Climbing Mount McKinley: The Program
The program was developed by an SCA intern a few years ago. It included a simulation of climbing Mount McKinley. One of the interpretation coaches wrote up her program into a “template” so that it could be presented by other interpreters after she left. The template was further developed last year by another SCA intern and a seasonal interpretation ranger. Together they developed the climb simulation into an actual game. Coming into this position with no interpretation experience, this template was a valuable tool for getting started!
When I know the program I am talking about, when my audience is interested, and when I have a bit of control over the direction of the program, I feel confident.
I studied the template script during training by reading through it a few times. Then when I arrived in Talkeetna, I went to see Jay and Bob, the two interpreters in Talkeetna who present the program. I used a few of their tricks and jokes for my program.
I read books about the historical climbers on Mount McKinley – “To the Top of Denali” by Bill Sherwonit, the climbing booklet we require climbers to read before climbing Mount McKinley, “Mountaineering in Denali National Park and Preserve,” Colby Coomb’s “Denali’s West Buttress,” and also “Denali Climbing Guide” by R.J. Secor.
After going to base camp and learning about crevasse rescue, I felt prepared with a first-hand taste of what mountaineering on Denali is like. I rewrote the script so it flowed how I liked and also so I could learn and remember the details about Mount McKinley’s history about climbing the West Buttress Route.
While presenting my first program, I was scared and shaky. Luckily, the small audience was there to have fun and enjoyed the game. It felt good to see the audience stick around to read more about the mountain and its historical climbers. Even after researching and rewriting parts of the script, I had a hard time remembering some of the facts, so I continued to refer to note cards for many following programs.
After presenting the program twice a day three days in a row, I have become comfortable presenting it and also have memorized the script, presenting without note cards.
However, the program is a constant work in action. I discovered new facts while reading more climbing books and added those to the program. Bob and I talked about printing pictures of the camps on the mountain to post in the museum to give visitors a better idea of what it’s like up there. I printed off pictures for each step in the game and have been able to incorporate them nicely into the program. The visitors responded well to the pictures, with more of them sticking around after the program to read about the history of climbing and to ask me questions. Their look of amazement of the mountain views is also a sign that the pictures add to the program.
NPS Photos on Mount McKinley’s West Buttress Route
The challenging topic of death
In the game when teams draw for the descent, there is a card that says, “you may not make it back from Mount McKinley.“ Bob, Jay, and I refer to this as the “death card.”
This card draws on a real-life situation for climbers on Mount McKinley that a few climbers die each year. This card is meant to give visitors an idea of the dangers and risks of climbing Mount McKinley. However, when visitors draw this card, I can see their spirits sink-no one likes to deal with death. It also seems to give visitors the idea that a lot of people die on Mount McKinley, when in fact, only a couple die each year out of 1,200 climbers who attempt.
Conflicted between making the program realistic and comforting the participants I wonder, is it fair that they should “die” in the climbing game when they didn’t know what they were getting into beforehand? Do I let them feel disappointment to better understand the disappointments of death on the mountain? Or do I comfort them by reassuring their successful rescue but lose possible realistic effects of the game? It is hard to tell whether they benefit more from the realistic scenario of disappointment than they would if I were to reassure them.
My coworker, Jay Katzen, knows how to be gentle with words. Feeling conflicted over communicating the hard truth to hopeful visitors, I asked Jay for some advice about how he handles the “death card”. Jay reassures participants that they were successfully rescued. Following Jays lead, I simulated a helicopter rescue, and the participants left the program looking happier.
Death sticks in visitors minds stronger than the reasons why climbers climb in the first place – to overcome great challenges. Because this card overshadows the rest of the game, I plan to continue to “rescue” visitors who draw the “death card”.
Clean Mountain Can
NPS/Kent Miller Roger Robinson Ranger Roger Robinson addresses CMC use during a climber briefing.
Talking about the clean mountain can (CMC) makes some visitors feel uncomfortable and others curious. The CMC is a solid human waste container to keep the mountain clean and also to prevent climbers from getting contaminated snow for drinking water. The nature of the can makes it difficult to thoroughly explain while not overemphasizing it. This is why during one presentation when I got three questions about the CMC, it was especially awkward for some and comical for others. However, Roger Robinson, the ranger who invented and helped design the CMC for Denali, got a good laugh out of the questions when I shared them with him, and we are still trying to figure out the answer to the question, “what do climbers do when the CMC is full?”
Keeping the program alive
After presenting the mountain program every day, and often twice a day, I have memorized the script, and it has become monotonous. So, when a few interpreters have offered feedback for developing the program and how I present it, I gladly took their feedback and challenges put forth.
One of the interpretation rangers recommended that I give visitors the option to play or not play the game in order to make everyone feel comfortable. I knew that some visitors didn’t want to play the game from their apprehension to joining a team and holding onto the rope. But by the end of the game, it seemed like all players were having a good time, and got something out of it. I tried giving visitors an option by saying, “if you all want, we can play a game where we attempt to climb Mount McKinley.” The visitors all sort of stared at me blankly or tried to avoid eye-contact, it was obvious that no one wanted to play the game. I had never not played the game with visitors, and I never predicted that no one would want to play, so I didn’t know what to do next. We all stood there awkwardly for a few moments. I suggested going through the game and not playing it, saying that I could show them pictures of the route. Slowly, they wandered out of the museum, and I was left surrounded by the unused game cards, pictures, and route poster. I felt frustrated because I knew that if I had not offered the option of playing the game, the visitors would have had a great time and learned a lot.
I remembered that during the review, the interpreter suggested that I give visitors the option of either playing the game or standing and observing. After giving visitors these two options, the whole audience stuck around to either play the game or to stand and watch. I felt good about retaining the whole audience because everyone was able to learn from the game at their own comfortable distance.