Apr 14 2011

Mt McKinley: Because it’s there


Our friend and neighbour Mike leaves tomorrow to climb Mt McKinley, the highest mountain in North America and thus one of the ‘Seven Summits‘. It is a 36 hour journey from Brisbane to Anchorage, and then another flight next day to the small town of Talkeetna, at the base of the mountain.

At 6194 meters (20,320 feet), Denali, (the Inuit name for Mt McKinley) is a challenging climb. It has a significantly higher rise from base camp to summit then does Everest – so it is further to walk.  (The summit of Everest is 8850 meters, or 29,035 feet). Mike has been trekking up and down the hills around here carrying a 30kg pack for the last six months, so fitness should not be the problem. In Alaska he will also have to pull a sled – (as a vet, you think he’d take a husky).

About 1,300 climbers attempt the climb each year, of which about half make the summit. Most take between two and four weeks. 


There are three potential obstacles that might prevent the trek from reaching their goal.

  • Mt McKinley is particularly challenging because of the severe arctic weather. April is very early in the season for an expedition to head out, (Mikes team will be the first this year), so the greatest threat will be winds stronger than 50km/hr and temperatures less than -50ºC, which may confine them to the tent for days at a time. They have only a three week window to get there and back again.

  • Altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can strike climbers unpredictably –  you cannot know in advance who will be affected. It can occur at altitudes over 2400m (8000 feet). Remember, McKinley is over 6000 metres! The symptoms initially are similar to those of a hangover, or a case of the flu, with headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and sleep disturbance. Exertion makes things worse. Sometimes, acute mountain sickness will progress to more dangerous conditions, with fluid build up in the lungs (HAPE) or brain (HACE). 

    Altitude sickness can be prevented with ‘acclimatisation’ and gradual ascent. It is hard to become acclimatised to heights in Alstonville, so medications are sometimes used as prevention. Acetazolamide, or Diamox, is used to prevent AMS, and Nifedipine (Adalat) is used to prevent HACE. Ginko Biloba is sometimes taken to alleviate some early symptoms of AMS. Dexamethasone treats serious illness. Mike is carrying all of these (so he might not make it through customs!) The ultimate treatment is to descend.

  • Crevasses are giant cracks in the glacier ice, and there are many glaciers to cross when climbing Mt McKinley. Crevasses are often not visible as snow can blow over the top, freeze, and form a thin snowbridge, which gives way when stepped on (a la Touching the Void). Basic gear therefore includes crampons and ice axes, and the team members are tied together with a rope, so that if one falls in to a crevasse the others can perform a ‘crevasse rescue’.

Mt McKinley has two summits, North and South, the South being the higher. In the early 1900’s, a number of people attempted unsuccessfully to climb the mountain.

Wikipedia reports

“In 1910, four locals, known as the Sourdough expedition, took up the challenge, despite a complete lack of climbing experience. They spent approximately three months on the mountain. However, their purported summit day was impressive: carrying a bag of doughnuts, each a thermos of hot chocolate, and a 14-foot spruce pole, two of them reached the North Summit, the lower of the two, and erected the pole.”

This story was doubted by all, until the first confirmed climbing of the South Summit in 1913 by Hudson Stuck and his party. Looking across, sure enough, they were able to see the Sourdough’s pole on the North Summit. 

We’ll be able to follow the progress of Mike’s trek using the Denali Expedition Dispatches.

You can keep an eye on the weather by selecting ‘Denali’ on this weather page.

As I write this, it is a refreshing -34 degrees (in Alaska, not here). Don’t forget your jumper, Mike. And your doughnuts and thermos of hot chocolate. Good luck and see you in May.


What I Learnt On 14th April in other years

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *