May 29, 2009 Kodiak doctor scales another peak Mount McKinley
by Bradley Zint, Kodiak Daily Mirror
KODIAK A Kodiak physician climbed Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak at 20,310 feet, earlier this month on a guided trip with the Talkeetna-based Alaska Mountaineering School.
Dr. Shawn Vainio, who works at Kodiak Island Medical Associates clinic and in the emergency room at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, has been an on-and-off resident of Kodiak since September 2006. He studied at Niagara University and completed medical school at SUNY Buffalo. But the Byron, N.Y., native is no stranger to cold weather after growing up in America's snowbelt and working for seven months in the coldest region of them all: Antarctica. Furthermore, the experienced climber, before attempting Alaska's most famous peak, had already conquered some summits in the Western Rockies, Great Smoky Mountains, Adirondacks and a few 21,000-foot peaks in the Himalayas. Conquering McKinley was something Vainio wanted to do ever since coming north, he said. It also was his hardest climb so far.
"(But) I loved every minute of it," Vainio said. "It's just what I enjoy. I enjoy being in the mountains. It was just a really cool experience."
He left in late April for Talkeetna, home port for many Denali hiking attempts. From there the doctor flew up to the bottom base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier, elevation 7,200 feet and 15 miles to the summit. From there Vainio's team of seven with four of whom who would eventually summit Denali started climbing to the top, taking the popular West Buttress route.
Vainio's group was one of the earlier groups to attempt Denali this season, which meant they had to pave a way through the snow before others had done so.
"When the trail's set, it's like walking on pavement," he said. "(Otherwise) you're sinking in. It's a lot more work."
From the base camp at 7,200 feet, the group next went to 7,800 feet, then 11,200 feet, on a glacier. The team roped together in case someone fell into a crevasse.
From 11,200 to 14,200 feet is the first staging zone to make an attack on the final summit, Vainio said. At 14,200, the path becomes a headwall with fixed ropes provided by the National Park Service for climbers to use.
"It's on blue ice. It's old, old compressed ice that's been up there for thousands of years," he said. "If you take the wrong step and you're not roped up, you're going for a real ride. It's a 2,000-foot fall and you're dead."
But it was at this point Alaska weather showed its ugly side: Vainio's group became stranded and stayed put for seven days, with 60 to 80 mph winds and no visibility.
So what does a Denali climber do to pass the time in the cold?
"I stayed in the tent and stayed warm," Vainio said with a laugh. "I studied Hindi while I was there, because I'm going to India to do another trip to the Himalayas."
He reached the top of the North American world on May 16.
Vainio said the view was pretty good. Unusually so, actually.
"My guide [Melis Coady], who was on her 11th time on the mountain, said it was the most beautiful summit she's ever had; you could see as far as the eyes could see," he said.
Bradley Zint, Kodiak Daily Mirror
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