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TOUGH TIMES ON DENALI (6,194): On North America’s highest mountain – on skis

Squalls of up to 150 kilometers an hour can ravage the Denali – at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. For the second time, ORTOVOX mountain guide Alex is traveling to Alaska. He and his climbing partner wish to traverse one of the coldest mountains in the world on skis

Occasionally, when the thick blanket of cloud opens up, the steep slopes of the white ice giant peek through. In the middle of a giant sea of glaciers, not far from the Arctic Circle, stands the 6,194-meter-high Denali. “The high one” or “the tall one” – that’s how even its indigenous names describe it. Unlike the mountains of the Himalayas, the Denali begins above sea level, which makes it the highest mountain in the world from foot to peak. Those who wish to climb it must be ready for a tough time. As are ORTOVOX mountain guide Alex and his friend Günter, who are travelling to the highest mountain in North America. 

But from the very beginning...

At the beginning of May, after 26 hours, three flights, and very little sleep, Alex and Günter reach Anchorage, Alaska. They quickly buy the essentials (food, cooker, maps) and then move on to Talkeetna: The starting point for all mountaineers who intend to climb one of the coldest mountains in the world – right in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. But what else could be expected of Alaska: Due to bad weather, none of the small propeller aircraft can fly to the Kahiltna glacier.

Bad weather, beer and burgers

Alex and Günter spend three days in the small town, waiting with beers and burgers, until the phone rings on the afternoon of the third day: “We can fly now! How long will it take for you to get here?” asks the voice on the phone. 90 minutes later, the mountaineers climb out of the little aircraft and step into another world: An endless expanse, the almost daunting isolation of an icy wilderness from which the wild, snow-covered summits tower up. Here, on the Kahiltna glacier, there is just as likely to be glistening sunshine as temperatures as low as -40 degrees, and storms of unknown strength. 

Another world

Released into the wild, cut off from civilization, in the middle of a huge, icy glacier, Alex and Günter get ready for their adventure: The aim is not just to reach the 6,194-meter summit, but to completely traverse the Denali.To be able to move faster, they are doing without the usual pulks that are used to pull their luggage behind them. With over 35 kilos on their backs, Alex and Günter start their first stage. First they descend Heartbreak Hill, then it’s a slight ascent to the Ski Hill Camp at around 2,300 meters. Days two and three go according to plan without incident. By going without pulks and thanks to the consistent weather, they reach the Medical Camp by the third day – the actual base camp at 4,300 meters. 

Alaska’s wild side

Two days of rest, then climb further to acclimatize: That was the plan. Then suddenly, Denali showed its other, wilder side. Gone are the blue skies and sunshine. In their place, a storm begins to brew that seems to tear at the sides of the tent and that makes any further ascent impossible. With wind speeds of up to 80 km/h and temperatures around minus 35 degrees, Alex and Günter are forced to remain in the tent for two days.

Two days that they would have normally spent acclimatizing. And the conditions do not improve on the next day, either: Fierce winds and snowstorms mean they can only make two tours up to almost 5000 meters.  On the fifth day of bad weather, they are standing in a complete whiteout, which signalizes the end for their original plan. In these conditions, traversing the mountain just isn’t possible. But reaching the summit is: all they need is one good day. One day to climb the 1900 meters from the Medical Camp to the summit with one push. 

To the summit in one day.

Waiting. Eating. Snowstorm. The days pass, the storm rages on. Slowly, Alex and Günter are running out of food. Other expeditions start to descend. But they don’t want to leave without trying. There should be a window of good weather on May 31. And in fact: the good day comes on the 13th day of their expedition. At 5:30pm, after an almost thirteen-hour ascent, Alex and Günter reach the highest point in North America. No wind and -28 degrees. Perfect. Four hours later they arrive safely at base camp and are able to fly out the very next day.A journey to a giant that was tough to begin with and ended quite quickly with happy, exhausted faces.