In Recess • December 2023

Coming Down the Mountain

Dallas attorney Chad Ray gives the Texas Bar Journal a point of view from inside a blizzard on Denali.

Interview by Eric Quitugua

Chad Ray’s view from the ridge at high camp.
Chad Ray’s view from the ridge at high camp. Photos courtesy of Chad Ray.

From mid-July to late July, Dallas-based attorney Chad Ray, of Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, and his crew of 12 mountaineers scaled the mighty Denali in Alaska. Soaring at 20,310 feet, the mountain peak is the tallest in North America and, from base to peak, is considered taller than Everest. This mammoth thrust of igneous rock is so large it generates its own weather when moisture rolls in from the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea and collides with Denali. The change in the climate can be so sudden and dramatic that one moment can go from sunny and clear to a violent and blinding blizzard, as Ray and his team encountered. For 18 days, Ray and his crew battled it out with extreme weather to get back down from the summit and with only a few injuries.

When you first get to the mountain, you’re not actually on the mountain; you’re about two valleys over. To start the climb, you hike for about a day and a half over glaciers to get around to the base of the mountain. The whole time you have a panoramic view from the middle of this giant mountain range with towering peaks going up around you. You mostly stay near the middle of these large valleys for the first couple days. The only thing you see are the glaciers you’re on and the snow going up, with some rock faces peeking out high in the distance.

These are very dynamic mountains in the sense that you see parts of glacier falling around you; it’s called calving. You see these giant chunks of ice raining down the sides of these valleys all the time. They sound like thunder. So you’re walking through watching the ice flow in these big avalanches, reminding you not to chart a course too close to either valley wall. All the while, you’re crossing around and over giant crevasses everywhere, covered in these little snow bridges that you use to cross. In some places, the snow bridges have caved in and you can see down but sometimes you can’t. It’s just dark down there with the abyss staring back.

The scale of this is bigger than I ever imagined. You’re on this little bush plane with seven people, including the pilot. You take off from this small town, Talkeetna, which is actually the basis of the ’90s TV series Northern Exposure. Moose walk down the street. You walk into the airport up to the plane and load your stuff and get in. There’s no security. As the plane is ascending out of Talkeetna, you look around and it’s this giant swampland wilderness. About 20 minutes later, you enter the mountains and you’re flying between peaks. And then our plane took a left turn, which looks like it’s going right into the mountain but it goes into a higher valley. We’re maybe a couple hundred feet off the ground at this point, and it was at that moment that my stomach kind of lurched, not from the flight, but just from the: “This was a crazy decision. We’re going to be out here, and if something bad happens, there’s nobody coming to get us.” The plane finally lands. You’re in a camp and there are other people there prepping for their climb or preparing to leave. There was no time to think about it anymore. You’re ready. Or you aren’t.

Chad Ray and his group walk in line on the Kahiltna glacier.
Chad Ray and his group walk in line on the Kahiltna glacier. Photos courtesy of Chad Ray.

There’s a particular wall on the mountain that’s called the Autobahn. There are regularly pretty significant injuries on this one area of the mountain and when you’re at high camp [at 17,200 feet]. You’re sitting there staring at the Autobahn and you know its reputation. You see another climbing team taking three hours to get across it. It’s not safe to stop on it—a big wall that when you get on it, there’s really no choice but to keep going because you can’t really turn around on it.

We set out at 9 a.m. on our summit day from the Autobahn. We got through it without a big problem in three hours. Then we were on the upper ridge, and we made our way around and got to the summit at 6 p.m., which is exactly what we planned. But right as we got to the summit, clouds enveloped us with this blowing snow and we were suddenly in the middle of this giant blizzard with gusts of wind that were 50 to 70 mph—not that I had a windmeter up there but you’re getting blown around. Our lead guy was like, “Take a couple pictures but we gotta get out of here. Gear up, get your heaviest everything on, we gotta go.”

So it’s 6 p.m. and we’re in these white-out conditions. You can barely see 20 feet in front of you and I know it’s about 20 feet because we’re separated on rope teams by 30 feet. The person in front of you comes and goes in your view. It’s pretty eerie. We have to navigate our way through these terribly disorienting conditions. You lose perspective of what’s up and down. You’re walking up a hill but your brain is telling you you’re walking downhill because the snow is swirling. It’s hard for me to even describe how disorienting it is. Our lead guy had a GPS unit on him so he made sure we stayed on course, but it took us hours and hours to get back to the top of the Autobahn. Some of that is because of folks falling in crevasses—we had to pull them out. We weren’t stopping for water at that point. We weren’t taking breaks. We were just plowing forward because the conditions were not safe to stop and rest. Then we get to the top of the Autobahn. At the base of it are these giant crevasses that will swallow you up. This is the one place you have to pass to get up or down the upper mountain. You’re risking your life every time you’re crossing it. We’re moving out to these fixed protection points. Our lead guy gets to the first one and clips us in and I start moving to it while he starts toward the second point. You’re trying to keep moving as a group; keeping your rope clipped to the mountain. I get about 10 feet out on the Autobahn. It’s been covered in about two feet of wind-blown snow, which reacts under your feet like loose sand. You’re kind of slipping off the mountain while you’re trying to cross. I get about 10 feet out and take a fall. It’s not a bad one; I fall a couple feet but manage to get back up to about where I should be crossing. Then the guy behind me gets to the exact same place where I got and he takes a worse fall. He breaks his shoulder. He actually broke the ball at the humerus and he tore out a couple of the muscles in his shoulder. He’s badly injured at the top of the most dangerous traverse down. So what should have taken us an hour and a half getting down to the base of the Autobahn took us seven hours.

Colorful sky at sunrise.
Colorful sky at sunrise. Photos courtesy of Chad Ray.

We got off the Autobahn, and we’ve got what should be another 20-minute hike across an easy plain. But the wind is so strong it is throwing us around. I’m a 220-pound dude and it’s picking me up off the ground multiple feet, flinging me over. It took us an hour to find our camp. The storm was so bad you couldn’t really see where you were going. We finally get back to camp and folks are so exhausted that people start making bad decisions. Again, we’re having to look out for each other and make sure that things were getting handled.

The descent from high camp, once the storm died down a bit, went fine. But right as we got into “14 camp” (14,000 feet) just below high camp, one of our climbers started complaining about frostbite. It became pretty clear he had hypothermia, and he ended up passing out. So this was our second major injury on the mountain. Thankfully, there’s a heated medical tent operated by park rangers at 14 camp. If we had been anywhere else on the mountain, I don’t think he would have survived.

We got back to base camp and the weather was so bad for the rest of our descent that there were no helicopters getting in and out. Once the weather cleared up, we finally got one plane in. Each plane can carry seven people. Our group was 12 so we needed two planes. The first plane comes; our two injured guys are obviously getting on that so they can
go to the hospital. We drew straws for who else would go. The first plane goes and the weather gets bad again. A group of us is still sitting at the base of the mountain. Four hours later, we’re wondering if we’re going to be here another night. We made a Jell-O no-bake cheesecake. Eventually, late in the afternoon, the second flight did get in and got us out and we made it back to Talkeetna. After three long weeks, we got our first shower and got cleaned up. Everybody went to dinner and had a couple drinks to talk about the trip.

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