When Julie and I turned around on Denali in 2010, it was the first time we had failed to summit any mountain we had been on together. The weather on our move to 14 Camp was more intense than anything we had experienced and we knew that the climb really begins at 14 Camp. It was a tough decision to turn around but looking back on it, it was the right decision. Julie was fine about turning around because to her, it has always been about the journey…not the destination. I admire that in her but I am just not that way. By the time we made it back to base camp, I had already decided I was coming back and had made a mental list of twenty things I would do differently the next time.
Almost exactly a year to the day later, Mike Hamill, Larry Holmgren and I cruised into 14 Camp way ahead of schedule. There was even talk about what we were going to have for dinner back in Talkeetna in just a few days. Then the weather hit. For the next six days, we were hunkered down…me in my one man tent for 23 hours a day with nothing to do but to watch Seasons 4 and 5 of Curb Your Enthusiasm over and over and over again on my video iPod.
But it could have been worse…we could have been at high camp where the wind was gusting up to 100 MPH. Mike, Larry and I crammed into our wind-damaged dining tent along with another climbing threesome to discuss our options. No one had summited in over a week and the reports said that there was heavy snow above high camp with serious avalanche potential. I certainly didn’t want to go to all the effort to get to high camp (probably the most physically demanding section on the West Buttress Route) just to sit there with no chance at going for the top. We ultimately decided that if we didn’t give it a try, we had no chance of summiting so the day the weather broke, we headed up.
When we reached high camp, it did not look good as the heavy snow on the hard ice looked very dangerous. Several climbers had already died on this steep section known as the Autobahn due to falls. Fortunately for us, Vern Tejas, a climbing legend in Alaska, started out along with a few brave climbers. They kicked in the trail and located the pickets that had been buried in the deep snow. We sat outside our tent and watched them for six hours until they disappeared over Denali Pass. When they returned from the summit hours later, we knew that we had a shot; we just needed another perfect weather day.
We woke up to a beautiful blue sky and headed out about 10:00 AM for the summit. The wind really picked up as we finally reached the summit ridge but I didn’t care because I knew that I was going to reach the top. After a few pictures, we headed down and made it back to high camp with no issues. Two days later, when we pulled into base camp, I was already thinking about the pizza and beer I was going to destroy at Mountain High Pizza in Talkeetna. But just when you think you have everything under control on Denali, it comes back to haunt you. Another storm moved in so rather than getting on the little plane to take us back to civilization, we had to pitch our tents and wait it out. Three days later, we were still camping on the runway. Finally after putting on our snowshoes and tamping down the runway for the forth or fifth time, the plane was able to pick us up and we headed straight for the pizza and beer. The sun was still up at 4:00 AM when I stumbled out of the Fairview Inn after a few hours of celebrating and headed back to my room and my first bed in 21 days.
All of the Seven Summits are special and all are beautiful, but the views on Denali, in my opinion, are unmatched. I’ll never forget the view of Mount Foraker from 14 Camp, the West Buttress ridge on the way to high camp, and the beautiful Denali summit ridge. It was such a great feeling summiting after having to live with the disappointment of 2010 for a full year. Now only one summit to go….and it is a big one.Share this post: by