What It's Like to Climb Denali, North America's Highest Peak
Frostbite, altitude sickness, weeklong storms, near-death missteps, and sheer boredom—adventure photographer James Barkman recounts a 16-day summit effort to 20,310 feet
*the Pan-American Trail is an editorial series following photographer James Barkman and two childhood friends as they navigate 30,000 miles across the Americas on dual sport motorcycles, climbing classic alpine peaks along the way. Updates will be published periodically. Read Part One here, and follow along via @jamesbarkman and @thepanamericantrail
As we waited for a break in the weather to be cleared for takeoff, an Otter with skis dropped out of the clouds and landed on the small airport runway next to us. We watched as a group of exhausted climbers slowly limped out of the aircraft and back onto dry land. Each of the climbers looked like they had been blowtorched in the face, stood in front of a leaf blower, and then locked in a freezer for a week and a half. They were absolutely blasted, and I was completely stoked. This was a real adventure, and we were finally just a short plane flight away from a mountain I had dreamed about for so long.
As the rain started to fall a little harder the pilot said to hop in—we were going to leave anyway. We punched out of the storm clouds and into crisp, sunny weather above the breathtaking mountains of the Alaska Range. Denali loomed in front of us, towering far above every rock and snow-capped peak around. Dropping altitude, our plane weaved in between glacial canyons and banked towards a barely visible cluster of tents. A long trail stretched as far as the eye could see and snaked up the Kahiltna Glacier, dotted with tiny figures marching in single file. Our skis touched down on the glacier runway and the plane buzzed to a stop. Our climb had officially begun!
For those who aren’t intimately familiar with Denali, let me fill you in. It’s the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level. There are four camps on the mountain, generally referred to by the altitude at which they are located: Camp 1, Camp 2 (11k Camp), Camp 3 (14k Camp), and Camp 4 (17k Camp, or High Camp).
Climbing strategy often boils down to “get to the next camp as fast as you can” due to the unpredictable weather in the Alaska Range that can catch you off guard in a moment and last for weeks at a time. This strategy may be easy in theory but it’s more difficult than one might think—the altitude packs a harder wallop than your first hangover back when you were 16. In fact, altitude sickness tends to feel very similar to that 16 year old hangover, plus being sick with the flu. And so, in order to help the body safely adjust to the altitude, climbers follow the “climb high and camp low” principle. This is the process of moving to a higher elevation, caching supplies and food in the snow, and then backtracking to sleep at a lower elevation.
Climb too fast, risk getting sick (bad). Climb too slow, and risk missing a precious weather window (also bad).
And don’t forget the weight of gear each climber carries—40 lbs on the back and 60 in the sled, if you pack light. Up there, every pound feels like five, and there are zero things pleasant about dragging a sled behind you for two weeks.
Team Poopy Flaming Flamingos
When preparing for North America’s tallest mountain, there are a lot of things that come to mind by way of preparation: gear, food, training, research, the list goes on. Unbeknownst to many, ranking high on the list of importance is your expedition name. When Sterling first asked me if I had any ideas for a team name, I replied with a few witty and generic options.
Sterling is a close friend of mine, has years of big wall experience under his belt, lived off a motorcycle before it was cool, and although he won’t admit it, is by every definition a stone master. He had climbed the mountain the previous season, and had agreed to lend us a helping hand by joining our Denali mission as team captain.
“Nah man, think of something crazy and stupid,” he responded to my proposed names. “Trust me.”
Sterling assured us that anything out of the box would bring a chuckle to both rangers and pilots, who are usually tired of the painfully masculinized expedition names from the hundreds of teams that roll through from year to year. After some time spent in deep thought, the name “Poopy Flaming Flamingos” was chosen.
I actually can’t remember from who it originated, or how we arrived at it, but nonetheless we were penciled in as the “Flaming Poopy Flamingos.” And he was right. The rangers were stoked, Talkeetna Air Taxi flew us out a day early (a crucial move for the climb), and word of our team soon spread far and wide. And though we knew well the severity of the objective at hand, I suppose we took our team name about as seriously as we took ourselves.
"The next few days were a blur of pain, turmoil, and beautiful views..."
Slog of Misery
After a brief bit of time on the Kahiltna Glacier we set about roping up, fumbling with our clumsy sled systems, and preparing to move out. Then we caught sight of two plastic flamingos in front of a nearby tent—home to legendary Base Camp Manager, Lisa. What a stroke of fortune and an omen of good luck, we said to ourselves. We asked to borrow one as our team mascot, and were told that we could on one condition: take it to summit and bring it back unscathed. We agreed, and a deal was struck.
The next few days were a blur of pain, turmoil, and beautiful views up the Kahiltna Glacier. Sterling had a rigorous and calculated acclimation schedule. Move up, cache supplies, move down, sleep, wake up, move up, die, pick up supplies, full carry to next camp, repeat, etc… Our sleds were an accursed nuisance, dragging awkwardly behind us and often flipping or getting off track.
