Billy Webster Lives His Dream: Scales (Most of) Mount McKinley

Since college, Chief of Staff Billy Webster had dreamed of climbing the highest mountain peak in North America – 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in south central Alaska. The challenge was on the list of ten things in his lifetime posted on his dorm room door. Why McKinley? Webster is not sure. But the pull was there.

Webster says that “Denali” or “The Great One,” as the Alaskans call it, is an awesome mountain, “…and the only way to see it is to walk on it. And of course climbing a peak like this is a physical and mental test….”

Although Webster is an experienced hiker, he had never done anything like an expeditions ascent before. Having spent the past year conditioning and the last five months gaining 25 pounds (“mostly on chocolate milkshakes”): investing thousands of dollars in clothing and equipment (“Your life may depend on the quality of your gear”): and psyching himself up for the four-week ascent, he left Washing D.C. on May 3.

The group of six climbers and three guides roped themselves together – a group of five and a group of four – dependent on one another for survival. Although a number of climbers die on McKinley every year, Webster felt confident; the head guide was one of the best mountaineers in the world.

The group left the base camp at 7,000 feet and spent the first two weeks getting to 14,000 feet where there was a beautiful plateau. So far, the weather had been good. Nights had been -10 to -40 below and the days were in the 30s and 40s.

“On a clear day the air smells great, you can see forever, and the sky is so blue it is nearly black,” Webster says.

He particularly remembers a day of whites. “All around you were different shades of white. The mountain was white, the snow around you was white, the clouds were white, the clouds were white, and then a flock of white snow geese flew across it all. It was eerie, almost surreal.”

As they gained altitude, breathing became more and more difficult. The climbers combatted the thin air of the extreme northern latitude by “power breathing,” a technique they learned to force oxygen into the lungs.

Logistics were tough. “You carry everything with you including 300 pounds of food. To get the stuff up the mountain you have to do everything twice. You take the sled with the food ahead, bury the food, and go back to where you started. You sleep there, then take the rest of the gear up the next day.”

The daily schedule included melting snow into water and boiling it – a two-hour process at that altitude – both in the morning and evening.

The most difficult aspect of the climb for Webster was sleep. It was almost impossible. “I went for five days and nights with no sleep at all. You wear from six to nine layers of clothing when you are in your sleeping bag – expedition-weight-underwear, a jumpsuit, windsuit, pile pants, a pile jacket, and a lightweight parka. In addition, you have to take many other things into your sleeping bag with you so your body warmth can precent them from freezing – goggles, climbing harness (so buckles won’t freeze), bottles of water, suntan lotion, even your lunch for the next day. You just can’t move. If you do asleep, your shallow breathing will wake you up.”

Even with all that around him, Webster says, he was always cold; he was warm only once-when his glasses froze up and he fell and slid down a steep incline. “While I was waiting to be rescued, I sweated like mad. That was the only time my body warmed up.” From 14,000 feet, the group headed for an ice wall that would take them up to the next broad plateau. Nearing their goal, they saw a weather front coming in their direction. It was impossible to tell how fast it was moving, but they were able to climb to the ice ridge above the wall, dig hoes to hold…