August 2015 | Volume 21, Number 2



Abstract: The purpose of this research was to provide Denali National Park and Preserve (DENA) managers with information regarding mountaineers’ perceptions of social and resource conditions in the glaciated wilderness encompassing the south side of Mount McKinley. This study focused on DENA mountaineers’ wilderness experiences and describes themes related to perceptions of wilderness experience elements that emerged from 31 qualitative interviews in 2012. Emphasis was placed on themes closely connected to mountaineers’ experiences with the soundscape in DENA’s South District. Results inform current and future mountaineering management and help to ensure protection of resource and social conditions in DENA’s wilderness.


Mountaineering popularity in Denali National Park and Preserve (DENA) has increased substantially within the past 20 years (National Park Service 2006), and escalating use has raised trepidation regarding potential social and resource condition deterioration. One area of particular concern for DENA managers relates to mountaineers’ experiences with soundscapes in the park. Potential impacts to acoustic resources have led to acoustic monitoring studies and informed management of DENA’s soundscape (i.e., the park’s total acoustic environment, including natural and anthropogenic sounds) (Withers and Adema 2009–2010). Descriptive information, such as the percentage of time motorized noise exceeds natural ambient levels, has been measured and continues to be monitored (Withers and Adema, 2009–2010). However, experiential aspects of the perception of soundscapes (such as attitudes toward the sounds produced by aircraft overflights) have been shown to be important components of wilderness experience (Fidell et al. 1998; Roggenbuck, Williams, and Watson 1993; Tarrant, Haas, and Manfredo 1995), and further research is needed to inform planning and management (National Park Service 2006). Furthermore, social science research regarding mountaineering is scant (Wilson 2012), and this is particularly true for DENA’s glaciated wilderness found in the South District (Kedrowski 2009; Watson et al. 2008). Therefore, the purpose of this study is to provide DENA managers with information regarding mountaineers’ experiences in the glaciated wilderness encompassing the south side of Mount McKinley. The results inform current and future mountaineering management and help ensure protection of resource and social conditions in DENA.

Mountaineering in DENA

Despite numerous mountaineering opportunities in DENA’s South District, the West Buttress route up McKinley is the most popular, receiving more than 1,000 climbers annually since 1989 (McIntosh et al. 2010; Norris 2009; Rodway, McIntosh, and Dow 2011). McKinley is one of the “Seven Summits” and considered a paramount mountaineering objective (Ewert 1994; Waterman 1988). Expeditions last approximately one month, during which mountaineers are exposed to extreme weather and terrain laced with crevasses, frequent avalanches, and rock and ice falls (Ewert 1994). These elements create an atmosphere requiring constant humility, for risk of injury or death is ever present (Miller 2005). On average, approximately half of the mountaineers who attempt McKinley successfully summit (McIntosh et al. 2010).

DENA Wilderness Soundscape

Approximately 1.9 million acres (768,902.7 ha) of wilderness were designated in DENA following passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (National Park Service 2006); designated wilderness now covers approximately 35% of the total acreage in DENA (National Park Service 2014). The glaciated South District wilderness is accessed almost exclusively by aircraft (air taxis) from Talkeetna, Alaska (Tranel 2006). Scenic air tours and brief glacier landings for nonmountaineering visitors are also popular within the South District (Watson et al. 2008). Increased levels of mountaineering, air taxis, and air tours have resulted in changes to the soundscape as well as impacts to the social and resource conditions in this wilderness area, which managers are charged with monitoring (Withers and Adema 2009–2010; National Park Service 2006; Tranel 2006). To date, no studies have examined mountaineers’ perceptions of the DENA South District’s soundscape and how it relates to their experiences. Therefore, in an effort to inform management, this study investigated mountaineers’ perspectives regarding emerging experiential elements, including sound-scapes, in the designated wilderness areas in the South District of the park, including the popular West Buttress route to summit McKinley and its surroundings (Figure 1).


Thirty-one semistructured, qualitative, individual, and group interviews were conducted with 61 returning mountaineers in Talkeetna, Alaska from June 15, 2012 to June 22, 2012, with a 97% response rate. All interviews were conducted in Talkeetna at various locations, such as the Talkeetna Regional Airport, Roadhouse, and Hostel. Interviews ranged from 8 to 47 minutes.

