Mountain Guides wary of permit restrictions

A National Park Service Environmental Assessment regarding the allocation of climbing permits between commercial guided climbing operators and independent, non-guided climbers on Mount McKinley has the six companies that currently guide on Denali up in arms.

There is a limit of 1500 climbers permitted on Mount McKinley each season. For the past 15 years approximately 1200 climbers have attempted the mountain. There has been an upswing in the number guided clients to almost 40%. NPS is concerned with displacing independent, non-guided climbers if the number of climbers nears the cap of 1500. They want to balance the various options of the park visitors who are climbers. The cap was determined in the 2006 Backcountry Management Plan along with the 25 percent allotment of permits to all commercial guide companies.

The NPS Environmental Assessment recognizes that the 2006 backcountry management plan of 25% commercial activity is in conflict with the 2004 mountaineering contracts.

Caitlin Palmer, owner of Alaska Mountaineering School says that according to the 2004 contracts, concessions are allotted 18 permits every 14 days without any language about percentages. If park planners of the 2006 Backcountry Management plan had applied the math they used to determine the 25% figure to guiding on Denali, the contract would allow for approximately 50% permit allocation, Palmer says..

And this is what rankles the owners of the six concession holders for Denali guiding. Basically they feel there was an oversight from the 2006 Plan that is now coming back to haunt them.

Palmer says, “Denali is our bread and butter. We guided 94 people on Denali in the 2011 season and employed over 45 guides. A change in the allocation would cut our business in half. Our Denali expeditions help support the additional educational programs that we offer and our local scholarship program. A decrease like this would also affect many other local businesses.”

Four of the other six concessioners would be in a similar situation with a 50% reduction in business.

Not only would the change affect climbers who choose to be guided but also the number of guides that depend on Denali to earn a living. This year, Alaska Mountaineering School employed 47 guides. The 25% allotment would allow only 15 guide jobs on Denali for the season. An estimated total of 90 guide positions could be lost between all the mountaineering concessioners.

Palmer says that mountain guides provide a multitude of positive contributions to Denali National Park including increased safety and hazard awareness and assistance to park rangers in search and rescue operations.

Todd Burleson, owner of Alpine Ascents International, says that the allocation is too small for a business to survive and points out that he still has the administrative, liability insurance and guide training costs, but potentially half the business. He says the only way to make a profit is to charge a lot more money for a guided climb, and that will put a burden on the public.

Burleson is not happy with any of the three alternatives proposed by NPS. He feels the allotment should be changed to a minimum baseline of 40%.

Comments on the EA may be submitted through this Saturday October 15, 2011, preferably via the website at and look under climbing allocation for Mount McKinley.

Story by Laura Wright

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