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Sunday, June 4, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mount Mckinley Is `A Living Hell' -- World's Coldest Mountain Demands Too High A Price For Many

Los Angeles Times

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Climbers coming down from Mount McKinley describe their stays as "a living hell" on the world's coldest mountain.

Three, all from Washington, died recently - Scott Hall, 34, Arlington; Jimmy Hinkhouse, 52, Bellevue; and Thomas Downey, 52, Ephrata.

Kevin DeGeorge, 26, of Anchorage believes he encountered the three victims a few hours after escaping from the same snow-hidden crevasse that claimed them last week.

"They were antsy to break camp, just like everyone else on the mountain who had been weathered in waiting for a clearing from the week-long whiteout," DeGeorge said. "They thought since we had made it, they would be able to (move supplies) up to 14,000 feet."

That was the last DeGeorge - or, possibly, anyone - saw of the trio.

After spending two weeks trying to ascend the 20,230-foot mountain, North America's tallest, he grabbed the lone spot on a small rescue plane at the Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200 feet last Saturday.

Later, at the Talkeetna ranger station in Denali National Park - his feet numb, lips bleeding and crusty and his nose bright red from windburn - he shivered as he described whiteout conditions with winds blowing 70 to 80 mph and temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.

"I sat in my tent for eight days, unable to go outside except for a few times," he said. "After staring at the ceiling of my tent trying to stay warm, I was going crazy and was willing go do whatever it took to get out of there."

John Quinley, a spokesman for Denali National Park, said although the conditions were fierce, they were not unusual for the mountain locals call Denali, or "Great One."

Located in Denali National Park, about 200 miles north of Anchorage and 150 miles below the Arctic Circle, McKinley is notorious among the world's mountaineers for its harsh weather and bitter cold.

"As miserable as all of that was," Quinley said, "all of that happens almost every climbing season. Climbers are usually on the mountain for three weeks, and much of that time is spent in their tents listening to the wind blow."

Climbers will sometimes build snow walls around their tents, but in the latest siege, Quinley said, "We had tents blown away (and) snow walls collapsing."

Doug Geeting, a pilot stranded overnight at Kahiltna, said, "It has been the worst weather that I can remember in 20 years for nonstop pounding."

McKinley's fatality total is 83 for the last 50 years, as far back as records are available. The first of four fatalities this year was Brian McKinley, 37, of San Diego, who died May 5 when he and a partner fell 400 feet.

The highest total in one year was 1992, when 11 climbers died. But based on recent percentages, about half of the 1,200 expected to try the climb this year would reach the top.

DeGeorge, from Monterey Park, Calif., is a civil engineer and an experienced climber who developed his skills in California's Eastern Sierra and while attending college in Colorado.

He started his expedition with two other climbers, but one turned back after a couple of days and the other wanted to wait in his tent for conditions to improve.

DeGeorge said he became frustrated and decided to make a move on his own.

He reached 17,000 feet before the weather forced him to turn back and hunker down in his tent.

After eight days, he saw three other climbers descending and asked if he could join them. Connected by ropes and wearing skis to stay atop the soft snow, DeGeorge was asked to take the lead - the most dangerous position.

Visibility was so bad that the group started off in the wrong direction.

"We tried to navigate the crevasse section before Windy Corner solely by compass," DeGeorge said. Climbers with experience in this section know that is nearly impossible.

They returned to 14,000 feet and started over.

"At 13,300 feet, just above Windy Corner, I was in the lead sinking with every step up to my thighs in snow," DeGeorge said.

Suddenly, one of his skis sank farther than usual.

"It wasn't until the next step that I realized where I was," he said. "My right ski punched through the snow into nothing. I looked down between my legs through a crack in the snow and saw a big, black hole.

"I looked to my right through a gap in the whiteout, and 30 feet away I saw the edge of the biggest crevasse I had ever seen. I was right in the middle of it, with nothing below me."

DeGeorge yelled to his companions to take up the slack in the rope.

"They couldn't hear me," he said. "The wind was too loud."

So he unfastened his pack as gingerly as possible and started to "swim" back to the edge in a desperate dance with death.

"As I was going, my feet and skis dangled below me," he said. "I got to the other side, hooked on my ice ax and pulled myself out."

It took the group another five hours to reach a camp at 11,000 feet, normally a 50-minute descent.

"As I descended into the 11,000-foot camp, a climber in his mid-30s who said he was from Washington and two older climbers approached me and asked, `What's it like up there?' " DeGeorge said.

"The winds were blowing so hard, we were yelling back and forth. We could barely hear each other. I told them that what I had just gone through was the most dangerous thing I had ever experienced in my entire life."

In three more days, DeGeorge reached the Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200 feet, where the storm raged unabated as 80 people waited for a handful of ski planes to fly them out. He was told there was a five-day wait.

"Planes were lined up on the runway," he said. "At one point, there was a break in the whiteout. All the pilots started their planes. It was chaotic. It all happened so fast I hardly knew what was going on."

The first plane, a small Cessna, made it to the end of the runway and sank into the snow. The others took off around it.

"Within a few minutes, another plane came in through the clouds," DeGeorge said. "It plowed down the runway, kicking up a huge cloud of snow. You couldn't even see the plane. The pilot was screaming, `Get in! Get in! Somebody get in now. I can take one person.' "

DeGeorge grabbed what gear he could and scrambled aboard. As the plane bounced down the snowy runway, he saw climbers digging through his abandoned gear for food and another sparking up his stove to melt snow for water.

Since Memorial Day weekend, Quinley said: "The weather has gotten better. Climbers were moving."

And DeGeorge was healing, physically and emotionally.

"When I got down Saturday, I read in the paper that three people had been found Friday," DeGeorge said. "The timing was just right. They'd had their accident Wednesday morning. It was eerie to read that. I'm almost certain it was the same crevasse."

For a time, he feared his feet were frostbitten.

"The signs are that you get numb, red patches that turn black and get (incurable)," he said. "About 90 percent of my feet were in the danger zone. But the redness is going away, and I'm starting to get the feeling back in my feet."

His face is another concern.

"I'm trying to avoid going back to work for a while because it looks really bad, and it's looking worse every day," he said. "But it'll get well too."

And later, when the scars are healed, he plans to have another go at Denali.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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