Figure 1 – Map of DENA, showing location of Denali Wilderness, with respect to Mount McKinley.
Figure from DENA Backcountry Management Plan (National Park Service 2006).


Approximately 30 interview questions were developed in collaboration with park staff and designed to first broadly determine experiential elements regarding DENA mountaineering experiences. For example, respondents were asked why they chose to mountaineer in DENA, what they enjoyed most and least, and whether their experiences met their expectations. Subsequently, interview questions narrowed to focus on how natural and anthropogenic sounds affected respondents’ experiences. For example, respondents were asked what sounds they heard, where they heard these sounds, and how these sounds affected their mountaineering experience. Finally, additional questions regarding perceptions of mountaineering within DENA wilderness and potential soundscape-related management actions were addressed. For example, respondents were asked whether their trip felt like a true wilderness experience, and what DENA managers could do to potentially preserve the social and soundscape conditions of the area in the future.


Interviews were captured using a digital recorder and subsequently transcribed verbatim. Standardized observation, enumerative, and constant comparison techniques were used to analyze the transcribed interviews (Henderson 1991). Standardized observation was utilized because this study employed semistructured interview questions, and this method allows for deductive processing of qualitative data and subsequently provided emerging patterns. Constant comparison permitted evaluation of responses across the sample. Iterations of coding and categorizing data were conducted by multiple analyzers so that a framework was established where salient themes emerged. Similar methods have been applied with fly-in day-users in DENA (Watson et al. 2008); mountaineers in Chamonix, France (Pomfret 2011; 2012); and on Mt. Everest (Burke and Orlick 2003; Burke et al. 2010).

Figure 2 – The authors interviewing a recently returned DENA mountaineer in Talkeetna, Alaska.
Photo by David Weinzimmer.


All respondents had returned from a DENA mountaineering trip within a 36-hour period, and all used air-taxi services to land and to be extracted from their respective base camps. Most respondents had recently returned from the traditional West Buttress route, but six had climbed or attempted other routes or locations, such as the Cassin, West Rib, Pika Glacier, and Little Switzerland. Only four of the respondents were female, and ages ranged from 21 to 57. Twenty-one of the respondents were from countries other than the United State, including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Ecuador, and Colombia. The majority of respondents indicated that they were intermediate to expert climbers, and previous years of climbing varied from 5 to 27 years. Ten respondents were guides, 17 were guided participants, and 34 were unguided climbers. Ten respondents had previously mountaineered in DENA, and several had mountaineered on one or more of the other “Seven Summits” such as Mt. Everest or Aconcagua.

Analysis of the interviews yielded four major themes:

  1. Extremes leading to challenge, self-, and team-reliance
  2. Social and managerial conditions
  3. Shared access, and
  4. Perceived safety through soundscapes.

Some were directly connected to sounds experienced, while others were more tangentially related to the area’s soundscape, but all were salient wilderness experience themes. Within each theme, specific wilderness experience elements emerged that provide information for management in the area, which are discussed in the following sections.

Extremes Leading to Challenge, Self-, and Team-Reliance

Respondents repeatedly noted the extreme nature of the mountaineering experience in DENA leading to expressions of challenge, self-, and team-reliance. Elements that contributed to this theme included experiences with extreme weather, adventure, risk, camaraderie, and the tendency to underestimate the challenge associated with mountaineering in DENA wilderness. Elements of friendship, teamwork, and experiencing the struggles and joys of mountaineering in DENA indicated that many respondents felt camaraderie with their climbing partners and other groups during their trip, which was expressed during seven of the interviews. Often, these sentiments were expressed after discussing the extreme conditions mountaineers experienced together during their expeditions. For many respondents, these topics were mentioned with regard to what they enjoyed most about their DENA mountaineering experience:

  • I think it was that teamwork, working together, getting up and down the mountain – something I’ll always remember for life, like epic type of adventure. (Interview 20)

During all interviews, respondents mentioned the extreme nature of the weather they experienced on the mountain. These responses were commonly elicited after being asked what they enjoyed least about their mountaineering experience. Respondents indicated that they were prepared, and even expected the weather conditions, yet they were still overwhelmed at times by the extreme nature of the weather they experienced:

