Katie Bono’s record breaking climb of Denali

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Katie Bono at Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200 ft. elevation. Photo credit: Savannah Cummnins @sav.cummins

Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, attracts numerous individuals during the summer season between May and July. Tourists enjoy flight tours over the mountain range with the possibility of a short landing on it; backcountry climbing and mountaineering are what attracts most outdoor enthusiasts to Denali.

Every year, the Walter Harper Talkeetna ranger station provides summaries of the mountaineering activities and conditions in Denali National Park and Preserve. Mike Connolly, one of the rangers at the Walter Harper station, describes this climbing season as quite challenging due to the weather conditions.

“In this 2017 climbing season, it seems that summit weather windows were fewer and farther between than average years. The daily Denali recreational forecast repeatedly stated low pressure, cold temperatures and snow showers. The summit percentage rate is also quite telling of the weather. It is lower than the annual average rate of 50 percent,” Connolly said.

In mid-July, the mountain climbing season was announced completed and registrations closed for the 2017 season due to the weather conditions. The summit rate stayed low at 42 percent, as only 495 of the 1189 climbers reached the top.

One of them was Katie Bono, 29, who did so with record breaking speed. On June 13 and 14, Bono became the first woman to make an official speed ascent of Denali via the classic West Buttress Route. Bono, originally from Minnesota and now living in Colorado, has a background in backcountry and cross country ski racing and is also a well-experienced mountaineer. She has guided trips up Denali and Rainier before attempting her climb this summer.

Bono managed the round-trip ascent from base camp at 7,200 feet to Denali’s 20,310-foot summit in an astonishing 21 hours, 6 minutes. Only two men have been reported to have accomplished that round-trip faster than her: Kilian Jornet, 11:48, in 2014, and Ed Warren, 16:46, in 2013.

Bono’s preparation for her climb was quite different than one might imagine. She spent the last year and a half fulfilling pre-requisites for med school, studying for the MCAT and volunteering at a hospital. The time remaining, she mainly used to train her cardio.

“With my schedule, it wasn’t easy to fit everything in. I didn’t have much time to train for technical objectives, but I had time to train cardio,” Bono said.

On May 20, Bono arrived at Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200 feet above sea level with climber and photographer Savannah Cummins. There, Bono pursued some acclimatization trips before her first unsuccessful attempted of climbing Denali on June 7, when she climbed about 18,000 feet. but had to turn around.

“The weather was okay and could have gone either way, but a cap descended on the mountain when I was at 18,100 feet and I had to descend along with all the other people who were trying to summit that day,” Bone said.

Her decision to wait it out at base camp until another weather window would open up for her second attempted of summiting Denali shows her determination and dedication. The next window opened about a week later on the July 13.

When Bono left on July 13 at 6:01 a.m., she skied from base camp until she reached the 14,000-foot mark where she traded her skis for crampons, which are traction devices that can be attached to footwear improving one’s mobility on snow and ice. She then continued on hiking instead of skiing before reaching the summit in only 14 hours and 45 minutes. After reaching the summit, her thoughts regarded a safe return home when she decided to postpone skiing until the 14,000 ft. margin.

“For me, it wasn’t comfortable skiing from the summit. I wanted to keep a high safety margin,” Bono said.

She returned to base camp on July 14 at 3:07 a.m.

Even though Bono’s record is impressive, she thinks she could have even been faster with improved weather conditions and a more thorough training regimen. Losing her water bottle half way up the mountain introduced an additional challenge.

Still, the prospective medical school student put a mark out there for all climbers and mountaineers to aim for as the fasted recorded female and third fastest time overall. She set a challenge for future generations and led as an example of determination and drive.