Climber finds ‘the simple life’ on Denali

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
K.T. Miller courtesy photo
Kt Miller | K.T. Miller photo

Roaring Fork Valley resident Jacqui Edgerly has ice water in her veins when under pressure.

Edgerly tackled Denali in June for her first true mountaineering expedition. Plus, she did it with some of the best-known names in mountaineering — climber Conrad Anker, author Jon Krakauer and snowboarder Jeremy Jones.

“That was the most intimidating part — going with the most experienced climbers and not having much experience,” she said. “I had heard about most of them in their books and movies.”

It’s not as if she’s a stranger to the mountains.

Edgerly, 24, was immersed in the outdoors while growing up. Her parents, Stuart and Anna Edgerly, spent a lot of time with Jacqui and her sister in the usual Roaring Fork Valley pursuits — camping, skiing and nearly everything else outside. Edgerly graduated from Aspen High School in 2007 and said the outdoor education opportunities were phenomenal.

She now competes in big-mountain competitions as a skier for Black Diamond and is a member of the Aspen Skiing Co.-sponsored ski team.

“I spend most of my winters out-of-bounds,” said Edgerly, a resident of Old Snowmass.

A “totally random” occurrence in the backcountry of Jackson Hole landed her on the Denali trip. She was promoting Black Diamond gear at Powder Week in February when she ended up meeting Anker’s son, Max Lowe.

He told her about the Denali trip, and she accepted a casual invitation. Lowe followed up a few days later, and she was officially part of the team of 14, which included three other women.

Edgerly said the members of the team came from diverse backgrounds with a broad range of skill levels. She figures she was in “the middle” skill-wise.

Black Diamond provided her with some gear and she borrowed the rest from friends with more climbing experience.

Edgerly’s weight is typically between 120 and 125 pounds, she said. She and other team members started off with about 120 pounds in their sleds and backpacks while striking out for a primary camp at about 14,000 feet on the famed Alaskan peak.

She and the other skiers on the trip would use climbing skins when they could. Sometimes, the terrain was so steep they had to take off their skis and put crampons on their boots.

They flew into a base camp at about 7,200 feet in elevation and spent the next few days hauling gear and food to higher camps — often caching supplies and returning for the rest. They established camps at 7,800 feet, then 9,800 and 11,000 before reaching the “14 camp.”

They traveled on the glacier at night to take advantage of colder temperatures.

“Time doesn’t matter because it’s always light,” she said, noting the trip came during the summer solstice.

Hauling the equivalent of her weight up more than 7,000 vertical feet over a handful of days left her unfazed. In fact, she said, she didn’t even lose weight over the course of the trip. It probably fluctuated, she said, going down when the weather was good and they were active; going back up when they were on hold because of weather.

They had to be prepared for any type of weather during the summer.

“It could be negative 40 or it could be 70 degrees,” Edgerly said. They had “amazing weather” from the start at 14 camp, but weather turned from ally to nemesis on their effort to summit.

Edgerly was among a subgroup of her team that made four attempts that were scratched because of weather.

Three times they had to turn around because of high winds, thick clouds and occasional whiteouts. The highest they got was 18,500 feet in elevation.

On the fourth attempt, they were 90 minutes from the summit when they were chased down by a freak thunderstorm. The first lightning strike made her and colleagues question their situation.

The second strike sent them scrambling for a safer environment.

The atmosphere was so electrically charged, Edgerly said, that the metal edges of the skis she was carrying on her pack were “zapping” her legs when they made contact.

They typically rested for at least 24 hours between their attempts at the summit. The longest wait was for three days.

There were 200-plus people at the 14 camp.

“It’s like this big party, basically,” Edgerly said.

They would ski to pass the time. Another group created a “putt-putt” golf course that was a hit at the camp.

The Anker team splintered because of the weather delays. Some members had to depart before reaching the summit; a handful made a successful ascent early on, separate from Edgerly’s subgroup of six.

After more than three weeks, the planned departure date arrived.

Edgerly and five colleagues decided to give it a final try. They departed from the camp at 14,000 feet at 2:30 a.m. on Day 24.

They refueled at another camp at 17,000 feet en route to the summit at 20,320.

“It starts to get hard at 18,000 just because of the altitude,” she said.

They made it to the endless views from the summit and spent about 30 minutes before heading down. They had stashed their skis below the top because of high winds, but found peaceful conditions on high.

“We had an epic [time] getting down,” Edgerly said.

She and another skier in her group lowered themselves into a gnarly chute that opened to broader terrain but was covered in blue ice.

She said she would slip 10 feet before catching hold with the help of her ice axe. The stakes of a fall were hair-raising — crevasses and holes that dropped thousands of feet. (She is writing a detailed version for the Black Diamond Journal.)

It was one of the scariest moments of her life, she said.

They made it back safely at 9 p.m.

They had to wait another six days to fly out due to weather, so she spent a total of 29 days on Denali.

Despite the terror of the descent, Edgerly remembers the trip with nothing but fondness. She said the experience would inspire her to undertake other treks in wide-open spaces.

“I want to do more winter camping, not necessarily to get the peak but to just be out there,” she said.

When asked about the highlight of the Denali journey, Edgerly didn’t need time to think.

It’s the simplicity of life on a big peak, she said.

“If it’s nice, you move. If it’s not, you stay.”