Dueling with Denali

Troy Henkels is a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School and a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He is the son of Peter and Mary Henkels of Dubuque, and just spent 12 months in the Antarctic. His next adventure will take him across the Greenland ice cap.

Life gets interesting sometimes, or so I thought, when I agreed to a climbing expedition on North America’s highest peak, Denali, or more commonly referred to as Mt. McKinley. Little did I know how interesting my life would get. My partner, a 52 year old, Denali veteran, had attempted this peak three times over the past 25 years. As I listened to these words, I was doing the math in my head figuring out that I was only seven years old when he made his first attempt. He had been dreaming of reaching the summit for longer than I had been alive. Ford had climbed big peaks all over the world, but Denali had defeated him on three consecutive attempts. At first consideration of this expedition it seemed like a small undertaking, as I was in the middle of an Antarctic winter and somehow, wrongly presumed, that a climb up Denali would be a cake walk compared to winter in the Antarctic.

Many months of emails, phone calls, and faxes followed trying to get the expedition organized and insure that we had ample food and gear to survive whatever fate Denali could throw at us. We decided to allow ourselves 25 days on the mountain and if we couldn’t reach the top by then, it was not meant to be. What most people don’t realize is that 25 days might not be enough on a mountain that creates its own weather, has ambient summer temperatures in the –30s and –40s F, as well as being home to some of the worlds most awe inspiring and dangerous glaciers and mountain peaks. At 20,320 feet, Denali has been compared to many Himalayan peaks because of it’s high latitude and extreme rise from sea level to summit. It has the most dramatic vertical rise in the world, greater than even Everest’s. As a result, Denali experiences some of the most severe storms anywhere in the world and gets the full force of weather moving inland off the Bering Sea.

Myself, having lived in and around Denali Park for seven years, allowed me time to dream of reaching the summit. In those years I paid my dues and acquired mountaineering skills climbing smaller peaks in the Alaska Range. I felt I had done my apprentice work and was now prepared to tackle the “big one”. We decided just two of us would go, no guide, and up a route that was well known, the West Buttress. In the short Alaskan climbing season, which runs from late April to early July, Denali can see as many as 1,000 climbers. Success rates vary, but typically are no better than 50% due to high winds, cold temps., poor weather, fatigue, accidents, frostbite, and altitude sickness.

Several days before we departed for Talkeetna, the jumping off point to fly into base camp, Ford, looked at me and quite frankly said, “We’ll see dead people up there. I have every trip.” This I knew was a very real possibility, and even feasible that it could be one of us. It made me wonder about the sense of climbing a peak where there is the inherent risk of not coming back alive. For me, mountaineering is a calculated risk, and it is always dangerous. Climbing big mountains and living on glacial terrain has allowed me some of the most difficult, yet rewarding experiences I have ever had. It always seemed that injury and death happened to others. Ford’s comment made me realize this is not always the case. He would be leaving a wife and 3 children behind for this climb, while I, on the other hand was leaving behind my trusty 1983 Subaru. We both had our concerns, but knew that our fate was to climb this mountain, despite the dangers.

On May 18th, we drove to Talkeetna under clear skies and spectacular views of the mountain we hoped to climb. In a State that can have more rainy days in summer than sunny, we felt lucky. Denali looked so far away and so high that it should be impossible to climb. Once in Talkeetna we spent several hours sorting out hundreds of pounds of gear and food. This was a job in itself, as was packing the ski equipped bush plane with everything that we would need to live for 25 days on the mountain. In less than an hour we went from spring in Alaska to winter in the Alaska range. The flight over mountain passes and glaciers of immense proportion went by all too quickly as we landed on the Kahiltna glacier and base camp at 7,200 feet. Shortly thereafter we watched the high altitude Llama helicopter arrive unexpectedly in camp. It was attempting a rescue of 3 Brits that were stuck near the summit in a horrific storm. Two were rescued in the highest helicopter extraction in history. The third member was not to be found. Two days later he was found, cold but alive. He lost both arms and legs due to exposure and frostbite. Once again I wondered what I was doing climbing this mountain.

