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.



There are few experiences in the known universe akin to exiting the safety and warmth of the International Space Station’s airlock and gracefully floating out into the pitch-black vacuum of space. After many months of intense training and great anticipation, not to mention the exhilaration of rocketing off of the planet in a space shuttle, you arrive at what is a defining moment in your life. You and your space- walking partner are alone in the void of space, reliant upon each other to accomplish a series of very difficult tasks and safely return in six-plus hours. You have crewmates inside the station and shuttle, and flight controllers with watchful eyes and helpful direction communicating from Mission Control Houston, but the ultimate responsibility for making a “round trip” outside falls upon you and your space-walking buddy. I’ve made seven such trips, which we call EVAs—short for Extravehicular Activity—and memories from each are forever etched in my mind. The butterflies—the commitment—are especially intense those first few minutes out the hatch, tempered only once we get to work in this rarefied world.

I guess I’ve always been driven to visit high, lofty places, and not just confined to aircraft and spacecraft. I began climbing in earnest in my teens, and after many hard-won summits, it was only natural to test myself on the world’s highest peak. I had the good fortune of spending a couple of seasons on Everest with Mike Hamill, climbing in parallel with him and his guided clients, and sharing the base camp support of the International Mountain Guides team. I remember having some great conversations with him in various camps along the way to the top of the world, including finding similarities between Himalayan mountaineering and EVA. Believe it or not, a summit day on Everest is a very close cousin to space walking, allowing me to touch the night sky.

I vividly recall the evening of May 20, 2009, poised to go into my wind-battered tent at 26,000-foot (7925 m) Camp IV. I’d been lying low since arrival at camp around 9:30 am, sucking down one and a half quarts (liters) a minute of supplemental oxygen, a few quarts of water, and an occasional ramen, thinking about the night ahead. Much like the pre-EVA jitters I’d experienced in the past, I wondered how my next twenty-four hours would unfold. Would I successfully summit? Success could only be measured as a complete round trip, so I wondered about the stability of the weather, the route, my health, my teammates (especially my friend and sidekick, Danuru Sherpa, from Phortse), and other elements beyond my control.

Bundled in a thick down suit, wearing a backpack containing my oxygen and emergency gear, I trundled out the vestibule of my tent at 8:00 pm that windblown night with just the illumination of my headlamp and a sliver of the moon. For all intents and purposes, I was exiting into the vacuum of space, since the air was almost as thin as “upstairs” outside the International Space Station. My thick mitts provided limited tactility, not dissimilar to my space-walking gloves, and I carefully hooked up to the fixed lines above the South Col, much as I’d done in space, hooking up a safety tether to prevent myself from “falling off ” my spacecraft—which would be a very bad day. My dream had been to arrive on the summit of Everest in time to see a sunrise, complete with the full curvature of Earth. I’d seen many orbital sunrises in space—we see sixteen every day while traveling at 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kph) around the planet—but they happen almost in a blur. As my good fortune would have it, I arrived on the summit at 4:00 am, with the sunrise just beginning to peek up at 4:05 am. I was treated to the equivalent of an orbital sunrise from the top of the world, savoring the full spectrum of light as it rose behind the earth’s limn during my descent of the summit ridge, exhausted but elated. It remains the most magnificent sunrise of my life.


Everest summit ridge

Aconcagua's South Face by Willie Benegas

The South Face of Aconcagua is among the biggest of the world’s big walls; its towering 9000 feet are made up of dreadfully rotten rock, collapsing ice cliffs, and steep, plunging slopes of snow and ice. It seems an environment designed to repel anyone with any sense of self-preservation. Still, for all these unappealing traits, the force of the nature of Aconcagua’s South Face beckons to all climbers to test their skills. The legend of the South Face fascinated me for years. After a long but extremely successfull guiding season on the Normal Route on the opposite side of the mountain, it came to me that it was time to ask Aconcagua’s permission to scale its more daunting side. I needed a partner. Damian, my twin brother, still had guiding responsibilities elsewhere. Second in line was Horacio Cunety, who had more than a decade of experience on this mountain: without any reservations, he jumped into this crazy but fulfilling idea of climbing the South Face. High-altitude sickness would not be an issue, since we had climbed the mountain four times already that season. Feeling strong and confident, we decided to climb fast and light, carrying only the minimum necessary: supplies for two days of climbing—although the normal time is five days. As we left Puente del Inca in the morning, the weather was fantastic. We set off full of energy as we hiked toward the route, when suddenly the immensity of the South Face was before us, its terrain appearing like the surface of the moon. Unavoidable doubts haunted us; we felt preyed upon by the face’s constant, overwhelming presence. It seemed almost impossible to look anywhere else; our eyes were constantly drawn to the avalanches sweeping the face as we searched it for clues, wondering, worrying. The knowledge that we’d soon be up there, enclosed by the vertical world, brought immediacy and a cold reality to our expedition.

Familiarity however, is a wonderful salve: we know this mountain well; we have thirty years of combined experience; we have studied every feature a thousand times. We felt more comfortable as we got closer and closer. We wasted no time, starting to climb right away, and when darkness engulfed us, we were surrounded by towers of less than desirable rock. We advanced quickly to the base of the towers, where we made a cozy bivy.