  • I would pinpoint [the] cold temperatures.… We knew it was very tough, but we had to live the experience. (Interview 3)
  • I’d say the unpredictability of the weather is unique. ’Cause even in the Himalayas we can predict [weather] even up to the summit with some degree of certainty. But here it’s its own weather. (Interview 24)

During eight interviews, respondents expressed that the extreme elements, self-reliant nature of the expedition, and remoteness of the mountain made them feel as though they had a wilderness experience:

  • Yeah, you know at times the [West] Buttress can feel like you’re just one among the crowd, but as soon as a storm hits or bad weather comes, you get that wilderness feel fast.
    (Interview 12)

It was a remote area, you know, isolated from the rest of the world – I felt that way. (Interview 20)

Other climbers spoke about the sense of adventure and risk that characterized their DENA expeditions:

  • I think the West Buttress is a serious route – climbing expedition – you’re in danger of underestimating it a bit. I think it’s got a reputation of being more straightforward than it is. (Interview 26)

Existing and Future Social and Managerial Conditions

Another emerging theme related to existing and future social and managerial conditions on the mountain. Topics for this theme included experiences with rangers, crowding, behavior of other climbers, and disposal of human waste. Many comments focused on the National Park Service (NPS) rangers with whom climbers interacted during their expeditions, and most were extremely positive regarding these interactions:

  • You know, I really enjoy seeing [rangers’] presence more than I’ve ever seen it. I was able to hang out with rangers and chitchat with them at base camp, at 11K, at 14K.… I think it’s a resource that needs to get protected. I mean, they saved people’s lives while I was up there. (Interview 25)

During 12 interviews, respondents noted the number of other climbers on the mountain:

  • [My] least favorite part would probably be when you climb in a really crowded area, and a really serious area, watching people make decisions that make you cringe.… It was crowded in spots.… It was a cattle trail. (Interview 28)

Of those who felt crowded, most indicated that the crowding occurred due to weather delays in particular areas or camps:

  • As soon as the weather broke, you’d have a lot of teams trying to go up, and with that number of people in that area, it can create some major hazards there. (Interview 12)

In addition, during five inter-views mountaineers mentioned queuing and crowding, resulting in safety issues near the steep area where the NPS maintains fixed ropes, known as the fixed-lines:

  • I think when there’s people above you, you’re always at a little more risk, as far as stuff falling, [and] the fixed-lines on the West Buttress is really the only place where I would worry about other people. (Interview 31)

Expectations for experiencing crowding on the West Buttress were also mentioned:

  • You can’t really expect to go on the West Buttress by yourself, so there’s definitely a crowd at times, but nothing outrageous. (Interview 16)
  • It’s pretty crazy seeing all of the crowds up there, but I kind of knew that’s how it would be. (Interview 31)

One climber noted the difference between crowding on the West Buttress and conditions encountered in Chamonix, France:

  • Double that [number of other climbers] and it wouldn’t affect it. It’s not like it’s ever going to become the Chamonix, where you have 1,000 people a week. (Interview 18)

During a few interviews respondents spoke specifically about the West Buttress route and how the exposure to other climbers affected the wilderness experience of their mountaineering expedition:

  • It’s a good experience, but it’s not a wilderness experience … there’s a beaten track even hours after new snow, established campsites all over the place, and just people – it’s very rare that you’re not seeing people. (Interview 18)

However, there was also acceptance of the number of people on the mountain, as it relates to wilderness experience:

  • Here you’re always seeing someone, but I still say its wilderness. You know when you get into a camp there’s gonna be people there, but it’s kind of nice, too. (Interview 28)
  • In many ways, it is a wilderness with people. (Interview 29)

A common topic that was reiterated throughout several of the interviews involved disruptive and inconsiderate behaviors exhibited by climbers and unsafe behaviors that could potentially put other climbers at risk. Respondents mentioned that uncooperative climbers interfered with their climbing experience. One climber said that he noticed:

  • a lack of respect for people up there, trying to share the same experience, [and while it was] little, it was huge up there. (Interview 20)

During six interviews respondents referred to other climbers who inappropriately disposed of waste or behaved in a manner that negatively impacted the mountain environment:

