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Weather window brings high Denali success rate

Posted: May 31, 2013 01:55 pm EDT

(By Markian Hawryluk) A week of stable weather coinciding with the peak climbing season has pushed the summit success rate on Denali this year to an unprecedented 69 percent. But Denali rangers warn that percentage is likely to come down as the weather changes.


“That is high. Likely it's just because we're right in the throes of really this long spurt of gorgeous weather. We had a lot of people up there well timed to take advantage of it,” said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Denali National Park. “Once we hit a reality check, both down here in Talkeetna, and on the mountain, that number will likely go down. But it is nice and strong right now.”


As of Thursday, May 30, 984 climbers had registered to climb Denali, the highest peak in North America, this year. Of those, 226 have completed their climbs, logging 157 summits. Another 397 climbers are currently on the mountain.


As in years past, the vast majority, 909 climbers, are attempting the West Buttress route. An additional 19 are attempting the West Rib route, and 14 the Upper West Rib. Eight climbers are tackling the Cassin Ridge and one climber the Czech Direct route. Another 15 climbers are climbing Mt. Foraker, the second highest peak within the park.


But the West Buttress route has been the most popular route for years, accounting for 1,134 of the 1,223 Denali climbers last year. Only 41 percent of climbers summited last year, well below the historical 52 percent success rate.


Park authorities limit the number of climbers on Denali during the peak May-June climbing season to 1,500. Mostly that's to keep from having long lines at the fixed ropes or overwhelming the park rangers' ability to respond in case of emergency.


A record 1,340 climbers tried for the summit in 2005, but otherwise numbers for the past 20 years have averaged about 1,200 climbers a season.


“I think we're going to be lower (this year),” McLaughlin said, although she couldn't put a finger on why. The peak did see a number of climbs canceled after park rangers found the groups were being illegally led. The park limits paid guiding to only six companies.


McLaughlin said climbers start arriving on the peak in late April and early May. Numbers gradually increase throughout May, topping out during the last week of the month. The climbing season generally lasts through July.


That might be in jeopardy this year as the entire state of Alaska has been experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures. But Denali weather can change on a dime, so it's too early tell whether the season would be shortened, McLaughlin said.


The good weather has also limited the number of climbers who required rescue.


“It's been a delightfully quiet season, in terms of our search and rescue response, which I'm thrilled about,” she said. “So we're knocking on wood.”


There has been only one fatality on the mountain this year, a 59-year-old German guided climber who died of a heart attack at the 13,500-foot level May 19th. At least six climbers died on Denali last year.




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A low camp in previous years on Denali. A good weather window is allowing for a high success rate on the mountain this week.
Climbers on the summit ridge on Denali.
Quotas of no more than 1,500 climbers during the peak climbing season on Denali are intended to prevent long lines at the fixed lines on the way to high camp.