Climbing is Capped at Mount McKinley and Climbers are Left to Wonder What’s Next

Mount McKinley viewed from the north. Only 1,500 can attempt it, only half will make it to the top, and some will die. Photo by RedWolf , via Wikipedia.

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.

Comments

I'd be interested in seeing what sort of documentation and scientific evidence the NPS has on hand that prompted this move. I seriously doubt that there is much in the way of tangible information besides the burning desire to close and restrict yet more access to the public who are out to "trash the park". Can anyone tell us what methodology was employed to arrive at this number?

As far as I can tell, Beamis, empirical evidence is the root concept here, not scientific research and analysis. Experience has taught the NPS that the current number of climbers, which is well below the cap, may already be too many. Climbers already clog the trade route (West Buttress) during the brief episodes of reasonably non-rotten weather. SAR capabilities are already stretched dangerously thin. Warming temperatures have already melted enough ice and snow to expose large amounts of human feces originally buried 14 feet beneath the surface.

Bob, didn't Bobby Kennedy climb Mt. McKinley sometime during the 1960's. I remember a photo of him mastering the peak but not sure when. Since you and Kurt are rich in national park history, I thought perhaps you both would know. I do know that the Kennedy's were great outdoor enthusiast and President John Kennedy instigated the famed 50 mile hike of America. Whatever happened to those fittest programs that Presidents supported and participated? I know this is off the topic but just curious about Bobby K. Thanks!

One market focused approach to reduce climbers would be to have them sign a waiver from receiving an immediate rescue or else be on the hook for the FULL amount of a SAR. It seems downright stupid for the government to be spending exorbitant amounts of money and risking their employees lives to rescue those who have willingly exposed themselves to extreme danger. That's how private insurance works and the NPS should be no different. The SAR account should always be full and ready to serve those who have the means and responsibility to shoulder the burdens of their voluntary activity.

As for the observation that:


Warming temperatures have already melted enough ice and snow to expose large amounts of human feces originally buried 14 feet beneath the surface.

This definitely sounds like a public works project that the Obamacrats could really sink their teeth into. Someone should alert Rahm Emanuel that Americorps needs additional funding to procure some pooper scoopers, enviro-hazard bags and a contingent of "volunteers" to set out for Alaska to start cleaning up the mess that global warming has exposed upon the pristine slopes of Mt. McKinley.

The dawning of the green collar economy is now upon us!

Anon, if Bobby Kennedy ever climbed Mount McKinley, I sure don’t know about it. I think Bobby Kennedy Junior may have scaled McKinley in the mid-1990s. (Perhaps one of our readers could help with this?) Be that as it may, you are probably thinking about Bobby Kennedy’s summitting of (the then newly-named) Mount Kennedy in 1965. That climb is very well documented because the mountain (in the Canadian Yukon) was named in honor of President John F. Kennedy and was climbed for the first time ever by a team that included JFK’s brother Bobby. Alas; I can’t help you on the fitness program front.

Interesting questions, Beamis. Unless you made the purchase of (costly) insurance mandatory, it’s likely that the fatality rate would increase dramatically after you announced that climbers must pay the full cost of SAR operations conducted in their behalf. People in desperate trouble would be disinclined to ask for help, and that’s a ticket to disaster. Anyway, climbers have always been disposed to “take care of their own,” and that is the ethic at work on Denali (no mountaineers that I know of call the peak “Mount McKinley”). The SAR team positioned at about the 14,000 foot level on Denali during the climbing season consists of ranger volunteers. They are there because they love it, and because they care about fellow members of the climbing fraternity. I’m not sure the NPS would save much money if this service were discontinued. For one thing, the SAR personnel would still be on the NPS payroll and working in some other park. (I do understand that military/contract helicopters needed for high-altitude rescue are expensive.) BTW, the SAR work on Denali is more dangerous than most people appreciate. There are lots of ways to get killed, and that includes the air shuttle from Talkeetna. Several years ago, three ranger volunteers and their very experienced pilot died when their plane crashed in bad weather en route to Denali. As for your Obamacrats comment, I can only say this: Please don’t ever again mention feces and “sink your teeth into” in the same posting.

Beamis,

I doubt the NPS spends an "exorbitant" amount of money on SAR at Denali. (Compared to pork barrel spending and the millions spent on planning, research, etc, NPS SAR expenses are mere pennies.) They do, perhaps, risk an exorbitant amount of rescuer's lives on Denali.

I suspect that the poop on Denali is more impact on the aesthetics and safety of the human experience than it is on the environment.

This may be a justified case of limiting access to improve the quality and the safety of the human experience.

I think your Parunaweep (Zion) example is a better case of the NPS participating in unjustified closing of an area to human visitation.

Dang! Your right on target Bob! Bobby Kennedy did indeed scale Mt. Kennedy in 1965 and with the world famed mountain climber Jim Whittaker. I kept thinking along it was Mt. Denali. Thanks for the research.

It seems self-evident that some sort of limit is the right way to go. After all, the capacity of Mt. McKinley is not infinite - if you think 1,500 is too low, could the mountain handle 3,000 climbers? 6,000? The real question is how should the National Park Service allocate the slots. It doesn't seem like its on the table, but the one that would have the most benefit to the Park System would be an auction - and given that climbing Mt. McKinley is an activity primarily for the wealthy (and very often for international travelers that are not contributing tax dollars), an auction seems a very reasonable way to go for allocating the permits once the limit starts being reached.

Sabattis, as attractive as your ration-by-price scheme might seem at first blush, I doubt you'd find many Americans who'd endorse an access rationing system for our premier national park experiences that unabashedly favors wealthy people (especially foreigners) over people of ordinary means. Yes, let's cap the number of permits at a reasonable level. Yes, let's price the permits in relation to the park's cost for providing the services. But let's distribute the permits via a lottery or other means (such as a reservation system with waiting list) that doesn't ration by price. In any event, when the crunch comes -- that is, when the demand for permits far exceeds the supply -- we should never employ a rationing process that allows wealthy internationals to push aside Americans and go to the front of the line.

The ONLY reason that so many climbers are on the big mountain is because they can be flown halfway up it and be dropped off at 7,200 feet on the kahiltna glacier. Take away that one hour flight, and you have to walk for a week up the Granite, Pika, And Kahiltna glaciers..to get to that part of the park. Take away the commercial landing strip up there, and you'd see the number of climbing parties plummet to less than 1/3 of what it is today. Sure, more parties would go up the muldrow....but, after climbing up there over the last 20 years, I'd say that only 1/3 of the parties I see up on the west buttress would even have the small amount of gumption required to walk the "whopping" 20 miles in to get to the Muldrow glacier...carrying those 100+ lb packs.
This is the only solution to separating the wheat from the chaff on that mountain, and reducing the alleged "overuse" of the mountain resources.

Would it be OK to put quotas on the trade routes, but not on the more challenging routes?