Alaska’s big mountain has been angry this year.
Snow, cold, wind and rain have hammered 20,310-foot Mount Denali, and climbers hoping to stand atop the highest point on the North American continent have suffered the consequences.
With the climbing season quickly winding to an end, little more than a third of the 1,100 climbers to try for the summit had made it, but that’s a big improvement from the early season. May saw a success rate of only 8 percent with but 20 climbers reaching the summit.
What a difference the weather makes in the high country of the 49th state where nature still rules.
Maureen Gualtieri, who labored away the climbing season writing “Denali Dispatches” from the Talkeetna Ranger Station, blamed the low success on those “longish stretches of bad weather during peak weeks of late May and early June, combined with not enough time budgeted to wait it out.
“There were a few nice summit days sprinkled in there, but not too many in a row. It made it harder for teams on a more traditional acclimatization schedule up high. Some teams that made it to the summit during that timeframe did the long, single-day push from 14,000 (feet), which isn’t realistic (nor recommended) for everybody.”
Highly not recommended because it’s potentially deadly. The physiological strain of climbing more than a mile up in extremely difficult conditions at altitude could overwhelm most people. A climber from Nepal collapsed and died this year near 17,500 feet, an altitude from which rescue is difficult.
The bad year for climbers comes after a very good one in 2016 when Mother Nature smiled on people. Alaska was basking in record warmth last year, and climbers reaped the benefit.
“El Nino yielded another very warm winter in Alaska,”which brought a lot of snow to fill glacial crevasses on the approach to Denali’s summit, the 2016 climbing summary concluded, and then came a goodly number of mild, snow-free days at the peak of the climbing season from late May into June. Largely as a result, more than 60 percent of climber made the summit in 2016.
This year it was more the flip side as what some were beginning to think might be a “new normal” for Alaska weather returned something closer to the old Alaska. A colder winter meant less snow in the Alaska Range, and then came snows in May that were deep enough to hide crevasses but not deep enough to safely bridge them.
Since the state’s fever broke in December, Alaska has returned to something near climate normal with January through March significantly below the average in Alaska’s largest city; April, above; and May and June almost exactly on target, although it seemed cold to those spoiled by a couple of years of record and near record warmth.
Fairbanks, the largest city in Interior Alaska, followed a pattern similar to Anchorage. It was slightly below normal in January, a little above in February, a whooping 14.4 degrees below normal in March, only to warm in April and stay near normal in May and June.
Denali dominates the Alaska Range that rises between the state’s two largest cities. The mountain is influenced both by Arctic weather pushing down from the north and North Pacific storms coming into the state off the Gulf of Alaska.
Since the 1990s, about 50 percent of the people who try to reach the top of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) via the relatively easy West Buttress route make the summit, but 2014, another warm year, was as bad as this year.
Only 36 percent of 1,200 climbers made the summit that year.
It was a year that started with great weather until near the end of May when “the weather pattern shifted to a very wet and stormy regime which continued throughout June and July, bringing a series of large snowfalls to the Alaska Range and hampering most significant climbing activity throughout the range during this time,” the 2014 climbing summary noted.
In that way, 2014 shared some similarities with this year when some climbers came off the mountain to report they’d spent more time digging their tents out from under snow than climbing.