Between l972 and 2001, I went on 23 Denali expeditions.
- In ’72 we drove the Alaska Highway. There were 1200 miles of unimproved road from road from Dawson Creek, BC, to the Alaska border. We averaged about 35 mph on the dirt. The majority of today’s climbers fly into Anchorage.
- In 1975 the National Park Service charged a whopping $100 for a Special Use Permit. The permit allowed a company to charge a fee to guide clients on the mountain. Today, the NPS has six different concessionaires exclusively in the mountain climbing business.
- For decades, the Cessna 180 and 185 was the bush pilot’s preferred choice to fly climbers onto the mountain. The pilot and one (lucky) passenger sat in front; anyone riding shotgun sat on top of backpacks, snowshoes, food and other gear, loaded into the fuselage. Now, a pair of K2 Aviation Twin Otters can fly a party of twelve, plus all their food and gear in a single trip.
- Base Camp (7,300’) on the Southeast Fork of Kahiltna Glacier consisted of nothing; literally. Only snow and ice. Nowadays it’s a tent city from late April through early July.
- For years, our primary communication in case of emergency was CB radios. Essentially, there was no contact with the outside world for the duration of the trip. Guided parties in 2014 submit daily progress reports onto a blog (and carry satellite phones for emergency call out).
During our expedition in May of 1972 we didn’t see another group on the mountain for almost three weeks. That certainly would not be the case today, but does that detract significantly from the overall Denali experience? I do not believe it does. I cherish my memories of Denali, as I know do climbers of today.
My first three expeditions were independent ventures, with friends. Bush pilot extraordinaire Cliff Hudson set his Cessna 185 down on the Southeast fork in early May, 1972, admonishing us to “take our time.” These were words of wisdom from a man who never climbed, but understood McKinley intimately. We spent 33 days on the mountain and didn’t summit. Denali Pass (18,200’) was our high point. The weather beat us, but we returned with all of our digits intact.
Our team had rented a ‘base camp radio’ from ABC Communications in Anchorage. Hudson supplied a car battery and several 12’ spruce boughs stowed in the fuselage for the flight into the mountain.
Landed at Base Camp, we dug a snowcave and left the radio, battery, boughs, and extra food inside.
Weeks later, when we were ready to get picked up, antennae wires were unraveled and attached to the radio and strung onto the spruce boughs planted into the surface of the glacier. All that remained was to hope like hell the radio would reach someone; preferably Hudson, down in Talkeetna. Back in those days with the unreliable radio communication, bush pilots took it upon themselves to check on ‘their’ parties climbing the mountain. That was a very comfortable feeling for a climbing party.
Ray Genet was the original McKinley guide, and the 1970’s were his heyday. Ray was strong as an ox; hard working; driven; always positive; often bandana’d; heavily bearded. Affectionately known as “The Pirate,” Ray lived in Talkeetna and jogged or ran everywhere he went. In 1974 our party of four flew off after a successful summit (my first), squeezed into our waiting ’75 Mustang (parked in Talkeetna), pointed the wheels toward Anchorage (in a hurry), and immediately ran out of gas on the outskirts of town. Along came Ray Genet (jogging), recognized our plight and said, “There’s a car at my cabin over there [pointing]. There’s a hose and empty five gallon can in the front yard. Siphon all you want.” And away he jogged in the direction of beautiful downtown Talkeetna.
I could not get enough of climbing Mt McKinley. I organized and led a guided trip in 1975, and over the years went on nineteen more expeditions, occasionally climbing it twice in the same season. As a 17- year-old apprentice guide on Mt Rainier in 1968, I naively embarked on what would become a lifetime of introducing people to mountaineering and by default, the appreciation of wilderness. I worked over 30 years in the field, primarily on Mt Rainier and Denali. Today, joking that I guide vicariously over the telephone, fielding questions, I am frequently reminded that many aspects of climbing Denali have changed little over the years. Terrain, weather, and altitude remain the same. True, the mountain sees far more traffic these days, primarily on the West Buttress route. But rarely, if ever, have I heard anyone complain that the experience was other than expected.
Solitude is still out there, perhaps more in snippets than it was forty years ago. But if solitude is one’s top priority, it’s a simple matter of having enough climbing experience to attempt a different route.