Editor's note: This version adds comment from The Access Fund.
It will cost more in 2012 to climb Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker in Denali National Park and Preserve, as park officials are moving to offset the cost of protecting and rescuing climbers.
The decision to boost the fee from $200 to $250 for climbers age 24 and younger, and to $350 for all others, comes after a long public engagement process and meetings with the country's foremost climbing organizations. The exchanges weren't always complimentary, as at times the climbing community questioned whether all park visitors should bear the costs of the program and insinuated that perhaps Denali's mountaineering program was bloated.
However, in a prepared statement issued by the park this morning Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, expressed satisfaction with the fees.
“This is an example of the kind of considered process that results in policy we can support. I want to applaud (Denali Superintendent) Paul Anderson and the National Park Service for opening up their process and listening to the concerns of the climbing community," Mr. Powers said.
At The Access Fund, policy director Jason Keith also was satisfied with the outcome.
“It’s been a long road. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we’re happy with how things worked out in the end," Mr. Keith said in a phone call with the Traveler, noting in particular the $250 youth fee.
“The park worked hard to get there," he said.
Denali's mountaineering program has evolved substantially since 1992, when 13 climbers died on McKinley, which is considered to be one of the most dangerous mountains in the world to summit due to the weather spun off from the Gulf of Alaska. In the aftermath, officials adopted a three-part strategy to heighten the safety of climbers: (1) a mandatory 60-day pre-registration; (2) enhanced preventative search and rescue education (PSAR), and; (3) a special-use fee to partially recover the costs of the program.
That third leg, the special-use fee, in 1995 was set at $150 per climber for those heading up either 20,320-foot McKinley or 17,400-foot Foraker. Part of that revenue was used to establish the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Basecamp, the 14,200-foot Ranger Camp, and the 17,000-foot High Camp for climbing rangers so they could be properly acclimated to the elevation and ready to respond to rescues or other assistance.
The revenues also enabled the park to create a "preventative search and rescue" -- PSAR -- program to educate climbers to the risks and hazards they might encounter on the mountains. The results of that approach were recognized in 2008, when a "study published in 2008 by the Journal of High Altitude Medicine and Biology concluded that the Denali PSAR program had reduced the fatality rate by 53%."
However, while the fee increased to $200 per climber in 2005, the park has been spending much more than the revenues generated by the climbers. This past March, park officials said those climbing fees covered just 17 percent of the costs of maintaining the mountaineering program, which for fiscal 2011 was estimated to run $1.1 million.
The park has received a total of $440,000 in base increases to fund the high altitude helicopter program and expects to collect $200,000 from the cost recovery mountaineering special use fee. This leaves $520,000 in direct operating costs that must be funded from either other park program funds, an increase in the user fee, or a combination of both.
Climber numbers over the past decade have remained essentially flat, as has NPS staffing, the park officials noted. Excluding costs of the high altitude helicopter portion of the program, operational expenses have gone up significantly, due mainly to inflation.
In an effort to find a more sustainable funding model, park management began informal discussions in 2006 with leadership from the American Alpine Club, the Access Fund, and the American Mountain Guides Association, as well as park concessioners and other stakeholders in the climbing community. In October 2010, the park formally initiated a proposal to increase the fee.
Almost 500 public comments were submitted, the majority of which indicated they would support some aspect of a climbing fee increase, as long as the increase was reasonable and equitable. Other comments submitted called for the elimination of the use fee altogether, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, several comments suggested full cost recovery including a fee increase up to $1,500 per climber.
The new climbing fees will take effect for the 2012 mountaineering season. In future years, fees will be adjusted periodically based on actual costs, not to exceed changes in the cumulative consumer price index, a park release said.
“Mountain climbing represents a longstanding tradition at Denali National Park dating back to the first ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1913," said Superintendent Anderson. "Climbing fulfills one of our park’s fundamental purposes. As such, we are committed to sharing in the cost of the program and continuing to allocate appropriate levels of the park’s base funding to the climbing program.”
The superintendent added that the park’s mountaineering program will strive to institute many of the suggestions for operational efficiencies gathered during the public process.
For additional information on the mountaineering program or cost recovery special use fee visit the park website at www.nps.gov/dena/. Contact South District Ranger John Leonard for questions about the fee at (907) 733-9105 or [email protected].