by Fabrizio Goria
The highest mountain is not necessarily always the hardest. Difficulty depends on too many factors, both objective and subjective. Environmental factors for example. This is the case for a peak considered almost sacred by Americans: Denali. Huge, majestic, powerful, the bulk of Denali was and is today one of the most craved destinations by mountaineers all over the world. Partly for its remoteness, partly because of its mysticism.
When Anatoli Boukreev, the extraordinary Kazak mountaineer who prematurely died on the Annapurna on Christmas Day of 1997, decided in 1990 to take on the Alaskan route, where Denali is found, he did not expect it to be so immense. He first arrived in Anchorage, the largest city of the State, then moved to Talkeetna, a small town with fewer than 900 residents, which has always been used as a starting base camp for expeditions to the mountain. Boukreev arrived in Alaska in May, and after a brief period of acclimatization, he set off for the peak. After only ten and a half hours he reached the summit. The rangers of Denali National Park were left speechless. None of them had ever seen anything like it. Fast, clean, precise. “It is unreal what Boukreev has done” they say in chorus. Yet, for the Kazak, it hadn’t been a simple stroll. Quite the opposite. And that is because Denali can be considerably more extreme than Everest, as the American Alpine Club likes to remind readers in its publications. Both for its proximity to the Arctic Circle and its position in the middle of nowhere. GSM phones have no signal, and even if they did, rescue teams would arrive too late. One can only rely on a satellite phone (only the Idrium network works) and physical fitness, in order to be able to tackle the ascent along the slopes of this mountain, an immense sight when seen from below.
Denali is the third most prominent peak of the planet, after Everest and Aconcagua. It is 6,190 metres high, but that is not what worries mountaineers. It’s the over 5,500 metres separating the base from the summit. 18,000 feet constantly battered by winds, because Denali is also the third most isolated mountain in the world. That is why it is so exposed. To give an idea of how tough Denali can be, on November 30 2003 the Japan Alpine Club meteorological station, installed in 1990 at 5,710 metres, registered a low temperature of -59,1°C, which combined with a wind of almost 30 Km/h brought the perceived temperature down to -83.4°C. There is no clothing that can withstand these kinds of conditions. The first winter ascent, not without difficulty, was completed on February 28 1967, 54 years after the first ascent, by Dave Johnston, Art Davidson and Ray Genet.
This bulk of granite pluton was known as Deenaalee among the Koyukon native Americans. That is what they had always called it. For them the word means “Big Mountain”. And as we have seen, Denali is not just big. It is an immense mass of rock and ice. Sadly, for political reasons Denali changed its name. In 1896 William Dickey, a gold prospector, called it Mount McKinley, in support of William McKinley, who soon after became 25th president of the United States until his assassination in 1901. To honour his memory, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson decided in 1917 to officially rename Denali as McKinley, not without stirring the protests of the indigenous population. Only in August of 2015 did President Barack Obama decide to give the mountain its original name back, Denali. A decision that was favourably welcomed by Alaskans who still today remember the disputes on that “inappropriate” name.
The first attempt to ascend Denali was in 1903. The district judge James Wickersham made an attempt to the summit through the “Hudeetsedle Toyaane”, or Peters Glacier, and then along the north face renamed Wickersham Wall. The judge, however, had to give up in the face of prohibitive meteorological conditions for the technical equipment of the day. On June 20 1903, Wickersham wrote on his diary that “…there is no possible chance of further ascent from this side of Denali at this season – or any other season for that matter”. Terrorised by the polar winds, the expedition made its return to Fairbanks with a failure. The fault, according to the history books, lay not only with the equipment, unsuitable for the -40°C temperatures outside, which became even lower with windchill, but mainly with the total improvisation of the expedition. Too inexperienced, says the American Alpine Journal.
The first ascent, which satisfied the expectations of politicians from Ohio, McKinley’s homeland, was completed only 10 years later on June 7 1913. Funnily enough, the first person to set foot on the peak was Walter Harper, a native Alaskan, followed by the British Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, who would later be appointed superintendent of the Denali National Park, and Robert Tatum, an archdeacon from Tennessee. The harshness of the environment forced them to numerous delays. The basecamp was battered by wind but the worst was yet to come. Seracs and crevices hidden by snow, vast expanses of ice that didn’t simply creak, it grunted and rumbled. Harper wrote in his diary that “never have I felt so afraid on a mountain”, this coming from someone who knew a lot about snow, ice and rock. “When you hear certain noises from the glacier you know that you are not just in the presence of a coat of ice covering a mountain. You are in the presence of something alive, as though you are almost disturbing it. And if you disturb it too much, it will swallow you. This is how we lived during all those days” wrote Harper. A monster of ice and rock? It is hard not to believe Harper’s words when seeing it.
