Afterthoughts from the summit of North America

Afterthoughts from the summit of North America

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Nov 30, 0000
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering
Summit Ridge Summit Ridge
Denali is cold Denali is cold

Denali has been on my bucket list for a while, highest point of North America, situated at 63 latitude, and just a few degrees shy of arctic circle. It is a popular summit and as you know the highest point of North America. 

This would be my 2nd expedition to this mountain and 3rd trip planning. I attempted 2 years ago, but my partner got sick, so we turned around. It was hard to do down. We spent only 3 days on the mountain, and I barely touched this giant. I felt so strong, but my partner got sick at 13,500 feet after carrying a cache from 11,000 feet. In retrospect, we acted like typical Colorado climbers, we moved fast and underestimated the extreme conditions the arctic can offer. 

2020 I wanted to give it another try and after planning the trip, all expeditions were cancelled due to covid. 

2021 arrives and stubborn me continues with the Denali dream. This time I was planning a solo trip, aging woman with a short vacation time. My work allowed me 16 days off (my longest vacation in 25 years), which meant about 13 days on the mountain giving 2 days to travel to Alaska and 1 day for park orientation, transport from Anchorage to Talkeetna etc. It would be hard to find a partner for my exact dates and yes, I was worried about turning around again if someone should get sick. But as the time was approaching, I was developing more and more anxiety and a thought kept creeping into my head of slipping somewhere on an exposed ridge, or falling into a crevasse. The stubborn part of me kept going with the pursuit of summit, the anxious part of me gave me sleepless nights. 

My preparation: I tried to summit peaks in Colorado and sleep at altitude, snow camping (managed only 2 nights), but many nights sleeping in a car on high mountain passes. I trained more on skis, but for Denali I opted for snow shoes. The reason for training with skis was faster progress and it is more fun. Snowshoes for Denali - easier to travel with and my 8000 meter Scarpa mountaineering boots are so comfortable and warm. Obviously, skis would provide more protection from crevasses, but skiing with a heavy pack and pulling sled is not easy, so after going back and forth, snowshoes won. 

I arrived to rainy Anchorage, resting comfortably in an expensive Captain Cook hotel room and contemplating about Denali. Why? Why to go and sleep in a tiny tent by myself in a freezing cold? Why to risk my life? I had no ascent plan, just a few drafts from the previous expedition. I thought I will give it a try and if I get scared, I will remain at a base camp and fly back in a few days in the worst scenario. I took Denali Overland transport to Talkeetna. There were climbers from guided expedition talking about their previous experiences from other peaks. Talkeetna is a nice tiny town, restaurants were open, but due to Covid all food was served outdoors. It was raining and I was so unsure about the upcoming adventure. 

Park orientation - it kept raining. We met outside under a canopy and the park ranger was not too excited about my solo travel. Luckily, two men from Seattle offered that I can rope up with them. I accepted, not knowing what I did sign up for. Flight - other that waiting for a few hours for the weather to clear up and not knowing whether it is going to happen that day, was uneventful. The flight is short, about 45 min and incredibly scenic. Alaska range is beautiful, remote, wild. We landed late about 4 PM and left a cache at the base camp. Steve and Christian, my new partners from Seattle, set up fast pace not to my liking. Christian kept talking about speed records of Killian Jornet and I was thinking about not getting sick. I like to admire scenery and take photos. It is a vacation after all. We covered the lower Kahiltna glacier to camp 1, distance 5.5 miles in 3.5 hrs! I was hauling nearly 110 lbs of gear on my back and sled, with my personal weight of 122 lbs. The snow was soft in early evening, and the sled was slightly sinking in. I was happy to be roped up since this section of the glacier is known for hidden crevasses, and my foot dropped into a deep “hole” once. The smart idea would be to travel it at night when glacier is more stable, but we were inpatient. 

I was nauseated and exhausted after a couple of miles, I could not keep up with this pace. 

We set up a camp, melted some snow and I slept so well. Camp one lies only at 7800 feet and is pretty warm. The following morning I excused myself from the company of fast men. The terrain was less crevassed, and I wanted to enjoy my journey. Many parties start double carry here, but my plan was to go directly to camp 2 at 11,000 feet. I was acclimatized to this altitude from Colorado and spent many nights sleeping on Red Mountain Pass (11,017 ft).

