Conquering McKinley

Written by Casey Kellas, The Observer July 05, 2013 11:23 am

Mt. McKinley has a summit elevation of 20,320 feet. At some 18,000 feet, the base-to-peak rise is considered the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level. (Courtesy photo)
Mt. McKinley has a summit elevation of 20,320 feet. At some 18,000 feet, the base-to-peak rise is considered the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level. (Courtesy photo)
 

Local climbers summit North America’s highest peak 

There’s an old saying that states every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.

For five climbers with ties to La Grande, Mt. McKinley’s top came within reach on a recent 13-day excursion up North America’s highest mountain peak.

Russ West, Sam Jacobson and Aric Johnson of La Grande, Rob Madsen of Enterprise and Jeremy Morris, currently of Klamath Falls but a seven-year resident of
La Grande up until 10 months ago, have been climbing buddies for the past nine years.

But what they accomplished June 16 will most definitely stick with them for the rest of their lives.

Only 17,000 people have summited Mt. McKinley, situated in Denali National Park in Alaska. It has a summit elevation of 20,320 feet, and at 18,000 feet, the base-to-peak rise is considered the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level.

The group arrived at Talkeetna Bay Base Camp on June 1 and had three weeks to accomplish their goal of reaching the summit.

But they were able to conquer it in 13 days.

“It went really good,” Morris said. “We had pretty good weather.”

“It was a fantastic trip,” Jacobson added. “It couldn’t have gone much better.”

The dramatic climb in elevation is what makes scaling Mt. McKinley so difficult.

“More than climbing up Mt. McKinley, you camp up Mt. McKinley,” West said. “It takes time to acclimate your body to the elevation. The air is thin, and the route is steep. It’s a lot of work.”

The five men carried packs that weighed up to 100 pounds. According to Morris, they cut the handles off of their tooth brushes to try and save weight wherever they could.

“Ounces make pounds, and pounds make pain,” Morris said. “There are no luxuries up there.”

Jacobson attempted to summit Mt. McKinley in 2004 and made it to the top camp at 17,200 feet before a member of his group got altitude sickness.

He said this time around the trip was smooth sailing for the most part.

“We had a really strong team this time,” Jacobson said. “And the conditions were very, very good.”

Jacobson said his experience helped, but he wasn’t necessarily a leader.

“I definitely had insights on things that helped us,” Jacobson said.

The group did encounter strong winds and cold weather — to be expected at 17,000 feet above sea level. West said the temperatures got down to minus 9 degrees, and with the wind chill it got as cold as minus 30.

“As long as you’re moving, you’re fine,” West said.

The group employed the method of carry high, sleep low, according to West. That means packing your gear up the mountain and burying it in the snow before going back down to a camp to sleep.

Despite good weather, the trip was still a struggle. The men also had to deal with deep crevasses along the route.

“You just have to go slow, take your time,” West said.

“There is a lot of suffering,” Morris added. “Sleeping on a glacier is no luxury.”

Mt. McKinley’s toughest stretch is the final 3,000 vertical feet to the summit. But fueled by consuming 5,000 calories a day during the climb, the group made it in 12 hours round trip from the top camp.

And when they reached the summit, it was a joyous moment for the longtime friends.

“We were elated,” West said. “I didn’t know if I could make it, if my body would adapt to the elevation. But we all made it to the top at pretty much the same time. It was a team effort. Everyone on the team performed their duty.”

For Jacobson, it was a feeling of vindication after coming so close nine years ago.

“It felt good to get it, especially after not getting their before,” Jacobson said.

Morris echoed the feelings about the climb being a group effort.

“We had a good, cohesive group,” Morris said. “When you’re up there, you’re relying on others for your life. You are roped to somebody, and if they make one wrong move, it can kill you both. It’s a game of risk and perfection.”

And while it was just the five of them present when they reached the summit, the men had plenty of supporters following online.

According to Morris, they had a tracking device that gave updates on their location every 10 minutes to a Facebook page titled “Blue Mountain Boys.”

Morris said 2,000 people were following on summit day.

“We didn’t know that until we got back,” Morris said. “We thought maybe 20 friends and family were following along.”

Morris and Madsen are both pursuing the feat of becoming a member of the high-point club, scaling the top mountain in each of the 50 states. Morris said he has done nine of the toughest ones in the Western United States.  

But there will be one trip that sticks with each man for the rest of their days.

The day they just kept climbing and reached the top of Mt. McKinley.

Contact Casey Kellas at 541-975-3351 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Casey on Twitter @lgoKellas.