Climbing researchers find
adventure on Denali
By Ned Rozell
July 18, 2007
On June 29, 2007, Tohru Saito trudged up the steep sidehill to
Denali Pass on a mission different than the hundreds of other
climbers who tackle Mount McKinley every year.
Saito, who works at the International Arctic Research Center
at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was there to do annual
maintenance on a weather station perched on the mountain at 18,733
Though he wouldn't reach the station for a few hours, Saito knew
where to look for it. He stole a glance to the ridge above and
saw the weather station and the spinning wind cups of its anemometer.
That was a good sign, but his intuition told him there was something
strange about where the station stood.
Fairbanks climber Yoshi
Nishiyama at the site of the International
Arctic Research Center's weather station on Mount McKinley, situated
18,733 feet on the mountain.
Photo by Tohru Saito, International Arctic Research Center
A few hours later, Saito and the climbing party, led by Japanese
mountaineer Yoshitomi Okura, arrived at the weather station site
just above Denali Pass. There, they saw the weather station was
clinging to the granite by one bent titanium leg attached to
a guy wire. Some force of nature-probably a wind on the February
day when the station stopped transmitting-had battered the station
after it had stood solid for seven years.
"It was kind of a shock," Saito said recently after
his return from the mountain.
The group huddled up and decided a plan of action. Saito and
Fairbanks climber Yoshi Nishiyama would stay and secure the station.
Okura would lead the rest of the group for a summit attempt.
With compromised brainpower caused by the thin air of 19,000
feet, Saito and Nishiyama secured the collapsed titanium tetrapod
in the granite rocks, to which they also attached a telemetry
system, a thermometer, and an atmospheric-pressure
While he and Nishiyama were working, Saito noticed fluffy cumulous
clouds a few thousand feet beneath them. An hour later, Saito
saw the cloud deck creeping up 17,400-foot Mount Foraker. Soon,
the winds increased and clouds enveloped he and Nishiyama.
"We both thought, 'We've got to get the hell out of here,'"
With the rest of their group somewhere above them, Saito and
Nishiyama packed up their tools with cold fingers and started
the steep descent to their tent at High Camp, about 17,000 feet
on the mountain.
High winds move snow
on a ridge of Mount McKinley. A team of
climbers from the International Arctic Research Center and the
Club faced difficult weather on the 2007 expedition to a weather
Up high, things weren't going well. Though Okura reached the
summit for the 18th straight year and 76-year old Michio Kumamoto
became the oldest person ever to reach the top of 20,320-foot
Mount McKinley, another member of the party, Masamichi Kobayashi,
became snowblind on the attempt. The others had to usher him
slowly down from the summit.
As they descended, strong winds forced them to hunker down on
the ridge just below the weather station.
When the winds subsided, the climbing party descended from Denali
Pass and returned to High Camp almost 24 hours after leaving
it, with one team member moving slower than the rest. When Kobayashi
reached High Camp, he wheezed and gurgled with each breath, the
symptoms of pulmonary edema, which can be fatal if its sufferer
doesn't descend quickly.
Denali National Park climbing rangers stationed at High Camp
made the decision to strap Kobayashi to a toboggan and lower
him by rope to Medical Camp, 3,000 feet below. They pulled off
the difficult maneuver without a hitch and called a helicopter
for Kobayashi. It landed at 14,000-foot medical camp and carried
Kobayashi to Talkeetna, where he soon recovered in the oxygen-rich
Later that day, the rest of the team descended from Medical Camp
in a big wind. Past Motorcycle Hill, the climbers skied down
a glazed ice surface, falling dozens of times before they reached
base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier.
They flew out to Talkeetna with a new appreciation for the greens
and warm air of summer, and for the climbing rangers who had
helped their partner. Before they left town, they dropped off
a few cases of beer and a bottle of whiskey at the ranger station.
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF
community. Ned Rozell [email@example.com]
is a science writer at the institute.
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