I knew that Denali was the third highest peak of the Seven Summits. But knowing and seeing are completely different experiences. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of the mountain. It towered over its snowfields as our bush plane landed and we began loading our sleds and packs.
Preparing for the climb
Each of us carried 50 pounds of gear and supplies on our backs while towing a 70-pound sled. It’s challenging to train for those first few days of snowshoeing. The uphill gradient exceeds most treadmills’ 12% capability. Plus, living in Arizona makes it pretty much impossible to find a mountain or hill impressive enough for slope training. As a result, even though I was climbing strong, I discovered a lot of muscles I never knew I had during those first few days.
Once again, I was amazed by the diversity in our climbing group. Our team of seven climbers included a former ENRON lawyer, a ski patroller, and an E.R. doctor with an unusual claim to fame. This doctor was part of the team that treated an Ebola patient in the United States. The patient, thankfully, went on to make a full recovery. The tent discussions were never dull.
We were climbing with a living legend
All of the stories about Dave Hahn are true. But the stories he tells are even better. There’s nothing like sipping coffee on a rest day and listening to Dave recount the rescues, close calls, and highlights of his mountaineering career. It was a humbling experience. His stories put his decision making on the mountain into perspective. When Dave makes a call, nobody doubts that it’s the right one. I’m proud to have gone on an expedition with Dave. I can’t recommend him enough.
The conditions of our climb were once in a lifetime
Over the course of 21 days, my climbing team and our four guides trekked across the Alaskan wilderness and climbed 20,310 feet to reach the summit of Denali. If there’s anything I learned from this climb, it’s this: no matter how hard you train physically or prepare mentally, nature likes to throw curveballs.
Denali is known for its grueling conditions. These include snowstorms, frigid temperatures, and the constant threat of frostbite. Denali, at times, has zero leniency. It’s got a 46% success rate for a reason. But we ended up getting something Dave Hahn has only seen one other time in his 30+ year career: mild weather. For a significant portion of our climb, we were in what constituted a heatwave for summiting Denali. We experienced almost zero wind, and our one snowstorm was only about 2 inches of snowfall.
Of course, warm weather comes with its own complications. We traded the risk of frostbite for potential heatstroke, intense rock-fall, and unstable snowpacks. On the way out we also had to consider exaggerated crevasse hazards thanks to rain and warm temperatures.
Reaching 14 Camp and braving the fixed lines
The physical aspects of this climb were on par with its reputation. As we climbed, the slopes got steeper, and the stakes got higher. Parts of the approach to 14 Camp were as treacherous as double black diamond ski runs.
There’s one part of the mountain called the fixed lines. During this push, we climbed 2,000 feet in less than one mile. For one 900 foot section of that, the slope exceeds 50 to 60 degrees. Drop something on that kind of incline? You’ve just potentially killed the climbers below you. You also can’t stop moving because it holds up everyone below you. The longer you’re on that slope, the higher the risk of rock-fall, frostbite, and other hazards.
After a while, the days became a cycle of climb, set up, recover, repeat. We would set up camp (dig out the kitchen, retrieve caches, build tent platforms, and pitch tents), then focus on recovery.
The mental toll of rest days
Climbers often overlook the mental aspect of these expeditions. You can be the strongest climber on the team and still end up going home early if you can’t handle downtime. And there’s a ton of downtime on these expeditions. Usually, you’d dedicate this time to getting ready for the next day. You might do some light training, organize your gear, and stretch, but mostly, your job is to rest. Many people can handle this for a while, but extended rest can be crazy-making.
Even though we had great weather, we stayed at 14 Camp for six days straight. We were coordinating with another company team at 17 Camp. We waited for them to summit, then descend past us while we climbed up to 17 Camp. By swapping camps, we saved ourselves a lot of extra weight and preparation. Everything was built and ready to go for our summit push.
During our days at 14 Camp, we were mostly confined to our tents. Every minute you spend outside in the sun saps your energy. If you’re not careful, it doesn’t take long to suffer severe sunburn, snow blindness, heatstroke, or other sun-related issues. These complications either end your run or weaken you for the summit push. So, we couldn’t go outside without damaging our summit chances. Instead, we spent six days jammed in a 70 square foot tent with three other people and gear. During this time, people go stir crazy. I’ve seen the most physically fit men lose their climb in this exact scenario.
How do you train for this? I’m not exactly sure. There’s no way to discover what kind of tolerance you have for it until you’re in it.
The summit itself was fabulous. Thanks to the mild weather, we were able to spend 45 minutes at the top of North America. No wind, no storms. Just clear blue skies, and wilderness as far as we could see. With five summits left to conquer, I’m having a hard time imagining anything as beautiful and calm as what I experienced on Denali.
The most incredible part of the climb (besides the summit) was the West Buttress. This narrow, knife’s-edge ridge has a 2,000 foot drop on either side. There’s nothing quite like walking on the edge of the world to make you feel alive!
It’s funny how priorities shift once you summit and get down to camp for the night. Weeks of dedication and patience turned into an anxious clamor to get off the mountain. 48 hours after standing on the summit, we were waiting for our bush plane at base camp—12,000 feet below and miles away from North America’s highest peak.
Climbing with purpose
Overall, Denali was an incredible experience. Having trained for months, it was rewarding to reach the summit and return safely on the first attempt. This formidable mountain is a major milestone for any climber. And while I appreciate the personal challenge, I was climbing with purpose For the Grainer Good. As I set my sights on Vinson and Everest, I’m proud to know I’m helping to feed families one foot at a time.