Records aren't complete, but most say climbing guide's feat is unsurpassed.
Vern Tejas logged his 50th summit of Mount McKinley this summer, prompting an obvious question: Does that make him the ruler of North America’s highest roost?
Not so apparent is the answer.
Officials with the National Park Service don’t know if anyone has been to the top of McKinley more often than Tejas, because they didn’t begin tracking summits until 1995. They think Tejas, who boasts numerous claims to fame gained in the Alaska Range and beyond, probably owns the record for the most McKinley summits.
“In terms of everyone’s impression here, we’re confident Vern has the most summits,” said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Talkeetna. “We have no way of verifying (it), but we have no reason not to believe it.”
Most Read Life Stories
- Beyond meat — how to grill almost anything, because why not?
- Meat matters — our food writers taste test 3 grilling kits from Seattle-area restaurants
- The Seattle-area pop-up scene is hoppin'! Here are 3 more fun ones to try
- Rant and Rave: Reader not a fan of fake crowd noise
- Pectin in grape juice stopped nighttime bathroom trips
But check with Dave Staeheli and Scott Woolums to be sure, McLaughlin and Denali mountain ranger Roger Robinson said. Both are longtime guides on the 20,320-foot mountain and both have reached the summit dozens of times.
Staeheli, 56, was off on a dipnetting trip and couldn’t be reached. But Mountain Trip, the Colorado mountaineering company he works for, said Staeheli doesn’t know anyway.
“I just talked to Dave Staeheli about that and he said he stopped counting somewhere after 20 summits many years ago,” Mountain Trip owner Bill Allen said in an email. “He decided that he didn’t want his decisions as a guide on Denali to be driven by getting his personal summit count up.”
Woolums, 53, recently returned to his home in Oregon after scaling Mount Everest for the sixth time as a guide for Adventures International. He said he thinks he has 31 or 32 summits of McKinley, where he worked as a guide from 1980 to 2009. He’s nowhere close to 50 summits.
“That’s a lot,” he said in a phone interview. “Are you sure that’s summits, not expeditions?”
It’s summits, according to Tejas, a guide for Alpine Ascents who last week was headed to an expedition on Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
Tejas, 58, said his first two McKinley summits came in 1978, one as a client and one as a guide. An impressive — but not unprecedented — four summits came in 1988, when Tejas became the first person to complete a solo climb of the mountain in the winter. No. 50 came June 30, when he was the guide of an eight-person team that made it to the summit.
“Mt. Vinson in Antarctica would be my next most climbed mountain, however it’s not even close to Denali at a mere 27 summits,” Tejas wrote in an email from St. Petersburg.
Robinson, the park service ranger, is an unofficial Denali historian who likes to keep track of who’s been to the summit the most. But it isn’t an easy task, he said.
“I know most of these folks keep it pretty close — they don’t like to let you know, and Vern hasn’t wanted to let us know,” he said.
For many years, Ray Genet — the Swiss climber who all but invented guiding on Denali — had the most summits. Genet, who froze to death while descending Everest in 1979, earned a spot in Alaska history in 1967 when he was part of a three-man team that was the first to reach McKinley’s summit in winter.
“Ray Genet had the record for a long time,” Robinson said. “I went through (records) and counted and I came up with 26 summits, and he was only guiding here for 10 years — not very long. Some of these other guys have been here 30 years.”
Talkeetna’s Brian Okonek guided on McKinley from 1979 to 2000 and estimates he made it to the summit 25 times. He thinks 50 summits is an impressive feat for a couple reasons.
“Just the fact that his body has held up that long, because that’s not the only summit he’s been up,” Okonek said. “It’s remarkable not only that Vern has summited that many times, but that he’s guided so many times.”
Guiding is more demanding than climbing without clients, Okonek said, because a guide climbs at a client’s pace rather than his own and spends more time working with other people and managing risk than if he wasn’t climbing with clients.
What’s more, McKinley’s climbing season only lasts about two months and most climbs take several days.
In 1988, Tejas made it to the top of McKinley four times, an achievement that began in March when he became the first person to make a successful solo winter ascent of the mountain. “My endless winter,” Tejas calls it.
Woolums said he once recorded four summits in a single year too.
“I did an April trip and another trip and then I did the Cassin Ridge kind of just for fun and I did it really quick — three and a half days. Then I made one more trip toward the end of the season,” he said. Between two of the climbs, Woolums said, he dropped to 8,000 feet rather than returning to the 7,200-foot base camp at Kahiltna Glacier.
Woolums doesn’t guide on McKinley anymore, choosing instead to spend his time on Everest and on his latest pursuit — climbing the highest volcanic summit on each of the seven continents.
Tejas also continues to pursue adventures outside Alaska, but nothing inspires him like McKinley.
“Denali is the most beautiful mountain in the world,” he wrote, “and I want to climb it as long as I can — 65 summits when I am 65 sounds great to me. A nice round number.”