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Denali — Mount McKinley

Erik's 1st Continental Summit

Elevation 20,320 feet (6,194 meters)
Continent North America
Location United States of America
Mountain Range Alaska Range
First Ascent 1913 by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum
My Ascent June 1995

Mt. McKinley, or Denali, meaning the "great one," in the native Athabascan language, was the first of my seven summits. Mt. McKinley rises steeply from its base at just over 2,000 feet above sea level to over 20,000 feet, a gain in elevation which is greater than Mt. Everest.

The journey begins by flying from the town of Talkeetna in a bush plane, equipped with wheels for the take-off and skis for the landing on the Kahiltna Glacier. Forty miles long and a mile thick, the Kahiltna Glacier is a massive tongue of solid ice which inches its way down the western flanks of Mt. McKinley.

As the glacier moves downward, a complex network of Giant crevasses, or cracks, are formed, which climbers have to negotiate. Often, snowfall blows across their openings and freezes, so that the crevasses are hidden from sight by a snow cover of only a few inches in places. It can be a dangerous place. That's why climbing teams are roped together. If one teammate falls through a snow bridge into a crevasse, the others on the team throw themselves down on their ice axes, hopefully stopping the person from going the distance.

Because Denali is so close to the Arctic Circle, it experiences a phenomonon called, the Coriolis effect, which results in fierce storms with heavy snowfall, high winds, and frigid temperatures. The only way to climb Denali is to wait out these storms, so climbing teams go prepared, hauling heavy packs and sleds filled with 24 days of provisions.

Excerpt from Touch the Top of the World:

The first day above fourteen thousand feet seemed endless. Chris told us, “Everything up to fourteen’s just a slog. Above it, you’re really climbing.” True to his word, the next two thousand feet hosted the steepest part of the mountain, the sixty-degree headwall of the buttress. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. “Pressure breathe!” Chris said. “You gotta find your rhythm.” But I couldn’t seem to find it.

My pack felt heavier than it ever had. The weight seemed to compress my spine and squeeze my internal organs. My chest strap suffocated my labored breathing. The hip straps cut sharply into my sides and kept slipping, so that the shoulder straps weighed down on my traps. Earlier I heard about a woman who had made the summit of McKinley by sheer will, but in obtaining her goal, had crossed her threshold. Just below the summit, she collapsed and died, her frozen body slowly buried by falling snow.

I wondered how far I could push myself before I collapsed in the snow. I feared that I had made a horrible mistake in coming here, and I seriously doubted I had the strength within me to reach the next camp, let alone the summit. I tried to concentrate on my breathing and the placement of each step. “Rhythm,” I willed. “Find the rhythm.”

Throughout the five hours we toiled up the steep face, I never found my rhythm, and it never got any easier. Other days were hard, but this day had clearly been my greatest struggle, when I came closest to turning back. When it finally ended, and I collapsed into a dank snow cave at sixteen thousand feet, I was more exhausted than I had ever been. The day could, in no way, be described as fun. In fact, it was miserable, but in an unlikely way, the experience had also been a rare privilege.

Every few moments, when I had thought I was at my absolute limit, I was able to push through it, and never once had I felt like collapsing in the snow as I had feared. Some limits were real, like the inability to climb a twenty-thousand-foot peak before acclimatizing to the thin oxygen. But many more limits were conceived and imposed in my mind, and there was a torturous beauty in crossing through them.

You can read more about my climb of Mt. McKinley in chapters 11 and 12 of my book Touch the Top of the World.