Our journey began with a simple text message. "Want to climb Denali?" I received this message from my long-time climbing partner Clayton Matthews. I had just lost my job as an electrician and was training for an ultra marathon, so I had all the time in the world and was also in great physical shape. Obviously I said yes. With only one month to prepare, I had a lot of work to do, including meeting the third member of our group. I met Brent Seal at a coffee shop on a sunny afternoon. Brent seemed like a great guy with an impressive climbing resume and we had a lot in common. I was excited to get to know him more and confident we'd get along just fine.
With our bags packed and passports in hand, we were off to Alaska. Denali stands 20,310'. It's the highest summit in North America, with more elevation gain than Mt Everest. Early in my climbing career I always dreamed of climbing Denali but thought it was reserved for elite climbers. However, I soon learned that 80% of Denali climbers are inexperienced and go up with a guide. They pay up to $10,000 to have their meals cooked, water boiled and be escorted to the top. Given our experience, we felt taking this mountain on by ourselves was definitely within our skill set.
After all our packing, preparation and our shuttle breaking down, we finally made it to Talkeetna. Talkeetna is a small town two hours north of Anchorage. It's the last stop before taking off on a 45 minute flight that takes you through the Alaska mountain range and drops you off on the glacier at the starting point of the climb.
One thing that is different about climbing in Alaska versus the Himalaya is that you don't have sherpas or yaks carrying food and equipment for you. Each of us had to drag 100 pounds of our own gear and supplies by sled. Pulling these sleds day in and day out was exhausting.
The logistics of big mountain climbing are complicated. The rule is "climb high and sleep low". If you gain too much elevation too fast you can and will most likely develop altitude sickness known as pulmonary edema or cerebral edema.
So with that in mind, setting up a "cache and grab" system is ideal. Climb high (approximately 3000' elevation gain), bury some of your supplies in the snow, then make your way back down to your camp to recover. This way you experience the thinning air at higher elevations and slowly adapt. We do this several times in order to acclimatize.
There are five main camps you must reach in order to successfully climb Denali. There is the Kahiltna base camp @ 7,200', Camp 1 @ 7,800', Camp 2 @ 11,200', Camp 3 (advance base camp) @14,200' and Camp 4 @ 17,200'.
While ascending the mountain we met a lot of climbers making their way down. Some had summited and some had to turn around. One group of climbers told us they were trapped at 14,200' for 14 days due to bad weather. This made us nervous considering we wouldn't have enough food to last that long and still summit.
Denali is known for its intense and unpredictable weather. Reports were coming in from the summit of temperatures as low as -40C and 60-100km winds.
After Camp 3 is where the real climbing actually begins. The first objective is the the fixed lines. It's a 2000' wall protected by lines that have been fixed by some of the guiding outfits on the mountain. Going up is an incredibly slow process, as you are only as fast as the slowest climber on the ropes.
Once above the fixed lines you get on the West Buttress and have to follow an exposed ridge line to make your way to Camp 4 @ 17,200'. The whole route needs to be protected with anchors because one wrong move here means game over.
After a six-hour day we arrived at Camp 4 @ 17,200'. This is one miserable place. It is incredibly windy and extremely cold. My thermometer was completely buried at -35C. The air is so thin up here that a simple task like going to the bathroom is a great deal of work. But the views are superb.
With the forecast looking great, we decided make an attempt for the summit. The first objective was the Autobahn, an exposed traverse where most of the avalanche accidents happen, so moving quickly through this section is a must.
After the Autobahn you cross Denali Pass and the Football Field, then on to the base of Pig Hill. This is where the weather progressively got worse. The wind picked up and clouds rolled in. Many groups decided to turn around at this point and I though we might too. But my climbing partners were determined to keep going.
Once reaching the top of Pig Hill we knew we were getting close, but seemed to have lost our way. Being in a complete whiteout, we had no idea if we were on track or heading for a steep cliff. I though for sure we would have turned around at this point, but again my partners were determined to keep going. Clayton had a GPS with him and figured out that we needed to zig where we zagged. We finally found the right path, and after 14 days of climbing, on June 10, 2016, we summited the highest peak in North America.
After spending 20 minutes on the summit, I was excited to get down and celebrate. But the summit is only halfway, and most accidents happen on the way down.
After two long days we made it off the mountain and back to Talkeetna. I had lost nearly 15 lbs, hadn't showered in 16 days and had a wind-burned face. But I couldn't have been happier.