Denali 2011, the 4th of the 7 Summits

Jun 20, 2011
Outside Magazine

West Buttress Route on Denali

After Everest, Denali was the climb I was most concerned about for the 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s: Memories are Everything. You see, it’s complicated.

Dedicating my Everest summit to my mom and all the Alzheimer’s moms out there will feed me for the rest of my life; but there is so much more to do. And that was why I set the goal of climbing all the 7 Summits in one year to raise Alzheimer’s awareness and $1M for research.

Now that I have Vinson (Antarctica), Aconcagua (South America) and Everest (Asia); it is time for the highest in North America, Mt. McKinley aka Denali, 20,320 feet.

In 2001, I reached 18,277 feet – Denali Pass. Our guide, Bill Allen from Mountain Trip, looked towards the summit and made a tough decision; descend now. A large lenticular cloud had formed over the summit indicating extremely high and dangerous winds. The 2001 climb was over. My first attempt was now history.

Standing on the high ridge just above Washburn’s Thumb, 16,500 feet in July 2007, I vomited until there was no more. Another difficult experience at high altitude. I dropped to my knees while over 30 other climbers stood by staring at me. I resorted to a known solution to my extreme nausea and stomach cramps, a suppository which I administered without embarrassment in front of the gallery. My 2007 climb was over as the National Park Service medical staff at the Basin Camp soon arranged for a helicopter evacuation based upon medical concerns that were later unfounded. No regrets for being conservative and safe.

These high mountains have been tough on me.

But that is the point. Climbing these highest peaks are not easy, neither is Alzheimer’s for individuals, caregivers or researchers. It takes perseverance, patience and commitment. I leave for Denali on June 25th more confident in my opportunity to summit this time than ever before. I hope that everyone associated with Alzheimer’s shares my optimism for finding a cure.

Denali has a reputation as one of the coldest climbs in the world with extreme weather that traps climbers for days or even weeks. It can easily reach -20F at night with winds over 50 mph and much higher, similar to my Everest summit climb. The other danger are the crevasses on the lower part of the route. They are incredibly deep and can be invisible after a new snow. One advantage of climbing late in the season, like I am in July, is that the dangers have been mostly identified but with the warm temperatures, the crevasses can be much larger and still hard to see.

It is a physical climb where I will have over 60 lb. of gear in my backpack plus pull another 50 in a sled behind me. The protocol is to establish a camp, then carry a load of food, fuel a bit higher and store it in a deep hole in the snow, a cache; return to the camp. The next day move everything, including tents, above the cache and return the next day to retrieve that cache before moving higher. These zig zags are in the climb high, sleep low model of high altitude climbing.

Climbing to the High Camp at 17,200' in 2001

The entire climb should take about two weeks actually on the mountain but three from home to home; significantly shorter than Everest’s nine weeks. However the I will still be climbing 13,120′ to the summit.

Denali offers some of the most stunning alpine views in the world. The nearby peaks of Foraker and Hunter are simply breathtaking. And because the sun never really sets this time of year, the view from the 17,200 foot High Camp at 3:00 AM is beyond words. Alaska is truly a gem for America.

Denali, even by the standard West Buttress route which I am taking, can be difficult and dangerous. The NPS publishes statistics throughout the season and through June 17, 2011; 375 people have summited out of 604 attempts or 53%. Sadly there have been an alarming 7 deaths thus far from falls to altitude issues to heart attacks. An explanation from someone just there:

“Conditions on Denali are extremely icy due to the lack of snow this winter and extreme winds that have persisted the past few weeks,” said Alaska climber Billy Finley, who was high on the mountain earlier this week. “Slopes that are normally hard-packed snow are wind-swept blue ice, which makes travel more dangerous.

112 climbers have died on Denali with 14 of those coming that Denali Pass. The most deadly year was 1992 with 11 deaths. Over 13,000 have summited Denali with a historical success rate around 40%.

I am climbing with Mountain Trip and guide Jared Vilhauer. More on Mountain Trip before I leave. They also post dispatches during all their climbs

I will be posting dispatches during the climb just like on Vinson, Aconcagua and Everest on this blog. Sometimes it is difficult to get a stable satellite signal so I may have to revert to voice only updates but you can count on full coverage and seeing a complete report when I get home. And then two weeks later I leave for Elbrus, the highest in Europe, again with IMG.

So why was I worried about this one? Well it was less than 30 days since I stood on the summit of Everest, a very physical and exhausting experience. I was concerned about how quickly my body, and mind, would recover especially if I had not summited. The good news is that I did and I feel strong and confident. I know Denali will be a difficult climb and test my physical strength and mental toughness once again. But I am ready.

Finally, this is all about Alzheimer’s as many of you know. For background on my motivation, please read this to understand why it is so personal to me and urgent for all of us. Please make a pledge for donate a penny for every foot I climb or only $131.

Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the 7 Summits throughout 2011. He has summited Vinson and Aconcagua already and leaves for Everest in late March. All to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.

Photo Courtesy

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