Denali, previously called Mount McKinley, with its 6.144 meters high, is known to be the highest mountain peak in North America. The West Buttress route is considered to be the safest and therefore the most popular currently in use.
The West Buttress route is very demanding, although it is not technical. Indeed, it does not include rock climbing nor vertical ice climbing, but the conditions will be extreme. The expedition is long. There are steep climbing sections. The terrain is full of glaciers. Altitude is an important factor and the temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Celsius so you need proper training, mountaineering and expedition experience, adequate equipment, and a very strong mental strength to stand the third most isolated mountain in the world.
I went through very tough moments when climbing Denali, more than any other expedition of the Seven Summits. I experienced the coldest weather ever. It added an other challenge being the only woman in a team of 10 with guides. I remembered climbing in the thin air, carrying and pulling more than 60% of my weight. I had tears in my eyes because of the suffering, In those moments, I kept thinking about my family. This is not only my challenge, but theirs as well. This boosted me enormously.
First time in Alaska
My trip started by flying to Anchorage beginning of May 2018 and then taking a transfer minibus to Talkeetna.
After a gear check and buying some of missing items, we packed our personal and our common gear. The weather was not appropriate to fly from Talkeetna to Denali Base Camp. We used the waiting time to refresh our skills in Crevasse rescue. After waiting two days we were able to fly. We spent one night in the base camp before starting our journey. We were self sufficient during the whole expedition that is why we were carrying heavy loads.
In general, there are 4 camps. Due to a thunderstorm, we setup an additional camp between Camp 1 and Camp 2. In average, the temperature was around -15 degrees Celsius during the day and -20 Celsius during the nights. The weather in Camp 4 was particularly cold and windy. The temperature dropped to -40 degrees Celsius. Due to exhaustion, sickness and lack of skills, three team members were not able to reach Camp 4 at 5.240 meters. Despite that, I was still determined enough to finish this journey.
Due to its remoteness and the fact that there were no camps setup in advance, we carried our own food and cookers the whole expedition. Typically, we would eat in the morning porridge. During the rest days, we were spoiled with delicious pancakes. Lunch and dinner could be either rice with some cane vegetables or most of the time, pasta with mushrooms or tuna. As dessert, we had sometimes cookies or pancakes.
The Denali national park has very strict guidelines regarding the human wastes. We received little buckets. With plastic bags, we used them as toilets for Nr 2. We used to cache the bags in every camp. On the way down, we collected them and brought them back to Talkeetna, where they were disposed.
The night of the summit push, we were 4 people in a tent meant for only three. Our mattresses were partially lying on each other. I could barely sleep that time. On the 28th of May 2018, the sky was clear with almost no winds. We started our climb at 8:30 AM. I was wearing two base layer leggings and stretched hiking plus puffy pants. When moving up the first part of the route, the so called “Autobahn”, we were stopping very often. There were many anchors along the way. The teams put carabiners in the anchors and passed the rope attaching the team members to each other through those carabiners. The Autobahn section is in the shadow. My toes were freezing though my 8.000 meters boots. I kept moving them to keep the blood circulation. There was no room for being weak at that moment. I knew it would not be easy, but I told my self not give up.
As we reached the Denali pass at 5.550 meters, we started running into the heat. I took off some layers. The air felt extremely thin though it was not particularly high. From then on, we started seeing the summit ridge. This gave me another energy push to immediately reach the summit. One team member had to turn back with one guide because he didn’t feel well. We continued about 2 hours on a terrain, which was long but not particularly steep.
Then we had to gain elevation to reach the summit ridge. We crossed a section with high steps. Plenty of climbers were resting here. As we reached a big flat plateau before the ridge, we made a short break and we continued towards the summit. The ridge was extremely narrow but the view was magnificent. Strong winds were dominating the summit. We took few minutes to enjoy the magnificent view of the surrounding mountains, before starting our descent towards Camp 4, in which we spent the night.
The next morning we descended to Camp 3. It felt heart warming to be reunited with my tent mates and the rest of the team who couldn’t make it to the summit with us. I felt sorry for them but their safety must be the priority. I spent the rest of the day packing. The next day we descended all the way down to Base Camp. We were stopping in each camp and gathering the things we cached on the way up. It was incredibly warm in the Base Camp.Some team members slept under the stars. I stayed faithful to my tent with my two team mates.
We were lucky, that the next morning the sky was clear and there were no winds. Flights kept circulating and we were able to fly back to Talkeetna. It was just incredible to be under a hot shower few hours after having woke up the same day in one of the most remote areas on the planet!