Monday, July 18, 2011

Climbing Denali

We are now in a campground in a very small town in Alaska named Willow. Willow plays a big part in the Anchorage-to-Nome dog sled race called the Iditerod -- while the race has its ceremonial start each March in Anchorage, the real start is on day 2 from Willow.

We took a day trip today to Talkeetna, famous for two things: 1) it is allegedly the town that the fictional Cicely, Alaska in Northern Exposure was modeled after and 2) it is where Denali climbers begin.

We started our visit at the Ranger's Station where all the climbers must check in. They purchase a climbing permit for $200, and the Rangers make sure that they have sufficient climbing experience to take on the often extreme conditions on Denali, where winds can be 90 mph and temperatures -40 in the summer. Here is the 2011 climbing stats to date and today's weather:

Not a bad day today at 17,000 feet -- only -15 for a low!

(UPDATE: 17K is not the summit -- Denali, the highest peak in North America, is 20,320 feet)

The Rangers do keep a presence on the mountain at various camps -- a ranger and several medically trained volunteers work at the base camp at 17 K, staying there for a month at a time. They are there to help people who overclimb their abilities or have accidents, and to monitor "litter" on the mountain. They make sure that each climber has a "waste can," a contraption that holds solid human waste and is ultimately packed out by the rangers via airplane.

After visiting the Ranger station, we went to a Ranger talk next to a huge relief map of Denali and the surrounding peaks. We were divided in two teams for a game to see if we had the three things necessary for successful summiting: preparation, persistence, and luck. Each team was issued a rope to hold, an obviously necessary piece of climbing equipment, and then we drew cards to see what our "fate" was at each camp.

The opposing team made it to the summit, but -- alas -- our team did not because ravens ate our food, a hazard of mountain climbing I never heard of before! Denali has a population of ravens and tundra swan who seemingly make their living from climbers' litter. On the way up, climbers will bury food in the snow for the return trip so it doesn't have to be uselessly carried all the way up the mountain. They used to mark the cache with a flag, but the ravens soon learned that the flag was akin to saying "X Marks the Spot" or "Dig Here" -- they learned to dig under the flag to retrieve the food. Now the climbers use three flags to circle the buried cache, and so far the ravens haven't figured out triangulation!

Later in the game we got caught near the summit in a snowstorm, and had to go down because we didn't have enough food to wait out the storm -- we could have summitted had we not previously drawn the "Ravens Ate Your Food" card. At least we survived! In real life, not everyone does.

Nine people have died on the mountain so far this year. Sometimes luck makes the difference between success and failure. The Ranger told a a story of a man who got within 200 feet of the summit and had to turn back because he was in danger of being blown off the mountain, and visibility was near zero. Had he pushed on to the summit he might have made it -- however, on his way down he probably would have perished in an avalanche that happened on the spot where he would have been. He missed summitting, but survived.

Sometimes persistence makes the difference. In another story, a mother and daughter team texted from the highest camp (yes, there used to be phone service there until Talkeetna took down a cell tower) that they were huddled in their tent in 100 mph winds, their backs to the tent's side to hold it all from blowing away. They stayed that way for 7 days until the storm abated, subsisting on ramen noodles. The next day they texted: "SUMMIT SUMMIT SUMMIT!"

And sometimes it is preparation. A team of three climbers set off on a steep ridge, roped together for safety. The wind came up unexpectedly, and blew one of the climbers over the edge of the ridge to the right. The other two immediately threw themselves over the edge to the left, to balance the weight, the ropes holding them from certain death. They knew what to do, and they had the right equipment to do it. They all made it.

Congratulations to the 641 who have made the summit this year, and good luck to the 50 of you on the mountain today.


Judy and Luke Rinehimer said...

Excellent information! We visited the Ranger Station, saw the video, and toured the model but missed the ranger talk and the "game". Where to next? We are in Anchorage for a few days then off to Valdez.

Diana said...

Interesting stuff! Those are some very smart ravens.

O. B. Sirius said...

Judy and Luke: we're staying here for a few more days, then we'll be off in your footprints to Anchorage and Valdez. Hope we can meet along the way somewhere for dinner!

Vera said...

Sounds like you are having the trip of a lifetime! I just came across you Blog now through Google +. Great Blog