Culture and Climbing in Alaska: Summit Day!

Day 11 Monday 25 May: I woke after the best night of sleep the entire trip.  This was strange since we were over 17k; my acclimation must be working.  We spent the morning brewing water to fill all our bottles and for breakfast as we watched as the camp emptied with teams slowly heading up Denali pass.  Everything is slow at 17k.  By the time we had enough water and roped up it was 1300—our latest departure from camp yet—thus we were one of the last teams out of camp.

   The route from 17 camp to the summit is 2.5 miles one way and can be divided into three segments.  The first is from camp to Denali pass a mile away and over a thousand feet higher.  For most of this segment the path traverses a steep slope as you climb higher.  Once at the pass the next segment is a ridge climb that offers amazing views of the entire route over two miles below.  This segment ends at a flat section called the Football Field which is quickly crossed before a short, but very steep, climb to the Kahiltna Horn where the slope eases up on the final ridge to the summit.

   As we went upwards several groups were coming down.  While one would like to think they all made the summit I knew that could not be the case this early in the day.  Few had summited with the majority turning around for various reasons too cold, too windy, the wrong clothing, AMS or for some reason, physically or psychologically, it was not their day.  In climbing sometimes on a crowded route just seeing others turn back is discouraging and can mess with your own thoughts of how the climb is going.  This information can be useful for knowing weather and route conditions ahead of you but it can also make you second guess how you are feeling about the climb. 

   My brain thought “Well if that Everest climber turned around what am I doing still going up?”  After a ‘head to toe’ systems check I filed that thought away, took a deep breath, and continued up the mountain.


   Resting at the pass.  17 camp is in the middle of the picture.


   After two hours we arrived at Denali Pass where several other parties were resting by an outcrop of boulders out of the wind.  We asked how they were doing and found that they were waiting for the winds, as forecast, to die down before continuing.  They had left hours before us and tried to continue up the route only to turn around and seek the relative calm shelter of the ridge.

   With this latest information in hand we went around the corner to compare reality against their stories.  It was windy.  It was cold.  We felt that is was within our experience and abilities as we had climbed in strong winds numerous times this past winter.  With no sunset to worry about we returned to the boulder shelter to rest, refuel and discuss our options.

   One option surfaced that I was not thinking about when Dan announced “Guys, my feet are cold.  I can’t feel my left foot and my right is definitely numb.”  With two thousand feet of elevation and 1.5 miles yet to go there is not way Dan could continue.  At the same time one of the nearby groups decided that some of their team was ready to quit and return to 17 camp while the remainder of their team attempted another summit push.  So they joined Dan on one of our ropes for the quick trip back to camp.

   After checking the conditions again we found the wind had died significantly.  We packed up, donned facemask and goggles, before heading out for our summit attempt!

   The route was well defined but was slow going with the steepness of the ridge as well as the altitude.  I used all the physical and mental tricks I knew from years of climbing and long distance running to keep moving higher.  At this altitude the using a rest step and pressure breathing are invaluable.

   It did not seem very long before the ridge was behind us and the final segment beckoned us on.  And what a beautiful sight it was to ponder—a large field (aka the Football Field) to cross before heading up the steep slope to gain the final ridge to the summit.  It was breathtaking in all regards especially at ~19,200 feet!


Climbers marching up pig hill to Kahiltna Horn and the final summit ridge.


   Crossing the field was easy enough and sorely missed once the trail started to climb towards the Kahiltna Horn where each step higher was accompanied with a significant pause for several breaths.  I fixed my mind on the getting to the Horn so each step brought took me higher to this interim goal. 

   Arriving at the Horn I knew that the summit was all but guaranteed.  With only a slight breeze and feeling strong nothing but a catastrophe to me, the team or the ridge was going to stop me from climbing the last 300 vertical feet to the summit.


 Chris at the horn with Denali's other summit in view.


 The team heading up the ridge.


   The summit ridge was beautiful wind sculpted snow and ice with several undulating cornices.  A fall to the left would be a 1000 foot slide to the Football Field.  To the right would be over a mile fall if a huge crevasse did not swallow you first.  With this in mind I thanked the mountain gods for the current lack of wind.


The view to the right side and down!


   After some team photos we continued upwards.  Kiefer and Gabe soon took the lead (living in Vail sure doesn’t hurt any) while Craig and I followed closely behind them. 

   At approximately 2030 Alaskan time we arrived for our all too brief visit at the top of North America!  We stayed for almost an hour soaking in the view while taking plenty of pictures and video. 


Chris on the summit of Denali.


We made it! (l-r) Kiefer, Chris, Gabe and Craig  


Looking down the final ridge from the summit.  A few more climbers are heading up.


   After refueling we left for the dangerous part of the climb—the descent.  The goal is on a climb is not the summit but to return safely.  Reaching the summit is a well earned bonus which doesn’t always happen.  This time all the training, the weather, my health and a dose of luck allowed me to spend time at the top of the continent.


   As we went down the route we had recently fought so hard to climb our strength was fortified by the increase in oxygen in every breath.  The return trip was uneventful and soon we were walking into camp just before midnight for a solid day of climbing.  We were all tired, some more than others, and were thankful that Dan had plenty of water ready for us.  None wanted to fire up a stove as sleep was desired.  A couple of cheese sticks and some Pringles chips washed down with Cytomax sports drink was a gourmet offering!

   With the summit behind us and everyone safe in camp I drifted off for a well deserved sleep.


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About Haliku

Mountain climber, ultrarunner, scuba instructor, world traveler, student of life
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