Story and photos by Liz Daley
Denali has a reputation for being a horrible place to guide. For the last two years, I had been hearing epic stories from fellow guides about Denali. Most stories revolved around backbreaking heavy packs and sleds, frostbitten nobs, pampered clients who are way out of their league, chucking pounds of poo in massive crevasses, being roped up to sketchy and exhausted clients on the fifty degree fixed lines, freezing your ass off while waiting out storms, guide and ranger drama, high mountain hook-ups, crevasse rescues and heli-evacs. It always sounded pretty exciting.
On a morning in March in Chamonix—between sipping espresso and getting my pack ready for a mission—I glanced at an email from my boss at the American Alpine Institute. The subject line read “Denali Scheduling.” And the body of the email got even better: “You’re slated for Team 4 on Denali, I’m booking flights now let me know if these days will work.” I immediately wrote him back, confirming the dates with mixed emotions of excitement, anticipation, and intimidation.
It took me two years working at the Institute to get this gig. I had intended to come home to the States and work in the Cascades like usual. But Denali was bigger. Athabaskan, “Denali” means “The High One.” And with a massive elevation of 20,322 feet, the peak definitely lives up to its name. It’s the third largest of the seven summits, trailing only behind Everest and Aconcagua
Most stories revolved around backbreaking heavy packs and sleds, frostbitten nobs, pampered clients who are way out of their league, chucking pounds of poo in massive crevasses, being roped up to sketchy and exhausted clients on the fifty degree fixed lines, freezing your ass off while waiting out storms, guide and ranger drama, high mountain hook-ups, crevasse rescues and heli-evacs.
It’s said that people climb Denali as a warm-up for Everest, as it’s closer to the North Pole so the air is even thinner. On Denali, an elevation of 20,000 feet allegedly replicates the feeling of 22,000 feet in elevation on most other peaks. Measured from base to summit, Denali has a vertical gain of 19,000 feet making it the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level. Then there’s the modest Mt. Everest, rising from the Tibetan Plateau with a base to summit distance on the south side of 13,000 feet and 17,000 feet on the north side. Not only is Denali the largest peak in North America but it’s known to have harshest environment of any of the seven summits—horrendous weather, high winds, and temperatures down to negative forty. Don’t forget to factor in the windchill and altitude. Its reputation only fueled my excitement.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being a little intimidated. After all, I would be starting off my guiding season with a twenty-one day expedition to a massive objective. I had never even been to Alaska and I’d never been higher than Mont Blanc’s summit of 15,781 feet. Also, I had never felt the frostbite inflicting rawness of a negative forty degree day. Alas, I wouldn’t be alone. I had two trusty lead guides, Ben and Quino to show me the way.
I spent two weeks before the trip stuffing my face and working out super hard. A fellow Denali guide said I needed to be “fit and fat” for Denali guiding. I think I took him a little too seriously because I ended up putting on almost 10 lbs. After spending a week in Talkeetna, food packing, trip prepping, drinking gallons of IPA, stuffing my head with burgers, and watching out for grizzlies around town, Day Zero had arrived—it was time to meet the clients.
We had a diverse group from all over the world. A few hilarious Britts, a classy Russian, a hopeless romantic Italian, a couple woman-eating Aussie’s, and a Hong Kong-born American. I knew it was going to be a great group right off the bat. I was ready to fly out onto the glacier and get these people up this behemoth of a mountain.
As a female guide, I’ve grown accustomed to encountering people and cultures with diverse ideas about the role of women. I know what I look like—I bleach my hair and my teeth, I wear mascara off—and sometimes on—the mountain, I get pedicures, I wear lots of pink, and do my best to look and smell nice in most situations. In a lot of ways I’m a girly girl. This doesn’t always go over well with clients who get me as their guide after they’ve been expecting some macho mountain man with big muscles and a beard. It seems as though women have to dress and act like men to get respect in many male-dominated occupations—but I want to prove that you don’t have to.
I’m constantly dealing with pervy, chauvanistic comments, skepticism, and superiority complexes. Being the lighthearted person that I am, I blow douchey comments off my back left and right and throw it back in people’s faces in a joking manner. They seem to like that and it seems to be working. I let my actions, work ethic, and skill speak for themselves and I’ve never had a trip end the same way it started with this kind of behavior. It’s actually a pretty awesome, empowering feeling.
When we flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier, the summit success rate hovered around twelve percent, which was extremely low for this time of year. The weather had been horrible and we were hoping for it to clear up for our trip, but there was a massive low pressure cell hanging out over the Aleutians and waiting to pound down on us. On Day One we flew on and trudged our way from Base camp up the Kahiltna to Camp 1—we trekked five and a half miles with our heaviest loads and gained a thousand feet in elevation. There’s nothing like carrying a fifty pound pack and pulling a sixty pound sled in the stifling heat of the day.
