Skip to main Content

Denali climbers were desperate for food -- but it was under 4 feet of snow

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: April 28, 2017
  • Published April 26, 2017

With Mount Hunter in the background, Connor Chilcott of Seattle climbs the Cassin Ridge during a successful ascent of Denali earlier this month with partner Forrest Barker. (Courtesy Forrest Barker)

Denali's summit was in their rear-view mirror, but the challenge wasn't over yet for Seattle climbers Forrest Barker and Connor Chilcott.

The men had conquered the technically challenging Cassin Ridge to reach the 20,310-foot peak of North America's tallest mountain on April 16, becoming the season's first climbers to reach the summit.

But, as Barker said later, "It's more dangerous to go down than it is to finish the route."

Especially with empty stomachs.

Barker, 27, and Chilcott, 23, ran out of food not long after reaching the summit. At about 19,000 feet, their food was gone and their descent stalled.

A combination of high winds, severe cold and growling tummies compelled the pair to make an unplanned and uncomfortable overnight stay while still high on the mountain.

"Our biggest concern was not getting too cold, because we didn't have the calories to burn," Barker said. "That was part of our decision to spend the extra night — let's get in the tent and be warm rather than continue to shiver."

A veritable buffet awaited them at 14,000 feet, where they had cached loads of food in the snow. Chunks of Tillamook cheddar cheese. A pound of smoked salmon. Freeze-dried meals.

All they had to do was get there, and to do that they had to survive a night at 19,000 feet.

Connor Chilcott, left, and Forrest Barker bivouac at midnight. (Courtesy Forrest Barker)

A storm delivered winds of 40 to 50 mph, Barker said. The temperature was about minus-40. Sleep was fitful, especially when their tent blew over.

"It kind of collapsed on us," Barker said. "It got two holes in it and the poles got bent out of shape, but it did not get blown away or entirely destroyed. We were able to sleep in it."

The next day, Barker and Chilcott resumed their descent. When they finally reached their camp at 14,000 feet, they were as hungry as could be and gleefully headed to their cache.

Which was buried under a 4-foot snowdrift. Along with their shovel.

"We used ice axes to get the cache out," Barker said. "It took about an hour. It was a very tedious hour, knowing we had a pound of smoked salmon and some sausage and cheese.

"We were so excited to get to it. We gorged. We ate two-and-a-half days' worth of food that night. It was so good. Even our freeze-dried meals. We had instant mashed potatoes and we put in a bunch of cheddar cheese and it was delicious."

The pair rested for a couple of days at 14,000 feet, where they had cached enough food for six days, Barker said. They kept an eye on weather reports and made their final descent to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp while it was still clear. On April 21, five days after their summit and 22 after beginning their climb, Barker and Chilcott were back in Talkeetna.

They spent this week in Anchorage and are headed back to Seattle on Thursday.

Connor Chilcott pauses at a crevasse at 12,000 feet. (Courtesy Forrest Barker)

Both are on the mend from medical maladies that Barker, an EMT and member of Seattle Mountain Rescue, deemed minor. On the way up, Chilcott frostbit a toe. On the way down, Barker suffered from high-altitude pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs.

When the men began their climb, they were the only people on the mountain. The climbing season typically doesn't get busy until the first week of May, and the April 16 summit was a month earlier than the first summits in 2016 and 2015.

"The coolest part about climbing in April is you're not following anybody's footsteps," said Barker, who in 2015 reached the top of Denali via the popular West Buttress route. "You're really climbing for yourself. Every step you take is your own decision.

"You're not surrounded by the 200 other climbers that you get during the normal season. We were the only people on the mountain the whole time. We only saw three (people) going up as we were leaving. The only life we saw was one single bird that was dead."

They also saw — and in some cases, didn't see — a number of crevasses. Barker fell into six, Chilcott into three.

Barker said crevasses are well-hidden on the Cassin Ridge, an 8,000-foot spine that splits the south face of Denali and ends near the summit. The two stayed roped together nearly the entire time, he said.

If the two made a mistake, Barker said, it was not bringing a complete map or description of the Cassin Ridge, a rarely climbed route.

"We just took what climbers call a topo — a drawing of the route — but we didn't take a full route description, and that led us to go off-route a few times and ended up costing us a decent amount of time," Barker said.

"And time is what really ended up being the most valuable asset for us – it caused us to run out of food."

Few attempt the Cassin Ridge, which was first completed by a team led by Italy's Ricardo Cassin in 1961. In the last seven seasons on Denali, 62 of the 4,370 recorded summits — 1.4 percent — came on the Cassin Ridge, which is considered one of the world's classic alpine climbs.

It's one Barker said he'll treasure.

"It goes on my list as my favorite climb so far," he said. "It's a climb that wasn't easy, it's a climb that taught me a lot of technical skills, it's a climb that pushed me not completely out of my comfort zone but close.

"… The mountain roared at us a little bit and we roared back, and it all came together really nicely in the end."

An exhausted Connor Chilcott takes in the view on the upper Cassin Ridge. “Things got serious shortly after this and no more photos were taken,” fellow climber Forrest Barker said. (Courtesy Forrest Barker)