Denali Report for May 16th, 2012

There are currently one-thousand-twenty climbers registered to climb Mt. McKinley, and 15 registered to climb Mt Foraker. This week the number of climbers currently on McKinley jumped to 234, up from 139 last week. 3 climbers are currently attempting Mt. Foraker.

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So far only 16 climbers have ended their attempts on North America’s highest peak, with only two making it to the summit. That’s a 12 percent success rate for climbing Mt McKinley at this point in the season.

A number of parameters lead to a successful attempt at climbing Mt. McKinley, and success is a combination of good circumstances and proper preparation.

The National Park Service in March released a report on the investigation of an early-season accident in May of 2011 that led to the death of a climber. According to the report, three climbers led by a guide experienced a fall while descending from the summit of Mt. McKinley.  As they made their way down from the summit around 11pm under deteriorating weather conditions and high winds, a climber fell, and pulling his four roped-in team-mates in to a slide of several hundred feet. The climbers had each experienced injuries, and, as weather conditions worsened their guide left the group to get help. The events ultimately leading to the death of climber Beat Niederer, the details of which have been highlighted by an article in the Alaska Dispatch

In the subsequent report, released in March, the investigating team made ten recommendations to Park Management to create a safer operating environment and decrease the chances of a similar situation arising in the future. The recommendations include adding a steel snow shovel, and an ice saw, and sleeping bag to the list of mandatory gear for summit attempts. The foursome had with them the gear required by the park service for summit attempts, including a nylon bivy sack, snow shovels, and radios. But the bivy sack didn’t provide the warmth necessary for emergency situations, and the snow shovels were too flimsy to dig a trench in wind-hardened snow. Another recommendation the team made to the Park was to emphasize that guides remain with their clients in an emergency, in order to increase chances of survival.

When pursuing a goal such as the summit of North America’s highest peak, the investigating team emphasized the responsibility to be able to make the decision to turn around short of the summit, during late hours in increasing winds. Guide David Staeheli had a 30 year history of climbing and guiding in the Alaska range, and had a solid reputation as a capable mountaineer and guide. In the aftermath of the mishap high on Denali, he is unlikely to return to the mountains he loved. One of the investigating committee’s recommendations is to provide a description of this accident to each climbing guide operation on the mountain.

The hope is that in the future, even under such extreme conditions as those of May, 2011, the chances of survival could be increased.

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