Living With Attitude

REI Outdoor Catalogue – Spring 1986


REI Gear Meets the Challenge of McKinley to Become Summit Quality

Extreme winds, bitter cold, and an altitude of 20,320 feet made Alaska’s Mt. McKinley ideal for the expedition organized by REI Product Development Engineer Bill Sumner. Joining Sumner to test and evaluate equipment were Sarah Doherty, Carol Martin and REI’s Matt Kerns. Spending 25 days on McKinley in May 1985, they worked with a wide variety of equipment, including three new Summit Quality products introduced this spring.

Bill Sumner recounts the story of the successful 1985 REI McKinley Expedition:

Folded over by ice axe belay, I watched helplessly as a blast of wind jerked Sarah into the air, turning her into a human kite tight against my rope. The wind gusted. The wind paused. Sarah plummeted from the sky.

Retrieving her climbing crutches, she waited for the right moment to climb another few steps through driving snow. This wager against the wind continued for hours.

In tents pitched inside a narrow slit in ice, we waited out the storm and talked strategy. Carol had frost bitten her thumbs, minor injuries that would become serious if she were frost bitten again. Deciding that the risk was too high, we accepted an offer of a medical research group to let Carol camp near them, while Matt, Sarah and I continued. While this was a logical move, we weren’t happy about our painful parting.

We climbed up McKinley’s West Buttress to a high camp at 17,200 feet. While Sarah refined her “tripod” technique on the steep snow and ice. Matt and I played with new prototype ice axes, including what was to become the REI Sumner/McKinley Ice Axe.

A day later another vicious storm enveloped McKinley. For the next several nights the REI Geodome Tent and warm sleeping bags were home. Sarah and I used prototypes of the new REI Gore-Tex/Down McKinley Bag covered by a synthetic bag. After weeks at 30, 40 and 50 below we appreciated warm sleeping systems, solid shelters, and reliable stoves.

Three days later the sky cleared. It was calm in camp, but wind still raked the summit as we prepared for the 3,000-foot climb.

Climb we did, in cold and increasing wind. We learned still more about equipment, but the memories vividly etched in my mind are of our team. The sun was low when we reached the summit. There was little pleasure then, only a feeling of relief that we could go home. Joy in our achievement would come later.

Sitting by my woodstove now, I ponder the meaning of this trip and come to two conclusions. One is that equipment must be carefully developed and tested to get it right. That is my personal commitment to REI.

The other is that you should dream. Our McKinley expedition was carefully planned and rationally executed. But its roots were in our dreams.