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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Regular Public Meeting September, 2004

Minutes of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, Sept. 16, 2004

Roger Siglin, mountaineer extraordinaire and retired National Park Service superintendent of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, told a fascinated audience about his climb of Mt. McKinley in Alaska's Denali mountain range 10 years ago. Illustrating his talk with photo slides he made of himself and his companions, and showing his boots, spiked crampons, ice axe, rope and other climbing equipment, Siglin explained that climbing in Alaska required wearing up to 30 pounds of clothing and equipment.

"I climbed McKinley when I was a young man of 58," he said. "When you're 58 you can do anything you want to do."

Alaskans, and many others, he said, think Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in the U.S., should be called Denali, but Ohio congressmen have for years blocked any attempt to rename the mountain -- because President McKinley was from Ohio.

Showing a harness, with leg loops and a 150 foot rope that tied him and his companions together on the climb, Siglin joked that mountain climbers are roped together "so the sensible ones can't leave." He then explained that roping into the harness is necessary because a rope around the waist could injure or suffocate the climber, if he took a sudden fall. Climbing ropes will stretch to 50 percent longer with weight, he said, often preventing injury in falls. An ice axe is essential, he added, and is always tied to the wrist, so that you can use the axe to catch a fall or "to claw your way up a cliff."

Siglin said he started climbing on rock cliffs -- Casa Grande for one -- when he was a ranger at Big Bend National Park in 1966. "You do it because it feels good," because of the "mental and physical demands." In the decades since then, he has summited Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, Mont Blanc in France, and several peaks in Peru and Bolivia. His attempt to climb Himalchuli West, a 24,000 foot peak in Nepal, was stopped at 15,000 feet by a snowstorm, he said, "and it's lucky the snow stopped us when we did."

"Had we gotten much higher the storm would have trapped us and we might have died." He said of his group of six mountaineers, two later died on other mountains and one was so badly injured in a rock climbing accident in New Mexico that he was almost killed but recovered.

On his climb of McKinley Siglin stayed on the mountain for a full month, because his party attempted to climb from one direction and had to turn back, then flew to Fairbanks and ascended from another direction along a gorge with a glacier at the bottom of it, the popular West Butress route. From base to top at McKinley is 20,000 feet, he said, and "a more impressive mountain rise than Everest from its base."

At the beginning of the climb on the Muldrow Glacier route all the mountaineers have to wade across the McKinley River in spring flow -- "you've no feeling in your feet by the time you get across." Each carried a pack of 60 pounds or more -- most had sent much of their food and equipment in ahead by sled, but one man carried a 120 pound pack.

Siglin explained that climbers in North America carry their supplies on their backs or on a sled -- "sherpas" or porters are only used in the Himalayas. They used snowshoes for better control on the glaciers, and wore moleskin on the nose to prevent sunburn or freezing the facial skin at 30 or 40 degrees below zero.

"The sun can be brutally hot," and in a tent at night, the lowest temperature was 30 degrees below zero -- "that's not bad in a tent." Most nights he and his companions built snow walls around their tent to protect them from the wind.

In his party of four, each took a turn being the leader and using an 8 to 10 foot pole to stick into the snow and "try to tell if it's a crevasse or it's safe to step further."

"Every step can mean disaster, so you don't get bored," he told his audience. One of his companions fell 15 feet into a crevasse and cracked two ribs, but he continued the climb.

After deciding they could not complete the climb along their first route, Siglin and a friend decided to take the more popular route from the other side. Lowell Thomas Jr., a bush pilot in Alaska then, flew them in to the first ca mp site, where Siglin said there were climbers "from all over the world -- it was a great cultural experience."

Denali along the popular route "is not the hardest mountain to climb," he acknowledged, and it can get crowded during the climbing season, from May to July. But strong winds can literally blow climbers off the mountain -- the fatality rate on McKinley has been high in past years, but is currently less than one percent.

He and his friend went from their camp at 16,000 feet to the summit at 20,320 feet within one long day -- without ropes for safety, "because we didn't want the extra weight."

The approaches to the mountains are not so long as in Asia, Siglin explained, where there may be tremendous distances before you get to the mountains. "In Tibet we used yaks to carry equipment, and in Nepal, we tried a 24,000 foot peak, but we had trouble with the porters, who went on strike. " Siglin said the porters there were sometimes 12 year-old barefoot boys who carried 150 pounds to the snow line.

Siglin said he was lucky that he had never suffered pulmonary edema or cerebral edema, that his genes and the fact of being older had helped him avoid possible problems with high altitude sickness. He added that he had never used oxygen on his climbs. "I got to 22,000 feet in Tibet when I was 62 and went back down." Above 18,000 feet and your body deteriorates," he explained. "Nobody lives at that elevation. "

After Siglin's talk, Don Dowdey urged members of the club to attend the meeting on 9/21 at Sul Ross concerning the BRAVO study. In his 'good news' reports, he mentioned that green roofing is the rage in London, where roofs covered in soil and foliage are providing habitat for insects, lizards and birds. Some local governments are now requiring buildings to feature rooftop gardens because they can help prevent flash floods, help insulate and cool buildings, and attract small critters.

Another 'good news' item was from Australia, where researchers have announced that within seven years it will be possible to produce hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water in a process that has no moving parts and produces no pollutants. Australian researchers are also harvesting methane gas from rotted surplus bananas. But it may not be cost-effective, since it now takes more than 130 pounds of rotting bananas to run a household appliance for 30 hours.

The third 'good news' item Dowdey passed on was from a speaker at the American Chemical Society, who said catalysts can be used to extract pure hydrogen from air, water vapor and sunflower oil. Another researcher said she was working on a process to convert pure water directly to hydrogen using a catalyst and solar energy. For now, Dowdey concluded, both veggie oil and water catalysts are prohibitively expensive, "but still, maybe this whole hydrogen thing will work out after all."