This is the third 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 benchmark. It was originally published in Lasting Impressions, which is available now at Amazon.com.
With the aid of Paul Brooks, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Alaska office, and Don D’Onofrio, National Ocean Service/National Geodetic Survey (NOS/NGS) coordinator in Alaska, the National Park Service granted the expedition permission to place a permanent USGS monument on the summit, providing a reference monument for repeat measurements as scientists theorize that these mountains are still growing.
As planned, GPS summit observations would be performed on two separate days. The first four-member team would reach the summit, install the monument, and observe it for two hours. They would then leave the receiver on the summit to be picked up by the second team. The second team would carry up a second receiver, set it up, install a fresh battery in the first receiver, and record observations for two hours with both receivers. This strategy, however, called for matching two small satellite windows (from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.) and two weather windows on two separate days—rather unlikely on McKinley, where weather conditions dictate when climbers can and cannot move, and when scientific observations can and cannot be made.
In addition to the harsh environment and the possibility of mechanical, electrical and/or human failure, expedition members learned that a major solar flare was predicted for June 17, initially scheduled as an observation day. To minimize unpredictable effects of the flare, the observation dates were set back.
The Expedition Begins
On May 31, all expedition members arrived at the Talkeetna Air Taxi facility at the Talkeetna Airport, ready to be flown into the 7,100-foot base camp. However, due to inclement weather, flights did not begin until the morning of June 2. It took four flights to transport all eight climbers and gear to base camp.
After the 1,100 pounds of gear were divided among the team members, the climb to the summit—15 miles north and 13,200 feet up—began. Due to the weight of the gear, two to three trips were required to transport supplies and equipment between each camp. The team travelled at the recommended pace of 1,000 feet in elevation per day, allowing better acclimation to low oxygen levels. The team reached the UAA medical camp at 14,200 feet on June 10.
Unfortunately, one expedition member, Clark, was unable to overcome altitude sickness, so he decided to wait at the medical camp. Also, during the first of three trips from 14,200 to 17,200 feet, Cothren was instructed at approximately 16,800 to descend due to apparent exhaustion. He was helped back to the 14,200-foot camp by Parker, where he was treated for hypothermia. He was able to rejoin the team later that night.
After ferrying two loads to the 16,400- and 17,200-foot elevations, the team left the 14,200-foot camp and reached the 16,000-foot camp by late evening on June 16. Two weeks prior at this location, an unexpected wind gust ripped loose a tent with two climbers inside, propelling the tent 1,300 feet down the slope to the edge of a deep open crevasse. Fortunately only frostbitten and bruised, the climbers were later airlifted off the mountain.
Early on the morning of June 17, the team climbed along an exposed ridge to the 17,200-foot elevation. Upon reaching this level, two members began assembling camp while the other five returned to the lower camp to retrieve the remainder of supplies cached there.
Most McKinley climbers set up their highest camp at the 17,200 foot level and make their summit attempt from that camp. The expedition members agreed that, because of the additional weight of the scientific gear and the additional transport time due to the low oxygen content at these elevations, extra time could be gained by camping at the 18,000 foot level. The higher camp location would reduce the time required to leave Denali Pass, reach the summit, and install the monument, while still leaving sufficient time within the satellite and weather windows to set up the GPS receiver and record two hours of continuous GPS data on two separate days.
After stashing some supplies and a tent at the 17,200-foot elevation, the team reached the 18,000-foot camp at Denali Pass on June 18, and moved the remainder of the supplies to the higher camp on June 19. They arrived at the chosen camp site and began setting up in blizzard conditions. Snow blocks were cut to build boat shaped walls approximately eight feet high and three to four feet thick to protect the tents from the notoriously high winds of Denali Pass. The team settled in, hoping for clear weather in the morning for a chance at the summit.
Two days after making camp at Denali Pass, the weather allowed the first team to try for the summit, so the GPS base team was notified that Team One was on its way. To ensure simultaneous GPS at the summit and at the base stations, it was decided early on that the base stations would observe every day during the time when the summit teams could be on the summit, regardless of positive radio contact.
Team One reached the summit at 1:00 p.m. on June 21 in clear -10◦ F weather, with gusty winds. The USGS monument was augered into the summit to a depth of 4.4 feet. Then the GPS receiver, lithium batteries (one primary and one backup), antenna, and connecting cables were assembled and secured with ice screws and cords. Shortly after the power was turned on, the receiver locked onto five satellites. GPS data was collected for two hours before Team One left the summit to return to camp. The GPS receiver continued to collect data until the batteries expired.
Because only seven climbers made it to the 18,000-foot camp, the group decided that Tejas would summit on both observation days—he had the distinction of being the first person to successfully ascend and descend Mount McKinley solo in the winter. Other expedition members who summated first were Dagon, Yates, and Millar. While fortunate to have an unlimited view from the summit, the team was constantly aware of the wind-stretched clouds hovering overhead, indicating the approach of high winds. These clouds did descend on the summit shortly after the team left.
Team Two made a summit attempt on the morning of June 22. Low visibility and increasing winds forced them back to camp after several hours. The storm would keep the expedition members confined to their tents and protective snow block walls for three days. Because only two three-person tents were carried to the 18,000-foot camp, one of the tents sheltered four climbers—a most intimate situation. For an escape from the confines of the tent, each climber took a turn working on the snow block wall to keep it intact.
The storm subsided by June 24, and the second summit team was ready early. Team Two consisted of Tejas, Parker, Richter and Cothren. The visibility was approximately two to three miles, the temperature was -15◦ F, and there was no wind. Aside from getting cold feet, Team Two summited without any problems and set up the second GPS receiver. Fresh batteries were connected to the GPS receiver left by Team One, after digging the drifted snow out from around the connectors. Fortunately, the equipment had weathered the storm well. Both receivers began tracking five visible satellites soon after they were powered up.
During the two hours of GPS data collection, Tejas, who had brought along a parasail, took advantage of the height and strong winds to become the first person ever to parasail off the summit. He drifted down through the chilling air to approximately the 19,000-foot level, stashed his parasail, and climbed back up to the summit. By the time he arrived, the GPS data collection was completed and the winds had picked up considerably. Visibility most of the day had been one mile, but was now reduced to several feet. The
team packed up the receivers, roped up, and began their descent in the storm. On the exposed summit ridge it was necessary for each member to grope his way along with ice axes. Thanks to the experienced mountaineers on the team, everyone made it back to camp. It was later learned that this was the worst storm of the summer season. It damaged tents of other climbing teams, causing them to retreat down the mountain for shelter and repairs.
Early morning on June 25, the team packed up and descended to the 17,200-foot camp. The supplies and tent that had been cached had to be dug out and packed up for the continued descent to 14,200 feet.
Tejas again took out his parasail and flew from 17,200 feet to 14,200 feet whistling and yodeling all the way down. All the member reached the UAA medical camp by 11:30 p.m., June 25. The next morning, Tejas decided to wait and help the UAA medical camp personnel pack their supplies into helicopters and ride out with them. The remaining seven members began their long descent from 14,200 feet to the base camp at 7,100 feet. There was some talk of stopping at the 11,000-foot camp, but once it was reached all members agreed to push on through the night to the base camp because they were anxious to get home. They reached the base camp at 4:00 a.m. on June 27. Expedition members began flying out with various air taxis by 7:30 a.m., and all were back celebrating in Talkeetna by 8:00 that same evening.
Originally published in Lasting Impressions by Rhonda Rushing.
Published in Caching Now, October, 2009