Peak(s):  Denali 20,310
Date Posted:  08/02/2019
Modified:  08/09/2019
Date Climbed:   06/11/2019
Author:  globreal
 Denali-The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (Part 1-The Backstory)   

Denail-The Hardest Climb of my Life (Part 1)

Warning… this is the story of my journey, struggles, fears and defeats which led up to my actual climb of Denali. As the title suggests, it contains the good, the bad, and the ugly about me. If that is of interest to you, then read on. If not, you can jump straight to the photos, info, and beta of the actual climb by clicking on this link: Denali-The Hardest Climb of My Life (Part 2) However, this/Part 1 report does have many photos that wouldn't fit in the climb/Part 2 trip report.

Climbing Denali was without a doubt, the hardest climbing endeavor I've ever gone after. It consumed me for the better part of four years. There have been barriers, hurdles, difficulties and setbacks, many of which happened before I ever stepped on the mountain. And I believe God used this multi-year experience to discipline, humble and ultimately reward me.

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Looking back at the south ridge we had just climbed from the summit of Denali!

Many people ask, “why do you want to climb that mountain?” So, I’ll begin with my “why.”

The Good:

The short answer is because my current goal is climbing all of the state highpoints. The state highpoints aren’t necessarily mountains in many cases, but the highest point in any given US state. Of course, there are 50 of them. How did I get interested in climbing the highest point of each state? Let me take you back 10 years.

In 2008, I fell in love with climbing the “14ers” (mountains that are 14,000’ feet or more) here in Colorado. They were and are a good physical, mental, and strenuous, outing each and every time I climb one. Through the website, www.14ers.com, I learned about “the list.” There are 58 ranked 14ers that most people go after when they are attempting to climb “the 14ers”. I set my sights on that list and achieved that climbing goal in 2 ½ years after I started.

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When I first started climbing the 14ers I made many good friends who are still friends today.

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On the summit of Challenger Peak in 2009

While climbing the ranked 14ers, I learned that there are 16 more points over 14,000 feet called “unranked 14ers.” The unranked 14ers are those points that are also above 14,000 feet, and yet are peaks that do not have enough prominence to be a USGS “ranked” peak. So, I said to myself, I want to be able to say I’ve climbed “all of the 14ers” without any caveats. So, I add that to my 14er goal and went after and climbed all of those seldom visited other “14ers” as well.

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Climbing South Wilson-finishing the unranked 14ers in 2012


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On the summit of South Wilson with Steve Gladbach. Immediately after this we climbed "West Wilson" which was my last unranked 14er!

While climbing all of the 14ers, I kept hearing about “the Centennials.” The Centennials are the highest 100 ranked peaks in Colorado, which include those 58-14ers plus the 13ers that go on up to the top 100. So, after finishing the 14ers I didn’t want to stop hiking and climbing so I decided to go after “the Centennials”. This Centennial list was even harder than the original 14ers and was equally, if not more fulfilling.

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On the summit of a "Centennial"-Mt. Adams in 2012

While completing the Centennials, I was wondering if there would be something next. I had learned about people climbing the “state highpoints.” The state highpoints are the highest peaks or point in each of the 50 United States. During some of my travels for work or visiting family around the US, I started pursuing some of these state highpoints. This turned out to be such a great adventure. It led me to many back country roads and out of the way places in our beautiful country that I would never have ever gone to visit, if I wasn’t chasing this state highpoint list. I have called this endeavor my “adult scavenger hunt”!

19616_45Gannet Peak in Wyoming

For the longest time I wasn’t sure if I would include the state highpoint of Alaska….Denali. Denali scared the poo out of me…for many reasons. And overcoming these fears was going to take some mental and physical life changes that I didn't know if I was capable of.

To become a Colorado mountaineer and to climb year-round, I had to get over some huge mental hurdles. I grew up near the coast of Texas where it was hot, humid, and rarely ever cold. I never dreamed it would be possible to camp, much less sleep, on the snow. So, cold weather camping has come slowly for this warm-weather Texas boy.

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Winter camp on Mt. Elbert in January

Conversely, Denali is the northernmost mountain above 6,000 meter in elevation in the world. It’s near the Artic Circle. The camp up near the summit regularly gets down to -10 to -20 degrees every night, even in the middle of summer! So, a fear I had about Denali was freezing and frostbite. Many people who climb this mountain have lost fingers, toes, and noses due to frostbite. This was not something I wanted to encounter.

