Friends climb to the rooftop of North America
Photography by RYAN DAFFURN
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
There are no picture postcards declaring “Wish You Were Here” from the majestic mountaintop where a pair of friends from Sonoma capped off an unforgettable trip to the wilderness of Alaska.
Ryan Daffurn, 30, and Jacob Lange, 31, climbed Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. They reached summit on June 7, exactly 100 years after the first successful ascent of the mountain, also known as Denali, native for “The High One.”
It took the men 13 days to reach summit – including three days grounded in their tent during a severe storm – two days to descend, 48 total miles and climbing up through more than 18,000 vertical feet of elevation through crisp but thin air over ice, rock and snow.
“It’s the purest of places on Earth,” says Lange. “It’s the unchartered avenues of the world.”
The pair made the journey without a field guide, instead relying on their mountaineering background, a year of planning and extensive physical training for the trek that only about half the climbers complete.
“To go unguided was a big decision for us and a good one,” says Daffurn, a professional photographer who chronicled the journey through snowfall, fog, whiteouts and clear, blue skies that provided expansive views of the 6-million acre Denali National Park and Preserve below them.
“It allowed us more freedom. We’re a very fit pair,” he says.
Their only assistance was from an Alaskan company that packed their food supply, enough for a 25-day trip providing from 3,000 to 5,000 calories daily for each climber, with plenty of Snickers candy bars for energy surges.
Beyond that, the pair relied on radio-transmitted evening weather reports from park rangers and their own instincts for climbing the 20,320-foot mountain, known for its technical challenges and brutally cold and extreme weather conditions year-round.
“You have a greater sense of value when you do things on your own,” says Lange, a building contractor who put his professional skills to test when the pair built an igloo as a kitchen to store their food supplies during an especially stormy part of the trek.
“It’s just a few chunks of ice you put together,” he understates. “Our first experience in cutting ice happened to be that day.”
Building the igloo was just a small challenge along the way. The climbers were constantly faced with difficulties, from altitude adjustment to the weight of packs and sleds loaded among them with 306 pounds of food, water and gear.
“We knew going into this we’d be out of our comfort zone,” Daffurn says.
While the climb is physically demanding, Daffurn said the mental aspects are “not to be underestimated.”
Only seasoned mountaineers even attempt to tackle Mt. McKinley. According to the National Park Service, just 52 percent of the climbers ever reach summit. And since that first ascent in 1913, there have been 120 fatalities on the mountain.
Daffurn has been climbing for about a dozen years, with Mt. Shasta, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Whitney among his achievements. Lange is equally accomplished in his seven years of climbing, with Mt. Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua in South America among his treks.
Mt. McKinley is the third most prominent peak in the world, after Mount Everest in Asia and Aconcagua.
For the pair, who met as kids at Altimira Middle School, “Denali was just the next step for us,” Daffurn says.
While swimming, hiking with 100-pound packs and running uphill pulling weighted tires behind them helped prepare them physically, the mental preparation was moment by moment. Their respect for one another and Mother Nature eased their nerves during their greatest difficulties, when a misstep could be deadly.
Facing Mt. McKinley “was an exhausting workout every day. You don’t get to shower. It’s gross,” says Daffurn. “There’s so many things that can go wrong.”
The admitted “skeptic” of the two, Daffurn says Lange’s “gung-ho” personality was a perfect balance. They hit a moment of temporary defeat when weather conditions were changing dramatically at a treacherous part of their trek. Exhausted, they carefully assessed their options and agreed to set up camp on the exposed ridge.
With temperatures at minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit, their tent was covered in ice by morning.
“It was like the interior of an ice box,” Lange recalls.
For the adventurers, it was just a part of the journey, which Lange compares to life itself.
“I say climbing mountains is a microcosm of life. You have doubts and fears and mid-course corrections,” he says.
Reaching summit and standing high atop the roof of North America was nothing short of euphoric, the friends say.
The night before their ascent to the top they met some climbers who commented on the centennial anniversary of the first successful expedition, something Daffurn and Lange weren’t aware of when they planned their Alaskan adventure.
Being there on the historic anniversary only added to the experience.
The men shed tears of joy on the summit and paid tribute to their hometown, their families and friends. They raised a flag of Sonoma and linked their ice axes as they paid respects to two loved ones who passed away before the men began their adventure: Lange’s aunt, Diane Hammond, and Daffurn’s close family friend, Gail Johnson.
The men say the experience is the memory of a lifeline: unsurpassed vistas, brilliant skies at sunrise and sunset, the broad grins they recall flashing as they snow-shoed over a glacier throughout the first night of their journey with the Alaskan sky providing enough light to lead the way.
Back at the base camp waiting for the plane ride out of the Denali wilderness, the accomplishment set in.
“The safest moment and the proudest moment was when we walked into base camp,” Daffurn says. “That’s when we finished and everything fell into place.
“We executed it,” he says. “We made it.”
Ryan Daffurn and Jacob Lange will be guests on Mornings in Sonoma at 8:40 a.m. Monday (June 24) on KSVY FM 91.3.