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79-year-old Tom Choate on the flanks of Denali in June 2013; Photograph by Max Lowe

Denali’s Oldest Summiteer Shares How “His Mountain” Has Changed

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Climber Conrad Anker and skier Brody Levin toil against their heavy loads on the way to Camp 2. Each person in the team carried roughly an 80-pound pack with a 30- to 50-pound sled in tow; Photograph by Max Lowe

Anyone who thinks that the climbing of Denali is a picnic is badly mistaken. –Hudson Stuck, one of the first four men to reach the summit of Denali on June 7, 1913

On June 8, a team of 14 climbers, skiers, and friends—myself included—set out from Talkeetna into the Alaska Range with the intent of climbing Denali nearly 100 years to the day since its first ascent. This was a trip for fun with a shared goal of personal exploration, both on new ground and in a new experience for most everyone in our group. We quickly learned, though, that this undertaking was not to be taken lightly or without toil.

This would be Type II fun, the sort of fun when you only start looking back on the experience fondly in retrospect. It’s the type of experience where you are saying to yourself, Why the hell would any sane person be doing this? But by the time you are back in the warm embrace of civilization you think, Well, that wasn’t so bad … what should we climb next?

Slogging up Squirel Hill, a heartlessly steep incline that shoulders off the side of Denali to a several-thousand-foot death drop on one side, with an 80-pound pack and pulling a 50-pound sled is Type II fun. As you step up, your sled jerks nearly pulling you off balance. And even in an environment composed of snow and ice, the midday sun makes you feel like you are getting cooked in your outerwear. For hours and hours, step by step, you move forward. It’s a mind-numbing course. If you have any hope of staying sane and making it through the day, you stare at your feet as you plod up the mountain.

This exhausting way of assailing Denali, the highest peak in North America, has changed little since the peaks first successful summit in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Henry Karstens, and Robert Tatum. June 7, 2013, marked the 100-year anniversary of the historical climb, just as I was fortunate enough to be mounting my own foray onto Denali.

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Our 14-person team at 14,000 Camp and ready to go up; Photograph by Max Lowe

Along the fixed lines on our first acclimatization push to 17,000 feet, I was walking alone and happened upon a stooped figure dressed in fashion far-flung from that of every other climber on the mountain. “That snow is looking pretty crusty for skiing!” yelled the figure, “just like me!” I laughed and gave Tom Choate a high five. The now 79-year-old man was passing guided groups and sporting clothing and equipment from a bygone age of climbing, and I knew he had a story to tell. After seeing Tom intermittently throughout the rest of our trip, I was able to reconnect with him via phone from his home just outside of Anchorage and get that story in detail.

In the early 1950s, Tom Choate needed to find a way out of the Korean War. He had just finished school at Colorado A&M and had to find employment enough to defer his draft. A friend had mentioned tales lucrative work doing road construction in Alaska, so come September, after purchasing 100 gallons of fuel at 19 cents a gallon in Edmonton, Canada, they set out up the Alaska Highway into the unknown North.

After arriving in Anchorage, the rumors of high-paying construction work were laid to rest and joining the military became inevitable. Tom joined the Alaska National Guard as a ski infantryman and radio operator. Over the next several years while stationed in the mountains of Alaska to defend against the threat of Soviet invasion, Tom fell in love with the wilds and wonders of the Alaska Range. After the war, he entered into service as Denali National Park’s first Ranger Naturalist in 1957. In following years he would witness the park’s evolution into a tourism-driven destination with the first road being established into the area and the first expeditions into the mountains of the Alaska Range.

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Denali pioneer Tom Choate and his partner walk the trail along Arch Decons on the way to the summit snowfield; Photograph by Max Lowe

In 1963, Tom made climbing history when he did the grand traverse of Denali and pioneered new routes on Mount Hunter with Steve Gruhn and Bruce Kittredge. “We were completely isolated from any human contact for six weeks,” says Choate. The only people they encountered during their time in the mountains was a four-man team of climbers that they met close to the summit who had just completed the initial accent of the Wickersham Wall, another famous first. “Those were the days of firsts and true exposure to solitude. We were completely cut off from the outside world besides for several food drops we received via fixed wing aircraft,” recalls Choate.

