known now. We do, however, hope to have two climbing rangers stationed in Talkeetna next year during the climbing season. These rangers will be able to provide assistance to climbing parties, be available for rescue activity, spend time on the Kahiltna Glacier, and help us to better monitor climbing activity.

Several park rangers have climbed to the summit of Mount McKinley in past years and others have spent time on its slopes. In 1976, for the first time in thirty years, the National Park Service put a team of rangers on the mountain. We hope that this action will give us better on-the- ground familiarity with the mountain and mountaineering activity, and we hope that it will improve our credibility with mountaineers. Only two things are constant and sure: Mount McKinley will remain basically unchanged through any discussion, regulations, and climbing or rescue activity, and it will never be an easy mountain to climb. It is a unique mountain. Because it is so far north, its summit elevation of 20,320 feet is equivalent to several thousand feet higher in the Himalaya or Andes, and its weather may be the coldest and most severe on any mountain in the world. The weather in 1976 was generally very good allowing helicopter rescues to become almost routine. But if climbing parties go on Mount McKinley in future years with the feeling that a helicopter can pluck them off any time they ask for it, they may be “dead wrong”—no pun intended. All parties must have the skill and confidence that they can handle by themselves any situation that may arise. Outside assistance cannot be depended on.

A great deal of correspondence comes to the National Park Service, from mountaineers planning McKinley climbs. Many, after presenting a very brief description of their climbing experience, ask if this is sufficient to enable them to climb Mount McKinley. Maybe this is just a holdover from when all applicants had to be accepted by the Park, but my feeling is that if a party does not know whether or not it is qualified, then it probably is not.

Even though many of the accidents and injuries in 1976 were not the result of inexperience, it seems evident that the average experience level of climbers on Mount McKinley has dropped in the last ten years or so. For all prospective climbers in future years, I cannot think of a better way to end this report than with the warning given by Edward Whymper in 1871: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Climbing Activity 1976

mount McKinley national park

Mountain and Route

Number of Parties

Total

Climbers

Successful

Climbers



Mount McKinley—west Buttress

49

354

246



—Muldrow Glacier

11

73

50



—Cassin Ridge

7

32

12



—West Rib

4

17

12



—South Buttress

3

20

15



—South Face

2

3

2



—Pioneer Ridge

1

6

2



—Northwest Buttress

1

3

0





78

508

339



Mount Foraker—Northeast Ridge

4

26

0



—South-southeast Ridge

1

8

8



—Southwest Ridge

1

5

0





6

39

8



Mount Brooks

3

18

2



Tri-Pyramids

1

3

3



Mount Mather

1

2

2



Mount Silverthrone

2

7

4



Scott Peak

3

10

5



Total

94

587

363



This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.