Retreat from Denali

Reaching the summit isn’t the measure of a successful climb.

Story by Tim Leach ’99

Tim Leach '99

June 16, 2001

As the sun circled farther north, the shadow cast by the ridge crept closer to our camp. Even in mid-June, at 14,200 feet on Denali (or Mount McKinley), the temperature difference between sunlight and shade is dramatic. Peter Tilney ’99 and Paul Marcolini, my climbing partners, ducked into the tent to pull on their heavy down parkas. Soon the temperature would plummet from the teens to around 20 degrees below zero. As the evening shadows lengthened across our camp, we retreated to the warm cocoons of our sleeping bags.

Paul’s cough had deepened over the last few days. It was most noticeable when we were climbing hard, but sleeping was becoming more difficult for him as well. We were concerned: Was it high-altitude pulmonary edema — were his lungs filling up with fluid? Or was it just the dry cough common to climbers at high elevation? With Paul’s condition more severe, we knew we would have to make a hard decision in the morning. We all hoped one more night of rest would make the difference and we would be able to continue upward.

Humans are inclined to base their decisions on the assumption that everything will improve. Of course, when you are three miles above sea level, that sunny (and somewhat warped) perspective can get you killed. So I fell asleep wondering what options existed. Six months of preparation and training had gone into the trip. The 20,320-foot summit was only two days away from our camp at 14,200 feet. If Paul could not go on, how fast would we need to get him down? Would it be worth it to rest and acclimatize for another day? If Paul could stay here for a little longer, should Pete and I try for the summit alone? We had climbed for a week and a half to get to this point on the mountain. As I drifted off to sleep, I even entertained notions of setting out for the top on my own if Paul and Pete wanted to go down.

June 17, 2001

The sun, emerging from the shoulder of Denali, woke us with another bluebird day. Overnight the moisture from our breath had frozen in crystals to the inside of the tent. Every so often a snowflake would fall from the tent wall and flutter down to rest on my eyelash. As I unzipped my sleeping bag, Paul reported that his lungs were feeling worse.

At the first signs of the cough, he had hit it with steroids, antibiotics, and bronchodilators, but with no success. We had even taken a couple of extra rest days to acclimatize, hoping his body would work through it. The cough kept Paul from sleeping, and the less he slept the worse he felt. If we pushed it any further, either staying at 14,200 feet or moving him up the mountain, his health could deteriorate close to the point of no return.

Paul, 22 years my senior, has been a friend, climbing partner, and mentor for several years. Yet this was the first time I had seen him really upset. I knew that of the three climbers on this trip, he had the greatest emotional investment in reaching the summit. In a previous year on Denali, Paul had turned around before reaching the top because of the condition of a teammate. He knew that feeling of bitter regret, and he knew that Pete and I were being pulled in two different directions. He had been there before.

The higher we went the more the altitude would affect our ability to make decisions. A moment’s distraction while walking down the street at home means you trip over the curb. Losing concentration while climbing — while tying into the rope or kicking a crampon into the slope — could end your life. A simple task like pulling on a boot becomes time-consuming and exhausting. Any action needs to be thought out more thoroughly: Three years ago, a climber who got up in the morning to relieve himself fell to his death because he neglected to pull on his mountaineering boots over his slick-soled liner boots.

As a team, each of us relied on the others. We were connected by our climbing rope, our lifeline, which allowed us to catch each other should one of us fall into a crevasse or off a knife-edge ridge. We were bound by common desires, and they had to remain in the proper order of priority: return from the mountain alive, return with our friendship intact, and, last, make the summit. Paul’s guilt about holding us back from a possible summit could not be part of the equation.

The psychic energy pushing us to the summit had to be shut off and then redirected. Paul wanted Pete and me to continue to the top. Pete and I have climbed together for seven years, and I trust Pete’s judgment, especially on medical issues because he is a paramedic. We both knew we should help Paul down off the mountain as soon as possible. In an environment that tolerates such a small margin of error, we could not risk Paul’s health or the security of the team. The decision to turn around took the whole morning to work through: between each of us and, finally, among us all. At noon, we settled on going down the mountain the next morning.

We still needed to retrieve a cache of food and fuel we had placed at 16,200 feet. Pete and I climbed up the head wall to the West Buttress. It was a beautiful day, sunny and relatively warm with barely a breath of wind. Our dreams of reaching the summit of Denali are filled with days like that.

Pete and I decided to climb as high as possible in the few hours remaining before we had to return to camp. By early evening, we made it to 17,200 feet. We were both thinking how close we were: One day to the summit. One day.

April 21, 2002

Tomorrow morning, Paul and I again fly into Denali to make another attempt on the summit.

I often think about last year’s climb. That final day would have been perfect for a climb to the summit: warm, no wind, clear visibility, and hardpack snow, rock, and ice. But my mind carries little regret about the decision to leave the mountain. As a team, we decided to leave so as to ensure the health and safety of our team. As a team, we worked through every particular of the decision and came through with a unified voice. Yes: We had a very successful climb.

What fills my mind are the swirling pixel images from that final climb: on the headwall on the West Buttress and the knife-edge ridge from 16,000 to 17,200 feet, one of the most beautiful sections of the entire route. I remember the moment just before down-climbing the headwall. Though it was about 9 p.m., the sun was bright and perfect in the northwest sky. I could feel its warmth soothe my tired muscles.

That is the memory that will stay with me.


Tim Leach and Paul Marcolini returned from Denali in early May, again without having reached the summit. “Paul and I were the highest team on the mountain (at 8,000 feet) for a week as a big storm cycle ripped through,” Tim says. “We could only shovel and hold on, hoping the blizzard would break before the tent.” For a week, the climbers were confined to their tent. “Imagine sitting on a double bed with a close friend for a week, only getting up to relieve yourself (in a blizzard), shovel off the tent (we were getting buried), and occasionally check the weather.”

By the time the weather cleared, they were too low on food, fuel, and time to reach the summit. Yet there was an upside. “Paul and I got to think, talk, write and read a lot during our storm-bound week. We left the mountain still friends, probably closer friends. It’s all part of the adventure.”

Leach’s perspective remains well-balanced. “The mountain willing, we will someday see the summit, and come back to tell the story.”

About Tim Leach ’99

Over the last decade, Tim Leach ’99 has climbed, biked, paddled, and adventured around the world. Following graduation, he initiated a local outdoor education and leadership program for Bates and Lewiston-Auburn students. His 2001 climb on Denali was followed by a 500-mile bicycle trek north to Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, where his fieldwork examined the potential impact of federal proposals to allow oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. A co-founder of the Wild North Project to protect the refuge’s coastal plain, he’s helping to coordinate this fall’s “Walk to Washington, D.C., for the Arctic Refuge,” a three-month, 8,000-mile journey involving members of the native Gwich’in of northern Alaska.