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Mt. McKinley - Then and Now

My climbing/guiding career on Denali (Mt McKinley) spanned four decades. Some of the most memorable trips were independent ventures with friends in the early 1970’s. I have been witness to innumerable changes over the years, and always find it fun to look back at the way things were. The mountain hasn’t changed, but we have certainly refined and improved our means and methods of climbing it! Dateline 1972
  • My friend, Dave Campbell, and I drove a VW bug up the Alaska Highway, which in those days included 1200 miles of unpaved surface (dirt!). His V-dub gave up the ghost in the Yukon, about 100 miles short of the Alaska border, so we hitch-hiked to Anchorage and took the Alaska Railroad to Talkeetna. Two guys in a pick-up, moving to Alaska after time there in the army, went hundreds of miles out of their way to deliver us to Anchorage. That anybody would pick up two straggly dudes along with 1,000 lbs of backpacks, food and gear, left a most favorable impression with me.
  • Later in April, my first day in Talkeetna. It was snowing mightily as I stepped from the train and observed a wedding procession passing by the Fairview Inn on Main St. The bride and groom were mushing a sled dog team to the delight of revelers lining the street. Being a ‘Cheechako’ (tenderfoot/greenhorn/newcomer) I couldn’t help but wonder if the couple planned to honeymoon in a nearby igloo.
  • Our 4-man team brought 30 days of food: breakfast, lunch and dinner for four, packed inside two dozen 3-gallon metal containers (to thwart cache-raiding birds). As it turned out, we needed every morsel as we were on the mountain a total of 33 days (and didn’t make the summit; must be some kind of record!)
  • We had elected to fly with Don Sheldon’s competitor, Cliff Hudson. Cliff headquartered out of his home; a quonset hut, strewn to the absolute brim with various electronics and innumerable airplane parts (plus, his wife Ollie, and four young sons). There was no Talkeetna State Airport that I remember. Rather, we took off and landed from the ‘village strip’ across the street from the Fairview (a wind sock was strategically placed on the roof).
  • Climbers did not pay a Special Use fee, but the NPS required each party to have a radio capable of reaching Talkeetna from Base Camp. It was rented from ABC Communications in Anchorage, and required a $500 deposit (a fortune to us at the time). Cliff Hudson provided the necessary 12-volt car battery and jumper cable to power the radio, as well as a dozen 12’ spruce boughs (which he crammed into the fuselage of his Cessna 180, along with our food cans, group and personal equipment, and finally, us!). The small Cessna’s that pilots preferred in those days meant multiple trips to and from the mountain, transporting climbers.
  • Base Camp was approximately 7300’ on the SE Fork of Kahiltna Glacier. We dug a snowcave for leaving the radio, battery, spruce boughs, and misc. personal affects. We marked the roof circumference with willow wands and a 15’ section of PVC pipe (it snows a lot there), adorned with a small flag, to denote the cave entrance. Over three weeks later we returned and located the cache (which required extensive digging to excavate). The spruce boughs were lined up in a row on the glacier surface, and radio antennae wire strung from the cave to each, like a telephone pole in the middle of nowhere. Power was connected to the radio, and we commenced trying to reach Cliff in Talkeetna to inform him we were ready to be picked up. If the radio didn’t work (some years it wouldn’t) our backup was the CB radio (Citizens Band), potentially capable of reaching a passing aircraft. In those days, bush pilots were acutely aware of location and progress of ‘their’ groups on the mountain, in order to guesstimate when pick up from Base Camp would be needed (in case the radio didn’t work).
  • In 1972 sleds were not in vogue, and the four of us carried back and forth in between camps to fully stock the next, higher, site. That required as many as three days of stockpiling. In retrospect, we wasted a lot of good weather while low on the route, and experienced unsettled conditions during the time we spent at high camp.
  • Underway, we observed three people descend from Kahiltna Pass, early-on in the trip. It turned out their fourth member had been evacuated from 14K with suspected pulmonary edema. These were the last human beings we saw for the better part of the next three weeks, until we were descending the ‘infamous’ fixed line between 15,000’ – 16,000’ (we met a party coming up the rope; worst spot on the whole route to pass!).
Dateline 2015
  • All nine RMI Denali expeditions reached the summit of Mt McKinley (May, June, and July).
  • 87% of our 2015 Denali clients reached the summit.
  • The vast majority of guides and climbers jet to Alaska and ride a shuttle to Talkeetna.
  • K2 Aviation’s fleet of de Havilland Beavers and Otters can transport an entire team to Base Camp in a single flight.
  • Satellite phones and daily dispatches of expedition progress take the guess work out of when to pick up climbing parties.
  • RMI expeditions averaged 18.4 days roundtrip this season.
  • Guides and climbers alike raved about the new Expedition Sleds.
  • There were no accidents or injuries requiring evacuation or hospitalization on any RMI Denali expeditions this season.
  • _____
    Joe Horiskey began guiding for RMI Expeditions in 1968 at the age of seventeen. Since that 1972 expedition, Joe has participated in 23 Mt. McKinley expeditions and has 235 summits of Mt. Rainier along with expeditions to peaks across the globe. Joe is a co-owner of RMI Expeditions and director of our Mt. McKinley expeditions. Have a question or thinking about climbing Mt. McKinley? Call our office and talk to Joe; he loves to talk all things Alaska!

Comments (2)

Well joe , I have a dvd copy of our climb of Denali, less the sound track
But just throw on some moody blues
While watching. Tim really did a outstanding job producing this 30
Some minutes of our historic climb.
You can reach me anytime @
360 746 - 5867
Old climbing buddy Dave C

Posted by: Dave Campbell on

Wow Joe ! What awsome surprise to stumble apon
Your story of back in the early days” very very enjoyable & congratulTions on your recollection on the details that long ago” I too remember it well. Sure be great to talk sometime or g-mail me anytime”
Your old climbing buddy
Dave Campbell
Ph (360) 961-7641

Posted by: Dave Campbell on

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