Faces at 14,000 Feet

Camp 14 is one of the liveliest spots on Denali, where climbers acclimatize and socialize before pushing to the summit. Add a photographer and travel writer to the mix and you get a who’s who on the highest peak in North America.

Sep 2, 2011
Outside Magazine
Denali 2011 Portraits

Faces at 14,000 feet   

In November 2010, my friend Brandon Latham asked me to join his monthlong National Park Service patrol on Denali. I had never thought about climbing the highest peak in North America. I don’t like sitting in a tent if I’m not sleeping, and I hate being cold. But I said yes, mainly out of curiosity about the big-mountain world. Going as a patrol volunteer also meant that I’d be serving a purpose rather than just summiting, and it would be free.

On May 26, Brandon and our patrol flew onto the mountain. It was one month into the climbing season, and the Alaska Range had already taken seven lives. There was a sense of jinx in the air as we made our way up to 14,000 Camp, the central hub of the mountain.

It’s the liveliest of Denali’s camps because climbing parties spend the majority of their time there acclimatizing. It’s also the launching point for a few routes – the most commonly used West Buttress, the upper West Rib route, the legendary Cassin Ridge, and the big-line ski couloirs of the Orient Express and the Messner.

Over the course of a week, I made portraits of nine climbers, from novice mountaineers to sponsored athletes like Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen. I asked each person standard interview questions, the same I’ve been collecting for almost a decade of travel writing and exploring.

By the end of my month on the mountain, it hit me that the random people I had photographed and interviewed together told the story of a season. The pictures show the diversity of climber and shed some light on the weird world of mountaineering, a sport that requires an extraordinary level of time, gear, ego, grit, and self-absorption. The essays below the pictures, I hope, illustrate the connections between those individuals and the mountain.