Sky Diving at Denali National Park? A Florida-Based Company Thinks It's a Great Idea

Mt. McKinley.

Is Denali National Park and Preserve the right place for sky diving? Photo by Unhindered by Talent via Flickr.

Denali National Park and Preserve is home to the highest mountain in North America, a distinction that inevitably attracts mountaineers and sightseers from all over the world. Now a new twist in possible activities at Denali is under discussion: sky diving.

A company based in Sarasota, Florida, is promoting a "six-day, five-night adventure based in Talkeetna, Alaska" centered around "a skydiving first: the first high-altitude jump over Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America."

According to a press release,

Incredible Adventures is an international adventure company ...best known for its MiG fighter jet flights over Russia. The Denali Skydive is the latest addition to a catalog of offerings that range from great white shark dives to secret agent fantasy camps.

No skydiving experience is necessary to be part of this skydiving first. All jumps will be performed tandem and under the control of the same highly trained and certified skydiving professionals called upon to train NATO forces in military freefall.

The Denali Skydive will replicate a military-style HAHO mission. HAHO stands for High Altitude, High Open. Jumpers will take off from Alaska's Talkeetna Airport and fly high over Mt. McKinley, exiting the jump aircraft at an altitude greater than 22,000 feet. Tandem masters will open chutes high, thus maximizing the time in the air and giving participants the most time possible to take in the view of McKinley.


The price tag for this experience? $25,000 "includes all training, the jump itself, lodging, some meals and tours." The company hopes to attract 24 participants.

I'm certainly not an expert on Denali, but I have visited the area and am aware of the park's unpredictable weather and challenging terrain. Several questions immediately came to mind, beyond the obvious one raised by the statement "No skydiving experience is necessary ..." Where will these folks land, how will they return to civilization from their landing zone (LZ), and perhaps most important, what contingency plans are in place in case things don't go exactly as scheduled?

There's one other loose end—the NPS has denied the company's request for a permit allowing the skydivers to land in the park.

I spoke by phone with Jane Reifert, the president of Incredible Adventures. She volunteered to send me a copy of their appeal of the park's denial of a permit, along with the outcome of their appeal to the NPS Regional Director. Those documents filled in a few gaps.

The company's position is "the only real difference between our customers and other park visitors is that they'll be arriving in the park via parachute instead of by bus or plane..." Jumpers plan to land "in the vicinity of Eldridge Glacier" in the park, where they would be picked up by an air taxi service and flown out of the park.

A total of three days would be needed for their "special event," with staff test jumps on day one, and up to three jumps per day on days two and three.

I asked Ms. Reifert about a back-up plan to retrieve their customers in case unexpected winds or other factors caused the jumpers to miss their LZ. Her initial response was that there was simply no chance that would occur, given the experience of her staff. When I pressed the question, she mentioned dog sleds and then the possibility of a helicopter.

Perhaps it's merely intended to heighten the sense of adventure, but information describing the trip on the company website includes the following statement that seems to confirm the need for a solid contingency plan:


Where will you land? We honestly can't tell you. Event day wind and weather conditions (and Denali Park officials) will dictate where you'll touch down.

How might park officials "dictate" the landing zone? If the company is unable to obtain a permit from the NPS in time for their scheduled June trip, they hope to push ahead with the event, using a landing zone outside the park. Customers and staff would be picked up there by helicopter and flown back to their lodge at Talkeetna.

Although a press release states that a goal of the event is "maximizing the time in the air and giving participants the most time possible to take in the view of McKinley," Ms. Reifert has expressed concerns about the increased time jumpers will spend in the air if the alternative landing zone outside the park is used.

Ms. Reifert seemed genuinely puzzled by the NPS denial of her request for a permit. From her perspective as a provider of "adventure travel," Mt. McKinley is simply another superlative destination for a unique experience. Some supporters of the park view it differently, and the question of whether this activity is appropriate for Denali is bound to generate plenty of opinions.

The basis for the NPS denial of the company's request for a permit is fodder for a lengthy discourse, so for the sake of brevity, here's my short version:

Managing commercial activities and special events in a park is an appropriate role for the NPS, given the special nature of the areas it manages. In her reply to Ms. Reifert's appeal for a permit, the NPS' Alaska Regional Director noted that Denali completed a backcountry management plan in 2006 which "describes criteria for deciding whether to approve new commercial services. The skydiving proposal you have submitted is inconsistent with a number of the criteria."

