Challenged by scarce daylight, blowing snow and zero visibility, the first woman attempting to scale Mount McKinley in winter is hunkered down at 10,000 feet, where she and her partner have been living in a snow cave since last Sunday.
At least Christine Feret has good company. A French woman who has become an American citizen and makes her home in the Valley, Feret is climbing with Artur Testov, a Russian-turned-Alaskan who may have as much winter-time experience as anyone on North America's tallest mountain.
This is Testov's fourth attempt to scale the 20,320-foot mountain in the winter -- a feat that has been accomplished by only 16 people, Testov included. Two of those who have stood atop Denali in the cold, dark winter died on the descent. Another four have died on the way up.
Feret and Testov started their adventure on Feb. 23 with 260 pounds of gear, or enough to get them through a month on the mountain, according to climb coordinator Josef Princiotta of Anchorage.
But blowing snow and whiteout conditions have pinned them down at 10,000 feet -- about 2,800 feet above the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Glacier, where Talkeetna Air Taxi dropped them Feb. 23. In recent days, they've had to dip into their fuel supply to stay warm.
"They're still in the same snow cave, and the problem is, you don't move around in a snow cave, so they're having to burn a little gas," said Princiotta, who has been able to speak to Feret every day via satellite phone.
"I don't want to say they'll be short on fuel -- but they'll have less to carry. It'll make them lighter as soon as the day comes along with good weather, and then they'll try to climb rather quickly."
Saturday's report from Feret brought a bit of good news, Princiotta said. The howling wind changed directions so blowing snow is no longer blocking the entrance to the couple's snow cave, meaning there's a flow of air now that hasn't always been there.
"Now they don't have to dig out an air hole," Princiotta said.
The need to ventilate the snow cave consumed much of the couple's time in recent days. According to a Monday phone call from Feret, as reported by Princiotta on a Facebook page chronicling the climb: "Last night the blowing snow sealed us in our snow cave. We had to dig out during the night just to get some air."
Even with the wind blowing in a more favorable direction, it is still blowing hard. Neither Feret nor Testov are venturing far from the trench leading to their shelter, because when they do, they are disoriented by wind, snow and flat light, Princiotta said.
If one thing is working in their favor, it's that they have not seen the worst of the brutal cold McKinley can serve up in the winter. Feret has reported temperatures ranging from minus-20 to minus-25, and one day it was a practically mild minus-5 -- not bad for winter on Denali, where temperatures can plunge to moon-like figures. The classic mountaineering book detailing the first winter ascent of McKinley gets its title from the brutal cold experienced by author Art Davidson and fellow climbers Dave Johnston and Ray Genet in 1967: "Minus 148 Degrees."
Testov is part of an elite group of climbers who have stood atop McKinley in the inhospitable days of winter. In January 1998, he and Vladimir Ananich became the first -- and so far, only -- climbers to scale McKinley in the dead of winter, meaning late December through January.
In 1997, Testov's attempt to climb McKinley in January with Andrey Isupov ended at about 12,000 feet when Testov fell into a crevasse and had to cut loose a sled loaded with food and fuel to save himself. In January 1999, his attempt to be the first to climb the mountain via the Wickersham Wall in winter ended before he and partner Trigger Twigg even reached their base camp.
In preparation for their climb, Feret and Testov twice scaled Denali via the West Buttress during the 2009 climbing season, Princiotta said. When they aren't climbing mountains, they build and sell furniture from their home near Knik Glacier.
Though they are being sponsored by Phillip Paul Weidner and the Fairview Inn of Talkeetna, Feret and Testov can expect little to no support during their climb. There's no base camp operations and no rangers during the winter on McKinley and little to no chance of a rescue should one be needed.
"All winter climbers are strongly advised not to anticipate a rescue," said Denali National Park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin. "Just as during the peak climbing season, a rescue is never a given.
"We have extremely limited personnel on staff during the winter and no high-altitude helicopter."
Computerized climbing data has been collected by the park service since 1995, McLaughlin said. Since then, there have been 34 attempts at winter ascents, including two this year. In January, a solo attempt by an Italian climber ended at about 7,800 feet on the West Buttress route, McLaughlin said.
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.