Homer resident and Quest College student Parker Sorensen, Quest graduate and Juneau-native Iris Neary, Quest student Giovanfrancesco “Frenchie” Varoli, and Swiss pre-med student Florence Nikles reached the summit of Denali on Friday, May 13 at 2 p.m.
The four mountaineers were the first to reach the summit for the 2016 season, according to Varoli’s blog “Wolverine Traverse.” The team checked in with the Denali rangers after descending from the mountain, who also confirmed they were the first to summit, according to Sorensen’s mother, Homer resident Martine Sorensen, who has been in contact with the group over the weekend.
“When they came down the mountain, they were like celebrities,” Martine said.
The Denali Mountain Park’s Field Report for May 17 noted that nine mountaineers reached Denali’s summit on May 13. The Homer News could not reach Sorensen or the other mountaineers for comment before publication due to poor cell phone reception in the area where the group is staying.
Sorensen, Neary, Varoli and Nikles left their base camp on April 25 and traversed Denali for 20 days before reaching the summit. Their journey involved freezing temperatures and thin air as they ascended up the mountain to the summit at 20,310 feet.
The mountaineers traveled up the north side of the mountain, over Muldrow Glacier and to the top, then skied down the west buttress. The route is the fourth most common traveled, Neary said.
First, they crossed 20 miles of snow-covered tundra to reach the base of the mountain, where the majority of their food supplies were brought via dogsled back in February. Next, the group traversed 70 miles, up a ridge and over a glacier, to reach the summit.
The group reached the glacier on the fourth day of their trip, carrying 120 pound loads of food and gear. Day six saw them at the base of Karsten’s Ridge, where they repaired equipment.
Despite the intensity of their journey, the group had many moments of laughter. Day seven in Varoli’s blog reported that the mountaineers made an igloo, sumo wrestled and had a distance peeing contest, in addition to a scouting mission to anticipate the next day’s climbing. On Day 11, Varoli wrote that while they rested at about 14,000 feet, he tickled Sorensen until he passed out – the group revived Sorensen with CPR and a stick of butter.
The weather fluctuated between heavy wind gusts and warm sunshine as they climbed the rest of the way up to the summit. As they reached the top, they found the thin air taxing. Amid reports on day 19 that they would be the first to summit if they made it up the next day, they carried on. Varoli’s first sentence after they made it to the summit and skied down to 11,000 feet was about how thick the air was.
“We are sitting here at 11,000ft enjoying the thick air like it’s a huckleberry chocolate malt milkshake,” Varoli wrote.
The group of four 20-somethings put in months of work beforehand to prepare for the physical demands of climbing Denali.
It could easily be said they have been preparing for this their entire lives.
Sorensen, who is 22, grew up in Homer, so playing outside and then moving on to sports like skiing and climbing were natural transitions for him. He now studies environmental science at Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia. While attending Quest he met Varoli, 25, and Neary, who is 24.
Neary was raised in Juneau, where she decided she would have to learn mountaineering skills to deal with the glaciers in the area.
“I realized if I wanted to start hiking more in Juneau, I was going to have to start going onto glaciers because all the regular mountains just sort of ended in glaciers,” Neary said. “So I took a mountaineering course.”
Neary continued learning after moving to Squamish for school through climbing with friends. She studied outdoor education and graduated from Quest in April 2015.
Varoli began life in New York City before moving to upstate New York at age 8. Before he took up alpine skiing, he was a ballet dancer for eight years. His area of study at school is currently related to poetry and the human experience. Living in Squamish gives Varoli the opportunity to climb, which is part of the reason he chose Quest.
“It’s the outdoor recreation capital of Canada, that’s what they claim. Amazing mountain bike trails, Whistler, backcountry skiing, biggest granite monolith that’s not in the Alpine other than Yosemite in North America, so, big granite walls. Rivers; lots of kayaking and windsurfing,” Sorensen said. “So there’s everything in this little tiny valley. It’s a town twice the size of Homer and it has it all.”
Nikles, who is also 22, grew up in Switzerland. She and her brother started alpine skiing and mountain biking from a young age, and then began mountaineering to fill time after they stopped alpine skiing. More recently, she has been training with a group who want to become mountain guides and studying medicine in Switzerland. Nikles met Neary when she was doing an exchange program in Juneau seven years ago. She is taking a gap year from her studies — traveling with Neary and now climbing Denali.
Varoli has attempted to climb Denali once before, four years ago, but had to turn around part way through because of avalanche conditions. He looks forward to making the summit on this trip.
“I’m happy that I didn’t summit because I want to do it with better style. It’s nice to have a goal and not achieve it for a little bit when you know you can do a lot better,” Varoli said before the group left Homer.
Neary works at the Wonder Lake Lodge in Denali and started planning the trip, motivated by her mountain view. Since they are going across 20 miles of tundra before they even reach the mountain, the route is a lot harder, Neary said. Unlike groups that climb up one side of the mountain and then return the same way, they cannot leave caches of items behind to pick up on the way back. All of their gear must be as light as possible, and they have quite a bit of it.
“Denali is one of the more gear intensive mountains,” Varoli said. “It’s not super, super technical, so we don’t need certain technical gear that’s exotic to the general public, but we do need a lot of stuff to be prepared. It’s one of the coldest places on Earth.”
To cope with the amount of gear needed and the desire to make their loads as light as possible, they have been modifying their gear piece by piece.
Sorensen drilled holes in his crampons, traction devices that hook onto the wearers shoes to travel across snow and ice, just to shave off a couple ounces. His boots are three different ski boots put together, which makes them both light and warm. They also created ultra-light sleds out of super tough but moldable plastic sheets. The sleds will hold bags of supplies as they travel across the tundra and up the mountain, and then roll up to go on their backs as they ski down the mountain.
The same principle applies to their food. Neary, Sorensen and Nikles spent their Christmas break packing food to send ahead on dog sled, only leaving three days worth for the first part of the trip. Neary spent a month dehydrating foods herself before the packing began, Sorensen said.
“Unless you want to carry it 20 miles across the tundra, you have to get it dog sledded in in February because there’s no motorized vehicles in the park,” Sorensen said. “So you can fly it in but you can’t get it to where you want it to be. The only way is dog sled. We sent 250 pounds of food and fuel to the edge of the glacier in February.”
The food is high calorie and light: pasta, granola, instant ramen noodles, nutrition bars and a myriad of other foods meant to sustain them at high altitude. Sorensen said he plans to consume about 5,000 calories a day while they are climbing.
The group spent about a month in Homer before heading up to Denali, where they trained across the bay and worked on their gear in Sorensen’s family home’s garage.
The community also lent a helping hand: NOMAR donated three extra-large expedition duffle bags and the Bay Club gave them a free month to train at their facility. After planning for months, they were more than ready to be on their way.
“I think we’re pretty darn well prepared compared to many people,” Varoli said.
Anna Frost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org