Two months before the serious start to the mountaineering season in the Alaska Range mountains, the National Park Service has decided Covid-19 is more dangerous than climbing North America’s tallest mountain.
The agency announced today that it is terminating the 2020 climbing season on 20,310-foot Mount Denali and adjacent Mount Foraker. The announcement rocked the guiding community in the 900-person community of Talkeetna where seasonal guiding is a cornerstone of the economy.
Some see the decision as the start of an avalanche of bad news about to hit an already terrified Alaska tourism industry. Across the board, those involved in what is the state’s biggest industry in terms of employment say they’re hearing from visitors wondering whether they should cancel planned summer excursions in the north.
Denali climbers no longer need worry about making such decisions, and the Park Service (NPS) said it will refund the climbing fees of those already registered to climb.
“To date, no permits have been issued for the 2020 season,” the park service said in a media statement. “Considering the anticipated longevity of the international coronavirus response, social distancing protocols, and travel restrictions, park managers have determined the most appropriate course of action is to suspend all 2020 permitting.
“The health and safety of the climbing community, including park visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners is our number one priority. High alpine mountaineering typically requires transport in small aircraft, and shared tents, climbing equipment, and other camp infrastructure.”
The closure applies only to Denali and nearby Mount Foraker, agency spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri said by phone from Talkeetna where she was self-quarantined because her husband has just returned from oversees.
The rest of the park remains open to climbers, but she said that could change at any time. Access to most of the park requires small aircraft, shared tents and sometimes emergency help from park employees.
The buses that haul tourists into Denali National Park and Preserve via the Denali Park Road also involve shared space, close contact, visitors from around the world and – unlike the climbing routes on Denali – a vulnerable population of old people.
Gualtieri said park officials are still contemplating what to do about the buses, the primary means of access into a park that is one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions.
The cumulative data on COVID-19 to date shows a death rate of 0.2 percent for those under 40. But the danger quickly climbs for older people, jumping to 0.4 percent for those 40 to 49, 1.3 percent at 50 to 59, 3.6 percent at 60 to 69, 8 percent at 70 to 79, and 14.8 percent at 80 to 89.
The normal death rate for the flu in the U.S. is around 0.01 percent, according to the date from Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which estimated 34,157 people were killed by the disease during the last flu season.
Citing the unique danger of Covid-19 to older people, climbing guide Colby Coombs emailed that “I hope NPS closes the North side which sees 600,000 visitors.”
It’s “a huge impact for guides,” he added. “They are the front line of this in our industry. Good thing a lot of them are carpenters and nurses because they are out of mountain guiding work for awhile.”
Gualtieri said the Park Service did not consider less extreme Denali measures such as banning climbers over age 60, or even age 40, and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
The World Health Organization and the Chinese CCDC have not calculated a death rate for those under 40 who lack a pre-existing condition, but that number would clearly be lower than the present 0.2 percent and the same would apply for those 40 to 49.
Climbers over 50 and those with pre-existing conditions are “not that prevalent” on the mountain, Gualtieri admitted, but concerns have been raised in other countries about asymptomatic people spreading the disease, and people involved in accidents taking up hospital beds that might be needed for Covid-19 sufferers.
After talking to her supervisors, Gualtieri emailed that the decision to disregard the possibility of “a ‘partial closure’… ties in with known CDC guidance and infection tracking. It’s not just those in vulnerable populations that are getting the disease.
“Everyone in our user group has a likelihood of infection. So such a screen-out is not going to change the fact that Covid-19 infection has high likelihood of spreading in the mountain environment. Moreover, high altitude is expected to exacerbate a respiratory infection with a corresponding increase in life-threatening complications up high. The exposure to rescue personnel and to other climbers cannot be mitigated to an acceptable level.”
The high likelihood of spread is based on the presumption that sanitary conditions are hard to maintain in cold, harsh environment lacking running water to wash one’s hands.
There is also the matter of those “life-threatening complications up high” increasing the need for rescues, and the normal rescues that put people in the hospital. Last year, 18 people suffered serious injuries on the mountain over the course of about three months, according to the park’s Mountaineering Summary.
Italy, France and Spain have gone so far as to ban cycling because of a concern about accident injuries. “In the case a cyclist were to fall and require medical assistance – it would be deemed to have been avoidable,” Cyclist reported from the United Kingdom, where health researchers have pushed back against such restrictions.
“Physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, several cancers, dementia, and diabetes. These conditions affect millions of people; and some increase the risk of a serious outcome if one contracts Covid-19,” they said in a public statement. “Walking and cycling, particularly in green space, is good for mental as well as physical health. People should be encouraged to exercise at home, but for most of us it is unlikely that this will replace the walking and cycling we do outdoors.
“Social distancing will make many sports and gym based exercise impossible. However, walking and cycling can be compatible with social distancing, if people are responsible. Transmission risks will be very low if people stay 2-3 meters apart.”
Social distance is aimed at “flattening the curve” of Covid-19’s spread to try to keep from overwhelming the health-care system.
“The idea is that we reduce the rate of infection through the population which spreads out the time of the pandemic but, most critically, the number of sick at any one time,” observes Joshua Gans, professor of Strategic Management at MIT.
“(This) is really all about health care system capacity. As Italy has shown us, (some) people die essentially because they cannot get hospital-level care. If the infection rate is too high, health care capacity becomes quickly overwhelmed and doctors have to engage in triage, a word which now means choosing who will live and who will die.”
Triage, a necessity on the world’s battlefields, is a hugely unpopular idea in a country where former Alaska governor and failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin stirred up a firestorm with worries about government “death panels.”
Clarification: This is an edited version of the original story. A quote was changed at the request of the source to more accurately reflect the number of visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve.