Facts and Figures (courtesy of 7Summits.com).
Original name: Denali (The High One) is the Native (Athabascan) American word for North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley in the mountain chain called the Alaska Range. Denali was renamed Mount McKinley for William McKinley, a nominee for president, by the Princeton graduate and gold prospector, William Dickey. In 1980, the name Mount McKinley National Park was officially changed to Denali National Park and Preserve. The State of Alaska Board of Geographic Names has also officially changed the mountain’s name back to Denali.
Height: 6194 meters or 20,320 feet. The difference in the barometric pressure at northern latitudes affects acclimatization on Denali and other high arctic mountains. Denali’s latitude is 63° while the latitude of Everest is 27°. On a typical summit day in May, the Denali climber will be at the equivalent of 22,000′ (6900M) when compared to climbing in the Himalayas in May.
Location: 63° 07′ N, 151° 01′ W
.Mount Denali has a “rocky” history, the mountain being used for political purposes. According to wikipedia, Denali was originally known as Mount McKinley, on behalf of William McKinley, a Republican president of the USA in the late 1800’s. The first climb was completed in 1910 by the Sourdough party.
At the time, the North Peak was higher. When they reached the top of the North Peak, they discovered the South Peak was in fact the higher of the two. According to wikipedia, the first ascent of the main summit of Denali came on June 7, 1913, by a group led by Hudson Stuck. The first man in that group to reach the summit was Walter Harper, an Alaskan Native.
The mountain is very popular today, with many expedition teams attempting to climb it. However, only 50% of the teams make it to the top. It is one of the more dangerous mountains, having claimed 100 lives since 2003. Most mountaineers take the West Buttress route, one of easier routes up the mountain.
Having attempted Aconcagua twice and been turned back both times due to weather, I had the feeling that Denali would not be a simple smooth summit. It turned out that we were dealt one obstacle after another in this expedition. I was holding my breath waiting for the next monster all the way, until the moment I finally stood on the summit.
The season started with unusually bad weather. There were very few summit windows during the month of May, and the expeditions before mine lived through 19 straight days of storm. Moving up to or surviving at high camp under these conditions was already an achievement. This revived my memory of my second trip to Aconcagua, when El Niño dramatically changed the weather pattern in the region making summit windows so rare and brief that we couldn’t even make an attempt. Reading the blog from those earlier expeditions, my heart felt their pain, and I was praying for better weather for them and for myself everyday.
My expedition started with 3 days of agonizing waiting at Talkeetna airport. The only approach to Denali’s base camp is via air. Talkeetna, a small town to the south of the Denali National Park, serves as the airbase. We were scheduled to fly into base camp on June 11th and start the long hike the next day.
However, layers of thick clouds covered the entire sky when we arrived at Talkeetna. Even though we could sometimes see patches of blue sky from the airport, the base camp on the glacier was still shrouded in fog, and the small plane required visual contact to land and take off there. Because the cloud pattern can change in a short time when the wind picks up, the landing window can suddenly open and then close in a few minutes. We had to be on stand by at the airport. Several times, we loaded our gear onto the airplane and were ready to take off, then were dealt the disappointing news, no flight. Having stared at the cloudy sky for three days, my team finally all flew in on the morning of June 14th.
It was an exciting moment when I took my first steps towards Camp 1 in beautiful weather. The sky was so blue, the world of snow and ice was so pure, and every turn on the trail revealed another breathtaking view of the beautiful glacier. The movement of the clouds constantly changed the lights and shadows on the mountains. Every time I looked up, I found the scenery prettier than before and couldn’t help taking another picture. Even my heavily loaded red sled looked so cute despite being so naughty – it kept on pulling me from behind or from the side when I was going up the hill, and then it couldn’t help trying to run over me on the downhill. My heart was flying with the blue sky and white snow, and I hoped that our trip would be a blessed one.
The trip from Base Camp (7,000 ft) to Camp 1 (7,800 ft) is a long but gentle slope around Kahiltna Pass. Since the elevation gain is very small, we made it a single carry trip, i.e. we carried the full load to Camp 1 in one trip. Then the slope started to get steeper and steeper on the way to Camp 2 (11,000 ft) and Camp 3 (14,200 ft), at which point the 3,000 ft elevation gain is significant enough to warrant a double carry strategy. On the first day, we carried up the first half and buried it in the snow, then went back down to sleep at the lower camp; then we moved up to the higher camp up with the rest of the load on the second day. This strategy follows the “climb high, sleep low” principle to allow better acclimatization to the high altitude.
While we enjoyed great weather during the first week of our hike, we were faced with a serious health concern. One of our team members, Stefan, had been sick with a cold since before we arrived on the glacier. The hard work of glacier travel was not helping him at all. By the time we arrived at Camp 2 (11,000 ft), he developed fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. Though he finally started to recover after extended rest days at Camp 2 and Camp 3 (14,200 ft), half of the team caught the cold before we were to move on to High Camp (17,200 ft). I had a brief fight with a light cold for three days and was lucky to be spared any serious symptoms except for a cough. Denali is rated as one of the most difficult of the seven summits, and I knew I was barely strong enough to do it under perfect conditions. Needless to say, catching a cold at high altitude is a serious weakening factor. I was quite upset and worried about how I would perform on the summit day.
Our original plan allowed at least 7 days waiting at High Camp in case the weather was bad. However, with the delay of our flight and the extended rest days at Camp 2 and Camp 3 due to health concerns and weather, by the time we finally got the opportunity to move up to High Camp, it was already June 26, and we only had 3 days left before we had to descend.
The climb to High Camp was an exciting one, but also the most difficult of the whole trip. The trail starts on a steep slope that leads to the head wall, where there are fixed ropes put up by rangers to protect climbers from falling. As an ice climber, I found it very fun to climb up the fixed line, one hand holding on to the ice axe, the other hand sliding the ascender along the rope. Once we topped out of the fixed line at 16,100 ft, we got on a sharp rocky ridge that rose 1000ft to the plateau where High Camp is situated. Here we picked up the cache we brought up on the previous day and carried the full load for the rest of trip. Though it’s only another couple hours’ walk from here to High Camp, the heavy load on a steep and narrow ridge made this section the hardest part of the whole trip and the second most dangerous section after the summit trip. We had to carefully place our crampons on sometimes thinly covered rock. A misstep or a sudden gale could send you down the cliff. A day earlier when we carried our cache up the fixed line, an Alpine Ascents group was pinned down on this ridge on their descent from High Camp because of dangerous wind, and was forced into bivying in the middle of the ridge under Washburn Thumbs (a famous landmark of protruding rock). This section would only take half an hour on a normal descent.
It took us nearly 9 hours before we finally hauled the load into High Camp. We were all very exhausted, but there was no time to rest yet. It was getting late, the wind was picking up, and the temperature was dropping fast. We still had to work hard to dig up the tent site and set up the tents within a surrounding snow wall that would shield us from high wind. On Denali, we did a lot of shovel work, but luckily, we were often able to reuse the snow walls built by previous expeditions. By the time we could take a break for dinner, it was already 10pm, and we were still melting snow for drinking water until midnight. It was a big relief that we were finally positioned in High Camp. Now we just needed to be blessed with a summit window.
June 29th was the last day we could stay at high camp. We would wake up, and then either go for the summit or descend for home. I still vividly remembered every hour of the last morning at high camp on Aconcagua months before. It was also the second and the last possible summit day for us. We woke up 4:30am and got ready for summit bid, but the wind was still blowing outside the tent and we had to wait and watch the weather development. As hours passed by, the weather deteriorated, and we had to pack up in a hurry to descend before being caught in the coming storm.
I was excited and nervous during the night, and kept wondering what my fate might be the next morning. That was the only night that I had trouble falling asleep.
We woke up to a clear sky and some breeze, much the same as the day before. Another marginal day. Though it was not the miraculously nice day that I had dreamed of, I was not too disappointed – at least it meant we could give it another try. As expected, Dave announced, “Let’s give it another try. Same drill as yesterday.”
At 9am, we set off again. Several other teams were also busy preparing to go, but we were the first. Shortly into the hike, I started to feel the toll of the first attempt the day before – my legs didn’t feel as fresh as they did yesterday. I calmed myself by comparing the summit push to a marathon – it’s ok, the first 10 miles are only a warm up. Because there was quite a bit of fresh snow on the slope, mostly blown down by wind, our footprints from the day before were all well covered, and we had to break the trail again. I was right behind the lead guide Dave, who often needed to stop to dig into the snow to place new pickets for running belay, so I took each opportunity to rest to keep myself as fresh as I could.
Having gotten to know the way on the Autobahn the day before, I felt more relaxed the second time. The wind was actually weaker than the day before, and my hope for a nice summit day was getting higher as we got higher. Soon, we were on the last steep section, and I knew that we would ease into Denali Pass in another half hour. Suddenly, I was hauled to a hard stop by the rope jerking from behind me. I yelled back to Tom, who was 15 yards behind me, “What?”
“Stefan is tired.” I looked back. Stefan, another 15 yards behind Tom, was lying on his backpack by the trail. I was not very surprised as he had been sick since the beginning and often needed extra breaks. But it seemed that minutes passed by, and he was still in the same position. Zach, one of our assistant guides leading the rope behind us, was now at Stefan’s side. I heard voices over Dave’s radio, and saw a water bottle rolling down the slope from where Stefan was resting. “Stefan passed out!” Dave immediately started to walk back towards Stefan while he continued talking into the radio, now with the rangers.
