The Great One

“The Great One” is the English translation of the Dena’ina name.

“The High One” is the English translation of the Athabaskan name.

It’s the centerpiece of Denali National Park and tops out as the highest peak in North America, 20,320 feet.

The US Board of Geographic Names calls it Mt McKinley.

Native Alaskans and mountaineers simply call it Denali.

It’s where Shelley and I are going in June of 2011.

How did we get to this point and how did we make this decision?  It all started with a simple day hike up Mt St Helens in 2007.  With our enjoyment of hiking in central Idaho, Arizona, Banff and the elsewhere, this just seemed a natural progression.  On the climb up to the summit of Mt St Helens we had views of Mt Hood and Mt Adams.  Once at the top we could see Mt Rainier as well as the other peaks I mentioned.

It was during this trip that we decided to try to go for Mt Rainier.  We had hiked around Mt Rainier a number of times and camped on the Wonderland Trail, but never seemed to have the desire to go to the top.  I don’t really know why.  But once we got to the top of Mt St Helens the bug bit us.  We had never climbed a glacier before and had never did any mountaineering, so we decided to try things out on Mt Hood first.  So, in 2008 we climbed Mt Hood and felt strong.  So it was time to go for Mt Rainier.

During my training for Mt Rainier I had mentioned a few times to Shelley about going to Denali.  She thought I was crazy.  But the thought of that mountain stuck with me while we trained.  In 2009 we tried Mt Rainier and got turned back by the weather.  You can check out the blog entries for that climb at these three posts:  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.  We felt real strong during this climb and wanted to go back and finish what we started.  We tried to sign up for another summit attempt of Mt Rainier in September of 2009, but it was canceled a few days before it was to start.  We would have to wait till 2010.

Over that winter we made some choices about our future climbs.  In late 2009, we decided to go back in 2010 but take a more difficult route this time.  We settled on the Emmons Glacier route.  This would be a bit more challenging for us, but we felt confidant in our training.  Also, by the end of 2009 Shelley was starting to come around to the thought of Denali.  She wasn’t sure and had her concerns, but decided to sign up for the Denali Prep Course in May of 2010 with me just in case she decided to go to Denali.  The Prep Course is mandatory before Alpine Ascents will take you to Denali.

These next two climbs were a test for us.  The Denali Prep Course was 7 nights, 8 days on Mt Rainier and gave us some exposure to an extended trip on a mountain.  That course was a lot of fun.  Very challenging because of the weather, however.  Then the Emmons Glacier Climb would test us on a long, more difficult summit attempt of Mt Rainier.  Both good tests of our abilities.

We both received passing certificates for the Prep Course in May of 2010, a requirement in order to climb Denali with Alpine Ascents.  Test number one was a success.  Then the successful summit climb a few weeks ago confirmed for us our last (so we thought) test before Denali.  We talked about the challenge of Denali for a few days after our climb.  We talked about it during the drive back home from Seattle.  Early last week we did it.  We put up our non-refundable deposit with Alpine Ascents to go to Denali in June of 2011.  It’s put up or shut up time.  It appears, based on Alpine Ascents schedule for 2011 we will be on Team 10 .  We’ll be leaving Boise for Alaska on June 11 and returning around July 4.  I say “around July 4” because weather on the mountain could impact that date.  Alpine Ascents also runs a cybercast of their expeditions on Denali on their website.  You can see an example of it here.  So even though we will be totally out of touch with all of you, all of you can follow along with our climb via the cybercast.

During both the Denali Prep course and this last Emmons Glacier climb of Mt Rainier we had a guide by the name of Ben Jones.  He has summitted Denali five times.  Most recently this past June.  Needless to say, we picked his brain a lot during these two trips to Mt Rainier.  One of the tips he gave us for preparing for Denali was to get higher before we go to Denali.  By that he meant to climb some higher peaks than Mt Rainier to see how our body reacts to altitude.  It will also give us some exposure to the effects of altitude so we will know what to expect.  “You don’t want to go to Denali, get there and blow it,” he said.

So, this December Shelley and I are going to Iztaccihuatl (17,340 feet on the left) and Pico de Orizaba (18,701 on the right).

Both are in Mexico a few hours outside of Mexico City.  Pico de Orizaba is the third highest peak in North America.  High camp on both mountains is over the 14,000 foot mark.  This will get us some exposure to working and setting camp at high altitude.  Something we’ll be doing a lot of on Denali.  High camp on Denali is 17,200.  This should give us that exposure to altitude that Ben was talking about.  Neither climb is as long as the Emmons Glacier route.  Base camp for Iztaccihuatl is at 12,000 feet and base camp on Pico de Orizaba is at high camp, 14,000.  That’s kinda lame, I know, but it’s impossible to simulate Denali in any one place.  We’ve found, over time, that you just have to simulate little bits and pieces.  There is no place to go to simulate 17 – 21 days on a glacier where you start from 7,300 and go to 20,320.  You can’t do it.

I asked Ben, after we came down from the summit, how difficult any particular day is on Denali to what we did on summit day on Mt Rainier.  Another guide with us, Jason Thomas, has also climbed Denali a few times, also gave us his advice.  Ben said that our summit day was a really hard day.  No doubt about it.  But there is just no way to compare it to Denali.  Then he said something to the effect that the first 10 days on Denali are, well, easy.  He actually did use the word “easy.”  You go from 7,300 feet to 14,200 feet in 10 days.  On Mt Rainier we went from 4,300 feet to 14,411 feet in three days.  The first 10 days on Denali are just a slow grind.  It’s after that it starts to get hard and he couldn’t really give us an answer.  It’s just too different, “It’s apples and oranges,” he said.  Jason agreed.  As an example:  On Mt Rainier our summit day was 5,000 feet up and back in about 10 hours.  On Denali, summit day is about 3,000 feet up and back in 12 – 16 hours.  Then he told us that he felt we had what it took to do it.  He really recommended getting higher, keep carrying a heavy pack while training and to stay in shape.  It was good to hear that from someone who’s seen us on two different courses this same summer.  That was a bit of a confidence boost.  I certainly never got the impression that Ben or Jason (or any of the guides) would sweet talk us.  Every guide I’ve met with Alpine Ascents has been straight forward.

So, we passed our 5,000 foot summit day test.  We’ve lived on Mt Rainier for 7 nights and 8 days (in some real miserable weather too).  And we are going higher than we’ve ever been and living at that altitude for more then one day.  All that’s left is to train, prepare and fly to Alaska.

I’m really excited.


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