Washburn Thumb Washburn Thumb
Mt. Foraker and camp 14K Mt. Foraker and camp 14K

The route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 is 4.75 miles long and starts to involve some ascents, elevation gain is 3400 feet. I started with leisurely pace, the weather was beautiful in the morning and I was taking breaks to eat and drink, took photos, enjoyed myself. The last steep hill just before the camp I ascended in a total white out. That is Denali for you, rapid weather changes. Luckily it was well wanded and I remembered that hill from my last expedition. Perhaps it was better in a white out, I did not see this hill’s length and steepness. I found a nice established campsite with big walls. The spot was my home for 2 nights. Steve, came to check on me, what a nice guy. Wanted to make sure I arrived safely to the camp. 

Day 3: Had a great sleep in my tiny old Bibler tent. Not very fashionable accommodation, but small and light, and I knew how to set it up quickly. The most popular tents appeared to be Hilleberg nowadays. That is what I would choose if traveling with a partner. It was snowing outside! Great - my body can benefit from a rest day. I checked my sats and was only 90 to 91%, HR 65, my urine was dark. Rehydration and lots of sleep, reading and writing my journal, my favorite activity when camping! I visited with Steve and Christian - my original plan was to double carry from here, but they wanted to go to Camp 3 at 14,200 feet in a single push. They were worried about another snow storm coming in. I accepted their idea and was hoping to travel with them. I remembered Windy corner from my previous expedition as exposed and icy. 

Day 4: I came to their campsite, but they were gone. And since I was already packed, I continued my journey alone hauling my heavy pack and sled. I left a cache at 11K. I brought too much fuel with me and too much food. I oz MSR canister lasted about 2 days and I brought 15! I chose to travel with jet boil, it was fast, efficient and I could use it inside the tent in bad weather (with cracked door). 1000 feet up Motorcycle Hill went well. The Squirrel Hill dragged  and Windy Corner was very windy and more spooky than I remembered. There was a narrow snowy path, but my sled slid sideways throwing me off balance on the traverse. Luckily, I caught myself and did not slide into a huge crevasse below. I took a break at 13,500 feet, ate snacks and drank. No wind here. Spoke with a few climbers: Zach, multi lingual man originally from Israel and Peter who was the same age as my son. The last hill up 14,200 feet is mellow, but I was tired and moved slowly. The cold wind on lower section did beat up my body. I also spoke with Astrid who travelled with a partner. She is ER physician, and was so nice. 

Finally, I reached camp 14,200 - it is big and spread out. I found another nice walled camp site and Steve came again to check on me. It ended up that we travelled this section about the same speed - 7.5 hrs. Distance of 2.5 miles, elevation 3,200 feet and I was hauling about 100 lbs after leaving cache at 11,000 feet. 

Snow melting Snow melting
Camp at 17K Camp at 17K

Day 5: the night was bad, I was cold and shivered most of the night. I arrived to the camp previous night sweaty and my sleeping bag was moist from condensation inside the tent. I had a headache and when I tried to urinate nothing came out. The previous single haul was hard on my body. The sun hit my tent at 9:32 am. Sun what a source of life! I melted snow and drank. I dried my sleeping bag, charged SPOT messenger, changed my socks. I spoke with some Colorado climbers with a plan of speed ascent of Denali in 5 days. Unfortunately, they got sick at 17,200 feet camp. I socialized with other climbers and drank and rested. I stopped by park rangers to check the board with weather updates. I visited with Christian and Steve. My oxygen saturations were low 80s that morning, but by the evening vital signs improved with saturation of 88% and heart rate of 82. Rest is so important. This day I call “booties day” - I spent the whole day in camp booties. I read poetry and wrote in my journal. 

Day 6: Christian came by and asked me to go up for acclimatization up the fixed lines. His partner Steve got sick. Steve had a headache and was not able to sleep at all. I gave him some meds (Benadryl for sleep, Zofran for nausea and Tylenol with codeine for headache). Christian wanted to carry cache to 16,000 feet. Fixed lines are fun. I did practice placing my ascender with thick gloves at home and it came in handy. I could do it with my eyes closed. Guided groups moved slowly here, but it was just fine. I enjoyed the scenery, being able to catch my breath. We left the cache at 16,200, spent about an hour up there for acclimatization and descended the fixed lines. The descent goes fast if you just wrap the rope around your arm and attach a safety sling. 

Day 7: Ideally, I would rest this day, but both Christian and Steve showed up at my tent ready to move to camp 17,200. I was very hesitant, but joined in. Again, the rush was partly due to weather forecast, 2 good weather days and then several snow days after. I used to acclimate very fast in the past and was hoping with my strong will and genetic make up, the chance is there. I was not so sure about Steve, who could not go up to 16,000 the previous day because of headache and nausea. The section of West Buttress above fixed lines, past Washburn Thumb, ridge towards the camp 17,200 is gorgeous. Many parties were moving up and the going was slow. I was surprised how small Camp 17,200 appeared. The views down to Camp 14,200 magical. Autobahn to Denali Pass section above looked steep. It is cold there, once the sun goes down, temperature drops rapidly. 

Day 8: I woke up and the guys did not move. I wondered whether they are alive. Steve had a horrible headache and saturations in 60s, Christian refused to get up, really bad headache and saturations in high 40s. He was talking that he needs a rescue, he was cussing a lot. But there are no rangers at this camp. We had no radio to call (I did not bring one, and they dropped theirs on fixed lines the previous day). I medicated him with Dexamethasone, zofran, diamox, tylenol with codeine. We called park rangers using a satellite phone of one of the guides and they told me to double doses for meds. He finally purked up enough to be able to descent. The descent went fast and both climbers decided to abandon their summit fever. Summit fever was a name of their team. I remained at camp 14,200 feet. I felt good, my saturations 95% and heart rate 60. I felt acclimatized and strong. 

Day 9: rest day at 14,200 feet. I slept in 2 sleeping bags: + 30 light bag and - 20 Western Mountaineering bag. I was warm. I drank a lot, wrote into my journal, read, socialized. Storm was moving in, I was processing happenings of the previous day, mountain sickness, my plans. Went to check the weather - 35 mph wind and snow tomorrow, I guess another rest day. 

Met Sophia, what a pleasant young lady, invited me to their mess tent. Watched her friends to play baseball at 14,200 feet! They already summited and were just waiting for the weather to clear up to descent down. 

Met Shannon, solo woman, who had an incredibly ambitious plan to solo climb Cassin Ridge. 

Watched Mamma Mia 2 on my phone, the only movie I possessed. I forgot that I am on Denali. It was snowing hard outside and I was in Greece with warm beach close by. 

Denali Summit. Denali Summit.
Camp 14,000 Camp 14,000

Day 10: Another snow day. The sun did not hit my tent this morning. It was hard to get out of my sleeping bags. I finished Utopia by Thomas Moore, read some William Blake poetry, again checked the weather. Met more climbers, Drew from Durango reassured me that it is possible to ascent from 14,200 to the summit and back relatively fast. His group did it in 14 hrs. They were waiting for the weather to clear up and were hoping for Cassin Ridge. Unfortunately, the weather did not co-operate with their plan. Spoke again with Sophia, what an open minded, generous lady. 

Day 11: Waiting game - it snowed again, but wind calmed down. Met more climbers while checking the weather, Thomas, the lawyer who resides currently in Bolivia and his Russian friend Vlad, both graduates of Harvard. Thomas has climbed Everest! He was humble about it. I brushed my hair for the first time on expedition. There was not much visibility that day and I did hit my low and cried that day too. Solo camping in white out in a tiny tent is hard. The snow covered any visible path and I was not able to go up or down. 

Day 12: (really 11.5 day since the first day I landed on glacier after 4 PM). I was stuporous, woke up around 9:30 when sun hits the tent, melting snow, routine breakfast etc. Another white out hit making travel difficult. But I had to move, so decided to go up and check out fixed lines again. There were so many climbers traveling up. A huge line on fixed lines was not moving at all, some person got stuck. I was waiting just below wondering what to do and climbers were breaking the news of a new window opportunity for the summit the following day. Thomas and Vlad came to fixed lines and encouraged me to continue on, but it was afternoon and my tent was at 14,200 feet. I came down and decided to attempt the next morning with an early start. 