Ten years after his first time standing on top of Denali, Tom returned to climb the peak again, this time via the direct route. In fact, every ten years since 1963, Tom has returned to the summit of the peak, including 2013 when he made history again by becoming the oldest person to climb Denali at 79. Every time he comes back to what he calls “his mountain” in an endearing way, he is surprised by the very apparent changes.

“The physical change in the amount of snow on the mountain [Denali] is the most shocking,” says Tom. Where once the mountain was what Tom refers to as “just a really big hill of ice and snow,” it is now much more technical with a majority of the route being exposed rock ridges and steep faces due to snow loss. On slopes that he had first climbed un-roped, rock fall more severe than ever before threatened anyone crossing below today. “The effects of climate change and a changing environment were shocking,” says Tom.

This confirmed our group’s fear of traveling during the day when rock fall is more likely, which is becoming more of a problem for groups scaling the peak in this day and age. My father Conrad Anker, now 50, who had worked on the mountain when he was in his 20s identified features and routes on the mountain that were so changed that they were almost un-climbable now because of earlier and earlier melt out and less annual snow fall.

The other major change Tom noted since his first forays onto Denali and into the surrounding mountains was the human presence in the region. “Fifty years ago, there was no Park Service presence in the mountains, no rescue rangers, no radios, no airstrip. If you were determined to enter into the realm of the mountains, you were committing to being completely self-sufficient or die.”

During the 2013 spring climbing season there were 1,151 climbers on Denali alone according to the NPS. Airplane and helicopter access allows for easy entry into the mountains. During any emergency, evacuation is just a satellite phone call away. There are rangers stationed at every camp along the West Buttress route to assist and manage the growing crowds of climbers on Denali.

As the years went on, each time Tom has returned to the mountain, the number of people along the route has grown exponentially. As adventure tourism increased in popularity the numbers of people attempting to climb the mountain have increased gradually, but the biggest change in recent years has been the increase of guided groups on the peak. In 1983, Tom noted more people at 14 Camp, but also that most of them were still genuine climbers and or researchers.

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Ralph Backstrom strides out and onto the main Kahiltna Glacier as the sun sets on Mount Hunter; Photograph by Max Lowe

This year when we made camp at 14 Camp, of the roughly 150 to 200 people living there, more than half were guided clients. Easy access and the glorification of mountain climbing in modern society has crowds growing on Denali much like Everest and the other seven tallest peaks of each continent around the world, with many of the people seeking them doing so with little experience and a hunger for personal glory. During our summit bid, we were caught in a white out and had to hurry from the summit snowfield at risk of becoming lost on the peak. During our decent, we were stuck behind several guided groups with inexperienced people among them, and spent hours exposed to brutal winds, cold, and avalanche danger that we would have otherwise lessened if we were moving at our own pace. “Where expeditions onto Denali were once massive undertakings, people are now flying in, climbing the peak in a handful of days, and flying out or getting dragged up by guides. It’s a different undertaking these days,” reflects Choate.

My experience on the mountain indeed reflected the changes that Tom had seen throughout the years, and many of them are changes lamented by many of the people who knew the mountain when it was a hinterland. There are still many climbers looking to venture fourth onto seldom-conquered routes on the mountain though, and Denali is still very much the wild and untamed place that it once was. And besides for the fact that most forgo the arduous approach and fly to the base of the Kahiltna Glacier, to climb the mountain one must be tenacious of mind and body. Denali has and will continue to change and become more populous as one of the seven summits, but the one thing that every person who visits the mountain regardless of skill or purpose shares, is the profound sense of self amidst a massive and powerful environment, that which we as humans seek in the wilds of our world.