My second trip to Alaska to attempt Mount McKinley, or "Denali" as Alaskans refer to it as was because of my failure to succeed in climbing it in 2010 and my ardent refusal to accept that defeat. We had failed that year because of high winds and white out snow conditions that pelted the summit ridge relentlessly and which also pinned every single climbing team at high camp down and mostly in our tents for six straight days. I was bitterly disappointed at not even having a chance to make a bid for the summit that year so In 2012 I went back to Denali to try my luck again. I booked my climb with "Alpine Ascents" based out of Seattle Washington, the premier guiding company in North America for this mountain. I made an extra effort to further secure the services of "Vernan Tejas" their lead mountain guide. At that time Vernan had, (and still has), climbed Denali more times than any other person on Earth. His successful climb of it with us that year was his fifty second summit in total and his second summit that season alone. He has also climbed Everest eight times and he holds the world record for the fastest consecutive climbs of each of the "seven summits" which are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. In mountaineering terms, climbing Denali with Vernan Tejas is like playing golf with Tiger Woods as your partner. I was ecstatic at this opportunity. Vernan was very cordial and he had genuine charm. I was awestruck at his abilities. Our flight out to and start to our climb of the mountain was generally uneventful. From base camp we made our way along the glacier eight miles to the first camp. From there we proceeded up "Ski Hill" to 11,000' camp, then up "Motorcycle Hill" and around "Windy Corner" to 14,000' camp. From there we buried our sleds into a giant cache we had dug out of the snow and then scaled the fixed lines up a steep wall of snow and ice to stash a cache of food into the west buttress ridge. We did this so we could split the weight we would be carrying up to high camp at 17,000'. We started once again at 14,000' camp climbing the fixed lines with our remaining gear and we passed by our food cache on the ridge and continued straight up the full length of the west buttress ridge all the way to high camp where we set up all our tents and gear. Then Vernan, Manfred and I climbed back down the west buttress ridge and retrieved the food cache we had earlier buried and we hauled it back up to high camp, For each climb up and down the west buttress ridge we had to carefully work our way past "Washburn's Thumb", which is a huge rock prominence on the ridge that blocks the route. There is a small edge on one side of the rock just wide enough to very carefully sidestep along. If you slip... there is an 8,000' abyss awaiting you. Once fully set up at high camp, fed and rested, we awaited our opportunity for a summit bid. Vernan was by far the most experienced guide on the mountain and all other guides at high camp.... no matter the company they worked for... deferred to his judgement as to when they would make their own attempts with their respective teams for the summit. Vernan said that there were three things which needed to be happening simultaneously for him to deny any attempt for the top. One was extreme winds. The second was heavy snow. The third was thick cloud. If all three conditions existed at the same time, we would not go. Fortunately for me this trip, we had only two of the three conditions on the day we set out for the top. There were brisk, but not extreme winds and although some light clouds buffeted the top on and off, it was not snowing... so off we went. The final push to the summit from high camp starts with a short trudge to the base of a long traverse across a steeply sloped snow/ice wall known as the "Autobahn." I was told that the reason it got this name is because climbers who've had the unfortunate instance of falling while attempting this steep traverse run the great risk of instantly beginning to tumble, rapidly picking up speed until they finally arrest back at the plateau of high camp many hundreds of feet below. In 2013 an Alpine Ascents guide and two of her clients perished at this very spot in just such a fall. Over the years many others have perished here as well. Once across this dangerous passage you climb up and past "Zebra Rocks", so named because of their odd black and white striped markings. From there you make your way further up to the "Football Field" which is a large flat plateau feature a few hundred metres across stopping at the base of "Pig Hill" which is the last steeply sloped few hundred metre push up to the final summit ridge. Once on the summit ridge you plod along gently undulating snow and eventually you come upon a non descriptive, barely discernible mound in the ridge containing a small circular marker in the snow with a short flag nearby. Congratulations. You have arrived at the summit of Denali, the highest mountain in all of North America at 20,320 feet above sea level. We celebrated for a short time hugging each other and shaking hands, and we took our pictures. Then, without further ado, we began our descent back down to high camp the same way we came up. Once back at high camp, exhausted, we ate and the we all set in for a good nights sleep. The remainder of the climb back down to base camp on the glacier and the flight off the mountain was fairly uneventful. I think I lost about 13 pounds in total in the time I spent on the mountain. Climbing Denali is one of the most adventurous I have succeeded at and I recommend it to anyone looking for a personal goal to challenge themselves with. My many thanks to lead guide Vernan Tejas and second guide, Sam Hennesey, of Alpine Ascents and also to my team mates for making this a great experience for me.
© Steve Tambosso - "The Wandering Fireman"