"Decision made, decision made" - he stared out unblinking past me as he kept repeating the phrase, the words echoing around my head and turning my stomach to knots. I couldn't believe it. I tried to rationalise with him, argue, and then cry in frustration as I watched the guide trudge off up the slope with the other clients and finally disappear into the distance - a speck of black fading into the white snow.
We had flown into Base Camp at 7,200ft (2,200m) 12 days earlier from Talkeetna, a tiny town in Alaska. The 30 minute flight up to the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier was stunning with spectacular views of the range: Mt Foraker, Mt Hunter, the Moose’s Tooth, and Denali itself. The route we were following up Denali was the West Buttress, which over 90% of people attempt. First climbed in 1951 this covers 16.5 miles of horizontal distance and 13,570ft of ascent. The climb involves some serious glacial terrain and combined with the intense cold and wind as well as extreme northerly latitude, which leads to thinner air, the mountain is not to be underestimated.
We proceeded to follow the “climb high, sleep low” method up the mountain, part load carrying along the way and allowing our bodies time to get used to the drop in oxygen. We would load our sleds with items we wouldn’t need for the next 24 hours such as spare food and gas, axes, and high altitude gear and take them ahead to bury and cache in a snow hole before descending again with the now empty sleds strapped to our backpacks to sleep in our camp. Later we would pick them up from the higher camp and ascend back up. The first couple of days out of Base Camp we wore snow shoes on our boots, which I hadn’t used before but soon got the hang of. It was a straightforward slog although the weight pulled on my legs and back – 40kg compared to my bodyweight of 55kg! Luckily after a couple of days the load had lessened from the caches and using food / fuel and we switched to crampons and ice axes which were a lot easier to walk in.
To get an idea of what life is like on the mountain, I’ll give a brief overview of our typical camp. We shared three Trango 3 tents in twos, with the guides all in a slightly bigger Trango 4. The tents are easy to assemble and surprisingly comfortable once snuggled up in my big down sleeping bag! We dug out platforms for the tents so the ground is level below them and built snow walls to protect us from the wind – sometimes left by a previous team to save us some work. We also set up a teepee style kitchen tent known as a “mid” where we can commune for hot drinks and meals. Meals were cooked by the two junior guides who did a spectacular job of rustling up a range of meals over their camping gas stoves – from breakfasts of oatmeal or bacon butties, burrito lunches, to dinners of cous cous with chicken, pesto pasta with sausage, and pizzas. We even got a cheesecake freshly made! All human waste had to be in Clean Mountain Cans (CMCs), to be carried out or disposed of in a crevasse, and peeing was only in certain areas.
Mornings / early afternoons were taken up with walking for around 7-8 hours, then we usually got a chance to rest and recuperate relaxing in our tents, playing cards, or reading until dinner and the weather report from Base Camp at 8pm. I slept in my thermal base layers and socks with my water bottles, face wipes, contact lenses and sun cream in the foot of my sleeping bag to avoid them freezing in the night. Once I’m up it was just a case of throwing on my fleece, buff, hat, gloves, Gore-Tex trousers, Gore-Tex shell, down jacket, thick socks and big boots.
After 10 days and three Camps we reached High Camp at 17,200ft (5,240m). I really enjoyed the last day of climbing to this camp, with steep sections where I could really test my crampon skills and use my axe, not to mention the absolutely stunning views. Weaving in and out of the rocks and along knife-edged ridges, it’s probably one of my favourite alpine days ever. The pace was a little slow but I didn’t mind too much given I could just relax and enjoy the view. The camp is in a beautiful setting with amazing views down to the glacier and I shared a 4-man tent with two others. That night the wind started to really pick up around 9.30pm and rattled the tent all night - it was 30-40mph with gusts of 50mph+. A real Denali experience! We barely slept and thought the tent would take off at some point as we were shaken all night in the howling winds. Finally in the early morning it died down and I managed to grab a couple of hours’ uninterrupted sleep. We had an enforced rest day the next day given the conditions hadn't improved much and prepared ourselves for summit day.
We had walked for a couple of hours that morning with our crampons and ice axes up 400m of almost vertical snow slopes in places and I was looking forward to getting to the summit another 600m or so above us at 6,190m. We were the third rope team to set out that morning from our group at 8.30am and the other six people were just ahead of us - 2 guides and 4 clients. I'd been put with the youngest and arguably the most inexperienced guide to lead us to the summit, perhaps because myself and my rope partner hadn't had any problems on the days leading to that point and had consistently kept up well with the speed and fitness of the group compared to a couple of other clients who had been slower. I remember how we both were feeling so excited as we had set off about finally getting to the top after two tough weeks on the mountain in freezing temperatures and strong winds (up to 30mph walking and 50mph+ at night). I'd been to a similar altitude a few times before and, unlike the days building up to summit day, didn't have a heavy load to carry so was feeling confident.
At the top of the first exposed ice slope, known as the autobahn, I was feeling dehydrated and a bit light headed - the day was very hot and the slope busy where we couldn't overtake anyone meaning it took about 1.5 hours before we could get a break. My guide kept tugging my rope as he walked off ahead every time I tried to clip on and off the fixed rope protection on the next traverse with my cowstail (screwing and unscrewing caribiners wasn't easy with big gloves on!) and a couple of times I'd called at him to slow down to let me do it properly. I later found out the other two pairs weren't screwing theirs but loosely clipping on and off, saving a lot of time. I could feel his frustration building as we caught up with the others at the break stop and, instead of asking me directly how I was feeling, whispered to the Head guide that I was being slow. The Head guide asked if I was ok and I said I would be absolutely fine - apart from feeling uncomfortable at times with the sun bearing down, I'd had some chocolate and water so was feeling strong and knew what my reserves were. He said he would reassess the team anyway after Zebra Rocks (45 minutes walk away) and I thought little more of it.
Just a few minutes later (at around 18,200ft, just past the Denali Pass) I still had my down jacket on in the rush to set off and given the surprisingly warm weather and long day ahead called to my guide to pause so I could take it off and not overheat. He then pulled me aside and then told me I was going down! Now I have willingly turned round on mountains before (see my Matterhorn blog) and have absolutely no problem in doing so for my own safety and/or that of the team. I wish I could agree I was too ill or exhausted to go on, but that would be untrue. I felt like I was treated like a little girl who didn't know her own resilience or capabilities and the decision didn't even warrant a mature discussion. The rationale he gave was that because I had been going too slow on one section I would be unlikely to reach the summit - yet we were in line with the rest of the team, the day had just begun, and why wasn't I allowed to see how far I could get? Why hadn't I been allowed to talk to the Head guide? My biggest regret is that I wasn't given a chance to really push myself on the mountain both physically and mentally like I have on other occasions. I still don't know if I would have eventually summited or not if left to my own devices. I suppose I could go crazy thinking about it and nothing can be done now.
The other junior guide in our group had been just ahead of us. He stopped and showed concern about the decision and repeatedly tried to contact the Head guide but the radio wasn't working so we couldn't get it overruled or get his advice. Eventually we had to give up and instead of my guide taking me down he walked off and left me with the other junior guide (who cursed profusely at my guide!). I was in shock and with tears streaming down my face and a heavy heart we started back down. We descended quickly - I was feeling fine though sometimes I'd stop and shake my head and gasp at what was happening, it just didn't seem real. When we reached the camp I sat shell-shocked alone in my tent and then cried bitterly for hours. The pain of months of training, financial sacrifices, and days of hard work on the mountain felt like they had all been for nothing.
Later in the afternoon I continued to wait for the others to arrive back in camp. The radios crackled into life as we heard that our team was struggling to get one of the clients down who had developed severe exhaustion and signs of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Soon the Park Rangers were involved and medical advice was being issued. I looked up tentatively at the autobahn and I willed them to appear over the lip. Eventually we saw the first group making it down the slope. They arrived in camp around 10pm tired but happy from the summit and I ran towards them for celebratory hugs!
The Rangers set up a tent with an oxygen bag and the two junior guides set up off the slope to help rescue the rest of the team. I waited another hour but felt emotionally drained so turned in to my tent for the night. I finally heard the rest of the team arrive about 11.30pm. One client was put in the oxygen bag and I handed over his sleeping bag and personal items from our tent. The Rangers and the head guide continued to monitor his progress during the night then eventually at 4am he was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Wasilla.
What really baffles me is how someone who had so clearly struggled over the past weeks and had issues early on on summit day was taken up to the top yet I was turned around for a minimal reason and in doing so the team also lost one vital guide. Was it just a lack of process, poor communication, or varied experience between guides? Part of me also wonders if being a girl made that decision of whether I could go for the summit or whether I needed to be "protected" and sent down early a differential in the guides' mind to the rest of the group. In terms of the other client, wasn't it clear that by pushing him on it was not only endangering himself but also putting others in danger? One of the team who descended on the same rope later said he felt it wasn't a case of IF they would fall but WHEN - dangerous when self-arresting hadn't even been covered on the trip. Thank god it all turned out ok in the end and five clients summited, but at what potential cost?
The next morning we awoke around 9am, had some cereal in the tent and digested the previous days drama. It still all felt so wrong and bitterly unfair in my mind but there was nothing I could do about it anymore and now just needed to focus on the descent. At 11am we set cached some items for the next group and then set off. I enjoyed walking as the wind picked up and we carefully made our way along the ridgeline and down the mountain. It took around 2.5 hours to get to Camp 3, where we had a rest for a couple of hours and picked up our cache. We then set off with sleds to Camp 2, which took another couple of hours as the winds and visibility gradually worsened. The sled was really annoying me on the descent as I was tied to the person’s in front (which must have been around 25kg) and it kept threatening to pull me down the slope and put me off balance!
At Camp 2 the guides suggested we have a break and then aim to make it down to the Base Camp during the night to get a plane out before the storm came in. So we set up the kitchen tent and had some cheese and tuna toasties and tried to keep warm, although it was now past midnight. As we set off I was this time put at the back of the rope with my sled behind me and on the loose! Every time we went on a slope not only did I have to deal with the person’s in front dragging me forward but my own swerving around me, trying to hit my ankles or trip me up! It was a nightmare. Three times I was tripped up by the rope of the sled winding around me and with my heavy bag of 20kg or so on my back I would lie in the snow like a turtle unable to get up until I finally took my pack off or someone pulled me to my feet.
We walked all through the night with bad visibility and snow the whole way down. The last slog up Heartbreak Hill was the worst part by far – we were all exhausted and it seemed to be never-ending (although in fact a couple of hours uphill). Arrived at Base Camp at 8am – a difficult 7.5 hours of walking through the night but at least we could now put up the tents and get some rest whilst we waited for the plane to arrive. However we had barely erected them and crawled inside when we were warned the plane was coming! We moved our bags to the landing site, then piled them on the aircraft. I got the co-pilot seat and took in the stunning views as we flew back to Talkeetna.
Being back in Talkeetna felt very surreal. It was warm and sunny and green (!) and I felt out of place in my big down jacket and mountain boots. We went for lunch in town then drove to Wasilla to pick up the client from hospital (thankfully he’d made a full recovery) and then onto Anchorage. It was amazing to finally reach the hotel around 4pm and have a hot shower and sort out my kit after over two weeks on the mountain. In the evening we went for dinner at a seafood restaurant then a few of us ended up having cocktails and singing karaoke until 2am! I’m not sure where we had the energy from but it was a really fun night and great to relax and let off some steam.
So why did I choose to climb this mountain and what did I learn? Denali interested me initially because it's widely known as one of the "toughest" mountains - an expedition style trip without porters or Sherpas combined with long load carrying days and notoriously bad weather. On reflection, the fact it's one of the seven summits and the height was of less significance given I have previously hit the 6,000m mark and so actually doing a big alpine summit day at altitude wasn't necessarily something I needed to prove to myself. Of course it would have been a good achievement but being outside of my control it's not something I can regret. Instead I'm pleased I kept up with a strong male team in carrying the heavy packs and sleds, felt confident in my alpine skills, and coped well with the cold conditions.
Sometimes a lesson isn't always the obvious one. Maybe my test was not to climb the summit route but to recognise the bigger picture and to accept what is outside of my control. If I had stood on that summit it would be another box ticked, THE photo uploaded on social media, and the "when I climbed Denali" moment I'd recount to friends. Instead I think of the paths I took up to that point, the camps we set up, the loads I carried and the beautiful views along the ridges. We don't have to stand on the top to learn from the mountains. I'm blessed by what I've seen and so proud of what I've achieved with each and every single step along the way.
It was also a lesson in forgiveness. There are always going to be people and obstacles that stand in the way of your dreams. Also, people make decisions they think are in our best interest to protect us but which we may not agree with. I still think the decision and handling of the situation was wrong, but it was not done in malice and presumably he thought it the right thing at the time. It reminded me of all the women around the world who are stopped in their tracks to success because of prejudice or short-sightedness from the men around them.
The organisation I went with later apologised for the behaviour of the guides and their poor communication on the mountain (not only what happened on summit day but also the continuous cursing and chauvinist attitude I encountered) and offered me a half price trip to make amends. I'm not sure I cold ever go back there though. I learned that personally I'm not a fan of these big commercial expeditions - firstly the mixed abilities both of clients and guides are pot luck and can vastly effect the outcome of a climb, and secondly something of the purity of the mountain is spoiled by queues on fixed lines not to mention the circus of tents and groups of egos high-fiving at each campsite! I think I'll stick to the quieter, more unique mountains in future, ideally with competent friends and a guide that I know can encourage me and understand my capabilities.
Denali met expectations by both challenging and rewarding me and with that I feel immense gratitude. I may not have stood on the summit but I've certainly grown emotionally and technically as a mountaineer over these weeks. As Sir Edmund Hilary once said "it is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves".