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Apr 28, 2003, 10:53 AM
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Rangers ready for McKinley ascent season
DANGER: Park Service works to make the mountain a little safer.

By JOEL GAY
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: April 28, 2003)

Sunny skies and unseasonably high temperatures sent avalanches roaring down the flanks of Mount McKinley and neighboring peaks Sunday in a thunderous start to the climbing season on America's highest summit.

Over the next two months, more than 1,100 climbers are expected to attempt the 20,320-foot peak, according to the National Park Service. Almost all will start their ascents from the tent city that springs up every April on Kahiltna Glacier known as Base Camp.

The camp came to life April 23 when the High Altitude Rescue Team from Fort Wainwright, flying big twin-rotor Chinook helicopters, brought in tents, fuel and other supplies, said Roger Robinson, chief mountaineering ranger at the Park Service's Talkeetna Ranger Station.

On Saturday, rangers from Denali National Park and a crew of volunteers set up the camp at 7,200 feet. Right now it's half a dozen tents and not much more, Robinson said. But soon it will be Grand Central Station in the Alaska Range.

The climbing season is like a salmon run, Robinson said. "It's always slow at the start" but quickly increases to a furious pace before it exhausts itself in mid-July.

As of Sunday, only 24 climbers were on Denali and a handful were attempting nearby Mount Foraker. By May 1, the trickle will turn into a steady stream, and by late May, "we could have 500 people on the mountain at a time."

It's not like they're all over the mountain, Robinson said. Ninety percent of them will climb by the same route, the West Buttress. "In some ways it's pretty easy to manage because everyone is concentrated on one long trail to the summit."

The mountaineering rangers cluster at another camp at 14,000 feet. Twice the size of Base Camp, it has four tentlike shelters that are particularly strong and windproof.

One of the rangers' jobs is to be sanitation police, Robinson said, and this year they're enforcing a new requirement -- the "clean mountain can," or CMC. A little larger than a one-gallon paint can, the CMCs are like personal latrines. Everyone who climbs above 14,000 feet on the West Buttress route must use one and haul his personal waste down the mountain when he leaves.

"The upper parts of Denali are ice but not glacier," and consequently there are no crevasses into which climbers can deposit their waste, Robinson said. "Whatever gets left remains there a long, long time."

The park may eventually require CMC use at Base Camp too, he said.

Nearly 1,100 people have registered to climb Mount McKinley this year. On average, one or two will die, Robinson said. But one of the most dangerous parts of the climb, the traverse of Denali Pass at 18,200 feet, will be safer this year. Rangers are installing snow anchors every 100 feet or so, which will give climbers a place to attach their ropes.

A climber descending Denali Pass slipped and fell to his death last year. It was the first climbing fatality on Denali since 1998.

So far only a handful of climbers have reached Base Camp, but the flood is coming, said Paul Roderick, a pilot and owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi. They could be surprised at how warm Denali is this year, he said.

"It feels like it's mid-May," Roderick said after landing at Base Camp on Sunday. "Typically this time of year it's zero in the morning. The low last night was 18, and it was 40 today," he said.

Some climbers will be disappointed by the warmth, Roderick said. They come early for the low temperatures and good ice climbing. But for the many who just hope to trudge up the West Buttress route and make the summit, warmer weather will be a blessing.

"Setting up tent poles, cooking -- it's just easier overall," he said. But, he added, "anything can happen. We can get 15 feet of snow in May, 6 feet at a time. It's just too early to tell."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 907-257-4310.


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