Day 13: I could not sleep at all. I was tossing in my sleeping bag, finally I gave up and got up at 2 am. Made some vanilla latte and started up towards fixed lines. It was cold, but movement felt good. A new crevasse has opened below fixed lines, it was not there yesterday. The crack was about 1 foot wide, after examining the edges, I just jumped over. Moving up fixed lines was fast, no people up there at 3 am. The light on Mt. Foraker was fantastic. The ridge from 16,200 to 17,200 was frozen and covered with small layer of fresh snow. I reached camp 17,200 in slightly over 3 hrs. Most climbers were still asleep and camp appeared so much bigger this time. The anticipated good weather attracted many climbers. 2 guided parties were getting ready to go up and one was already traveling up the Autobahn, which was in a shade and very cold. The path was not obvious after four snow days, some sections were very icy (dramatic difference compared to my return on the way down, it was all melted with nice path broke in). I could not feel my fingers climbing up towards the Denali Pass and started to wonder about frost bite. It was worse than getting screaming barfies on ice climbs. (Screaming barfies - pain so bad that you don’t know whether to scream or barf first). Denali Pass is at 18,000 feet and there is sun! Sun so positive, so healing, so warming. The guide from the party above me said: “Welcome to the sunny side”. I felt the warmth and the welcome of the sun. I rested and followed the guided party. Was I cheating? I was tired and did not know the route, why not to follow. The weather was great, sunny and no wind. Chris, another solo climber/skier, passed me, he is so strong. He also travelled from camp 14,200. Finally, I reached Football Field and Pig Hill. The last pith of the climb appeared steep. I sat down, watching climbers slowly ascending the steep section and gaining the ridge. I tried to drink, but my water froze. Thomas and Vlad came from camp 17,200 and offered me a spot on their rope, I happily accepted. I was tired and dehydrated. I did not want to slip here. We left our backpacks at the start of Football Field, watched Chris to ski down from the summit (he later got into some epic terrain and made it to camp at 14,200 feet really late). The summit ridge is spectacular! Many people summited that day, lines of climbers cruised up the ridge, one lady was crawling towards the summit and managed to puke in front of us, but she summited. I think we spent more than 1 hr on the summit. I touched the geological marker and was able to move it out of the glacier. “Oh, I broke Denali”, I cried. It is hard to express the emotions after reaching the summit - there is so much exhiliration, mixed with fatigue and kind of disbelief that it is done. 

We took many photos, relaxed, chatted with other climbers. The descent was swift till the Autobahn. Guided parties moved so slowly here and were clipping every protection. I was the only climber continuing down the West Buttress towards camp 14,200 - it was getting late and the ridge was beautiful, empty, great scenery in the evening light. I reached my tent at 10 PM, tired, exhausted, happy, unreal. 

Day 14: Travel down the glacier - I slept in, melted snow and started packing. The plan was to descent all the way to landing strip. My tent froze in and I had to use ice axe to break the ice at several spots. I ran into my friends Renata and John who were on guided expedition with Mountain Trip and just reached camp 14,200. I communicated with my son to plan for him to fly onto the glacier and meet there the following morning. I was so anxious to see him. I parted with climbers who remained on the mountain, and gave away my food and fuel. Some lady from Indonesia asked me for my tent, her partner had a sore knee and could not go up, but I felt uncomfortable to give away my shelter and travel down the mountain without protection. Thomas and Vlad came down from Camp 17,000, and we roped up. People were talking about more crevasses opening below and supposedly some guides fell in. We descended to Camp at 11,000 and waited for the night to start and travel the lower Kahiltna glacier overnight. Some Russian climbers offered us tea and food, so we were partying for a couple of hours. I initially travelled with Thomas and Vlad, but my desire to see my son and get on an early flight was too strong. I parted with them at camp 1, and travelled the frozen Kahiltna Glacier solo. The sunrise was amazing. Many groups travelled down the mountain after the previous summit day. I reached base camp early am, got my cache and was waiting till 8 am to sign up for flight out. Made coffee, danced, and was waiting for the sun to rise above the ridge to warm me up. 

