Freak weather and unforeseen hardships mean that only 58 percent of those who attempt to summit Denali succeed. Emma Lyddan, a 22-year-old Californian, is among those who’ve won in the battle to reach Denali’s peak.
From Cali girl to Denali apprentice guide 041217 AE 1 Mackenzie Fisher, Capital City Weekly Freak weather and unforeseen hardships mean that only 58 percent of those who attempt to summit Denali succeed. Emma Lyddan, a 22-year-old Californian, is among those who’ve won in the battle to reach Denali’s peak.

Emma Lyddan geared up on Denali. Photo courtesy of Emma Lyddan.

Three hikers walk up towards Denali's summit. Photo courtesy of Emma Lyddan.

View from Denali. Photo courtesy of Emma Lyddan.

Emma Lyddan, center celebrates with fellow guides atop Denali. Photo courtesy of Emma Lyddan.

Emma Lyddan works out at the UAS Recreation Center with 130 pounds on her back. Photo courtesy of Emma Lyddan

Emma Lyddan's third attempt at Denali ended victoriously . Photo courtesy of Emma Lyddan.

Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Story last updated at 4/11/2017 - 4:00 pm

From Cali girl to Denali apprentice guide

Freak weather and unforeseen hardships mean that only 58 percent of those who attempt to summit Denali succeed. Emma Lyddan, a 22-year-old Californian, is among those who’ve won in the battle to reach Denali’s peak.

Becoming a mountaineering guide on Denali hadn’t been a goal of Lyddan’s until coming to Alaska. In the fall of 2014, as a sophomore, she left her environmental studies program at Humboldt State University and came on exchange to the University of Alaska Southeast, in search of adventure.

“Coming to Juneau was life changing… one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” Lyddan said. “I’m madly in love (with Alaska.)”

She immersed herself in the Outdoor Studies program offered at UAS. It wasn’t always a smooth transition: Lyddan learned how to ski at Eaglecrest in January 2015 during one of the worst snow years recently recorded.

“It was terrifying,” she said. The other students in the group had been skiing “since they were like three,” leaving her with a lot to catch up on.

In May 2015, her first ODS capstone course requirement was a trip up Denali. Her group made it to their cache drop at 16,000 feet before alerts of bad weather sent them skiing back down to the safety of base camp. Later Lyddan and her group learned that two people in the same area they’d been in got stuck after triggering an avalanche and were unable to find a safe way down.

“We were really lucky we left the day we did… we were running out of food, and we were running out of time,” said Lyddan.

She planned to stay at UAS for a year, but after the realization that she was receiving college credit for walking across the Mendenhall Glacier, Lyddan decided to transfer.

During her junior year, for another capstone, Lyddan went skiing for two weeks in Hakuba, Japan with the ODS program.

Return to Denali

The following year, during the summer of 2016, she landed an internship with a business based out of Talkeetna called the Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS). ODS program coordinator and teacher Forest Wagner used to work for AMS and facilitated Lyddan’s internship as an apprentice guide. Only three other students from the ODS program had interned with AMS, Wagner said.

Initially Lyddan began her internship cleaning and fixing gear or helping AMS clients and trail guides get organized before sending them on their trip. “I was the every-man,” she said. “I was the classic intern.”

During her time with AMS, Lyddan went on two different Denali trips. The first trip she was accompanied by the man that runs AMS, Colby Coombs, who has taken more than 30 trips up Denali. “He knows the mountain like the back of his hand,” Lyddan said. That trip also didn’t end in a summit celebration, however. Her group made it to 14,000 feet but had to turn around because of one of the clients, the famous polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, was suffering from back problems. At the time he was 72 years old and attempting “The Grand Slam,” a race to reach the highest summits on all seven continents - Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Puncak Jaya, Vinson - and reach both poles.

On her second trip with AMS she found herself in the worst snowstorm she’d ever seen. Her group had to wake up every couple of hours just to dig themselves and their tents out of the snow.

“It was insane, I’d never seen anything like that. And you can’t really move in that kind of weather, so you just kind of like hunker down waiting for it to pass.” That trip she was the apprentice guide alongside Mike Hammel, a man who guides on all seven summits. Another guide on the trip was a skilled ice climber. They had seven clients in their group. Some of those clients were “seven summiteers,” people who travel to and climb each of the classic highest peaks of the seven continents.

Hammel knew there were people in his group that had tried multiple times to summit Denali but had yet to reach its peak so they pushed it.

“I was born at sea level and had never had to deal with altitude. It’s not something you can necessarily prepare for,” Lyddan said. This trip the group didn’t have the chance to acclimate to their altitude. Climbing high and stashing gear (or dropping a cache) at intervals, then descending back down and sleeping low is the normal way to stave off altitude sickness.

Climbers hang out for a day at 17,000 feet (the last camp before summiting) to acclimate. When Lyddan’s group saw the chance to summit, however, they decided to take it. Exposure to all the elements can be painful; the sun was so strong Lyddan said “I sun burned my tongue... it’s 10 times worse than burning your tongue on coffee.”

Finally, after 15 days, 20,310 feet, and with 130 pounds of gear on her back Lyddan summited Denali.

“It was such a reward,” Lyddan said. Trips up Denali can take as long as a month to reach the peak. Lyddan’s hurried third trip tested her strength. That whole summit day she had horrible headaches, couldn’t think straight and ended up vomiting on the summit. “Totally worth it,” she said.

It only took them a day to get down. “It sounds like a good deal but it is not a good deal,” she said. “We (AMS) don’t do this anymore because people have a really hard time with it. You’re super exhausted from the summit day and then from the summit you go all the way down to 17 camp (the camp at 17,000 feet), sleep two hours than walk all the way down to base camp. It’s called the death march.”

She said her family has seen her transform and gain confidence. They are so proud and, of course, a little scared. “People die on Denali,” she said. “I had a friend (who had climbed and summited Denali the year before) who told me I should write a will before I went on Denali.”

Preparing for a climb like Denali takes work. Lyddan works out six days a week, two days with her 130-pound backpack on. She also does yoga, ski touring, rock climbing, running and strength exercises.

After she graduates from the four-year ODS program this spring, Lyddan plans to hike Marcus Baker in the Chugach range near Anchorage as a teacher’s assistant.

When asked why people climb Denali, Lyddan answered, “I think people do it because they want to test themselves physically and mentally. Overcoming suffering like that is really life changing; after I did something like that I realized I was capable of doing anything. That strength and confidence I gained from an experience like that helped me in the rest of my life. People also do it to see the views, feel what it means to be so insignificant in the world. Nature rules and you’re just a player; (it) really puts your problems in perspective.”

Contact Capital City Weekly intern Mackenzie Fisher at