Stefan woke up shortly, and then started to vomit. But he had also lost his vision and coordination, additional symptoms of cerebral edema, so Zach gave him an emergency injection of Dexamethasone. Stefan was stabilized, but the guides still had to decide the best way to evacuate him.
At that moment, the whole slope came to a halt. There were many teams behind us, an RMI team of 10+, a Japanese team of 8, and some others, and they now all patiently stopped in place. RMI guide Peter Johnson, who was leading behind us, also came up to help. Safety was the first thing on a guide’s mind, and the priority was to safely evacuate Stefan. To prevent other mishaps at this stressful moment, Dave decided to have the whole team go back to camp while the guides evacuated Stefan.
While we were on our way down, a few rope teams of rangers, one of them carrying a stretcher, came up the slope. But when we looked back, Stefan was already standing and walking down on his own with strong steps. This became the mystery of the epic. The paramedics later believed he did not have cerebral edema, and he was able to descend on his own power all the way to Base Camp.
Back at camp, relieved that Stefan was now safe, we couldn’t accept the idea of giving up the summit attempt so easily though we were already tired. Looking up the summit range, the wind was dying down, and the day was turning into a perfect summit day. Even some teams that were not planning to summit that day were packing up for their attempt.
A Well Earned Summit
At 2:30pm, after a couple hours’ rest, we set off again. It was an unusually late departure, but this is Alaska in mid summer with 24 hours of daylight. Although we were all tired after the morning’s drill, we were all in high spirits.
I always believe the Chinese saying “you zhi zhe shi jing cheng”, meaning, if you set your heart and work hard for it, you will succeed. I had worked so hard during the whole trip, hauling the 80-100 lb load from 7,000 ft all the way to 17,200 ft and digging the camp at end of each exhausting hike. I was feeling so strong all the way that I was very confident that I could make the summit giving me the opportunity. Despite one setback after another on summit attempts, I still kept my faith and knew that I would never give up unless the situation became unsafe. In my heart, I truly believed that I deserved this summit. With this belief, I started the first 10 miles of the marathon again.
Since it was mid afternoon, it was really warm on the Autobahn, and the wind was mild. However, when we got close to Denali Pass, the wind picked up again. Oh, no! I yelled in my heart. Sometimes, when you want something so much, there would be one obstacle after another trying to keep you away, as if your goal was guarded by a monster. Though I believed that I deserved this summit, I knew there would be many tests ahead.
We ran into several climbers who were descending saying that it was so cold up there that they had to turn around. Wind at Denali Pass was so relentless that it was hard to stop for a break there. I feared the same verdict as the first attempt, but I had some hope this time since we didn’t see other teams turning back yet. Dave had the same thoughts, “We can’t stop here. But I don’t see snow blowing up higher. If we go up for another 50-60 feet, we may find a less windy spot to rest.”
Surprisingly, as we pushed higher, the wind actually started to calm down. We briefly rested at a calm spot under the little hill where a group of Japanese climbers were repairing the weather station, then continued to push through a series of rolling hills. I was getting more tired, and people who were now returning from the summit told us that it was still 5 hours away, which sounded arduously long. I remembered when I was on Elbrus, how any word of encouragement from my teammates or guide gave me so much strength and rejuvenated me when I was tired. But here, there was no one next to me because we were traveling on a rope with 10-20 yards between us. I was the only one there to encourage myself. I tried to ignore the “5 hours” remark. Other teams had rested the whole day when we made our first attempt, and we were now on our third attempt in two days. So I knew we would probably need more than 5 hours. I actually didn’t care how many hours lay ahead. I had never even bothered to check the time since we left camp, and I was prepared to go on forever. The only time I cared about was the time when I would reach the summit.
Everyone was getting tired, and we began moving more and more slowly. Worried, I asked Dave at the break, “Are we going too slow?” Dave looked at me with a fatherly kind smile, “No, keep this pace, you will be standing on the summit in 3 hours.” That was the best news I had heard the whole day!
It was around 9pm when we arrived at the football field, a wide plane below the summit ridge. We were the only team still heading up. All other teams were on their way down with bright smiles. The summit ridge looked so beautiful in the blue sky. A clear zigzag trail in the middle of the steep slope led up to the ridge. Far away and below us, more clouds started to gather and rise, a normal pattern when night falls here. I was hoping the clouds would not move too fast and shroud the summit. We were now so close, but I did not dare relax. Weather changes fast on the mountain. If the wind would pick up to a dangerous level, no matter how close we were to the summit, we would have to turn around. A few days ago, the same Alpine Ascents team turned around when they were just 100 feet of the summit because of a wind change.
As if to confirm my worst fear, as we were zigzagging up the slope, a light dusting of wind-blown snow started to fall on us, and a lenticular cloud quietly moved toward us like a monster coming to prey on us. Now we were racing against time. When we reached the summit ridge, Dave looked up at the clouds, “It will be here in an hour.” We all knew what lenticular clouds would bring. It seemed that one factor after another pushed me to prove to myself that I really deserved this summit.
I knew the primary concern of any guide was safety. What was on Dave’s mind at this moment? I nervously tested him, “So you still think we will make it?” He smiled again, “You don’t trust me? Yes, we will make it!” I cheered with a little relief, though I knew we still might have to turn around at any moment if conditions deteriorated enough. There would be no real relief for me until we were standing on the summit.
The trail towards the summit is a knife-sharp, snow-capped, rolling ridge. At several spots, a trip could result in a fatal fall. Again, we used a running belay to protect the rope team. One rise in the ridge after another, and finally, Dave stopped. There was something like a shovel handle sticking out of the snow bump next to him. That must be it! My heart almost jumped out. I had been holding my breath until this moment. I couldn’t believe I really made it after so many obstacles. I thought I would be so excited that I would cry and jump. But instead, I was quite calm when I finally stood on the summit. I had finally broken the curse of Aconcagua. Third time’s a charm!
After all the photos were taken, someone suddenly remembered to ask, “Oh, what time is it?” It was just after midnight. The official date was June 30th.
The stormy descent
We were not alone on the summit. The storm arrived within minutes after we got there. We still had a clear sky and a view to faraway mountains when we were at the football field, but our summit views revealed only thick clouds behind us. We stopped on the summit for only a few minutes, then hastily left the summit ridge as wind and blowing snow started to take over the mountain.
When we got back to the football field, my water bottle was already well frozen, and it became too cold to take a break. So we pushed through blowing snow without much eating or drinking throughout the night. I knew that most mountaineering accidents happened during the descent, and we were now exhausted and in the middle of a storm. I kept myself on high alert and carefully placed each step.
The whiteout made descending on Autobahn especially dangerous. The Autobahn is a traverse on a steep slope, where the trail is often just wide enough for one foot. A misstep could send you sliding down all the way to a crevasse if you are not caught by your rope team or through self arrest. However, the whiteout created a false sense of safety because we could not see the down-slope side at all. Combined with exhaustion, you could easily believe the illusion that the trail was wider than what you saw, and step into the white space next to the trail into thin air. One of our teammates fell numerous times on the Autobahn but was held up by the rope team each time.
By the time we returned to camp, it was already 6 or 7am. My stomach was in pain from hunger, and my throat was on fire. Having gone through all the difficult sections on the descent, the last few steps up the gentle hill into the tent site actually felt like the hardest! It took me several breaks to finish the final couple hundred yards. Though everyone was dreaming of a hot soup from the sky, no one was patient enough to wait for the slow snow-melting process; we all went into our sleeping bags after a few sips of ice water.
Long march home
We were on a glacier, so getting back to High Camp was still far from a safe return. In fact, we had heard a lot of stories about crevasses in the lower glacier. It was even more dangerous now as the summer sun weakened or melted away the snow bridges covering the crevasses. So I knew there was no time to relax yet.
After a couple hours rest, we descended the same day (June 30th) to 14,2000ft. The next day, we got up 6:30am, and started down to Base Camp.
On our return, the glacier between 8,000 ft and Base Camp looked totally different. When we came in nearly three weeks ago, most crevasses were well covered by snow bridges. The glacier looked like a beautiful wonderland of snow, and our trail was mostly a straight cut-through in the direction we were heading. Now, the glacier looked like a post-war scene – numerous lines of crevasses partitioned the glacier into an ugly mosaic, and the trail became a zigzag. When we passed by where our Camp 1 had been at 7,800 ft, I couldn’t even orient myself enough to guess where the tent site had been, and I knew it was probably now surrounded by crevasses. The whole campground looked like a ghost city. There was only one group there now, and I couldn’t stop wondering if they were sleeping on a crevasse.
Snow bridges that were not yet broken were even more dangerous, because that was where people could actually fall in. A dent in the snow often indicated a weakening snow bridge, so we would then look to the left and right to see if this was on the line of a crevasse. Sometimes the crevasse could extend a few hundred yards. Walking through the lower glacier at this time of the season was like walking through a field of landmines, full of exciting moments. Besides carefully stepping over the crevasses ourselves, we also needed to guide our sleds across crevasses. We could not let down our guard for a moment until we made it to the base camp shortly before midnight.
The final relief came when our plane took off from Base Camp the next morning before the clouds closed the airport.