Climbing season begins on Mount McKinley

Posted: Friday, April 29, 2005

ANCHORAGE (AP) — Climbing season has begun at Mount McKinley with several changes, including higher climbing fees.

About 1,200 climbers are expected on the mountain between now and mid-July.

Denali National Park rangers and their volunteers will again staff two McKinley camps, one situated two-thirds of the way up the 20,320-foot peak, the other at the 7,200-foot airstrip on the east fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

The Kahiltna Base Camp, starting point for about nine of every 10 McKinley climbers, consists of two operations: one government-run, the other privately run under agreements with the National Park Service.

In the early 1980s, Anchorage doctor Peter Hackett began operating a small ad-hoc clinic and medical-research facility at the 14,200-foot basin on the well-trod West Buttress route. The Talkeetna-based mountaineering rangers turned to the U.S. Army at Fort Wainwright outside Fairbanks for help in shipping medical and other supplies to the basin and striking the camp at season's end.

The High Altitude Rescue Team — members of Bravo Company, the 123rd Aviation Regiment of the 4th Battalion, also known as the Arctic Knights — and its Chinook helicopters would stage out of Talkeetna. They often came in handy, too, when a climber needed rescuing.

In December 2004 and January 2005, however, the 4-123 and its aircraft, including Black Hawk helicopters, shipped out to Kuwait for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A similar unit of the Army National Guard in Anchorage has trained in the McKinley area and could pitch in for the mountaineering rangers. But some of its pilots and support staff also have deployed to the Mideast.

''Both Army divisions that fly for us are out'' of state, said veteran Mount McKinley ranger Roger Robinson. So the rangers have turned to the small planes for setting up the Kahiltna camp and will use their leased high-altitude Lama helicopter to ferry loads to the upper camp when they begin building it about May 5, Robinson said.

The National Park Service did not pay the Army for its cargo-carrying and rescue aid. The loss of the Chinooks and Black Hawks, therefore, means Denali Park must pay more this year for chartering aircraft to help set up the rangers' camps, Robinson said.

The extra expenses come at a time of stagnant appropriations for the Park Service, he said. As a result of tighter budgets, Robinson, the park's lead mountaineering ranger, has been assigned to work as a road ranger on the north side of Denali National Park come June to supplement a depleted staff, he said.

The park, meanwhile, has raised the fee it charges climbers of McKinley (and nearby 17,400-foot Mount Foraker) from $150 to $200. The increase is the first since the fee was established in the 1990s.

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