Summer Touches Denali

A total of 496 people reached the top of Denali this season, a 45% success rate. A touch below average, but with a long storm in the midst of the high season, understandable.

As a few teams tried to sneak in a final summit, some dodgy weather and an approaching storm had even the highly experienced and well-known late season summiter Dave Hahn headed back down the hill from High Camp.

While the stats tell one story – it would seem on both Denali and Everest you have around a 50% chance of summiting.  Often the more interesting climbing stories are found in the ones who didn’t summit. A summit elicits a ‘congratulations’, and not summiting elicits a ‘why’ and begs a story, an excuse, a justification.

As Kilian Jornet says:

    • “You need to be humble. This sport is about improving, not winning,” he told Outside. “You never learn from victory.”

While Steve Plain upped the speed ante this year by getting up all 8 summits in a record 117 days, the combination of skills, fitness, logistics and a lot of luck can play a huge role. If you are climbing one peak, its often not so hard to plot a return.

To complete the 7 without a return to one or two is often more a matter of good luck than good planning. Anyone planning rapid ascents in 2014 and 2015 of all 7 summits were almost completely shut out by the combination of avalanches and earthquakes on Everest.

Well known Alaskan climber Mike Gordon, the long time former proprietor of Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage, related being blown off the normally straight-forward Elbrus twice. He finally went back and on his third attempt, bravely persevering through yet another round of Borscht and Vodka, reached the top of Europe.

Meanwhile in the past 2 weeks, Peter Hillary and his sons George and Alexander flew halfway around the world and climbed right up Les Trois Monts to the top of Mont Blanc, followed a week later by Elbrus, in what can only be seen as rather wintry conditions.

The three or so weeks many spend on Denali belie little of the training, the planning, the struggle just to get there.  Of the 7 summits, the abrupt transition from American hedonism: of burgers and beers and bear rugs in Talkeetna, to the harsh life of the glacier can be a real shock. Then the multitude of ropes, harness, slings and crevasse rescue gear is enough to confound most all of us before we even leave camp.

Even though there were some very interesting ascents on Denali this season, particularly by women, the vast majority of the climbers were on the West Buttress. Which does beg the question if people are there to experience the mountain, or just to climb it?

Not to say it isn’t an achievement to get up by any means, and certainly of the 7, Denali is one of the most beautiful, challenging and pristine of all the peaks, with its remote location in the near-polar regions. Yet are we at times victims of simply wanting to follow the ‘piste’ (ski run) as Messner suggests.

Messner at Firmian Castle.jpg
Messner at Firmian Castle, South Tyrol, Italy.

Several speed records pop to mind:

  • Kilian’s speed ascent of Denali in just under 12 hours, from Kahiltna Glacier Camp to the summit and return.
  • Steve Plains incredibly fast time this year on the full 7 summits in 117 days, including a very early season ascent of Denali that helped make it all possible, followed by some of the best weather Everest has seen in years.

Of course if you polish off the 7 summits that quickly, what have you really experienced – can you even remember where you have been?

For many it is more of a life quest, to be planned, reviewed, dreamed and accomplished over many years, as opposed to approached as a race, where with blinders on you race from country to country. Priorities may then may become as much about an upgrade to first class to rest your weary legs, as good weather to get the helicopter in to Base Camp as quickly as possible.

On the flip side, you could hearken back to Ralph Waldo Emerson who said:

‘Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience,’ should you be searching for the more zen-like experience.