They’re On Top of the World! Zebra’s Three Amigos Successfully Summit Denali after a Slight Scare
Simon Wallis, Jason Harvey and Mark Thomson tell us what it was like at 20,000 feet – and remind us that climbing the tallest mountain isn’t always the hardest part of these expeditions.
Finally, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Simon Wallis, Jason Harvey and Mark Thomson – Zebra’s Three Amigos – are back on solid (sea-level) ground after spending the past week carefully descending Denali, one of the world’s tallest mountains.
They apologized for leaving us (and their loved ones) in the dark for so long, but they were quite literally on top of the world and off the grid.
Now that they’ve caught their breath, defrosted, and rejoined society, they’re ready to tell us all about the last leg of their adventure…
“Hi everyone, here's our latest update from our Denali Expedition:
As expected, Wednesday's weather was true to the forecast, so we were forced to spend a day at high camp waiting for a summit window. It was very cold and windy with spectacular sunshine and views, but there was not a great deal to do other than sit and wait it out in the tents. We hadn’t even brought the cards up because we were trying to cut back on every bit of unnecessary weight. Fortunately for us, the weather changed for the better, so on Thursday June 16, the summit attempt was on. In preparation for summit day, we all made sure that every item of clothing and liquids was stowed inside our sleeping bags overnight, as anything left outside our bags would freeze overnight.
Summit day started with a wakeup call at 6:30 a.m. Food at this altitude is a very simple affair – basically whatever can be mixed with boiling water. We had porridge and coffee to start the day and it was -30c outside. In that temperature, it’s really difficult to get all our kit on and out of the tent without fingers and toes going numb and risking frostbite. For summit morning, we wore every layer of clothes we had as well as hand and feet warmers. The Three Amigos were in a single rope team led by our guide, Tyler.
The first part of the ascent is a steep section of exposed narrow ice track that climbs from high camp up to Denali pass. This section is called the Autobahn, which is a misleading title and actually comes from an accident where three German climbers sadly lost their lives in a fall quite a few years ago. They weren’t roped together correctly. There are various points on this section where the path is no more than one boot wide. At the top, it is a sheer drop into the valley.
Because of this, climbers now are roped and carabinered to various points on the path for safety. We were reminded of the dangers when five climbers in the group above us slipped in front of us, taking the whole team off the path and only saved by the running protection. The climbers were all shaken up but continued their attempt after recovering. This delayed us a little at the start.
When we finally reached Denali pass, we were able to take a short break before heading into a section called Zebra Rocks. It’s a spectacular section of black and white exposed rockface steeply rising out of the valley. Through the day, we were blessed with bright blue skies and sunshine which lifted our spirits. The winds had also dropped considerably. This actually became another challenge for us because we would go from freezing temperatures in the shade and wearing up to five layers to suddenly needing to strip down to one or two layers to avoid overheating when climbing.
The relentless climbing continued through the Zebra Rocks, up through a snowcapped dome and then down into an area called the “Football Field” which, unlike the “Polo Field,” was a relatively flat section. The welcome flatness of the "Football Field" gave us time to contemplate the task ahead. You could clearly see the summit, even though there was still two more hours of climbing before we would get there. There was also the looming presence of the aptly named "Pig Hill" separating us from the summit ridge. This is where our guide asked us one last time if we wanted to turn back as often this final steep hill breaks the will of many and contributes to the low success rate of summiting Denali. Clearly, we were not going to turn round after all we'd been through to get this far.
So onwards and upwards clipped into the running protection, we started our ascent.
At the top of Pig Hill, we had our first full view of the summit ridge – an absolutely spectacular but hugely daunting snow ridge leading up to the summit. The ridge took about 30 minutes to traverse with some sections only a foot wide and 1,000-foot drops to the left and 7,000-foot drops to the right. The only thing to do is to concentrate on the rope in front of you and keep moving at those times.
Finally, the Summit revealed itself to us and we'd done it, we'd reached the highest point in North America!
We were thrilled but exhausted. Zippy got his photo at the top, and then we started the long journey down. No mountain is complete until you're back at base camp!
By the time we got back to high camp out was 12:30 a.m.; we had set off at 9:30 a.m. – 15 hours of effort, but well worth it. We had some soup to warm us through and then passed out for the night.
