Summer on the Coldest Mountain in North America
One-hundred and eighteen degrees — below zero. The coldest recorded temperature in North American history. And it happened right where I’m standing. Nineteen-thousand feet above sea-level, on the final push up the highest peak in North America; the mountain known as Denali. My heart is pounding through my chest, yet I’m barely walking, merely shuffling along the ridgeline at a senior citizen’s pace. The uncaring, merciless effects of altitude are beginning to wreak havoc on my body. Amid the slog I think to myself, “Now this is a summer vacation."
On a rare Alaskan clear-sky day, Denali can be seen from hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Its broad shouldered, hulking presence standing solitary, proud, ten-thousand feet higher than a sea of mountains that would dwarf most mountains in the Lower 48. The dream of standing on top of its summit slowly crept more and more into reality for me over my dozens of ski trips to Alaska. Every time I laid eyes on Denali, the pull of its summit drew me towards it for no other reason than what Sir Edmund Hillary said best about climbing mountains, “Because it’s there."
Despite a career as a professional skier that has brought me to wild mountains around the globe, an expedition to altitudes above fourteen thousand feet was a first for me. Even as a professional skier, this didn’t fit into my usual docket. This was a trip for myself. In essence, a vacation.
On June 16th, four friends and I flew out from Talkeetna, Alaska to be dropped off on the lower flanks of Denali’s longest glacier, the Kahiltna, to begin our climb. One of the primary hurdles of Denali when comparing it to the other Seven Summits, is that there are no sherpas, porter, yaks or donkeys to assist hauling loads of gear upward. You alone are responsible for the weight of your gear.
For five days straight, we each humped one-hundred and twenty pounds of food, fuel, camping gear and climbing equipment nearly fourteen miles and seven-thousand feet up to Advanced Base Camp (ABC).
"As I reached the weather station that recorded that -118 temperature I repeated the words of famed high-altitude climber Adrian Ballinger, 'At altitude, everything hurts. But you just keep moving."
Once you’re at ABC, the two main challenges to reach the summit of Denali are altitude and weather. Its reputation for sudden tempests that appear out of nowhere is legendary. Many climbers have succumbed to Denali’s wrath and even some of the best in the world, describe Denali as a weather-torn menace. Despite waking up, day after day, to a unimaginably long stretch of clear, calm skies, the unease of a violent storm appearing, like a tidal wave on a summer sea, was ever-present.
Taking advantage of our good fortune with the meteorological gods, we opted to rush our process of tackling the second challenge of Denali, the altitude. Cutting the corners of the lengthy acclimatization process, we collectively decided to go for the summit on Day 9 of our trip. The risk of pushing to the summit too quickly, before our acclimatization process was done, was highlighted by a Nepalese Sherpa, who the week before our arrival, was going for the summit in a mere four days and perished on the side of the mountain due to altitude related illnesses. He was too quick. We hoped we wouldn’t be.
"Tears welled up, I fell to my knees, looked out to the horizon hundreds of miles away, a sea of heavenly white clouds dotting the mountains below us, the crystalline blue skies that towered above us..."
Our route to the top took us up the untechnical yet indirect, zig-zagging West Buttress route. We ascended at a good pace in the relatively warm, sub-freezing temp. As the views improved and we progressed further, I was energized. Then everything changed.
Somewhere around eighteen-thousand feet, the altitude and air took an exponential effect. Suddenly, the pace of ascent slowed to a near crawl as my thoughts became blurred, my head cleaved with pain and my lungs starved for oxygen.
As I reached the weather station that recorded that -118 temperature I remembered the words of famed high-altitude climber Adrian Ballinger, “At altitude, everything hurts. But you just keep moving.” He was right, everything hurt. But somehow, you just keep moving. The final six-hundred feet of climbing to the summit was nothing more than pure suffering. It felt as if my pack was suddenly filled with lead, as if every step was the hardest movement of my life, my lungs searing while trying to filter every ounce of oxygen out of the thin air as possible. The only thing keeping me going was knowing, it was all about to end soon.
Tears welled up, I fell to my knees, looked out to the horizon hundreds of miles away, a sea of heavenly white clouds dotting the mountains below us, the crystalline blue skies that towered above us and relished in the fact that we did it. We were standing on the highest point in North America.
I’ve found few joys as great as the success that comes from confronting and overcoming a great challenge, whether it’s a dream job interview or the peak of a mountain. As I stood on top of Denali, I realized that this was the best summer vacation I’ve ever had. — [H]