When climbing the 20,310-foot Denali, the highest point in both the United States and North America, there are things you have to be mentally prepared for, said Don Smalley.
“One is the fact that there are things you’re not in control of,” explained the 65-year-old Marquette resident. Weather, injury, illness—they could all cut the expedition short, snatching a shot at reaching the summit out of the frosty air. “You have to be prepared to accept that.”
Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) was set to be number 49 on Smalley’s quest to climb the highest point in each state. Conquering the lower 48 took just three years—an amazing feat considering he began mountaineering on a whim, as a way to enliven the high mountain adventure books he’d grown to love reading.
“I wanted to be on the mountain, in the wind and cold at a high elevation,” Smalley recalled during a North Iowa Times interview last year. “I thought it would make the stories more interesting.”
Denali would thrust Smalley into a high mountain adventure of his own.
Preparation began over a year ago, when Smalley took an eight-day Denali prep course on Washington state’s Mount Rainier. With its glaciation, elevation and “crappy weather,” it was the perfect environment to become acquainted with his equipment and learn things like rope training and crevasse rescues. This spring, Smalley took a refresher course, in anticipation of a June Denali climb.
By then, Smalley was also well into an intensive seven-month training regimen to beef up his aerobic system and overall strength. Good conditioning—being able to complete tasks without getting out of breath—would be especially important at higher elevations, Smalley noted.
“At higher altitudes, there is lower air pressure. The transfer of oxygen into your blood stream doesn’t happen as efficiently,” he said. “In Iowa, it’s difficult to get acclimated to a high-altitude situation.”
While his Denali teammates were preparing with treks through the mountains of Bolivia and Peru, Smalley trained twice each week, 1.5 hours each time, on a stair master and treadmill, often with a loaded backpack. While at the gym, he also completed 1.5 hours of weight lifting and resistance training. He did bike intervals for 1.5 hours, two times each week, as well.
Another two days each week were devoted to “doing something practical, like hiking or climbing with a pack.” Smalley had a favorite area in the Marching Bear unit at Effigy Mounds where he would make five laps each of those days, all while carrying a pack weighing as much as 50 pounds.
“I pushed myself pretty hard,” Smalley remarked. “You don’t want to fail because you’re not prepared.”
Prospective Denali climbers aren’t required to take a preparedness test before making the climb. However, those who sign up are frequently reminded to physically prepare for the journey, Smalley said. Climbers must go through a screening process, though, providing their medical history, as well as a climbing resume that details the mountains they’ve climbed with and without a guide and what elevations they’ve reached.
“On the climbs where there are multiple people and guides, everyone depends on everyone else. You’re only as strong as your weakest teammate,” Smalley said. “You hope everyone else does their homework.”
Smalley departed Anchorage, Alaska, with his two climbing teammates on June 3. Chris Rynn was an Australian doctor and Margaret Kincaid a medical student just finishing her residency in Phoenix, Ariz. Their first stop was the Denali View Lodge near the small, historic town of Talkeetna.
The next day, the three met their guide, Stuart Robertson, and assistant guide, Madhu Chikkaraju. The group then headed to Talkeetna. After climber orientation, they took a 60-mile flight to the snow air strip on the Kahiltna Glacier and established a base camp nearby. From there, Smalley said he could view the summit of Denali, framed between two lesser peaks.
May and June are the best months to summit Denali because the plane from Talkeetna can land on the glacier, Smalley said. Before May, the weather is too bitterly cold. After June, the snow conditions on the glacier deteriorate and become crevassed.
The climb officially began on June 5. The team members, each pulling their own sled, were connected with ropes, and traveled using snowshoes. Although not above freezing, the daytime temperatures were fairly warm, requiring just one or two layers, Smalley noted. The climbers slept in tents at night, to protect them from the elements.
“There were 24 hours of daylight,” he said, “but once the sun went down behind the mountain, it would get cold.”
One of the biggest concerns was actually sunburn. Sun-damaged skin, Smalley said, was more susceptible to frost bite.
Things went fairly well until June 7, when Smalley’s teammate, Chris, became ill and struggled to keep pace as the group headed to 10,000 feet to cache some supplies.
The next day, after reaching 11,000 feet, Chris’ nausea continued and he’d also developed blisters. In that condition, summitting would be difficult, so it was determined Chris would leave the group the next day, if another guided team could take him down.
At this point, the temperature was also growing colder.
“Several times already in the trip, we have heard avalanches—some real big ones,” Smalley wrote in the journal he kept throughout the climb. “But have only seen one in progress.”
Smalley said crevasses, or cracks, were also a concern. Throughout his time on Denali, he saw several people fall into them, requiring rescue.
On June 9—day six of the planned 20-day expedition—the group said goodbye to Chris. Then, just before leaving a cache of supplies, Smalley realized he and his sled were connected to the rope backward. While trying to straighten it out, he broke a rivet on his right snowshoe. Luckily, Margaret had some zip ties Smalley could use to repair the snowshoe and allow the group to continue.
