Climbing is Capped at Mount McKinley and Climbers are Left to Wonder What’s Next
The NPS has announced an annual cap of 1,500 on Mount McKinley climbers. Officials believe that unchecked growth in McKinley climbing would lead to intolerable crowding, put too much strain on park resources, cause environmental problems, and compromise climber safety. Are caps on the way in other climbing parks?
During the halcyon years of climbing in the national parks, routes were uncrowded and the rules regulating climbing were scanty and simple. But that golden age was fading quickly by the 1970s and is now only a memory. Today, popular routes attract hordes of climbers and climbing is heavily regulated.
Thanks to Climbing Management Plans (CMPs) and related rules making, climbers are now routinely instructed as to how, where, and when they can climb. These rules generally make good sense. We need to protect park resources, honor the cultural beliefs of native peoples, insure that climbing doesn’t unduly interfere with other recreational activities, and of course, make climbing as safe and enjoyable as practicable.
Much attention has been focused on the “how” of climbing in the parks. Thanks to reasonable rules and evolving ethics, “clean” climbing has prevailed for quite a while. There’s scarcely a thoughtful person who doesn’t appreciate the good that has come out of putting a stop to the accumulation of bolts, backoff slings, and miscellaneous hardware in places where it doesn’t belong.
Climbing is banned where and when it is obviously inappropriate. Thus, for example, we don’t see climbers making their way across the iconic faces at Mount Rushmore, standing atop delicate sandstone arches, scaling cliffs on which peregrine falcons are nesting, or establishing routes that begin scant feet from picnic shelters. There are even some “voluntary bans,” such as the one that discourages climbing on Devils Tower during June, a favored time for Native American rituals.
In certain parks, safety concerns and other factors bring extra measures into play. The rules enforced in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve are a conspicuous example. If you want to take a crack at climbing 20,320-foor Mt. McKinley, you must not only pre-register and pay a $200 climbing fee, but also submit to a safety-oriented pre-registration evaluation and attend a special orientation at the Talkeetna Mountaineering Center.
Constraints like these haven’t diminished Mount McKinley’s popularity with mountaineers. Being a 20,000-footer, the highest peak in North America, fairly easy to get to, and a difficult climb (success rate about 50 percent), McKinley has long been popular as a special challenge or a warm-up climb for the Himalayas. These days McKinley is a trendy place, attracting hundreds of climbers from all over the world who are trying to bag the seven summits – that is, climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Nearly half of the climbers who attempted McKinley this year were internationals, mostly Europeans and Asians.
It is highly germane that the climbing in any given year is both spatially and temporally concentrated. A McKinley climb usually takes 14-18 days, 95% of the climbers use the same route (the West Buttress), and nearly all of the climbing takes place in May or June, the only two months that offer even remotely tolerable weather. (It is McKinley’s almost relentlessly rotten weather that makes it one of the world’s most dangerous mountains. Ninety-four people have died on the mountain’s flanks so far, plus one on the very top.)
McKinley has been attempted by 30,049 climbers since 1903. That may not seem like an awful lot, given the span of nearly a century, but most of that traffic has been logged in recent decades. The five-year rolling average is currently around 1,250 McKinley climbers a year, and the peak year (2005) saw 1,340 make the attempt.
With McKinley’s increased popularity came the realization that unchecked growth in climber numbers could eventually create intolerable crowding, strain park resources to an unacceptable degree, degrade the mountain (human waste is already an issue), and compromise climber safety. Sooner or later, the NPS reasoned, there would have to be a cap on the number of McKinley climbers. Sooner or later, in other words, the climbing rules would address not only how, where, and when, but also how many.
It turned out to be sooner. To no one’s surprise -- the intention having been signaled in 2006 -- the NPS has placed a 1,500 annual cap on McKinley climbers. Since the 2008 climbing season ended months ago, enforcement of the new cap will begin next year.
With the notable exception of the Fairbanks-based Alaska Alpine Club, which is pretty irate, the climbing community has greeted the news with a yawn. It could very well be five years or more before as many as 1,500 climbers will want to register in the same year. Meanwhile, things can be expected to go on pretty much as they have before at McKinley, with no one being turned away by reason of the cap. It remains that the day of reckoning has been deferred at McKinley, not prevented.
Moreover, there is the question of what this new regulation may portend for climbing management in Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, and the other “climbing parks.” The strict rationing of access to climbing areas and routes within the national parks is a relatively new and untested managerial tool. Plainly stated, establishing caps is a very messy business that is guaranteed to make managers headachy and climbers downright angry. Climbers are famously opposed to “unreasonable” restrictions on access to routes and areas. (It’s no accident that America’s leading climber advocacy NGO is named the Access Fund.) You may confidently expect climbers to raise holy hell if access is rationed on a systematic basis in the national parks.
When you look at the various climbing parks, you can see that McKinley is not the only place where access rationing – at least on a daily basis -- might logically be employed. Mount Rainer, for example, is lots more popular than McKinley, and on the basis of fatalities per 10,000 climber-days, it is even more dangerous. At Yosemite, some popular routes are chronically clogged on the weekends. Even at climbing parks where queuing is currently working well, there is no assurance that caps won’t be needed some day.
Stay tuned, folks. This is, as they say, a “thorny issue.”
Traveler trivia, no extra charge: Mount McKinley is world famous for the severity of its weather, but that’s not its only distinction. Reputable sources insist that Mount McKinley is, from base to peak, the world’s most steeply rising mountain.