My Denali Speed Ascent,
As I sat at basecamp on Denali contemplating a speed ascent, I had plenty of reasons to doubt myself. My legs were weary after an arduous descent from my previous climb. I had limited acclimatization. The weather forecast was deteriorating. The lower Kahiltna glacier was starting to break-up. My ‘pit crew’ was a 58-year old Episcopal priest with little mountaineering experience and frontal lobe brain damage. And then, there was the ever-present worry that my ankle, which had been shattered in a mixed climbing avalanche accident only 18 months prior, was not up to the challenge. Frankly, I felt like an amateur, trying to do something that should be left to the professionals.
But, for whatever reason, I had thought I could set the Denali speed ascent and round trip records. Chad Kellogg held the current records. In 2003, he climbed from the airstrip to the summit in 14 hours and 22 minutes and returned to the base in 23 hours and 55 minutes. As a sponsored athlete he went on to accomplish many more impressive feats and, at that moment, was trying to set the Everest speed record.
Vern Tejas, who has over 40 Denali summits under his belt and holds the speed record for summiting all the Seven Summits (134 days), had tried to lower the Denali record in 2009 but had turned back around 19,000 feet due to wind, frostbite concerns, and limited acclimatization.
As I lay in my tent, thinking about all the potential problems, I questioned why I ever thought I could do better than these accomplished professionals.
Denali is a big, cold mountain and it beats you down mentally. Despite having had great weather and having only been on the mountain for nine days, I was already itching to go home. I was sick of restless nights in my ratty sleeping bag and was pining for good beer and a hot shower. Considering how well the trip had been going, this eagerness to call it quits was particularly lame. Our first, acclimatization hike of Denali went smoothly as we summited in only seven days. We then descended back to the airstrip on the evening of Day 8 and the early morning of Day 9. All around, it had been a nearly perfect trip, but the last day had left me sleep deprived and thoroughly worn out from sled hauling, and I was seriously considering throwing in the towel on any more adventuring.
The original plan after the acclimatization hike had been to rest a couple of days at the airstrip, then turn around and climb the mountain a second time for speed. On the second ascent, Robert, my eccentric climbing partner, would ski with me, roped-up, across the lower glacier to mitigate the risk of crevasse fall. He would stop at the base of ‘Ski Hill’ while I continued on, solo. Whereas Kellogg and Tejas had both used a mix of lightweight running shoes and warmer footwear, I intended to simply stay in my ski boots the whole way. I would skin up to 11,000 feet, then put my skis on my back, crampons on my boots, and continue that way to the summit. I would then ski as much as possible on the descent to shorten my round-trip time. Once I skied back to Robert at the base of Ski Hill, we would rope back up and ski out together to the airstrip.
At least that had been the plan. Having just gotten safely off the Kahiltna glacier in the early hours of Day 9, Thursday, I was tentative to go back out onto the deteriorating glacier at all. Compounding my concerns was the fact that it was Robert’s first time ski mountaineering, and he had really struggled to control his second-hand ski gear on the descent. That concern, in addition to my misgivings about the weather and my tired legs, had me ready to give up. And the roar of airplanes shuttling elated climbers back to civilization certainly did not help me think objectively. I was about to suggest we go home when Robert spoke up.
He insisted that I should still try the speed ascent. He was confident I could do it, and, more poignantly, he knew how much I would regret not trying. I knew he wanted a beer and a shower even more than I did, so his commitment to stay for my sake was moving.
His wise, selfless words and a positive outlook from the National Park Service (NPS) ranger on lower glacier conditions were the nudges I needed to get out of my self-defeating mental loop and recommit to the climb. Although my hesitations had been reasonably legitimate, they stemmed more from my personal fears than impartial risk management.
But that still left the question of the deteriorating weather. Objectively, Friday’s weather forecast was more promising than Saturday’s, but we decided the benefits of an extra rest day were worth risking the less ideal weather window. We planned to rest Friday, Day 10, then go for it Saturday. With that plan in mind, Robert spent the remainder of Thursday melting snow for water and organizing gear as I lay prostrate on my sleeping bag, hydrating, eating, and hoping to recover as fast as possible for the big day.
Robert fell asleep at 9 pm, and I lay in bed mulling over logistics and decisions that still needed to be made. As I waited for sleep to come, I began to realize I was making a mistake. It was foolish to skip a good day of weather, no matter how drained I was. “If I am going to do this,” I thought, “I want my tired body to be the limiting factor – not a low-pressure system.” It was a refreshingly decisive thought, but it meant we would have to leave in the morning, only 24 hours after finishing our last climb. However daunting this thought was, I knew I had to trust my instincts. “Robert,” I said, waking him. “I think we should go in the morning.” He paused, then murmured, “Ok. Wake me.”
With this shortened timeline, I moved quickly to get my speed ascent gear fully organized. By midnight, everything was ready. I crawled into my sleeping bag and, with the peace that comes from decisions made, fell asleep.
We woke up at 2:30AM. Robert set about heating up water, while I arranged the last of my things. The weather was good and the summit, visible from our tent, beckoned. All the logistics and complications had been cleared away and now it was just my legs, my lungs, and the mountain. It felt right.
We got a witness, Tyler Jones, a guide from another climbing party, to sign an impromptu affidavit confirming my start time: 4:30AM. We roped up, put on our skis, and Robert counted down the seconds. We set off.
The pace was moderate for me, but we made good time on the frozen glacier. By 6:15AM we reached the base of ‘Ski Hill’, where we would part ways. Above that point, crevasse danger still exists but is not as severe as the lower glacier, which becomes a hot, soupy mess of sagging snow bridges due the lower elevations and higher temperatures. We un-roped and said our goodbyes. In case anything went wrong, I told Robert how happy I was to be doing exactly what I was at that moment. He said he would be glad to officiate my funeral.
I chuckled and began skinning up the undulating slope that rises continually for 2000 vertical feet. However, with my light skis, flexible boots, and slick skins, I made fast, steady progress and felt great. With the lack of wind, cloudless predawn skies, and the bulk of Denali looming to the east, I was imbued with a rare sense of confidence and optimism. It came from being given a unique opportunity to do something immense and feeling up to the challenge. I no longer saw myself as an illegitimate amateur, recklessly swinging for the fences. It was my moment, and I knew I could seize it.
As I skied on, I did not see many climbers on the route, but the few that I did pass looked at me quizzically. A solo climber with a small pack, no sled, and a quick, determined pace is an odd sight on such a massive mountain. By 8:30AM I arrived at ‘11 Camp’, having gained 4,000 vertical feet and covered nearly two thirds of the total mileage in four hours. I could feel the first signs of strain, but otherwise felt energized and optimistic.
I refueled with a Clif SHOT Gel and mini Snickers and chatted briefly with a NPS ranger, Dave. I put my skis on my pack and crampons on my boots, and then set off again. I started passing more teams, as it was later in the day. I made good progress up Motorcycle and Squirrel hills, and, at 9:29AM, was hit with direct sunlight for the first time as I neared Windy Corner at 13,000 feet.
At that point, the scale of what I was doing and the effort required began to set in. I had just climbed 6,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and had another 7,000 to go. Surprisingly, my legs felt OK, but my energy was beginning to flag. Could I really do this at record pace if I my body was already beginning to resist? I had summited Denali from ‘14 Camp’ before and remembered that as a hard day out. Could I do that on top of what I had already done – plus the added descent?
With that unanswered question, I pushed on to ‘14 Camp’ and strode in at 10:30AM. I received a warm welcome and looks of surprise from some climber friends when they found out I had left the airstrip only 6 hours ago. They offered me hot drinks and food, but my goal was to do the climb unsupported; I reluctantly declined and set off again towards the fixed lines above camp.
This independent ethos meant I would not be using any fixed gear on the mountain. By avoiding the fixed lines, specifically, not only would I be more independent, but I could also quickly pass groups that might be moving slowly.
The push from ‘14 Camp’ to the top of the fixed lines was tedious. You gain about 2,000 feet over a short distance of icy snow climbing. On a normal day, it is relatively interesting snow climbing and a satisfying effort, but for me it was a tiring slog that was still a long way from the summit. And when I crested the ridge at over 16,000 feet, I was greeted with a disconcerting view to the north. Broad clouds with dark underbellies appeared to be lumbering in my direction. Was this tomorrow’s low-pressure system arriving early? The weather was not overly menacing but was significant enough to attract the attention of a guy whose entire bivouac setup was a kitchen garbage bag and a small pad. However, the clouds were still a ways off, so I continued on, my pace reinvigorated by an external motivator.
The ridge was easy going compared to the steep fixed lines and I made good time despite the increasing congestion of climbers. But in my mental solitude, I began to play out the worst possible scenarios. What if I was hit by whiteout high on the mountain? What should be my decision-making point for turning around? Should I assume the weather is insignificant and press on no matter what? Denali lore is replete with stories of climbers stranded high on the mountain in whiteouts, often on the featureless Football Field just below the summit. It ultimately came down to only two options: go home or go faster. There was no way I was going to quit with only the suspicion of bad weather, so I went faster.
When I crested the rise before ‘17 Camp,’ I was moving well and jogged down the hill into camp at 1:20PM, less than 9 hours after leaving the airstrip. As I walked among the tents, I saw my friends Steve and Zach. Although I was tired and relieved to rest with fellow climbers for a moment, I was enthused by my strength level. My previous concern about burnout was subsiding, as I seemed to have enough in the tank to summit at record pace. But the clouds were broadening into a formidable front to the north, and, despite confidence in myself, I was growing fearful that this opportunity might vanish before I could seize it. To make it, I was going to have to push faster than record pace – I was going to have to beat the weather.
I said goodbye and set off at 1:40PM towards the Autobahn, the infamous and icy traverse rising up to Denali Pass. As I pushed upwards I could feel the effects of the altitude but kept pressing, feeling guilty about any pause or abatement in my pace. Soon, I made it to the pass and sat down on the exposed rocks, wanting to eat and drink but not feeling like doing much of either – a side effect of the hard cardio output and the higher elevation. It was now obvious that these clouds were eventually going to collide with the peak, but, although nervous, I was resolved to push ahead of them.
I made good time above Denali Pass, catching summit parties for the first time, but felt my fatigue treacherously progressing towards exhaustion. With the dread of whiteout egging me on, I ignored my heaving lungs and told my legs to keep moving.
I crested the hill overlooking the Football Field and knew I was going to make it. The clouds were now touching the mountain but seemed to have stalled, leaving me with beautiful summit conditions – if I could just manage the final push.
I could tell I was going into oxygen debt but did not dare to heed the over-expenditure and slow down. When I crested the summit ridge, I radioed Robert, “I’m on the summit ridge Robert!” He had been monitoring the radio closely and quickly replied, “Unbelievable! You are on time. That is great.” Then I set off along the ridge, hustling past parties as unobtrusively as I could.
At 4:59PM, 12 hours and 29 minutes after departing the airstrip, I reached the summit. I was elated and a bit shocked to have done it. The fulfillment of such a lofty goal was overwhelming and I found myself chuckling and murmuring congratulations to myself. But the respite was short-lived. After getting a witness, Eric (aka “Sals”), to testify to the location and time on my helmet camera, I began the descent.
As my cardio output and breathing rate unconsciously slowed, I found myself in desperate need of oxygen. My balance was deteriorating and my core was getting chilly. There also seemed to be a crushing weight on my diaphragm, and I knew the only solution was to drop elevation as quickly as possible.
At the far edge of the Football Field, I struggled against the hypoxia to step into my Dynafit bindings. Clumsily, I finally managed it, and slid forward picking up speed instantly. I knew I had to lose significant elevation to feel better, so I chattered along as fast as I could, trying to stay balanced among the sastrugi – wind scoured ridges of snow that look like ocean waves frozen in place.
