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Brian Okonek, Part 1

Brian Okonek was interviewed on May 31, 2000 by Dave Krupa at the bunkhouse of Alaska-Denali Guiding in Talkeetna, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Brian describes his experiences as a climber and guide, giving a step by step account of a guided climb up Denali's popular West Buttress route. He also talks about being involved in rescue operations, assisting with high altitude medical research, and management of climbing and guiding on Denali.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-17-14

Project: Denali Mountaineering
Date of Interview: May 31, 2000
Narrator(s): Brian Okonek
Interviewer(s): David Krupa
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


1) Introduction to outdoor activities and involvement in high school mountaineering club

2) Exploring the Talkeetna area, meeting Dave Johnston, and his trip in the Alaska Range

3) Relationship with his dad and hopes for a circumnavigation of Denali mountain

4) Climbing around Denali with his friends in the 1970's

5) Winter ascent of Foraker and the forgotten sleeping bag

6) Trips with Roger Robinson and Diane Okonek

7) Climbing with Roger Cowles, and meeting Roger Robinson

8) Traveling in the mountains and finding relics and animals

9) Complications of climbing

10) Dealing with injuries and the remoteness of climbing

11) Advantages of winter travel and winter climbing

12) An expedition on Mt. Deborah

13) The experience on Mt. Deborah

14) Learning from the more experienced climbers and continuing the practices today

15) Learning from experienced climbers and climbing partners

16) Exploring Little Switzerland

17) A horrible experience on Mt. Spur

18) His dad being a big part of his climbing career

19) Becoming a guide

20) The death of Ray Genet, and the reality of climbing

21) Ray Genet's guiding style

22) The National Park Service institutes measures of control for safety

23) Involvement in the High Altitude Medical Research Project

24) Aiding in rescues from the medical camp at 14,200 feet

25) The rescue of an injured Japanese man

26) Making decisions about rescues

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: activities -- outdoor\ parents -- involvement\ hiking\ canoeing\ fishing\ skiing\ Alaska -- Anchorage area\ Alaska -- Southcentral\ high school\ mountaineering club -- formation\ West High\ Hostetler, Charlie -- teacher\ climbing -- instruction\ climbing -- safety\ Seward Highway\ Chugach Mountains|

Section 2: Talkeetna\ land -- open entry program\ Parks Highway\ Chulitna River\ Ruth Glacier -- terminus\ cabin -- build\ Johnston, Dave -- family\ Denali -- winter ascent\ rescues -- involvement\ Denali Pass \ bivy -- extended\ Davidson, Art\ Genet, Ray\ Rescue Coordination Center\ Elmendorff Air Force Base\ Johnston, Dave -- appreciation\ ski trip -- attempt\ avalanche conditions\ Rowell, Galen\ Gillette, Ned\ Kahiltna Pass\ West Buttress\ Moore, Ted\ Anchorage, AK\ Menard?, George\ Trapper Creek\ Fesler, Doug\ Alaska Mountain Safety Center\ Fredston, Jill\ Ward, Art\ Swanson, Larry\ experience -- learning|

Section 3: Johnston, Dave\ Alaska Range\ father -- owned K2\ flying\ helicopter pilot -- commercial\ award -- International Helicopter Pilot of the Year\ rescues\ Denali\ air force pilot\ airplane -- Supercub\ glaciers\ circumnavigation\ Kahiltna Pass\ Peters Glacier\ Gunsight Pass\ Muldrow Glacier\ Traleika Glacier\ Traleika Col\ Ruth Glacier -- West Fork\ South Buttress\ Kahiltna Glacier -- East Fork\ Round Robin\ wind\ acclimatize|

Section 4: group -- meeting\ Huriski?, Joe\ guiding\ climbs\ mountains -- attempts\ Johnston, Dave\ Mt. Foraker\ Denali -- winter ascent\ Sultana Ridge\ Mt. Crosson\ Kahiltna Glacier\ Japanese -- upper NE ridge\ Robinson, Pete\ Trapper Creek\ Robinson, Roger\ Mt. Crosson -- Northeast ridge\ Coil?, Bill\ snowstorm\ Moore, Ted\ McCrudden, Phil\ crevasses\ caverns\ Cowles, Roger\ Anchorage, AK\ Iditarod Trail\ patience\ route\ snowcaves\ climbing|

Section 5: Mt. Foraker -- winter ascent\ climbing -- conditions\ wind\ summit\ climbing\ eating\ Johnston, Dave\ Robinson, Roger\ Okonek, Jim -- father\ Swan Lake\ sleeping bag\ weather\ food\ matches\ Mt. Crosson\ airplane -- Supercub\ glacier\ crevasse field\ will|

Section 6: climbing\ food -- salmon\ food -- dall sheep\ Sultana Ridge\ Mt. Foraker -- route\ mountaineering\ weather -- Alaska\ crevasses\ climbing -- technical\ route -- remote\ weather -- exposure\ risks\ Cowles, Roger\ Okonek, Diane\ Talkeetna, AK\ Okonek, Diane -- friend\ skiing\ cabins\ Alaska Range\ Tokositna Glacier\ Mt. Dickey\ lowlands\ forest\ glaciers\ wind