On clear days, the sun was hot and piercing, reflecting off the glacier and burning any exposed or unprotected skin in minutes. As soon as we’d stop moving though, the bone chilling cold would quickly remind us of where we were. Believe it or not, temperatures can at times reach 90˚F due to the extremely thin atmosphere. One day on the lower glacier I even took my shirt off in order to cool down, while just days later I would be bundled up in -40˚F temps.
"The days and nights began to blend together, with an average temperature of around -30˚F."
Seven Day Storm
The rangers at Base Camp update climbers with the weather report via radio, every evening at 6pm sharp. There were rumors of an approaching storm, and we didn’t want to get stuck at a lower camp. If you’re going to sit around and twiddle your thumbs, it’s best to make the most of the downtime and be at a higher camp to help with acclimation.
Upon reaching Camp 3, Jeremy, Allen, and I were completely plowed by the altitude, unable to even drag our sleds to our chosen camp site. The storm was supposed to arrive that night, and there was plenty of work to do in order to prepare our camp to survive for an unknown number of days. Sterling finished dragging each of our sleds the rest of the way, and got to work digging out the tent spot and building snow walls. Jeremy lay in his sleeping bag like a dead man while I puked. Allen was no better off.
As expected, the storm arrived full force and life was quickly reduced to a few basic tasks. Each day was spent melting snow for water, listening to the wind howl, and shoveling out the tent every couple of hours. In Alaska in May, the midnight sun is real and the body gets pretty confused about when it’s supposed to sleep or stay awake.
The days and nights began to blend together, with an average temperature of around -30˚F. There’s not much to say about those seven days, other than that I got pretty dang good at shitting in a bucket with frozen hands. When we ran out of things to say to each other, we read books or tried to sleep. When we ran out of books to read or couldn’t sleep, we didn’t really do anything. A word to the wise: don’t forget a deck of cards.
Up the Headwall
After an entire week, the storm subsided, revealing a promising three day window in the forecast. Climbers crawled out of their tents and snow fortresses for the first time in days, congregating to share plans for the following day. After laying around for so long, everybody was itching to move higher and we were no exception.
The next morning we began the pilgrimage to High Camp, 17,200 feet. As we roped up and prepared to march up Ski Hill, Rangers and volunteers were helping a lone climber stumble back into camp. As we passed by, he gave me a wild, starry-eyed look and I wondered out loud “what the heck was wrong with that guy.” We later discovered that he had gotten stuck above 16,000, and survived a night unprotected on an exposed ridge. Due to severe frostbite, he was unable set up his tent or access his sleeping bag. Lucky to be alive, he was airlifted via rescue chopper immediately.
"I couldn’t help feeling like I was in space or at least on some uninhabitable planet."
The Rangers maintain fixed lines on the Headwall, a steep section of sustained 50 degree snow and ice that leads the last 800 vertical feet to the top of the ridge. We jumared over the bergschrund and began the tedious slog up the face. Barely a third of the way up, Sterling’s crampon broke, an unfortunate and near disastrous problem considering there was quite a bit of steep terrain left to ascend. Debating on whether we should turn around and fix it, he managed to drag himself the rest of the way up the Headwall, arriving completely exhausted and a few hours behind schedule.
Climbing at high altitude is a delicate process. Climbers must move efficiently, yet take care not to overexert themselves as the altitude can catch up just when you’re feeling comfortable. It’s safe to say the altitude hit Sterling like a steam roller, and we still had a thousand feet yet to gain.
We arrived to 17k Camp a few hours later, broken crampon and all. The shadows caught up with us and in seconds, the temperature dropped deep into the negatives. I remember hearing that in outer space, the difference between direct sunlight and a shadow can be well over a hundred degrees. It might not have been that dramatic, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was in space or at least on some uninhabitable planet.
It was cold, and we struggled to set up our tent with frozen hands and fingers. My hands had been completely numb for an uneasy amount of time, and I was concerned for them as well as for my feet which I also couldn’t feel. Most of us got hit with altitude once again—by now a common occurrence, and I puked after trying to force some food down my throat. My feet never warmed up, and I rubbed them for hours into the night as well as stuffed hand-warmers into my multiple pairs of thick socks, but to no avail.
It had been an unusually cold season thus far, and word on the mountain was that during the first half of the month, everybody who moved above 14k had gotten frostbite or severe altitude sickness. The air on Denali is considered to be thinner than any mountain of similar height that is located closer to the equator. Due to its close proximity to the Arctic Circle, the barometric pressure is lower, leading to a much higher “real feel” at any given elevation. The effects of AMS—acute mountain sickness—can range from a mere loss of appetite to death.
The weather was expected to hold out for a couple days, so we decided to take the next day off to rest and recover. I didn’t sleep much the next night, too pumped full of adrenaline and anticipation. On the 14th day of our climb, we left High Camp for a summit bid around mid morning, letting other teams take the alpine start and break trail. I lead the team up the steep and seemingly unending Autobahn, named ominously for a German team that had taken a long, fatal slide many years back.
