Leave it to Alaska’s neighbors to the south to figure out the simple way to end the need for costly rescues in the remote Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains:
Just ban the mountaineers most likely to get in trouble and prohibit climbing in those months when rescues are the most difficult and costly.
Parks Canada announced last week it is banning all winter expeditions in the Kluane National Park of the Yukon Territory and forbidding solo climbs up the park’s 19,551-foot Mount Logan, the second-highest peak in North America.
The announcement, according to the CBC, comes in the wake of eight rescues in Kluane in the last seven years. Park Canada says those rescues cost $60,000 to $100,000 each, and it’s not happy about footing the bill.
“We really wanted to improve the safety both for folks visiting Kluane as well as the safety for our rescue responders,” Parks Canada spokesman Ed Jager told the CBC. “We’ve also taken all…of these steps to reduce the financial burden on taxpayers for the rescues that have been taking place in Kluane.”
Mount Logan is just across the border from Alaska and is part of the Kluane/Wrangell-St.Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage Site that combines U.S. national Parks in Southeast Alaska and those in far Northwest Canada to create what the U.S. National Park Services calls “the world’s largest international protected wilderness.”
The two Canadian parks – Kluane and Tatshenshini-Alaska – plus Wrangell St.-Elias National Park and Preserve and Glacier Bay national parks sprawl across a largely uninhabited area of 38,000 squares miles along the northeast coast of the Gulf of Alaska.
An area nearly the size of the state of Virginia, the heritage site is almost devoid of roads, The Alaska and Haines highways cut along its eastern and northern edges and the Richardson Highway its western edge, but no roads cross through the site and the few that penetrate into it are primitive and don’t go far.
The area is the site of one of the greatest survival stories of the modern north, the 1937 self rescue of Harvard Mountaineering Club climbers Bob Bates, who would go on to become well known as an American adventurer, and Bradford Washburn, who would simply become famous.
“In 1937, Mount Lucania was the highest unclimbed peak in North America,” says GoodReads. “Located deep within the Saint Elias mountain range, which straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon, and surrounded by glacial peaks, Lucania was all but inaccessible. The leader of one failed expedition deemed it ‘impregnable.’ But in that year, a pair of daring young climbers would attempt a first ascent, not knowing that their quest would turn into a perilous struggle for survival. Escape from Lucania is their remarkable story.”
The definition of remote
Both Bates and Washburn are now dead, but the area around Mount Lucania hasn’t changed since they nearly died there. It is a wild and remote area, which is what makes any rescue difficult and costly.
So along with a moratorium on travel in the Canadian portion of the area from Nov. 15 to March 15, Parks Canada said it will now require climbing parties permitted to use the area after March 15 to carry search-and-rescue insurance to cover any rescue costs.
The rules will not apply to other Canadian parks.
“The circumstances of Kluane are unique,” Jager told The Canadian Press. “There’s the isolation. The place where people are getting rescued from is 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the nearest road.
“There’s the altitude. There’s no other place in Canada where you have all these peaks over 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) where helicopters don’t work well and you need to significantly change your approach to rescue.”
The area is famous in the climbing world for all its unclimbed routes, but because of its inaccessibility remains little visited. Parks Canada says only about 120 people launch expeditions in the area each year with maybe 35 of them taking a shot at Logan.
For comparison sake, about 1200 people take to the slopes of Alaska’s Mount Denali during a three-month climbing season, and a busy day can see more than 100 of them arriving on the mountain. Rising to 20,310 feet in the Alaska Range, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America.
Climbers there are required to pre-register and pay a $375 climbing fee that helps fund a full-on, helicopter-assisted, search-and-rescue operation based out of the Denali National Park ranger station in Talkeetna during the climbing season.
The Park Service reported flying more than a dozen climbers off Denali last year – seven of them from traumatic injuries and another seven stricken with high-altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema, common problems at altitudes above about 8,000 feet.
Denali attracts few climbers during the winter months because of temperatures that can drop to 100 degrees below zero and mind-numbing isolation. There was only one team on the mountain in February of last year.
For almost half the years this decade, Minnesota’s Lonnie Dupre pretty much had the mountain to himself in winter as he tried to become the first to record in a solo winter ascent. He failed in 2011, 2012 and 2013, but finally made the summit in 2015.
Given the few interested in climbing the high peaks of the north in winter and the limited number of soloists in general, the Canadian decision is expected to draw little opposition.