  • There were a couple of caches where people were just being lazy and didn’t dig them deep enough, [and] ravens get ’em or the wind would just tear them up. (Interview 10)

Comments about the clean mountain canisters (CMCs), which DENA requires mountaineers to use to remove their solid waste, were mentioned during eight of the interviews. Respondents noted that given the number of climbers on the mountain, the human waste situation was being managed well through the implementation of the CMCs:

  • The CMCs work better than all the other things, and I’ve seen all the other attempts to try and keep the place clean that failed. They had to get a really simple solution that didn’t require any education. (Interview 25)

After indicating that the use of CMCs should be kept “the way it is,” one respondent said:

  • Given the amount of traffic that the mountain sees, in a relatively short period of time, I think it’s a reasonably clean place. (Interview 1)

Following a discussion about the CMCs, one respondent said:

  • Denali, I think is the cleanest mountain of the Seven Summits. (Interview 8)

While the CMCs were positively received, during three interviews respondents mentioned the negative impacts associated with urine during their expeditions:

  • The only thing I found not so good was the pee holes everywhere … you see it everywhere and if you step in it, it is unenjoyable. (Interview 17)

Shared Access

A shared access theme was observed throughout the interviews. Respondents provided their perspectives regarding the presence and appropriateness of air taxis, flightseeing clients, and visitors landing on glaciers in the DENA wilderness. Several comments from the interviews focused on access and equality for climbers, aircraft operators, and flightseers. The tradeoffs associated with maintaining access by aircraft to the mountain ranges in DENA were a common topic for several respondents:

  • I suppose it’d be kind of nice if [aircraft] weren’t there, that’s the wilderness experience. But I guess if it wasn’t for the sightseers subsidizing, we wouldn’t have any aircraft to go in on ourselves. (Interview 9)
  • I’m pretty cool with the aircraft just in general, just cause it’s like an access thing [because] it’s like, if we couldn’t fly in there, there’d be no way anyone could enjoy it. (Interview 17)

One respondent mentioned that aircraft tourism was one of the big economic drivers for the nearby community of Talkeetna:

  • Honestly, there’s only a few things that happen in Talkeetna … air tourism, climbing, and now some beer-brewing. … But, you know, it’s pretty good. I think it’s at a good level. (Interview 12)

Another respondent noted that the aircraft operators were very respectful and professional, taking as direct an approach as possible to delivering climbers to their given destinations:

  • It’s not like they’re going up there and handing the rangers a bag of power bars like I’ve seen on Aconcagua, dropping somebody off, pick somebody up, constantly. (Interview 14)

During 12 interviews, respondents mentioned aircraft as a means of access to experience McKinley:

  • I think it’s good for the people that cannot be on the mountain itself. It means they can enjoy some spectacular views. (Interview 17)
  • That seems really cool and neat, and again, you can’t take that away from other people wanting that experience. (Interview 20)

After the interviewer asked respondents how aircraft in DENA should be managed, a respondent said:

  • I don’t think they should limit people’s ability to see the mountain and take it in if they want to.
    (Interview 24)

One respondent recalled his experience in the Ruth Glacier area during 2011, when he experienced more aircraft and, in particular, more glacier landing flights:

  • [I would get out of my] tent in the morning, and get up and walk around, and you’re like in this pristine environment, and there’s like 5 airplanes and 30 people milling around. I think it’s important for people to get out and see things, and just kind of accept that that’s the way it is. (Interview 31)

Perceived Safety Through Soundscapes

When asked questions regarding DENA’s South District soundscape, eight respondents mentioned that the sounds they heard provided information and feelings of safety. Salient topics for this theme included reported experiences with sounds from aircraft and other climbers:

  • It’s not that it’s loud or obnoxious, it’s just part of the deal. It’s actually reassuring because you know that they’re flying. So, when you get to camp, you know that you’re going to get a ride out. (Interview 10)
  • It was nice that there was activity, because when we didn’t hear planes, I started thinking maybe the weather in Denali’s bad – so I was kind of paying attention to that. (Interview 30)

Others noted hearing helicopters and associated those sounds with rescue operations that may have been occurring on the mountain, which provided a sense of security:

  • I like that comfort level, just knowing that [a rescue helicopter] is there. (Interview 14)

