On Sunday June 9, the Expedition Denali team was deposited safely at Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska. The National Outdoor Leadership School made arrangements to shuttle by Otter turbo-prop cargo plane the nine climbers, four cameramen, and six instructors, along with their gear, to set up tents on the mountain. One hundred years ago this month the first team of adventurers made it to the summit of Mount McKinley, also known as Denali. On this historic climb, NOLS aims to put the first all African American team on the highest peak in North America.
“It felt surreal after a year-and-a-half of planning and training to see the team take off on the Otters from Talkeetna Air Taxi,” wrote NOLS director of diversity and inclusion Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin in the group’s blog. “After all, our dreams were literally taking flight.”
The Otters settled on to the glacier in fine weather. At 7,200 feet, deceptively warm temperatures on the clear day gave little indication of the bitterly cold conditions the team would face in the days ahead as they make their ascent. But after months of meticulous planning by well-seasoned and experienced instructors, Expedition Denali is set on a course for success.
The team experienced their most physically demanding part of the climb on day 3 (June 10) after reaching Kahiltna Glacier the day after their arrival at the NOLS branch in Palmer, Alaska. The objective was to move all their food and equipment—as much as 120 pounds per person—to Camp II at the base of the first sustained climb, a feature called Ski Hill. Hauling everything in backpacks or on sleds, the team made a steady push of 5.5 miles across the ice.
From base camp at 7,200 feet, they headed down Heartbreak Hill (so named because they have to descend down the glacier only to ascend again) to the base of Ski Hill at 7,900 feet. Team used a system of caches and carries to continue their journey, transporting only what they need for the ascent and caching food and equipment at various spots that they will not need until the way down. At times they made day trips to cache food higher up to then return to their original camp to continue acclimatizing.
With very little time to recover from their first push, on Day 4 (June 11) the team began dividing their food and fuel into caches for camps at 11,000 feet, 14,200 feet and a High Camp at 17,200 feet. Carrying much lighter packs and sleds they transported each of the caches to a spot about halfway between Camp II and Camp III at 9,800 feet.
On Day 5 (June 12) the entire team headed up to Camp III at 11,000 feet. While half the party began setting up tents and preparing food, the others returned down the mountain to retrieve the caches deposited at 9,800 feet. From this vantage point they’re more than halfway to the summit. On Day 6 (June 13) they rested and recovered while eating as much food as possible to regain their energy.
Over the next several days much of their movements up the mountain will be the same. On Day 7 (June 14) the team ferried loads of fuel and food to Windy Corner, a cache at 13,350 feet.
Depending on the weather and the physical condition of the group they will likely spend as many as four days here recovering strength and transporting food and fuel to a high cache at 16,500 feet. By Day 12 (June 19) they will consider the possibilities of moving up to the High Camp.
At 17,200 feet, the team will experience the most bitterly cold temperatures of their journey. But it’s from here that they will make a bid for the summit. If weather conditions allow they could reach the South Peak of Denali as soon as Day 14 or 15 (June 21 or 22). But if they are tent-bound and forced to stay put due to heavy snow, high winds, and low visibility, the team has enough food and fuel to wait for a window of opportunity for up to three additional days. In the event that conditions make a summit attempt impossible the team will move back down to Advanced Base Camp on Day 18 (June 25) and make their way down the mountain to the airstrip on the glacier to catch a flight back to Talkeetna.
As in any mountaineering adventure an ascent of Denali is a fluid situation. Objective hazards of the environment and ever-changing weather conditions as well as the physical condition of the climbers will each play a vital role in the outcome of this exciting journey. Despite the best-laid plans of the leaders there are many unforeseen circumstances that may result in failure to achieve the summit. But the success of this mission is assured if everyone returns home safely to share their story whether they reach the top or not. What matters most is they aspired to even try and in doing so they can ultimately encourage and inspire many others from all walks of life to follow their example.
As the days continue followers of Expedition Denali can receive periodic updates at http://www.expeditiondenali.nols.edu.
This story originally appeared in the National Geographic Adventure blog Beyond The Edge on June 15, 2013