Climbing Denali: No Easy Day for a Lady

Denali Peak

Denali Peak

Woman accepts gender gauntlet to ascend the Great One

In a neon-orange pyramid tent, I sat wretched and shivering in the subzero cold, trying to chew a greasy belt of bacon that had meager appeal to my altitude-queasy stomach. It was June 7, 2009, and I was 14,200 feet up Mount McKinley. My friend had just been rescued off the mountain after a possible heart attack, a doctor was checking my husband for high-altitude edema, and I was about to call it quits.

Mount McKinley, or Denali, stands 20,320 feet and is the highest peak in North America. Climbing Denali was my husband’s idea. To Jason, Denali was a siren, challenging his mettle whenever it appeared, irresistibly pink, on Anchorage’s horizon.

Denali had no such allure for me. I agreed to attempt Denali because I am ridiculously competitive and couldn’t stand to be married to a man who did something really tough and awesome without me. When Jason and I go backpacking, I secretly race him to the top of every mountain pass. I’ve thrown back espresso shots before joining him for spin class. My favorite childhood pajamas sported this saucy slogan: “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” And I still believe it.

Most people attempt Denali today via the West Buttress, which, as far as big mountains go, is not terribly technical. Bradford Washburn, who pioneered the West Buttress route, described it as “nothing but a safe, steep, chilly scramble.” But then he continues: “Denali, by even its easiest route, will never be ‘an easy day for a lady’!” which is an interesting statement from the man whose wife, Barbara Washburn, was the first woman to summit the mountain in 1947 after two men in her party quit.

The biggest challenges of Denali’s West Buttress today are the severe cold and stormy weather, the lack of oxygen at its high altitude and latitude and the tremendously heavy loads typically carried for the multiweek journey. Jason and I had never climbed a major peak before, but we were reasonably fit, doughty, experienced backpackers and we believed we could do it.

We met Kurt on a 12-day mountaineering course on the Pika Glacier in the Alaska Range. A Dakotan, rock climber and champion mountain biker, Kurt held Denali as a lifelong dream—evidenced by the two huge, multicolored tattoos of Denali across his back. Kurt, Jason and I decided to attempt the climb together, hire guides and try a full traverse, up the West Buttress but down the lesser-traveled Muldrow Glacier.

Thus began 12 months of training. When I say training, I mean exercises in masochism. We figured the more we suffered off the mountain, the less we’d suffer on it. So Jason and I went winter backpacking through blizzards with 80 pounds each on our backs, taking turns dragging a sled loaded with 100 pounds of hand weights. We toiled up and down various peaks in the Chugach over and over again post-holing in snowshoes and passing the long, howling nights practicing mountaineering knots in our tiny tent and enormous down sleeping bags.

We trained like this for a year. By May 23, 2009, when we landed at the base of the mountain, we were ready to climb.

Feeling Fine

Our first three days on Denali were grand. Kurt, Jason and I felt mountain-fit and almost indomitable. The scenery was indescribably gorgeous. Our training paid off: on the second day we each carried 125 pounds for 5.5 miles along the Kahiltna Glacier, spread between backpacks and pulled sleds. Even that didn’t weigh us down.

My only trouble was figuring out how to urinate between camps without unroping or unharnessing. My harness prevented me from lowering my pants; add to that the necessity of “going” while roped within yards of my (male) teammates. I will spare you the details but it involves a funnel and debilitating stage fright.

Despite those ordeals, our spirits were high; our very optimism seemed to buoy us up the mountain. Well, optimism and bacon. I’m supposedly a vegetarian, or at least that’s what I told the guides before the trip. The thing is, I’m one of those “vegetarians” who likes meat and just avoids the factory/farmed stuff. I tell people I’m vegetarian because it’s just easier.

A few weeks before the trip, I realized the guides would be cooking for everyone. The prospect of them having to prepare a separate, vegetarian meal for me was intolerable, yet I was too embarrassed to call them and admit my flakiness. Jason called instead and left some inscrutable message about how I had changed my mind about being vegetarian because “Bacon tastes goooood!” He apparently was quoting “Pulp Fiction,” but that cinematic allusion was lost on the guides (and me), because they thought he meant I was vegetarian in all things except bacon.

And so the guides brought bricks of frozen bacon onto the mountain—and no other meat. We ate bacon every day.

The climb continued. On May 26, under a surprisingly hot sun, we carried half our food to the top of Ski Hill, elevation 9,500 feet, buried it under snow for retrieval the next day and returned to a lower camp for sleeping and acclimating. The next day it started snowing and blustering, but the terrain was still moderate, so after a bacon breakfast, we decided to move camp and claim our cache.

