Denali National Park, Mountaineering Summary. The 1997 climbing season for Mount McKinley and most of the Alaska Range started with mountaineers making unsuccessful summit bids in the chilly month of December and concluded in mid-July. Thirty-seven different countries were represented as 1,110 mountaineers attempted routes to the top of North America’s highest peak. More than half of the mountaineers (51 percent) reached the summit, right in keeping with the historical average.
Mount Foraker, the second highest peak in the Alaska Range at 17,400 feet, saw 27 mountaineers attempting routes to its summit. Nine of those (30 percent) mountaineers were successful in their summit bid. Lower in altitude, but still technically demanding, Mount Hunter (14,573') saw approximately 43 mountaineers attempting routes to its summit. (Because registration for Mount Hunter in not mandatory, summit statistics are not available.)
The number of serious accidents in the Alaska Range continued its three-year downward trend with a total of ten major rescues. Mountaineering accidents this year claimed the lives of two mountaineers: an American on Mount Hunter and a British mountaineer on Mount McKinley. In addition, a Russian climber drowned while crossing the McKinley River in the park’s backcountry after completing his Denali climb.
In 1997, the Alaska Range experienced a lower-than-average snowfall for the second year in a row, which led to an early breakup of the glaciers and affected route conditions for the mountaineering season. During the month of May, weather patterns were very unstable. Mountaineers battled strong winds that proved relentless for days at a time. A sudden storm caught climbers, including a guided group, near the summit, stranding them overnight. The effects of this storm were one British fatality in an independent expedition and four guided clients requiring rescue for severe frostbite, which resulted in significant tissue loss including that of fingers and toes.
Fantastic weather in June was a significant factor in the greater-than-normal number of mountaineers standing on the summit. Unfortunately, the mild weather did not hold over through early July, when many mountaineers found themselves stranded on the mountain due to high snowfall and rain at lower elevations. After receiving assistance from the 14,200-foot camp in the form of food and fuel, the stranded expeditions flew off the mountain, some as much as seven days late.
Weather is one of the most critical factors for Denali’s mountaineering expeditions. It’s not only the present weather conditions that affect an expedition’s progress, but also the weather pattern for several months prior to the season that sets the hazards for the route. In 1998, a new weather-monitoring station will be installed at the 14,200-foot ranger camp to provide mountaineers with the most accurate and timely weather information available.
Denali National Park