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As our climbing team crested the top of Pig Hill, we had accomplished the last significant obstacle on our way to the South Summit of Denali. For the first time in 16 days we set eyes on a peak that, for all of us, was a life-long dream. What separated us from standing on top of the highest point in North America was a slight turn to the NE, 175 vertical feet, less than a quarter of a mile, and a handful of pickets, otherwise known as fixed protection.
To our left were incredible views of the North Summit, and well beyond that a gradual return to the green, and flat, landscape that engulfs the vastness of Denali National Park. And to our right was a near vertical wall with thousands of feet of immediate relief. On a lucky day, there is a trail broken along the Summit Ridge and the next 30-45 minutes are spent focusing on placing one foot in front of the other, clipping the pickets correctly, and taking in the world class views of the Alaska Range. And on a clear day it is stunning. But, on this mountain known for creating its own weather patterns, a clear day is never guaranteed.
What does it take to earn 10 minutes of collective celebration on the summit of Denali? The guide books will tell you that it can take up to two to three weeks, about 25 miles, over 20,000 vertical feet, and 100+ pounds of equipment. It will include navigating some of the largest crevasses in the world, maintaining rope tension, and ascending and descending to acclimatize the body. It requires melting snow for every use of water, and caching food meters beneath the snow surface, not only to maintain freshness, but also to protect it from ravens. And, after all that, you’ll need luck: an alpinist never knows if The Great One will offer them a weather window to summit its peak. Our team would tell you that it was the practice of simple, and sound, decision making every day.
Denali is a place where the seemingly mundane becomes essential. For years it has been referred to as a “blue-collar mountain”, meaning regardless of a climber’s status or title it requires an immense amount of hard work. Bear in mind, ‘hard work’ is a fluid term. It is the physical difficulty of maneuvering through an unforgiving environment, pushing your body and lungs to the limits in thin, alpine air. And it’s also the mental challenge of weathering a storm for days on end, confined to a 7×7 foot tent with barely enough room to sit upright, left wondering how life is unfolding at home. On Denali, it is guaranteed that every climber will have the opportunity to be tested in both.
“It’s also the mental challenge of weathering a storm for days on end, confined to a 7×7 foot tent with barely enough room to sit upright, left wondering how life is unfolding at home.”
Our expedition had an impressively strong team, physically and mentally. Two Navy Seals, two long-time climbing partners, a man who was returning to the Alaska Range for redemption, and three experienced guides. It was the best recipe for success a team could hope for. On top of that, we had spent the last 16 days becoming a well-oiled machine. We had set up and taken down camp five times. We had donned and ditched our clothing layers more frequently than someone getting ready for a date night. We had spent hours practicing for the next objective, cooking and consuming calories, shoveling around the clock, fixing gear, and…more shoveling! Most importantly, we had built a collective camaraderie. Banter around the cook tent had led to genuine curiosity about one another, and how we each had arrived on this mountain. When you understand why a person has dedicated themselves to a goal that requires type II fun, you understand their motivations, and how far they are willing to go. It is a unique experience in trust – what is this person capable of to achieve a goal; what is their response if it doesn’t happen?
On July 3, 2018, our team left High Camp at 17,200’ to set off on what we hoped would be a 12-16 hour summit bid. With blistering cold temps and slight northeasterly winds, we began our traverse across the Autobahn to Denali Pass. From there, we maneuvered through Zebra Rocks, alongside Archdeacons Tower, and across the Football Field to reach the base of Pig Hill. With clear skies above, we started our approach towards the final obstacle between us and the Summit Ridge. Push – step – crunch – breath. Keep it simple. Push – step – crunch – breath. Keep it simple. With every step, we began to see the pieces of this puzzle come together and vivid excitement crept in, “we GOT this.” After what felt like an eternity, we stood on top of Pig Hill, staring across the Summit Ridge and feasting on the views provided by The Great One.
As we oriented ourselves towards the Summit Ridge, the protection of Pig Hill fell away and we were instantly exposed to 50mph winds, now blasting from the North. The wind began to steal our balance and the ropes connecting us started to float. There was an overwhelming feeling of, “we do NOT belong here.”
A 30-second guide consultation, a quick team photo, and a final glance of admiration and appreciation later, we spun our crampons and carefully began the descent. Simple, sound decision making. Success on Denali is a multitude of factors; it is a privilege of opportunity. Health. Weather. Team. Leadership. Strength, by many definitions. It is luck, which we didn’t have. And ultimately, it is knowing when to turn around and appreciate the process. Sometimes, embracing disappointment is the safest option. In those moments, the only outcome you are in control of is your outlook. And hey, everyone returned home with 10 fingers and 10 toes.
“Sometimes, embracing disappointment is the safest option. In those moments, the only outcome you are in control of is your outlook.”
On March 20th, the National Park Service suspended all climbing permits for the 2020 Denali season (May – July) as a result of COVID-19. The news came in the wake of a 2019 season when 726 of 1,226 climbers successfully summited Denali, a higher percentage than normal. This year, the mountain will rest. While the storm we are weathering looks vastly different, I believe there is an opportunity to apply the same lessons. Keep it simple. Keep your rope tension (6ft. apart), keep your patience, continue to build relationships, and check in on one another. As for myself, I’ve swapped checking daily mountain weather forecasts with YouTubing “what is wrong with my sourdough starter.” We might be bound to exploring our own backyards, but now is the time to daydream in the tent and plan the next adventure.
Stay safe, stay apart, stay connected,
Wild MILD Bill