Reaching 20,320 feet on the highest point in North America

The gifted Nina Hance, AMGA Certified Ski Guide, describes her ascent to the peak of Denali.  

Three slow steps, pause, five breaths, and three more steps, repeat. If I moved any faster, I was instantly winded and had to lean over my ice axe to catch my breath.

Despite how slowly we moved, I was exhausted and my head hurt. My fingers and toes were so cold and I kept my face buried under my mask and goggles. I focused on my breathing and continued to climb.

Two years ago, my friend Rebecca and I made a plan to climb Denali as a graduation present to ourselves. This spring, Rebecca finished grad school and I completed my ski guide certification. Soon after, we were off to the Alaska Range as expedition team “The Pink Ladies.”

We were flown into the mountains in an Alaskan bush plan just big enough for the pilot, two passengers, and our gear. The plane dropped us at base camp at 7200’ on the Kahiltna Glacier. Gear and three weeks worth of food added up to 120 pounds per person, split between our backpacks and the sleds we pulled.

We took eight days to shuttle our gear and move camp up the glacier to the 14,200’ camp. The crevasses (large gaps in the glaciers) were jaw-dropping—large enough to swallow a semi truck. We stayed roped together for the majority of our climb to manage the risk of a crevasse fall. 14,200’ camp was our home for the next few days while we rested, acclimatized, and waited for the weather window to push for the summit.

Our window came early. On day 10, the forecast showed three days of high pressure. We took two days worth of food and our gear to high camp at 17,000’. This was the most technical section of the climb. We ascended a fixed-line along a steep, icy face, followed by a sharp ridge walk. The airy exposure kept me feeling sharp in the thin air. That night temperatures dropped to -25F and we struggled to stay warm. The next morning we awoke to clear skies and wind. Strong headaches, brought on by the altitude, were quickly resolved with hot tea and bars.

We began climbing at 10am, after the sun had hit camp and made the frigid air and strong winds feel only slightly less miserable. We wore all of our layers underneath our down pants and parkas. At 6pm we reached the summit, 20,320’—the highest point in North America. We did it!

We were cold and our brains felt fuzzy, yet we managed a quick laugh while we hugged and snapped summit selfies.  A storm rolled in, making us nervous as we descended quickly in the white-out conditions, using our GPS’s and wand markers to navigate in visibility comparable to the inside of a milk jug. At times I couldn’t see Rebecca on the rope just 30 meters in front of me. Frosty and exhausted, we reached high camp shortly before 11pm.

The next day we descended back to the 14,200ft camp, incredibly relieved to breathe thicker and warmer air. Two days later, we were back in base camp. Thanks to fantastic weather and good preparation on our part, our expedition couldn’t have gone any smoother. We were glowing with happiness and the biggest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever felt. We eagerly awaited our flight out of the mountains to showers and celebrating over beers and greasy burgers.