Deathwatch On Mount McKinley

The sound of Terrance (mugs) Stump's death was soft as falling snow. As the veteran mountaineer from Utah descended Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, a gaping chasm opened with a faint cracking sound and swallowed him up. " Mugs! Mugs!" his companions shouted. But there was no answer. Just a frozen silence. Friends were saddened but philosophic. " That's climbing," one told a local newspaper. "It isn't racquetball."

Obviously not. But is mountaineering on Mount McKinley a sport, or has it become a kind of athletic Russian roulette? The death of Mugs Stump over Memorial Day weekend was the seventh in seven hellish days on McKinley. Hundred-mile-an-hour winds swept three Korean climbers off a ridge. Two Italians died in another fall, and a Swiss perished from respiratory failure. The death toll could easily have doubled but for intrepid rescues by National Park rangers, who plucked two climbers from crevasses and evacuated half a dozen others. The body count prompted a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News to propose a new adventure-travel theme for Alaskan vacations: "Climb Mount McKinley-and die."

To the unknowing, McKinley doesn't look like a killer. At 20,320 feet, it's nearly two miles lower than Everest and K2, the famed Asian peaks, and it's not as sheer. Yet McKinley can be treacherous. Hard on the Arctic Circle, it is exposed to vicious winds and extreme cold. Indeed, weather can be blamed for many of the recent casualties; some climbers hunkered down in minus-40-degree temperatures and gale-force winds for the better part of two weeks, running short of food and fuel. For many McKinley mountaineers, there's a danger greater than the elements: attitude. The old "because it's there" romanticism that makes people climb mountains lurches into hyperdrive on McKinley. Not only is the peak world-renowned, it is accessible. It can be climbed for the price of an airline ticket. Mountaineers (and mountaineering wanna-bes) come from around the world. Some have never even climbed before.

Recently McKinley has taken on a circuslike air. The rustic hamlet of Talkeetna (population: 400) serves as a staging point, full of friendly folks and log homes decorated with moose antlers, just like on " Northern Exposure." Guides fly climbers to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp, at 7,200 feet; from there they are on their own. That is not to say alone, however. At the base camp one day last week, some 40 climbers waited for a flight back to Talkeetna. Higher up, at a ranger station at 14,000 feet, another 150 were encamped. Guides disparagingly call McKinley's most popular ascent the "dog run." More than 500 climbers jammed McKinley last week, carving twin troughs into the mountain on even the most difficult routes to the summit.

Since 1986, all but two of the 24 climbers killed on McKinley have been foreigners, as have three quarters of those rescued. The reason, again, is attitude more than altitude. "People underestimate this mountain," explains park ranger J. D. Swed. Foreigners especially think they can "do" McKinley in a week, as they might do Mont Blanc in the Alps, and so don't bring the food and equipment needed to survive a turn in McKinley's weather. One Italian who died two weeks ago, says Swed, "came in real cocky, patting his chest and saying, 'Best climber in Italy.' A boot with his leg in it is still up there somewhere."

Perhaps only flatlanders ask why anyone would want to climb McKinley. Around Talkeetna, you get lots of answers. " Some people go to the beach; others walk in the mountains," shrugs Rudiger Shuis, a nonchalant German from Munich. At Talkeetna's rambunctious Fairview Inn, testosterone runs high. " I want to die," says a climber who will fly up in the morning. He says that with a laugh, but who knows? A guide tells of another climber so intent on reaching the summit that he wouldn't stop, despite a raging storm. " I thought I'd have to rope him and drag him to shelter."

Among the obsessed is Krzysztof Wiecha, a young Pole who climbed McKinley last year-with tragic consequences. Caught by a sudden storm just below the summit, Wiecha weathered three nights in a snow cave without food, fuel or a tent. Rescuers reached him by helicopter at 20,000 feet, in time to save his life but not his frostbitten feet. Both were amputated in an Anchorage hospital. Now Wiecha is back in Talkeetna, riding a bike to get in shape and laying plans to scale McKinley again next year. He cannot really explain this desire. "Up there," he says simply, "life is very clear." You can only wish him luck.