And another fear I had, was encountering the effects of high altitude. Denali is over 20,000 feet and requires climbing over 13,000 vertical feet. I had climbed Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl in Mexico and got AMS (acute mountain sickness) on those mountains. If you climb in elevation faster than your body has time to adjust, then your oxygen carrying red blood cells don’t reproduce fast enough and therefore the elevation gain can severely affect your body. A Denali climbing guide told us the story of a man who climbed from Denail’s Base Camp at 7,200’ to High Camp at 17,200’ in four days. They found him in sitting in high camp with his backpack still on... DEAD! Since I had experience with AMS before, I had a very real fear of getting it again on Denali by not acclimating sufficiently.

Lastly, I wondered if I would be fit enough, strong enough, and mentally tough enough. On this mountain climbers go self-contained. This means nobody uses a Sherpa to haul your stuff. We have to personally carry all of our gear, supplies and food up the mountain. To do so we need to not only carry up a heavy backpack but, we also haul up a loaded duffel in a sled. Here in Colorado I’ve learned it is hard enough to carry a 50 plus pound backpack into the backcountry. It’s super hard to carry that overnight pack to the top of 13er or 14er. I had doubts of whether I could haul a 50 plus pound pack as well as hauling a 65 to 70 pound sled behind me.

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Training with heavy pack, heavy sled above Berthoud Pass

So, I had to start looking my fears squarely into the face. And so not discounting them, I began to move forward with the idea of climbing Denali. In the fall of 2016, I met up with three other guys (Kevin Baker, Hoot Gibson, and Derek Rutledge) who were also interested in climbing Denali. We begin strategizing, planning, and training throughout the winter of 2016/2017. We researched, planned and trained hard from October through April. We did winter camp outs, climbed high peaks in the dead of winter, and did crevasse rescue training.

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Training on Mummy Mountain-Feb 2017

Then after all of that training, paying many of the fees, and getting ready, I got hit with a triple whammy.

The Bad:

Prior to the climb, I had $6,000 saved up as well as some work lined up. This money in savings, and the work/income lined up, would help not only cover the expenses of the climb, but it would also cover me being away from my work for the entire month of June if our climb took that long. However, in April I got hit with whammy number one. Unexpectedly, I received a huge tax bill from the IRS that I did not see coming. Not only did I get hit with that unexpected expense, I also got hit with not one, but two, unexpected car repair bills. Both at the same time and the vehicle repairs were over a thousand dollars each. And lastly, I had three jobs lined up in April/May that would have covered my bills while away on Denali, and ALL three of these jobs unexpectedly fell through!

After all that planning, training, and even pre-paying some Denali expenses such as my National Park climbing permit, I had to make a tough decision. The handwriting was on the wall as all of my savings were gone, and there was no work in the immediate future to fund Denali. I had to adult-up and pull out of the climb. I knew this was really going to disappoint my partners and I really hated to do this to them but, I was not going to fund a recreational endeavor such as climbing a mountain, by putting it on the credit card. To say this was a tough decision would be putting it mildly. I was so disappointed and let down after putting in so much time, effort and money in to this peak. For me, this would be killing my dream to climb all of the state highpoints.

Now, to add insult to injury was my ever-increasing difficulty in finding work. I am a freelance video filmmaker. My calling and desire is to help non-profits and Christian ministries communicate their story, mission and purpose through video. With all of the recent changes in technology and social media, finding video production work had become harder and harder, and all of this was contributing to a growing sense of stress, frustrations, and fears.

Climbing mountains in a sense, has been my saving grace. It keeps me physically fit for one. It gives me time away from the thoughts and struggles of life. And there is a peace that comes from being in nature and God's creation.

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Heading out to climb Capitol Peak

Rewind to 2008. When I latched on to the idea of climbing the 14ers, I was initially and internally torn over the idea. My thoughts were, “I can’t go climb a mountain this weekend. I don’t have any work/income, I can’t afford it.” In my early climbing years, I didn’t have much time to go climb a mountain because I was so busy working on video projects trying to meet a deadline. Then, when the video jobs were few and far between it became, “I have all this time, but I can’t spend the money.” It was such a dichotomy. Then one day I actually had an epiphany. I came to the realization that, "Wait! I now have the time. I should take advantage of this!” However, it actually took a step of faith to go out and climb peaks when I had no work and no money coming in. When I mentally moved from fear to faith (trusting God) it was truly revolutionary. When I embraced this way of thinking….wow, it was so liberating! It’s one thing to say you trust God, it’s a whole another thing to actually do it.

