Denali (Mount McKinley) – the great one – the highest peak in North America
I love and hate Denali, but more hate. It’s a brutal peak nestled in the Alaskan Range. I’ve had 3 expeditions (1 guided and 2 that I led) over the past 6 years and it’s my final summit of the 7 summits. At 20,320′ I’ve already summited 3 other peaks higher – Everest, Island Peak and Aconcagua, however Denali’s unpredictable weather has prevented me from standing on top. As a goal oriented person I tend to be full in on driving toward my accomplishments but with experience and respect for the mountains I’ve come to learn that it’s not alway about the summit. There’s a lot more in life than just standing on top of a mountain, but even falling short is better than not falling at all. Adventure is vital to our existence.
A couple weeks ago my buddy, Jason, and I flew to Anchorage and drove to Talkeetna to make another attempt (his first) on Denali (McKinley). We trained hard throughout the year with 70lb+ packs regularly scaling the local Cascade peaks in our backyard. With any expedition you go in fully prepared with a plan and high expectations that the mountain will cooperate with favorable conditions. Not the case with Denali, which has a small climbing season each May / June. This May the mountain saw several teams but sent them all home with their dreams crushed. Zero summits until the very last days of May.
On May 28th Jason and I efficiently made our way through a series of camps to reach 14,000′ (camp 4) in 4 days. This is almost 15 miles carrying 50lbs in a pack and 50lbs+ in a sled at altitude. We cached some gear (food / fuel / sleds / snowshoes) at the 11k camp and did a full carry (75lbs+) up to camp 4 (14k). We then rested a day, climbing to the top of the fixed lines at 16.5k the following day. After that we felt fully acclimated to make a move to high camp and a summit attempt. It was great meeting up with familiar faces from around the world (Chile, Antarctica, Himalaya, etc.), plus the Disabled Veterans group and some Polish climbers. However our plan was quickly shutdown with a storm hitting the mountain, pinning us down at 14k for almost a week with 2-3′ of snow dumping per day, moderate winds, -25f temps and zero visibility.
On an expedition like Denali you plan out your days with food and fuel rations. This includes what you need up at particular camps in case weather forces you to stay longer than expected. We planned for 21 days on the mountain so we were fine for the time being. However you have to plan for weather down at basecamp as well in case planes can’t come to get you. During the time we were stuck up higher there were 70 people stuck at basecamp for 5 days waiting for a flight off the Kahiltna Glacier. After 9 days on the mountain, majority spent confined to our tent at 14k, we had a 1 day ‘break’ in the weather. We spoke to other groups in camp. All from 17k (high camp) were descending without a summit attempt and the majority at 14k were gonna head out later or hunker down (conservative approach). A few said they were going to move higher in hopes for a wishful summit attempt. Jason and I discussed all scenarios and in the end decided it was better to make a break for basecamp rather than getting stuck higher for another week. It’s a tough decision to make after we’d put so much into the climb and were so close to standing on top, but since our satellite phone stopped working 3 days prior we felt that it was also important to get back to our worried families. The mountain would be here in the future if we decided to give it another shot in the future.