Friday, June 17, we started the main descent back to the airfield. We packed down high camp and started back along the West Buttress Ridge and down the steep Head Wall to Camp 3 at 14,000 feet where we would spend a night. The weather was particularly bad with high winds and white outs. Descending the ridge especially was a real challenge in the bad weather whilst having to give way to climbers ascending. It took all our concentration to get off safely. The journey back to Camp 3 was slow and challenging, taking nearly five hours in total. We setup a temporary camp for the night at 14,000 feet and were pleased to be in slightly warmer temperatures and through the most technical part of the climbing.
Saturday, June 18, saw us loading up the sleds, retrieving everything left in snow caches and marching down to base camp on the Kahiltner glacier, passing through Camp 2 at 11,000 feet as we descended. For this section of the expedition, we had to manage descending with heavy packs and sleds whilst roped together. This was a challenging and frustrating experience with sleds continually knocking into the back of each of us and often tripping us up. We spent nearly six hours descending to base camp at 7,800 feet where we setup a temporary camp in readiness for a final, very early push across the glacier to the airfield the morning after.
We expected Sunday, June 19 to be our last day on the mountain. We were woken early at 2:00 a.m. to give us time to pack the camp up, load sleds and leave base camp to traverse the glacier by 4:00 a.m. whilst it was at its coldest and most stable. This last day was an approximate 11km hike back to the airstrip where we landed just over 2.5 weeks prior.
The terrain was largely flat but, again, pulling sleds with heavy loads whilst carrying backpacks and being roped up together proved quite frustrating for some of us. The last part of this final section was a hill that rose from the glacier field up to the airstrip, aptly named “Heartbreak Hill” because going uphill at that point is the last thing that any of us wanted to do! Because of the relatively warm season and the previous glacier melt, the airstrip had been moved up to the highest point possible which actually meant Heartbreak Hill was twice as long as it normally would have been and took the better part of 1.5 hours to climb. As we finally reached the airstrip, we were delighted to be at the end of an amazing and exhausting journey.
As a surprise, Simon our lead guide, retrieved some previously cached beers from the snow and we celebrated our achievement with a toast. Very soon after that, the clouds descended and we were in the middle of a whiteout, which meant that the planes to take us back to civilization were not able to get to us. We spent most of the day looking at the sky hoping for a break in the weather to allow us to fly out, but at about 4:00 p.m. we eventually gave up and pitched a tent for a final night of camping on the mountain.
Monday, June 20, we woke around 6:00 a.m. and the weather did not look any better than Sunday, so expectation of a flight out, shower and real food were low. At 7:00 a.m., however, the airstrip manager, Lisa announced to all campers that planes would be flying, so with a spring in our step we packed down the tent and started to prepare for the final flight off. There were around 40 people to pick up from the airstrip that day, and the planes were small and each one only able to take seven passengers. Prior to any planes landing, Lisa got all the climbers to put on their snowshoes and line up on the runway, walk the length of it to stamp down and compact the 12 inches of snow that had fallen the previous night. Then planes started coming in one by one. Finally, at 11:00 a.m., we had our seat on one of them and before lunchtime we were back in sunny Talkeetna after a spectacular flight off the mountain. The first stop was AMS headquarters to sort out all our gear, have a weigh in (where we discovered between us we’d lost a grand total of 36 lbs) and eat lunch before heading back for a well-earned shower and celebration meal that evening.
Thanks again to everyone that has supported us through this challenge. We've smashed our Just Giving target, but the site is still open for those that would still like to donate:https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/teamzebra-thethreeamigos
Until the next challenge!
The Three Amigos”
Zebra will match all donations made to the Three Amigos’ Denali Expedition drive with the Red Cross, up to $10,000. So, help them celebrate this amazing feat by making a donation to the Red Cross in their name here.
See how far the Three Amigos have come thus far. Check out past posts now:
Want Our Bi-Weekly Blog Roundup?
Subscribe to Zebra's Blog
Prefer Real-Time Notifications?
Get the RSS feeds
Search the Blog
Are You a Zebra Developer?
Find more technical discussions on our Developer Portal blog.
Reflexis is Now Part of Zebra Technologies
Visit the Reflexis blog for more retail, hospitality and banking-related insights.
Fetch Robotics is Now Part of Zebra Technologies
Visit the Fetch blog for robotics-related insights.
Looking for more expert insights?
Visit the Zebra Story Hub for more interviews, news, and industry trend analysis.