In the 24 years since I first climbed Denali, my identity as a mountaineer has changed dramatically. My first ascent was under the tutelage of the great Mugs Stump. We were collecting rocks for a scientific study of the peak’s uplift. As we hauled granite from the summit to base camp, he taught me the nuances of alpine climbing and, more important, the art of living comfortably in a harsh climate.
As my mentor, Mugs passed on skills that enabled me to make a lifestyle and ultimately a career out of climbing. In pursuit of the world’s tallest peaks, I met alpinist Alex Lowe. Together we climbed the walls of Yosemite, explored hidden summits in Kyrgyzstan, stood upon windswept peaks in Antarctica, and prevailed on a memorable expedition to Denali in 1995. Through the joy of exploring the untamed wild, we became best friends.
Ten years after I first climbed Denali, Alex was swept to his death by an avalanche on Shishapangma in Tibet. As a survivor I was given a second chance. I realized my life was about being: about being there for family, being in the moment, and being happy with who I am. The being came to include Alex’s widow, Jennifer, and their three sons, Max, Sam, and Isaac. Jenni and I wed in 2001.
I never pushed the children into serious mountaineering. It was a loaded subject in our house. Out of respect for Jenni and her loss of Alex, I kept climbing to myself. Perhaps the boys saw it as my work, not as something fun. So when Max suggested we do Denali in the summer of 2013 I was surprised and excited.
The immense Alaska Range, with Denali as the crown of the continent, has drawn adventurers of all stripes. One hundred years ago, on the seventh of June, a team of sourdoughs—a type of rustic homesteader settling Alaska during the gold rush—planted a birch pole on the summit so that the ensuing bar bet about whether or not the mountain could be climbed would be settled without dispute. Over the years, Denali has seen new routes forged on the steeper faces, but Max, while physically fit, lacked the experience necessary to tackle the more technical climbs. If we were going to do this, it would need to be on the popular West Buttress route, where he would face sufficient challenge without unnecessary risk.
Pioneered in 1946 by Brad Washburn, the West Buttress route is the most popular way to reach Denali’s summit. Due to the inevitable congestion from guided groups, seasoned alpinists consider the route “not real” climbing. For the ski mountaineer, however, it’s just about perfect. With manageable terrain, solid granite, palpable altitude, and a safe path to the summit, Denali has become a rite of passage for the ski mountaineering community, and I was eager for Max to experience it.
The West Buttress is basically an extreme hike on snow and ice. There are a few steps that require patience and precision, but the most difficult element is dragging the heavy sled. Max’s sled would be loaded with arctic-worthy clothing, tents, stoves, food, climbing gear, and all his camera equipment.
For ski mountaineers, the route is a formidable physical challenge, and he would be hauling more than just the bare essentials. But with good weather and the social atmosphere of the route, we would essentially be in for a vacation.
Mugs was adamant that before a trip to the Himalaya one had to climb Denali and Yosemite’s El Capitan. The Alaska part of the deal provided the alpine and climatic experience, while the technical routes in Yosemite, in fair weather, were the foundation for the steeper terrain. In 1989 I was his apprentice on a route he had climbed numerous times before—an opportunity to gain confidence, find my potential, and learn efficiency tips from a seasoned expert.
Twenty-four years later, it was my turn to pay it forward. I realized how significant the trip I had with Mugs had been and that it was now my turn to give something back to the next generation. My aspiration for the trip was safe passage. If we made it back after three weeks on Denali, Max and I would be richer in experience and closer as father and son. And I didn’t want the experience to be exclusive.
In pulling together a team, I knew I needed to recruit climbers with similar experience and motivation. Jon Krakauer, Phil Henderson, and Kasha Rigby were all friends with whom I’d been on expedition. And Jeremy Jones, a legend in the world of snowboarding and big-mountain adventure, had always entertained my idea of one day teaming up on a project. They all accepted the invitation, eager to help usher in a new generation of explorers.