My son was able to book a sightseeing tour with glacier landing with K2. The base camp manager informed me about his arrival. The thought of seeing him was so strong, so emotional, so impatient, so joyful. Finally, I saw him. There is nothing like family, like having a child, like living… still not sure why I went up there…what do we see in mountains? What are we escaping from? 


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-16 of 16
Alberto Rampini

Alberto Rampini - Sep 13, 2021 10:04 am - Voted 10/10


Afterthoughts or not, second thoughts or not, my congratulations Liba!
It must have been an adventure worth living!
Ciao, Alberto

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Sep 13, 2021 5:43 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Congrats

thank you Alberto! your comment made me smile... in some ways I miss sleeping in my little tent:)


MikeLJ - Sep 14, 2021 3:04 am - Voted 10/10

Well done

Sounds like an epic adventure. Congratulations.

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Sep 14, 2021 6:35 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Well done

Thank you Mike! it was an epic adventure... and in many ways I miss the suffering :) and the simplicity of life up there.

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Sep 14, 2021 5:25 am - Voted 10/10

Indelible memories

Dear Liba, many, many congratulations on reaching the top of North America!
From personal experience I am sure that the cold, the lack of sleep, the fatigue and the problems of high altitude will vanish and only the satisfaction and the indelible memories will remain!
A hug!

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Sep 14, 2021 6:32 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Indelible memories

Thank you Silvia. I hope one day we will get to meet and talk about our adventures...

Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Sep 16, 2021 12:32 pm - Voted 10/10

great write up

Concise, easy to read, articulate, delightful. And you're a hero, too!

We had nightly temps of minus 35 deg F in May 1979.

I made numerous solo trips between the airstrip and the NE Fork. Sometimes of skis, sometimes on snowshoes. Once I punched through the surface up to my armpits. When I pushed up and looked down into the hole, I was out in the middle of a 25-foot wide crevasse!

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Sep 19, 2021 7:45 am - Hasn't voted

Re: great write up

thank you... 1979 - I was only 10! I think denali became a lot more crowded since then...


asmrz - Oct 22, 2021 11:09 am - Voted 10/10

Ahoj Libusko

Wonderful write-up that says it the way it is up there. Congrats for giving it your all and succeeding. Very impressive going at this time of your life...Warm and good wishes, Alois.

Wonderful to read that K2 Aviation is still in business. They flew me three times in the late 70s and early 80s.

You ask why we do this? Could it be, that we find something in the mountains and in the effort of climbing them, something that we never find in our "normal" lives in the cities and relative safety?

PS I have been away hiking and scrambling in Arizona and Utah and just got back so I'm late with this note.

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Dec 3, 2021 1:53 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Ahoj Libusko

Mockrat dik! taky se omlouvám za pozdní odpověď, nějak to moc nekontroluji... musíme se potkat...


asmrz - Dec 4, 2021 3:39 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Ahoj Libusko

Stale zijeme v Idyllwild, California pod Tahquitz skalou. J Tree je 1.5 hodiny od nas. Pokud snad jednou pojedes do Jizni Californie....

My se snad jeste budem moci podivat do Colorada. Pokud snad dokazeme velky letni vylet, napisi.


Marmaduke - Nov 25, 2021 3:13 pm - Voted 10/10

Fantastic Liba

Awe-inspiring!! So much accomplished. Be so proud!!

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Dec 3, 2021 1:52 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Fantastic Liba

Thank you.


attimount - Dec 22, 2021 4:14 pm - Voted 10/10

Uplifting read.

Congratulation Liba. You wrote so nicely about your trip it was a pleasure to read it.
Certainly Denali it is a great accomplishment, knowing how hard you have to work to get to the top and how painful is a turn around when you are almost there.

Liba Kopeckova

Liba Kopeckova - Dec 22, 2021 5:24 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Uplifting read.

Thank you so much... it was an exciting adventure for an aging woman. THank you for reading the report, perhaps too long... Happy Holidays!


attimount - Dec 23, 2021 6:19 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Uplifting read.

Happy Holiday for you too and family.

Viewing: 1-16 of 16