Sports

On top of North America

By CASEY OLSON

The Mirror

Ray Krueger was never a standout athlete in any sense of the word during his younger days.

The 53-year-old doctor was cut from his high school basketball team while growing up near Olympia. But the Federal Way resident has officially found his athletic niche. It's just not one that is ever televised on ESPN.

Krueger is a mountain climber.

"This sport rewards perseverance," said Krueger, who works as a family practice doctor for Group Health in South Tacoma. "I kind of started when I was in high school and took a climbing course and have been doing it off and on through the years. The Boy Scouts also played a role."

Krueger's mountain climbing resume reads like a who's who of accents in the Cascade Mountains. He has climbed Mount Rainier four times, Mount Baker twice, Glacier Peak twice and Mount St. Helen's four times, including before it blew it's top May 18, 1980. Krueger also expanded past the Pacific Northwest a few years ago when he made the trek to Africa and ascended the continent's highest peak, 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.

"That was sort of a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other climb," Krueger said. "It wasn't a real hard one and not too technical."

But there was always one mountain's summit that was missing — Alaska's Mount McKinley. The highest peak in North America had always been a goal of Krueger's ever since he bought his first ice axe.

McKinley is perhaps the single most impressive mountain in the world — all higher peaks are in the greater Himalaya or in the Andes, part of enormous mountain ranges. McKinley rises almost alone, 16,000 feet above the snowline, with only nearby Mount Foraker even close to it in height. Although McKinley is part of the Alaska Range, a massive ice-clad range of spectacular peaks, it so utterly dominates its area that what would otherwise be major ice peaks sometimes seem like mere foothills.

"I always wanted to go up to McKinley," he said.

Krueger finally got to accomplish that goal on May 20, when he and several members of his climbing team rolled to the top of the 20,320-foot peak in central Alaska.

McKinley, also known as Denali or "Great One," is a challenge and destination for mountaineers from all around the world. Although considered a technically easy climb by the most popular routes, an ascent of McKinley is a serious undertaking made difficult by the cold, the weather, and the sheer scale of the mountain. On average during the past few years, about 1,000 climbers attempt the summit per season, 500 make it, and three die.

"McKinley is really my Mount Everest," Krueger said. "Everest is just another level of danger beyond Alaska. I don't think I will be doing that. You are away from home for 60 days and it costs between $20,000 and $70,000 to climb. I think this will be about it. There's not a lot more I can do. I've got the highest mountains on two continents. That's pretty good."

This was actually Krueger's second attempt at reaching the summit of McKinley. In 2005, his climbing team reached the 17,000-foot camp and were forced to sit there for five days before having to pack up and head down the mountain because of brutal weather at the summit. McKinley is perhaps the coldest mountain in the world outside of Antarctica because of it's combination of great height and high latitude.

"That was pretty disappointing," Krueger said. "I put in all that time and didn't get to finish."

But this time around, the weather at the top cooperated with Krueger and the rest of his team. After spending a couple days at the 17,000-foot camp, the weather cleared and the group was able to summit on a sunny day with about 5 mph winds. McKinley is known for its sub-artic weather during the climbing season, which extends from mid-April through the months of May, June and July. It's not uncommon for the temperatures to be in the negative-20-degree range and the winds to blow 30 to 50 mph at the top.

"You have a hard time standing up," Krueger said. "The wind is blowing so hard and it's so cold. But this time they said it was the best day of the whole year. It was nice and sunny and it was a gorgeous view."

Krueger flew out of Sea-Tac International Airport on May 1 for Juneau and was on the mountain for approximately three weeks before rolling onto the summit. A lot of time is spent at camps that are set up throughout the climb getting acclimated to the high altitudes and carrying equipment back and forth to these camps. The actual time climbing time to get to the top is about 11 days, according to Krueger.

Krueger made the trip up to McKinley with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. out of Ashford, Wash. The company has organized over 250 expeditions to Mount McKinley since 1975.

"They are very experienced and climbing McKinley can be very dangerous," Krueger said.

That fact was demonstrated while Krueger was on the mountain last month. Two climbers died after a 1,900-foot fall during a descent of Mount McKinley on May 17. One of the men was 27-year-old Kent firefighter Brian Massey.

Denali National Park and Reserve rangers declared Mizuki Takahashi, 36, dead shortly after the fall and Massey, her climbing partner, remained unconscious throughout the evening, then died the next day.

A third team member had stayed behind at a lower elevation level, National Park Service spokeswoman Kris Fister said.

Mountaineering ranger patrol members at the 17,200-foot level witnessed the fall that began just shy of the 19,000-foot mark. The roped pair fell to an elevation level just below where the patrol was stationed.

The deaths were the first climbing fatalities on McKinley since two Ohio men died in May 2005, Fister said.

Takahashi was from Lake Forest Park. Massey lived in North Bend, but worked as a firefighter for the Kent Fire Department. Krueger was not climbing in the same group as Takahashi and Massey.

"We were sitting up there when the helicopter came to take the bodies away," Krueger said. "It filled me with trepidation. I was wondering what I was doing up there. It made me aware of the consequences of a missed step."

It also wasn't too easy on Krueger's wife, Nancy, who heard the news of the two deaths back home in Federal Way.

"It was nerve-racking for me," she said. "He was up there when those people fell off of the mountain."

Krueger was in peak physical condition when he made the trip to McKinley. He trained for hours on end climbing up and down some of the local hills, riding his bike and lifting weights. But it was his four climbs of Mount Rainier that were the best training for what McKinley had to offer.

There is no environment better than Mount Rainier for gaining the confidence and required technical skill for the climb of Mount McKinley, according to Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. Rainier’s combination of weather, altitude and terrain closely resemble the environment of Alaska.

"He's become quite the mountain climber," Nancy Krueger said.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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