Walter Harper was the first man to reach the summit. Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum scrambled up just behind him, and then all three turned to haul their leader, Hudson Stuck, up the last few feet. He came over the top gasping, and blacked out for a moment as he lay in the snow. When he came to, he dragged himself to his feet, still breathing hard in the thin, frozen air, and looked around.
The four climbers stood in a narrow, snow-filled basin, maybe 60 feet long and 20 or 25 feet wide, its surface shaped by a relentless wind. It was a clear, sunny day, 7 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sky was a surreal deep, dark blue, as though the whole vast dome was a glassy ocean turned upside down. To the west they could see 17,400 foot Mount Foraker, the region’s second-highest peak. To the north, they watched the mountains dwindle into foothills and alpine tundra, fading into a haze of heat and wildfires at the edge of the horizon. And to the south and east, they saw the Alaska Range, peak after glaciated peak rising above the mist that hung around the mountains and obscured the valleys below. They watched the ridged, corrugated landscape stretching away to where it met Cook Inlet, a northern splinter of the Pacific Ocean, more than a hundred miles away.
His team had just completed the first-ever ascent of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
Harry Karstens and Hudson Stuck in 1913.
It was 1:30 p.m. on June 7, 1913, and Stuck and his team had just completed the first-ever ascent of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. Stuck wrote later:
"There was no pride of conquest, no trace of that exultation of victory some enjoy upon the first ascent of a lofty peak, no gloating over good fortune that had hoisted us a few hundred feet higher than others who had struggled and been discomfited. Rather was the feeling that a privileged communion with the high places of the earth had been granted; that not only had we been permitted to lift up eager eyes to these summits, secret and solitary since the world began, but to enter boldly upon them, to take place, as it were, domestically in their hitherto sealed chambers, to inhabit them, and to cast our eyes down from them, seeing all things as they spread out from the windows of heaven itself."
In the century since Stuck’s climb, thousands of mountaineers have followed him up Denali’s slopes, striving to reach its 20,320-foot summit, pioneering new routes, making further milestone ascents—the first winter ascent, for instance, and the first solo ascent, and eventually the first winter, solo ascent. These days, a thousand or more climbers visit the mountain each year—many of them, as on Everest, led by licensed commercial guiding outfits, whose expertise and willingness to accept responsibility for less-experienced charges mean you don’t have to be a mountaineer to summit anymore.
Still, Denali is a puzzle that remains unsolved. It is a summit whose secrets have not been thoroughly unlocked. One hundred years later, only 50 percent of Denali summit attempts succeed, and more than 100 climbers have died during their efforts, including six in 2012 alone. Despite generations of improvement in weather forecasting, avalanche preparedness, and the creation of durable, lightweight, cold-weather climbing gear, Denali still poses the same challenge it always has.
The mountain has moods—and its occasional, violent, unpredictable tantrums have swallowed expeditions whole. It will not be taken lightly.
I flew into Denali base camp on a clear, sun-soaked afternoon in mid-May, on a day that likely mirrored the Stuck team’s summiting conditions. Talkeetna, the town that serves as a jumping-off point for most expeditions to the mountain, is a small community just a few miles off the highway that links Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska’s two largest cities. It’s a compact place with dusty streets, all log buildings and rubber-booted young people, who wander around in small herds between shifts at a handful of cafes, bars, and tour outfitters. It’s a town that sleeps through the early mornings and stays up late.
At Talkeetna’s airstrip, a fleet of ski planes waits to take visitors on "flightseeing" tours of Denali and the Alaska Range, or to ferry climbers on and off the ice. I flew in with a pilot from K2 Aviation and three mountaineers from Montreal—Denali summit hopefuls—in a shiny red de Havilland Beaver, a Canadian-made standby of northern bush flight.
Denali was monstrous. Although not the tallest mountain in the world, it eclipses all others in base to peak elevation.
I’d seen the mountain for the first time the day before, topping a rise on the Parks Highway just north of Wasilla, an Anchorage satellite. One moment my horizon was all naked, deciduous trees, still leafless in the hopelessly late spring, and the next Denali appeared, a sharp-edged wedge of cloud in the blue sky, which took a moment to resolve into a snow-covered mountain. Around the next bend, the mountain appeared again, and now it was joined by the broad curtain of the Alaska Range, an even row of glacial peaks as far as I could see, and to my eye it looked to be twice as tall and three times as wide as any of its neighbors. Denali was monstrous. Although not the tallest mountain in the world, it eclipses all others in base to peak elevation. Everest, for example, begins on the Tibetan Plateau, already some 14,000 feet above sea level, and from that base it stretches another 15,000 feet in height. Denali begins only a couple thousand feet above sea level, with a base to peak height of 18,000 feet.
Flying in from Talkeetna, we were almost too close up to appreciate its mass. With the plane skimming above the tops of icy mountain ridges, I had to crane my neck to look up at the summit dead ahead of us. It filled the windshield as we wound our way closer; soon, its rocky spurs were all around us.
Base camp is a 40-minute flight from Talkeetna, at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier, an icy on-ramp to Denali. There’s nothing to it but a cluster of tents and a snowy makeshift runway manually packed down by base campers wearing snowshoes. It’s surrounded by lesser peaks on all sides; on a clear day, the summit itself is an unexpectedly benign-looking half-moon in the distance, eight miles away. At the height of the climbing season, in late May and early June, the population can sometimes swell to a couple hundred people at a time, but when I arrived it was home to maybe 50, nearly all men, a mix of climbers and guides and the half-dozen members of a ranger-led volunteer search-and-rescue (SAR) team. And Base Camp Lisa, of course.
For the past 13 seasons, Lisa Roderick has worked as the operations manager in camp—the handful of air taxi outfits who fly climbers on and off the mountain work together to pay her salary. Forty-five and deeply tanned—though, like all the climbers, her face shows the pale shadow of constant use of sunglasses—she lives in base camp throughout the spring and early summer, in a comfortable heated tent rigged up with an array of communications gear; for the rest of the year, she lives in Talkeetna, where her husband is a National Park Service ranger. Lisa took over the job from Base Camp Annie, who served on the Kahiltna for a decade, inheriting the role from yet another predecessor, Frances Randall, who handled things from 1976 until her death in 1984. (The small pyramid-shaped peak that looms over base camp was named Mount Frances in her honor.)
TALE OF THE TAPE: DENALI VS. EVEREST
|June 7, 1913
|May 29, 1953
|Climbers each year (approx.)
|Cost of guided climb
|Present-day summit success
|At least 120
|At least 240
Roderick is a friendly but forceful presence in camp—she doles out any incoming weather reports to climbers, distributes fuel for stoves, keeps track of inbound and outbound flights, and makes it clear that she’s not here to mother anyone. "I try to keep a low profile," she says, to encourage climbers’ self-sufficiency—her job is not to, for instance, find or replace lost gear, or to clean up climbers’ messes.
She issued me the gallon of fuel I’d paid for back in town (most groups would arrange for many times this amount), sketched out the boundaries of the tenting zone, and pointed to the designated open-air latrine areas, denoted by tall yellow plastic markers stuck in the snow. One, at the far end of camp, stood alone and exposed on the empty snow; the other, in the middle of things, was surrounded by a low wall of snow blocks for a modicum of privacy, like a child’s backyard snow fort. I chose an already tamped-down tent site, recently abandoned by some other visitor, just above the runway and about halfway between the two.
I shed layers as I set up my tent, ditching my Gore-Tex shell and fleece jacket, leaving only a light wool top and opening the ventilation zippers on my snow pants—the sun, high in the sky and reflecting off the snow on all sides of me, was hot. And bright, too: sunglasses here are more medical necessity than fashion statement. On the slope just above me, the ranger patrol lounged in the heat and the glare, as relaxed as if they were on a beach or a patio. When my little tent was ready, guylines secured in the snow, I ventured uphill to meet them.
Brandon Latham, the group’s leader, has been working for the National Park Service (NPS) as a Denali mountaineering ranger for six years. In 2007, he’d come to Alaska for the first time as a volunteer member of the patrol himself—before then he’d been living in the Yosemite area, in California, volunteering for the SAR crew there and climbing all over the world: South America, New Zealand, the Lower 48. After summiting Denali for the first time during the course of his patrol, Latham was hooked. It was "the mountain, of course," he said. "But what really got me to come back here was the ranger crew that I work with." When a job opened up at Denali, he applied and was hired.
He was joined this year by five volunteers, all experienced climbers: a nurse, another NPS ranger on holiday from his duties at Grand Teton, a member of Yosemite’s SAR crew, a retired climbing instructor from the Canadian military, and a Sherpa from Nepal, in his second year on the patrol. (He came as part of a sort of cultural exchange: He would share his deep knowledge of high-altitude climbing, and learn about the management, conservation, and safety efforts of the NPS.) One of the patrol’s main tasks is to keep an eye on climbers’ handling of trash and human waste—visitors to the mountain are subject to a strict pack-it-in, pack-it-out protocol, which includes the use of an NPS-issued "Clean Mountain Can," or "shit can" as most climbers call it, a green plastic bucket with biodegradable liner bags and a screw-on plastic lid. For decades, climbers on Denali (and everywhere else; Everest is famous for its detritus) had left trash and feces all over the mountain—and in a glacial environment, the mess never went away. Nowadays, while we are allowed to pee freely at the designated latrines, visitors to the mountain are expected to fly in with an empty can, and fly out again with a full one.
The patrol was also ready to swing into search-and-rescue mode in case of emergency. In his years on Denali, Latham has seen plenty of climbers come and go—and seen plenty get into trouble, too. I asked him about what kind of challenges the mountain poses.
"It’s a combination of things," he told me. "Weather. People not necessarily being prepared for what climbing Denali is about." Altitude, cold temperatures, and the necessity of camping out in Arctic conditions for days or weeks all come into play, too. "People are used to climbing on cold mountains, but Denali’s weather can be really intense." No other mountain of its size is located so far north, and the weather on its upper reaches is comparable to Antarctica’s, or the North Pole’s. The high winds and snow-induced whiteouts that slow or halt summit bids can be especially problematic for guided groups, who tend to be on a stricter schedule than independent climbers are—they don’t have the luxury of waiting for days on end for a weather window to make a break for the summit, and their climbers are neither as skilled nor as experienced.
Although the weather often forces climbers to head for home without summiting, accidents—major injuries and fatalities—tend to be instigated by other causes. Most climbers who require assistance on Denali have had a fall: either into a crevasse, or tumbling down an exposed slope after tripping while unroped. People get comfortable, says Latham, because of Denali’s reputation as a "walk-up," a demanding, but not overly dangerous uphill slog. There is nothing here comparable to Everest’s notorious Khumbu Icefall, an ever-shifting minefield of crevasses and tumbling ice blocks that is spanned by a network of ropes and ladders. Apart from one short stretch near the top, where fixed lines are set for climbers each season, the classic route up Denali includes very little actual climbing. And so climbers don’t always bother to harness themselves to their teammates. But in places, if a climber is unable to arrest their slide with some fast and skilled ice ax work, the sharp pitch means a deadly fall of hundreds of feet. "At the end of the day, not being on a rope and not being able to clip into safety leads to traumatic falls," Latham says.
"Everybody gives all they’ve got, and then they don’t leave anything for the descent."
Base Camp Lisa, who keeps a running tally of climbers and their expected return dates to base camp, and who’s had to initiate searches when stricken groups failed to appear, agrees with Latham’s assessment. "A lot of people just can’t get a weather break," she says of the hundreds of failed summit bids. Fatigue plays into the injuries and deaths she’s seen, too. Last year, a tired climber pausing for a rest watched his pack start to slide away from him down an exposed slope; exhausted and acting on instinct, he lunged to grab the pack, and fell 1,100 feet with it. And it’s on the return trip, she says, that most accidents occur, when climbers are worn down, exhilarated by their achievement and less cautious. "Everybody gives all they’ve got, and then they don’t leave anything for the descent."
But in her 10 seasons on the mountain, she’s also seen persistence. When climbers return to base camp after a failed summit bid, she notes, "They say they’ll come back again, and a lot of them do."
It was hard to envision the severity of the weather Latham and Roderick referred to, sitting there in the blazing sun on my first afternoon, applying and re-applying 60 SPF sunscreen to my face and ears and neck with the aquarium sky above me. But a few hours later, while I crouched over my little camping stove boiling water for dinner, thick gray clouds moved in, covering the sky and stifling the sun. The wind picked up, and snow began to fall. I was about to get a taste of the Denali weather I’d heard so much about.
This is what it feels like when a storm rolls over Denali. At base camp, the mountain cinches the horizon down tight around you: You can only see from the tall yellow wand marking a latrine at one end of camp to the orange windsock at the search-and-rescue helipad on the other. Everything else is seamless gray. It becomes difficult to walk—the uneven slope, covered in a fresh coat of snow, looks deceptively level, and you stagger to your tent, stumbling through the invisible potholes made by past camps and climbers. Here and there, you trip and sink into snow past your knees, catch yourself with gloved hands and watch your arms disappear up to your elbows. There are no plump, drifting flakes falling from the sky, either. The wind drives hard pellets of snow into your eyes and cheeks.
Inside your tent, you hear the steady drizzle of snow hitting the fly, and the regular susurration of gathered powder sliding off your roof in a heap. In the distance, there’s the occasional low roar of an avalanche. Your tent billows and snaps like a flag on a flagpole; it warps and strains in the wind.
A storm scoured away nearly every trace of a party of seven mountaineers.
And this is just base camp. At the higher camps—11,000, 14,000, 17,000 feet—where climbers wait for their shot at the summit, or hunker down and hope for a chance to retreat, all this is intensified exponentially. Higher up, record low temperatures have approached minus-100 Fahrenheit, not including wind chill, and during certain times of the year, sustained winds in excess of 100 miles per hour are not unheard of. Those winds shred nylon tents where they stand pegged down in the snow; evicted climbers scratch caves out of the hard snowpack, crawl in and wait for deliverance. In one infamous incident, in 1967, a storm scoured away nearly every trace of a party of seven mountaineers. Only three bodies were ever located; one man was found frozen in place where he died, still crouching in a wind-torn tent, gripping the center pole in an effort to hold his shelter up around him.
In the morning, you wake to find the curved inner wall of the tent above you furred with icy crystals, frozen condensation from your breath. They sift down onto your face when you move, a miniature snowfall to match the one still coming down outside.
This can go on for days.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Officially, North America’s tallest mountain is still called Mount McKinley, after the 25th President of the United States. But most Alaskans and climbers have long since adopted the mountain’s native name, which means "The High One" in the local Athabaskan language. A century ago, Hudson Stuck was an early proponent of the native name. In his book about the first ascent, he condemned the "ruthless arrogance" of anyone who "comes to a 'new' land and contemptuously ignores the native names of conspicuous natural objects, always always appropriate and significant, and overlays them with names that are, commonly, neither one nor the other." Decades of Alaskan petitions, including a 1975 resolution from the state legislature, have failed to sway the federal government, thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of politicians from Ohio, McKinley's home state.
Belmore Browne was at 19,000 feet when the storm started. It had been a clear, cold day when he and his two teammates had left their final camp at 16,615 feet, aiming to make a one-day dash for the summit. But as they climbed, the wind intensified slowly, and the sky grew dark. The panorama of mountains and glaciers laid out below them vanished in the gathering murk, and soon the snow surrounded them. The group used axes to chop steps and footholds into the hard crust of snow they climbed across, and the chips and splinters of ice their efforts cast off mingled with the snow coming down. They struggled forward, laboring for every step, slowing to cover just a few dozen feet per hour.
Later, Browne wrote:
"The last period of our climb on Mount McKinley is like the memory of an evil dream. LaVoy was completely lost in the ice mist, and Professor Parker’s frosted form was an indistinct blur above me. I worked savagely to keep my hands warm … As I brushed the frost from my glasses and squinted upwards through the stinging snow I saw a sight that will haunt me to my dying day. The slope above me was no longer steep! That was all I could see. What it meant I will never know for certain—all I can say is that we were close to the top!
As the blood congealed in my fingers I went back to LaVoy. He was getting the end of the gale’s whiplash and when I yelled that we couldn’t stand the wind he agreed that it was suicide to try."
It was June 28, 1912, and Browne’s group was tantalizingly close to becoming the first to summit Denali—by some estimates, only 300 feet from the top. But the storm forced them to retreat when they were just steps from the peak; they fumbled their way down through the wind and whiteout and spent the next day recuperating, drying out clothes riddled with ice crystals and suffering severe headaches from snow blindness.
After their day of rest, Browne and Parker and LaVoy made a second attempt on the summit. But again, as they climbed above 19,300 feet, a storm howled up from the valley and drove them back. They had last seen civilization in early April. They were on their last reserves of food. This time, when they turned to head back down the mountain, it wasn’t to pause and regroup: It was their final descent.
Like Hudson Stuck a year later, Browne, Parker, and company had approached Denali from the north, departing from the gold-mining town of Kantishna, at what is now the terminus of the 90-mile Denali park road, and traveling cross-country for 50 miles to the base of the mountains before attempting to reach the summit via the Muldrow Glacier. After summiting, Stuck wrote that "the south side has been tried again and again and no approach discovered, nor did it appear from the top that such approach exists. The west side is sheer precipice; the north side is covered with a great hanging glacier and is devoid of practicable slopes … There is only one way up the mountain."
He was wrong.
In 1951, Bradford Washburn had already been working on and around the mountain for 15 years. He was a mountaineer and cartographer—he’d pioneered the aerial mapping of Denali in the 1930s. He had already summited twice via the Muldrow Glacier when he first attempted a new, theoretical western route, known as the West Buttress.
The attempt was groundbreaking in more than one way. Washburn’s group, four climbers in all, was deposited on the Kahiltna Glacier by ski plane—a first, and certainly the single biggest change in Denali’s climbing history. The move saved the group weeks of bushwhacking to the mountain and thousands of feet of climbing, hugely reducing the required time and expense and food and gear; it’s the air access, today, that makes a Denali summit bid feasible during a two- or three-week holiday. From there, they traveled up the Kahiltna, and climbed up to an exposed rock ridgeline that others had deemed non-viable, ski plane or not—the West Buttress itself. On July 10, 1951, Bradford Washburn stood on the summit of Denali.
Today, more than 80 percent of climbers on Denali attempt the summit by way of the West Buttress, a 15 mile trail from base camp to the top. It’s the route that’s earned the mountain its reputation, in some circles, as "a walk-up." But none of the climbers I met seemed to be taking the route for granted. When I asked Panuru Sherpa, the Nepalese, 10-time Everest summiter who was serving on the SAR patrol, whether Denali would be easy for him, he just laughed and shook his head no. Later, I stopped to chat with a pair of independent climbers from Utah, who’d emerged into the storm to shovel the heaps of fresh snow away from their tent. When I asked what made Denali such a challenge, they paused just long enough to shrug. "It’s fucking cold," said one, calm and matter-of-fact in his down layers. Then he turned and lifted his shovel again.
"It’s the weather. The mountain creates his own weather."
Back in Talkeetna, veteran ranger Roger Robinson told me there was one dominant reason why Denali summit bids failed so frequently. "It’s the same reason why Belmore Browne didn’t make the top," he said. "It’s the weather. The mountain creates his own weather."
That’s not just a turn of phrase. Just north of the Gulf of Alaska, Denali routinely gets thumped by storms that roll in from the Aleutian Islands out in the middle of the North Pacific, bringing hurricane-force winds and heavy snows that can last for a week. But the peak also generates its own, fast-forming, homegrown storms. When warmer, moist air moves inland and strikes Denali, the mountain’s sheer mass can force the front sharply upward, where it cools rapidly and sheds moisture: fog, snow, wind. At times like these, you can find clear skies at the lower camps and a howling gale forming an unholy halo around the summit.
Robinson, now 59, first summited Denali as a 21-year-old in 1975. Hooked, he returned to join a clean-up climb—an effort by climbers to clear the mountain of debris left by past expeditions—in 1976, and he’s been serving as a mountaineering ranger since 1980. Like so many others who live and work in its shadow, Denali has changed his life. He is passionate about the mountain, and pours his efforts, in particular, into the park service’s conservation and clean-up work. For him, the only antidote to Denali’s weather, the secret to summiting the mountain, is time. "For Denali, this is what Bradford Washburn told me. If people allowed a month to climb, 90 percent would make the top." Groups that only budget three or even two weeks to make the summit leave little margin for the inevitable weather delays—like Browne and Parker, who’d run out of food, groups on a fixed schedule were forced to retreat. The mountain doesn’t conform to anyone’s itinerary.
Robinson applied the same theory to many of Denali’s accidents and climbers in distress. "It comes from not having a lot of patience," he says. "Denali is such a mountain that one mistake can be fatal. I think you let your guard down, and you can’t do that. You have to be cognizant of your environment and your own climbing abilities all the time … In today’s world, people don’t have the time."
I didn’t have the time. The storm lasted three days at base camp. No flights came in or out, and we never saw the sun. Two feet of snow fell, and climbers emerged from their tents just long enough to shovel away the drifts. Twice, Base Camp Lisa marshalled the group to re-pack the runway, soft with fresh powder: We strapped on our snowshoes and skis and stomped up and down the glacier in a ragged phalanx. Otherwise, I spent my time reading, taking notes, and wandering from tent to tent, inviting myself in to cooking shelters and tent vestibules to ask the men who were camped around me about their experiences on the mountain.
Clint Helander, a blue-eyed 28-year-old with a deep mountain tan, is one of the climbers who’s returned to Denali for a second shot. In 2009, he was a young, rookie guide with a group headed up the West Buttress route to the summit. They’d had clear, calm weather all the way up the mountain, but when they reached 17,000 feet the expedition stalled out. "Every time we would go for the summit," he recalls, a vicious north wind would catch them at Denali Pass, at 18,000 feet, and they’d be forced to retreat. They spent five days languishing at 17 Camp, the cold and the altitude slowly draining their energy.
"At 17," says Helander, "you don’t sleep very well, you can’t eat enough, you can’t drink enough. Everything seemed harder." He remembers being hungry, and knowing that he had a Snickers bar in the chest pocket of his jacket. "I knew I needed to eat something," he says, but the prospect of lifting up his arm, unzipping the pocket and reaching in for the candy bar was overwhelming. "That seemed like a lot of work." He remembers endlessly flexing his fingers and toes, rubbing his cheeks, tracing the contours of his face. "I was constantly aware of the possibility of getting frostbite." By the fifth day, some of the clients were showing signs that the cold was getting to them; Helander was the guide who turned his back on the summit and escorted them back down the mountain.
When I met him, he was back to climb both Denali and nearby Mount Hunter, which one climber told me is "the gnarliest fourteener on the continent"—he’d already completed an ascent of Mount Huntington, and was slated to spend 65 days in the Alaska Range in all. He and his partner planned to use the West Buttress route to get acclimated, and then attempt the much more challenging, technical Cassin Ridge, a true climbing route that covers 9,000 feet of altitude gain in just two miles of steep ice walls and knife-edge ridges. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, though.
"It’s so easy to say ‘It’s just a walk-up,’" he said, "but I think that complacency kills a lot of people. That’s not going to change. That’s just how the mountain works."
Early on Saturday morning, three nights after it had first formed, the storm broke. The silence was so abrupt that I was startled awake in my tent by its passing: no more hissing snow, no flapping nylon, no wind. Sunrise is a late-night affair in an Alaskan spring, and outside, the sun was already well above the nearby summits, visible again through a residual haze of snow and mist. The clouds cleared out through the morning, and the high bright sun and deep blue sky of my first afternoon at base camp returned. Finally able to move, the climbers around me emerged from their snowy cocoons and began breaking down camp. On the fresh snow between our tents, a handful of wayward sparrows hopped and fluttered—the first non-human life I’d seen on the mountain. Blown off the lowlands and up to the glacier by the storm, they’d starve if they didn’t freeze first.
Assuming the weather cleared in Talkeetna and the planes were able to fly, it would be a busy day: new groups, who’d been waiting in town for days, would arrive, gear and people spilling out of airplanes on the snow-packed runway, and climbers who’d been pinned down higher up by the weather would trickle back down to base camp, too. In the highest camps, the people with time and food still to spare would be eyeballing the summit.
Mountaineers are a streamlined bunch, their lean frames emphasized by their close-fitting Gore-Tex jackets and pants—advances in lightweight, high-performance outdoorswear mean nobody on the mountain looks like a bulky Michelin Man. The climbers around me moved gracefully on snow, and handled ropes and harnesses with easy competence. They were as confident, physically, as any group of athletes I’ve ever seen. They broke down their tents and packed up their sleds, retrieved food and fuel from caches buried in the snow and untangled their colorful ropes for the day’s effort. But when the moment of departure arrived, once they were finally roped up in long lines and hitched to their loaded, 70-pound sleds of supplies, 50-pound packs on their backs and snowshoes on their feet, their grace left them. They were ungainly, awkward, like a line of plodding Ice Age mammoths as they headed out of camp and down the trail. Their journey up the mountain would be a slow-motion pilgrimage. I watched them go, then started packing up for my own departure.
I wondered, as I prepared to leave, whether Denali had gotten its hooks into me. Mountains have always been as much a source of intimidation as fascination for me: I grew up a flatlander, and I’d been wound up, nervous, before the trip. I had never been on a glacier before, never camped in snow and ice and sub-freezing temperatures, and I hadn’t so much feared disaster as constant discomfort—days of painful cold, inadequate bedding or a faulty stove, and the frustrated malaise that comes with feeling like a hapless, helpless outsider. But even with the storm, my stay at base camp had been comfortable. I had handled myself all right, in the end, and I had already caught myself wondering how I might arrange to come back.
Most people I’d met seemed to be under the mountain’s spell.
I’d read about one journalist whose obsession with the mountain had begun with an assignment to base camp, and hadn’t been sated until he’d summited. And most people I’d met seemed to be under the mountain’s spell. "I still have a desire to get up there," Lisa Roderick told me. Roger Robinson, who’d first climbed Denali nearly four decades earlier, said, "It has a special place in my heart. It’s like an old friend. My life has evolved around the mountain."
I hauled my gear down to the runway as the planes began to land—one, two, and then three, within minutes of each other. Lisa directed traffic as the newcomers milled around, and before I knew it my gear was loaded into a bright red Single Otter. Within minutes, we were airborne.
As the summit faded behind us I asked my pilot, Chris, who’s been flying climbers on and off the mountain for 10 years now, if shuttling mountaineers around for so long made him want to try for Denali’s summit himself. He shrugged and admitted he’d been tempted. I gestured to the mountains outside the plane’s windows. "I guess you can see the summit whenever you want to, though?"
"It’s different when you get up there on your own." He laughed and patted the controls, totally confident in his frail aircraft to bring us safely through the mountains. "This is easy." Even as he answered, he scanned the sky, alert for any of his fellow pilots hauling more and more climbers from Talkeetna to take their shot.
On the glacier below us, the ponderous trains of climbers grew smaller, dwindling to black specks on the mountain’s impossibly white, vast flanks. As they have done for a hundred years, they moved slowly across the ice and snow, willing themselves uphill. ★
Author’s note on sources: For historical background I relied on Hudson Stuck's "The Ascent of Denali," Belmore Browne's "The Conquest of Mount McKinley," and Alaskan journalist Bill Sherwonit's "To the Top of Denali." I also pulled some climbing details from R.J. Secor's "Denali Climbing Guide." I would like to thank the National Park Service and K2 Aviation for their assistance with reporting and logistics.