Denali climbing season is back after being called off due to the pandemic last year, but it has come with a higher rate of accidents and medical issues on the mountain. In the first month of climbing season, there have been more search and rescue calls than in some entire years.
Park Service rangers identified a number of concerns in a blog post on the Denali National Park website titled “Troubling Trends.” In the post, they cite several problems including inadequate experience, attempting to summit too quickly, and not fully appreciating the difficulty of climbing Denali.
South District Ranger Tucker Chenoweth’s job involves overseeing ranger patrols, and he has years of experience in search and rescue. He said Denali, even along the popular West Buttress route, brings several unique challenges.
“The West Buttress is not easy,” Chenoweth said. “Technically it’s not hard, but then you factor in the remoteness, and you also factor in the altitude, then … the West Buttress becomes a serious endeavor.”
As of Wednesday, no fatalities had been reported on Denali, but there have been severe accidents, including a 1,000 foot fall high on the mountain that left Canadian climber Adam Rawski in critical condition. There have also been many reported cases of high-altitude pulmonary edema reported — fluid in the lungs — which can happen when climbers ascend too quickly.
Chenoweth said the popularity of the West Buttress Route can make it easy to forget the remoteness of Denali. For a significant portion of this climbing season, there have been more than 400 people on the mountain at once. Even then, Chenoweth said the hundreds of people and mutual support that they can provide can suddenly vanish.
“All of a sudden that wilderness component where you’re the only team — or maybe it’s summit day and you’re really late in the evening and everyone else is already down below you. You’re so far out there at that point that the remoteness — it may be the first time you feel it,” he said.
Chenoweth said one thing that tends to lead to problems is when climbers form ad hoc climbing teams.
That can happen before a trip begins or if a climber’s partners have to turn back before making it to the summit. A common point to give up an attempt on Denali is at 14,000 feet. Chenoweth said forming a new team at that point poses additional challenges.
“Then people start looking for partners, but they don’t know them. They don’t know their technical skill. There’s no camaraderie, no teamwork. At that point, it feels like a summit-driven decision,” he said.
Chenoweth said some of the teams formed mid-expedition have met with unfortunate results, including serious injuries and fatalities in recent years.
Another trend that rangers said is a cause for concern is when climbers attempt the summit in one long push from 14,000 feet instead of resting at High Camp at 17,000 feet before a summit bid. Chenoweth said the impacts of that jump in elevation shouldn’t be underestimated.
A typical summit attempt involves leaving a lot of gear behind and moving light and fast to try to make it to the top and back in one day. If a group making a longer summit attempt encounters a problem, they may find themselves needing to rely on other teams for food or tent space.
There’s no guarantee that National Park Service rangers will be nearby or able to help when a group runs into trouble. In many cases, professional guides leading groups of paying clients step in to provide what help they can.
Caitlin Palmer, co-owner of Alaska Mountaineering School, a guide service based in Talkeetna, said her guides’ instinct is often to help whenever they can, but that can impact the group they are leading as well.
“A lot of our guides are sort of superhuman and can do some extraordinary things up there at high altitude,” she said. “But it does impact not only the patient’s life in a big way, but also the rescuers and the people the rescuers are responsible for their safety.”
Palmer said she was happy to see the National Park Service talk openly about the problems they’re seeing on Denali, and she hopes that climbers will follow the advice.
“A lot of it isn’t brand new, but it’s important for the Park Service to bring these incidences to light,” she said. “Hopefully these climbers who are not experienced enough yet will take some time to learn more skills and slow their pace down.”
As of Wednesday a bit more than a third of the expected attempts on Denali have been completed.