An absence of smell. Nothing but the persistent wind to hear. Not much wildlife to speak of. Only a freezing achromatic landscape, and its disorienting whites and grays.
Davis resident Tim Townsend had to learn to cope with these inhospitable and sense-depriving environs in his quest to scale North America’s highest mountain peak, Mount McKinley — aka Denali — in Alaska.
Sometimes, Townsend would be among the bold adventurers hoping to summit the alpine for weeks on end. He’d make progress upwards by tromping through thick layers of snow, then have to wait out a blizzard before retreating.
But on his fifth expedition, Townsend watched as a blue sky broke through the spectral white windswept snowfall typical of Mount McKinley. This turn of fortune allowed him to safely reach the peak on June 7.
On that exact date, 100 years earlier, another group of climbers arrived breathless in the thin air of Mount McKinley’s tip (20,237 feet above sea level). These were the first mountaineers ever to successfully do so.
That, however, was just a matter of coincidence for Townsend. The reason this 53-year-old local set out to conquer the menacingly tall mountain was to conclude an ambitious journey that he began 17 years ago.
A Davis couple on the apex
Townsend and his wife, Lisa, were on a self-imposed mission to reach the highest points in all 50 of the country’s states. Mount McKinley was for years the only pinnacle not yet tallied on the Townsends’ checklist.
Tim’s accomplishment gives him a distinction shared by only approximately 250 others in history, having reached all of America’s highest peaks. His wife is satisfied with having accompanied him on all but Mount McKinley.
The impetus for the endeavor was in 1996, when they hiked the 8,700-foot Guadalupe Peak in Texas. On the trail, the Davis residents came across two young and eccentric guys, who introduced Tim and Lisa to highpointing and the associated Highpointers Club.
“They were on this blitzkrieg tour of high points throughout the country,” she said. “It was funny; as their rocket fuel on the hikes, they brought a bunch of McDonald’s hamburgers. I think that was an inspiration to Tim.”
With cheeseburgers sometimes stored away in place of granola, the Townsends over the next few years found themselves backpacking to the tips of more high points on vacations and Tim’s work assignments.
The treacherous Nebraskan slopes
The highest geographical point in some states ends up being less like towering alps than gentle hills.
For example, the crest of Delaware is a not-so-skyscraping hillside on the outskirts of a mobile home park. Ohio’s highest point marker is nestled between a day-care center and cosmetology school.
Others provide a challenge for reasons aside from elevation. Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island is one example of that, as Townsend’s wife explained:
“Back when we did it, you had to go on private property to get to it. There was a guy that owned the property that was known to be sitting out in a chair with a pellet gun.
“Sure enough, we bushwhack our way to a clearing at the highest point, and there sat an empty chair. We ran over to take a picture and then got out as quickly as we could.”
But as far as elevation goes, Wyoming’s Gannett Peak, Washington’s Mount Rainier and Montana’s Granite Peak all stand at over 12,000 feet above sea level and proved to be technical climbs.
“Not all of them are like ‘the highest spot in Nebraska’ jokes … some are pretty legitimate outdoor experiences that take multi-day camping trips,” he said. “But we did it, and by 2005 we had knocked off 49 of them together.
“She was smart enough not to come to Alaska,” Tim says of Lisa. “Mount Rainier was scary enough — walking on glaciers and dealing with crevices. And Denali is just off-the-charts difficult. It’s a whole different scale of mountaineering.”
“The High One”
Mount McKinley is better known by climbers like Townsend as Denali, which translates to “The High One” in the native Athabaskan language. To reach the summit requires at least a three-week expedition.
Approximately 1,200 mountaineers per year confront Denali’s steep terrain, but only about half succeed.
Eighty percent of the time, Townsend said, the weather isn’t suitable on Denali for anything but a reckless ascent to the top. Among the half who succeed are sometimes those who push the odds.
“There are the hearty, or crazy, people who will brave the high winds,” he said. “They’ll come back with frostbitten faces and sometimes they run into really bad trouble. Every year there are deaths up there.”
According to data collected from National Park Service reports, an average of about one person per year perishes on the mountain; many times more suffer non-fatal injuries (like broken bones) and illnesses.
Aside from everything else, the climbers risk contracting acute mountain sickness in the high altitudes of Denali’s apex. The condition, caused by reduced air pressure and oxygen levels, can range from mild to life-threatening.
