Reports of a crazy climber on Mount McKinley in late June moved up the mountain faster than the man himself, but National Park Service rangers at the 14,200-foot camp weren’t quite sure what to think. North America’s highest peak every year attracts more than a few people who might be considered, for lack of better words, “a little different.”
This one — whom the Park Service hasn’t named because he was flown off the mountain to undergo a psychiatric exam in Fairbanks on July 7 — caught the attention of many early, in large part because he was insistent on a plan to paraglide off the 20,320-foot summit. Park service officials in Talkeetna warned him that is a no-no.
Both rangers and an ex-ranger said the crazy guy didn’t seem to take the warning seriously.
“He was very, very intense,” said Daryl Miller, the retired and highly respected one-time chief climbing ranger for Denali National Park and Preserve, “I actually met the guy” in Talkeetna. New chief climbing ranger John Leonard at the time asked for advice from his predecessor.
“John said, ‘What am I going to do with him?’,” Miller remembered. Miller gave the easy answer for a guy no longer in the job: “He’s your problem.”
Leonard scrutinized the 25-year-old Pennsylvania climber’s resume, decided the man had enough experience that there really were no legal grounds to keep him off the mountain, warned the man not to take his paraglider up the West Buttress, and then let him fly off to McKinley base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier.
The hope was that would be the end of it. A lot of loners intent on climbing McKinley fly to Kahiltna at 7,000 feet, get a look at the size of what awaits them above, camp out for a few days at base camp, talk to weather-beaten climbers coming down the mountain, and then fly home. Not this one. He started up the Kahiltna. Ranger Dave Weber higher up the mountain started getting reports almost immediately.
“People were asking about him,” Weber said. “They checked in with us out of concern.”
The climber didn’t seem very alert to the crevasse dangers of glacier travel, and he lacked a tent, which complicates camping on the glacier. Camping without a tent requires construction of some sort of snow shelter, and any sort of construction takes time that could be spent melting snow for water, a task most easily done out of the weather in the vestibule of a quickly pitched shelter. Climbers who fail to religiously melt snow to make water to drink constantly soon dehydrate, which makes them susceptible to both frostbite and hypothermia.
Quite a few climbers, Weber said, noted the crazy guy’s behavior on the mountain and wondered aloud to rangers if the man was taking care of himself. This sort of monitoring is normal on McKinley’s busy West Buttress route, which in May and June attracts hundreds of climbers, from rank amateurs with guides to highly seasoned mountaineers acclimating with a trip to high camp at 17,200 feet before attempting more difficult routes. Between those two extremes are climbers of all abilities. Some know much about how the dangers of glacier travel and how quickly Alaska Range weather can turn deadly, and some know almost nothing. The more capable among them tend to look out for the least capable.
Rangers worry most about the relatively inexperienced climbers traveling alone. Soloists are more vulnerable in storms, and the Kahiltna has a fair number of crevasses covered by snow bridges that may, or may not, support a climber’s weight. Most climbers travel roped on the glaciers for safety. Soloists will often ask to tie in with others as a precaution when on the trail along the glacier, but there are always a few who throw caution to the wind.
The climber in question, Weber said, “didn’t try to tie into anyone,” although he did ask some other climbers to help him haul his gear up the mountain. That combination of actions is enough to make anyone familiar with travel on the West Buttress scratch their head. Weber decided that if the climber made it to the 14,200-foot camp — there was still hope the man might turn around and go home — someone best check on him.
And, rangers add, it was a good thing they did. On the night they found him among the tents that cluster at what is sometimes called “medical camp,” Weber said, crazy guy had gone hypothermic. “He was in his bivvy sack. Or, actually, he was quite a bit out of his bivvy sack,” Weber said, wearing a frozen parka with his lower body in a half-frozen sleeping bag. Rangers decided it was best to get the man into the WeatherPort the Park Service maintains as shelter at the camp in order to warm him up.
The crazy guy understood he was in trouble and went along willingly, Weber added. “He was very uncomfortable from the cold.”
At the ranger post, Weber said, rangers discovered the climber had hauled his paraglider up the mountain with him, and “we confiscated that.” Then the fireworks began.
The climber got angry, very angry. A couple doctors who were in medical camp at the time thought the anger went beyond what might be considered normal under the circumstances. Discussions began about what to do. There was some thought the climber’s behavior might be partially due to hypothermia, and that his mood might change once he got warmed up.
“He did calm down,” Weber said, “but he was very erratic. He went from extremely aggressive to extremely downtrodden.”
Eventually the doctors — aided by the opinions of a nurse and several emergency medical technicians at the camp — concluded the man had serious psychiatric problems. Rangers did not disagree. Thus began talks about how to get him off the mountain.
Normally, if someone is injured but ambulatory, rangers might ask a guided party or another experienced group of climbers to help escort him or her down the mountain. But rangers had a problem here. They couldn’t very well ask someone to take charge of a crazy person because there is no telling what the mentally unstable will do.
So rangers discussed summoning the high-altitude helicopter kept on call in Talkeetna in case McKinley rescues are needed. But it is a tiny craft in which the passenger sits within easy reach of the pilot. There was concern about the consequences if the climber turned violent on the flight and tried to grab the pilot.
Rangers on the mountain talked to rangers in Talkeenta as the climber warmed up for two nights in the WeatherPort, and finally it was decided the Park Service would ask the U.S. Army at Fort Wainwright if it could fly into 14,200 with one of its high-altitude Chinook helicopters. Chinooks are big whirlybirds regularly used to haul artillery. They have a cabin behind the flight crew with room to hold up to 50 people.
On this flight off McKinley, the cabin would hold one — strapped to a backboard. The backboard, Weber claimed, is a standard requirement for climbers being evacuated off the mountain for medical reasons.
“We did not need to sedate him,” the ranger added. “He did calm down. He cooperated. He got in a mood where he just wanted to be off the mountain.”
Nobody in the Park Service can recall ever needing to fly a mentally unstable climber off the mountain before. But many in can recall crazy climbers being on the mountain before, the most notable being John Waterman, who disappeared into the glaciers on the slopes of McKinley in 1981. Waterman had gained notoriety in the Alaska climbing community with an epic, solo ascent of the Southeast Spur of Mount Hunter in 1978. That climb, author and climber Jonathon Waterman, would later observe changed John forever. Jonathon, who has the same last name but no blood relation to Johnny, wrote in his 1994 book, “In the Shadow of Denali,” that “the climb changed him irreparably.” Jonathon goes on to quote a climbing friend of John saying that “after Hunter he was almost dangerously psychotic.”
Miller, the retired chief climbing ranger, said he can’t remember seeing any dangerous psychotics in his years on the mountain, but he did see some crazy behavior, including that of a father who abandoned his son at base camp to go climb the mountain. “He just left the kid,” Miller said. “I want to say he was 11 or 12. He was walking around everywhere (near base camp), and there was a lot of concern.”
Fortunately, some climbers at Kahiltna adopted the kid and took care of him until his father returned. The man ended up in big trouble with the Park Service.
“That was one of the most crazy things,” said Miller, “but there’s a lot of crazy things.”
Miller, it is worth noting, has seen his share of crazy things. He did a couple tours of combat in Vietnam. He was a bull fighter. He won international acclaim for his McKinley rescues.
“Everybody has a cracking point,” he observed. “And it sounded like this guy needed some help.”
The McKinley crazy guy apparently did get help in Fairbanks. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported he did a short stint at the hospital there and was then released. There is no telling where the climber is now or how he is doing. The Park Service’s refusal to name the man makes him hard to find.
That troubles Doug Buchanan of the Alaskan Alpine Club in Fairbanks, who has over the decades regularly challenged the behavior of the Park Service. He wonders just how “crazy” the climber was.
Park rangers, Buchanan e-mailed, tend to be “afraid of everything, vulnerable, and young, like soldiers in a war. They over-react, and they start out being trained by the government to hate ‘the enemy’, in this case the only enemy available to the mountaineering rangers, the mountain climbers … (These) rangers exercised their raw power to a greater degree than normal. (But) all government personnel have been informed that they can now seize anyone they summarily decree to be mentally unstable, a suspected terrorist, suspected of any involvement with drugs, and a dozen other rhetorical illusions, to avoid the limitations on the power to arrest for actual crimes. You will not be arrested for a crime. You will be seized and taken into protective custody for being mentally unstable, at whim of any petty little government minion who wants to prove he has power over you.”
Weber, though, doesn’t think he was over-reacting. He recounts a couple pretty intense days at the 14,200-foot camp as rangers first warmed a hypothermic climber and then started trying to deal with someone they thought mentally unstable.
“I think Denali is a hard enough mountain if you’re very fit, both physically and mentally,” the ranger said. And if you’re not, well, a lot of people have died on McKinley. Four perished this year, and the May to July climbing season isn’t quite over. Weber and other rangers believe they might have prevented another death from taking place.
As for the crazy guy, well, there’s no way of knowing what the crazy guy thinks.