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Conquering The Great One- An Air Force Captain’s story of summiting Mt. Denali

By U.S. Air Force Capt. Ted Labedz | JBER Public Affairs | August 07, 2017

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON --

The low rumble of a distant avalanche woke me – a common occurrence during the brief summer climbing window in the Alaska Range. The sun completed its nightly circle in the sky – it won’t set for another month at this latitude – and came back to shine on our camp at 14,200 feet, warming the world around me as its rays reflected across the snow. The cold that ‘night’, likely around -20, confined me to my sleeping bag for the past 11 hours and I was ready to shake the frost from my bag and begin the push to high camp.

The act of climbing Denali began 15 days prior, when a modified de Havilland Beaver landed our climbing team on the Kahiltna Glacier with 22 days’ worth of supplies.  However, climbing this mountain was really the culmination of months, years of training, and preparation. I climbed my first mountain in 2006 and immediately fell in love with alpine climbing. While stationed in Colorado and Wyoming, I spent every free moment in the mountains until I got stationed in Alaska in 2014. I vividly remember the first time I saw the ‘The Great One’, the English translation of the Athabaskan word Denali. It emerged from a partly cloudy morning in Talkeetna, its impossibly huge buttresses splitting the clouds. Emotions ranged from awe to fear at the enormity of the mountain as the idea of climbing North America’s highest peak first crossed my mind.

Climbing Denali is a slow, deliberate, and often grueling undertaking. I’m carrying everything I will need to survive in a glaciated environment. All the food, fuel for melting snow into drinking water, tent for shelter, and my equipment added up to a staggering load on my back and behind me in a sled. As an added precaution, teams travel roped together in case a member of the team punches through a snow bridge and falls into a crevasse in the ice – adding to the technical complexity of the climb. A key aspect of a successful climbing strategy is proper acclimation to high altitude. On the summit of Denali, there is less than half the oxygen at sea level, so the body needs time to adjust its processes to the lack of oxygen. ‘Climb high, sleep low’ encapsulated our strategy. From base camp, we carried our loads to camp one, where we started working our way up the mountain. Once we established camp one, we carried half our equipment to camp two, where we buried it in the snow in a cache. After we buried the gear, we returned to camp one to rest, where our bodies could more quickly recover and acclimate to the higher elevations experienced during the day. The following morning, we packed up our camp, tied back into our rope teams, climbed to camp two, dug up our equipment, and set up the next camp. We repeated this process all the way up to camp four, giving ourselves increasing time to rest and adapt at each camp as acclimation slows with increasing altitude.

From camp three, the climbing gets significantly steeper; avalanche risk increases; the ridges are more exposed, and the weather gets much colder. We swapped out our snowshoes for crampons - large metal cleats designed for climbing on steep snow and ice. We climbed across the bergschrund – the crevasse in the ice where the glacier separates from the mountain - and scaled the headwall using our ascenders and ice axes, grinding our way up the fixed lines to the ridge at 16,000 feet. From there, we traversed the ridge up to high camp, making sure each step was kicked into the ice, precaution against the void of almost a vertical mile on each side of the ridge. We arrived exhausted at 17,200feet, but couldn’t afford to rest. We needed to set up immediately before the sun went behind the mountain, and begin melting drinking water as we needed to drink everything we could carry on the way to high camp. As the water started to boil at 178 degrees (versus the normal 212 at sea level), we cooked some of our dehydrated food to keep our bodies warm through the night.  With no further preparations I could make, I climbed inside my tent, zipped up my sleeping bag, and passed out.

After a day of rest and rehydration, we set off for the summit at 9 am. We climbed nearly 1,000 vertical feet up a section of the mountain called the Autobahn to Denali pass, where tragically a Nepali climber had died only a few days prior. No words were spoken, but this event was at the forefront of our minds as we crested the pass, a sobering reminder of the consequences of a mistake or misjudgment. After a brief rest we pushed higher and higher. I took momentary rests between steps, lungs burning for each breath as the air thinned– forcing myself control by breathing and focusing on maintaining safety. As we crested the last steep section onto summit ridge, the panorama of the Alaska Range and Denali National park came into view. The Ruth, Kahiltna, and Peters Glaciers all emerged from the mountain as I listened to my crampons dig into the ice. I continued to inch my way up summit ridge, staying left of the massive cornice loaded on the summit. At that moment I was just taking it all in; I’d been training and preparing for this moment for two years. What seemed like only a few steps of climbing later, there was nothing left to climb; I was standing on the summit of North America on a clear, cold Alaska afternoon. I stood there for a moment, unsure yet how to feel and not yet apprehensive of the descent, a speck in the cosmos looking across the Alaska Range and gulping down air. Its brief moments like that why I climb. Time stands still, and for a few seconds you are on top of the world and unobstructed by it.


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