This year’s mountaineering season has been one for the record books. Earlier this month, a new speed record was set on Denali. And a team of skiers knocked out back-to-back ascents of the three tallest mountains in the Alaska Range.
For Evan Pletcher of Aspen, Colorado, summiting the three tallest peaks in the Alaska Range — that’s Hunter, Foraker and Denali — in a single expedition with three close friends was the experience of a lifetime.
“You know, I don’t plan on topping this. Ever.” Pletcher laughs.
“That feeling, that sense of accomplishment being on top of all the mountains was incredible — and especially on Denali, being our last one. We just all kind of broke down up there and just had a pretty incredible experience. And the view from the top is pretty unreal.”
It took the team of four 31 days to do all three summits non-stop. And the going was tough.
“Like on Mt. Hunter for instance, packs were at least 80 lbs. because we went without sleds up that mountain with 6 days of food. It wasn’t light, ever,” Pletcher says.
Pletcher’s team actually had a friend, an experienced mountaineer in Colorado, who was giving the group weather updates from afar. Pletcher said the reports were extremely accurate — critical to helping the team bag all three summits back-to-back.
“I feel that we had incredible luck and a great group. Everything just kind of worked in our favor, but yeah I can see why it hadn’t been done before. It’s very taxing — mentally, physically, and the chances of you hitting those windows when you need them are just so slim,” Pletcher says.
For another Denali mountaineer, a one-day window in clear weather was all it took for a successful summit.
Spanish mountaineer Killian Bourgada went up and down in the mountain in just under twelve hours. Eleven hours and forty minutes, to be exact. There’s no official record-keeping group for speed ascents, but nobody is raising eyebrows at Bourgada’s time. He is known for being fast. Very fast.
Coley Gentzel at the Talkeetna Ranger Station says speed ascents up Denali actually aren’t that uncommon. Bourgada’s time breaks the last record by a couple of hours.
Killian Bourgada didn’t just hop a plane to Alaska, sling a backpack over his shoulder and climb as fast as he could. There is a lot of preparation and acclimating involved in speed climbs. Gentzel explains.
“What most folks will do is to acclimate ahead of time, to sort of spend time at the higher elevations and even go to the summit for a week or two weeks or event three weeks ahead of time so that they’re acclimated. That’s the only way you can really move quickly at altitude and to ward off the potential for altitude illness is to acclimate on the mountain or on the route prior to doing your speed climb. And so that’s the method that Killian used, and that everyone else have used as well. They go on to the mountain, climb it, spend a week or two at higher elevations and then they come back to base camp to wait for a good weather window to climb up and down as fast as they can.”
Gentzel says for most of the folks attempting speed ascents are very experienced mountaineers.
Speed climbers and ski mountaineers represent a sliver of the twelve-hundred-odd climbers who tackle Denali every season.