Editor's note: Mountain naming conventions identify the two peaks as ‘Mount Rainier’ and ‘Mount McKinley’. However, much literature on mountaineering actually refers to Mount McKinley as ‘Denali’, the mountain’s traditional Athabascan name. Rangers and locals also refer to this peak as ‘Denali’, so that name will be used here.
Mountaineers have a mystique all their own. They are the stuff of legends.
In 1870, a trusted local Indian named Sluiskin warned that anyone who tried to climb to the top of Takhoma (Mount Rainier) would meet their untimely end. A spirit inhabited the mountain peak and climbing it would surely offend this spirit. Regardless, Hazard Stevens and Philemon B. Van Trump started their climb. These two men were forced to spend that night on the summit in what amounted to snow caves (technically steam vents, resulting from the mountain’s volcanic activity). They descended the next day and met up once again with Sluiskin who was shocked to see them alive. He determined that Stevens and Van Trump must be strong men with brave hearts.
A few decades later, in 1910, Billy Taylor and Pete Anderson made the round trip from their camp at 11,000 feet on the Muldrow Glacier to the summit of Denali National Park’s North Peak in 18 hours. For the climb, they were not roped together as climbing expeditions are today, and reportedly carried only makeshift ice axes, doughnuts and thermoses of hot chocolate. Within that 18-hour time span (some report it as short as 12 hours), the two climbers supposedly took a long rest atop the peak, which is the false summit, falling 850 feet below the 20,320-foot summit on the South Peak.
The story of the Sourdough Expedition still amuses and delights today’s visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve. Were Taylor and Anderson foolish? Reliant on beginners’ luck?
Like these legendary trips, some mountaineers come back with glorious pictures from the summit, tales of blue skies and teamwork that made their adventure successful.
But still other mountaineers never reach their summits, or worse, never make it back home. Weather, health problems, and rugged terrain claim victims every year. Avalanches and ice falls also account for unsuccessful summit attempts, injuries and deaths on each mountain.
It was in June, 1967, that the culmination of these hazards came to a tipping point for a team on Denali. Wrought with controversy and emotion to this day, the Colorado McKinley Expedition remains notorious among climbs; team cohesion and uncertainty about health and weather were huge problems as the team of 12 tried to summit via the Muldrow Glacier route. Only five men made it home alive.
On Mount Rainier in 1981, a team guided by Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. was caught by a huge avalanche. Eleven members of the 27-person team, including one guide, were swept into a crevasse on the Ingraham Glacier and lost their lives.
Death tolls like these (from a single team or incident) are not common, but tragedies occur every year. To those of us who merely read about these classic climbs, we might think that, despite the example given above, Denali is far more dangerous than Mount Rainier. It is nearly 6,000 vertical feet higher and much more remote. But a brief analysis of climbing data reveals that the mountains aren’t that different.
* Around 10,000 climbers attempt Rainier every year, while only 1,200 attempt Denali, but the rates for summiting these two peaks are both around 55 percent annually.
* Both of these mountains have seen more than 10 climber fatalities in a single season.
* Weather is often a tremendous factor outside of the climber’s control and affects summit attempts on both mountains.
Denali: The Highest Peak, But Is It The Biggest Challenge?
The highest peak on the North American continent might be the obvious choice for the hardest climb.
Mountaineers are supposed to train and practice for years to accomplish such a goal. As of 2011, the average expedition to the summit of Denali lasted 18.4 days and cost around $6,800 (including permits, gear, transportation, etc.). The costs, logistics and difficulty of climbing Denali limit the trek to a smaller number of mountaineers.
Monetary costs aside, John Leonard, South District ranger for Denali, said, “We have climbers that come here that are in the upper echelon in the climbing world who find themselves flying into the [Alaska] range sitting next to a person whom may have only climbed a mountain or two in their entire life.”
This lack of experience might seem to allude to a rise in incidents on the mountain. Small errors, poor judgments and decisions (or indecisions) each can have major consequences. But Ranger Leonard feels that more and more climbers are making use of guide services, and that factor is helping to create more successful mountaineering experiences.
“(Renowned climber) Bradford Washburn used to say that he thought summit success rates would be above 80 percent if everybody gave themselves 30 days. I strongly agree with him, and would add that there would likely be less incidents as people would not end up pushing bad weather and their bodies to such an extent,” the ranger said.
A Closer Look At Rainier
So why is Mount Rainier so similar when it comes to summit success and deadly accidents?
Mount Rainier dominates the horizon from Seattle and millions of people around the Puget Sound region think of Rainier as their mountain. There is a familiarity with it. Yet, it is this sense of familiarity which can often be misleading.
At 14,410 feet, Rainier is similar in height to many of the 14,000-foot peaks that are climbed in Colorado and California, but the vertical rise from the starting point of many climbs is much greater. For example, climbers starting from Paradise (where more than 60 percent of climbs originate) gain 9,000 feet by the time they attain the summit.
In contrast, climbs to 14,000-foot summits elsewhere in the United States will have much less elevation gain. For example, those summiting California’s Mount Whitney (14,497’) generally gain around 6,135’ when starting from the most popular trailhead, the Whitney Portal Trailhead.
Colorado’s Mount Wilson, at 14,246 feet, is not Colorado's highest peak (Mount Elbert is the highest peak, at 14,433 feet), but it poses a challenge to climbers. Depending on the chosen route, climbers only gain a mere 2,000-5,100 feet before attaining the summit.
In addition to the vertical rise, Mount Rainier is covered by the largest glacial system in the United States outside of Alaska. Even in the summer season, after the winter snows have melted, there is still one cubic mile of ice and snow on the mountain. Glacier travel often presents a new skill to be learned. Ice bridges and crevasses are features that mountaineers must learn to conquer in order to reach the summit.
Although Mount Rainier offers more than 50 routes to its summit, most climbers start with a well-traveled route. This route starts at Paradise (5,400 feet), travels to base camp at Camp Muir (10,000 ft) and up past a rock feature named Disappointment Cleaver to the summit.
“On any other mountain in the U.S., there aren’t as many beginning mountaineers. It’s a technical mountain and people are learning new skills,” explains Stefan Lofgren, director of Mount Rainier National Park’s climbing program.
The structure of Mount Rainier, of the actual mountain, is also to blame. “The mountain is basically falling apart. Hazards like rock and ice falls are random and people get hit by them all the time,” noted Lofgren.
So why is this mountain falling apart?
Mount Rainier is classified as an episodically active volcano, the cone of which formed through repeated eruptions. The mountain is known to be a composite volcano, comprised of layers of lava and loose rubble. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards website, extensive hydrothermal alteration of the rock on the upper portion of this volcano has contributed to its structural weakness, thus promoting erosion.
Weighing the Costs
These factors can be very sobering. Some experts believe that experience may not always equal success. Plenty of beginners have found themselves on summits while famed mountaineers have died in tragic accidents and storms.
Whether you’re a beginning mountaineer, gearing up for your first attempt at Rainier, or you’re a seasoned climber with the stories of weather on Denali to prove it, there are aspects to climbing either mountain that will present challenges. Take a realistic look at the challenges and your skills, and don’t underestimate either mountain. The stories you bring back will live on beyond your years.
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