The weather was cold, yet clear. As we gained the Autobahn and rounded a corner, we caught our first glimpse of the summit since being on the mountain. There she was, standing straight and true, and I was filled with renewed energy and a much needed second dose of adrenaline.
The exposure was significant at times—we were reminded of what was at stake as we passed a steep section where Sterling’s team member had taken a near tragic whipper the previous year. Further on, Jeremy got walloped with altitude at 19,000, but he took it like a man and pushed through the nausea and splitting headache. Still we nearly turned back after frostbite threatened Sterling’s hands and fingers. Instead we trudged higher, slowly but surely.
Resting at the Football Field, we gazed upon Pig Hill, the steep 40 to 45 degree slope just under the summit ridgeline that has caused more than a few grown men to shed a tear or even three from intimidation alone. The mountain seemed to be smugly saving the hardest part for last.
Climbing 700 feet of 45 degree snow at just under 20,000 feet requires four breaths for every one step forward. There is 75% less oxygen at this altitude, and your lungs don’t need to be reminded. It was a surreal feeling to be walking in the same footsteps of so many legends and heroes of mine. With Allen in lead, we chose to follow an alternative line that was significantly shorter than the standard route, albeit equally steeper. As we finally gained the Kahiltna Horn, the crest of the ridge, the reality began to hit us. We were actually going to summit Denali.
None of us really know or understand what happened next.
"I instinctively plunged my axe into the snow as deep as I could and braced for the whiplash."
As Allen reached the top just ahead I watched in shock as he lost balance and fell off the ridge, quickly picking up speed and heading straight for me. I instinctively plunged my axe into the snow as deep as I could and braced for the whiplash.
In moments I was jerked off the slope and dragged behind Allen. Sterling and Jeremy were yelling but I didn’t hear them—it must have been a sight to behold. I hacked my ice axe into the snow as we fell before finding a solid hold and stopping our runaway caboose. Within seconds, it was over, and we stood in disbelief. “Holy Shit!” was all I could manage.
It was both terrifying and hilarious. We rejoiced upon discovering that our flamingo mascot had survived the fall. Allen climbed back up to the ridge and as if to add insult to injury, accidentally un-clipped the carabiner that was holding the flamingo to his harness. We watched in disbelief once again as our dear plastic flamingo plummeted back down the very slope it had just survived. Don’t cry over dropped flamingos they say, so after a moment of silence, we put it behind us and pressed onward.
At 10pm sharp, we finally reached 20,310 feet, the ceiling of North America. Timing it perfectly, we were the last team of the day and were rewarded with an empty summit. The unexpected events of the last few minutes on top of the past 14 days made for an emotional moment for all of us—just enough for everyone to forget about the flamingo.
I can still close my eyes and remember it like it was yesterday. Alpenglow painted Mt. Foraker and the surrounding mountains with reds and pinks, with the curvature of the horizon reminding me that the flat earth theory was indeed bogus. I managed to fire off a couple shots from my digital camera before all 7 batteries immediately died from the -50˚F temps. Unaware at the time, my analog Leica was also non-operational due to the extreme cold, which had caused the 35mm film to freeze and rip inside the body.
Climbing to 6000+ meters has its highs, but it also has its lows. There are no gondolas back to Base Camp, and the summit stoke is quickly replaced with the dread of having to slog the 18 miles down. We spent that night at High Camp, and the next day charged back to Base Camp with pizza in our mind’s eye. After a heartbreaking rally up the appropriately named Heartbreak Hill, we vowed to never again set foot on this accursed mountain.
"At 10pm sharp, we finally reached 20,310 feet, the ceiling of North America."
It felt good landing back in Talkeetna and limping out of the plane, windburnt and too sore to make any sudden movements. Noticing the stares of the climbers waiting to fly out to try their luck on the mountain, I smiled to myself. We probably looked like we had been blowtorched, blow dried, and stuck in a freezer for three weeks. I suppose in a way, we actually had.
Denali was beautiful, miserable, rewarding, and hard—perhaps the hardest thing I had ever done up until that point. We were extremely grateful for Sterling’s willingness to drag a couple whippersnappers up some snow for two weeks, and were stoked to start our Pan American ride off on a good leg.
It’s impossible to communicate the experiences and stories from the 16 days we spent on the mountain, but we’ll never forget them, that’s for sure. From the airstrip, we painfully hobbled into town and straight to Mountain High Pizza Pie, shamelessly chowing on one extra large pizza each with a giant side of breadsticks and couple liters of Pepsi. Happy, thrashed, and sunburnt, we walked to the Fairview Inn and ordered a round at the bar.
The well-earned beers washed away our premature vows against the sacred mountain—maybe someday we too would return just as Sterling did. But before then, we had 30,000 miles of open road and a handful more classic peaks ahead of us as we reset our sights south, on Patagonia.