Wednesday 12 June 2013, 9 PM. The sky was clear, temperatures were frigid and the wind was howling. Rémi Sfilio and I were on the summit of Denali, happy, tired, and looking a bit older than when we had started out. Eight days earlier, we had left our base camp at 4,200 metres. We had little idea of what the famous Slovak Direct route had in store for us.
Denali’s 2,700-metre south face would test us to the limit. We would deal with two snowstorms, plus the altitude, fatigue, lack of food, and the consequences of our own strategic errors.
One of the moments that stands out most clearly in my mind is the Wickwire ramp, a terrifying minefield of bottomless crevasses. We had spent hours fumbling blindly along the ramp in the semidarkness, our headlamps useless in the twilight of the Alaskan June night. We were in the middle of a maze of crevasses, exposed to the monstrous seracs that loomed above.
Of course we hadn’t planned to spend this much time beneath these giant blocks of ice. As the hours rolled by, with the omnipresent seracs menacing overhead, the warnings of the park rangers echoed in my mind. I remembered smiling politely as I listened to them explain the risks of this choice of approach, all the while telling myself that it wouldn’t be that complicated.
And now here we were, in hell! Avalanches hurtled down the southwest face and the famous Denali Diamond route. The old debris at the foot of the face was proof that we were squarely in the path of avalanches.
Rémi and I had no alternative but to continue on, even though we fully realised that we had erred in our choice of approach to the famous south face. And the ascent had only just begun…