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Interview: Katie Bono Sets the First Women's Denali Speed Record

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Denali Mountain Alaska Climbing Mountaineering Alpine
At 20,310 feet, Denali, located in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, is the tallest mountain in North America.Nic McPhee/Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

On the summit ridge of Denali, thirty minutes from the summit (20,310 feet), Katie Bono was hungry, dehydrated, struggling to breathe, and fighting off frostbite. “It was way colder than I ever would have guided clients for a summit day,” said Bono. After 14 hours and 45 minutes of climbing through whiteout and 10 inches of new snow, Bono reached the summit.

Bono sped up and down the highest peak in North America in 21 hours and 6 minutes on Wednesday, June 14, becoming the first woman to make a speed ascent of Denali via the West Buttress Route. Originally from Minnesota and now living in Boulder, CO, Bono, 29, has a background in cross country ski racing and has guided trips up both Denali and Rainier.

The West Buttress route (first climbed in 1951 by Bradford Washburn and his team) starts at the Kahiltna basecamp at 7,200 feet and is the most common and easiest route up Denali. However, the American Alpine Institute still rates it as an intermediate alpine climb meant to take 21 days. Additionally, this season’s summit success rate (36% as of June 30) has been far below average because of bad weather conditions. According to Savannah Cummins, a photographer, filmmaker, and Bono’s partner on the trip, “no women have attempted a serious time” on Denali, until now.

In 2014, Kilian Jornet climbed Denali’s West Buttress in 11 hours and 48 minutes round trip, veering off the traditional route to climb a section known as Rescue Gully. Bono skinned up to 14,000 feet, left her skis, and continued on to the summit using crampons, staying on the West Buttress route the entire time. We spoke to Bono about the ascent.

Your round-trip time was 21 hours and 6 minutes, what was your time to the summit?

Katie Bono: 14 hours and 45 minutes.

What was the weather like on the day you chose?

It was a mixed weather day where maybe I could summit and maybe I couldn’t. It was clear that it was as good as I was gonna get before my time on the mountain ran out. I just decided to go for it. It kept being just barely good enough to keep going.

How did you manage food/calorie intake?

On the actual speed ascent, I used a lot of Hammer Gels and Larabars because they don’t freeze and the gels were pretty easy to digest. Then I had an energy drink that I mixed in with water.

I didn’t actually manage my food and water very well because I dropped my water at 16,000 feet. I got some more from a friend, but it wasn’t really enough. I ended up going like 10 hours with a half-liter of water. At 19,700 feet I hit the wall super hard because I was dehydrated and also just didn’t bring enough food, so I could have done that better.

Was there any part of the climb that made you nervous?

I was the most aware on the summit ridge, because it had been really cold the whole time I was above 18,000 feet. I was barely warm enough, but when I got to the summit ridge and I brushed my nose, I thought, Oh wow, I have a huge ice chunk stuck on my nose. When I tried to tug it off, I realized the ice chunk was my nose. I was like, Oh shit. I had been saying that if something went wrong I’d just turn around. You know, having your nose freeze is something where you’re like this is really less than ideal, but I was half an hour from the summit proper. I made the decision to keep going up because I was this close. Making that decision, I thought, Here we go, I’m going to have to be super careful and super on it because this is past the boundary of where I said I would be comfortable. I caked my face [in duct tape] to cover up my nose from getting more wind. It turns out that my nose is OK. It’s healing really well.

What were your thoughts at the summit?

I can’t wait to start going downhill and breathe more oxygen.

What has your experience been like with being a woman in alpine climbing?

I find that one woman’s actions can affect how the climbing community views women in the alpine in general. I feel a lot more responsibility to be a good steward of the sport and a really responsible climber because I know my actions will be extrapolated to all other female alpine climbers. It’s not intentional. It’s just a reflection of the fact that there are so few women alpine climbers.

What is next on the list for your mountaineering future?

So I’ve noticed this interesting pattern that I get psyched on one thing for a while then switch to something new. Now, I would really like to get better at rock climbing. I’ve dubbed this year “The Year of Rock Climbing,” spending a lot of time on rock, in a tank top. I also just applied to med-school, so that’s my long-term plan.