It was also noted that the sounds associated with helicopters and rescues made other climbers feel as though their permitting fees were being used appropriately:

  • I’m not just throwing my money out there; they actually have services. And whether or not a dollar goes to that cause, I think it’s nice to see and hear. (Interview 20)

For the majority, aircraft were considered to be part of the mountaineering experience in DENA. Many expected the sounds, sights, and subsequent emotions (both positive and negative) from the aircraft they encountered during their expedition:

  • It didn’t really bother me at all … we kind of expected it. (Interview 19)

During a couple of interviews, aspects of wilderness experience were expressed following questions involving aircraft and aircraft-associated sounds:

  • For me it was a very wilderness feeling. Even with the traffic of airplanes coming and going, it still feels like a very wilderness area. (Interview 30)
  • I would say, in general, on the West Buttress, it’s just the popularity and the access that people have through flying. If there were no planes, then definitely it would be wilderness because there wouldn’t be nearly as many people there. (Interview 31)

Figure 3 – Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp view with aircraft landing area. Photo by B. Derrick Taff.


The purpose of this study was to provide DENA managers with information regarding mountaineers’ experiences in the glaciated South District wilderness. This is pertinent given the lack of mountaineering-focused social science generally, and in particular the need for understanding perceptions of the area’s soundscape. Results revealed several salient wilderness experience themes and topical areas that emerged, many extending beyond perceptions of the area’s soundscape, mostly from mountaineers’ experiences on the West Buttress route. With regard to the extremes leading to challenge, self-, and team-reliance theme, topical elements included camaraderie, extreme weather, adventure, risk, and underestimation of the challenges associated with mountaineering in DENA. Whether reaching the summit or safely returning from the expedition, extreme weather, environmental hazards, and risks associated with mountaineering in DENA create an atmosphere that is unique to those who have relied on each other to succeed. In contrast to other types of wilderness, the extremes experienced while mountaineering in DENA provide for a distinct wilderness adventure, where solitude is important, but self- and team-reliance are perhaps most critical. These findings align with previous research suggesting that socialization is often an important component of mountaineering (Burke and Orlick 2003; Kedrowski 2009; Watson et al. 2008). The majority of the respondents in the current study traversed the popular West Buttress route, but despite the number of other climbers they saw on the well-established icy path, the unpredictable and often extreme weather frequently provides for a wilderness-like experience that should not be underestimated.

The existing and future social and managerial conditions theme provides several salient topics: experiences with rangers, crowding, behavior of other climbers, and disposal of human waste. The presence of rangers is extremely important for mountaineers in DENA, particularly on the West Buttress route. A few respondents felt safer when seeing rangers on the mountain, and the presence of rangers signified for some that their permit fees were going to good use. As DENA managers are faced with decisions about allocation of funding and changes in permitting fees, consideration should be given to the staffing of NPS rangers. Respondents in this study noted that rangers had saved lives and improved the DENA mountaineering experience for many climbers.

Perceptions of crowding rep-resent another important topic encompassed within this theme. Respondents suggested that they did not feel overly crowded because they expected the density of other climbers that they experienced. Contrary to previous soundscape research (Pilcher, Newman, and Manning 2009), human-caused sounds, such as voices, were only rarely mentioned as an annoyance and did not impact perceptions of crowding for these respondents. However, the presence of other climbers was frequently cited as a key reason for at least occasionally not having a wilderness experience. Interestingly, respondents suggested that compared to other international mountaineering destinations, including some of the other Seven Summits, DENA’s South District was less crowded and less disrupted by anthropogenic intrusions. Furthermore, many noted that there were numerous other mountaineering locations in the South District where they could experience solitude, should they wish to escape crowded conditions. Most crowding-related comments were specific to certain locations on the West Buttress route, such as the fixed-lines area, where respondents noted feeling dangerously crowded, or on departure from camps after waiting for a weather window. Managers should continue to monitor perceptions of crowding, determining precise locations, such as around the fixed-lines and camps, to inform wilderness experience trends and protect social and resource conditions. Managers must consider whether even slight increases in allotted permits will alter wilder-ness experience conditions within the South District. Furthermore, should crowding persist, climbers that are seeking a more solitude-focused type of wilderness experience may shift use to other areas, potentially creating unforeseen impacts to resource and social conditions in DENA (Hall and Cole 2007).

