Climbing Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America (20,310’), was the most difficult and rewarding endeavor I have ever undertaken. The factors within my control were challenging enough, but matters outside my control – namely, the weather – made the climb much more formidable.
The typical success rate to summit Denali is 50 percent. This year, due to harsh weather, the success rate plummeted to 30 percent. I was fortunate to have an experienced guide with the judgment to know when to push for the summit and when to stay in the tent.
I’ve been asked many times about the lessons I learned from choosing to climb Denali, preparing to climb, and actually climbing. I learned that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. Don’t wait. I also learned that preparation for any goal is the key to success. Finally, I learned that accomplishing challenging objectives requires teamwork, daily engagement and maximum effort.
Pursue your dreams NOW!
I originally planned to climb Denali in 2004, but I canceled the trip. I planned again to climb in 2005. I canceled again, and I did not resolve again to climb Denali until May 2016. When I decided to climb Denali at the age of 50, many questioned whether that was a good idea. With proper training, it was very doable.
Don’t let anybody discourage you from pursuing your dreams. Learn from me and pursue your dreams NOW. Don’t wait 11 years!
Whether you are a CEO or an administrative assistant, whether you want to climb a mountain or learn how to play the guitar, having meaningful goals requires commitment to a plan.
When I decided to climb Denali, I hired the best coach I could find: Scott Johnston with Uphill Athlete. Scott has trained some of the most successful mountaineers in the world. But it wasn’t enough to hire Scott. I followed his plan. From September to June, I only missed one workout, and only then because I was sick. Whatever you want to do, have a plan, identify the best approach you can find and follow it!
My team of six, along with our two guides, flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier from Talkeetna, Alaska, in a plane equipped with skis for landing. We literally landed on the glacier and unloaded our climbing gear – which included enough food, clothing and shelter for three weeks in harsh conditions. Then the plane left. During our briefing by the National Park Service in Talkeetna, we learned that we would be “depositing” all solid human waste into CMC’s (Clean Mountain Cans) and bringing them back with us. That meant I would have more weight to add to my backpack and sled. We spent our first couple of days at the airstrip while we watched the weather and planned for our initial three-mile move from 7,200 feet to 7,800 feet. On this stretch of glacier, we primarily traveled at night. It was heavily crevassed, but the ice would freeze solid at night, lessening the danger.
Every moving day had its challenges. On the lower mountain – below 14,000 feet – we carried big loads in our packs and on sleds that we dragged. The sled and the pack averaged 60 pounds each.
A typical “moving day” involved six to eight hours of travel with these loads up relatively steep terrain. When we arrived at our new camp, we set up tents while the guides melted snow for drinking water.
The food was as good as it could be, although I quickly tired of instant oatmeal. There were bright spots. We had pad thai a couple of nights and it was fantastic. So, we suffered, but not every day!
Doing hard things together
When my son, Will, committed to play football at the University of Virginia, one thing that impressed me about his future offensive line coach was his statement that his group focused on “doing hard things together.” On Denali, I experienced this notion firsthand.
During the first three days, two of our six team members decided Denali wasn’t for them. The
problem was that their share of “group gear” was already on the mountain and wouldn’t be leaving with them. The remaining four of us had to commit to carrying bigger loads than we would have otherwise.
Even without the extra gear, many days were long and difficult; especially our move from 14,000 feet to 17,000 feet and our summit day. The move from 14,000 to 17,000 feet required the most endurance and effort I have ever exerted. Our backpacks were extremely heavy and we had to climb up 1,000 feet of fixed lines on steep terrain, among other things.
The summit day was 12 hours long – eight hours up and four hours down. It also involved a lot of steep climbing. I truly wasn’t sure I could do it. On both of those days – and the days in between – the key was remaining committed to the team and our goal of reaching the summit. I had to commit to myself that I wouldn’t quit unless my guide believed I was in danger of dying. Those approaches worked for me and for our team. We summited in 7 1⁄2 hours, half an hour ahead of schedule.
Your personal summit
Have dreams. Pursue your dreams. Surround yourself with people who help and encourage you. Prepare. Who can help you reach your goals? Be ready to suffer for the just rewards in reaching your goals. If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way.