After preparing for 2.5 years, one failed attempt and many, many training sessions, it finally happened; On 28 May, 16:40H I successfully summited Denali; the highest point of North-America. At 6190m, Denali is not just another mountain to climb. Denali is special because it’s cold, remote and weather can change dramatically within an hour.
Getting to High-Camp
Yesterday we made it to High-Camp. At an altitude of over 5200m, this isn’t the most comfortable part of the mountain. In order to save energy, we left as much of our gear as possible at Camp 14 (4300m). This results in that we now sleep with 3 persons per tent. While all of our tents are designed for 3 persons, there is not a lot of space left for the bulky clothes we need in order to stay warm. And, our food is no longer as good as the last 2 weeks. We are now depending on freeze-dried food for dinner and noodle soup for lunch. With this food, we do not have to worry about getting the right nutrition, but the food just doesn’t taste that good.
High-Camp usually is cold and windy. Because of this, most climbers prefer to stay in their tent and just lay down. But, if you decide to go out, you will notice you lose your breath easily. With everything you do, you need to take care of your breathing. The air is thin, there’s no denying in that.
But, this afternoon is not to bad. The wind has calmed down, and the sun is out. Despite the current excellent weather, we decided not to go for the summit today. When we woke up this morning, winds were strong and gusty, making it too dangerously cold to go out for the summit. I discussed the weather forecasts for the coming days with our guide. The forecast is not very promising. For tomorrow, a huge snow dump is expected. For the next coming days, weather probably won’t improve. My thoughts are wandering off to last year. The current situating looks a bit like the situation I was in last year, where I waited for 4 days in High-Camp, hoping for conditions to improve. But that ended in descending without really having a chance to summit. The disappointment was harsh.
We only got 1 chance!
Our guide tells me we really have one summit chance; tomorrow. He expects the weather to be good enough for a serious summit attempt. I listen to his plan and notice I start feeling a bit nervous. So far, we had an excellent climb. In 15 days, we climbed to High-Camp, losing only 2 days because of bad weather. At Camp 14, I came to the conclusion we had plenty of time for a summit attempt. Where did all the extra time go? How come we now have only 1 day left? Will I once again go home without summiting?
Later that evening, the guide calls for us. If the weather improved just a little, we will go for a summit attempt tomorrow. He emphasizes we need to bring all our heavy down clothes and other layers we have. For sure it will be cold, think of temperatures well below -30 degrees Celsius. I take a close look at our group, all climbers look strong and ready. Will we all summit? For now, I can’t tell who will not. I am so satisfied with this group. So far the group has been performing excellent in every way. Everybody deserves to summit, and I certainly hope we all will.
Let’s go; summit time!
For the first time during the expedition, I had a wonderful night of deep sleep. When I wake up the next morning, I notice I hear nothing… No wind, while the tent is slowly heating up from the sun. I take another moment to listen even more carefully, and then I am sure. The weather is great and nothing can stop us from at least trying to summit Denali! I get out of my sleeping bag and start putting on some extra layers of clothing. That night I was wearing my pants, long johns, and two fleece jackets. Before I go out, I add my light down jacket, hardshell pants, and on top of that my heavy down parka and insulated pants. I decide I will remove the upper down layer as we start climbing. But for now, I just don’t want to lose any heat unnecessarily.
While getting dressed, the rest of the group also wakes up, and it doesn’t take very long before everybody is out of their tent and preparing for today’s summit attempt. We are all anxious to get out and take full advantage of today’s excellent weather. From High-Camp, the first part of the climb is visible; the Autobahn. The Autobahn is a two-hour long traverse that got its name from the steepness of the climb; If you slide, there will be no stopping and you will go a long way down. During the morning, the Autobahn is hidden from the sun. We all know the start of our climb will be cold. Our guide tells us once again that we must make sure we leave High-Camp with warm hand and feet.
We leave High-Camp in 3 teams of 4 people, just as we have done so many days before. I am no longer wearing my heavy down parka but decided to keep on my insulated pants. I’m well dressed with all these layers of clothes and the warmest gloves I brought. Let’s start our summit attempt and head for the cold Auobahn!
After 30 minutes of climbing, I notice my fingers and feet are getting cold. I start aggressively shaking my arms, in order to force warm blood into my fingers. Meanwhile, I try to move my toes as much as possible in my heavy expedition climbing boots. With a little luck, I will manage to keep my fingers and toes warm enough to get to the top of the Autobahn, where we will start climbing in the sun. I expect the climb to be a lot warmer from that point on. Halfway along the Autobahn, the climber in front of me finds his hands are too cold. We take a short break to allow him to put on an extra pair of gloves.
After about 2 hours of climbing, we reach Denali Pass and the end of the Autobahn. And more importantly, we finally get to feel the sun! I don’t feel great, and I notice I feel hungry. It’s important to keep eating and drinking while climbing. This will keep up your energy level and reduces chances of getting affected by the altitude. During the break, I eat an extra energy bar and take an extra sip from my bottle of water. I suddenly notice the climber in front of me. He is sitting on the ground and doesn’t look good. Things are wrong, as the climber doesn’t look good and lost feeling in his fingers. Together with another climber and a guide, they decide to descent back to High-Camp.
The Football Fields
After Denali Pass, the climb heads towards Zebra-Rocks and the Football Fields. At this point the climb eases a little, making it easier to just walk and recover a little. I start to feel better. Apparently, the extra energy bar did well and I feel my strength returning. But, meanwhile we are pretty close to 6000m altitude, and the air is once again noticeably thinner. I breathe heavily and still feel I need more oxygen in order to keep climbing.
Getting sick from the altitude is a real danger now. I need to make sure I keep eating and drinking and breath as efficiently as possible. Every breath I take must use 100% of my lung capacity. This means slow and deep breathing. I find a rhythm where I breathe in and out once every two steps. My breaths are heavy and everybody can hear that, but I don’t care. I like this rhythm and feel it will bring me to the summit!
At the end of the Football Fields is Pig Hill. Pig Hill it the last steep part towards to summit ridge. Because of the altitude, and the steepness, Pig Hill should not be underestimated! We take another break half way up Pig Hill. As usual, I take another energy bar and drink some water. During the break, I feel excellent, but as soon as I start moving again, I immediately need to focus on my breathing. Just after the break, I realize we really are going to make it to the summit of Denali. While thinking about this, I decide it’s enough. Enough with the pain, enough with suffering. Today, Denali will not hurt anymore, I won, I will summit Denali today!
The summit ridge
At the end of Pig Hill, there is a plateau that marks the beginning of the summit ridge. It will take another 40 minutes to get to the summit itself, but before we do this, we have another break. I never sit down while having a break, so I decide to a walk around a little bit and get impressed by the wonderful views. I know I will make it, and feel a million emotions coming up, but I still find it hard to believe it will really happen today.
The summit ridge should be easy, but that is not what I experience. The ridge is technically easy, but I found out it’s pretty hard with frozen sunglasses. I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes dry and being pulled forward by the rope that is attached to my climbing hardness
Then we finally reach the summit! The summit plateau of Denali is big enough to safely walk around unroped. I remove the rope from my climbing harness and find the real summit not far to my right. There is no obviously marked spot with a huge cross, as we often have in the Alps. Just above the snow, I notice there is a small pin pointing out of the snow. That’s it! The real summit! I head towards it and ask a fellow climber to take some pictures of me while I kneel next to the pin. Yes, I must have proof that I really have been here!
After the mandatory summit pics, I look around and am overwhelmed by the wonderful view. There are some clouds, but the surrounding mountains are easily visible as well as the distant tundra. The view is so wonderful! I shake hands with the rest of my team, but mostly I am just enjoying the moment. I feel proud, free and satisfied. This is why I climb, this is the sort of challenge I really like, I just feel so great! While shaking the hands of the last climber of the group, I can no longer keep my tears and let them go. Finally, after more than 2.5 years of hard training, drawbacks, last years failed attempt, and many sacrifices, I finally did it! My dream has come true, I summited Denali!
Before we got to our summit attempt, we climbed over 14 days to get to High-Camp. During these days, we slowly got up the mountain, carrying our necessary equipment and food. While doing this, we also used our time to acclimatize.
The expedition started on 12 May, early in this year’s season. At the National Parks Ranger Station, we learned most climbers failed to summit this year so far. The summit percentage was well below 30%. Climbing Denali can be done year round, but high season is roughly from half May until half July. Early in the season, it can be rather cold, while later in the season the weather can change quickly and glaciers are getting more dangerous.
The climber who lost feeling in his fingers during the Autobahn ended up having 3rd-degree frostbite. He was unable to move his fingers and lost feeling. Luckily, his fingers will recover but that may take some weeks. And his fingers will remain more sensitive to cold for the rest of his life. At temperatures of -30 degrees and below, frostbite can occur within a minute to exposed skin
I would like to thank the guides for their excellent work during the expedition. But moreover, I would like to thank my fellow climbers for being an awesome and strong group. You really made the trip unforgettable!
This article has been published before in Dutch on Mountainreporters.com