Respondents also noted the disruptive, disrespectful, and potentially unsafe behaviors exhibited by other climbers. These behaviors were experienced around camps or in the crowded areas along the West Buttress. Disposing of waste improperly and not stashing caches sufficiently were frequently observed problems. Nearly all respondents had extremely positive comments regarding the effectiveness of the CMCs, which were often mentioned as helping to create a relatively pristine mountaineering experience. However, obvious evidence of urination was a common concern, particularly in the camps. Indirect management techniques, such as increasing education about Leave No Trace practices specific for mountaineers, may be an appropriate approach. Prescribed messaging encouraging staggered departures from camps may decrease crowding, increase safety, and result in behaviors that reduce resource impacts (Ward 2005).

The theme of shared access resulted from topics related to mountaineers’ views about air taxis, flightseeing clients, and visitors landing on glaciers in the DENA wilderness. Respondents mentioned the tradeoffs associated with access for climbers, aircraft operators, and flightseers. The majority of respondents indicated that aircraft are a critical means of access for all who wish to experience the glaciated DENA wilderness. Several respondents noted the importance of aircraft users to provide economic support for the local communities, suggesting that income from flights was one of the few economic drivers in the area.

The perceived safety through soundscapes theme represents one of the most salient features related to perceptions of the area’s acoustic environment. A focal area linked to this theme included experiences with the sounds of aircraft. Mountaineers’ perceptions regarding aircraft sounds were generally positive. Respondents suggested that aircraft sounds provide information about the weather (e.g., good weather if they hear aircraft flying; poor weather when no aircraft sounds are audible), which can assist in determining appropriate times to travel. Aircraft sounds also provided a sense of security and safety because the respondents felt that rescue operations could be used, but only if necessary. Despite previous research associating the presence of aircraft sounds in wilderness with annoyance (Fidell et al. 1998; Tarrant, Haas, and Manfredo 1995), most mountaineers indicated that the aircraft conditions they experienced (e.g., sound levels, proximity, and frequency) were appropriate for the environment. Generally, respondents expected the sounds, sights, and emotions associated with the aircraft they encountered during their expeditions. However, it should be reiterated that nearly all respondents were West Buttress route mountaineers who generally expected these soundscape conditions in this relatively popular area. This aligns with previous research suggesting that attitudes and recreational motives affect perception of soundscapes (Marin et al. 2011; Tarrant, Haas, and Manfredo 1995). Finally, while mountaineers may not be highly sensitive to aircraft sounds, research suggests that other wilder-ness user-groups are affected by these intrusions (Miller 1999; Taff et al. 2013; Tarrant, Haas, and Manfredo 1995), and managers should consider encouraging flight paths that minimize impacts to wilderness experience for these users.


DENA management should emphasize to future mountaineers that the South District, and in particular the West Buttress route, is not to be underestimated. Despite perceptions regarding the presence of rangers, rescue aircraft (should weather allow), and reliance on features such as the fixed-lines, the area is still designated wilderness and should be recognized as a place of “primeval character” providing “opportunities for solitude or a primitive unconfined type of recreation” (Wilderness Act, Section 2(c), 1964). While this study indicated that current perceptions might not always be congruent with typical “primeval” characteristics, should managers deem it appropriate, they could attempt to alter perceptions through messaging, to align more with wilderness management objectives (Taff et al. 2013). Furthermore, the importance of both self- and team-reliance, a salient topic that emerged from this study, should be highlighted in order to ensure that the South District maintains these characteristics. Finally, use of increased indirect management, such as Leave No Trace–based educational strategies specific for mountaineers, could be applied to alleviate some of the additional social and resource impacts (e.g., disrespectful behaviors, urine throughout camps) related to the mountaineers’ experiences and themes that emerged from this study.


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B. DERRICK TAFF is an assistant professor in the Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management Department, Pennsylvania State University, 701H Donald H. Ford Building, University Park, PA 16803, USA; email:


DAVID WEINZIMMER completed his master’s in human dimensions of natural resources at Colorado State University, and now works in the outdoor recreation industry in Salida, CO.


PETER NEWMAN is a department head and professor in the Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management Department at Pennsylvania State University.