After COVID-19 hiatus, Denali climbing season returns in 2021

Denali in Feb. 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

For the first time in seventy years, nobody climbed Denali last year. The season was canceled due to COVID-19. Now the climbing season is returning, along with its boost to businesses in the Northern Susitna Valley.

Maureen Gualtieri, a public information officer for Denali National Park and Preserve, said the National Park Service is going into this climbing season with more information about COVID-19 than last year.

“We have better information on transmission, on prevention … We have better treatments, we’ve got more testing, more access to PPE for ourselves and our climbers, and of course, the potential game-changer of vaccines becoming more prevalent,” she said.

On average, the National Park Service expects around 1,200 climbers per year to attempt to summit Denali. The number is expected to be smaller this year, and Gualtieri said the distribution of where climbers are coming from is also expected to change.

“We would expect — and have seen — a decline in foreign registrations. That said, we expect a bit of an uptick in domestic climbers.”

Part of that anticipated increase in domestic climbers comes from Americans who might otherwise consider traveling abroad for mountaineering trips. With the fluid nature of travel restrictions, it’s likely to be easier to come to Alaska than to travel to another country.

Many of the climbers who come to Denali each year do so with a guide service. Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna took a big hit last year when expeditions to the highest peak in North America were taken off the menu.

This year, the company is looking forward to resuming their Denali trips, but taking extra precautions. Caitlin Palmer, a managing partner at AMS, said COVID-19 prevention measures begin before climbers even come to Alaska.

“We had — already had — at AMS an internal rule/guideline for everybody that’s coming in: Have a negative COVID test seventy-two hours before their flight to Alaska,” she said.

In high-elevation environments, a respiratory disease has the potential to be particularly dangerous. Even under normal circumstances, conditions like high-altitude pulmonary edemas are a real concern for climbers and guides. Palmer said a few days in Talkeetna before a guided trip and a rapid test before departure gives extra time to make sure a climber has not contracted COVID-19.

“Those climbers come a few days ahead of time … to Talkeetna just for jet lag, do to some prep … with us at headquarters.  So there will be a few days that they’re off their flight and in Talkeetna,” she said.

In addition to climber safety, keeping guides and mountaineering rangers safe is also a priority for Talkeetna’s mountaineering community. One way to do that is through vaccination. Mountaineering rangers are medical first-responders, which puts them high on the priority list to receive a vaccine. The National Park Service intends to limit the number of volunteers accompanying ranger patrols and largely limit them to medical professionals who also get early vaccine access.

Palmer hopes mountain guides may also be able to get higher-priority vaccinations for COVID-19.

“All the guides from all the different guide services get called upon by the rangers to help with rescues,” she said.

For climbers, rangers and guides, the commercial airliner to Alaska isn’t the only flight they’ll take. Air taxis in Talkeetna provide the main means of transportation to and from Denali’s base camp.

Courtney Schaeffer, the office manager for Talkeetna Air Taxi, said the business is following strict guidelines to protect staff and passengers including regular disinfecting, social distancing where possible, and requiring masks.

“Their whole experience with us is masked, from their check-in process in the office to their safety briefing to their actual flight,” she said.

Despite all the precautions, some climbers may develop COVID-19 symptoms on Denali. Caitlin Palmer said if that happens with one of Alaska Mountaineering School’s groups, the procedure is much like for any other serious respiratory issue.

“If you have some signs and symptoms that indicate [COVID-19], then descent is the option,” she said.

Despite the concern, most guides and park officials are optimistic for climbing season this year, which could mark the beginning of a return to normal for businesses and residents in the Talkeetna area.

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