I bleach my hair and my teeth, I wear mascara off—and sometimes on—the mountain, I get pedicures, I wear lots of pink, and do my best to look and smell nice in most situations. In a lot of ways I’m a girly girl. This doesn’t always go over well with clients who get me as their guide after they’ve been expecting some macho mountain man with big muscles and a beard.
A massive storm rolled in on our fourth day. We were stuck there for three days in hurricane winds and frigid temperatures. Snow drifts covered the tents every hour and three feet of new snow had rapidly fallen. Ben, Quino and I took turns getting up through the night to dig out tents so clients wouldn’t die a cold, asphyxiation-induced death. On top of this, we had really disappointed clients who wanted to move up as we saw desperate Russian groups passing our camps in a heinous, white-out storm. We only had a contract for twenty-one days to summit, with cache days, acclimatization days, training days, and rest days. We were losing days sitting in this storm, days that would have to be made up for if we wanted to make a summit bid.
We decided to move regardless of weather on Day Six. Turns out it was a sunny and beautiful—but freezing—morning. The clouds broke, a blanket of new snow covered the glacier and the surrounding peaks, and temperatures were in the single digits. We broke trail, carrying our massive loads to Camp 2 at 11,200 feet.
Denali’s big storms are usually the worst between Camp 1 and just above Camp 2. I was antsy to get to Camp 3 at 14,200 feet. It’s above the cloud layer and it’s south facing. I had heard it was the “party camp” where everyone waits to get on the higher mountain. I was hoping to run into some homies who would have some whiskey and cigarettes. It sounded like the promised land. And a good spot for our team to be waiting to make the final push up to the highest camp at 17,200 feet.
Ben, Quino and I took turns getting up through the night to dig out tents so clients wouldn’t die a cold, asphyxiation-induced death.
After arriving at Camp 2 we got four beautiful days that were probably the most productive of the trip. We cached around the infamous, Windy Corner, moved camp to the party camp at 14,200 feet, retrieved our cache, did fixed line training, and cached atop the fixed lines at 16,200 feet. We had made up for all but one of our lost days—but we missed our summit window. The day we cached above the fixed lines a couple hundred people summitted then the weather shut us down.
We waited at Camp 3, partying with the locals for eight days while waiting for a window to move. The first couple days were fun. We made a pull-up pit where we’d run from the tent do as many pull ups and upside down sit ups as we could, run back to the tent then, test our blood oxygen levels and pulses. This became a natural place for guides to hang out, talk weather, tell jokes, shit talk, and pull tough. I saw my buddy Lucas De Bari up there with his mom getting rad. I didn’t know the little guy could grow a beard. We also witnessed the superhuman Killian Jornet pulling off the newest speed record of base to summit and back in 11 hours and 48 minutes in a white-out. Beating the previous record by five hours! This really pissed some of my clients off seeing him doing it on a day where we were sitting there with our thumbs up our asses. “And here we sit,” said one of our guys.
Seeing all these people crushing super hard on their shred sticks of course made me crave powder and steep lines—after all, the Messner, Oriental Express, and the Rescue gully were right above Camp 3. These lines screamed at me for eight days while I watched friends and rangers shred the shit out of the new fallen snow. Although it was painful to watch, I was happy to come here guiding first—it could serve a little recconassaince mission for when I come back with my board next year. After all, a girl’s gotta eat. And I was working hard for my money.
We ended up at the camp for eight days with an insta-frostbite forecast of negative twenty degree temps, fifty mph winds, and possible new snow at 17,000 feet—so we called it. We descended in a storm, breaking trail through eighteen inches of new snow and high winds. It took two days to get out and we managed to catch a flight back to Talkeetna upon our arrival at base. We went directly to the local bar, the Fairview, and shut it down. It was a blurry night. I remember getting flashed by my client, not washing my hands, and carrying Quino back to our hostel at four a.m.
The summit rate this year is currently thirty percent as opposed to last year’s sixty-eight percent. Our team was really dissappointed but they understood our predicament. I was disappointed as well but I know I’ll be back next year.
Although guiding Denali was extremely demanding physically, it only really felt like work when I was changing the CMC (Clean Mountain Container or poop bucket), hauling poop on my sled, or melting water and cooking dinner for seven hours until 1:30 a.m., and then waking up just a few hours later to get breakfast ready. There was a lot of hauling, set-up and break-down, breaking trail, wiggling fingers and toes to prevent frostbite, and digging and more digging through layers of snow and ice. But my days primarily revolved around keeping everyone happy while moving along safely and efficiently up the hill. When you’re in charge of a group of people, you tend to forget about your own discomforts thankfully. For all the anticipation I’d built up around this trip, it was pretty mellow and a lot of fun. I can’t wait to get back to Denali next year to guide and shred.