Monday, February 27, 2006

Denali Quota: No News and Good News

Mainstream media jumped on the "news" that Denali National Park has established a cap of 1,500 on climbing permits for Mt. McKinley in its new Backcountry Management Plan, finalized this month. Denali has not yet seen 1,500 attempts in a season; the record was 1,340 last year, about 20 percent above the average for the 1990s. But if 2,000 climbers suddenly did apply for permits, the new cap would be a blessing (though administering it likely would be a big headache for the NPS). The West Buttress route, which most mountaineers attempt, is already severely overcrowded during peak season, diminishing the experience for everyone. A cap sucks when it keeps you off the mountain the year you want to go, but it truly is a case of being the greatest good for the greatest number.

Incidentally, the media have reported that one justification for the cap is safety. This may indeed have been part of the NPS rationale, but statistics don't back it up. The American Alpine Club last year produced a fascinating report on perception vs. reality in the risks and costs of mountaineering, and one section showed that while the number of attempts on Denali grew from an annual average of 751 in the 1980s to 1,240 in the first five years of this decade, the ratio of fatalities per attempt has fallen 93 percent in the same period. Along with better gear and training, the NPS' educational efforts, and better-trained and equipped rescue services, the AAC report attributes the decline in fatalities to more people on the popular routes. More clmbers in the area generally equals quicker rescue.

Thanks to dogged work by the AAC, Denali's final management plan is largely positive for climbers. Among other things, it caps guided climbers at 25 percent of the total on Denali, toughens human-waste standards so North America's highest peak will stay relatively clean (a big problem as warmer springs melt back glaciers, exposing god knows what), and establishes a climbing-only zone in the Little Switzerland area of the park to limit glacier landings for cruise-ship tourists.

Read the Denali Backcountry Mangement Plan here.

No comments: