First Solo Winter Ascent of Denali

A solo winter climb of Denali? In 1984, I could not have imagined a more audacious idea. After having climbed the mountain many times in prior “normal” summer seasons, I was on vacation in Japan that winter when Naomi Umeura, a Japanese mountaineering hero, was declared lost on Denali during his attempt at the first solo winter ascent of the mountain. Naomi was never found, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what had gone wrong. From that point on, I spent almost all of my free time imagining how difficult it would be to pull off a successful solo winter climb of Denali. On February 15, 1988, the bush plane dropped me on a cold, dark morning on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier near the base of Mount McKinley. When I had first started to conceptualize the project in Japan four years earlier, the challenge of such an undertaking seemed overwhelming. To come to terms with the daunting task, I tried to focus on my major concerns: crevasse fall, carrying only what was absolutely necessary for survival (in other words, the less gear I carried, the more quickly I would be able to move up the mountain), and the extreme weather.

Crevasses are always an issue on Denali, but because I would be by myself, crevasse fall was more of a concern than usual. I bought a lightweight aluminum ladder at a local hardware store to wear around my waist while crossing a crevasse field, hoping that it would span any hole I might kick through in a snow bridge over a crack.

Due to weight limitations, I opted to not travel with a thermometer. In retrospect, I suspect that my decision was at least in part psychological, as I didn’t really want to know how cold it actually was. One may extrapolate the weather, by using temperatures in nearby Talkeetna, Alaska, 60 miles (96 km) southeast and calculating standard lapse rate, that I certainly experienced fifty-below temperatures and wind chill that was off the new wind chill chart by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (-99 ̊F, -73 ̊C).

Mid-February on Denali is dark. I received no more than eight hours of sunlight, so I took two headlights powered with lithium batteries. To deal with the cold, I used military-style arctic footwear (bunny boots) and expedition mit- tens. Over the top of my one-piece down suit, I wore a one-piece nylon wind suit. Even with this clothing, I needed to keep moving vigorously any time that I was outside of my snow shelter in order to avoid hypothermia and frostbite.

After I flew onto the glacier, a relentless series of low-pressure systems started to hammer the mountain with high winds and snow. Because of the weather, I could climb only one day out of every three. In the meantime, I spent most of my time listening to the howling winds while hunkered underground in my dark snow trench. On each storm day, I restricted myself to half rations of food so as not to run out. When there was a lull between storms, I would hastily pack up all of my belongings, load up my backpack and sled, and ski like mad up the mountain to the next suitable campsite. I had to keep moving to keep warm, so I would immediately dig the next trench and dive into it before I cooled down too much and became hypothermic. Once I was sealed inside, the trench would warm up to a tempera- ture that was sixty or seventy degrees warmer than the outside temperature, and I was able to cook, make repairs, and get some sleep.

Progress was slow and laborious. Because of the amount of gear, I had to do double carries of food and equipment between each campsite until I got to 14,200 feet (4330 m), where I left my ladder. Above that point, I used a very conservative snow bridge crossing technique: I pounded in two snow pickets for protection before crossing a bridge and, after attaching my rope to those pickets, I used my ascender to belay myself across the bridge. Once across, I drove in two more pickets and, on the rope, crossed back over the bridge to pull the original two pieces of protection. I did this for each of the five largest crevasses that I encountered above 14,200 feet. It was time consuming but safe.

On Day Twenty of the climb, after having moved camp [eight] times above base camp, I finally was positioned within striking distance of the top. After a couple of days waiting for a good weather window, and very low on food, I made a dash to the top. From the summit, I was able to make radio contact with a Citizens Band [radio operator], who patched me through to my pilot so that I could arrange for a pickup down at base camp two days later. The next day, however, a major storm hit, stopping me in my tracks and preventing me from descending. I made it down to base camp after a several-day wait, only to be stranded for several more days with no contact with the pilot or anyone else in the outside world. One week later, down to my last candy bar on the twenty-ninth day of the expedition, my pilot (Lowell Thomas Jr.) was finally able to land and pick me up.

Despite the challenges of the expedition—the extreme weather, bouts of starvation, deprivation, and absence of any safety net—I immensely enjoyed the climb and feel that the expedition was one of the most formative and profound experiences of my life (so far!). If you want to read more about the climb, check out “Dangerous steps” by Lew Freedman.