Our plan was to climb Expedition Style, which means climbing the mountain twice. We would carry loads of supplies up the mountain, cache (stockpile and bury) them, and retreat to our lower camp on the mountain. The next day we would move camp up to where we previously cached our gear. At this rate, climbing Denali is a long, tedious endeavor that can last up to four weeks.

Our first eight days on Denali was spectacular. Almost uncharacteristically, the weather was clear, sunny, and at times even hot. Being too hot and dehydrated was more of a problem than being too cold. Nights found temperatures below zero and daytime temperatures above 60 degrees. The long days covering miles and miles on gradual slopes of the glacier, seemed endless. Although not technically difficult, days traveling on the glacier were hot and extremely exhausting. By the fourth day, the terrain began to change. Our world was gradually becoming more vertical. We would camp at the base of monster hills with names like ski hill, motorcycle hill, and the headwall. It seemed to me every day the hills got a little steeper, the air a little thinner, and the temperatures a little colder. By day nine we were dug in at 14,200 feet in a campsite that looked more like an artillery installment. Like every other camp, we built six foot walls all around the tent to protect our temporary home from Denial’s infamous high winds and extreme storms….none that we had experienced, yet.

By the tenth day we were in the midst of bad weather. No one was moving up or down the mountain. We still
felt the need to position our supplies to insure the best possible amount of success if the weather did break.
We decided to carry some gear and food up the headwall to 16,500’. We set out to calm, overcast skies and
light snow. The three hour trip up the near vertical headwall was fantastic. Because of the severity of
this slope, the top portion of the headwall is protected with fixed lines, for safety sake. Front pointing on
crampons up 65 degree ice is the name of the game on this wall. It was the first day that I truly felt like we
were climbing. By the time we reached the bottom of the fixed lines, we had passed 4 groups that had come
down complaining of extremely dangerous conditions higher on the wall, with gusts to 60mph and very cold
temperatures. Despite others’ warnings, we were 2 hours into the headwall and were determined to cache our
50 pound loads at the top of the wall. I was in my element on this wall. The weather reminded me of
Antarctica, with snow, high winds, and near vertical terrain. We battled freezing fingers and climbed on for
another hour and a half to the top of the wall. We found protection from the wind behind a large rock and
conversed with a small group of Belgians that had just done the same climb. They were as excited about the
weather as I and planned to continue on to high camp at 17,200 feet, which in this weather appeared to us to
be suicide. We buried our supplies and retreated to our camp at 14,200. By the time we returned, it had
calmed down a bit, but was still overcast and snowing. We had lucked out and pulled off this small
accomplishment of the climb in questionable weather. We still faced the dilemma of how long would we sit
and wait for weather to break enough for us to try for the summit.

There were many climbing teams in camp at 14,200’, which is the staging area for teams attempting the summit. There were as many as 40 people in camp, so we had good company and made good friends in the time we spent there. It became ever more interesting to watch teams struggle against the mountain. We watched a young team from Quebec battle against the mountain daily and turn in exhausted at the end of the day. There was a very strong pair from Wyoming that made a summit bid after 3 miserable days at 17,200. They got turned back halfway to the summit in 60mph winds and freezing fingers. And there were the Lander Boys, three NOLS instructors, with an aversion to laughing and having fun. They were the best friends we were to make on the mountain. They headed out to move to high camp one day in questionable weather. We saw them off with our best wishes. Five hours later, after exhausting themselves on the headwall, they returned. One of their members was experiencing Cerebral Edema, swelling of the brain. In light of this, they retreated back to 14,200’ camp, as Edema can result in death very quickly. We watched a very strong team out of Fairbanks sit in bad weather for 2 days at 14,200’ camp and retreat at the first news of an unfavorable weather report for the next four days. We met people from all over the world while waiting out weather at 14,200’. There were Spaniards, Polish, Canadians, Argentineans, Norwegians, Russians, Italians, French, Romanians, Germans, British, and even one climber from Basque. It was a true experience exchanging stories with climbers from around the world. On this mountain, no one cared what your job was or how much money you made. Everyone was there for common reasons, and that was all that mattered.

After 8 days in camp at 14,200’ feet our patience was growing thin. We had watched teams move higher in hopes of good weather and return defeated. We hoped to not fall to this same fate. We tried to maintain our patience and mental focus. This period of time was the most mentally and emotionally demanding part of the climb. In a world of thin, cold air, human defenses get broken down quickly and our team was no different. Still, there was no favorable forecast, and we started talking of retreat. We were aware that every day spent on the mountain made us weaker physically and mentally. In the end, we both would lose 10 pounds.

Finally, on day seventeen, we woke to clear, calm, sunny skies. We quickly melted enough snow to supply us with water and packed up camp. The long climb this day would take us to 17,200 feet and our high camp. We climbed the headwall in unbearable heat with heavy loads, only to reach the top and have to pick up our cache and more weight. Climbing at this altitude with a 80 pound pack is not the most enjoyable thing going. Above the headwall the terrain gets a bit more difficult. The route follows a rocky spinned ridge all the way to 17,200’ . At times we crossed areas that were very technical with drop offs from the ridge exceeding 3000’. A trip, fall, stumble or any error at all, would prove detrimental and possibly fatal. Fortunately we navigated this part of the route flawlessly and arrived at high camp throghoughly exhausted. Both of us feeling no altitude sickness was a positive sign that we had spent ample time acclimating at lower elevations. Setting up camp, however, was a job in itself. Trying to find the motivation to cut blocks of snow to protect our tent was a chore. I would do one task and have to sit and rest for awhile before I could do more. At this altitude and even in the middle of the day it was cold out, so rest breaks were short. Fortunately there was no wind. After several hours, camp was set up, snow was melted, and food prepared. We spent the night recovering from the brutal climb up to high camp, and discussing our game plan. We hoped for another clear day, but Ford was unsure if he could climb two 3000’ days back to back. I had no idea if I could either, but I was willing to try if we had the weather to do it. We decided to get up early and climb higher as long as the elements allowed. On a mountain that creates its own weather and experiences more inclement than favorable weather, one must utilize efficiently every break in the weather. I’d learned in the Alaska Range to utilize good weather when it was available. Many accidents high on Denali happen because of storms that move in unexpectedly and strike with such ferousiouness, that humans cannot survive.

Early the next morning we awoke to clear, sunny skies and no wind. One of our biggest concerns was not so much the cold weather, but the wind. This season had been an extremely windy one on Denali, even though we had experienced very little wind. The ambient air temperature was –20F. We packed light loads consisting of food, water, and a few extra clothes. Roped up and headed across a basin to yet another steep hill leading up to a landmark called Denali Pass. This section of the climb took about two hours and was in the shadow of the mountain, and as a result extremely cold. We had to stop every few minutes to warm our freezing fingers. At the top of Denali Pass I was relieved to finally be in the seeming warmth of the sun, but this was offset by a 10 knot wind coming up from the other side of the pass. Things would be getting even colder.

With both of us feeling well, we opted to climb on. I presumed we were about halfway to the summit, but I was very wrong. Six hours later I would make this realization. We climbed higher into the rarefied air and struggled with each step to get enough oxygen into our systems. The going was slow but steady. At this point in the climb, the terrain was not dangerous, other than the possibility of crevasses. We traveled for hours, which seemed like an eternity, with very few breaks. We wanted to utilize our time the best we could before the weather turned bad. We stopped for a break below the last long steep hill leading to the summit ridge. I sat down and promptly drifted off into a deep sleep. I have never been so physically and emotionally exhausted in my entire life. I’ve read about climbers on Everest that sit down exhausted, unable to climb on, get hypothermic, and freeze to death. As I drifted into sleep I hoped that no one would wake me. I hoped that I could just stay where I was and die. I was content with that, as long as I didn’t have to climb the next incline. I figured it was a good way to go, much better than dying in a car accident in front of a Kmart in a city somewhere. Fortunately, my partner woke me to continue on. We passed the Lander Boys, two of them anyway, on their return from the summit. Emotions ran wild as we hugged and passed on our congratulations and they gave us fair warning of the terrain ahead and the length we still had to go. We climbed on.