“I was surprised I didn’t get sent down the mountain with Chris,” Smalley remarked in his journal at the time.
The next day, the team got its first taste of some of Denali’s harsher weather. Wind farther up the mountain, and snow at their level, kept them at 11,000 feet for two days. Smalley used the time to catch up on his journal and socialized with his fellow team members. The group also kept busy shoveling the campsite.
On the third day at 11,000 feet, the team finally left camp to leave a cache of supplies at 13,600 feet. However, wind and snow created whiteout conditions, making travel difficult, so they opted to head back to 11,000 feet rather than move up to 14,000.
The move to 14,000 feet came on day 10—June 13.
“Once we selected a spot to camp, we started preparing bases for the tents and setting up our camp,” Smalley journaled. “It was hard work in the deep snow, especially after the long, all-day vertical move we had made with heavy packs and pulling sleds at the higher elevation.”
The next day, it was back down to 13,600 feet to retrieve supplies. The journey back up to 14,000 was admittedly the hardest stretch of the climb for Smalley. His pack was heavy and the load poorly distributed. He felt something give on the right side of his back, below the ribcage. In the haste to continue, he was unable to remove a heavier layer of clothing. As the trek commenced, he realized the pack was not only heavy, but the straps poorly adjusted.
“On top of all this, my head was cooking. I had my stocking cap, a buff and three hoods on, and could not pull any of them off with my heavy gloves while moving and holding the trekking poles and ice axe in my hands,” he recounted. “A couple of my head pieces were covering my mouth, so the only breaths I could take were my own hot-used air. I felt as though I was suffocating.”
Smalley said he asked the guide to halt, so he could make adjustments, but was denied.
“Everything in my mind was spiraling downhill—fast,” Smalley said. “One negative thought led to another. I no longer cared about summitting Denali.”
“I’ve done enough races that I have this frame of mind I can get into that I know, no matter how tired I am or how hard something seems, it will eventually end,” he added. “There were a couple instances that tested that frame of mine; one time, I think it broke that frame of mind. I felt so bad, so frustrated, and got so negative about things, that I didn’t think I would ever see a finish line. I felt I was in a situation where I had no control over anything.”
In Smalley’s mind, he was resolved to end his Denali climb. However, after a discussion with the guides that night, he was convinced to stick it out a couple more days.
But Mother Nature would never give him the opportunity to move past 14,000 feet. On June 15, a storm set in, the first of a series, back-to-back, that brought all climbers to a standstill for nine days.
Usually a few days are built into the schedule to allow for weather, said Smalley, but nine was uncommon. Being inactive for that long a stretch was difficult—and the tents weren’t the most comfortable spaces to kill time.
“I’m a doer,” Smalley commented. “Thank God we could shovel. It was something where you were moving around and using your muscles.”
During the wait, Smalley said he and Margaret learned expedition climbing is a very “yes/no, good/bad, go/no-go, wait-and-see rollercoaster of a process.”
On June 22, it was a “no-go.” The team made the decision to head back down Denali in order to return home as scheduled. Smalley would be unable to summit “The High One” and cross number 49 off his list.
“I knew and accepted the possibility before I even went,” Smalley reflected. “It doesn’t do any good to beat yourself up about it.”
His experience wasn’t uncommon. Of the over 1,100 climbers this season, the National Park Service said only 45 percent reached Denali’s summit.
“It would’ve been great, but it won’t define my life. I won’t feel like less of a person,” Smalley said. “It’s the fact that I attempted it, successful or not. I did everything I could, so I’m happy about that. I spent three weeks in a beautiful environment.”
There was nothing, he said, like the grandeur and beauty when the sun came out and the sky cleared up, with the big mountains everywhere. He also enjoyed getting to know his guides, teammates and other climbers.
However, that doesn’t mean he’ll make a return trip. After all, the same thing could happen again.
“Where I’m at, what I’ve been through to prepare at my age, I don’t think I could go through the training again,” Smalley admitted. “There were so many things I sacrificed. I have lots of interests, and they were all basically put on the shelf for seven months. I quit playing hockey early. I haven’t been fishing or kayaking or backpack camping.”
He won’t give up climbing, though. Later this month, Smalley will head to Wyoming to climb the Grand Tetons and Devil’s Tower. He’s constructed a rock-climbing wall in his garage, adding to his list of fun fitness activities.
Smalley also still plans to climb Hawaii’s highest point: Mauna Kea.
“Just because the weather said I couldn’t get to the top of Denali isn’t justification to ruin plans for the other trip,” he noted.
Smalley said he’s even a bit relieved the 50 states checklist is off the table.
“It’s been fun,” he quipped, “but now I can do things I want to do that aren’t on the list.”