Mount McKinley, or "Denali" as it is called by every Alaskan is the highest mountain in North America. It. is regarded as the second most difficult mountain to climb of the famed "Seven Summits" which are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Denali is a heavily glaciated, deeply crevassed, wind whipped and bitterly cold mountain only a few degrees south of the arctic circle. The summit rises to 20,320' above sea level and because of its extreme latitude and often horrific weather conditions it is highly respected as a dangerous mountain to climb by climbers from all over the world. I had always wanted to climb it and I made the decision that 2010 would be the year I would attempt to reach the summit of that famed peak. To make things even more of an adventure, rather than flying to Alaska a good friend of mine and I would drive the entire 20,000 kilometre distance to Alaska and back in my truck, and, to add even more excitement, I also towed along my ultralight aircraft in a trailer behind my truck so that we could fly it over the Alaskan landscape... which we did a number of times. To properly prepare for this we had to hire a reputable guiding company to lead us up to the summit and safely back down again. To explain... no one is allowed to attempt Denali without National park service permission. You can only get that permission from the Denali Park service rangers in Talkeetna, a small town located two hours north of Anchorage. In early 2010 I contacted "Alpine Ascents", a highly reputable mountain guiding company based in Seattle Washington and one which was already "pre-approved" by the Denali park rangers service to bring clients to the mountain without further approval from the rangers themselves. Alpine Ascents was given permission to vet climbers who applied to them to climb Denali. Fortunately for me my prior mountain climbs of Imja-Tse in Nepal, Aconcagua in Argentina, Ranier in Washington, Kilimanjaro in Africa, and a few other lesser peaks in the Canadian rockies were (barely) sufficient experience to appease them that I was qualified to climb Denali and thus avoid my having to pay for their preparatory climbing course for Denali. Unfortunately, my climbing partner Paul had no climbing experience at all so he flew out to Washington State in April of 2010 to spend a full week on Mount Rainier training with their climbing instructors in the climbing techniques he would need. Denali is an arduous and dangerous three week challenge from start to finish and climbers from around the world die on the mountain with unfortunate regularity. Because of that, park rangers are often forced to helicopter in and risk their lives in rescue attempts for stricken climbers. Sadly, many rangers have died in these attempts so the Denali National Park service will not allow any inexperienced climbers on the mountain at any time for any reason whatsoever. Every single climber who requests to climb Denali is very carefully vetted before being allowed anywhere near base camp. Since Alpine Ascents was a pre-approved guiding company signing up with them guaranteed us at the very least access to climb the mountain. We certainly couldn't be guaranteed a summit... but we could be guaranteed a chance. So, Paul and I began our long drive and arrived in Alaska and made our way to the small town of "Talkeetna." There we met with a number of representatives of Alpine Ascents and our two climbing guides, lead guide Jonathan Spitzer, and second guide Rachel Greenberg. Prior to the climb each individual piece of gear that each team member brought to use on the mountain was carefully examined by either Jonathan or Rachel to ensure that it was acceptable because once you are on the mountain there is no "going back" to get something that had been forgotten or wasn't useable. Once all the gear had been approved we had a fabulous dinner and then spent our last night prior to the climb at the "Fireweed Inn", a gloriousl privately owned Inn hosted by a lovely couple in the forests near Talkeetna. On the day of our departure we all boarded a Cessna single engine turbine Otter aircraft and flew the 45 minutes out to the mountain landing on a gently sloping glacier at "Base camp" which is still eight miles of hard glacier trudging to the actual base of the mountain where you begin to climb upwards. The first sleep camp is on the glacier Just prior to the camp at 11,000'. Once past 11,000' camp you begin the first actual climb "up" the mountain. It is a small ski hill sized hump up the glacier called "Ski Hill". From there you carry on toward another, slightly larger and longer hill called, "Motorcycle Hill", and then up a long sloping channel that winds around "Windy Corner" and from there you trudge gradually up to 14,000' camp and a very large plateau. At 14,000' camp you are faced with one of the toughest sections of entire climb, the fixed lines leading up to the west buttress ridge. Once on the ridge you make your way up and around "Washburn's Thumb", a large rock prominence directly in the way and you literally have to hug the boulder as you pass around it lest you slip and fall into the abyss. Once you reach the top of the ridge you arrive at 17,000' camp, the last camp on the mountain and the launch point for summit bids. Here you rest for a day or two before making your way up and along the "Autobahn", a dangerous traverse of a steep slope, finally arriving at and passing by "Zebra Rocks." Then you climb to a relatively flat section of the mountain, aptly named, "The Football Field", which is a football field sized plateau just before the last final hill you have to plod up, aptly named, "Pig Hill", so called because just as you think you're "there" you have to climb this one last "pig" of a hill. When you get to the top of "Pig Hill" you are almost at the summit. All you have to do now is navigate the summit ridge where you wearily trudge along a largely flat, gently undulating snow ridge to the final summit of the mountain. Unfortunately for me, in 2010 the summit was not to be had. The team made it to high camp and then spent six days waiting out high winds and snow hoping for a window of opportunity to climb to the summit that never came. A number of members of our team had flights to catch home and time ran out for us so we were all forced to abandon the summit and descend down the mountain in a "walk off." A "walk off" is a full descent down all the way to base camp without setting up tents to sleep. The only stops we made on the way down were to take short rest breaks to eat and drink. Our "walk off" was 23 straight hours of downward climbing. I was completely exhausted and deeply disappointed at not even having had an opportunity to make a bid for the summit on that 2010 climb. To assuage that bitterness I returned to Alaska two years later and in 2012 I was successful in summiting Denali. Alaska is a beautiful state and climbing Denali... while not for everyone... is something that I'm glad I did and would heartily recommend to any avid traveller.
© Steve Tambosso - "The Wandering Fireman"