Several Perish on Denali in 2011

Updated: June 28, 2011

It’s only June 1 and much of the climbing news has been on the deadly accidents on Mount McKinley/Denali in the Alaska Range. I don’t ordinarily cover accidents and deaths in our sport on this the Suburban Mountaineer — it’s sadness is something I prefer to casually avoid– but this has been difficult to ignore with any forced grace.

  • May 12, 2011 — Beat Niederer (33) of Switzerland died around 18,000 ft. of unknown causes after a fall.
  • May 16, 2011 —  Luciano Colombo (67) of Italy died from injuries in a 1,000-foot fall between Denali Pass and the 17,200 ft. High Camp.
  • May 25, 2011 — Alpine Ascents International Guide Suzanne Allen (34) Seattle, Washington and one of her clients, Peter Bullard (45) of China  passed away as the result of an unwitnessed fall along Denali Pass around 18,000 ft.
  • June 10, 2011 — Alaskan resident Brian Young (52) died of “apparent cardiac arrest” after going to sleep in the 17,200 ft. High Camp. It has been historically rare for Alaskans to perish on the mountain.

It should be noted that accidents elsewhere in Denali National Park also occurred in the same span of time: Two other deaths occurred between May 21 and May 23, 2011 when they were over due.  Jiro Kurihara (33) of Canmore, Alberta and Junya Shiraishi (28) of Sapporo, Japan were attempting a new route on the west face of Mt. Frances when they died in an avalanche.

According to the National Park Service, “As of the morning of May 14, there were 282 climbers attempting Mt. McKinley. Eight summits have been recorded thus far. A total of 1,029 climbers are registered to climb during the 2011 season.”

Others have been injured and many lives have been disrupted from these events, no doubt. Events like this remind me that “it’s okay, just Denali,” isn’t true. It’s Denali. Be careful!

I sincerely hope that what remains of the climbing season goes smoothly for all the climbers; the rate of incidents was high this season, though tragedy hits regularly every year.

On the upside, it’s been 10 years since Erik Weihenmayer became the first person to summit Mount Everest in May 2001. Congrats to Erik for the inspiration that he has given to so many mountaineers and non-mountaineers alike!

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Mount Rainier and then onto Alaska

I’ve got an exciting announcement to share with you. Over the next few months I am going to do a series of posts on all things Mount Rainier. Later I will focus on Mount McKinley and then expand to the broader Alaska Range. I will continue to provide insight on alpine and hiking events, trends and news periodically as I always have.

I am going to start by covering Mount Rainier from its climbing history, the guides, the routes, the Wonderland Trail, Paradise, Camp Muir, and maybe even some of the speculations about what would happen if it ever blew its snow cone!

After that, I am going to discuss climbing Denali and later broaden out to the greater Alaska Range, including Mount Foraker, Mooses Tooth, Little Switzerland, the air services, guides and even romantic Talkeetna.

My idea for this comes from what I thought I would do once I completed college, started my career and had some income. I would have climbed Rainier on a long weekend, maybe moved to Seattle, then traveled every chance I could to climb in Alaska. Well, let’s say things did work out that way and it’s not heading that way. But I will share the knowledge I have and will be finding as I review some new information and pull on some old stuff.

If you’re interested in following these posts, please consider getting updates from me on the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. There, you’ll also get news and other interesting mountain life and adventure news and information as I come across it.

Here we go!

New Oversight on Climbers’ Fee Increases

As you know, the usage fee for climbing Rainier increased from US$30 to US$43 and the fee for attempting Mount McKinley / Denali is proposed to be raised from US$200 to US$500 for the purpose of funding the parks’ climbing safety and sanitation operations. The climbing community has been actively and professionally advocating that the US National Parks Service should consider alternative means of funding those costs without burdening climbers with excessive fees.

As a lobbyist and former Congressional aide, I have to hand it to the American Alpine Club (AAC), the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) the Access Fund for getting Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), the Chairman of the National Parks Subcommittee, to ask National Parks Director Jonathan Jarvis about his agency’s increase and proposed increase at a hearing on the administration’s budget held on March 30, 2011 (see the video by clicking here and going to 37:35). Chairman Udall even asked about charging international climbers a higher fee than American climbers, as is done frequently overseas.

