After 19 days of climbing over ice and snow to the highest peak in North America the journey is small consolation when all you ever wanted was the destination. Clichés be damned. When your ambitions go unfilled it’s hard not to indulge in petulance like a child, kicking and screaming on the floor in the fit of a full blown tantrum. But in the latest dispatch from the mountain Erica Wynn delivered the unfortunate news of the team’s aborted summit bid with the calm resolve of a champion.
“We’re all in good spirits. We’re tired but we’re proud of how far we made it,” she said. “We’re back down safely and that’s what’s most important.”
To reach the summit was never the ultimate goal of Expedition Denali. Even shutdown in the final push at 19,600 feet after several hours of punishing winds and the risk of lightning strikes the first team of African-American climbers to make the attempt endured with style and the calm presence of mind to err on the side of caution. Their successful ascent required a safe return. By changing course back to Advanced Base Camp and heading for home their trip to the summit of Denali has not come to an end, but as others will likely follow in their example the journey has only just begun.
For several days now as the Expedition Denali team made their way up the mountain I struggled with the consequences of two likely outcomes. They would either make it to the top or they would not. To achieve the summit in violent weather only to die on the way down is no victory nor is a timely retreat to safety a failure. What matters most is the strength and fortitude these brave climbers displayed in advancing as far as they had. No other team of African-Americans has achieved as much on Denali and now upon their careful descent the bar is set to one day try again. Inspired by the pace of their own progress forward there will be other Expeditions Denali and a new cadre of experienced role models to lead them.