Is this event a "commercial service"? The NPS thinks so, and it seems hard to argue that point, given the $25,000 per participant fee and extensive use of other commercial providers to support the activity.

This event is a classic example of the challenges facing both park managers and users with different interests and agendas. Beyond the questions of interpretation of NPS and park policy, the jump raises some interesting issues. The following are my personal observations, not the park's:

Despite the company's confidence in their absolute ability to hit their planned LZ, the activity does carry some definite risks, and the park could be on the hook for a potentially expensive and dangerous rescue operation. There's no indication that was a factor in the park's decision, but it's a point that deserves consideration.

Whether the NPS budget—and therefore the taxpayers—should be responsible for SAR costs is a long-standing debate for more traditional visitor activities. If something goes awry on what could reasonably be described as "extreme sky-diving," should the park be expected to shoulder the resulting expense and risks?

A more significant issue seems to be the classic "Pandora's Box" factor. If this permit were to be approved, has a precedent been established? That's not a frivolous question, and the decision on this request could have ramifications not only for Denali, but other parks as well.

If allowing sky-divers to land on the mountain is deemed appropriate, how many jumps are too many in a day, or a week? How many companies should be allowed to offer that service in the park? What landing zones are appropriate, and what means of retrieval of jumpers are appropriate: fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, snowmobiles, or .... dog sleds?

Should landing zones be limited to areas that aren't in designated wilderness? What about sky diving as a means of entering the backcountry for camping? The list is seemingly endless, but asking such questions is part of the job of running a park.

Activities such as hang gliding and sky diving have long been thorny issues for the NPS, and as new technology allows users to "push the envelope," those challenges will only continue to grow in the future. High altitude sky diving is only the most recent example.

Now, don't you wish you were a park manager?

Comments

I think that Yosemite stopped its Fire Fall because it was not a natural part of the park, although for some reason they felt it necessary to keep the golf course. The fire fall attracted crowds into a meadow to watch the spectacle, and was ruining the meadow. If operating a hang gliding operation in Denali is NOT going to damage the environment, go for it. Otherwise forget it. I think that the Park Service sometimes has a double standard regarding what visitors may do in our National Parks.

I have never been there,but have read much about how dangerous it can be around the mountain at times. i have been around skydiving alot,my father used to haul them as a job.to be nice this sounds extremely foolish at best. they should be rejected with no appeal whatsoever. if something went wrong,pretty fair chance of that, i don't want my tax money used to fix the mess. this kind of thing was not why we protected these lands.

Anyone remember BASE jumping in Yosemite? I thought that one of the biggest worries was of someone jumping off, the chute not opening, and perhaps injuring someone on the ground.

And let's not forget the issue of park overflights, a contentious matter in places like Grand Canyon and Hawaii. Does Denali have an overflights management plan?

But what also seems to be overlooked or trivialized by the folks at Incredible Adventures is Denali is a national park, not a theme park. There are plenty of adventures to be had in Denali, and those typically are muscle-powered and rightly so.

Beyond that, there are plenty of mountains outside the national park that would give just as many thrills.

As for Pandora's Box, I wonder if IA has looked at parachuting down onto the top of the Grand Teton or Half Dome?

Have them sign a waiver clearing the NPS of liability if someone is lost or harmed. Limit the number of flights or days (say two or four days a month) and have each vendor cut the park in for 25% of the cost of the adventure. Beyond that - slam pandora's box shut with a firm EACH PPLICANT FOR ADVENTURE WILL BE AT THE DISCRETION OF NPS! The park is clear of liability, they firmly state that they get to decide on applicants on a case by case basis and they make a little much needed maintenance money.

Where is sierra club here? none of these places were meant to be a theme park,and this foolishness needs to stop.

Jimi Whitten -

Some interesting ideas, and I appreciate your sharing them.

However, while a "signed waiver of liability if someone is lost or harmed" may or may not deal with any potential legal issues or costs, it doesn't seem remove the park's obligation to respond and rescue people who are injured - or worse. Especially in a remote location like Denali, who else is there to handle a potentially difficult rescue in such challenging terrain?

