When Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker had to turn around just 50 metres short of what would have been the first ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America, when they were overtaken by a storm in 1912, it would have been hard for them to imagine there could be any consolation in such bad luck.
But sometimes the mountain is trying to tell you something, and when that happens it’s always worth listening. It took Browne and Parker about a year to find out the significance of its message on that occasion. They returned to their high camp but no longer had enough food for another attempt, so had to retreat. Two days after they left a huge earthquake shook Denali, and when Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens came by the following year it took them three weeks to climb the Karstens Ridge, a feature which had been straightforward for Browne and Parker the previous year. The earthquake had caused the ridge to become a tumbling mass of crumbling ice blocks, and if Browne and Parker had stayed on the mountain then it’s very likely their bodies would still be up there.
After spending four days in a storm at our 5250m high camp last week while trying to climb Denali’s West Buttress, I was one of the members of our team who decided enough was enough. We had run out of time, we still had a long hard descent ahead of us, and needed a healthy slice of luck if we wanted to leave the mountain safely, catch our flights home and return to work on time. Our final attempt to reach the summit ended just 50 metres from camp in a freezing cold blizzard. The previous day a team of army parajumpers had made a valiant overnight attempt to reach the top, but were forced to concede defeat nearly as close as Browne and Parker. The weather appeared to be getting colder, there was no promising forecast, and it was pretty clear to me our luck – what little we had of it – had run out. I’m not keen on frostbite, and the mountain will always be there another year.
There was a twist in the tale. I was climbing Denali with the American Alpine Institute (AAI), and four hours after we abandoned our attempt another AAI team set out from high camp, apparently to climb up to Denali Pass and see if there was an improvement in the weather. Seven of their team continued all the way to the summit.
On the face of it, it looks like we made a terrible misjudgement and missed our one and only slim chance of climbing Denali, but I don’t agree. I was convinced the mountain was trying to tell us something, and despite the performance of the other team I believe our decision to retreat was the correct one. I will explain why I think this in my full report on the expedition next week.
Success and failure are part and parcel of mountaineering. I’ve experienced plenty of both, and I no longer feel the crushing sense of disappointment I used to have when a summit isn’t reached. In fact, since November 2010 I’ve managed to reach the summit of every mountain I’ve tried to climb – including Aconcagua, Manaslu and Everest – and this run of good fortune was certain to come to an end eventually.
In any case, there is often a silver lining in failure. In 2005 I tried and failed to climb Aconcagua by the boring old Horcones Normal Route, and for five years I thought Aconcagua was the dullest of mountains. Five years later I returned and made a successful ascent by the much more picturesque Vacas/Relinchos False Polish Route, something I would probably never have done had I climbed the mountain first time around.
Denali has many routes of its own. One which appeals to me most is the Muldrow Glacier Route on the north side of the mountain, a route steeped in history, including all of Denali’s early ascents. There seem to be very few commercial expeditions to this side of the mountain now, but where there’s a will there’s usually a way. I would certainly like to return again some time, once I’ve recovered from the blizzards, the high altitude starvation, the heavy duty load carrying, and being attacked from behind by a 30kg sledge during the descent. Oh, and I also fell into a crevasse, which is rarely a pleasant thing. Despite the setbacks I thoroughly enjoyed the expedition, which is of a level of intensity few other commercial expeditions can match. Summiting is always nice, but it’s the scenery that draws me to the mountains, and the Alaska Range is truly spectacular. More next week.