With Everest chalked off it was time to head back to the mountain where it all began (sort of) and have another go. You only have to read my Denali blog from last year, or listen to me whine to realise that being turned around due to weather was a very tough pill to swallow and wasn’t the way I imagined my 7 summits campaign would start. Having spent hundreds of hours training, taking climbing courses and climbing small mountains in the Himalayas, I was swiftly brought back to reality and even considered returning back to work and calling the whole lot off. Luckily the mountains are full of surprises and over the next 9 months I summited 6 mountains in a row including the highest and eighth highest mountain in the world; however while these were all great experiences, Denali remained my true adversary.
Keen to return to Denali soon after Everest (to take advantage of all those extra red blood cells) and ready to take the plunge into the unguided world, I met 3 other fellas through an online forum similarly looking to take out ‘The Big One’. Obviously fraught with risk, climbing with people you don’t know could be likened to rolling to dice with fairly dire outcomes, however on arrival in Anchorage I was pleased to meet Ibra the adventure photographer from North Dakota who had been half way up Denali in 2017, Emilo the rock climber from LA who turned out to dislike being swept up in mini-avalanches and Thomas, the rock turn alpine climber that never seemed to be anywhere near his limit.
Almost exactly a year after heading to Denali in 2017, the four of us jumped in an Air-Taxi along with our tents, stoves, food and whatever else that would make our packs feel so heavy for the next 3 weeks. With an always enjoyable glacier landing on the breathtaking Kahiltna we unloaded and set up a camp for a few hours while the sun dipped below the horizon bringing on sufficiently freezing temperatures to harden up the snow bridges for safe(er) glacier travel. After some pizza from town I lay down in my sleeping bag in the snow and looked at Ibra, Emilo and Thomas; the reality of ‘un-guided mountaineering’ set in.
Over the next few days we worked hard up and down the mountain caching gear, moving camps while doing the best to read the weather as it changed almost constantly. Weather forecasting on Denali is a nightmare and 3 prominent forecasting services would generally provide 3 vastly different outlooks which usually varied equally vastly from reality. However upon reaching Camp 2 at 11,000ft, all sources of weather warned of a huge storm about to pummel the mountain and these were in full agreement with the nasty barrage of grey clouds above. Crossing fingers that forecasts were wrong again, we went to sleep. This was very temporary, as shortly after blizzard level winds pickup up and snow began to dump. None of us slept as the tent shook violently and snow piled up on all sides. Ear plugs and eye masks are great for sleeping when things are loud and bright, however nothing can help you sleep when you are constantly visualising your own tent collapsing or tearing open. By morning we were pleased to discover that our two North Face tents were still standing however the same could not be said for our Black Diamond Cook Tent. Four feet of fresh snow had been too much for the central pole and we were back to cooking in our sleeping tents and subsequently 24 hours a day of sitting or laying down in a 2m x 2m space. After 6 days (yep 6) pinned down by Denali’s best efforts at turning us around, it was safe to say some were losing hope. Having cached 80% of our food near Camp 3, the 6 unplanned days at Camp 2 saw us resort to careful food rationing (we literally consumed our entire food supply) while exploring every last ounce of conversation. Sadly, bad weather = no solar power = no charging of eBooks, MP3 players or GPS’s, so subsequently I can tell you all about fly fishing in Florida, rock climbing ‘The Nose’ in El Capitan and a dirty oil town called Williston in North Dakota. However when conversation struggled, there was always plenty of snow to be shovelled from the tents and ice block walls to be rebuilt. And then almost as quickly as the storm moved in, it left; a total of 12m of new snow (yep 12).
Moving on up to Camp 3 at 14,000ft we had planned to spend several days re-setting while waiting for an inviting weather window to push on to Camp 4 and the summit shortly after, however thankfully Denali had decided we had taken enough punishment and a forecast of 3 brilliant days was well received. A slow start out of Camp 3 saw us heading up the Headwall late in the afternoon. Now leading the group, it became clear that the pace was deteriorating and bodies were feeling the pain from minimal rest at Camp 3. We pushed on very slowly to the ridge and Washburn’s Thumb however Ibra could no longer keep a safe pace and his load was redistributed to Thomas and I. We rolled into Camp 4 at 17,000ft (the highest point I reached last year) after the sun was well and truly below the horizon and as such temperatures were below -30degC. Knowing that there was a good day of weather on the cards for tomorrow, we melted snow for hours while filling up water bottles and sorted out our game plan for the summit.
At 9am Thomas, Emilio and I set off for the summit leaving Ibra to rest and take in his eventual high point for the trip. We were gifted with an amazing day of almost no wind, clear skies and well packed slopes. Together as a rope team of 3 we negotiated the Autobahn (famously named for its ability to punish an unfortunate climber’s simple misstep and send them hurtling down to the valley), Denali Pass, Archdeacons tower, the Football field and lastly Pig Hill on the way to the summit ridge. The last steps to the summit were emotional ones as these marked the finale of a not only a year of focus and a further year of planning, but decades of dreaming. Having been denied a year earlier this successful return was enormously enriched by the challenge of climbing without a guide; a progression I would never have imagined 12 months ago. I recorded various videos, however didn’t seem to get through any without tears and so they will probably never see the light of day. After 30 well-earned minutes on the summit, we turned and began the long road back to civilisation.
Descending to Camp 4, I offered to take Ibra up the following day for an attempt however he had decided the book was closed and I was very glad to hear it. I messaged Lucy that night and stupidly told her that the hard part was over and that we were as good as done. During the descent from Camp 4 to Camp 3, undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the mountain, snow fall increased while Ibra and Emilio struggled to keep up a safe pace to beat the incoming weather. Snow stakes located along the ridge were covered in snow and largely impossible for me to find so as a group we became completely reliant on each other to hold a fall should one of us take a slip. It is remarkable how different a route looks after 6 inches of snow and so when coupled with severe exposure on the left and right, the nerves of the group started to rise. I broke trail for several hours along the ridge placing our own protection through the most exposed sections until we reached the Headwall and what should have been a straight forward descent into Camp 3 2000ft below. Descending the fixed lines became a frustratingly slow process as Ibra and Emilio struggled to find the energy to move at a reasonable pace, meanwhile the visibility dropped to complete white out conditions and most alarmingly the snow depth increased to over 4 ft. Tied together with a single 60m rope and well aware that our situation was not improving, Thomas and I resorted to a steady stream of four letter words in search of Ibra and Emilio’s final scrap of energy.
Unsuccessful in this effort we moved awfully slowly down the fixed ropes until I could no longer find the next rope which was buried deep under the snow and ice. I dug around for more than 10 minutes without success before recognising that this wasn’t the place to spend a moment longer than absolutely necessary and took a belay from Thomas in search of some protection. Just when I turned back to the group wondering if things could deteriorate any more, I took a heavy blow to the shoulder. Wondering if Ibra or Emilio had finally snapped and become sick of me calling them a ‘Lazy something something’ and thrown a snow ball at me, I turned and immediately wished it was a snowball as a 2 foot wall of snow came belting down the slope covering all of us. Able to dig ourselves free within a few minutes this was by no means a full blown avalanche however this sluff was all the convincing we needed to get moving ASAP. One poor team member spiralled into what could be best described as a panic stricken meltdown as his brain scrambled to come to terms with the sequence of events. Several further hours of aggressive persuasion delivered by an impatient leader and we were out of the runout area and into Camp 3. It is safe to say many lessons were learned this day, one of them being to respect a weather forecast (I am aware of the irony here) and not to lower your guard after a successful summit.
So with Denali done and the necessary souvenir summit rock secured, this completed the 7 summits. As per the record books I am the 293rd person (9th Australian) to complete the true 7 summits. Given the huge number of people who set out to complete the 7 and never get it done I am proud to be part of this crowd that includes many of mountaineering’s royalty. I will close this blog out with sincere recognition to all that have followed my travels and passed on their motivation/ congratulatory messages along the way. Many people contributed to a book compiled with messages ahead of my Everest climb and this meant a lot to me right when the mountain turned psycological. Two other people must be specifically recognised as hugely influential on my year; Pachi, my good friend who has battled cancer over the last 12 months and incredibly went on to summit Everest in May and then Putri, my friend and former colleague who first motivated me to leave work and start this all while also in her own pursuit of the 7 summits. I extend enormous appreciation of course to my family that were blindsided with announcement of my dramatic plans nearly 2 years ago and somehow came to terms with it all and became my biggest fans and then lastly my amazing wife Lucy who was unwilling thrown into the front seat of a roller coaster of stress and emotions just months into marriage. I fear the day you cash in on the many points you’ve banked through of all this…