Harrowing Denali whiteout halts CC climbers from reaching summit
By DEB ACORD THE GAZETTE
They were ready. They were sure of it. Libby Bushell, Sheldon Kerr and Nancy Calhoun had planned this day for years and trained for months. And there they were, in the high camp at the 17,200-foot level of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The three Colorado College students had been waiting for the weather to break on the 20,320-foot mountain, and it finally did. They had been at the camp for two days, and when they started out, Bushell, the self-appointed reporter for the group, wrote in an e-mail to her friends: “It was beautiful weather. We made it up to 19,400 feet when we noticed a lenticular cloud over the summit at 3:56 p.m. We’re 3 hours from the summit and are all a little weary but stoked. We ate a bite of candy bar (which was pretty much all the substance we consumed for five days) and at 4:07 we’re in a whiteout with 50 m.p.h. winds trying to kill us. Retreat!” It was a classic Denali whiteout. “We were walking with a guided group but we kind of felt we should go down,” Bushell said in a phone interview from her parents’ home in Alaska. “But we decided to walk ahead a few minutes to see if it gets any worse.” The lead group started walking, Bushell said, “and within a minute and a half, they had turned around.” The women’s one chance at the summit disappeared in the swirling snow as they turned around. But the worst was yet to come.
“It was scary on the way down,” Bushell said. “We were roped together, but we couldn’t see or hear each other. I was at the front, and Sheldon was behind me. She got really bad vertigo, but I didn’t know. “So I was jerking on her, pulling her down this scary hill. There’s one section there where, if you fall, it’s just a wasteland of crevasses.” But the three made it down, their only terrifying moment when Kerr’s sled fell into a gaping crevasse, one of the inherent dangers on Denali. The women took on Denali as a physical challenge and as a way to bring attention to an important issue: breast cancer. They called their June expedition (and a nonprofit group they formed to promote it) Breasts on the West Buttress for the most common route on Denali, the route they would climb. They trained in Colorado and Utah for months, planning their ascent. They were poised for success, Bushell said. “But then we got to 14 Camp (the camp at 14,000 feet), and the weather moved in above us.” The three climbers were stuck with a dozen others at the camp for 12 days, an unusually long wait according to veteran guides who were stuck there, too. “The weather was particularly bad this year,” said Rob Gowler, operations manager for Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna, Alaska. Gowler has been on the mountain dozens of times and doesn’t keep track of how many times he summited. “This year, the summit success rate was down. Lots of people turned around.” Waiting for the weather was one of the hardest parts of their climb, Bushell said. “The days literally blurred one into another. We would sit in our tent and wonder what we did yesterday: Did we play soccer or dig a hole?” The weather at 14 Camp was tolerable, with temperatures ranging from about minus 10 to 20 degrees, and the winds sometimes gusting at 60 mph. Experienced mountaineers know that waiting for the right weather is the key to success — and sometimes, survival. Denali is not the most technically difficult mountain to climb, but it’s known to be one of the most hostile environments on Earth, with skinfreezing cold and winds that can blow tents — and climbers — off the mountain. Twenty-thousand climbers have attempted Denali in its modern history, with a 50 percent success rate. Eighty percent of those who climb choose the West Buttress. “That doesn’t mean it’s not treacherous,” Gowler said. “The hard part about climbing Denali is the environment. You are in the snow on a glacier the whole time. You basically camp your way up the mountain, and if you have good winter-camping skills, you do better, especially at high camp at 17,200 feet.” Still, Denali draws thousands of climbers. “It’s a beautiful mountain,” Gowler said. “It’s fricking huge, with a lot of lore attached to it. For some people, it’s the biggest challenge of their lives.” Bushell, Kerr and Calhoun joined about 1,200 people who registered to climb the mountain this season, which lasts from April to late June. Most were with guided expeditions. Calhoun, Kerr and Bushell decided to do it together, without a guide. It was a decision they didn’t regret. “We were ready,” Bushell said. “We knew everything we could have possibly known to prepare for the mountain, which was more than enough mental prep. As far as physical preparation, everyone can always be in better shape, and we could have, too, but the training we had done was enough to get us as high as we got, and it would have been enough to take us to the summit had the weather allowed it.” The hardest moments for the group? “Staying so long at 14 Camp,” Bushell said. “And the camp at 17,200 feet was hostile. It was hard to function there. Boiling water takes literally forever. And you don’t want to eat anything. When you don’t eat and drink, you feel tired.” Despite the hardships of eating and sleeping above 17,000 feet, the women did well. “It wasn’t that hard a climb,” Bushell said. “We were carrying a lot of gear — about 150 pounds each.” The effort required to move that weight up and down the mountain and the crevasse-creased terrain were the group’s biggest challenges. The last day on the mountain was the most difficult, Bushell wrote in her e-mail. “That day started at 7 p.m. at 14-camp and finished at 7:30 a.m. at base camp, through a foggy whiteout on the lower glacier, where crevasses had opened.” When they reached the base camp, Bushell said, they were relieved. “We just wanted to make it there, so when the weather got good again, we’d be able to look at the summit and shake our fists at its thwarting of us.” The three are off the mountain now. Bushell is in Homer, Alaska, for the summer, Calhoun in North Carolina and Kerr in Skagway, Alaska. They’ll hook up again when college starts in September. Did the climb change them? Calhoun and Kerr could not be reached for comment, but Bushell said: “Climbing Denali has made me realize how lucky I am and we all are, to be able to live in our houses and shop at the store and drive our cars and not have to try to survive (like you do on a mountain). “I’d climb it again just to experience the pleasures of being done.”
COURTESY OF LIBBY BUSHELL - Sheldon Kerr, Nancy Calhoun and Libby Bushell stopped for a photo during their climb of Denali.
COURTESY OF LIBBY BUSHELL - Nancy Calhoun climbed at the 16,200-foot level on Alaska’s Mount Denali last month as part of a Colorado College team.