For 26 days Katie Bono lived on the Kahiltna Glacier in
the shadow of Denali. Rain and storms came and went, and each fleeting hope of a weather window holding led her to question if she would get to stand
on the Alaskan peak’s 20,310-foot summit this season.
Bono—a 29-year-old alpine ski racer turned cross-country runner turned professional nordic ski racer turned climbing guide from Minneapolis, Minnesota—was
waiting for a second crack at a speed ascent of the West Buttress. Her first attempt, on June 7, ended at 18,100 feet in a whiteout.
“All teams turned around that day,” Bono tells Rock and Ice. “It was a marginal weather window, but I thought I might as well go for it. It was
better than sitting around … and snow camping in the rain is pretty miserable.”
The waiting game continued.
Back in 2010, after graduating from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Bono raced professionally for Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation
and the Rossignol Factory Team in Sun Valley, Idaho. She quit racing in 2011 and moved on to guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) in Washington. “…But [I] soon realized that I missed the feeling of pushing myself hard and finding my limits,” Bono writes on the RMI Guides’ blog. “As a result, [that] summer I found myself thinking about a speed attempt [of Mount Rainier] more frequently.
It seemed like a cool way to push myself in a way I hadn’t before.”
Nordic skiing is pretty much about being able to suffer in the cold, which is most of alpine climbing.On July 24, 2012, Bono climbed
Rainier from the Paradise Parking Lot to the summit and back in 4 hours 58 minutes for the female speed record. Her goal had been 5 hours. Her past
life as a nordic ski racer seemed to have translated well to the mountains. “Nordic skiing is pretty much about being able to suffer in the cold,”
Bono says, “which is most of alpine climbing.”
Through guiding for RMI, Bono got her first taste of Alaskan climbing and Denali. “My first trip to Alaska [in 2013] was miserable,” she says. “It rained
a lot and we didn’t get to climb much.” Despite an unsuccessful trip that year, “I realized that Denali would make a great speed ascent—there
are not many places in the world that you can pretty much run to 20,000 feet!” she says.
Bono guided on Denali again in 2014, this time with a successful summit, and then climbed Denali’s Cassin Ridge (Alaskan grade 5 5.8 WI 4) in
2015. For various reasons, however, she wasn’t able to attempt a speed ascent until this year.
“I’ve been in school [in Boulder, Colorado] for the last year and a half to get my pre-reqs. for med. school,” she says. “I’ve also been volunteering at
a hospital and studying for the MCATs, so with everything, I didn’t have much time to train for technical objectives, but I had the time to train cardio.
“A lot of things aligned this year.”
To prepare, Bono spent most of her training hours ski touring and nordic skiing, since she planned to use skis for most of the ascent and descent on Denali.
“With my schedule, it wasn’t easy to fit everything in,” she says. “This was the most disciplined I’ve ever been. [laughs] I created a star-sticker
system, and would give myself gold stars if I got all of my training in that day.”
Because of her busy schedule, Bono was only able to start training four months prior to leaving for Alaska. She arrived at basecamp on the Southeast Fork
of the Kahiltna Glacier on May 20, and after a few acclimatization trips with climber and photographer Savannah Cummins, she began the waiting game.
“The weather was so bad this year,” Bono says. “It was all we could do to wait for the next window.”
After her unsuccessful first attempt on June 7, another window finally opened.
On June 13 at 6:01 a.m. Bono left basecamp at 7,200 feet—alone. She put her nose to the grindstone and charged ahead on “little
ski-mo skis,” 65mm underfoot, and lightweight La Sportiva Syborg ski boots, she says. From 12,000 feet to 14,000 feet she broke trail in whiteout conditions.
At 14,000 feet she traded her skis for crampons and continued hiking. She broke trail again from 17,000 feet to 18,000 feet. Somewhere along the way,
she dropped her water.
“There were many hard parts in many ways, but I’d say the physically toughest was the end of the speed ascent, getting to the summit,” she says. “I was
really dehydrated at that point and hit the wall a bit. Mentally, though, the uncertainty of the weather window was the toughest.”
When she finally reached Denali’s 20,310-foot summit, after 13,110 feet of climbing, her first thought was not of celebration but getting down. Her speed
ascent was only half complete.
Bono broke trail, once again, through new snowdrifts that had formed between 18,000 and 17,000 feet. At 14,000 feet, she clicked back in to her skis. “For
me, I wasn’t comfortable skiing from the summit,” she explains. “I wanted to keep a high safety margin.”
On the descent, it’s not like you’re just straight-lining Denali. I was skiing like I was on a giant Alaskan glacier, which I was.On
the ski decent, she found variable snow conditions from powder to crust to crud, but from 11,000 feet to basecamp it was “like a groomer,” she says,
“which was awesome because I was so tired by that point.”
Bono returned to basecamp at 3:07 a.m. on June 14, 21 hours and 6 minutes since she first set off.
“I would like to have done it faster,” she says. “[On Denali], it’s not like you can just try a little harder and go a littler faster,” however. “It’s
up to the training that you put in before. I should have started training much earlier, but I was busy with school. Plus, I had to break trail in whiteout,”
she says. “I didn’t expect to have to break trail at all, and that slowed me down.”
Bono says that, along with better fitness and trail conditions, she could have shaved off more time had she skied from the summit, “as long as I hadn’t
fallen to my death,” she says. “On the descent, it’s not like you’re just straight-lining Denali. I was skiing like I was on a giant Alaskan glacier,
which I was.
“But someone come have strung it out more and saved time there.”
Would she try it again? “Oh, man, I don’t know,” she says. “Cardio training was such a huge part of my life as a ski racer, and it’s a huge time investment.
But I like rock climbing too.”
Denali has a small but impressive history of speed ascents. Non-other than Kilian Jornet holds the overall round-trip speed record at
11 hours 48 minutes, from his June 2014 ascent via the West Buttress (he climbed a variation of the West Buttress to avoid fixed
Before Jornet, Ed Warren, a United States Air Force veteran, broke the round-trip speed record with a time of 16 hours 46 minutes in 2013; and for the
decade before Warren, Chad Kellogg held the round-trip record at 23 hours 55 minutes (with an ascent time of 14 hours 22 minutes).
While there are no previous female speed ascents of Denali on record, Bono sets the bar high at 21 hours 6 minutes—the third-fastest overall round-trip
speed ascent of Denali.
The bigger question is: why haven’t there been more female speed attempts on Denali? “I think there are so few women in the alpine in the first place,
and of those, even fewer are interested in solo climbing, or winter climbing, or speed climbing,” Bono says. “So it’s a very, very small pool. Getting
psyched for [solo speed climbing] is a pretty niche thing.”
Her advice to other women is: “It was really fun. I recommend it.”
Of the other lessons she learned through this speed ascent, Bono says, “Alpine climbing means a lot of suffering. I realized how good I’ve gotten at being
able to be uncomfortable for a really long time.
“You can definitely get better at suffering.”
Check out more photos of Katie Bono’s speed ascent on Savannah Cummins’ Instagram feed @sav.cummins.