The Flip Side of Denali: What to Take Away from Your Trip When You Don’t Reach the Top

Written by Denali guide Marcus Bailado

Climbing Denali is hard. The mountain doesn’t care who you are or what you have been through. It will push you further physically and mentally than you thought you were capable of. Sometimes we summit, and other times we do not, but every time we grow. Success on Denali is much more than standing on the highest point.

My late uncle had a saying: “If can, can.” Meaning if you are capable of doing something, you should do it. And as important as that idea is, I think the converse is equally as important: “If cannot, cannot.” Not that we should put limitations on the perceptions of our capabilities, but sometimes we are not able to do something, and that is OK. But we can always take something away from those moments.

Over the past two years, I have been a guide on Denali for three expeditions, and I have stood on the summit zero times. Each time because the mountain told me or another climber that at that moment it’s not going to go, and every time it’s a bummer. It can be upsetting to put that much commitment into something and be turned around. I would love to summit. I work hard to prepare myself and the team to be in position to summit, as do so many guides and clients alike, but Denali is hard. It is a real mountain with real consequences, and not everyone gets to summit. Each time though, I have found the mountain has given me so much more.

I think it’s really easy to get caught up on the black and white question: Did you summit? That thought completely passes over the journey it takes to be in the position to even attempt a summit. It’s the gray area in between that truly highlights what climbing Denali can be. Did you make it back safely? Did you learn new skills? Did you share an experience with old and new friends? Did the mountain or someone on it make you rethink how you see the world or yourself? Did you expand what you believed you are capable of physically, mentally, and everything in between? In essence, what did you take away from the mountain?

Although I cannot speak for everyone, I firmly believe summiting is the lesser of the important things we do on Denali. I will never trade the journey that existing on that mountain is for just a splitter summit day. I’m stoked for more opportunities to summit the highest point in North America, but I’m more stoked for the cook tent chats, random dance parties, and the smiles and hugs shared between new lifelong friends after one of the many hard days that is climbing Denali. Each step, physical and metaphorical, in the process is an accomplishment, and no matter how high you get you have achieved more than you previously have.

Be proud of that accomplishment, because if it was easy everyone would do it.

For those of you that are looking into giving Denali a try, or for those that have tried, just remember you will put a lot of your being into the mountain, and if you are open to it, it will give you much more in return.

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