Weather conditions didn’t make it possible for Whistler’s Holly Walker to reach the summit of Denali last month, but the 31-year-old had already faced her biggest obstacle long before setting foot on North America’s tallest mountain.
Less than four years after suffering a freak stroke at age 28, Walker set her sights on the top of the 20,320-foot Alaskan peak also known as Mount McKinley. She and touring partner Jameson Florence likely would have made it if not for the brutal conditions that have plagued Denali this climbing season.
“I used to hate ski touring,” laughed Walker after returning home to Whistler. “I never did that much ski touring before I had my stroke. After I had it, I started touring a lot, doing more ski mountaineering and it was cool to be able to do that.”
“That’s kind of what the whole trip was about – the fact that I had had a stroke.”
While living in Colorado three and a half years ago, Walker ended up with a blood clot in her brain that was traced to the use of birth control. Soon after, she moved back to B.C. to be closer to family and undergo treatment at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. While at G.F. Strong, Walker had to re-learn how to read, write and control the right side of her body all over again.
Despite the incident, Walker has since reached the summits of Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and a handful of Whistler-area peaks. But when she informed doctors that she’d be attempting to reach the top of Denali, the entire trip nearly went off the rails.
“I’d trained for it, I’d done all these other peaks and I was super excited about my trip,” she said. “I got in to see my neurologist who was treating me when I had the stroke… and he came back saying, ‘Worst idea ever. Cancel your trip.’”
Since blood thickens at high altitude, the doctor’s concern was that Walker would be putting herself at risk of further complications. Instead of calling off the trip, she sought a second opinion from a high-altitude specialist in Colorado, who told Walker that drinking lots of water and taking aspirin, which acts as a blood thinner, would help keep her out of danger.
“He said that, ‘Yes, there’s a risk, but you have a far greater risk of being in an avalanche or getting frostbite,’” said Walker, a designer at The Question.
The latter scenario proved to be the case, as Denali has been unrelenting to mountaineers trying to reach the summit this year.
Walker and Florence flew into the area on May 24 and spent most of their time camped out at 14,200 feet. The duo ski-toured around that elevation for two weeks while waiting for skies to clear up.
They didn’t get a weather window until June 11 to go up to camp at 17,200 feet, but continuing further from there was near-impossible due to 100-kilometre-per-hour winds and high avalanche danger.
Walker and Florence skied out to the 7,200-foot base from there two days later in one long run. On their way down, they were less than two hours ahead of an avalanche that killed four Japanese climbers.
With the elements having conspired against them, Walker said it wasn’t a disappointment to leave Alaska without reaching the Denali summit.
“Maybe it was actually a better experience. In my three weeks there, one of the guys that did summit was in an avalanche and there was extreme frostbite on a lot of people that made it,” she said, noting that less than half of those attempting the summit this climbing season have made it to the top, which is much lower than usual.
“If anything, I learned that mountaineering is a waiting game,” she continued. “On top of that, it’s not worth it to risk my life because I want to summit. Some people are OK with that, but I can always go back next year. It’s only a mountain; I can try another time.”
Within days of returning from Alaska, Walker received a call from a friend asking if she’d be interested in an upcoming trip to the Himalayas. She can take on that journey now with the confidence of knowing her body can handle it.
“The good thing was that I was able to get up there, be at the highest camp… and didn’t have a problem with acclimatization or medical issues,” she said. “Because I had all that negativity from doctors before I went and was able to handle all conditions, it was really positive.”
The lingering effects of Walker’s stroke are minimal today – she sometimes has “a delay” recalling information from her memory and doesn’t have the same command of her right hand that she once did. She’s approached the G.F. Strong centre about returning to tell her story to other patients to help illustrate what’s possible for others undergoing a similar period of rehabilitation.
“It would be really great to go back, share my experience and show people that ‘Just because this happened to you doesn’t mean this is no longer possible,’” she said.