By Todd Rutledge
“I spent a lot of money on this climb, so I should summit!”
That’s an interesting, yet not uncommon sentiment that guides occasionally hear after a climber does not reach the summit of Denali. I get it. As consumers, we’re trained to have higher expectations when we pay more for something. Denali expeditions in 2022 cost upwards of $11,000—that’s a ton of money!
For that kind of money, should you have an expectation of standing on top of Denali? I’m sorry, but the answer is a hard “No.”
Mountain Guides are in business to help climbers reach the summit, but every season many climbers do not stand atop the peak of their dreams. If you are considering climbing a big mountain, it’s important that you take some time to reflect on how you might feel if you don’t make the top. You should do this before you make a deposit for your climb, because you are not putting down a deposit on the summit, but of an attempt on the summit.
Let’s dive in …
When I first started guiding Denali in 1994, a standard West Buttress expedition cost about $4,000. In today’s dollars, that translates to about $8,000. Fixed costs for guide services were a lot lower than they are today. For example, the National Park Service charged guide services 2% of revenues to operate on the mountain, compared with up to 11% today. Insurance costs were much lower, guide wages for entry-level positions were between free and $450, and the 14 AA batteries needed to power our team’s CB radio cost a lot less than just a few minutes of airtime on a satellite phone.
With the increased costs for labor, insurance, communications and the much better expedition food that is eaten today, the comparable cost of a Denali climb is not much higher than it was almost 40 years ago. So, what else has changed?
On one hand, the altitude hasn’t gotten any lower (well, the current elevation is 10 feet lower, but that’s due to better science). The weather hasn’t gotten any friendlier. The terrain still requires the same level of mountaineering skills.
On the other hand, today’s loads are lighter due to better tech in clothing and gear, but they are still substantial. Across the board, guides these days are much, much better trained and therefore equipped with much better tools than we were in the 1990s. Unless you are on a highly tailored private expedition, the price tag of your climb should have no bearing on your expectation of standing on the summit.
When I consider the changes I’ve seen since 1994, I think climbers should be better set up for success than they were “back in the day.” Even so, innumerable things must align for you to stand on top of the mountain. Most of those things are outside your control, but many are not only within your control, but they are your responsibility. If you do not sufficiently prepare in the areas that are your responsibility, you are gambling with the money you paid for your climb by gambling with your chances of summitting.
Personally, I don’t gamble beyond the nickel slots in Vegas (do those even exist any longer?). When I’d drop a nickel into the slot machine, I had hopes of winning huge, but I never expected to win. I acknowledged that I was simply gambling because I did nothing to influence the outcome beyond pulling the one arm of that bandit. If you drop a lot of cash on a Denali climb, but do not adequately prepare for your climb, it’s reasonable that you similarly have a hope to summit, but you should not expect to do so.
If you are not proficient with all the skills required for an attempt of Denali, DO NOT expect to summit. You might summit, but if you don’t arrive in possession of all the necessary skills, such as proper use of an ice axe, efficient and secure crampon technique, clipping and unclipping through protection, or using an ascender, DO NOT expect to summit.
Summiting Denali also requires less technical but equally important skills, such as the basic movement skills required to move efficiently across different terrain in crampons, moving efficiently with a backpack and sled, and attending to your personal self-care. If you cannot demonstrate that you are adequately prepared in these areas, DO NOT expect to summit.
You are responsible for your personal fitness. Your guide or teammate can’t help much in this regard, and if you wait to start training until just before your expedition, you can’t help yourself much either. During your climb, your teammates might be able to support you enough to make the top, but if you don’t put in the time to sufficiently train for the physical demands of your climb, you should NOT expect to summit.
Dropping nickels into slot machines or laying stacks of chips at the high-dollar roulette table requires a certain mindset of giving up personal responsibility and hoping for a good outcome. You might not summit Denali due to any number of factors, but if you don’t summit because of your lack of action over the areas that are your responsibility, you should take ownership of your decision.