When things financially crashed before my 2017 Denali trip, I started to question, “why?” My thinking was, here I am trying to walk and live by faith yet, the wheels came completely off the bus that was taking me to Denali. Emotionally I was devastated and mentally I was questioning, why? This was a question I wouldn’t get answered for over a year.

I didn’t even consider trying to climb Denali in 2018. I didn’t have the partners, I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the mindset. And then moving closer towards 2019, it came time to ask the question, “should I try again?” I had this dream and desire to climb all of the state highpoints. It had become a goal cemented deep in my soul that just wouldn’t get un-earthed. Mentally, I was starting to toy with the idea again. Then in late 2018, I had a CMC climbing friend, Scott Kime, ask me, “are you interested in climbing Denali this next year?” I immediately said “yes!” It surprised me how quick and assuredly my answer was. I told him, “It’s been a dream of mine for several years now and that hasn't gone away.” So, the two of us started the planning process in September 2018.

The first step in an expedition is rounding up partners. We put out the word and started recruiting. It’s not easy finding people who have the desire, who are qualified, and then who can take time off from work for a climb with an un-defined end date.

expedition | ËekspÉËdiSH(É)n | noun 1 a journey or voyage undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, scientific research, or war: • the people involved in an expedition: many of the expedition have passed rigorous courses.

After numerous emails, texts, and phone calls to friends, we started finding some prospects. At one point, we had about a dozen people interested and coming to our exploratory meetings. The research and planning commenced and our training climbs were happening. This began into the fall months and continued through winter, with many climbs and outings. However, the body count dropped like flies. In the end, we only had four of us committed, and regularly meeting and training together.


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January 2019

Now back to facing my fears…besides the one’s I mentioned earlier about freezing and frostbite and being strong enough, I also had fears about glaciers and crevasses. When I took the Colorado Mountain Club’s (CMC) High Altitude Mountaineering School (HAMS) back in 2014-2015, I learned about glacier travel. The crevasse rescue technique taught is called the “Z-Haul” This rescue system uses a 3-1 mechanical advantage using a rope and pulleys for pulling someone out of a crevasse. However, it’s really not possible to lift the average person out of a crevasse using the 3-1 system. So, it required learning how to go to a 5-1 or 6-1 mechanical advantage since there isn’t enough pulling power with the 3-1 system. And, this was for a person that only has a backpack on such as climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington State. However, now I starting thinking about glaciers and crevasses and traveling with sleds! What in the world do you do when a person is carrying a 50-pound pack, AND pulling a sled loaded with 65 pounds of gear? If that happens, now you’ve got a super serious and confusing problem! Even if you could lift all that weight, you can't just pull a person up with a overhanging cornice or crevasse lip above. For the longest time my brain couldn’t get over the fear of this potential crevasse/sled problem because I hadn’t learned how to solve it!


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I am hanging over a cornice for crevasse rescue training-April 2019


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Cornice on Pikes Peak

Oh, the fears, the negative mental thoughts, the doubts. For months throughout the fall and winter, I had the haunting questions of, “am I going to be strong enough to carry 120 pounds of food and supplies up this huge mountain?” "Will I get AMS, HAPE or HACE?" “How will I do on a winterlike camping trip for up to a month?” I’ve done A couple of multiple night winter camping trips but never multiple weeks. Even though we were training and practicing, I couldn’t get peace from all of the mental fears and concerns. I had been doing a lot of processing about this Denali trip, as well as my continuing lack of work/ income and I really started asking God, why did things go belly up in 2017? Why have I been struggling so much to find work and income, and is this 2019 trip going to go south like it did in 2017? God, were you trying to get my attention on something?

The Ugly:

Fear and Addiction.

With the desire to not have my Denali climb denied again, some serious mental processing began. For one, I read a book called DEEP SURVIVAL by Lawrence Gonzales. This book had a profound effect on me regarding the power of what you tell yourself. I also listened to a podcast called “Pastor Rick’s Daily Hope” by Rick Warren. That podcast helped me come to the conclusion that I have been focusing on the wrong things. If I focus on the negative, then I won’t focus on the positive. If I am fix-focused on the barrier in front of me, then I am not keeping my eyes on the proper route. If I keep telling myself I can’t do something, then I will listen to that negative voice and I won’t. What am I telling myself? Fear. It is the opposite of faith. If my eyes are on the problem (the negative), then they won’t be on the Problem Solver (the positive.)

