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Thoughts on the Denali Fee Hike

Climbers ascend fixed ropes on Denali’s headwall. The National Park Service is considering raising the climbing fee for Denali and nearby Foraker from $200 to $500 (in addition to the 20-dollar park entrance fee). The NPS cites the rising costs of the program as a reason for the 250-percent hike. [Photo] Keese Lane

I stood with my father and two other climbers at the 14,000′ camp on Denali’s West Buttress. Snow from the night blanketed the headwall and we were concerned about avalanches. For the previous few days we had followed a schedule similar to two other teams: a father, son and friend team from Colorado and a pair of Australians in the midst of a Seven Summits tour. The more experienced of the Australians gestured at the mountain. “We will wait until the guided groups pack in the trail. That is smart mountaineering.” Meanwhile the Coloradans slowly broke their own way up through the snow, forgoing the buried fixed-lines. As the rest of us loitered about camp, the trio climbed the face, disappeared onto the ridge, and returned exuberant in the twilight. For the first time in weeks they had climbed alone, breaking their own trail. They had a wonderful day.

The National Park Service is considering raising the climbing fee for Denali and Foraker from $200 to $500 (in addition to the 20-dollar park entrance fee). The NPS says they spend more than $1000 per climber on their “Mountaineering Program”. They cite the rising costs of the program as a reason for the 250-percent hike. As someone who was recently on Denali I have thought a lot about what this means. My father occasionally brings up the prospect of returning. Last year we paid $400 in permit fees. Should the rate hike go into effect we will pay $1,000 in fees for our next attempt.

The NPS did provide excellent services. Rangers checked us into the 14,000′ camp and we saw their presence often on the mountain. We listened to one ranger sternly advise a group of skiers not to descend back to the Kahiltna with their injured (broken rib) comrade but to let a helicopter fly him out. Doctors and medical staff stood available to treat everything from frostbite to sunburns. We received a pre-departure PowerPoint briefing from a Ranger in Talkeetna and were given a green can with which to “dispose of solid waste”. Weather updates and World Cup scores were radioed every evening from the Kahiltna Glacier camp. And, while the fees paid by climbers do not fund search and rescue operations they do fund the acclimatized staff who stays on the mountain during the climbing season, ready to assist climbers in need at any moment.

These services came with some praise. While we shared chocolate and tea with a solo Latvian climber around 16,000′ he told us he was impressed with how beautiful and wild the mountain was. He said the other peaks he’d climbed had been “covered with garbage.” A few days later we encountered Mountaineering Ranger Mark Westman at the Kahiltna camp. His work for the past day had been shoveling human waste, melted from the glacier, into plastic bags. Between staff like Westman physically rehabilitating the mountain and the 33,000-dollar CMC (Clean Mountain Can) Program that is operated by the NPS and paid for through Permit Fees, the mountain is kept relatively clean. And for my non-climbing father the heavy NPS presence on the mountain offered him some reassurance, as he stepped out of his comfort zone.

If the NPS raises fees it will shift the weight of the mountaineering program almost directly onto climbers. The fees climbers pay will account for nearly 70 percent of the program. Much higher than the 17 percent climbers currently pay or the 30 percent climbers paid when the fees were initiated in 1995. But a study done for the Park showed the Mountaineering Program has cut the fatality rate on Denali by fifty-three percent. And I would be hard pressed to find a mountain of similar popularity and stature that is kept as clean.

Climbers enjoy Talkeetna Air Taxi’s stack of Alpinists as they wait for their flight to the mountain. [Photo] Keese Lane

The ridge between the headwall and 17,000′ camp on a busy day. [Photo] Keese Lane

Permits for climbing mountains, while common in Asia, are not the world wide norm. Elbrus, another one of the Seven requires no permit. Neither do mountaineering icons such as the Matterhorn, Blanc and the Eiger. The Slovenians celebrated their independence atop Triglav, the highest point in their country. Nearby Mt. Logan’s permits max out at $110 and are a combination of backcountry camping permits, and permits for landing an airplane inside the park boundary.

During our climb, a guided client from the British Isles told me that with the dollar so low he felt like it was cheaper to climb Denali than go climbing in the Alps. Similarly the Australians on their Seven Summit tour would still have climbed the mountain, especially with Vinson and Everest behind them. For the majority of West Buttress climbers an extra three hundred dollar fee will be waived off as inconvenient but not enough to prevent them from climbing the mountain. I remember the sudden realization at 11,000′ that of the dozen tents pitched in camp ours was the only one with patches and wear from previous use. Someone who has just spent over $1,000 on equipment, more on a guide, bought plane tickets to Alaska, and then tickets to the Kahiltna, will probably not feel the pinch of an extra $300.

Many will not even notice it. The West Buttress on Denali is seen as an easy and safe way to reach the summit of a 6000m peak. The climbers this route attracts will mostly prefer the service provided by the NPS to no services at all.

The true loss is for the climbers who wish to climb technical routes on Denali, routes during the off-season or on nearlby Mt. Foraker (Nine climbers attempted Foraker last year, compared with the 1,200 who attempted Denali). The small minority of climbers seeking a difficult alpine experience on America’s highest peak will end up paying a steep fee along with the many climbers trudging up the West Buttress, an unfortunate side effect of the mountain’s prominence and popularity.

Sources:Kris Fister,