Thoughts on the Denali Fee Hike

Posted on: December 15, 2010

Climbers ascend fixed ropes on Denali's headwall. The National Park Service is considering raising the climbing fee for Denali and nearby Foraker from $200 to $500 (in addition to the 20-dollar park entrance fee). The NPS cites the rising costs of the program as a reason for the 250-percent hike. [Photo] Keese Lane

I stood with my father and two other climbers at the 14,000' camp on Denali's West Buttress. Snow from the night blanketed the headwall and we were concerned about avalanches. For the previous few days we had followed a schedule similar to two other teams: a father, son and friend team from Colorado and a pair of Australians in the midst of a Seven Summits tour. The more experienced of the Australians gestured at the mountain. "We will wait until the guided groups pack in the trail. That is smart mountaineering." Meanwhile the Coloradans slowly broke their own way up through the snow, forgoing the buried fixed-lines. As the rest of us loitered about camp, the trio climbed the face, disappeared onto the ridge, and returned exuberant in the twilight. For the first time in weeks they had climbed alone, breaking their own trail. They had a wonderful day.

The National Park Service is considering raising the climbing fee for Denali and Foraker from $200 to $500 (in addition to the 20-dollar park entrance fee). The NPS says they spend more than $1000 per climber on their "Mountaineering Program". They cite the rising costs of the program as a reason for the 250-percent hike. As someone who was recently on Denali I have thought a lot about what this means. My father occasionally brings up the prospect of returning. Last year we paid $400 in permit fees. Should the rate hike go into effect we will pay $1,000 in fees for our next attempt.


The NPS did provide excellent services. Rangers checked us into the 14,000' camp and we saw their presence often on the mountain. We listened to one ranger sternly advise a group of skiers not to descend back to the Kahiltna with their injured (broken rib) comrade but to let a helicopter fly him out. Doctors and medical staff stood available to treat everything from frostbite to sunburns. We received a pre-departure PowerPoint briefing from a Ranger in Talkeetna and were given a green can with which to "dispose of solid waste". Weather updates and World Cup scores were radioed every evening from the Kahiltna Glacier camp. And, while the fees paid by climbers do not fund search and rescue operations they do fund the acclimatized staff who stays on the mountain during the climbing season, ready to assist climbers in need at any moment.

These services came with some praise. While we shared chocolate and tea with a solo Latvian climber around 16,000' he told us he was impressed with how beautiful and wild the mountain was. He said the other peaks he'd climbed had been "covered with garbage." A few days later we encountered Mountaineering Ranger Mark Westman at the Kahiltna camp. His work for the past day had been shoveling human waste, melted from the glacier, into plastic bags. Between staff like Westman physically rehabilitating the mountain and the 33,000-dollar CMC (Clean Mountain Can) Program that is operated by the NPS and paid for through Permit Fees, the mountain is kept relatively clean. And for my non-climbing father the heavy NPS presence on the mountain offered him some reassurance, as he stepped out of his comfort zone.

If the NPS raises fees it will shift the weight of the mountaineering program almost directly onto climbers. The fees climbers pay will account for nearly 70 percent of the program. Much higher than the 17 percent climbers currently pay or the 30 percent climbers paid when the fees were initiated in 1995. But a study done for the Park showed the Mountaineering Program has cut the fatality rate on Denali by fifty-three percent. And I would be hard pressed to find a mountain of similar popularity and stature that is kept as clean.

Climbers enjoy Talkeetna Air Taxi's stack of Alpinists as they wait for their flight to the mountain. [Photo] Keese Lane

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Where is the Alaskan Alpine Club on this forum? I'm surprised they haven't added there mindless dribble they call two cents in this discussion...

2011-01-03 05:59:49

Climbers are of different abilities and financial standing. 'Technical' climbers are seldom in excess of cash while CEOs in for a thrilling experience won't even notice the 300$ or 700$ difference. Yet both categories are in "for the experience" and differentiated taxation is immoral.

Also, as Mark pointed out, nearly all climbers heading for a tech climb on Denali acclimatize (i.e. take their time) on WB and while fairly they are not double taxed to climb Denali twice, their WB climb is taxed.

As a PADI DM i can state that applying a similar certification system as in scuba diving (as a comment on FB suggested) is both unrealistic and philosophically wrong with regards to climbing (unless we are talking about private, indoor venues.) May that happen, will over sterilize an already "sanitized" endeavour the climbing started to become in the last decade.

One cost AND impact-reducing alternative is capping the number of climbers allowed on the WB. Over 1500 climbers in a span of 2 months on such a limited area of the mountain has a tremendous environmental impact and obviously there are costs associate with it.

Insofar as rescue costs are involved there are two models one can look at: the Swiss and the French. One insurance funded the other publicly funded. And while on this topic, the Mont Blanc range receives a lager all year round number of visitors, rescue-related incidents and environmental impact yet manages to be permit-free. Maybe there is something the NPS should look into.

I for one dislike the idea of paying access fees on mountains, regardless of continent. I can see the reasons behind some taxes and no reason behind others. I can accept some services provided and I do not like to be offered (i.e. forced to receive) services i do not need.

Unfortunately the growth of the outdoor industry (from guiding to equipment manufacturers) cannot happen without the growth of the base of climbers which is directly proportionate with the environmental impact. Rather than going for the easy option of tax raising, more complex indeed, but more meaningful methods to offset this could be researched. Rather than debating punctual tax raises the community at large should self regulate and have a meaningful dialogue on impact (globally). Then such measures will not be necessary and hopefully my children (if i ever have any) will have have the same chance as me to climb, respectful and unregulated in a pristine, adventure offering environment as i had the opportunity when I was a kid.

2010-12-15 10:55:07

I don't understand why this fee doesn't only apply to people climbing the west buttress or the upper west rib. It wouldn't be any more difficult to enforce than the current fee, would bring almost as much money in and would not impact the minority of hardcore alpine climbers on other routes (as long as they don't acclimatise on the west buttress, of course).

2010-12-15 01:05:58
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