Against all odds in Denali

First Emirati woman to summit Denali, highest mountain in North America 

Dates of expedition: June 9th to June 28th.

In June this year, I embarked on an Alaskan expedition in North America to climb Denali, meaning “the great one” in Native Indian. Formerly named Mt. Mckinley after former U.S. President William Mckinley, it was later changed in 2015 back to Denali. Denali is a very sought out mountain for being one of the highest summit in North American, standing at 6,190 meters above sea level, and one of the seven summits of the world. Known for its unfriendly and unstable weather conditions, from cold, dry and wet conditions, people can get anything from sun burns, wind burns and frostbite.

The expedition started at Anchorage, where we met the guides and other team members for a briefing to discuss expectations and safety guidelines while in the expedition. Boxes of snacks were also laid out in tables for us to compile our daily lunches and snacks.  A gear check was also done in our rooms to make sure we had all that we needed and kept anything we didn’t need behind.

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Next day we drove to Talkeetna, a small Alaskan village, where we would take a small sea plane to the base camp located at Kahiltna Glacier. Weather was bad this day, so there was no fly day, we booked at a cabin and slept the night waiting for a go ahead the next day. This is very common, they call it the Talkeetna hang.

Once we got a go ahead, we went to the small air base and loaded up the plane with all our loads including our personal gear, food and group gear. The plane took us over the Alaskan range, seeing from the top all the green turn into white, lots of snow and crevasses! It took 30 minutes till we landed at the base camp, with first views of other people’s tents set up, and people waiting to take the plane back to Talkeetna.

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We set up out tents and took a nap before we had to wake up at 11pm to walk through the glacier to our next camp (Camp 1) on our snowshoes. Our guide wanted to wait until it got a bit colder so that the snow bridges were firm enough to walk over and not collapse and have climbers fall into crevasses. This also happened for the following night up to our next camp (Camp 2). During these two past days we had to pull a sled, which weighed about 40 kg and another 20 kg on our backpacks. These with the days, become less, as we eat the food and think of ways to get rid of items we don’t need, as it becomes steeper, it gets harder to carry so much load. We do carry days, where we carry some of our load that we don’t need immediately, burry them closer to the next camp and then come back down. We then pick them up later once we reach the next camp.

A week into the expedition, I get a chest infection, which makes it really hard to breathe and walk up the mountain, especially with the altitude, my chest is heavy and I cough endlessly. The guides check on me to make sure it’s not HAPE. I have a hard time sleeping at night, I get a fever, but I try to drink as much fluids as I can and I am given a course of antibiotics for four days. It wouldn’t get any better until I got off the mountain. I was fortunate and strong enough physically to continue with the expedition.

Food was great every day! From pizza, to bagels, enchiladas, we were fed well! Our eating area was made out of snow and covered with a tent everyday.

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Luckily, we had great weather in the upper camps, too warm actually that one layer was enough. We had a well-deserved rest day and sat outside and overlooked the other peaks and glaciers around us and even had a small snowball fight with another team one day.

Finally, what I had been waiting for, getting rid of the snowshoes and sled and climb up the headwall using fixed lines, from this point on, we wear our crampons and we use an ascender to climb higher. We do this twice, one day to burry our snacks higher up and then again to move to High Camp, which is the last camp before our summit push.

We reach High camp a day later and have a rest day before summiting, preparing mentally and physically for a long summit push. The next day we wake up early and start moving at 9:30am, we start off by traversing an area called “The Autobahn” which is very much exposed and steep and had to clip in to fixed snow pickets to avoid falling. In the beginning, it was a bit cold and we had to make sure to keep our hands warm and face protected from the wind, it took about 4-5 hours for the weather to get better. After about 10 ten hours we reach the summit, after following a ridge for one hour, summit looked closer than you think, but we still had to go close because of the altitude. We took some quick pictures and started our descent down, the journey was not over, I took 200 mg of caffeine to stay focused while coming down as I still had to secure myself using the pickets.

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The descend took about 4 hours. After a very tough day, once I reached my tent, had some dinner, drank water and fell asleep.

We had three more days still to get back down to the glacier and get a plane out back to town. Snow wasn’t that firm and we fell countless of times in deep snow, luckily not in any crevasse. It was snowing one day, so once we took a break, it was pointed out that my down jacket was wet, I didn’t even realize, not only mine, but everyone else felt cold and wet and decided to spend the night and set up camp, I slept in wet clothes so that they would dry from the heat of my body, it worked but it was still very hard to sleep.

Finally, we reach base camp and we find lots of people waiting for their flight out of there. It was such joy to see our plane arrive, pack the plane with our loads and took off from the glacier, all the white and crevasses below us turned to green, lots of trees and water and finally the air base. First thing we did once in town was take a shower, have lunch then book a cabin for us to stay.

Other notes:

  • Took us 15 mountain days to reach the summit and another 3 down. Total 18 mountain days.
  • This season saw very tough weather conditions and storms over camp 3. Summit success this season was about 30%. We were very lucky with weather.
  • Throughout the expedition, we always had to be roped up unless in camp, this in order not to fall in crevasses, and if you fall, it would be easier to extract than when not in rope.
  • There was always sunlight, this because of being so close to arctic circle, it was hard to sleep at night sometimes, I didn’t bring an eye mask, so I’d use my buff as one.
  • Every day was tough, from the loads we had to carry, from the windy and cold weather, afraid of frostbite, we had to shake and swing our hands to warm them up. Have a face make ready to cover our face in case of strong cold winds.
  • Took me 5 months of training to get me physically fit for this mountain, I did everything from stair training, pulling tyres in the desert, both while carrying a 20 kg backpack, wall climbing, weight lifting, cycling, swimming, running, hiking in the weekends, and etc. Some days I would training before work and after work for 2-3 hours.

 

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