Jonathan Waterman’s resume is stuffed with adventure accomplishments such as the first winter ascent of the Cassin ridge on Denali (1982). He’s been up, down and around North America’s highest mountain dozens of times and written three books focusing on the the peak. Yet strangely enough he’s only climbed Denali once — when he took a nap on the summit in 1981 after ascending the West Rib route (waiting for his partner). Other times he’s been ‘to’ the Denali summit on four different routes, but by design or necessity he halted within a step or two of the apex survey marker, a personal quirk that amuses his friends, but makes sense once you hear Jon’s take.
Among Jon Waterman’s twelve popular adventure-conservation books (see Amazon author link at bottom of post), three focus on Denali: ‘Surviving Denali’ is a primer that still saves people’s lives. ‘High Alaska’ remains an amazing compendium of mouth watering routes that have been the stuff of dreams for thousands of alpinists. ‘In the Shadow of Denali’ is his best selling book, where he amused and even shocked tens of thousands of climbers and non climbers alike. Much of Jon’s literary hat trick stems from three decades ago when he repeatedly returned to the peak to climb it, work as a guide, and as a mountaineering ranger.
What Jon thought would be his last time up Denali took place in 1993 when traversing from Wonder Lake to Talkeetna on skis and a kayak while making an Emmy winning, ESPN film — until he unexpectedly returned this spring, twenty-three years later. I was impressed, and eager to do a WildSnow dot com interview.
I caught Jon at a local coffee shop here in Colorado, for an interview focusing on what it was like to climb Denali more than two decades after his last visit. I was interested in a comparison of the now and then, but also his personal feelings upon experiencing anew a place that had been so large a part of his formative years as a climber and prolific writer. He was looking good, lean and fit, making me think: ‘hey, Denali must be good for the soul — and the body!’.
Jon, after my introduction I’m sure our readers are curious. What’s this about you not going to the Denali summit other than one time?
“My deliberate misses (including this time, stopping three feet shy) are to express that climbing should be about showing respect for the mountain and the great wilderness surrounding it, rather than a simple act of conquest or humankind versus the wild. I made a speech about this on camera while standing below the top for the ESPN show, but the sound track got cut because the producers were more interested in showing their TV audience the conventional and expected domination of nature. So stopping just a few feet short is my way of sticking to an ideal and making a small statement in the face of the hype surrounding whether you stand on top or not. It’s also to show that a climb is about the process — all the way from the flight or walk in through the wilderness to your turnaround point.
It’s a personal thing, rather than judgmental. And I’ll be the first to admit that a few times, due to sickness, questionable weather, or helping out others, I didn’t come close to the top despite trying.”
So, how did you end up back on Denali after so many years?
“The idea hit me only recently, in part because I’d seen you go back up there in 2010 at 58 years old, with your previous trip being way back in 1973. Mostly I missed both the mountain and that part of my life, helping other climbers, feeling dedicated to a cause. But I’ll also confess that I’m researching a new book about Denali.”
“So I contacted the mountaineering rangers and they were happy to include me in one of their ‘patrols’ as a volunteer. Thirty four years ago, as a ranger, I used to invite volunteers to join my patrols. Our leader this year — in a patrol of 7, including two Air Force parajumper medics and three other accomplished climbers — was the uber athlete and versatile mountaineering ranger Dan Corn (who guides for Exum the rest of the year). Believe me, if you’re planning a Denali trip, be glad guys like Corn, and his volunteers, let alone other equally competent mountaineering rangers, are up there to advise you let alone save your ass if everything goes south.”
One of the things I’m most curious about are the differences you saw between now and a quarter of a century ago?
– “The West Buttress ‘Washburn’ Route is very clean now. Ranger Roger Robinson’s ‘clean mountain cans’ for storing human waste have a lot to do with it. Back during my stint as a ranger, working with Roger, the mountain was littered with human feces, particularly up high. The other source of trash used to be abandoned or improperly buried food caches, often spread four sheets to the wind thanks to hungry ravens. Now you’re required to label your cache and bury it deep and if it’s not removed you can be fined. Also, most climbers, and nearly every guide, have become diligent about hauling all their gear and food off the mountain. Unfortunately, the Cassin Ridge (which the rangers aren’t allowed to patrol, even though most of them are skilled enough to climb it) is strewn with fixed ropes and abandoned caches.”
