No Cake Walk on Denali

The weather can rapidly shift and deteriorate at any altitude. It’s less interesting here in Peaklessburg, except, it actually snowed here yesterday! And then, moments later, the grey sky parted to make way for blue skies and sunshine. The flurries were so brief I thought I imagined them. However, the fact that the schools south of here actually closed for a snow day gives me reason to believe I wasn’t imagining things.

It’s easy to take common weather shifts for granted near sea level and in well-populated areas. We have the luxuries of automobiles and firm walls — and Starbucks coffee houses — to shelter us. That’s not the case alpine climbing and certainly not on Denali.

Every mountain has dangers, and Denali has some special characteristics. Jonathan Waterman, a former Denali guide, Mountaineering Park Ranger and author, makes the case that Denali has to be thought of as a bigger mountain than it’s elevation actually indicates. At 20,320 ft./6,196 m., it’s the highest mountain in North America but it’s dwarfed by Himalayan peaks in terms of girth and towering size by an extra kilometer or two. That being said, it’s proximity to one of the poles makes it much colder than mountains at similar altitude.

In Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mount McKinley 1903-1990 (AAC Press 1991), Waterman gives the example that the weather at the 17,200-foot camps can shift by dropping temperatures, increasing winds, and sudden snowfall causing decreased visibility. By contrast, at the same elevation in the Himalaya, climbers can often find refuge to rest and recover.

However, the dangers of climbing Denali are not limited to the weather conditions and climbing conditions (including crevasse fall, avalanche danger, rock fall and so forth), but are also like any other higher altitude peak. Climbers are susceptible to Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). While immediate descent to lower elevation is the only real remedy, getting down can be a challenge as significant as the medical condition.

Helicopter evacuations are often requested for rescue, both in climbing accidents and medical incidents — and thank goodness it’s available. However, I believe that it takes away from the true purpose of going to the mountains: To experience deprivation from the infrastructure of society and be self-reliant, which is to say, to take-in wilderness.

The temptation of an alpinist to get to and from the mountain itself in haste has also presented numerous dangers and loss of life. For example, the climbers from the Harvard Mountaineering Club that made the second ascent of the north face by a new route survived frequent avalanches and rock fall, but nearly lost of their teammates by attempting to cross the McKinley River on there return. The river was at the height of its flow at that time of day. Waterman mentions about a dozen similar incidents — some deadly — in his other book, High Alaska.

Well, in other areas it sounds like the American Alpine Club Benefit Dinner was a success. I’m hearing good things about Freddie Wilkinson’s film of the ascent of Saser Kangri II last year. Hopefully I’ll get to watch it soon.

Laslty, news of expeditions’ plans for 2012 in the northern hemisphere are coming to surface — at least for climbs that will be promoting a brand or a cause. Regarding Denali, I’ve heard from Stewart Green’s blog that an all African-American team will be going for the top. I think that would be great to introduce the sport to a demographic that isn’t normally inclined toward climbing. What better way than through the romance of climbing a big peak? I wish them luck!

As always, thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter, if you haven’t already. Happy reading and carpe climb ‘em!

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