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  • by Karen Cummings

Climbing Alaska's Mt. McKinley

Mountaineering as sport emerged fewer than 150 years ago. Though it is a sport that is more often than not a group activity, nature provides the only competition and the mountain climber must rely on his own judgement and fortitude to "win" by reaching the summit and/or surviving.

In Mt. McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the tallest peak in North America, nature provides man with a formidable opponent. Known to the Indians as Denali (the High One) and to the Russians as Bolshaya Gora (Great Mountain), Mt. McKinley lies 130 miles north-north-west of Anchorage, Alaska. Although there are more than 45 mountains higher than the Alaskan peak, Mt. McKinley's proximity to the Arctic Circle makes its weather conditions more severe and, therefore, its effect on climbers as debilitating as those of much higher mountains.


In early April, Rick Wilcox, president of International Mountain Equipment, of North Conway, together with Mugs Stump, a world-class climber, set out to guide five clients to the summit of Mt. McKinley. An experienced mountain climber and guide, Rick had climbed four peaks higher than McKinley and also scaled the similar 19,850 Mt. Logan in the Yukon, but had never before attempted McKinley. Mugs, on the other hand had worked as a guide on Mt. McKinley for four years and was familiar with its many trails and dangers.


Together these two were entrusted with the well-being of the five men who had signed up for the tour with Rick's guiding services. Not just any man (or woman) on the street wants to climb a mountain, let alone Mt. McKinley, nor is just anyone permitted to do so. Rick requires that his climbers be fit, healthy, and have some climbing experience. Any problems, even as minute as a dental cavity, gets magnified when a climber is battling frigid weather and high altitude. "All the people who come on these trips have to have previous experience climbing and hiking," said Rick. "When they apply, they have to list their experience and references. If they are young and very fit, we don't require as much experience as when they are older."


Climbing Mt. McKinley is not something to be done on a whim. Scaling the most lofty peaks in the world requires much preparation and patience, coupled with hiking and camping skills, and the technical ability to climb steep rocks and comparable ability on snow and ice. "Most of our clients have thought about it for a long time," explained Rick, "and are fairly experienced mountaineers. They've gotten their experience climbing in the Alps, or South America, or even here." Though Mt. Washington is less than one-third the size of McKinley, Rick explained that winter climbs on the 6,288-foot peak are comparable to summer climbs on the higher mountain.


Another advantage of having been on mountain expeditions before for these part time adventurers is much more practical. One does not just buy a nice pair of hiking boots and decide to hike Mt. McKinley. The equipment needed to traverse snow and ice and to survive 30-below-zero degree temperature and ferocious winds runs into thousands of dollars. Though Rick does rent some of the more expensive, items through IME, it is easier on the pocketbook to have accumulated some of the necessities on previous trips.


The clients for this trip made up a diverse group. There were three New Englanders -- Jay Luff, 34, an electrician; Dick Schuman, 28, a professional juggler; and Jerry Hapwood, 25, who works for an Outward Bound-type program. Another client, Wayne Simoneau, 30, was a Motorola executive from Texas, and John Suchy, 29, came from Arizona where he worked as a medical technician.


On April 12, these seven flew into a town called Talkeetna which lies at the base of Mt. McKinley, much the same as North Conway does to Mt. Washington. "Talkeetna is only at 500 feet and is on a low plateau," explained Rick. "Though further away from Talkeetna than Mt. Washington is from North Conway, Mt. McKinley also seems to rise -- and this is over 20,000 feet -- right up at the end of Main Street. It is just spectacular."


All were eager to begin their trek, but for three days, bad weather, which may have been a precursor of things to come, forced them to remain in Talkeetna with nothing to do but look to the mountain they wished to conquer. In the same manner in which the north summit of Mt. McKinley was first reached in 1910 by a couple of prospectors, and the higher south peak was conquered in 1913, early climbers had to traverse the lower parts of the glacier. Composed of rock, mud, and ice, and riddled with crevasses, these areas are very difficult to pass. Modern day climbers customarily by-pass this relatively dull and unpleasant area and fly all their equipment onto the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,000 feet to begin the climb.


Although they knew they would have to transport everything up the rest of the mountain themselves, these seven men did not travel lightly. "It took three flights to get us all here," said Rick, "because one plane could only bring two people along with all their equipment at a time." In addition to all the camping, hiking, and climbing equipment, it was necessary to bring in 21 days' supply of food for seven men. Most of the food was of the lightweight freeze-dried variety but delicacies such as bacon, canned goods, and cheesecake were brought along to liven up the fare. (A very real hazard of high altitude climbing is loss of appetite and resultant weight-loss and weakness). "Booze" was also carted along, supposedly to help while away the short, cold nights (April nights in Alaska are only six hours long).


Climbing Mt. McKinley in the early spring has its good points and its bad points. Advantages include better snow conditions for skiing, as crevasses in the glacier are still covered securely by the winter snow. There is also less danger of avalanche, and few encounters with other climbers. Even with helicopter and plane rescues, Mt. McKinley persists in claiming many lives of experienced and not-so-experienced climbers, yet it remains a popular peak for climbers from around the world to attempt.


