Avoiding Disaster on Denali

Denali Peak

Several years after graduating from dental school, already with some substantial climbing experience under his belt, Jon Letko wanted to take things a step further. While his ultimate goal was to climb peaks in the legendary Himalaya range, Jon realized he first had to test his body on a high altitude climb closer to home. Partaking on an alpine expedition in the Himalayas is quite expensive, and climbers are gone for months at a time. Jon needed a challenge – a real challenge – that provided relatively easy access and didn’t cost a fortune to complete.

An idea was hatched during a conversation at a local pub in Berkeley, CA. Two of Jon’s friends from his college days were in town, and as the three sat sipping on beers and reminiscing about old climbs, Jon lamented about the many barriers to a Himalayan expedition. His friend Eric shot back, "Well, what about Denali?"

As Eric began to explain, Jon realized that Denali was the obvious choice for his next climb. With an elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali is the tallest peak in North America. Located in Alaska, its name derives from a local Native American tribe, the Koyukon. In their language, Denali translates simply to "the high one". It’s a rigorous climb, and dangerous, too – over 120 people have died on the mountain since official records began in 1932.

However, this statistic did not deter Jon Letko in the slightest. If anything, it emboldened him. Jon knew such an imposing challenge would offer a real measurement of his endurance and mountaineering abilities. If he couldn’t conquer this peak, he had no hope of success in the Himalayas. Ever an advocate for adventure, he managed to convince both Eric and Kyle (the third member of their group) to go with him. Jon ordered another round, and the three ambitious climbers clinked glasses to make it official – they would set out to climb Denali the following summer.

The Denali Expedition

Glacier Airplane

Jon Letko and his companions were greeted by a typically misty Alaskan morning when they arrived at the small airstrip in central Alaska. It was mid-June, and the first leg of their journey had already begun. From the tiny town of Talkeetna, they travelled to the lower glaciers the flank Denali on a small Cessna airplane operated by a local guide. The flight was turbulent, but mercifully short.

Upon arriving on the glacier, the group unloaded their bags and quickly set up a base camp. From this center of operations they divided up provisions, double-checked all the gear, and began the trek up the glacier that led to the lower slopes of the Denali massif itself. As they gained altitude, Jon Letko and his crew established a number of satellite camps, spending at least one night at each camp. Although the group had plenty of energy to continue on at a faster pace, doing so would not be prudent. It is imperative to gain altitude slowly when climbing a peak such as Denali. This process, known as acclimatization, allows the body time to adjust to the progressively thinner air. If not carried out properly, the result can be deadly.

While an individual may possess the physical strength to climb from the bottom to the top without stopping, the human body simply cannot adjust that quickly to the changes in atmospheric pressure which come with high altitude. If a climber ascends too quickly, they put themselves at risk of developing altitude sickness due to hypoxia, a potentially severe condition that results in a loss of motor functions, fluid buildup in the lungs and brain, and, ultimately, death. In fact, complications from altitude sickness are one of leading causes of death on high alpine peaks.

Thankfully, Jon and his companions had done their homework. Upon reaching the base of the monstrous peak, they scoped out their route to the summit and made plans to set up three more camps on the way to the top – each in protected areas away from potential avalanches, rock falls, or other dangerous hazards.

The following morning they left the relatively predictable surface of the glacier and began the challenging portion of the climb. The terrain was unlike anything Jon Letko had before experienced. The pitches were steep and unpredictable. Huge walls of snow, ice, and rock, thousands of feet high, stood ominously above. The wind, relatively calm in the morning hours, began whipping up huge swirls of snow by midafternoon. In the evening hours the tent walls flapped with such ferocity that at one point Jon was sure he would be blown off the side of the mountain, gear and all.

However, bit by bit the group progressed upward. They worked their way methodically up the steep snow slopes, fixing ropes in the sections that proved especially perilous. After three days of hard climbing, Jon Letko and his friends reached their highest camp. After carefully assessing weather conditions, a decision was made: they would make a push for the summit the following morning.

By the time 3 AM rolled around, all three men were roped up and ready to go. Ice axes in hand, they set out with only the beams of flashlights and the light of the moon to guide them. The final section leading to the top of Denali is only moderately steep, but is highly exposed. As the winds began to pick up, the group reached the most dangerous part of the climb, a narrow ridge, perhaps 200 meters in length, with steep drop-offs on either side. Beyond it was the summit, now in sight. Eric volunteered to go first, carefully kicking steps into the snow for the others to use as they followed. Kyle went next, crossing without incident.

Denali Summit Ridge

That left only Jon Letko. Looking back, he admits that his eyes were glued more intently on the summit than where he was placing his feet. Halfway across the ridge, disaster struck. Jon took a long step, and missed his foothold slightly. Desperately trying to catch his balance, he reached out with his hand – but there was nothing to grab onto. Jon let out a cry and, horrified, began falling down into the abyss.

Eric, the most experienced member of the group, leapt into action. Thinking quickly, he turned and buried his ice axe into the snow, throwing all his weight onto the metal hilt. As the slack in the rope that connected them ran out, Jon Letko’s free fall came to a miraculous, jolting stop. The move likely saved the lives of all three climbers.

After hoisting Jon Letko back up to the ridge, the group continued cautiously on to the summit. As they arrived, the bank of clouds which had obscured their view for most of the climb suddenly began to break. With the sun shining down on them, Jon Letko and his companions looked out triumphantly on the vast expanse of North America from its highest point. They had conquered Denali, but only barely.

To this day, Jon Letko references his near-disaster as evidence that "in the mountains, you’re only ever one misstep away from death."