Then, at the winter 2012 Outdoor Retailer trade show, I met urban-skater-turned-snowboarder and ambassador for The North Face Ryan Hudson. Within minutes I offered him the opportunity to join our Denali expedition. Initially a little hesitant because he didn’t have mountaineering experience, Ryan joined on my assurance that he had the depth to embark on a journey of this magnitude. He shared this exuberance for an unknown adventure with eight other eager young skiers, riders, and climbers who agreed to join our party.
The unknowns of glaciated alpine terrain, high altitude, and the risk of extreme weather were all part of the excitement for our little tribe. Witnessing Max and the youngsters experience Denali for the first time would be a chance to revisit my youth. It would also be an opportunity for me to share what I do for a living with my son.
Kahiltna Pass on a clear day offers climbers a spectacular view: the tundra to the north and the majestic Mount Foraker—wife to Denali—to the southeast and everywhere a maze of glaciers pulling the mountains slowly to the sea. Stopping for a moment to soak it all in, I reflected on my first time climbing the mountain with Mugs. Had it really been 24 years?
Bathed in perpetual sunlight, we never needed headlamps to navigate and were treated to a sunset-to-sunrise transition that lasted six hours each day. The pastel colors lighting up the sky were our joy and, at times, the bane of our days. It was on such a morning, with purple skies, that we set out for the summit.
Our crystal-clear weather was dashed by 8 a.m. due to thick cumulus buildup from a heat wave to the south. Confronted with a mountain nearly four miles tall, the humid air condensed, creating a ferocious summer storm. The cumulus towered over us as we made it to the Football Field, a landmark just below the summit. As we made it to the summit ridge, the air crackled with electricity and the snow blew at us sideways. Our skis and ice tools were alive with electricity and it sounded like there was a swarm of bees trying to nest in our hoods. This summer storm had turned the cards in the mountain’s favor. We were merely flies on an anvil with a steel hammer about to descend on us.
We huddled, ditched our lightning rods, and assessed the situation. Throughout the expedition I’d made a point of reinforcing the youths’ confidence by dismissing potentially frightening challenges with an “It’s not that bad” or “I’ve seen worse.” This time, scared for the whole team, I was lost for words. Did Max realize the direness of our situation?
The choice to turn around was simple. It affected us at the most primal part of our brains. The decision was autonomic—not much of a debate; rather, the body signaling to the brain that self-preservation was of highest priority. Even Max, hungry for the summit, embraced the decision without question.
We marched back to 17 Camp, enduring the wind-whipped snow. I hardly noticed any dejection or remorse. Each climber silently adjusted his or her harness, cinched down his or her pack, and began the 3,000-foot descent to 14 Camp. The following morning we recounted the disorientation of being in the middle of a cloud. The happiness that the climbers shared in spite of having to turn back was amazing. It rang true that the summit isn’t everything.
After 28 days and several thousand feet skiing on Denali, we came away happy. The experience of a demanding environment allowed us to understand our own potential. I was able to pay forward the mentorship that a friend had invested in me decades ago. And the youths on our journey will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible and one day find themselves offering their experience and guidance to the next generation.
Enjoying a moment of alone time at camp, I thought back to Alex’s last MountainZone.com dispatch from our ill-fated expedition to Shishapangma.
“Thinking back to yesterday, I appreciate why I come to the mountains; not to conquer them but to immerse myself in their incomprehensible immensity—so much bigger than we are; to better comprehend humility and patience balanced in harmony, with the desire to push hard; to share what the hills offer and to share it in the long term with good friends and ultimately my own sons.”
He was never able to fulfill his dream of sharing what the hills have to offer with his sons.
Hey, man. I’ve got your back. We covered this one.
North Face-sponsored athlete Conrad Anker is the Michael Jordan of mountaineering. He has pioneered routes up the most demanding faces in the world. In May of 1999, as a member of the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, he discovered the body of George Mallory on Mount Everest. The discovery and analysis of the preeminent explorer of the 1920s has shed new light on one of climbing’s greatest mysteries. Anker serves on the boards of Protect Our Winters (POW), the Rowell Fund for Tibet, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.