Record number of climbers try McKinley and return safely

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The 2001 climbing season now wrapping up on Mount McKinley is already assured of its place in history.

Despite a record number of climbers attempting the peak -- 1,305 as of Friday -- no deaths have occurred on the mountain for the third year in a row, a blessing credited by mountaineering rangers mostly to June's exceptional weather.

If that holds through the few remaining expeditions, it will be the first time for such a streak since the mid-1960s.

The McKinley climbing season runs roughly from late April to mid-July. On Friday, only two climbers remained on the mountain, said ranger Roger Robinson. A solo mountaineer is expected to attempt the peak in August, he said.

Never before this year had 1,300 people tried to climb McKinley, according to the National Park Service. Of those, about 780, or 60 percent, reached the 20,320-foot summit, said chief mountaineering ranger Daryl Miller.

The summit success rate is usually 35-50 percent. A higher percentage of climbers reached the top this year because of an extraordinary streak of good weather, Miller said. Of the 80 days in prime season on McKinley, climbers were confined to their tents by foul weather for only three or four.

Since they were not delayed, they did not have to rush to meet timetables and departure schedules, he said. For example, they could take longer on summit day, among the more risky segments of a McKinley trip.

''This year, it was so obvious, the weather allowed people to climb'' at a more relaxed pace, Miller said. ''They weren't behind, and I think that had a great deal to do'' with safety.

Denali National Park rangers conducted a number of environmental projects and experiments this year that they said will have an impact on future McKinley expeditions.

They tried out a new gadget for managing human waste, a durable, lightweight cylinder like the bear-proof food canisters backpackers carry.

''It went very well,'' Robinson said. ''I was so impressed. There was no hesitation from the guided parties.''

Robinson proposes to make the ''clean mountain can'' required gear.

In an effort to learn how much food is eaten and garbage produced by the McKinley hordes, a technician weighed every candy wrapper, fuel can and uneaten noodle at the end of some trips.

Michelle O'Neil conducted the garbage study for the Park Service at the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Glacier base camp, where she stayed for six weeks. She also examined the before and after food supplies of 50 parties selected at random.

O'Neil said she's noticing trends.

''Foreign groups bring less food per person, but they have a lot more trash,'' she said. She believes foreign climbers lose some of their original supplies to U.S. Customs agents who confiscate banned foodstuffs.

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