We packed up and headed down below the cloud layer from 14k to 11k. With the fresh snow fall we were moving quickly and attentively to avoid potential avalanches, which we heard a few kick off earlier. Then 40 mins into the descent a whiteout cloud cover hit us without warning. Visibility went from 100% to zero right after the area called Windy Corner. I slowed us down and used my Cascade Mountain Tech trekking poles as a probe to check for hidden crevasses as I looked for wands (trail markers placed by GPS coordinates from NPS members). My pole punched through the glacier with nothing below it and I paused to call out ‘crevasse’. I slowly crept sideways and forward until a small wand came into view. At that point above me I heard Jason yell as he partially punched through a hidden crevasse, but quickly removed himself from the danger. A few yards more he punched through another one. With each one I stabilized myself down the hill to ensure I had leverage to stop a serious fall. I was completely blinded by the whiteout at this point and was in constant prayer to help gain guidance to the next wand. I came down an area called Squirrel Hill and heard an unusually calming yell from Jason. I looked back and all I could see was his head. I got down on the ground and quickly placed a picket into the snow and anchored the rope to prevent him slipping deeper into the crevasse. He stepped right through a bergshrund (area of glacier that separates from the mountain) and was hanging by the rope with 100’s of feet of exposure beneath him. He said he didn’t mess his drawers but I wouldn’t blame him if he had. He was able to take his pack off and climb out. I used a prussik to bring him in closer to ensure he was ok and then talk about the situation. We were blind moving down to 11k with winds picking up. We needed to maintain our course and slowly, carefully make our way down the mountain. I let him know that if it got too bad we could dig a snow cave or anchor the tent down with ice screws in certain areas (I had done this in the same area in 2012 due to different circumstances).
We moved in constant prayer and then out of nowhere I saw 2 skis crossed in the middle of the trail. I moved toward them then a light seemed to shine down directly overhead guiding a path for us. One wand appeared at a time as we slowly moved forward. Then the area opened up as we reached the other side of the snow field. At this section the winds kicked up to 60mph+. The ice we stepped on was bulletproof. One slip could have been tragic. Then without warning my right crampon popped off. They were super tight so this came without warning, but it made me pause to put it back on and assess the situation. The only time this had ever happened before was when I was descending Everest blind down the South Rock Step when I took a fall and the fixed line shock loaded and saved me. As I put the crampon back on a sense of fear came over me. I looked forward at the hurricane force winds and signaled Jason to reverse out of there. We hunkered behind a crevasse berm and waited for the winds to die down a bit. I could tell he was getting exhausted but I told him he needed to dig deep and move when I was moving. We could rest at 11k in our tent. After 20 mins there was a small lull in the winds and I said let’s go. We moved quickly but with deliberate steps as to not trip and pull the other off the side of the mountain (1000’s of feet of exposure…certain death). We made it down to the platform above our final obstacle before camp 3, which was Motorcycle Hill. It is plastered with crevasses and overhanging snow / ice called cornices, which broke loose in an avalanche and killed 4 Japanese climbers in 2012 (they still remain in the crevasses). We rested for a few minutes and switch to ice axes, which made stability worse because of the heavy packs but would give us a better chance of stopping a fall with self arresting on the axe. We got up and moved, anticipating the high wind gusts and leaning into them then moving with any lull. We made it up and over the top and descended down, avoiding crevasses but encountering waste deep snow. It took us an hour to get down through the snow, which would normally take 15 minutes. As we reached camp an Austrian climber approached us with hot drinks. The entire camp had been watching us descend and congratulated us on making it through the unexpected storm (unexpected at lower altitudes). It just goes to show how fast things can change on the mountain and how you have to be prepared to stay calm and react at any moment.
A super nice Swiss couple helped us dig out and build a camp for the night. We also found our cache from a week earlier and dug it up for our descent. At 3am the next morning we woke up and packed for our 10 mile descent to basecamp. It was snowing 3′ a night and we took turns post holing through waste deep snow with 100lbs+. It took over 10 hours to get to basecamp, with one of the most brutal descents I’ve experienced. Several other groups followed hours later and thanked us for creating a trail for them. I guess someone had to do it.
In mountaineering there’s so much more than just reaching the summit. Obviously you need a goal, which is the summit, but the ultimate goal is getting home safely. I continue to learn so much about the mountains and myself. Through my years of experiences I’ve put less and less importance on the summit and more on the adventure itself. Denali continues to elude me, but that’s ok. There’s plenty of other mountains out there and maybe some day I’ll head back. For now I’m at peace with coming within 1000′ of the top.
“A song of ascents. I lift up my eyes to the mountains– where does my help come from?” Psalm 121:1