On June 14 at 3 a.m., Katie Bono crawled into basecamp on Alaska’s Mount Denali, frostbitten and exhausted. Bono, 29, had left the same camp, located at 7,200 feet, at 6 a.m. the previous morning, summited the 20,310-foot peak (North America’s highest) in minus 40 degree temperatures at 8:46 p.m., then headed back down. Her round-trip time of 21 hours, 6 minutes set the women’s speed record on the mountain, and was the third-fastest time ever recorded on Denali. What makes Bono’s accomplishment even more impressive is that, during the three-and-a-half weeks she spent on the mountain, she ran into a number of setbacks. Denali has been cold and stormy this year, resulting in only about 30 percent of permitted climbers reaching the summit. (Normally 50 percent make it.) Well into an earlier summit push, Bono had to turn around due to bad weather. In addition, she had to help a friend who’d fallen ill get off the mountain, and, during her record-setting attempt, she didn’t have enough food or water. Savannah Cummins, a photographer from Salt Lake City, was there to document the trip.
Bono left her home in Boulder, Colorado, and arrived on Denali via ski plane on May 20. Since January, Bono, a former Nordic ski racer for Dartmouth College, had been studying for the MCAT, finishing pre-requisite classes at the University of Colorado, and applying to medical school. In between that, she trained eight to 20 hours per week, doing long ski tours and short running intervals.
To acclimatize, Bono climbed from basecamp up to camp 14 at 14,000 feet. Most nights, at around midnight, she’d leave her tent to go to the bathroom and say, “Savannah, you have to see this sunset.”
From 14 camp, Bono did short training missions. On the morning captured here, on May 30, she prepped for a climb to 17,000 feet. On June 2, she left 14 camp and tried to tag the summit, but was turned around at 19,500 feet due to bad weather.
As part of her acclimatization, Bono joined another Denali climber, Mik Metzler, for a few days of skiing. That included ripping down Rescue Gully, a small 40-degree chute near 17,000 feet.
The village at 14 camp.
On June 5, Bono left 14 camp to head back down to basecamp in preparation for an attempt at the speed record. On the way out, Bono’s friend, Metzler, began complaining of stomach pain. “Where?” she asked. “Lower right,” Metzler responded. Bono immediately suspected that Metzler was suffering appendicitis. By the time they got near basecamp, Metzler was in bad shape, and they were forced to load him onto a gear sled and pull him to camp. Later, as seen in this photo, they loaded Metzler onto a helicopter that flew him to the hospital in Anchorage where he underwent successful surgery for appendicitis.
On June 7, Bono left basecamp at 6 a.m. and was able to make it to 18,100 feet in just 11 hours, 9 minutes. But a storm was fast approaching. “The wind was blowing 30 miles per hour and I knew it was just going to get worse,” she says. She turned around and headed back to basecamp.
At 6 a.m. on June 13, Bono checked her watch and set out for the summit. Early on, she was forced to break trail through a foot of recently fallen snow. “I’d taken a bunch of Aleve because I knew my hip was going to hurt,” she says. “It made it much better.” As she started up the fixed line at 15,800 feet, the water that she was keeping warm inside her coat fell out and careened down the mountain and out of sight. She was lucky to pass a friend who gave her half a liter, the only water she’d have for the next 10 hours. Then, at 19,700 feet, she bonked. She’d only consumed about 1,700 calories, mostly in the form of sports gels. “I was dehydrated and I should have brought more food,” she says.
When she got to the summit ridge at 20,100 feet, she tried to pull ice off her nose. “Then I realized it wasn’t ice that had frozen on my nose,” she says. “It was my nose.” She walked along the summit ridge to the summit, which took half an hour, reaching the top of the mountain in 14 hours, 45 minutes. “When I got there, I only had enough energy to make a funny pose for the camera,” she says.
Bono hiked back down to 14,000 feet, then put her skis on. “I actually got to make some pow turns in the snow that I’d broken trail through,” she says. “It was good skiing.” When she pulled back into basecamp at 3 a.m., she ate mac and cheese and drank hot chocolate. “I did some smiling,” she says. “But that’s about it. I was so tired.”