As a former state high school champion in cross-country skiing, Katie Bono said, she’s “good at suffering in the cold for long periods.”
That ability to endure — what Bono calls having a “suffer callus” — came in handy this summer when she decided to speed climb Denali, North America’s highest peak, the 20,310-foot high mountain in Alaska.
Bono, a 29-year-old Minneapolis native living in Boulder, Colo., fought through difficult weather, exhaustion, dehydration and a touch of frostbite to make the round trip between base camp and summit in 21 hours and six minutes on June 14.
It was a women’s record and the third fastest time ever on the 34.5-mile route that typically takes days to accomplish.
It’s not the first time Bono has climbed fast.
In 2012, she set a women’s record on Washington’s Mount Rainier, blitzing up and down the 14,410-foot peak in four hours, 58 minutes while wearing trail running shoes and crampons. The peak typically takes an average climber a couple of days to get up and down.
“It seemed like a fun challenge,” said Bono, who has been working as a mountain guide.
Bad weather and a frostbitten nose
Bono won state cross-country skiing titles competing for Visitation high school in Mendota Heights.
She got into climbing while attending Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. After college, she spent a year on the cross-country ski racing circuit before guiding mountain climbs in Washington, Alaska and South America.
Bono said she trained for four months for her Denali speed ascent by doing a lot of backcountry ski touring. But things didn’t go as planned when she got to the mountain. Bad weather forced her to turn back on her first attempt and she had to wait in base camp for a week in the rain while waiting for the next break in the weather.
That came when she skied out of base camp at 6 a.m. on June 13, carrying an ice ax, a trekking pole, climbing pants, a climbing harness, down pants, a Gore-Tex jacket, three puffy coats, duct tape and energy bars and gels.
She climbed with her skis up to about 14,000 feet and then started climbing on crampons. At about 16,000 feet, she dropped her water bottle and it rolled down the mountain. Another climber gave her a half-liter of water, which had to last her for the next seven hours.
As she neared the summit, she estimated that the windchill dropped to 30 to 40 degrees below zero.
“I managed to stay warm enough,” she said. Except for when she pulled at what she thought was a piece of ice that turned out to be the tip of her nose.
She would have turned around if that initial sign of frostbite had occurred earlier in the climb. But she decided to keep going. She was only about a half-hour from the summit, and on the trip down, she thought she wouldn’t have as much wind in her face.
She pulled her balaclava mask over her nose and got to the top, pausing only for a few minutes to pose for some pictures taken by other climbers. She also used some duct tape to cover her nose, a trick used by cross-country ski racers in very cold weather.
“I was pretty excited to get down lower to more oxygen,” she said.
Shortly after 3 a.m. on June 14, she skied into base camp. The tip of her nose felt a little numb for weeks.
Bono’s next adventure is already underway: She’s applying to medical school.