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Mount McKinley.Just a Hike Up the Mountain (part 2 in a series)
This is the second installment in a multi-part series by Jeffrey Yates. Yates tells how eight men determinedly climbed Alaska’s Mount McKinley to be the first to survey McKinley’s height with GPS technology and install a permanent bench mark. It was originally published in Lasting Impressions which is available now at
Equipment and Personnel Gathering
Cothren spent more than a year searching for GPS receivers light enough to be backpacked to the McKinley summit. Finally, in late 1988, he learned that Ashtech Inc., had developed 15-pound units. These were modified with cables and batteries adapted to arctic conditions.
With this success, planning began in earnest. Preparation included testing equipment in the UAA cold room, obtaining permits from Denali National Park, arranging for food and other supplies, and organizing the radio communications. The extra time gained from the delayed start of the expedition also allowed Cothren and Yates to assemble a climbing team instead of paying for a professional guide service.
Harsh summit conditions called for an extremely durable monument. Berntsen International, Inc., of Madison, Wisconsin, developed a four-inch bronze/magnesium alloy cap, attached to a one-half inch stainless steel rod via a special locking mechanism. An ice auger bit was attached to the first rod for setting the monument into the ice cap.
Enough food for eight climbers for 28 days, based on a daily intake of 5,000 calories per person, was purchased and packaged. Tents, sleeping bags, ropes, climbing hardware, stoves, fuel, snowshoes, crampons, shovels, clothes, etc. had to be purchased, sorted, and packed, and medical kits were prepared. In addition to the necessary survival gear and supplies, the team members would also carry the scientific equipment: GPS receivers and antennas, gravimeter, radio gear, and solar cells to recharge batteries.
Just as important as obtaining the right equipment and supplies was the selection of the best qualified participants. The final selection of the eight team members rested on the climbing and scientific skills each individual would contribute to the overall strength and cohesiveness of the group. It was essential that each member not only have physical strength, but also an easy-going personality to curb squabbles that can occur at high altitudes. In addition to interpersonal problems, high altitudes can also cause such sicknesses are cerebral or pulmonary edema that can kill climbers in as little as two hours if they can’t be brought down to lower altitudes. Other debilitating extreme altitude illnesses include hypothermia, dehydration, carbon monoxide poisoning from cooking stoves, physical and mental fatigue, and lassitude. The climbing team consisted of these members:
● Brian Clark of the Anchorage Health Clinic served as physical trainer and nutritionist.
● Ron Cothren served a project coordinator and surveyor.
● Mike Dagon of Alaska Test Labs in Anchorage was expedition leader.
● Drow Millar of Millar Video Productions, San Anselmo, California, was the videographer.
● Stephen Parker of Arctic Slope Consulting in Anchorage was the medical advisor and geologist.
● Peter Richter of the National Park Service was surveyor and communications coordinator.
● Vernon Tejas of Genet Expedition, Anchorage, served as assistant expedition leader and technical mountaineering advisor.
● Jeff Yates was the photogrammetrist and assistant project coordinator.
The previous climbing experience of the team members was quite extensive. Dagon, Parker, and Yates successfully climbed Mount McKinley in 1987. Tejas had made the climb 21 times and had also climbed in Antarctica and on Mount Everest. Clark had made numerous summer and winter climbs in south central Alaska. Millar’s experience included 18 years of mountaineering in Colorado and California, ten years of rock climbing, and a trekking adventure in Nepal. Richter had been mountaineering in Switzerland and Alaska for 25 years, and also had extensive experience on Alaskan glaciers. Cothren, the only team member with no previous climbing experience, practiced on peaks of less than 6,000 feet and trained with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Team on a glacier near Anchorage.
To avoid and survive the many hazards of Mount McKinley and succeed with the GPS expedition, the team’s preparation had to be thorough and complete. Because of its location at approximately 60 North latitude, McKinley is considered to be physiologically about 3,000 feet height than it actually is, compared to equivalent elevations in the Andes of Himalayas. Physical training began at least six months in advance. This included weight training, aerobic exercises, and running stairs while wearing 50-pound packs. Team members also practiced pulling each other out of crevasses and climbing out of crevasses. Technical rope work and safety and emergency procedures were rehearsed repeatedly before arriving on the mountain and continued during the climb—safety was the predominant concern. Avalanches and icefalls from shifting of the glaciers can occur at any time without warning. Falling into a snow covered crevasse is an ever-present danger.
The team chose to ascend McKinley via the popular West Buttress Route, pioneered by Washburn during his 1953 survey. This route has been misleadingly called “just a hike up the mountain,” but climbers soon learn that factors such as unpredictable weather, lack of oxygen, and mistakes as small as tripping on a bootlace at the wrong moment can result in death—no McKinley route should be taken lightly. Team members spent much time discussing strategy for different parts of the mountains. For instance, when team member’s various skill levels were assessed, using skis was ruled out as too dangerous for a roped-together team. Snowshoes were used instead.
Join us next month for another installment in Mount McKinley. . .Just a Hike Up The Mountain.
Originally published in Lasting Impressions by Rhonda Rushing.
Published in Caching Now, September, 2009
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