Yes, most parks, including Denali, get invaluable help and support at times from the military, state and local agencies and volunteers in emergencies, but the park still normally has to take the lead when things go wrong on NPS property, irregardless of who is legally liable for the situation.

Does this jump come with monogramed body bags. Have any of therse idiots ever been up here,where are they going to land eutopia? I think someone needs to come up and look at the terrain. You have to ride a bus ninety two miles to get a glimpse of denali,and its only visible in a good year 5% of the time so that averages to approximately 17 days a year i say keep your ideas for tourism down there in florida where they belong.

National Parks are not places for adventure travel. extreme sports enthusiasts need to get over their sense of entitlement. $25,000 does not buy one the right to apply their "sport" anywhere they choose. they should do it over the state park at denali.

what about the visual landscape? I for one would be awfully angry if I were observing Denali showing it's peak, a rarity in itself, only to have the view ruined by extreme sky-divers streaking through the sky.

Note from the Traveler staff: This comment has been edited.

Mr. Burnett - You are right, as usual. The NPS would be saddled with the cost of any recovery of lost people (or bodies) whether there is a waiver or not. Passing that cost along to the Adventure company doesn't cover the cost of losing an NPS (or other) rescuer. It is not an ideal situation but I have been there and, while I agree with the other comments (I liked the letter about the mountain being visible only 17% of the time), it would be a spectacular jump. I could never afford it but I would like to take that jump! What I really liked was the idea that the NPS gets 25% of the cost of the jump for each jumper. Denali is one of the better funded parks but even they need more money to keep the park in the best shape. Upon further review though, the risks probably outweigh the benefits.

Mr Burnett failed to mention the reason for my confidence in our jump team. Jump leaders are former members of the elite US Special Forces and train NATO forces from around the world in military freefall. A special forces medic/flight surgeon will jump with every group. Staff are highly trained in wilderness survival and will jump with their own arctic survival gear. The jump equipment they use is the same equipment trusted by our US military. They have sophisticated GPS and communication systems. He also failed to mention that this is to be a one time event. There is no plan to do this again. This isn't a normal skydive and the costs and challenges are high.

Last year, some of these same jumpers were the first to skydive over Mt Everest. Government officials there welcomed jumpers with open arms and encouraged organizers to come back. Another Everest Skydive is being planned for this October.

At incredible-adventures website tickets are already on sale.
Our Wilderness, National Monuments and Parks are not a commodity to be sold for profit by private elitist corporations.

Companies conduct for-profit business in our National Parks every day. At Denali, climbing companies make money escorting people up the mountain and air taxi services make money selling flightseeing tours over the park. Perhaps the elitists are those who think our National Parks belong to them and them alone. In reality, national parks are for the use and enjoyment of all citizens....including those who can afford a $25,000 skydive.

Companies conduct for-profit business in our National Parks every day.

Sadly this abuse of Our National Parks is true.
Personally I will not be satisfied until all such profits are added to Our National Parks coffers for the benefit and enjoyment of all citizens.

NPS gets the shaft on park concessionaire contracts...it's like a giant buffet for the giant companies.

Well we did the jumps with success on 6-25-09 (3 times). You obviously now nothing about parachutes and you comments are unfound. I have been around parachuting and airplanes all of my 52 years of life and have much more experience to counter your remarks. This includes military HALO and HAHO jumps as a Green Beret. Openings at 22, 000 ft are well away from the the winds below the the mountain peaks. In the military HAHO jumps are done regularly and the only element to deal with was the temparture.

Jim Horak
Emerald Coast Skydiving Center
and
HALOjumper.com

Cheers to you Jim Horak!
It's refreshing after the negative, judgmental, and plain ignorant (of "air delivery of a person...") rants in the above string to see it close positively with you able to enjoy your liberties as an American citizen in one of OUR NATIONAL Parks! Especially since it sounds as if you personally contributed to maintaining that right through your military service. Thank you!
This "Organic Act" of August 25, 1916, states that "the

Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of Federal

areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations . . . by such

means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said

parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the

scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein

and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such

means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."