Denali is the dream for any mountaineer. It’s summit at 20,310 feet, it is the prize of North American mountaineering, rising dramatically above the Alaska Range, and so prominent it can be seen from downtown Anchorage.
From Denver to Denali
For two Colorado Mountain Club teams, Denali was the culmination of skills, talent, and perseverance, enduring icy cold conditions, rapidly changing weather, treacherous glaciers, crevasses, and long days hauling sleds of gear from camp to camp.
For Britt Jones, Scott Kime (Leader), Thomas Beuerman, and Roger Flahive, and Sheryl Lampert, Katie Hendrickson, Jamie Simpson (Leader), Louis Marroquin and James Graebner, all who met through the Colorado Mountain Club mountaineering programs, the summit, and raising the flag of the club on the roof of North America, was the result of months of training and a lifetime of dreaming and ambition.
After having developed skills through the High Altitude Mountaineering School (HAMS) Jamie’s team left for Alaska at the start of the spring mountaineering season, having trained in frigid conditions at altitude on several Colorado peaks.
A Treacherous Peak
Denali is a mountain that requires a considerable amount of skill, being able to travel as a rope team on glaciers, using an ice axe for self-arrest and building anchors, climbing on steep 45-degree slopes, and being able to use crampons in a variety of methods to move efficiently and conserve energy.
Climbers must also be able to withstand rapidly dropping and changing temperatures, sudden storms and whiteouts that can sometimes last for days, limited communication, and crevasse rescue techniques. Mountaineers must be able to pull sleds, carry packs of between 60-70 pounds, and travel of upwards to five miles at a slow pace on any given day.
Jamie’s team arrived in Talkeetna, the last town before the Denali wilderness, and procured a bush pilot and ski-converted plane to the glacier.
“Most people climb Denali in May or early June.” Says Britt Jones “The reason is there are less crevasses opened up. The sign in the NPS office showed the current success rate up to June 11th this year was less than 48%.”
While the odds are stacked against climbers, especially on a peak as tempestuous as Denali, Sheryl, Katie, Jamie, Louis, and James were able to find exceptionally perfect conditions, with few glaciers having opened up, and rangers remarking on the pristine state of the route.
Ascending The Peak
All accomplished mountaineers with experience around the world, the team called themselves the ‘Hot Tang’ Expedition to the delight of rangers and other expeditions.
The flight from Talkeetna to theKahiltna Glacier just under Denali is just under 30-minutes, with a breathtaking flyby of the Alaskan skyline, including Mt. Hunter and Mt. Foraker, with Denali herself rising high above the glacial-covered skyline.
Landing on the bed of the Kahilta Glacier, the team hauled sleds of gear to a camp with several other expeditions. Digging into their tent, they proudly flew the Colorado Mountain Club flag at camp, and dug in for a weather window opportunity to move higher.
On June 3rd, the Denali Dispatch described conditions as “dreamy” and “unprecedented” and spurred the team. Even the Denali Dispatch on June 14th proclaimed, that the “ridiculous stretch of clear and calm weather continues.”
Denali mountaineers will start from Base Camp and move to Ski Hill Camp at 7800 feet, then 11k Camp at 11,200-feet, followed by 14k Camp at 14,000 feet, 17k Camp at 17,200 feet, and ultimately launch for the summit at 20,310-feet and back.
The team moved steadily through each camp, enduring long sustained pitches of steep snow climbing, frequently clipping in to fixed ropes and climbing between 5 to 7 hours a day.
Jamie fell to a respiratory infection, with the team double hauling his gear from 11 to 14k Camp but rallied throughout the ascent. Louis called the climb from 11 to 14k the toughest stretch of climbing on the trip.
Meanwhile Scott’s team, called the ‘Colorado One Step’ expedition and hailing from the Pikes Peak Group, arrived on the glacier and were quickly enveloped with their first snowstorm on the Kahiltna Glacier. Enduring the cold and snow flurries, they quickly pushed through to break through the clouds and reach the camps above.
Up at the high camp, the first team of Sheryl, Katie, Jamie, Louis, and James set off around 9:01 in the morning to take advantage of the soft snow conditions for easy management of the route.
Summit day involves crossing a steep section just outside of camp called the Autobahn, and on to Denali Pass at 18,200-feet. The summit bids, lasting between 10-12 hours involve some of the steepest climbing of the trip, frequently clipping into fixed ropes and pre-placed pickets along the route.
Past a long flat un-crevassed field, known as The Football Field, the team ascended the final ridge, climbing high above the clouds and the majestic Alaskan skyline until they could make out the final Geological Survey marker, proudly marking the roof of North America. At 5:00 PM on June 13, 2019, Alaskan Time, after months of training, after years of dreaming, after the hard work of gaining skills, knowledge, spending nights in schools, practicing together, knowing each other’s skills, abilities, and challenges, the Colorado Mountain Club team stood proudly on the summit of Denali and unfurled the Colorado Mountain Club and Colorado state flags. Even Jamie, who had struggled at the start of the expedition made the summit. With a prolonged celebration on the summit, the team started to make their way down.
After a long day of climbing just about 12 hours, they reached their tents at an Alaskan twilight approximately around 9:00 PM, watching the alpenglow fall over the glaciers below, bathing the peak in a fiery pink light. The immense pride of having represented the club and it’s ideal of developing strong mountaineers and carrying Colorado’s mountain tradition proudly.
A Second CMC Summit!
On the way down they encountered Britt, Scott, Thomas, and Roger, at 11k Camp and handed off the flag. According to Louis “I walked around with the CMC Flag on a wand, looking for Colorado climbers and saw the Colorado flag waving from a tent. I called out for Britt and he responded from inside his tent.”
Crossing the Football Field, the Pikes Peak team encountered a Japanese group of six and found a climber suffering from HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and Scott, an emergency room doctor, was able to treat him temporally with Diamox and Dexamethasone, before the team was able to radio a guide in the vicinity who was able to provide the team with additional medicine, exclaiming that the Japanese climber was in grave danger in his current state. Slowly but steadily the climber was able to make his way back to camp with the assistance of the guide.
Ascending the final ridge, the Pikes Peak team stood proudly on the summit, marking the second CMC ascent of the spring, and unfurling the banner for the second time above North America.
Nearly 12-Hours later and a tricky re-crossing of the Autobahn they settled into their tents and began the long trip back to Base Camp.
Making the Colorado Mountain Club Proud
From the summit and home to Colorado, our two Denali teams took advantage of near perfect conditions, and the preparation, skill, and fortitude that go into an expedition of Denali’s caliber to make the summit twice in one summer. In fact the first Denali team had seen a summit rate of 57% on both Denali and Foraker.
The Colorado Mountain Club is proud of having developed extraordinary mountaineers and alpinists; the successes of Britt, Scott, Thomas, Roger, Sheryl, Katie, Jamie, Louis, and James speak to the fortitude of Colorado mountaineers.
“All of that planning, funding, training, and praying had come to fruition,” writes Britt “and we were now standing on the highest point in North America!”
A previous version mentioned that the plane landed on the Ruth Glacier. The correct location was the Kahiltna Glacier. This has been updated.