I have an addiction. The other thing I needed to face was my affinity for drinking.

affinity | ÉËfinÉdÄ | noun (plural affinities) (often affinity between/for/with) a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something: he has an affinity for the music of Berlioz.

I started drinking in high school. Unfortunately, I took to it like a duck to water. I went out with friends, to dances and parties and drinking was just part of the fun. My social drinking developed into a habit which I’ve been engaged in for over 40+ years. As I got older, I had become accustomed to drinking beer or wine almost every evening to unwind and then more with dinner. And not only was I using it most every evening, over time the amount had crept up to more than it should be. Instead of just a beer at the end of the day and maybe a glass of wine with dinner, I became accustomed to having several drinks most nights before going to bed.

This, I believe was God honestly speaking to me and telling me why the plug got pulled on my 2017 Denali trip. I needed to admit, face and overcome both of these obstacles in my life. I had to come to grip with the fact that fear was taking dominance over my faith, and my casual drinking had moved to an addiction status. “Hello, my name is Britt. I am a coward and an alcoholic.”

So, I decided it was time for some changes. It was time to change my thought life, and then in the fall of 2018 on Thanksgiving Day, I decided to suspend my drinking of alcohol all the way through the climb of Denali. I came to believe that fear and addiction were preventing God’s best for me. If I was going to be successful on Denali, I came to sense that moving away from both of these destructive forces is what I needed to do. I have to say it was hard. No, it was VERY hard. Addiction is a powerful force. A force that doesn't lay down its ugly head just because I've got a new goal. I knew I couldn't win at this on my own. This next season of training for Denali equally became a season where I wanted to develop a closer walk with God.

So it was in that light that I embraced my fears and addictions and walked directly into them. It was both challenging and rewarding. I started opening up about my alcohol addiction. I meet regularly with some other men in a Band of Brothers. I opened up with them and asked for their prayer support. I wasn’t perfect in not drinking from last Thanksgiving through my June climb of Denali. I did have a couple beers a few times. However, I surprised myself in abstaining. And getting closer to God did happen. However, just because I believe that Jesus Christ is there for me does not make life any easier, or make me any holier than anybody else. I sin and fall just like anybody else....and I continue to today. However, I know God blessed this past season that I chose to walk more closely with Him and the Denali trip happened. If you haven't already read it, you can read the trip report by clicking on this link:

Denali-The Hardest Climb of My Life (Part 2)


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Talkeetna Air Taxi plane at 7,200 camp
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My tent site at 17,000 camp
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Our camp kitchen at 17,000 camp. Someone had made an igloo!
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Our view to the south from the top of Pig Hill
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Helicopter rescue for Toru at 17,000 camp.
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17,000 camp at 12:45am
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Our view from 14,000 camp at 9pm as we are leaving to head down to base camp
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Denali summit marker with prayer flags



Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
TomPierce
Great report, enjoyed the insight
08/03/2019 08:55
Hey Britt,

First of all, congrats! A big accomplishment. And now that you have this easy highpoint behind you, you can scale the treacherous heights of...Alabama's highpoint! ;-) Just kidding, Denali is for sure a great achievement.

But I enjoyed reading about your inner journey most of all. The photos were great, but it's funny how the scenery is exactly as I remember it from the 90's. Same issues, etc (although my upper mountain experience was a bit different, solo from 14K-17K, and you had a much nicer plane!) So that's much the same. But your inner journey and struggles are what sets apart a good report from a great one, IMO. I had no idea what you faced getting to the top, it really shows immense perseverance, fortitude. I really enjoyed this one, and congrats again!

-Tom


ctlee

Blessed and inspired
08/04/2019 11:32
I've been inspired by several people on here facing down injuries and adversities to climb and learning lessons along the way. Your post really resonated with me. Denali is my dream and a bunch of crazy stuff (injuries, returning to school at an even crazier age) has put that dream on hold. Thank you for being so open and honest about the role faith played in your journey. I was particularly moved by your describing the journey from fear to faith and reliance on the Lord, as this is another struggle of mine (I'm in the "I'm poor right now, how can I justify a trip to the mountains?" mode currently). He always provides though, doesn't He? The mountains and and having the ability to visit them just reaffirms this. The Denali trip report was super--keep climbing, keep sharing, keep believing!! Thank you!! --Lee



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