April days are already long in Alaska -- 18 hours and increasing seven minutes every day -- but a major disadvantage to an early season climb is the uncertain and sometimes severe weather. "After our first cold, windy night on the glacier," said Rick, "I knew we were in for a hard cold climb."


The group took comparatively one of the less difficult routes to the summit, the popular West Buttress Route. Climbing a peak the size of Mt. McKinley is a test of the mountaineer's courage, strength, stamina, and resourcefulness. In addition to the physical realities -- bad weather, falling rock, avalanches, ice falls, and crevasses -- there is the danger of contacting a high altitude sickness due to not acclimating to the thinning air. "There is enough oxygen in the air," explained Rick, "but it takes different individuals longer to get acclimated and be able to utilize it." These illnesses come on quickly, often without warning and can be fatal. The only cure is to evacuate the victim as soon as possible to a lower altitude. In order to avoid contracting a high altitude sickness, the rule of thumb is to proceed slowly, not ascending more than 1,000 feet per day.

For this reason, the Wilcox party's ascent of Mt. McKinley was slow. "We were lucky that our clients could all move at approximately the same pace," said Rick. "Our strategy was to double carry everything." This meant they would take several trips and carry about 50 pounds per person up approximately 2,000 feet, but return to sleep at the lower altitude until all equipment was transported to the higher level. "What took six hours to climb up would often take us only a half hour to ski down," said Rick. Important equipment for this part of the trip included mountaineering skis which, with skins and the heel released, were perfect for going up the glacier fields and, with heels secured, ideal for skiing down.

It took the group 10 days to move themselves and all their equipment to their advance base camp at 14,000 feet. Located in a bowl similar to Tuckerman Ravine, but on a much higher and larger scale, the camp provided a relatively protected area for the seven men to build their igloos for more secure sleeping.


The temperatures were consistently cold -- from a high of 20 degrees at the low altitudes during the day to a cold and windy minus 30 higher up during the night. The wind never ceased. "Getting out of your tent in the morning was probably the hardest thing about this trip," said Rick. "You'd be nice and warm in your sleeping bag and you'd hear the wind howling outside." The climbers slept in or with most of their clothing, which became another hardship as this trip progressed. Even the most mundane chores such as cooking or melting snow for water were incredibly time consuming. Performing everyday necessities presented a real hazard in the cold temperatures.


It was after leaving the relative comfort of the 14,000 foot base camp that what Rick describes as "real serious climbing" actually started. Roped together for safety, the group traversed the West Buttress using crampons for better control on the icy ridge, which is only four to eight feet wide along the top. "This was the most thrilling part of the climb," remembered Rick. "The mountain just drops off on either side, the view is spectacular, and yet you're still battling amazing wind." Despite the hardship and the dangers, the climbers were exhilarated by the challenge and the experience. "We had to keep prodding them to move, they were so overwhelmed by the sights," said Rick.


Their excitement was dampened, or more or less frozen, after the first night spent at 17,500 feet. People often question why climbers want to torture themselves attempting high altitudes, and at this point the climbers began to wonder why themselves. "The high wind was the big difference because we were very exposed on the ridge," explained Rick. "There was a high-speed lenticular cloud (of the variety that often covers the summit of Mt. Washington) that just never went away. No one made it to the summit for that month because of the wind." Though dug into ice caves, the seven men spent a horrendous night digging out from snow which, blown by the wind, had buried them in their hand made shelters.

One of the most important aspects of a guide's job is determining when is the opportune time to go on or when it is necessary to turn back. "In our opinion, four out of the five guys with us had had it," said Rick. "They really hit the wall at 17,000 feet." The decision was made and everyone agreed.


Mugs stayed with one client to try another attempt at the summit while Rick led the other four back to the 14,000 foot level to rest and wait. Mugs and the medical technician, John Suchy, soon joined them because the wind on Mt. McKinley never abated. The summit was not to be attained on this trip.


The descent was a much easier trip. Skiing most of the way back to the 7,000-foot level at the Kahiltna glacier, their load was a lot lighter -- their food supplies were almost exhausted. The Walkman radios they listened to were still functioning and supplying entertainment, but vintage men's magazines were passed off to ascending climbers in the same manner as the Wilcox party received theirs on the way up. When they were once again in Talkeetna after 18 days on the mountain, these seven mountain climbers popped the corks on champagne and celebrated their accomplishment. Though disappointed about their defeat at the hands of nature and not reaching their ultimate goal -- the summit -- they counted their survival as their victory.


"Everyone was elated," said Rick. "Though we were in position to take the summit for a whole week, the wind never stopped and we just got too exhausted and had to go down. Some want to try again and some don't, but I think everyone got what they came for. There was all the fear, emotion, anticipation and relief, and everyone just celebrated that they didn't die and still had all their fingers and toes.”

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