Climbing North America’s Highest Peak

June 27, 2003

Ken Ball treated the Obsidians to the details of a 12-day, grueling (and vicarious, certainly for most of us) climb of Alaska’s 20,320-ft. Mt. McKinley. He had only a nephew along as companion. It started off with a breathtaking flight from Talkeetna (Ken’s favorite town) to about the 7000-ft. level. The elevation rises from 355 ft. at Talkeetna to 20,320 ft. in about 60 miles as the crow flies (about the distance from Mt. Pisgah to Middle Sister) — so it’s not surprising that “landing strips” are wherever you can manage to find one.

Their first camp was set up at 8000 ft. They started out with 150-lb. loads (by backpack and sled)! This eventually was whittled down to 90 lbs. This obviously requires a lot of nutritious food (Norm Benton recalls that 5000 calorie meals were standard when he climbed the mountain many years ago, yet one can count on losing weight). Sometimes they split the load by carrying part of it up to a cache, then going back down to their camp for the night. Some downhill skiing was done, but the conditions took some practice.

Some of the climb involved being roped for crevasses and climbing steep slopes (as much as 45°) with the aid of anchored lines. Danger lurks — there have been many fatalities on Mt. McKinley over the years. The weather was highly changeable but bad weather was welcomed as reason for taking a break from the arduous climb. Some unpleasant signs of heavy traffic were encountered (a very large group of climbers was met at the 17,000-ft. level).

Ken tapered off from the climbing with a spectacular train to Seward, a boating of the Kenai Fiords (that feature viewing about 20 glaciers) and doing some fishing for halibut. It was apparent from Ken’s photos that virtually any activity in Alaska includes a magnificent view. It is a wonder that Secretary of State (1861-69) William Seward bought this, not only spectacular but productive, real estate from Russia for only two cents per acre!

Bep Fontana

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