Soon after the 2017 Denali expedition ended Myself along with two other members of the expedition were disappointed with not making the summit, Dave Hill, and Ashley Burke. We decide to return during the 2018 climbing season together. A decision was made to go without the use of a guide service. We had all been on Denali so we knew that we could climb the mountain without the use of guides. We found out using a guide service was very limiting. It did not allow us extra time on the mountain, which cost us the past years chance to summit. We were not allowed to venture outside of camp, and most of all took away the credibility of making it on our own to the summit. When you go with a guide group you sacrifice your freedom for safety. To many that is okay but I don’t see the point of an adventure if you aren’t willing to accept the risks and in control of your own destiny.
We took on a fourth member, Pasang Tendi Sherpa who had climbed with Dave Hill on Everest. With the four of us being from different countries, United States, Canada, Australia, and Nepal our team was named “Four Flags”. Dave having the most experience on Denali did most of the planning for the expedition. I enjoyed the experience of us being responsible for all aspects of the expedition from the gear, food provisions, and climbing schedule. Two days prior to flying onto the glacier we packed, planned, and revised our climbing schedule.
Our climb from base camp to 14 K camp when great. What the year before took almost a week to get to 14 K camp took only 4 days. We single carried from camp 1 to 11 K camp knocking off two days by not take a rest day at 11 K camp.
From 14 K camp is when our luck ran out. The window of beautiful weather we had all week deteriorated into storm after storm. In the 15 days we spent at 14K camp we had one day to attempt a summit push. We were making good time but when we hit high camp a white out rolled in leaving us doubtful. We did not know from high camp which direction the summit was and decided to try to wait out the storm. By the time it cleared too much time had passed. We were without a tent or sleeping bags. We had a stove and dehydrated meals so we attempted to build a snow cave and wait out the night and go for the summit in the morning. We ate a dinner and settled into our snow cave. When the sun set low on the horizon and the shadow swept over the camp temperatures dropped to -30 degrees. We tossed and turned in our cave. Even with all the clothing we took up with us on our toes began to freeze and turned numb. Without sleep we decided it was best to go back down to 14 K and wait for another summit window. But that day never came.
Down at 14 K we waited again to see a summit window but a cyclone out at sea didn’t give us any hope. It hammered us with 3 days of high winds and over nine feet of snow. Our food provisions were almost out and our moral was at an all-time low. The best weather always seems to be 3 days away, but always fell apart and became high winds blasting the summit. Eventually on day 22 on the mountain and with no summit window in sight we decided to call it quits and head out. The decision did not hit me until the day we’ve decided to leave. That day I had to first climb up to high camp and retrieve our cache, then back down to 14 K camp to pack up camp, and then head from the airstrip at base camp which took over 18 hours.
At just about 16,500 feet on a cold windless day on the west buttress of Denali after retrieving the cache at high camp I found myself alone on the ridge. I wanted to spend just a few more minutes to take in the sweeping views and also accepting another failed attempt to make the summit. It was late afternoon and the sun was gettin low in the sky. It gave a hazy soft light illuminating the ridge. It was one of those moments that you’re awareness heightens to your surroundings and then I truly saw the beauty of the Alaskan landscape. Prior to the decision to end the expedition the determined effort and obsessing over getting to the summit had me seeing the mountain with a different perspective. I only saw the summit, and everything that it was going to take for me to get there. The weather reports, getting the gear up the mountain, the cold the wind the risk of it all. But knowing I was about to leave Denali and the summit attempt was over that all went away and I finally opened my eyes. Not wanting to leave the ridge and that moment I sat down in the snow just above Washburn’s Thumb and thought it was the best time to tell someone about failing for the second time. I pulled out my Satellite phone and called home. It wasn’t until I heard my mothers voice tears swelled up in my eyes as I told her I won’t be making it to the summit again this year. A release of emotions overwhelmed me. They did not come from the failure itself. They were from all the hard work I had put into this expedition. The months, days and endless hours of mental and physical training, the constant research, gear checks and the strategical and logistical preparations covering all aspects of the expedition to increase our chance of success. In that moment it felt as if it were all for nothing. “ She knew how bad I wanted to make the summit this year. This was my second attempt at Denali. It was all I talked and obsessed about for two straight years. It is hard to mentally cope with the failure of reaching a summit when I was so driven to reach it. Thoughts about the effort expended and the major sacrifices made rushed though my head. I question; What was it all for? I went all out for my 2018 Denali attempt and my social life and relationships fell by the wayside. I didn’t fly back to Boston to be with family for holidays, I replaced time spent with friends with gym workouts, or alone in the sierras climbing. Female relationships always ended on my account. “Its okay”, my mother said. Her words and her tone relaxed me. When I got off the phone with her I sat there alone on the ridge for twenty more minutes in a state of euphoria. In complete silence I watched the clouds move in and out of the valleys below, and people below at 14k camp moving around like ants. A feeling of acceptance rushed over me and thoughts entered my head. I knew I would be back. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. At this point in my life I learned the true lesson of failure. It was never the end. It is just life giving you another opportunity of reaching your goal with more knowledge than you had before. Before getting up to make my way down to 14k camp and eventually base camp that day I took one last look and wondered, will I see this view next year. Whats next and where do I go from here?