CSU students prepare for unguided expedition of Mount Denali

Jorge Espinoza

For this group of four, there’s no better challenge than climbing a mountain.  

After two years of training and planning, the self-named “Double Bag Your Jelly” team will be climbing Mount Denali in May.

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Mt. Denali, the largest mountain in the United States and the third largest in the world, will give the team the challenge they’re looking for. The unguided expedition will take 21 days in which they will climb to the summit and ski their way down. While the expedition may seem scary to some, for this team, the expedition is only the beginning.

You have to always be on your game because it’s not only your decisions that are affecting everything, it’s also your ability to recognize what’s going on in the environment; that’s what makes the big difference.”

James McCulloch, fourth-year electrical engineering major

“It’ll be really fun,” said Zac Poe, a fourth-year studying business administration. “This is a stepping stone to bigger mountains.”

Poe and James McCulloch, a fourth-year studying electrical engineering, both agree that the challenge is what keeps them coming back for more.

“It’s just such a crazy challenge,” McCulloch said. “You have to always be on your game because it’s not only your decisions that are affecting everything, it’s also your ability to recognize what’s going on in the environment; that’s what makes the big difference.”

Andrew Sampson, a fourth-year double major in ecosystems sciences and sustainability and geography, was roommates with Poe when they decided they wanted to climb Mt. Denali. They met Anika Ramey, a natural resources tourism major who graduated May 2018, and McCulloch through Colorado State University’s Outdoor Program.

According to Sampson, there was a large group of people who wanted to join the expedition; however, after going over what it would take to make the climb, the rest began to drop out of the expedition leaving the challenge to the four.

“They just all started to drop out one by one until what was left were Jimmy and Anika in addition to Zac and I,” Sampson said. “Both are really committed, really strong climbers who definitely will have bigger goals past this, which is really nice because we don’t like anybody looking at this mountain like it’s the endpoint; it’s like more of a catalyst.”

As a test to see if they were ready for Mt. Denali, they climbed Mt. Rainier in Seattle, Washington. Mount Rainier is regarded as one of the most dangerous active volcanoes, and McCulloch said that glaciers on Mount Rainier served as practice for the ones on Mt. Denali. After a successful climb, they determined they were ready.

man pulling traction skin off ski
Denali expedition team member and CSU student Zac Poe preparing to ski down Cameron Pass.
(Anna von Pechmann | Collegian)

“Rainier was kind of a culmination of our training,” McCulloch said. “That was our first time like leading a group on a glacier, and glacier travels are a big part of Denali.”

McCulloch said that many mountaineering deaths happen because of glaciers.

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“A lot of the deaths happen in the crevasses because people take a misstep and end up 30 feet down the ice and you can’t get’em out,” McCulloch said. 

McCulloch said he’s most afraid that someone will get injured while on the expedition. While Ramey and Poe are both trained in medical emergencies in the wilderness, the possibility of getting hurt still lingers.  

“If you get hurt in the mountains, it’s generally you and your team’s fault,” McCulloch said.

Poe said that they’re constantly taking preventative measures to avoid mistakes that could potentially lead to death.

“We do a lot, a lot, a lot of risk management,” Poe said. “We do our very best not to have any of those things happen.”

Because of the danger level, as well as the immense survival tools needed to make this expedition happen, the four have assigned each other different tasks based on their strengths. McCulloch handles the logistics of the trip, Poe is the technical leader who makes sure they are using the proper climbing techniques, Ramey is the team physician and Sampson is in charge of food.

“And we’ve even assigned roles to each member to really nourish that diversity,” Poe said.

Sampson said each member will be carrying 40 pounds of food and will go through two pounds a day. However, one of the challenges of the trip is Sampson’s food allergies.

“What sucks about it is that my allergy impacts the other people on the team. I can’t have things like peanuts and it determines like the proximity and how we store the food,” Sampson said.

man skiing
Denali expedition team member and CSU student Zac Poe backcountry skiing down Cameron Pass.
(Anna von Pechmann | Collegian)

Mt. Denali is known for its frigid temperatures, and Ramey said a fear of hers is frostbite, which could result in the loss of fingers or toes.

While frostbite poses a legitimate threat to the team, McCulloch said that each member has a specific layer system based on the way their bodies maintain heat.

While the expedition poses many challenges, Sampson said he’s ready to use this climb as a learning experience.

“I’m ready to get schooled,” Sampson said. “I mean it is three weeks of temperatures that could hit minus 30 to minus 40, and I’ve never been in anything like that before. I think it’s going to be a really humbling experience.”

Ramey said that when she first started mountaineering, she didn’t think she’d get to this point, so she encourages people who want to try this type of expedition to get out and try it.

“The biggest take away is that you can start anywhere,” Ramey said. “You have to start somewhere and the skills can be acquired.”  

Jorge Espinoza can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @jorgespinoza14.