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?