We had just crested Ski Hill when Kurt suddenly collapsed behind me on the rope. Semiconscious, he was mumbling incoherently, clutching his chest, sweating alarmingly but trembling from cold. Through the thick and blowing snowfall, we stuffed him into a sleeping bag for warmth and erected a hasty tent for shelter. The guides whipped out a satellite phone and speed-dialed a doctor, who thought it could be a heart attack and advised immediate evacuation.

If a helicopter rescue was considered for Kurt, it was obviously impossible with the blizzard gusting around us. Luckily, we were merely eight, relatively flat miles from the ranger station and landing strip at Kahiltna Base Camp at 7,200 feet. After a few hours, Kurt was conscious again and could walk slowly. We divided his food and gear among us and started down the mountain. Once we descended Ski Hill, a cadre of rangers met us and carried poor Kurt back to Base Camp on a stretcher. We waited there with Kurt for 36 hours until the foul weather abated and he could be flown off.

Over the next 10 days, we slogged back up the mountain, mourning the loss of Kurt’s lifelong dream. We knew our friend would live, but the tenor of our trip had changed. On every exposed ridge I could see myself tripping over a crampon point and pulling the entire team down the precipitous slopes.

Around 12,000 feet, the wind was so strong near Squirrel Point that I thought I’d be blown off the mountain—like Mary Poppins with an ice ax. On Windy Corner at 13,500 feet, our heavy sleds hung from our bodies down the steep grade of ice, threatening to drag us down the frigid abyss. Despite Washburn’s description, the West Buttress didn’t feel particularly safe anymore. It had become a gantlet of fear. Even bacon lost its joy.

By Advanced Base Camp at 14,200 feet, Jason was feeling wretchedly altitude sick. But we persevered and set out to carry our first load to the 16,000-foot ridge. I fumbled on the Head Wall, despite all my practice at home, and couldn’t find the good footing in the excruciating cold. I earned a harsh scolding from our guide for slowing down the queue of shivering climbers behind me. After caching our gear, we descended to camp and took a day off to rest. When Jason felt so bad that he didn’t leave his sleeping bag, we decided to consult the doctor at camp. He determined it was not a life-threatening pulmonary or cerebral edema, just a miserable case of acute mountain sickness.

Throw in the Towel?

That’s when I announced I was quitting. I would walk down the mountain with the next descending team. Despite some altitude-induced nausea, I knew I was physically strong enough to continue, but my fears were dominating my muscles and that threatened our entire team. I had disappointed my companions utterly and proved Washburn correct in his “no easy day for a lady” statement—not correct for all lady-kind, obviously, but for this lady, yes. I had failed.

Maybe it was a pep talk from Jason. Maybe it was the dread of having to call my mother with news of my failure. I’d like to believe it was a subliminal recollection of the slogan on my childhood pajamas. Most likely it was the protein boost from another slab of bacon. Whatever the cause, two hours later, I recalled my surrender.

My teammates graciously welcomed me back, despite my shameful flip-flop of resolve. I think they had more faith in me than I did. But we agreed that after summiting, if we did indeed summit, we’d retreat down the same West Buttress route rather than traversing over and down the Muldrow. This I regret but Jason’s altitude sickness, our weakness as a smaller team without Kurt, and my not-fully-repressed anxieties all precluded the originally planned traverse.

Two days later, on June 9, 2009, I sat on the top of Denali at 20,320 feet with Jason beside me and all of North America spectacularly spread beneath our chunky, cramponed boots. The rest of the climb had been terrifying, but we made it. Frozen, tired, ill with altitude, we lingered not, took a few photos, gawked at the view, and descended as quickly as we could.

My group flew back to Talkeetna on June 11, 2009. That day, two men died on Denali, falling 2,000 feet down the Messner Couloir. Happily, our friend Kurt survived and now thrives. We attempted Mount Rainier with him in 2010. Yes, he still sports the huge Denali tattoos.

Whenever I ponder my motive for climbing Denali, which really was just to keep up with my husband, I remember George Mallory’s reason for attempting Everest: “Because it’s there.” I suppose hubris, of one sort or another, is the reason most mountaineers endure discomfort and danger for the arguably futile accomplishment of conquering a chunk of rock.

The year I summited Denali, only 11 percent of its climbers were women. It is a shame that more women don’t experience the pride of seeing a continent stretched out beneath them. I guess I climbed Denali to prove that my pajamas were right: Anything boys can do, girls can do better. And Denali is no easy day for a person. 

Lorelei Costa is a writer, classical musician and nonprofit lackey who lives in Palmer, Alaska. This summer she and her husband are attempting a 1,000-mile traverse of Alaska’s Brooks Range, from the Canada border at the Beaufort Sea to Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea.

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