Denali Day 14, 03-Apr-2018: Summit! Summit!! Summit!!!
I’m not too sure what to say. That has just been one of the toughest days I’ve ever had in the hills. The feeling is strange. I am not excited, I am not thrilled, I am not even relieved. I am glad it’s done but know we still have a few more days in this inhospitable environment until we are back to civilisation and can then reflect on what we just achieved.
Before I go on, I’d like to apologise to anyone following my tracker for any angst it may have caused when the battery died on our descent, and also now for the updates being delayed. Turns out the battery in the GPS tracker likes -40degC temperatures even less than I do.
Jon and I set out from 14k Camp on our summit attempt at 09:15. We initially went back up the headwall, climbing made easier with the aid of fixed ropes we set a few days ago. From there on we were on new terrain.
A narrow exposed ridge led across to 17k Camp we stopped for a break and quick gear change. It was time to suit up. Jon donning his bright yellow down suit and me jumping into my bright orange onesie. The height of mountain fashion.
The midday sun provided some warmth but was still bitterly cold. To give you an idea of just how cold it was, I had a water bottle in a chest pocket INSIDE my down suit which froze solid within a few hours. And that posed another risk, dehydration.
Above 17k Camp we traversed “The Autobarn” and rounded “Denali Pass”. With the combined effects of dehydration and altitude our progress slowed considerably. It became a real struggle. In the back of my mind was the constant thought of when we should turn back.
By 18:00 the summit was in sight but still several hours off. We stopped for a short break and Jon said to me, “If we keep going, do you have enough in you to get back down?” I just nodded and asked him the same question, to which he also nodded. With that we pushed on. It was a big call to continue pushing up the mountain with the sun setting behind us, but we each had implicit faith in each other and in ourselves.
With temperatures dropping to -45degC, it was 21:45 by the time Jon and I took the final steps to the summit. The sun had set but from our vantage point we could still see a brilliant orange glow across the horizon below us. As spectacular as it was, it was incredibly daunting. We had pushed very hard on the way up and still had a very long, cold night ahead of us until we were down safe.
Dehydrated, fatigued and battling extreme cold, the night turned into a delirious blur. Several times I just wanted to stop and sit down, but knew that was not an option. We had to keep moving, it was our only way of maintaining some resemblance of body warmth. Descending steep, exposed terrain, we also had to try and remain focused and alert. It was not a time to make a mistake.
It was 05:00 the following morning by the time Jon and I finally stumbled back into camp, a grueling 20hr round trip. We got out of all our frozen gear and collapsed in our tent. Epic!
Chris and Rob unfortunately with less acclimatisation decided not to attempt the summit from 14k camp in such a narrow weather window but their support throughout the entire trip was invaluable.
“Go with the decision that will make for a great story.”