Having completed my first year at the University of St Andrews, I successfully climbed the highest mountain in North America, one characterised by its extreme weather, and stood on the summit on 7 July 2009.
The word Denali translates as the “Great One” and with a larger bulk and rise than Mount Everest, as well as an average summit success rate of around 50%, it was an intimidating proposition. It was one I undertook with excitement and a degree of nerves. After the initial excitement of university, it was a battle to flick a switch in my head and re-focus onto this goal while my mates were taking a different route. I trained for the sled pulling aspect of Denali by dragging female friends of mine along West Sands in St Andrews (think Chariots of Fire opening scene). Unsurprisingly, I received some fairly bewildered looks from the traditional St Andrews inhabitants going for a morning dog walk but it seemed to do the trick.
The expedition was in a special location I’d love to revisit sometime. Alaska is a pure and unblemished place, both unremitting and beautiful. Watch the excellent film Into The Wild and you’ll get an idea. My team of 12 was excellent in terms of cohesion and life insights – all that one can hope for on an expedition.
A twin otter plane lands you from Anchorage on the snow in this vast and striking environment. As one of the last teams on the mountain that year, it felt like a very untainted experience from the off. Sledding all your kit from start to finish heightens that experience, certainly adding to the physical demands as you cache what is required higher up the mountain as we made our acclimatisation moves.
We were roped together in three teams of four in order to prevent the high crevasse risk. We practiced the necessary contingency plans regularly and had to put them into practice on more than one occasion. Each night you erect the team’s and your own tent before trying to establish some sort of eating and sleeping routine. The steep fixed lines and subsequent narrow ridges were picturesque and finally took us to high camp. A couple of night were spent there as the notoriously vicious wind and snow storms raged around us so ice blocks were cut to protect our tents.
Thankfully the weather briefly relented and allowed us a chance. A narrow ridge on the summit approach made for a suitably exciting finale before our whole team could celebrate at the highest point in North America with blue skies and a view to savour.
Alaska is a remarkable place and this Denali expedition gave me some unforgettable memories. It was certainly a step up expedition-wise. It was to be my final expedition before months of fundraising and struggle to make an attempt on Everest in March 2010.