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|May 14-20, 2009
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Climbing season on Mount McKinley
Ash from Redoubt adds a twist to mountaineering season
by Craig Medred
Though Alaska’s summer tourism economy now looks on the verge of a major recession, the National Park Service is expecting another busy climbing season on Mount McKinley.
Chief mountaineering ranger John Leonard figures 1,000 to 1,200 climbers will venture onto the mountain in May, June and July.
“We’re looking pretty normal,” he said Monday, noting all of the companies permitted to guide on the slopes of McKinley are reporting they are booked solid.
“Climbers, even if they have to go into debt, they keep coming,” said Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi. “They’ll sell their couch if they have to or get rid of their girlfriend.”
Despite a recession gone global, Leonard noted the Mount Everest climbing season already under way is “having a banner year, and those are $65,000 trips.”
Compared with what it costs to climb 29,029-foot Everest — the world’s tallest mountain — 20,320-foot McKinley — the world’s coldest mountain — is a bargain. A guided, three-week-long trudge up the West Buttress toward the summit can be had for about $6,000.
Statistically, about half the climbers who attempt that route make the top, although the success-rate can vary between 40 and 60 percent in any given year. A lot depends on environmental factors.
Normally, that means the weather. But this year there’s the added wild card of ash from the exploding Redoubt volcano.
“It’s going to affect the (Kahiltna) glacier,” Roderick said.
“It could be real, real messy,” Leonard said.
Most of the McKinley massif got a good dusting of ash in late March. The ash layer was then buried under new snow.
“It’s about a foot down now,” Leonard said. “(But) it’s amazing how much heat the ash retains.”
Everyone expects heat-collecting ash to become more and more of problem as snows begin to melt off the Kahiltna later this month and into May. As that happens, pockets of ash are likely to be exposed, and there is no telling how fast those superheated spots might eat their way into the glacier.
If some of the heat-collecting piles of ash happen to be atop snow-bridges spanning unseen crevasses in the glaciers that underlay most of the route to the summit via the West Buttress, there could be problems. If heat-collecting piles of ash crater the airstrip at Kahiltna base camp, there could be further problems.
“The climbers might have to go out and shovel it all off the runway,” Roderick joked.
The ski-equipped airplanes that fly climbers and sightseers to Kahiltna base need a semi-smooth surface on which to land unlike the U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters which flew the Park Service’s ranger camps and 10,000 pounds of food, fuel and medical supplies onto the mountain earlier this month.
Helping to set up Kahiltna base camp at 7,200 feet and the 14,000-foot ranger camp has for years been a regular training exercise for the special, high-altitude helicopters based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Leonard said his agency’s WeatherPort at Kahiltna base is now dug in, set up and preparing to open for business.
Most climbers wait until at least May, when the days are near their longest and the weather is the warmest, before heading onto the mountain.
But there are exceptions.
The Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna was this year approached by a North Carolina-based military unit that wanted to climb in January, said the school’s Colby Coombs. The soldiers, he said, are training for high-altitude assignments in Afghanistan.
Coombs talked them into pushing their training climb back until April. January on McKinley, he noted, is beyond brutal. There is almost no daylight that time of year, and temperatures regularly plummet to 50 or 60 below. The record winter low is a fuel-freezing, life-threatening 75 below.
By April, the mountain is somewhat more hospitable. Temperatures are a comparatively balmy 15 to 25 below.
If you’re thinking about going, consider, too, that the temperatures will only get warmer with every passing month, though that ash could make travel increasingly problematic as the glaringly bright, high-altitude sun casts its beams on the volcanic ash.
— (c) 2009, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).
Visit the Anchorage Daily News online at http://www.adn.com/
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