We attacked the last steep face with slow, steady steps, and many rest breaks. It was a demoralizing, near vertical face that stood between us and our goal. At several points during the ascent of this face, I broke down in tears. I was at the edge of my physical and emotional capacities. Denali had taken everything that I was made of and still demanded more. The realization hit me that indeed, I would make the summit, and that urged the tears on as well. After an hour I pulled myself over the small cornice at the top of the face and immediately looked down 6000 feet to the glacier below. I sat down to get my bearings, before I had time to stumble and take a deadly fall. I belayed Ford up and we took in the immense views and analyzed the summit ridge. It was a knife edge, about shoulder width leading ever higher. We discussed protecting the ride with oversized stakes, called pickets. We opted to save the time and go without, both of us knowing that one slip would be our last. This last ridge to the summit was difficult and seemingly endless. We encountered false summit after false summit all the way to the top. My adrenaline was in overdrive as I led across the wildest ridge I had ever been on. The ridge was heavily corniced and of some concern to both of us, as drop offs in each direction were several thousand feet. We traveled on and climbed higher in the thin air. Finally, I made the last push and stood on the summit of Denali and the top of North America. I belayed Ford up and we both shared a moment of tears. It had been a long journey, and a long time in the planning. It had taken more effort than either of us had imagined, and oddly, we both knew that it was only half over.

We took in the endless views in all directions and savored the Alaska Range in all its beauty. No one knew better than Ford that it might be sometime before either of us would stand in this special place again. Ford having waited 25 years for this moment, knew that it might be his first and only time to stand on this coveted mountain top. For 15 minutes we endured the –25F ambient temperature and 10 mph wind before we looked down the ridge and decided it was time to retreat to our 17,200 camp. It had already been a long day and we had many hours yet to descend to the relative safety of our tent. As we headed down, we both knew that most accidents happen on the descent, after exhaustion, fatigue, wind, and bitter cold set in. Our trip down the summit ridge and the steep wall leading to the ridge was flawless. Once back down to the wide expanse known as the football field, I could hardly walk and if stopped could not stand. As Ford pressed on, little did he know of my condition on the other end of the rope. I staggered downhill like I was drunk, unable to control my legs. My concerns grew, as I knew this was a long trip over difficult terrain, yet to navigate. If we stopped at all, I could not stand, and would fall to the ground for a short rest, before resuming the sporadic pace that I was creating. It seemed like the march from hell that would not end. To compound the difficulties, the wind had picked up, making it even colder than it already was and creating increasing visibility problems. The weather could be dealt with and I was used to such conditions from my time spent in Antarctica. My lack of leg coordination was another issue. As I staggered and stumbled, my mind raced as to what I would do if I was not able to descend Denali Pass. Oddly, it took me hours to figure out what was wrong.

At the top of Denali Pass we took a break, I had to. I had not eaten all day and had only drank a half a quart of water in the past 10 hours. Not enough. I knew something had to change before I negotiated the dangerous slopes of Denali Pass, or this could be a fatal trip down. I ate and drank and ate and drank, and this was the answer. With coordination and strength back in my legs we continued down the pass. Both of us knew this was critical area. With fatigue and cold setting in, mistakes are made easily. Fortunately we made it down to the glacier that is home to the 17,200’ camp. The last traverse across this glacier to our tent was in misery. The wind had picked up to 40 mph and a ground blizzard was blotting out visibility. Our concerns were no longer for ourselves, as we knew that we would make it to the safety of our tent. We talked of the few teams we had passed coming down that were still going up. It was late in the day and they would have a brutal challenge to get back to camp and not have to bivouac high on the mountain. A possible fatal situation. One guided group and the Michigan boys remained high on Denali.