Mountain sickness is most prevalent in those who are traveling upwards at too quick a pace for the body to adjust. Handling more than 1,000-foot sea level elevation change at a time can be problematic.
But Townsend adheres to a principle of disciplined patience when mountaineering, thus his wife’s lack of worry for him.
“I figure he has good judgment,” she said. “If Tim fails at something, he’s not defeated by it. Maybe three out of five times he said he wouldn’t go back, but it kept calling him.
“Each time I saw him go back, I knew he’d have the sense to turn around if things were bad. I knew he’d stay put instead of risking it if the weather was going to get bad. A lot of people do risk it, and they get hurt.”
Townsend surmises that overall he’s had a lucky run of things on Denali, and he’s always been keen on playing it safe. A bad experience with a guided expedition caused him to make the trek on his own terms.
In 2009, his second attempt, Townsend paid a guide and accompanied 12 others on an attempt to ascend the mountain. Together, they pushed to the highest camp on Denali, which is established at 17,000 feet.
The goal upon reaching this camp was to wait for the weather to clear up and a window of time to make the summit. Townsend said his guide decided to pull the plug on the expedition, citing a bad storm that was incoming.
“He said the rangers were retreating to a safer, lower camp,” Townsend explained. “At that point, it’s a little indelicate to question the decision-making of the guide. Well, it turns out that the rangers didn’t bail out.”
The guide, Townsend and the rest of the crew ended up being the only team to move on the mountain that day. The usual two-hour trip from the higher to the lower camp transformed into an extreme eight-hour excursion.
“We got stuck in a horrible whiteout in a really dangerous exposed knife-edge part of the ridge with 5,000-foot drop-offs on each side,” Townsend said. “We had like 50 miles-per-hour winds blowing sideways.”
Because the freezing wind had whipped against them for so long, nine people on the journey got frostbite. Townsend went home disappointed, but would successfully conquer Denali four years and three attempts later.
“No Denali For Old Men”
“The rewarding satisfaction is immense,” Townsend said of his successful Denali summit. “It was probably magnified by the fact that this was my fifth attempt up there.
“When you fail that many times, there’s always this sense of self-doubt. You hear the whisperings of, ‘Maybe you’re a little too old for this,’ or, ‘Maybe this one is just a little too hard.’ ”
Because a lot of accidents occur on the trip back down, Townsend tried not to regard the peak as the finish line, but only as 50 percent of the way there. He recalls a dangerous situation that occurred during his fourth attempt in 2012.
“On the way back down we had some horrible whiteout conditions. We spent an unplanned night mid-mountain in one of the middle camps. We would’ve kept going down but the conditions were too crummy.
“And at like 3 a.m. an avalanche happened just above the camp, and five people from a Japanese climbing team got caught up in that and were pushed into a crevice. Four of the people died, and we didn’t even know it.”
The conditions were much more favorable during this year’s attempt. Within 16 days of embarking on their climb, Townsend and the one climber he was with were happy to arrive back to the safety of the mountain’s base camp.
Push-ups, sit-ups, bicycling and running around Davis with heavy equipment strapped to his back were all part of Townsend’s training routine for the Denali climb.
But it was his aforementioned focus on patience that he mostly credits for having made a successful and safe ascent and decent of Denali, a mountain that once claimed lives even as Townsend was on it.
“That’s probably the most undervalued skill on the mountain,” he said. “(Patience is) one thing old people have a lot of. It’s either something that gives you a leg up, or maybe it’s just an excuse for being sorta slow.”
Once a Highpointer …
The Highpointers Club, which honors members who have completed all the high points in its regular publication, had recognized fewer than 50 people as meeting the goal when Townsend and his wife started the quest 17 years ago.
Townsend becomes the first person from Davis to have earned the rare distinction, though he is not the only one to have braved Denali.
The local is proud to have the figurative accolade after all these years pursuing it. Furthermore, he’s appreciative that it provided an opportunity for him and his wife to travel.
The couple fondly recall stumbling across the historical monument where the feds caught up to Bonnie and Clyde, and where they had their last stand, near the highest point in Louisiana.
“I remember hearing about that legend as a kid, but couldn’t have told you where it happened,” he said. “It’s things like that you couldn’t possibly plan for that added a lot of joy and meaning to it.”
And what adventures await the Davis mountaineering duo now?
“A lot of people have asked me that,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve said to people, jokingly, ‘Ya know, there are 58 counties in California.’ … I really haven’t made any solid plans for it, but who knows?”
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett