Denali dreams, Part II

by • August 28, 2017 • 61 North, HighlightsComments (0)952

High points, low points and everywhere in between

The last of my bourbon coffee burned as it slid down my throat. I took in the morning cold as Jet-A, sweeter than perfume, sailed through my nose. It was finally time to leave this mountain and I – smelling to high heaven, toes still numb from frost nip – couldn’t freaking wait.

Fifteen days earlier, fresh-faced and smelling like detergent, I stepped off a Talkeetna Air Taxi turbine Otter and onto Base Camp of Denali at 7,200 feet in elevation. Alongside me was my husband, Eric, and friend Charlotte. We set off together, leaving a cache of unneeded gear, food and a bottle of Bullet Rye behind. We’d hoped to be back in two weeks, drinking it in celebration. Now, hardened veterans of the mountain, we drank in consolation of a failed summit attempt.

Sarah Zerkel is roped in at Motorcycle Hill, at about 11,500 feet, during her 2017 Denali summit bid. PHOTO COURTESY SARAH ZERKEL

Sarah Zerkel is roped in at Motorcycle Hill, at about 11,500 feet, during her 2017 Denali summit bid. PHOTO COURTESY SARAH ZERKEL


“Denali is quite a place,” I tell people weeks later. “We had a great time. Learned a lot. It was totally worth it,” is my canned answer to their questions. But there’s really no way to suc-cinctly explain it all. Not to the casual listener. And anyway, most people don’t really want to hear about it. The 12-hour days on meager calories; overcoming conflict with friends; praying more than you have in years; popping blisters with your mini knife. No, they have just one question: “Did you make it?”

And it’s a fair one. After all, every mountaineer I’ve ever talked to sets out in pursuit of the pointy part. Why try if you’re not, literally, aiming high? We try to skirt around it, giving ourselves room for the experience even if we don’t make the tippy top. In fact, before leaving I even wrote, “ ‘Success’ means nothing … the summit is the hope but the struggle is the success.” By that logic, we were successful. Man, were we successful. By a host of other metrics, however, we failed.

14,200' Camp at dusk. Photo Courtesy SARAH ZERKEL


You see, we like absolutes, to think in terms of failure and success, black and white, high points and low points. But climbing, and most other worthy pursuits, are never that simple.

Standing in line to get on the plane home, I spotted Denis, an indefatigably cheerful Russian who flew in with us. Wide-eyed, he spoke in broken English. He wanted to get a picture with our group. “Did you make it?” I said. Though I was dreading answering the question myself, I couldn’t help but ask. He had indeed reached the high point.

We posed for our picture, congratulated Denis, and threw duffels and trash bags onto the plane. It was time to get off this mountain. Time to go back and reflect on what, if anything, it all meant.

Now, in the comfort of home and hustle of the day-to-day, I’m still mulling it all over. As predicted, I’ve got new friends, new skills and new pictures. I can even feel most of my toes again. But, as I plan new mountain objectives, I’m still taking time to assess, to think through the successes and the failures. Where do I need to grow? What went right? These are the same questions I ask when reflecting on any attempted feat.

But amidst all the hopes I placed on a singular goal this year, it’s between the high points and low points where I grapple and grow. Where I found more respect for my climbing partners and for giant, unpredictable mountains. Where I got closer to God and to myself. Where I realized it’s all about getting to the top, and yet not at all.

Sarah Zerkel wrote about her Denali dreams, Part I attempt at climbing Denali in the July issue of Coast magazine, which can be seen online at


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