Soldiers, rangers ready McKinley for this year's climbers

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

KAHILTNA GLACIER, Alaska (AP) -- The mighty Chinook helicopters -- twin-rotor boxcars of the sky -- appeared small and silent far below, rising like tiny insects out of the abyss.

The enormity of the Mount McKinley massif was writ in the comparative insignificance of man's best technology.

''Here they come,'' someone said, as the CH-47s swung east toward the site of the soon-to-be Kahiltna base camp and continued their climb.

Chief climbing ranger Roger Robinson and Staff Sgt. Jason Wainwright stood on the glacier admiring the power of the choppers fitted with engines that can crank out up to 10,000 horsepower each.

Far more powerful than the Park Service's Llama rescue helicopter, the Chinooks can deliver loads as high as 18,000 feet. But because of their size and weight, they can't get into the places the tiny Llama can or climb quite as high.

''This one is made to put the needle in,'' Robinson said. ''The Llama is designed to thread the needle.''

As the men talked, the helicopters climbed ever closer. Minutes later they were whomp-whomp-whomping overhead, the downwash from their rotors stirring the snow atop the glacier into a blizzard. Then they settled onto the glacier itself, spooled down their engines.

The sheltered basin near 7,500 feet on the south slope of North America's tallest peak returned to silence.

That wouldn't last long, though. Soldiers from Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks and Denali National Park and Preserve rangers from Talkeetna dove into the task of unloading 8,000 pounds of equipment from the bellies of the big black transports flown by the Sugarbears, as Bravo Company, Fourth Battalion, 123rd Aviation Regiment of the U.S. Army is known.

Soon lines of bodies formed beside the gaping back doors of the two choppers and all sorts of equipment began moving hand-to-hand up the slope: The vinyl-coated nylon of a Weatherport, aluminum framing, lumber, plywood-covered flooring, propane bottles, first-aid supplies, stretchers, rescue gear, food, communications equipment, cots and more.

Over the next hour or so, everything necessary to create a human outpost on the south side of McKinley wound up piled in a mound to be covered with blue plastic tarp until rangers could get around to the task of camp construction.

Soldiers weary from working in the thin air more than a mile and a half high settled onto the snow.

''You OK?'' someone asked one of them.

''I'm just enjoying the view.''

Due west, the wall of Mount Foraker climbed straight to a 17,400-foot summit painted in white snow and black rock on a pale-blue sky. Back down on the glacier, the sun was finally high enough to start driving back the zero-degree cold.

Among the Wainwright soldiers was Jared Lampe from Gaylord, Mich., who planned to be back later to take a shot at the summit.

A climbing class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks had hooked the Midwestern flatlander. He had spent his free time all winter climbing in the Delta Mountains to get himself ready to join a couple other soldiers on McKinley.

One of the trio reached high camp at 17,200-feet last year, he said, but was turned back by weather. Lampe marveled at how stable weather patterns had been across much of Alaska into April of this year. He was hoping they would stay that way.

And so began what is considered the official climbing season on the 20,320-foot summit of the continent.

When the Sugarbears were done with their work at 7,400-feet, the Chinooks began sling-loading gear higher for a second camp near 14,200 feet on the mountain.

By the time the Army was done, spokesman Chuck Canterbury said, nearly nine tons of supplies were in place on the mountain. Park Service staff and volunteers will be arriving this week to start camp construction.

Ranger Daryl Miller said a team of rangers is due into Kahiltna base Tuesday to start work there.

A second team is scheduled to arrive on the glacier Friday (April 26) and start climbing to 14,000 feet to construct and staff a ranger camp there. The hike up, which will take several days, is necessary to acclimate to the oxygen-short air more than 2 1/2 miles above sea level.

Several parties of climbers have been on the mountain since early in the month, but the real climbing season doesn't start until Kahiltna base is up and running. Regular air-taxi flights shuttle climbers back and forth from Talkeetna.

''(The climbers) are right behind us,'' said Miller, who expects 1,100 to 1,300 to try for the summit this year.

The mountain saw a record number of 1,305 climbers last year. So far this year, Miller said, 1,068 have paid the $25 registration fee to reserve their $150 climbing permits. Those are all unguided climbers.

Park concessionaires holding permits to guide are expected to put another 200 to 300 climbers on the mountain, Miller said, and a few more other climbers could register in the days ahead.

The park requires 60 days notice from climbers. So anyone registering now wouldn't be climbing until sometime in June, but the climbing season that starts in April usually stretches into early July.

Rangers anticipate the final number of climbers on the mountain this year will fall somewhere below last year's record because of the dropout rate.

About 18 percent of the climbers who registered last year never showed up, Miller said, adding that the no-show rate was higher than expected.

''Typically, it runs about 10 percent,'' he said. And some years have seen rates as low as 6 percent. Miller said it is hard to say why. Plans change; people get injured in training for the climb; and McKinley's weather turns nasty. Climbers conclude it's not worth the effort to fly to Kahiltna base and hike the glacier to 14,200 feet only to be weathered in at the base of the McKinley headwall.

McKinley weather is notoriously unpredictable.

It was blue-sky beautiful with just the first indications of high winds developing over the summit when the Army made its deliveries Monday. By Wednesday, the winds were coming up; the snow was moving in; and the mountain was turning hostile.

What it does from here on out will mean everything to the success of the people who dream of making the summit. About 60 percent made the top last year, and no one died for the third year in a row.

Good weather got most of the credit. Success rates on McKinley usually range between 35 and 50 percent. Of the 80 days in the prime of the climbing season, Miller said, there were only three or four that kept climbers tent bound.

That weather, he noted, allowed people to climb at a more relaxed pace, which translated into safer climbing.

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