Setting up camp would normally take an hour, but after reaching the 14,200-foot level on Denali in May, Steve Zabawa was physically exhausted.
“I would sit for 20 minutes looking at the tent,” he recalled. “I had no energy to even put a stake in the ground. It took four to five hours to get camp set up.”
When the site was finally established, the Billings businessman said he slept deeply to recover. But that rest revitalized him for the final pitches up the West Buttress before summiting the 20,320-foot Alaskan peak, also known as Mount McKinley. He did it with his 23-year-old son, University of Utah graduate Zac Zabawa, who planned and guided the expedition, as well as set the rugged uphill pace.
“He always wanted to pass everyone,” Steve said. “Here I am, at 55, behind him and trying to keep up.”
Highest in North America
Denali, the highest mountain in North America, spikes into the sky about 200 miles north of Anchorage. It was first climbed in 1913, making this season a centennial for mountaineers.
Because of the relatively easy access to the mountain, compared with some of the more remote summits in other countries, Denali attracts climbers from around the world, many of whom are training for other expeditions.
This spring and early summer, 1,151 climbers registered to climb the mountain. Of those, 787 reached the summit, or 68 percent. That was the highest success rate since 1977, when 79 percent reached the top of the peak. Such a high rate of success was attributable to fairly mild weather for a mountain so close to the Arctic Circle and its unpredictable climate.
For Zac, the nice weather was a double-edged sword. He liked that it made the summit attainable, but he now wonders if he could reach the top in more difficult weather.
“I wouldn’t change anything, but I do want to try it again in the future and really test my resolve,” he said.
On their first day, May 21, Steve and Zac witnessed how the mountain’s fickle weather could thrash climbers.
“The first couple of days walking up the mountain, there were these other guys coming down,” Steve said.
He tried to engage them in conversation, asking how their trip went. They had been caught in a vicious three-day storm.
“They didn’t want to talk. They were just beat up,” Steve said.
Working up to it
Steve and Zac prepared for their expedition by taking mountaineering courses in Alaska that trained them on everything from rope work to backcountry skiing, about avalanches and searching for crevasses, as well as simply surviving in a world of snow and rock.
Zac’s preparation for the trip stretched back to last August, when he began researching the climb to celebrate his graduation from college. Then he spent 28 days at a military mountaineering course in the Himalyas where he learned navigation, avalanche forecasting and expedition-style planning.
“All of these, and the guide course I took immediately prior to the trip, gave me the experience to be able to keep my Dad alive, which really was the whole goal of the trip,” Zac said. “A successful summit was only a secondary objective.”
A three-day storm dropped 3 feet of snow on Steve as he trained on Eldridge Glacier in Denali National Park.
“I got kind of used to what a snowstorm is like there,” he said.
Being cold wasn’t a problem during training or on the mountain.
“Once you get on the snow and living in it, you really enjoy it,” he said. “I think we build up how nasty it can be in a storm, but if you’re dressed appropriately, it is very comfortable up there, even though the average temperature was minus 10.”
Zac said he made it a point to get his father as familiarized as possible with the gear and winter camping which “was essential to him being a functioning member of the team, mostly so I didn’t have to totally guide him up the mountain.”
After their separate Alaskan training sessions, the father and son met up in Talkeetna, the jumping-off point for airplane flights to Denali. For two days they organized the gear that Zac had spent four months assembling, making sure they had everything necessary. Each of them would take 125 pounds of equipment – including sleds and skis and 25 pounds of food apiece for 25 days.
Fourteen days is the historic average for a Denali climb. Steve and Zac did it in 11 days – nine to ascend and two days to descend.
Food is key, since Steve’s workout watch showed him burning up to 7,000 calories a day, sometimes climbing or working for 12 hours a day. Steve said one section that features an 800-foot climb up a rope was “the most difficult day of exertion” in his life.
“Your heart just comes out of your chest,” he said.
The two had made climbs to the top of Grand Teton in Wyoming and Mount Rainier in Washington, but nothing like the expedition-style climbing they undertook at Denali. Part of the Denali assault required the two to climb up to their next camp, leaving part of their gear behind. Dropping back to retrieve the rest of their gear, they would then climb to their camp again. The system is called a double haul.
“Once I got up on the mountain, I didn’t realize what I had bit off,” Steve said.
He had been working out in Billings, training for two hours a day. In Alaska, he was climbing five to six hours a day while carrying all of his gear, which averaged about 50 pounds in his backpack alone.
“I was just exerting a ton of effort, going up the hill like a donkey,” he said.
He lost 15 pounds on the climb.
Such physical exertion combined with the close quarters can lead to short tempers. During one of the moves up to 14,200 feet, father and son clashed over how to advance along an icy stretch. Tempers flared, and at one point reaching the summit seemed in doubt. But the two persevered, their bond growing along the way.
“Our relationship is the strongest it has ever been because of this expedition,” Steve said.
To reach the summit, the duo decided to break with the double-haul method and simply pack enough food to make the top on the last two pitches.
From their camp at 14,200, the duo ascended to camp at 17,200 and from there without a double haul to the summit.
“That forced us to move faster,” Steve said.
Luckily the weather held and their gamble paid off. On May 30, the father and son reached the summit, taking about a half-hour to enjoy the expansive view and snap photos. To celebrate, Steve bit into a frozen candy bar that chipped his tooth – the only injury on the trip.
Steve said he has no doubt Zac will call one of these days to suggest another expedition, possibly one of the other highest summits on the world’s seven continents. Until then, Steve said he has no plans to make a similar expedition anytime soon.
“It’s like having a baby,” he said. “I want my baby to get about 2 years old before I make another plan.”