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Local climbers beat odds on McKinley

Sam Friedman and Rich Landers

If mountaineering were baseball, climbers on North America’s tallest mountain would have been batting .016 for the first half of the season. 

The average, by the end of a typical season is usually around .500. 

Strong winds midway up the mountain kept climbers tentbound and forced most early season climbers to return to base camp without making a summit attempt. 

Only two climbers had reached Mount McKinley’s 20,237-foot summit and returned to base camp by May 26, according to the National Park Service. One of them was Lonnie Dupre, who made an unconventional winter ascent, the first solo climb of the mountain in the month of January. 

On May 27, about 20 climbers took advantage of a brief fair-weather window and made the summit, including five climbers from Spokane.

For most climbers, the season starts the first week of May. The success percentage has increased to 38 percent this week with a total of 111 summits.

A total of 288 climbers have completed their climbs this year, and 470 climbers were still on the mountain as of Thursday out of 1,000 climbers registered this season. 

One climber, Argentinean guide Heraldo Javier Callupan, was found dead May 10 at the mountain’s high camp. Callupan, who was making a solo attempt, died from an undetermined medical cause. 

Denali’s weather is famously inconsistent, and it’s common for extended periods of bad conditions to shut out large groups of climbers, said park spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri, who compiles the statistics on the park’s mountaineering blog.

“The climbing season could still turn out to be perfectly normal, statistically speaking,” she said. “But it’ll probably be lower than average.”  

Last year’s success percentage, 36 percent, was the lowest since 1987.

This year’s season has been marked by periods of intense wind, followed by short windows of good weather. At the camp at 14,200 feet, a Park Service weather station measured gusts in excess of 50 mph on the two weekends before weather broke May 27.

Not summiting doesn’t always equal a failed trip. 

Anitra Winkler, of Cantwell, Alaska, returned from the mountain last week after spending just more than two weeks on the route. While she’s disappointed she didn’t reach the summit, she said she enjoyed snowboarding down much of the mountain, in particular the final section from 11,000-feet to base camp.

“It is what it is. You can’t expect to make it up every year,” she said. 

Winkler, 21, was part of a group of 11 students from the University of Alaska Southeast’s outdoor studies program. They got as far as a few day trips to the high camp at 17,200 feet but didn’t have a long enough window to attempt the summit. 

Winkler spent five nights stuck at the 11,000-foot camp and six nights at 14,200 feet, where there was a fabric city of about 30 tents. She spent the time playing cards and reading her way through the science fiction novel “Ender’s Game” and three sequels.

Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story. 

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