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Facing tough weather, no Denali climbers have reached the summit yet

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  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published May 12, 2016

Aaron Pessah sat on a leather couch in a roomy Anchorage hostel earlier this week. The skin around his nostrils was red, tender, blistered. As he trekked up and down Denali for two weeks, he wiped away the gunk running out of his nose — and with it, protective sunscreen.

Aside from frostnip on his toes, Pessah said the sunburn on the underside of his nose was his only lasting mark from climbing to the mountain's 14,200-foot camp and back down. That left him 6,110 vertical feet shy of the summit of North America's tallest peak. The snow leading to the next camp was too unstable to push on, Pessah said.

The 28-year-old wasn't alone in falling short.

So far this year, 16 climbers have come and gone from Denali. No one has reached the 20,310-foot summit as far as the National Park Service knows. But it's still early, mountaineering rangers say. An estimated 159 climbers remained on Denali Thursday, according to the latest Park Service report.

"Early-season climbs are difficult," said Tucker Chenoweth, a mountaineering ranger with the Park Service. This season's Denali climbers have seen shorter-than-normal stretches of clear and wind-free days.

"It's been a good day here, a good day there," Chenoweth said. "We haven't had the high-pressure stretches that we've had in the past."

And on Denali, weather rules.

Pessah reached the 14,200-foot camp on May 4.

He'd started the journey 10 days earlier, flying from San Jose to Anchorage, taking a shuttle to Talkeetna and flying to Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200 feet.

Pessah started climbing up the West Buttress route with three other men from California. They met on meetup.com, a social networking website where users can plan and join offline activities, from book clubs to running groups to Denali expeditions.

On Denali, the group's climb fell into line with a team of six from France. Eventually, Pessah's three California climbing partners turned around.

Only Pessah went on to the 14,200-foot camp, tethered to the French team. He carried 85 pounds of gear on his back and another 50 pounds in his sled, trudging through fluffy snow, then ice.

Chenoweth, with the Park Service, said a window of good weather — no wind and moderate temperatures — offers Denali climbers their best chance of summiting. Climbing season peaks from late May to early June.

During busy season, temperatures are warmer but storms are frequent. Lower elevation warmth can also leave tenuous snow bridges across dangerous crevasses, he said.

Trying to reach the peak early in the season comes with pros and cons. Climbers face colder temperatures, but more snow on the lower mountain means fewer exposed crevasses, Chenoweth said. Typically, there's more blue ice up high —but this year, there appears to be more snow, he said.

At the 14,200-foot camp, Pessah said temperatures plummeted to between 25 and 30 degrees below zero at night. He suffers from Raynaud's phenomenon, a vascular disease that makes warming up especially difficult.

The team faced an impediment that made moving past the camp difficult: Fixed ropes that assist climbers up a steep headwall remained buried in snow and ice. Pessah said the snow on the headwall also seemed unstable.

"We didn't want to take the chance of triggering an avalanche," Pessah said.

Chenoweth said a five-person patrol of rangers and volunteers was at 11,200 feet by Wednesday. Rangers or mountain guides typically dig the fixed lines out of the ice, he said.

Pessah and the team spent a night at the 14,200-foot camp before turning around.

On the way back, they flirted with crevasses. Once, a man from the French team plummeted into a crevasse, but his backpack stopped the fall, Pessah said. The man was behind Pessah and the two were roped together. Once Pessah felt the tug, he said he jumped forward and hammered his ice ax into the ground.

"It wakes you up," he said.

The man pulled himself out. No one was hurt.

Since 1932, the Park Service has recorded 123 deaths on Denali, the last coming in May 2015, when the body of a man from Argentina was found dead at high camp. He died from exposure, according to the Park Service. "Climbing falls" result in most of the deaths; 10 have specifically been from crevasse falls.

By Wednesday, Chenoweth said the Park Service had made one rescue on Denali this year after a climber at the 14,200-foot camp suffered high-altitude pulmonary edema.

Each climbing season, the agency typically makes 10 to 15 major searches and rescues, said Maureen Gualtieri, a public information officer for the Park Service.

All told, more than 800 climbers have registered to scale Denali this year, according to the latest agency report. Climbers must submit registration forms 60 days before their requested start date. Denali and neighboring Mount Foraker are the only peaks that require a permit in Denali National Park and Preserve, Gualtieri said. A permit costs $365. For youth climbers, it costs $265.

Last year, 628 of 1,092 climbers who started reached the summit — about 58 percent. Since 1912, some 52 percent of climbers have made it to the top of Denali, a rate that's little changed in the past decade, when 53 percent have made it, according to the Park Service.

Last year, the first climbers reached Denali's summit May 17, Gualtieri said.

For Pessah, this year's climb is over; he hopes to return in four years to make another summit bid. He said he knows the team made the right call coming down early.

"You read about it. You see pictures of it online. People tell you about it. But it's completely different from actually seeing it or experiencing it firsthand," Pessah said of climbing Denali.

At least they made it to 14,200-foot camp, which sits atop a plateau. The lip of the plateau is known as "The Edge of the World," which, he said, isn't a bad place to turn around.

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