After a good sleep, we started climbing again at 4:00 am under the glow of our headlamps. A mist descended on us, but we were in a mystical place and we moved in perfect harmony, not needing to think, not needing to say anything: we knew what to do. By late afternoon, we had reached the base of the Superior Glacier. After a few minutes searching for a perfect bivy spot, we settled for an uninviting crevasse where, in desperate need of hydration, we quickly started to melt snow.

Sunrise brought us to the base of the dreadful serac. Searching for a safe passage was a hard and stressful undertaking; every side seemed crazy until we finally managed to find a perfect tunnel. Some ingenious digging brought us to the surface of Superior Glacier, where my eyes feasted upon the savage beauty of this mountain.

By the end of the day, we had reached the halfway point on the French Pillar, at 19,500 feet (5944 m). Under darkness, we started the long and exhausting process of digging on the ridge crest to create a platform scarcely big enough to accommodate half of me, let alone the two of us. Dehydration and sore muscles were the norm by morning. It was cold and windy, but the rocks were the best we had seen so far. Still, the mighty South Face was not giving up. Every foot we gained was through hard work, but despite the difficulties, we were moving well. At one belay, I discovered under some snow, much to my surprise, climbing artifacts from the first ascent by the French Expedition in 1954. So many years ago. In that moment I was struck by thoughts of that historic ascent, of those amazing climbers.

Finally we reached the summit ridge ourselves; the South Face had given us its permission. By late afternoon, Horacio and I stood atop the roof of the Americas; the South Face had brought me humility, trust, and teamwork.




On the approach to Aconcagua  (photo: Mike Hamill)

AAC 50th Anniversary of Americans on Everest Book Signing

I'll be in San Francisco doing a book signing at the American Alpine Club's 50th Anniversary of Americans on Everest this Saturday. If you're in the area, stop by to say hi. Should be a fun event!

High Quality Prints now available from Kalakora Gallery!

You can now buy high quality prints from Climbing the Seven Summits at the Kalakora Gallery!

Mike Hamill of Climbing the Seven Summits interviewed by the Valley News

Check out the article about climbing the Seven Summits in New Hampshires's Valley News:

Climbing the Seven Summits is giving away 10 signed copies of the book!

Climbing the Seven Summits is giving away 10 signed copies of the new guide book through the Climbing the Seven Summits Facebook page! Click on the link ( and "like" the page to be eligible to win. Be sure to sign up for the free mailings on the home page of this site as well.

Climbing the Seven Summits reviewed by Tacoma New Tribune


Five Questions Ever since American mountaineer Dick Bass reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1985, becoming the first person to summit the highest point on each continent, duplicating that accomplishment has become an ultimate goal for many climbers.

In 2008, Mike Hamill, a guide for Ashford’s International Mountain Guides, reached the top of Africa’s Kilimanjaro becoming the 248th person to check off the accomplishment. But unlike many who reach the goal, he kept going.

Hamill, a 34-year-old West Seattle resident, has climbed the Seven Summits at least four times each. In 2008, he climbed all seven peaks in a 220-day stretch.

Few know these mountains as well as the New Hampshire native, making him the perfect candidate to write “Climbing the Seven Summits: A Comprehensive Guide to the Continents’ Highest Peaks.” (The Mountaineers Books, $29.95). The book went on sale last month and recently cracked the top 100 on’s best-selling mountain climbing books.

A day before he left for Alaska to guide climbers up Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, Hamill slowed down long enough to field five questions:

1When and where does an international mountain guide find time to write a book?

“When you are guiding on mountains like Everest (a 2-12-month trip) you have a lot of time at base camp where you can sit and write for a couple of days. It’s a good project to fill in those holes in your schedule. But you do have to be diligent. ... This project took about three years.”

2Why did you want to write a book about the Seven Summits?

“Mainly because there is a general lack of good information out there on the Seven Summits. I had clients and friends who were having trouble finding good info to compare the peaks. I felt like it was a hole that needed to be filled.”

3So, you’re 34 and spending 200 nights a year in a tent, how long do you plan on keeping up this aggressive schedule?

“Mountaineering is pretty addictive and I love it, but it doesn’t really lend itself to a normal lifestyle. I want to do this for a few more years, then scale back a little bit.”

4You’re from the Northeast, where there are hardly any peaks as high as the Sunrise parking lot (6,400 feet) at Mount Rainier. What inspired you to climb big mountains?

“I got into it indirectly through skiing. I was in the Junior Olympics and we went to Alaska. I remember the moment when we were flying by Denali. It was inspiring. After that, I started doing more hiking on the East Coast and then progressed to mountaineering and eventually I applied for a job (with Rainier Mountaineering Inc.) to guide on Mount Rainier and I got it.”

5Which of the Seven Summit trips do you enjoy the most?

“I love the Vinson trip. It’s pretty sweet. The logistics are so difficult. You have to fly an old jet without windows to get there. You have to be committed and it is so remote. It’s a cool feeling and Antarctica is a beautiful place. You fly in with about 52 people and of those about 35-40 head over to the mountain (on a smaller twin-engine plane). You’re the only ones on the mountain and there is nobody else around for 80 miles.” 253-597-8497 

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"Climbing the Seven Summits" reviewed in Action Asia Magazine

"If you have your sights set on the Seven Summits – the highest point on each continent – you can do no better in print than a copy of Climbing the Seven Summits by Mike hamill (the Mountaineers Books).

Peppered with tips on gear and technique, maps for the major routes and quotes from mountaineering’s greats, it is an excellent reference for those serious about an undertaking that has been achieved by only 350 people."

-Action Asia