After 11.5 hours we crawled back into the tent. We had done it, summited Denali! A thing of both our dreams for so long. Ford, exhausted after 11.5 hours of climbing, fell immediately asleep. I felt great, due to the food and water I consumed above Denali Pass. We were both thankful that one of us was in good enough shape to boil water and cook food. Awhile later I woke Ford up to eat and drink, so we would be fueled for the continued descent down the mountain. A few hours after our arrival in camp, the Michigan Boys show up, battered and cold, but in good spirits. They had summited and descended without incident. They begin to boil water and cook food as well. Not until the next morning did we learn of the guided group behind us that summited, but did not make it back to camp until mid-night, in the peak of the storm. All members suffered frostbite of some degree on their faces, hands, and feet, but luckily none severe enough to merit a high altitude rescue.

By morning, the wind had died and it was still clear. We packed up camp and descended the same route we had come up 2 days earlier. Our loads were obscenely large and heavy. We slogged down some of the most diverse, beautiful terrain in the world. Above the headwall, we picked up what was left of our cache, making our loads over 100 pounds. This made the headwall extremely difficult and a sweltering sun did not help matters at all. Such irony on this mountain, there never seems an in between. It was either too hot or too cold. Today it was too hot!! Once at 14,200’ camp, we picked up another cache and tried to eliminate any weight that we could. We successfully jettisoned all our extra food and fuel. Fortunately other groups ascending had underestimated their needs and could use our extra supplies. A team of Russian climbers took all our food and several minutes later showed up with a huge skillet of scrambled eggs with ham. All we could understand was “we make American breakfast for you”. We were more than grateful, as this breakfast fueled us for the next 12 hours as we made our way back to the safety of base camp.

We loaded our packs and sleds and continued down the mountain to sunny, clear skies. Our hopes were to get off the mountain before the next storm moved in and left us stranded. Thoughts of cheeseburgers and summer kept us moving, despite worn out bodies and minds. By midnight we were safely back in basecamp and enjoying Moosestew, that we had cached 20 days earlier. It was quite possibly the best meal I have ever devoured.

The next day was sunny and clear, to our good luck. We waited for our bush pilot to fly us back to civilization. Twenty days, a summit, and all appendages intact. Ford and I both were proud and happy. As other teams battled the heat of mid day, we were on our way back home, summer, friends, and family. Feeling good, we watched an older man struggle into camp. Sporting a plaid flannel shirt and multipocketed fishing vest, we recognized him from our summit day. We peppered this man with questions. In broken English we learned that he was 60 years old and from Poland. He had not climbed in 15 years, and currently lived in the US and was a Professor at LSU. His wife thought this climb was a suicide mission and had returned to Poland to be with family when she received the call of his death on this great mountain. The longer this conversation went on, the more humbled we became. He had just soloed Denali, an amazing challenge in itself. Not only did this 60 year old solo the mountain, but he did it in 8 days!!!!! We were astounded. We felt 20 days was a feat, and now this. We held this man in high regard and with much respect. The hour we spent conversing with him was a pleasure. This climb was not rejuvenating his interest in climbing, but it was closing the book on his climbing career. This last hoorah was a splendid one. I listened to his theories of climbing and climbers, and his voice still echoes within me saying “So many nice places, why mountains?” We both silently understood and said no more.

And yet, anther man skied into camp under some distress. His comment to the base camp manager that directs all the flight operations, was that he had summited and his partner would be along in about an hour, “he has a bad leg” he said. A few minutes later, we learned from Annie, the base camp manger, that this was Ed. He climbed without the help of legs. He was the first double amputee with prosthetic legs to summit the highest peak in North America. Years ago, Ed’s bush plane had crashed at Kahiltna pass and a rescue was delayed due to bad weather, for several days. He lost both legs due to frostbite. He was now back to the same area, climbing a peak that had been the cause of the loss of his legs. And he summited and was in great spirits.

Ford and I were impressed beyond words. Feeling very humbled, we loaded the plane and left the mountain, thus ending our expedition. We were happy to have summited, and honored to have met two men in a small place in time, that had accomplished exactly what we had, but under much more severe hardships. Looking back, climbing Denali was more of an experience than I had ever dreamed, and once again, I thought, life gets interesting sometimes.

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald June 1999. Copyright 1999 Troy Henkels