The stormy weather up here on Denali has been difficult for climbers to deal with. Very few groups have summited recently. A couple of teams got to the top because they were ahead of us in acclimation and camped at 17,200, and took advantage of very short weather windows. Another group just went ahead and did a somewhat dangerous push out of the acclimation safety envelope. Since half our group has no altitude experience we’re not willing to do that.
Friday we did a summit attempt because we heard there might be a short weather window. The window didn’t materialize. After climbing the knife ridge and rocky scramble section up to 17,200 feet, we rounded a corner and got blasted by stiff ten below zero 30 mph gusts.
Conditions were too harsh for us to continue climbing. No one else was up there either. We hope there might be another short period of climbable weather on Sunday when we’ll give it another go.
Some of you might wonder about our strategy of staying at 14,200 and planning on the full 6,000 vertical foot climb for a summit, instead of staging from 17,200. Both strategies have merit. Fairly fit groups who take the time to do acclimation climbs generally do well with the 14,200 foot camp strategy, so that’s why we’ve been sticking with it. Downside is you can’t catch the really short summit weather windows. Upside is that 17,200 camp is a brutal, miserable place and even somewhat dangerous due to the altitude, difficulty of self-care in the cold and wind, etc. That is unless you get a period of beautiful weather which is not happening for us.
As for me, the 6,000 vertical foot strategy is tough and I’m not sure I can make it. But what good would a summit be without the challenge of uncertainty? Conversely, for me to carry loads up the semi-technical terrain to 17,200 would have been a miserable process with uncertain outcome for increasing my chances for success. Since I’ve summited before, I figure I’ll just relax and do what works best for the boys. They seem ready for what might be the hardest 6,000 vertical of their lives — though I believe it is totally doable for them.
Tension has mounted a bit in the group due to all the strategizing the weather is requiring. But we’re still friendly and cohesive, which is so important for safety. No major health issues either. If anything, we’re all tired from Friday and would like more recovery time before another push, especially this old man. But we’ll get two nights and a day, which is probably enough to do the trick.
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.