Having such questions asked during a Congressional hearing demonstrates and provides several things: 1) The AAC, AMGA and Access Fund have raised sufficient interest and concern about the issue from a key Congressional leader; 2) Congress will be monitoring the National Parks Service’s actions on this issue and expects the final decision to be well reasoned; and 3) Keeps the door open to further and possibly renewed discussion with the National Park Service.

If you are a member of the AAC, as I am, or the AMGA and contribute to the Access Fund, you can be proud of their efforts. They’ve taken a strong step up to providing for an appropriate resolution to the usage fee increases.

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Denali Solo in January Not to Be

Polar explorer and new mountaineer Lonnie Dupre was attempting to pull off a first for the darkest and possibly hardest month of the year on Denali (20,320 ft./6,194 m.).  Only two alpinists have ever stood on Denali’s summit in the month of January (if my memory serves correctly).  Still, no one has done it alone during that month and Dupre could not change that. 

At least not this time.

Based on his previous accomplishments and what he endured to attain 17,200 ft. (5,243 m.), including several days in snow caves, high winds and even an earthquake, Dupre probably has it in him to try again. 

Even if he does not return, he tried and so far he is nearly back down (if he is not down already) to his base camp alive and in one piece. 

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Being First is One Thing, Getting There Another

As of today, Lonnie Dupre has 25 days remaining to attain his goal.  If he succeeds, he would be the first solo climber to reach Denali’s summit in January.  So far, only Russians Artur Testov and Vladimir Ananich have been there then, having topped out on January 16, 1998.

Last I heard, Lonnie Dupre just got the approval from his pilot in Talkeetna to fly to and land on the Kahiltna Glacier, where he will start his ascent up the West Buttress.

I think missions like this are always ripe for disaster.  When a climber sets a goal with a schedule like his there are various ways to be disappointed: the date might be missed, the summit might not be reached, and injury or fatality may occur.

A goal like this can motivate the climber to push him or herself too far or too hard to be successful.  Goals and objectives are good.  They are key to motivating and often drive us toward accomplishment and self-improvement.  But setting the right goals and expectations might moderate some of the self-imposed challenges climbers face.

A good alternative might be to set the simpler goal of reaching Denali’s summit in winter and see how the weather and circumstances come.  If the climber becomes the first to reach the top in January, great, but if not at least the climb was epic!

I don’t mean to disparage Dupre’s objectives.  They are fantastic and I am partially envious!  Like any mountaineer with a goal he or she has declared publicly, he is in a precarious position. Pressure from ego, satisfying sponsors, and the risk of failure can factor negatively climbing wisely sometimes.  Anyone that has set out for a bona fide first ascent — like Edmund Hillary on Everest or Hudson Stuck on Mount McKinley — probably realizes that the glory of success is great but that accomplishing the goal to get it was daunting and might not have happened.

Let’s hope Dupre can compartmentalized and separate the pressures of his mission from his logical analysis.  A key to being a great alpinist, it seems to me, is luck, nerve, perseverance and analytical skill.  Such a balancing act of such factors could result in a Zen-like moment.  Let’s also hope the weather cooperates!

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A Fee Increase for Rainier and Denali

Word has it that the fees charged by the National Park Service (NPS) for climbing Mount Rainier and Denali are going to increase significantly.  I go back and forth on whether it is ethical to charge anyone anywhere for hiking and climbing.  I am beginning to think there may be some reasons to do so.

The NPS has enjoyed implementing user fees to supplement their budget shortfall over recent years.  Their budget is allocated by Congress through appropriations.  With the down economy, U.S. spending deficit, and other political factors, federal public land maintenance is not a top priority.  It never has been for that matter.  And that is a good thing; too much money for the NPS may mean too many grandiose interpretive centers and not enough wilderness.  So extra cash from the visitors that use the park seems reasonable.

It is probably acceptable to charge fees for any mountain anywhere where the trails are so popular the routes are trampled with refuse, not to mention higher management costs of searches and rescues (SARs).  Rainier passes that test.  Mount McKinley?  Probably.  Ben Nevis?  Not sure.  But doubling the price to play?  That seems tough.

Shouldn’t an increase that big be implemented over a long period of time?  I guess when the park service is funded less, the still popular parks have to fund their services somehow.  I’m sorry that the park service feels it has to come so suddenly.

I’m really sorry for the cash strapped climber that just spent his savings on his new rack and crampons.  Well, there is always next season, boss…

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