DELTA, Alaska - The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. Conquering all seven is the mountaineers’ platinum goal; they include Mt. Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Elbrus (Europe), Denali (North America), Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Carstensz Pyramid (Australia) and Kilimanjaro (Africa).
With this in mind, every year, climbers travel from all over the world to try to scale Denali. In May 2012, from one of the world’s smallest countries — Montenegro of former Yugoslavia — five alpinists arrived to the Great Land.
Alaska — Fairbanks in particular — has been greatly shaped by Montenegrins who came here with the gold rush — Stepovich, Hajdukovich, Geraghty/Saicic-Borovich, Pekich and Milaich/Miller — were among those who stayed and raised their families.
These historical figures, in part, led to a decision by Dragan Bulatovic, president of Viskogorici (Highlanders) mountain climbing club of Podgorica, Montenegro, to put Denali next on his list.
Bulatovic, 41, has a doctorate in economics, and during the past 15 years he has climbed many peaks, including two of the seven summits: 18,510-foot Elbrus in Russia and 22,841-foot Aconcagua in the Andes.
“If we are successful climbing 20,335-foot Denali, I will still need to climb another four of the seven summits to achieve my goals,” Bulatovic said.
Just as big a challenge, however, is financing the trips, he said. Bulatovic said that for the Denali trip, to supplement their own funds he needed to gather sponsors, which included a local winery and Montenegro Airlines.
Before coming to Alaska, Bulatovic told his teammates, “You must be ready. It will be very hard. You cannot imagine. Many who climb say, ‘Oh, Denali is only 20,320 feet’ but — remember, Denali is Denali. The main difference between it and other mountains is that all the needed equipment must be packed in by the climbers. Plus, Denali has very bad weather conditions.”
On May 23, Bulatovic and four others — Aleksandar Djajic, Milan Radovic, Zoran Prljevic and Boris Celebic — arrived in Anchorage for their Denali expedition.
With a 20-day permit to be on Denali, the climbers flew to the 7,200-foot base camp of the West Buttress Route. They organized their gear and began the 7 1/2 mile hike up Kahiltna Glacier to their first camp at 7,800 feet. They made good time the following two days to Kahiltna Pass, their second camp at 9,500 feet, and the following day, at 11,200 feet, their third camp.
At camp four at 14,200 feet, Bulatovic reported their arrival by satellite phone, which was then posted from Montenegro to Facebook, allowing family and friends to participate.
After that, bad weather turned to worse. Blizzards brought whiteout conditions, grounding them for four days. Not able to withstand the weight of all that snow, their tent had to be swept clear — night and day — to prevent collapse. With a break in the weather on June 2, they packed their equipment 820 feet — more than two football field lengths — straight up the headwall to an altitude of 16,000 feet. They had to pull themselves and their gear up, hand over hand, by means of a fixed rope. Avalanche was an ever-present threat. (This was the first of four times that they had to traverse the headwall.)
After two nights at a very exposed 17,200 feet, the exhausted and stressed-out climbers learned that even worse weather was on its way.
“Not only was there already too much snow and wind but it was also very cold, down to minus 55, maybe more,” Bulatovich said. “Camps four and five do not even exist on the same planet with the rest of the world.”
With a horrific weather forecast, two team members, Prljevic and Celebic, decided to throw in the towel. They were not alone. All the teams at camp five, including another Montenegrin one, decided enough was enough — everyone left but Bulatovic and his two teammates, Djajic and Radovic.
The three men decided to go down to camp four to wait for better weather.
On June 5, Bulatovic messaged home: “Denali, this mountain of sophisticated deception, has expressed all her cruelty in not allowing anyone on her top for days. We three are still hoping for our chance and we will wait another four to five days. Right now, we are cloaked in a snowstorm and there is no visibility. It has been ten days.”
A call home two days later included an even bleaker report: “The wind is still raging so there can be no climbing. All forecasts are unreliable. The season has been a disaster.”
“One danger of whiteout conditions was that we could not see avalanches coming,” Bulatovic later explained. “One day as we were going up, a skier called out, ‘Go back, go back!’ Two minutes earlier, only a few feet away, there had been an avalanche.”
On their 17th day on the mountain, Bulatovic messaged, “Despite the snowstorm, we managed to get to camp five. Here in the tent, we are melting snow for water.”
Two days later, when a pair of Polish climbers were injured in an avalanche, Bulatovic messaged, “This mountain is chaos and hell. We have to ration our food now as we are running out.”
June 13 was Bulatovic’s birthday. With the wind still howling, the three climbers and two rangers were the only persons remaining at the 17,200 foot level. Even descending was dangerous due to the avalanche-prone headwall between camps five and four.
“After hearing a very bad weather forecast, all the campers packed up to go down,” he said. “Even though we were living on half rations, we decided to stay one more day.”
The following morning at 2 a.m., four Japanese climbers died in an avalanche at 11,200 feet, just below camp three.
But the disastrous weather forecast for June 14 proved to be wrong. Although the three climbers were out of food and one day past their permit time, at 10:30 a.m. they headed for the summit.
“The snow was very deep, up to our knees,” Bulatovic recalled. “There was a big danger of avalanches, particularly at Denali Pass.”
But nine hours later, they were on top, the first Montenegrins ever to attain the summit, Bulatovic said. By the end of day, to get there and back to camp five, was a 15-hour climb.
After having eaten little since June 12, when they arrived at camp four they found their food and gear tent blown down and buried. Before they could eat, they had to dig their food and equipment out for four hours.
“During the climb, I breathed in a lot of cold air,” he said. “I began feeling a strong pain in my lungs. Going down from camps five, three and two were the hardest days for me. I could not get enough air. During the night, I coughed a lot and spit up matter.”
When they finally got to Talkeetna, the doctor told Bulatovic that he had no permanent lung damage, “thanks to God,” Bulatovic said.
In Anchorage, Bob Hajdukovich, CEO of ERA Alaska, whose grandfather first came to Fairbanks in 1904 from Montenegro, met with Bulatovic and his four teammates for lunch on summer solstice. The next night they were the guests of honor at a barbecue hosted by several other prominent Anchorage residents of Montenegrin descent.
“It was pretty incredible what they did,” Hajdukovich said. “And it was great to make connection with people from my grandfather’s birthplace.”
In hindsight, Bulatovic said, Denali may end up being be the hardest of the seven summits he pursues. Climbers must carry their own gear, unlike peaks in the Himalayas, and its base is much closer to sea level, making it a longer climb, than other prominent mountains. On top of that, Bulatovic said, Denali is the “coldest mountain on the planet.”
“When I was growing up, my grandmother told me, ‘Dragan, my son, you can realize your dreams but there are two conditions, you must believe in your own goals and you must work hard for them. You must also respect others as well as your own principles.’ Always, my two teammates — Aleksandar and Milan — and I always believed we would be successful.
“But our goal is not just getting to the top, but getting down as well. In the process, we learn our own abilities, the character of others and the challenge of meeting nature itself.”
Judy Ferguson is author of six Alaska books and plans to release “Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story, Volumes I and II,” in 2013. Her website is http://alaska-highway.org/delta/outpost.