– “Clearly there are more climbers on the mountain now, almost entirely on the West Buttress. This is only several hundred people more than we dealt with in the early 80s (roughly 700 climbers attempted the mountain back then; now 1,000 climbers come each year) when we had a staff of three instead of nine. Still, this increase is just enough to cause waiting lines on the fixed ropes from 15,300 feet up to 17,200 feet, on the traverse to Denali Pass, then again on the summit ridge. I never experienced this kind of overcrowding in the past.”
– “The effects of climate change are obvious. One climber has been unexpectedly killed by rockfall — caused by warming conditions — just above Windy Corner (rangers and guided parties now wear helmets because of falling rocks here and up higher). Mount Crosson (facing Kahiltna Base) is now largely bare black rock without snow cover. On the lower glacier, the snow softens up much earlier in the year, weakening crevasse bridges. And the 8,000 foot entrance to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier has become an enormous hill above the slumping main fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, puddled with glacial melt ponds that I’d never seen before.”
– “Strangely, this year, more than a few parties were splitting up due to interpersonal difficulties or leadership issues. I’m not sure why. Could be that the mountain is simply more civilized so the consequences of breaking up an expedition are less severe. Also it could be the shifting modern mountaineering culture, with a lot more beginners on the mountain. In the past, despite many inexperienced climbers attempting the West Buttress, people used to take the mountain a lot more seriously and keep their teams together.”
– “I was distressed by those who made bad decisions or stupid mistakes, which I didn’t expect to see so much of this year with all the information online and in books now about Denali. For example, I met a guy who attempted the summit on a bad day, wearing single boots. He severely frostbit his feet, ended up in our medical tent, and was subsequently evacuated by helicopter. I’m not sure he even knew what his mistakes were. There’s a disconnect here, that with the ready availability of amazing high altitude climbing boots, that someone would be climbing Denali, one of the coldest mountains in the world, in single boots.”
— “I was also surprised about how many people were going for the summit on what I considered bad weather days and just doing klutzy or risky stuff in general — at 16,500 feet I watched a climber sit down for a rest, trip, and nearly roll off the ridge. I saw more than a few blackened finger tips and digits that were likely to be amputated. “Back in the day” I never thought it so miraculous that more people didn’t die on the mountain (although two died while I was on the mountain this June). I heard, at least once, from those who’d had close calls: ‘I know you! I read your book ‘Surviving Denali’.’ That was bizarre, knowing that they studied these accidents and still fell into the same patterns of victimization.”
– “It seems that more than ever before that the vast majority of climbers are on the West Buttress, while the moderate alpine routes are getting virtually no traffic. A few climbers still hit the difficult routes, like Colin Haley speed soloing the Infinite Spur on Foraker, or the two parties I saw coming down off the Cassin.”
– “Having cell phone service at 9,000 feet and 14,300 feet was a new surprise and a mixed blessing and I’m glad there’s not yet cell service on the summit if only because texting and chit chatting to distant family would cause a raft of problems (e.g., exacerbating summit crowding). Until recently at the 14,300 camp, you had to have a sat or radio phone if you wanted to talk to someone off the mountain, though I heard there was a period when you could get out on an analog cell if you had the right phone in exactly the right place.”
Okay, let’s get more personal, you had your 60th birthday on the summit, June 12. What was that like?
“I was definitely moved, at least on the way down when I realized what a whopping birthday gift I’d received. I never made a big deal about going for the summit on my actual birthday, knowing that having this kind of hubristic expectation, let alone imposing it upon our team, might cause the sort of karmic disaster that I’d analyzed and written about in “Surviving Denali”. But when Ranger Corn suggested we should go for it late that morning, I certainly didn’t hesitate.”
“The sense of returning to my ‘touchstone’ mountain was powerful. We passed groups on the way up who somehow got wind of my 60th and sang happy birthday as I passed. The whole thing was like a dream. I was stronger than ever before up high. And I felt truly privileged to get up there one more time after so many years. It didn’t seem to matter that my partners were 30 years younger than me, I felt like I’d stumbled upon some weird, temporary fountain of youth, and even though my VO2 max isn’t what it used to be, I certainly wasn’t slowing my rope mates down on this day. It was clear to me — despite my hypoxia — that the work I did with the park service decades before had jump started today’s incredible ranger program.
“On the summit, my good buddy Michael Hutchins pulled a ceremonial Nepalese kata out of his pack and draped it around my neck. I couldn’t have been more surprised. It was one of a few high points of my time on earth.”
I know you’ve had some problems with altitude over the years, how did it feel this time?
“I read a journal paper showing evidence, for whatever reason, that old farts acclimate better than young studs. In my case I definitely did better than in the past, with fewer AMS symptoms and relatively easy acclimation. Summit day went well, and I spent several nights at 17,200 feet camp with no more than the usual breathlessness, lack of appetite, and lassitude. Still, I couldn’t link more than a dozen ski turns or pull ups down at 14,300 feet — which the rest of the boys all participated in — without running out of gas. And I had trained before the expedition like I never before in hopes of not slowing anyone down.”
This is WildSnow.com, so I have to ask you about your gear.
“You’ll laugh. I used an ancient pair of Asolo double plastic boots that I had to shoo-goo and duct tape together after taking them down from my 20-foot high library, where they served as bookends, along with a 30-year old Chouinard axe and harness, a patched Thermarest that I last used on Denali in 1993, a hospital pee bottle (that got spilled beneath Corn’s sleeping bag) given to me along with my total hip replacement two years ago, topped off with a ragged, prototype Kelty Spectra fabric pack.”
“Every time I heard my young companions singing the praises of their several hundred dollar glacier glasses, I insisted they try my perfectly functional, Aloha bifocal reader shades — purchased for less than $24 from Amazon. As for skis, they were only 20 years old, recently mounted with Dynafit bindings. The style for these ranger patrols is to bring both climbing boots and ski boots; I used the Scarpa Maestrale for skiing.”
“Summit day, to keep an old frostbitten toe happy, I borrowed some crampon-holed park service Forty Below overboots and wore Pro-flex heated insoles. To help prevent the melanoma that killed my mom, I wore Elemental Herbs All Good 50 spf sun butter and deliberately didn’t rub it in clear on my face when I wanted better sun protection — resulting in the white clown face look of the 100 percent zinc oxide we wore in 1976 on Denali along with our wool clothing and leather boots.”
“One of the coolest experiences I had was a perfect skiing glide down the miles of Kahiltna glacier from around 11,000 feet down to Kahiltna Base. For the most part, I just stood tall on my skis, letting gravity pull me down, as mountains glowed like hopped-up IPAs alongside, slowly falling behind us. It was absolutely sublime. Capped off by digging out our beer cache at midnight on the landing strip.”
“Final gear story: one of my beater Salewa crampons (also a quarter-century old) fell off while trucking down the summit ridge. This was off-putting, as you can imagine, but I didn’t need to walk far to get off the exposed section of ridge, so I deliberately kept shuffling along, dragging the crampon behind. A guide who shouldered past, summit bound, mentioned my semi-detached spikes, and, in high spirits about hitting my seventh decade, I played the anonymous noob and kept walking, nonchalantly replying “Oh, I didn’t notice, thanks” as we passed — as if I would continue all the way down the mountain half shod. No doubt he and his group were horrified.”
(Check out our WildSnow dot com Denali gear QandA, perhaps Jon will chime in.)
Any other thoughts Jon?
“I felt privileged to be on the High One yet again. It was wonderful to see how the ranger program I was involved in so long ago has evolved into preserving the mountain and making it a safer place. Next year, Denali National Park will have its own birthday, turning 100 years old, and with the insight and experience gained from this trip, I’m planning to complete my final book on the mountain, with the working title of Saving Denali. It’ll be a more compelling sequel to ‘In the Shadow of Denali’, detailing the legacy of the park service rescue rangers, and unveiling the never-before-told story of how Denali’s most inspirational ascent was actually a fraud — hoodwinking the world. Stay tuned.”
(From Lou: Jon and I have been friends for years, since we met in the early days of our Outward Bound instructor stints and did some alpine climbing together. We’ve traded tips and gibes about writing, and Jon is the man behind my ski history book “Wild Snow.” Check Jon out on his Facebook, his website is nice as well, and be sure to keep an eye out for the new book he’s working on. Should be a winner.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.