The great Alaska heat wave of 2015-2016 is now old news. Normal has returned to the high peaks of the 49th state. And climbers on North America’s tallest mountain are getting a taste of what the real Alaska, in the historic sense, is like.
A whole lot of them were dug in at the 14,200-foot camp on the mountain this week, waiting on the weather to let them either move up or retreat. Ahead was the headwall, the steepest part of the popular West Buttress route, and high camp at 17,200 feet. Behind was aptly named Windy Corner on the way down to base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,000 feet.
The National Park Service on Friday reported rangers at 14,200 were “working to keep warm by making their rounds around camp, checking in with the over 100 climbers in camp. Most teams are working on the decision to either wait out the cold, windy weather, or to call it a wrap and descend down the mountain.”
By Monday, the weather was finally moderating – at least by Denali standards – but it still wasn’t exactly comfortable. Temperatures at 14,200 were expected to climb above zero today with the possibility of a little less than six inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service, but it was to be cold higher on the mountain.
“Highs around 10 to 15 below (zero),” the federal agency reported. “Northwest winds 15 to 20 mph. Chance of snow 50 percent.”
Cold, snow and wind have made Denali’s summit appear a lot higher than 20,310 feet this year. Last year, despite a big May storm that brought winds with gusts to 80 mph to rake the 14,200 camp late in the month, 112 climbers made the summit in May.
As of Monday night with two days left in the month, only 20 had reached the top this year. The summit rate was 12 percent. But there were more than 600 climbers still on the mountain, and with 100 or more stacked up at 14,200, there could be a conga line headed for the top if the weather improves as forecast over the course of the next couple days.
Still, it is highly unlikely the number of successful summits will come anywhere close to the numbers of 2016 and 2015.
The Talkeetna-based Alaska Mountaineering School reported on the company blog that it had one group of guided climbers “hanging tight and waiting out weather at 14,200′. They hope to start descending tomorrow.” But a second AMS group at 14,200 was optimistic it would get a shot at the summit. A third was temporary stalled farther down the mountain.
“(Guide) Noah Ronczkowski said that they are in high spirits and working on they’re digging skills at 11,200(foot) camp,” the blog post said. “It sounds like it’s quite blustery and snowy all over the mountain. They are staying put at this time.”
Winds were expected to start dying down today with high-pressure building in from the north bringing clearing skies, according to the weather service. The conditions were expected to last through Friday.
Temperatures around the state have been near normal for May, but after a couple of years in which it seemed global warming had arrived in a big way in the north most Alaskans can’t help but perceive 2017 as colder.
It hasn’t helped that the month started off warmer than it is ending. The temperature hit 66 degrees in the state’s largest city on May 15, and it hasn’t come close since. High temperatures over the Memorial Day weekend barely made the 50s and lows were in the low 40s.
This is not unusual for Anchorage, and on McKinley it is completely usual to encounter snow, wind and cold in May. But climbers who came early to the mountain’s slopes are to be excused if they got the idea that Alaska’s warming was a new normal.
For a time it seemed like it was. Even more mountaineers – 184 – made the summit of Denali in May 2015 than in May 2016. But Alaska’s old normal is back, and this is what it looks like on Denali:
“We had another weather day today,” guide Adam Smith from Mountain Trip reported in an audio recording Monday from the 11,200 camp. “It snowed extremely hard. The last 24 hours we received over a foot of snow. So mainly it was time to stay dry with, ah, multiple dig outs. Our tents were sunk down to the, oh how do I say this? The glacier has risen up to the level of the roofs of our tents.
“But, ah, the weather has improved, and we are excited to try to get on the road tomorrow. There’s high spirits amongst our group….We hope to get to 14,000 tomorrow.”
“The team has been hunkered down at 11-Camp for several days now,” Mountain Trip added on its website.
There has been a lot of hunkering going on along Denali’s popular West Buttress route this year. More than 130 climbers tired of hunkering have already given up and gone home, according to the park service.
That is to be understood. Life in the mountains can get old pretty fast if you are confined to a tent for days with the only break the hourly trips outside to shovel off the fly so your home away from home doesn’t cave in under the weight of new snow.