A Trip Up North America’s Highest Peak

Vermonter Jamie Struck recently teamed up with three others as part of a Denali expedition dubbed 2 Hot 2 Cold. This outdoor educator is one of two Vermonters, while the other two members are Californians, hence the tongue in cheek title up North America’s highest peak. In one of the more entertaining post-trip adventures you’ll find, read on to see how it went.

A well earned selfie on top of North America! Photo: Jamie Struck

Denali isn’t just a walk out your back door. Please tell us the who/what/where/when/why?

In 2016 my friend Alan invited me to join him and his friend Micha on their 2017 Denali attempt. Micha has been working towards the fifty high points in all fifty states for years and the field was narrowing to Denali in Alaska and Granite Mountain in Montana by that time. Ultimately, we didn’t see a summit during that attempt – we were nearly blown off the mountain by one of Denali’s notorious storms while at the 17,000’ camp – but as a climbing group had one of the best times managing weather events, time on the mountain and hard decisions. The 2022 expedition was our shot at redemption and the summit once again. We had unfinished business with the mountain.

Earths curvature is apparent from 20,310′ on the summit. Photo: Jamie Struck

We at the UnTapped office like to go hike up and play around on Vermont’s highest peaks, but that doesn’t quite hold a candle to the highest peak in North America. What was the lead up like to prepare for this adventure?

Vermont is an excellent place to train for an endeavor such as this. I spent a ton of time looping my way through the Green Mountains in all sorts of weather – especially this past winter where the fluctuations of severe cold and unseasonably hot kept many of us guessing. At first it was finding my rhythm in covering terrain on Mansfield and Camels Hump that allowed me to feel comfortable in those extremes without overheating. Then, once I established those routes, began adding weight over the winter season until I could haul a 60lb load wherever I went. As our winter came to an abrupt end, I tapered some of the weight training and added road biking to my mix hoping to find ways to keep drawing out my cardio output.

487 pounds of gear, all said and done. Photo: Jamie Struck

Thinking about the logistics of a trip like this is like drawing up one To-Do list after another. It’s that level of mental gymnastics that keeps me coming back to trips of this caliber time again and again. Organize travel. Organize gear. Test gear. Refine gear lists. Refine gear list again. Buy something shiny and new. Refine. Organize food. Test food. Refine food. Thinking on the permutations of each decision can finally drag on a bit, but by that time you’re loading your 487 pounds of gear and your team onto a DE Haviland Otter that was built in 1957 and you’re on your way. That’s normally when I look at my team and say, “If we don’t have it, we don’t need it, and if we need it and don’t have it, we’ll find a way to make do.”

The last taxi ride to the mountain. Photo: Jamie Struck

What do the caloric demands of an adventure like this look like?

“Eating is work.” – Micha Miller – 2 Hot 2 Cold Expedition Leader

Fueling an adventure like this means that you try and put as much as you can into your body at any given moment. The estimations for the caloric output for someone climbing at altitude in the cold range from 4000-5000 calories a day! Some people can do that through a 3-meals-a-day plan while others like to run on a munch-as-you-go plan. I can tell you, though, the work starts as you ascend higher onto the mountain. Appetites drop off and if you aren’t careful in watching one another, encouraging each other to eat at least something, you can fall behind the energy curve right when you need it the most. It came to a head in our group on summit day when one of our members really hit the wall on our descent. We made it off of the summit ridge and picked our way back down Pig Hill and beginning to traverse the Football Field when our lead guy just slowed to a halt and sat down. He was run out. We gathered up, all taking drinks and nibbling on what we had stashed in our pockets and packs and started formulating a plan to get back to our high camp. I pulled out two of the Maple UnTapped gels that I had been keeping warm under the six layers of jackets I had on and got them into him. Pepped him right up!!! We stripped him of his pack and redistributed the weight and down we went. It took another two gels to reach Denali Pass where he got an extra bar in him before our last hurdle to camp. Those gels were golden!! And right when we needed them!

That’s awesome! We caught an image of someone hacking at a cabbage; what’s going on there?

Diversity. You wouldn’t believe the meals that guided groups get on the mountain and for three weeks that was the only “fresh” food that we had brought along. Roughage and regularity might have played a role but mostly it was a wink-wink nod-nod to our limited diet. Some people go all out and bring some amazing meal building food lists and while ours was pretty good it was still pretty limited! 

Makes sense. Lastly, what’s next? Are you taking a moment to bask in a successful trip or already scheming another?

When I taught Outdoor Education and led trips, I spent a tremendous amount of time talking to my students about the Re-entry process that takes place at the tail end of moments of intense activity whether it be a day trip rock climbing or a 3-month hike along the Long Trail. It takes time to absorb what you have done and find the right way to express the feelings you have regarding the adventure you just returned from. That’s where I am right now – grappling with the sense of return, refitting myself into parts of the life I put on hold in order to climb this mountain and discovering the growth that I went through during the process. I’m pretty lucky to have a partner who understands this process and helps let it run its course.

And of course there are always next trips in the wings. When you complete one dream, the next two dozen begin to jostle for your attention. Bike packing on the Canol Heritage Trail and float down the Mackenzie River to the sea? Sea kayaking Lake Manicougan? Mountain bike across Scotland? Hike the Long Trail? I have a journal labeled ‘Trips to be Done’ that is just chock full of ideas, some rough sketches of logistics and lists of people who might be interested in joining me that is just waiting to be opened. I’ll give it a month – then we’ll see where I’ll be headed.

Descending to 17,000′ after 14 hours of moving. Photo: Jamie Struck

Thanks so much for taking the time Jamie. Welcome back.