Nome brothers first to summit Denali this season
Two young men from Nome were the first to summit North America’s highest peak in the 2019 climbing season. Brothers Wilson and Oliver Hoogendorn, ages 20 and 21 respectively, reached the summit of Denali on Sunday, May 19, pushing on through tough weather conditions when other climbers had turned back.
“There were people coming down saying ‘Its too cold up there, too windy.’ We got up there and it wasn’t terrible,” said Oliver Hoogendorn. “We thought it would be worse because they made it sound so bad.” He pointed out that it’s always windy in Nome so they’re used to it. “It’s a better mindset to have when you’re out there and you’re used to it,” said Wilson. “When it feels like home,” his brother added.
Veteran climber Ian McRae of Nome tells how he was once asked what the weather is like on the summit of Denali. “I said ‘About like Nome.’ They thought I was kidding but I kind of wasn’t. Just living here in Nome and growing up here gives the brothers an advantage in coping with the conditions on the climb. The wind, the snow, the cold. Just feeling it is going to be good preparation for going on the hill.”
The Hoogendorn brothers’ successful summit attempt began on May 5 when Sheldon Air Service of Talkeetna dropped them at Denali base camp, which is on the Kahiltna glacier at 7,000 feet elevation. From there they pulled heavy sleds with food and equipment to 11,500 feet, stashing them there. Without the sleds they ascended to 12,500 on a cache run, then returned to the 11,000 ft. elevation camp to sleep. Next it was to 14,000 feet with just backpacks and there they spent four nights getting acclimated to the altitude. “It got easier but it’s not that easy,” said Wilson. Next they spent two nights at 17,000 feet.
The next morning they went for the summit. “We started at 5:30 a.m. and were back at 17,000 at 8:30 p.m.,” said Oliver.
“There’s one or two parts where it’s kind of technical, but it’s mostly just a slog,” said Oliver. “Like going up the headwall from 14,000 to 17,000 we got really steep blue ice. And then walking the ridge there was wind coming from both sides and we had our skis on our back and it was like steep climbing and trying to hold yourself steady.” The summit is 20,300 feet above sea level.
Once at the summit they put on their skis and headed down. “It’s a way faster way to get down,” said Oliver. “I almost feel like it’s safer because if something went wrong we could have just skied out. And it makes a good transition. You’re super foggy in the head, you feel pretty high. You ski down and start getting more oxygen and it’s just immediate relief.”
“At 14,000 is when your brain starts getting kind of foggy,” said Wilson. “We saw a plane at 14,000, a Super Cub,” said Oliver. “We waved and he waved back,” said Wilson. “Way up there!” Oliver.
What about conversation during the climb? “Not too much,” said Oliver. “Like when Wilson starts wobbling I’d say ‘What’s up?”
“We’re not much talkers but we checked on each other once in a while,” said Wilson.
“When we first got to 20,000 feet, Wilson asked if we should turn around,” said Oliver. “Because we’d had no water that day,” said Wilson. “Like maybe a couple of sips in the morning but then it all froze on the way up.” They had an MSR pump stove on the summit climb so they would have been able to melt snow. “I had a little fig bar,” said Oliver. “I had a Pop Tart that morning,” said Wilson. “I had snacks in my back pack but didn’t really eat that day.” The brothers agreed they didn’t get hungry because the altitude kills your appetite.
When they arrived at the National Park Service tent at base camp they got a good reception. “They were happy to hear it,” said Oliver. “It was good news because everyone else had said no summit.” As of Monday afternoon only nine climbers have reached the summit out of 121 who made the attempt and failed. They didn’t see many Alaskans during the climb, mostly foreigners and climbers from the Lower 48. Denali draws climbers from all over the world.
How did the Hoogendorn brothers get interested in climbing and progress in their knowledge and skills to the point where they could climb Denali and then ski down? “We started out running pretty much, hanging out with Jeff Collins,” said Oliver. Collins is a teacher at Anvil City Science Academy who likes endurance sports. “He started taking us out on runs, probably when I was about 15. That kind of got us out and then we started going by ourselves.”
“Mostly it was just running out at Fox Creek,” said Wilson. “Then we said ‘I wonder what it looks like back here in the winter?’” So then we went back there in the winter with skis and then scrolling through social media we saw someone skied down Denali. ‘We should do that!’” said Wilson.
The park service limits the number of climbers on Denali to 1,500 per season. Recent photos from Mt. Everest show long lines of climbers in traffic jams going up. “Crazy,” said Oliver. “Glad I’m not doing Everest right now.”
The fee to climb Denali this year is $270 with a park entrance fee of $10. Airfare for the two of them was $560 with Sheldon. Expenses other than that included food and some gear, but they had most of the gear they needed already. “We brought a big loaf of bread, a package of salami, little pre-wrapped slices of cheese, and we made the whole thing into sandwiches. Then we ate them all before we left,” said Wilson.
On the way back they spent a night at the Park Service’s base camp. “It was funny because we took a break on the way back to base camp and this Czechoslovakian team passed us,” said Oliver. “We said OK no big deal but we got there and it turned out the Czechs were also flying with Sheldon. Sheldon flew them out first and by the time they got the Czechoslovakian team out the weather got too bad to fly. So because we took a snack break we had to spend an extra night at base camp.”
The brothers plan to do more climbing but as of now don’t know what it will be. Oliver studies environmental biology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Wilson is at UAA studying professional piloting. “I think it would be nice to fly for Bering Air for a little while,” said Wilson when asked if he wanted to fly big jets.
Holly Sheldon of Sheldon Air Service was enthusiastic about the Hoogendorn brothers being the first on top this year. “All the other climbers were excited that the Alaskans made it first,” she said. “When the brothers came in we just turned the music up. It hasn’t happened in a long time that Alaskans made it first. Climbers come from all over with streamlined equipment. These guys came out with grit and determination. It was timing, luck. The NPS has records of what country summited first each year and it’s been a long time since Alaskans summited first.”