Alaska Roundup: Accidents and Summits on Denali

Climbers descend to 14 Camp on Denali. Photo: Shutterstock

After a year off in 2020, this year has been very busy on Denali. The most recent totals from the National Park Service (NPS) list 1,013 registered climbers, with 385 currently on the mountain. Of the 560 completed climbs, there have been 335 summits: a 60% success rate.

Troubling Trends

But the high summit percentage paints a misleading picture. The NPS has noticed some worrying trends: “We have seen a disturbing amount of overconfidence paired with inexperience in the Alaska Range. While climbers may have a good deal of experience at elevations up to 14,000 feet in the Lower 48 [states], the remoteness and extreme weather we get in the Alaska Range make the experience here more challenging and dangerous.”

So far this season, six climbers have been evacuated with HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema). There have been two deaths on the mountain too, the first fatalities since 2017. Other medical emergencies have included a 300m unroped fall that has left a climber in a critical condition, a 70-year-old climber with broken ribs, and at least two cases of serious frostbite.

An NPS patrol inspects the fixed lines on the headwall of Denali. Photo: NPS Photo/Dave Weber

Rather than spending a night at High Camp, the NPS has noted that climbers are often attempting summit pushes from 14 Camp, almost 1,000m lower. They postulate that climbers are treating Denali like a Colorado peak, misjudging their performance at altitude and underestimating the danger posed by Alaskan weather.

Another issue is that climbing parties are splitting and forming new summit groups high on the mountain. As party members drop out from exhaustion or injury, remaining climbers have joined forces on the fly. These groups of strangers are “a recipe for disaster”, according to the NPS. They have no contingency plans and often end up reliant on the NPS or other climbers for shelter and support.

Fortunately for ill-prepared climbers, the weather has been good. The latest report from the West Buttress was positive. On Tuesday, an NPS patrol shook fresh snow from the “Up” fixed line and reported that “the headwall is on the firmer side with a little blue ice showing particularly near the top, but overall [it is] straightforward climbing.”

Other News

Elsewhere in Alaska, a hiker has survived a close encounter with bears. Fina Kiefer used bear spray to defend herself on the Pioneer Ridge Trail near Palmer. Forced from the trail, she was missing for 36 hours before she emerged near the trailhead on June 18. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center praised her grit and determination. The story drives home the importance of proper preparation before heading into the backcountry. Kiefer’s forethought to bring waterproof matches, as well as the usual bear spray, may have saved her life.

The Alaska National Guard searches for missing hiker Fina Kiefer. Photo: Alaska National Guard

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About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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