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Home » Climbing Notes » DENALI, CASSIN RIDGE


Sue Nott negotiating the second rock band on Denali?s Cassin Ridge. Nott and partner Karen McNeill accomplished the first all-female ascent of the route in weather that shut down nearly all other significant climbing in the Alaska Range. [Photo] Karen McNeill

“So you’re the girls who slept on the summit?” As Sue Nott and I descended Denali’s West Buttress, this was the question we were most frequently asked. We had, in fact, just climbed the Cassin Ridge, and yes, we had spent a night on the summit. When we had arrived on top, at around 6 p.m., dense mist obscured any trace of a view. Just as we began the descent the ever-persistent wind started to blow more furiously. Frostbite was not an option. I’d slept at higher elevations in the Himalaya; I figured sleeping here would be no big deal. We bivied twenty feet below the summit, because the weather dictated it and, I guess, because we could.

Once inside the confines of our tent, we pulled apart our frozen sleeping bags and inched our way inside, rewarming our exhausted, cold bodies and beginning the arduous task of melting snow to rehydrate. Outside, the gusts became more tumultuous, at times forcing the walls of the tent to meet.

Every time I tilted my head back to drink, another gust of wind struck the tent and upset my bottle. I finally began to appreciate Sue’s straw. Ironically this hard-core alpinist will only drink from a bottle through a straw. She carries plastic, elongated tubes on climbs, brightly colored, usually more than one. Today her straw was orange.

We had been on the Cassin Ridge for the past eight days, all of which had been intense and fraught with challenge. When we arrived at the 14,000-foot camp, Sue got hape. She recovered, but once on the climb atrocious weather hampered our daily progress. When we weren’t being thrown about by the wind, we were swaddled in pea-soup mist. We’d managed to get off route, thus avoiding the route’s crux, but in doing so we had created our own. I had a crampon go awol; it came close to tumbling over a cliff and leaving me forever. We triggered a wind slab that luckily only carried us a short distance down the mountain. We ran out of food. Walking along the final ridge to the summit in a whiteout I tripped and aggravated an old knee injury. While recovering in the snow, I passed out. I’d been bleeding into my Power Stretch pants for three days.

Camped on the summit I knew the mountain was testing us to the end. Nothing was going to be easy for us on this climb. So as I watched Sue sipping through her orange straw I had a chuckle to myself. It felt good to laugh.

— Karen McNeill, Canmore, Alberta, Canada