by Andrea Sutherland
As Mike Smith made his way up the summit of Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, clouds gathered along the lower peaks. For 15 hours, Smith and the rest of his team trudged up the remaining 3,100 feet from Camp Four to the summit. Above 18,000 feet, oxygen levels were half the quality as they were at sea level.
At more than 20,000 feet, air temperatures plunged to more than 10 degrees below zero. Alaska’s summer sun skirted the horizon, giving the illusion of nighttime only when it disappeared behind the giant peak.
When he reached the 20,320-foot summit, Smith, a two-time Iraq War veteran , an Army Ranger and captain with 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, took in the view.
“It was crystal clear,” he said. “You could see just about to the Bering Sea. The sun was reflecting off all the lakes and you could see all the jagged peaks.”
For three weeks, Smith and his teammates worked their way up the tallest mountain in North America, dodging avalanches, carefully navigating glacier fields with crevasses 50-300 feet deep and battling high altitude pulmonary edema, a life-threatening altitude-related illness brought on by fluid collecting in the lungs.
More than 1,200 climbers attempted to climb Denali during the 2011 season, which runs from mid-April through mid-July. Half of those climbers made it to the summit. Since the start of the season, five climbers died on the mountain.
“I love climbing,” Smith said. “I’m looking for a big challenge.”
The challenges on Denali were numerous. One of Smith’s teammates had to turn back before reaching the summit due to complications with HAPE. Already thin, Smith lost 15 pounds during the climb.
“We had an avalanche at (Camp Three) one morning,” he said. “It was 200 meters from camp.
The lower glaciers had quite a few ‘punch throughs’ — when your foot punches through the snow bridge to a crevasse below.”
For Smith, Denali became the second of the world’s “Seven Summits” he climbed this year. In January, during his rest and relaxation period from Iraq where his unit was deployed, he flew to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet), the tallest mountain in Africa.
Smith, from Johnstown, Pa., said that when he came to Fort Carson four years ago, the thought of climbing mountains consumed him.
“When I saw Pikes Peak, it loomed over me both literally and figuratively,” he said.
“It preoccupied my thoughts.”
The West Point graduate climbed Pikes Peak (14,115 feet) before his first deployment with 3rd BCT, 4th Inf. Div., to Iraq in 2007.
During his second deployment to Iraq, Smith’s brother-in-law asked him to join the team heading for Denali.
In theater, Smith adopted a marathon training plan to prepare for the three-week climbing trip.
After returning from war in March, he worked to develop his mountaineering skills, including glacier travel, crevasse rescue, fixed line movement and rope travel.
“We did some mountaineering in (Army) Ranger School, but that was limited,” he said.
To bolster his technique, Smith asked employees at Fort Carson’s Outdoor Recreation Center for guidance.
“Mike contacted us while he was still in theater,” said Trevor McConnell, program director at the Outdoor Recreation Center. “We built the curriculum around the Denali trip.”
Smith, his wife and two friends joined McConnell and Carleton Lane, an employee
at the Outdoor Recreation Center and veteran Alaskan mountain guide, for three days and three nights of instruction in the Never Summer Range near Cameron Pass, about 70 miles west of Fort Collins.
“Colorado doesn’t have many glacier fields and the glaciers in Alaska are of larger magnitude,” said Lane, who taught Smith mountaineering basics including how to self-arrest and navigate rope systems. “The crevassing is another difference. Some crevasses are large enough to swallow buildings.”
“I was very prepared because of the training I received,” Smith said. “I felt super confident.”
Reaching the summit of Denali meant one more goal met for Smith. His new mission: to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks by the time he leaves Colorado next year.
He has already tackled 15 summits above 14,000-feet in Colorado, including four peaks over the Fourth of July weekend. His wife, Sarah Smith, has climbed 20.
After reaching Denali’s summit, Smith carved out a message: “(Love) u Sarah.”
For Smith, tackling the world’s tallest peaks will be a lifelong pursuit.
“It’s the combination of challenge and the love of seeing new places and new people,” he said. “Towards the end (of a trip), all you want to do is get off the mountain. After you’re off, all you want to do is get back on the mountain.”