‘Chasing Denali’ author speaks on lifelong love for climbing

Gerson Flores

Despite the frigid temperatures, audience members in the Lory Student Center theater were taken on a journey: a journey to understand the story of a man who has spent his entire life chasing a dream, chasing Denali.

Jonathan Waterman, author of “Chasing Denali,” spoke Tuesday night to retell the story that inspired his book. 


Through a series of photographs, he took the audience back into the ’70s and ’80s and told the story of a young man who is fascinated with the mountains and by the beauty of all things regarding nature. 

As a teen, he couldn’t contain his excitement, and that same eagerness took him climbing as young as age 16, he said. 

It’s still the same incredibly mind-blowing ridge.” -Jonathan Waterman, “Chasing Denali” author

“One of my first experiences climbing was as a 16-year-old,” Waterman said. “I tried to belay but took a long fall, broke my leg, caught the ice and dislocated my shoulder. Somehow I missed all the boulders.”

Through trial and error, he learned to respect the mountains, and his admiration and love for them kept growing. 

In 1982, he faced what would soon become a passion of his: Denali. Sitting in the middle of Alaska, and standing over 20,000 feet in altitude, Denali is known as the coldest mountain in the world. 

Climbing with what would now be considered primitive gear, Waterman and his two friends ventured up the mountain into an adventure that would change their lives forever.

Waterman said temperatures dropped below zero degrees on that mountain. Powerful winds that could tear apart their tent dominated the area and forced him and his friends to dig trenches in the snow to find rest. Two of them got sick, and, for a while, Waterman couldn’t take more than two steps without having to rest another two minutes.

That trip could have been his first and his last. Had the temperature dropped any further, he would have been another climber whose life was taken by the mountain, Waterman said.

 “I feel very lucky to have survived,” Waterman said. “If the weather had changed, I would still be up there.”

After the trip, he worked at the Denali National Park and Reserve, served as a guide and resource to many and embarked on a mission to cross the Northwest Passage. 


Through his many other trips, he filmed, recorded and photographed his experiences. 

When Waterman received the opportunity to go back to Denali in 2016, he took it. On that mountain, where he had seen the northern lights 40 years before, he celebrated his 60th birthday.

“It’s still the same incredibly mind-blowing ridge,” Waterman said. “To walk that night, in that ridge, is just one of the greatest pleasures in the world. To me, that place is the place of my dreams.”

After telling his story, many audience members shared Waterman’s enthusiasm. Many felt it was a needed talk and the type of event Colorado State University needs. 

“This is the kind of thing that really makes sense because it blends students, faculty and the community together and gives us a chance to ask some really good questions to the distinguished speakers,” said John Fitch, professor at the Warner College of Natural Resources. “So I think it’s a win-win situation.”

Many other audience members echoed this thought and expressed their excitement at the thought of people like Waterman pursuing their passions.

“I thought the speaker was very engaging, and the story he had to tell was an adventure in itself,” said Lory Catalano, a community member.

Answers to most questions on his trips and adventures can all be found in his book “Chasing Denali.” But some can’t be simply answered, like where climbers get their passion to risk it all.

“It’s amazing that people chose to attempt to do these things with no reason more than to just do it,” said Catalano. “So the question is, … why would you do that? And there doesn’t need to be an answer.” 

Gerson Flores Rojas can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @GersonFloresRo1.