A Different Measure of Success – A 2021 Denali Expedition

Guest blog post by Evan Sneath

“Did you summit?” It’s the question that every climber hears from friends, family, and colleagues – especially those uninitiated to mountaineering. I’ll admit, it’s the easiest topic to fall back on when the objective of a climbing trip seems very clearly to be to get to the top, but those who know climbing understand that there are a thousand hours of training and million words veiled behind the quick “yes” or “no” response. For the latest objective on Denali’s West Buttress in June of 2021, all of the surface-level questions snap me back to memories of the team – our hard decisions, struggles, friendships, backgrounds, sacrifices, and knowing that together we operated in perfect balance to leverage our strengths and support each other through our weaknesses in one of the harshest places in the world.

It’s undisputed that the first glimmer of existence for our Denali expedition came from Rob Claybon. Denali was on Rob’s radar around 8 years prior to the trip. Rob structured his life around the eventual goal of Denali by diving into backpacking and east coast climbing followed by a move out to Colorado, peak-bagging, and winter camping. He eventually completed CMC’s Basic Mountaineering School and the High Altitude Mountaineering School (HAMS) focused on developing the skills needed to thrive on Denali in an unguided setting. Rob’s drive to attempt Denali, and his perpetual stoke for being in nature, was the fuel that propelled us up the mountain.

The inner drive that carries any climber up a peak as wild as Denali is deeply personal and as unique as the rugged landscape. After suffering great personal loss, Nicole Allen set her sights on carrying out unfulfilled dreams of climbing the biggest mountains and in doing so realized and fulfilled her own dreams. Nicole consistently impressed, and frankly, put the rest of us to shame with the amount of weight she was able to haul despite her smaller stature. Her methodical planning and optimism truly were imperative to our team’s success.

Every expedition should have a competent camp chef. Joel Yates brought gourmet meals, his unwavering reliability, and his mental game in spades. Joel took a different path through the climbing world by cutting his teeth on sport and trad rock. While I met Rob and Nicole through HAMS, I met Joel while we were both thru-hiking the Colorado Trail. Some chatter about climbing at a rest day hostel in Lake City was all it took to become fast friends and we spent the following years together on trips to Ouray honing our ice climbing skills. His lead climbing aptitude was responsible for our safe passage through Denali’s more technical terrain.

Our twelve days spent on the mountain saw us using nearly every skill we’ve collectively gathered over the years and every ounce of endurance we’ve built through winter summits, weighted climbs up front range peaks, and days spent in the gym. I like to think of Denali in three unique parts: lower, middle, and upper mountain. The lower mountain is gradual, wetter, and heavily crevassed from base camp to 11k camp, whereas the middle mountain up to 14k camp kicks up in grade and shows some of the first signs of frigid upper mountain conditions. We spent the lower and middle mountain putting in double-effort days to get ahead of storms, running into plenty of familiar CMC faces, and doing our absolute best to stay ahead of self-care – a critical component in big mountain subsistence. Things were going smoothly, but Denali gives no one an easy time.

When skiing down to back-carry a cache from Windy Corner up to 14k camp, I hit crusty snow and went over my skis, injuring my back. I was concerned by the time I got down to the cache and I had lost all hope for my own summit attempt after hobbling back to 14k camp. Our weather window was closing right as we had made camp at 14k and we had to make immediate moves to have any chance at our objective. Without hesitation and in the greatest showing of friendship I’ve experienced, Nicole, Joel, and Rob spent the next day hauling their own and my gear cache up to 17k camp to stage for a summit while I focused on recovery and stretching. My muscles loosened and the next morning we left from 14k for the summit and then camp at 17k. The newfound verticality of the upper mountain met us with a lengthy but irregularly warm summit day which persisted past the late Alaskan sunset. Exhausted and sleep deprived, the four of us crammed in a single three-person tent knowing that the summit was achieved, but realizing that the efforts made for each other on the mountain were what we would remember forever.

Evan Sneath is a current HAMS instructor and former CMC Denver Group Council member who has gone through several CMC schools and enjoys sharing knowledge and skills for safe and effective travel in the mountains with his students.

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