I reached Denali Pass and looked down across the Autobahn to ‘17 Camp’. I had hesitated about skiing this section with my ultra-lightweight skis, but getting down quickly had become the top priority. I decided to ski. I pushed off and side-slipped the 1,000 foot drop, too loopy to trust myself with many real turns. When the grade subsided, I pointed my skis straight downhill and rode the breakneck momentum all the way back into ‘17 Camp’.
Realizing how wooly my head had been during the summit push, I decided to take an extended break and chatted with NPS rangers Glen, Jacob, and Ali for about 30 minutes while I rehydrated, ate, and got my wits about me. When I eventually got up to leave, Glen asked, “Uh…do you want to put on your crampons?”
“Oh, wow…” I said, realizing I was about to set off crampon-less. Despite my lingering loopiness, I finally headed out of camp and was pleasantly surprised by how well my legs responded. They seemed to have missed the hypoxia memo, and as they churned reliably underneath me, the rest of my body seemed to perk up.
I jogged along the ridgeline with my skis back on my pack and my ice tool in-hand. Lower on the ridge, I saw my ‘14 Camp’ friends again and began chatting with them. They congratulated me warmly, but urged me to keep moving, making me realize I had momentarily forgotten about the round-trip record. The exhausting summit push had drained me of my pace obsession. I was just cruising and relaxing. I tried to refocus and hustled off again.
I down-climbed around the fixed lines and into a whiteout – finally encountering the weather that had persistently threatened me high on the mountain. Fortunately, there was no wind and only light snow. At the base of the fixed lines, I put my skis back on for the last time. It was a disorienting feeling as I began linking turns together with my little pack and the fresh powder. This speedy and unencumbered descent made me feel like I was finishing a pleasant day of skiing in Colorado, rather than a Denali expedition.
The low-visibility conditions only added to the disorientation. I struggled to comprehend what I had done and was still doing. How could I have started at the airstrip, summited Denali, and now be skiing pleasantly around Windy Corner all in one day?
My bewilderment cleared with clouds. As I skied down Squirrel Hill, I left the whiteout behind and entered a golden vista of late evening rays and glaciated peaks. I could not help grinning broadly as I dropped down Motorcycle Hill, zipped by ’11 Camp’, and rounded the bend towards Ski Hill. As I skied, I radioed Robert, telling him I was almost back.
My lightweight little skis struggled to cut decisively through the increasingly wet snow, and the effort to maintain control strained my fatiguing ankle, which up until that point had performed superbly. But my balky joint held up well enough to keep my skis pointed downhill and me from falling over.
I dropped down the steep terrain of Ski Hill and as the slope flattened, I saw Robert’s lonely figure in the distance, waiting for me. When I reached him, he was poised to race off with my end of the rope pre-coiled and ready to clip into my harness, but I was more interested in chatting and celebrating for a moment with my friend. We hugged and he said, “Do you realize you are at 16 hours?” I actually did not. That sounded too fast, but after doing the math a few times, my sluggish brain finally realized he was right.
Soon we were off and without pack or sled Robert was able to ski much faster and more surely. We cruised along, maintaining speed on the slight downhill slope but on high alert for any hidden crevasse danger. It was nearly 9PM and because I had moved faster than expected, we found ourselves on the lower glacier at one of the worst times of day for safe travel. But shy of waiting a few hours to let the glacier cool down, there was nothing to do but ski fast and hope the sagging snow bridges held – which they thankfully did.
We moved quickly across the Kahiltna and soon were at the base of Heartbreak Hill, the last rise leading to the airstrip. Robert insisted I go ahead to make better time, so we unroped and I skied off.
At 9:16PM, 16 hours and 46 minutes after leaving the same spot, I slid into basecamp. Joey, the NPS ranger manning basecamp, saw me and officially confirmed my finishing time.
I had done it. I shaved nearly two hours off the previous ascent record and over seven hours off the round-trip record.
All of my previous self-doubt was gone and replaced with a deep sense of fulfillment. To have set a challenging personal goal, pushed past injuries, and then achieved that goal was enormously satisfying, and as I stood at Denali’s basecamp and looked up at the massive peak, I knew that, even though my records would surely be broken some day, that feeling of accomplishment would last.
– Ed Warren