What makes Denali so craved by mountaineers is not just the fact that it is the highest peak on the North-American continent. What makes it special is its wilderness, a concept difficult to explain to Europeans. Firstly, because European peaks are considered to be “close by”. They are almost all within a short distance of important cities, have short approaches and have been part of civilization since ancient times. One just has to think of the Alps. It is true that some walls, like the North Wall of the Eiger, in the 1930s represented the last challenges of the Alps, but it is also true that their challenging nature arose from technical difficulties, rather than objective difficulties of approach. Denali is different. It is immersed in the wildest untouched nature (and is so still today), able on its own to exhaust even the most experienced mountaineer. The presence of the national park, its structures, and the agencies that organize commercial expeditions on the range are not of much assistance to the physical and mental effort needed to ascend this peak.
The above description was reiterated by Riccardo Cassin, who, in 1961, together with Luigi Airoldi, Luigi Alippi, Giancarlo Canali, Romano Perego and Annibale Zucchi, ascended the immense South Wall of what today is still considered the most intricate and complicated route of Denali. Cassin and his team prepared for years to get ready to face the 3000 metres of the South Wall. When they reached the peak in 1961, the rangers of the national park communicated the success to the astonished American president John Kennedy, who sent a congratulatory telegram to those intrepid men. Still in 2017 the Cassin Ridge is considered the toughest of routes to the peak of Denali. A hell of ice with a grade of up to 65°, swept by powerful and incessant winds that can freeze the body’s extremities in a very short time. As further confirmation, in 2011 Jonathan Griffith and Will Sim climbed along this route, after which Griffith commented: “The Cassin was the highlight of our time out there without a doubt and we were glad to be able to do it in a single push style. Heading into the base of one of the world’s biggest faces and onto one of America’s most famous climbs was a little daunting with just a day pack to say the least but we managed to top out in 14 hours and 40 minutes”. The magnitude of Cassin’s accomplishment, who at the time was 52, is still remembered today by U.S. media, such as the New York Times, which has dedicated numerous pages to that legendary ascent.
The wilderness of Denali is extreme. On the one side the polar cold. On the other, the length of the routes. In between, an environment inhabited by elks and grizzlies. Despite all this, the commercial expeditions with Denali as a destination were and still are abundant. For example, with the Adventure Consultants agency, for $8,500 one can buy a ticket for the ascent. 21 days of expedition, excluding transportation costs to and from Alaska, or board and lodging in Anchorage and Talkeetna. And so, with about $15,000 to $17,000 one can attempt to climb the most important mountain in North America. In 2015 alone, according to data from the National Park Service, 1090 mountaineers approached Denali. 628 of them reached the peak. That is to say, 58%. So statistically it can be considered an accessible mountain. But to what extent? The overuse of supplementary oxygen is well-known, as well as that of fixed lines and porters. After all, and it is nothing new, having on one’s mountaineering resumé one of the Seven Summits is a source of pride and prestige in any professional setting. Even more so if a person can have their own framed photo standing on the peak of Denali behind their mahogany desk.
As the American Alpine Club repeatedly reminds us, Denali subjects the human body to prohibitive conditions. And yet, despite this, as of 18 July of last year, out of 1,123 attempts, 626 mountaineers reached the summit. Almost all of them without resorting to the alpine style, typified by minimal equipment and a speedy ascent. The question that most people in Alaska ask themselves is just one: “Up to what point should we agree to commercial expeditions?”. The answer is well-known. The more “accessible” Denali’s allure, the greater the increase of such expeditions. And it is not necessarily a positive phenomenon. One of the sources of Denali’s fascination lies precisely in its wilderness, its having always been considered inaccessible. Planes and helicopters, however, can now easily do what was once accomplished with considerable effort. Oxygen can be decisive and porters can take upon themselves most of the dirty work, as well as fixed lines and Jumars. But just like the great Himalayan peaks, one question remains unsolved: is it really worth it?
Translation by Chris Dowling @pherio