Talkeetna, Alaska could be described as a one horse town, if you were feeling generous, or more accurately tiny and out-of-the-way. Just to give you a sense of scale, the mayor is a cat named Stubbs, he can be found wandering around the town and might even let you pet him. However, despite its small size, Talkeetna is the Mecha of North American mountain climbing. It is from this town that each year over a thousand mountain climbers fly into base camp at 7,000 feet above sea level to climb Mt. McKinley’s west buttress.
Mt. McKinley, or Denali (meaning “The Great One”), as it is known in the local Athabascan language, is North America’s highest mountain. With a peak of 20,320 feet, winds of over 80 miles per hour, temperatures of -40 Â°F in the spring and summer and covered in clouds two out of every three days, it is no surprise that Denali is also the hardest to summit. Only about half of all those who attempt to climb the mountain reach the top.
After registering for the required permit 60 days in advance, the climbers must pay the $350 fee, and fill out registration forms, listing their previous climbing experience, the amount and type of equipment as well as the food and medical supplies they will take with them; the next stop for the 1171 climbers registered to climb the mountain in the 2014 season is the Talkeetna ranger station. Once at the station there is an orientation given by the rangers to review park rules, injury treatment and prevention, and waste management.
The climbers come from all over the world, mostly from the United States and Europe, with others from South Africa, Australia, India, and East Asia. The climbers have to haul a 40 pound back pack and another 60 pounds on a sled. The national park has a strict “pack it in, pack it out” policy, this includes human waste. This along with other policies and enforcement by the national park service has helped to make Denali, according to Ranger Robert Zimmer, “the cleanest mountain in the world.”
Once on the mountain the climbers are the responsibility of lead mountaineering ranger, Coley Gentzel, and his crew of full time and seasonal rangers who are tasked with safety of the climbers. These positions are highly prized in the climbing community as they are a chance to turn a passion into actual employment. The rangers who are hired for these jobs are among the most experienced and skilled mountaineers in the world. Seriously, some of these guys train sherpas. Gentzel has summited the mountain nine times.
Safety is a huge concern for the Rangers. Climbing Denali is very dangerous, the mountain has claimed close to 100 lives, not to mention countless injuries. At 20,000 feet of elevation there is only half as much oxygen as at sea level which can lead to sicknesses such as high-altitude edema, a condition that causes fluid to build up in the lungs and brain. The terrain is equally treacherous. There are areas affectionately christened with names such as “The Autobahn” and “The Orient Express”, because a fall on these steep slopes will cause a person to accelerate uncontrollably and making it impossible to stop. Falls in these areas are almost always fatal.
Reaching the peak takes between two and three weeks, around 21 days, far longer than the record time of 11 hours from base camp to summit and back set by Killian Journet. So far this season only 195 of the 651 climbers who attempted have reached the summit, or around 30%. This number does not include the additional 376 climbers who are on the mountain at the time that this is being written.
By: Stuart Murch