Three family members from the Parksville area recently completed an un-guided climb to the summit of the highest mountain peak in North America.
On June 1, Clarke Gourlay and his two sons John Gourlay, 24, and Kevin Gourlay, 22, reached the summit of Denali, Alaska after 12 days of acclimatizing on the mountain.
Denali has a summit elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 metres) above sea level.
The whole expedition took 15 days on the mountain, during which time the climbers barely set foot off the snow or ice onto rock. For the first four days, each climber pulled pulks (plastic sleds) behind them weighing 70 pounds, in addition to their 60 pound backpacks.
“(Climbing) is kind of becoming a bit of an annual thing that we’ve been doing,” Kevin Gourlay said. “We’ve done some other similar expeditions in length and in difficulty but this was a combination of both a very long expedition and technical snow and ice climbing. It was definitely the most challenging trip the three of us have been on.”
Denali is characterized by extremely cold weather, but fortunately Kevin said they lucked out during their trip.
“There was a lot of late season storms that blew in so we caught the tail end of those storms. There was one night where we had 12 inches of snow over night,” he said. “We just dug ourselves out in the morning and kept going. Otherwise it was perfect weather the whole time; sunny and no wind.”
Kevin said most nights the temperature would drop to about -40 degrees Celsius.
Acclimatizing and letting their bodies adjust to the elevation, Kevin said, was difficult but luckily none of the Gourlays got sick on the climb up to the summit.
“There were other climbers that did get sick,” Kevin said. “One climber got airlifted off the mountain on the same summit day as us. The most common type of sickness is called acute mountain sickness, which is just basically a really sucky cold and flu type feeling.”
During the ascent, the climbers were all roped together for added safety. Kevin said the mountain’s technical terrain offered some of the trip’s toughest struggles.
“There was some very technical terrain that we were travelling over. There was one region between advance base camp and high camp which has fixed lines, it’s called the Head Wall so basically it’s like a bowl that keeps getting steeper and steeper as you go further up and then there’s crevasses that are traversing across it,” he said. “The technical terrain was definitely a challenge for us in combination with the elevation. It’s hard thinking straight when you’re up there.”
Luckily, the scenery was always something to look forward to.
“(The scenery) is absolutely stunning on a clear day,” Kevin said. “On summit day it was a bit hazed in the morning but it actually cleared up just when we got to the summit, so we got some stellar views from up there. Basically from high camp you can see everything, there’s nothing in the way.”
Reaching the summit was exhausting yet surreal, Kevin said, who collapsed with his dad as soon as they reached the top.
“I actually wasn’t sure if we were going to make it or not on summit day because it was just very, very fatiguing and there was a couple guiding groups going up ahead of us and they were saying the conditions weren’t great,” Kevin said. “We decided to keep pressing on a little further and it started clearing up nicely so we had a go at the summit.”
In preparation for the Denali climb, the Gourlays underwent endurance training, did a rope climbing refresher course and a crevasse rescue course.