Section 7: Cowles, Roger\ Johnston, Dave\ Mt. Foraker\ guiding -- Diane\ Denali trip\ Cowles, Roger -- carpenter\ South Buttress\ Robinson, Roger\ Mt. Huntington\ Petersville Road\ Sultana Ridge\ Johnston, Sally\ Denali\ Oregon State University -- cleanup\ Mt. Hunter\ avalanche -- conditions\ Coil?, Bill\ Kahiltna -- ski\ Little Switzerland\ Sheldon, Don\ Pika Glacier\ Cook, Ken -- Yosemite climber\ Kanikula Glacier\ Tokositna Glacier\ Backside Glacier -- gorge peaks|

Section 8: Glacier Point\ Fake Peak\ Coffee River Valley\ Spink Lake\ Okonek, Jim\ Coffee River\ travel -- cross-country\ Tokositna Glacier\ Ruth Glacier\ cairn -- rusted\ Cook expedition\ Browne's expedition\ Washburn, Bradford\ Carter, H. Adams\ black bears\ ice\ climbing -- long term\ Alaska Range\ Quebec -- couple\ travel -- old style\ Parks Highway\ Kanikula Glacier\ Second Shot Pass\ Kahiltna\ Sultana Ridge\ Mt. Hunter -- west side\ Denali\ Cassin Ridge\ Wonder Lake\ Mt. Foraker|

Section 9: summer -- 1976\ summer -- 1977\ crevasses\ ice bridge\ ice fall\ sun crust\ ropes\ snow\ Ruth Gorge\ rainstorm\ rock slab\ clothes -- dry\ danger -- river crossing\ moraine piles -- danger\ lateral moraines\ medial moraines\ boulders\ alders\ valleys -- boreal|

Section 10: injuries\ ankles -- sprained\ altitude problems\ helicopters -- rescue\ risk -- manage\ climbing -- Alaska\ apprenticeship -- exposure\ North Cascades\ Sierra Nevada Mountains\ Rocky Mountains\ Alaska -- remote\ glaciers\ peaks\ weather\ camping -- techniques|

Section 11: climbing -- winter\ climbing -- summer\ transportation\ ski\ moraines\ crevasses\ travel -- winter\ routes -- safer\ rock fall\ temperatures -- cold\ frost -- winter\ frost -- summer\ weather systems\ wind\ camp -- secure\ storms\ tent\ weather -- prediction|

Section 12: Mt. Deborah\ Denali\ Bryant, John\ Johnston, Dave\ high school\ Wheeler, Toby\ Canada\ Nepal\ Sultana Ridge\ West Buttress -- descent\ Eldridge Glacier\ airstrip\ Harris, Shane\ Pettigrew, Dave\ Conoran, PC\ Hotman, Mark\ Stewart, Pat (PJ)\ Kogl, Dennis\ Reeves, Ford\ dog mush\ Yanert Glacier\ storm|

Section 13: climbing group\ climb -- ice\ ice screw\ fixed lines\ climbing -- expedition style\ Pettigrew, Dave\ Mt. Deborah -- South Summit\ gear\ cache\ basecamp\ summit -- middle\ ice fall\ col\ route -- Beckey's\ Mt. Deborah -- South Ridge\ storms\ snowcaves\ food\ summit\ high camp\ glaciers\ spring\ Edgar Creek\ caribou\ Kogl, Dennis\ Revine Creek\ Parks Highway\ ski\ walk|

Section 14: ice -- first time\ Traleika Spur\ Denali\ Wheeler, Toby\ climbers -- learning\ environment -- respect\ pack\ gear -- necessary\ shovel\ stove\ glaciers\ crevasses\ ice bridges\ travel -- roped\ equipment -- proper|

Section 15: climbing -- patience\ plan -- flexible\ goals -- changing\ mountains -- enthusiastic\ geese\ Johnston, Dave\ Wheeler, Toby\ Pettigrew, Dave\ climbing partner\ tent\ dinner\ break trail\ climbing -- summer|

Section 16: Little Switzerland\ Robinson, Roger\ summit -- first time\ conditions\ climbing\ rain -- camp\ Kahiltna Glacier -- Southeast Fork\ Kahiltna Queen\ Kearny, Allan\ Mannix?, Arthur\ Bloomfield, Mark\ West Face\ peak\ Mt. Foraker\ summit -- cornice\ ice climbing\ climb -- mixed\ ice -- steep|

Section 17: Anchorage\ Mt. Spur -- winter ascent\ weather -- bad\ snowstorm\ gear\ expedition -- split up\ Hickok, Bruce\ pack\ sleeping bag\ clothing -- adequate\ Mt. Spur -- Southeast Ridge\ snow -- wet\ gear -- wet\ floor -- wet\ wind\ snow\ dad -- pickup\ sastrugi\ swamp\ airplane -- Supercub\ airplane -- Belugas|

Section 18: Hickok, Bruce\ Palky?, Dave\ Gerdine?\ Mantanuska Glacier\ Mt. Marcus Baker -- winter ascent\ Mt. Spur\ temperature -- warm\ weather\ summit\ dad -- drop-off\ high camp\ snowcave -- North Peak\ radios\ Denali\ radio telephones\ Harper Glacier\ Fairbanks\ radio relay|

Section 19: Talkeetna\ Swan Lake\ Johnstons\ Genet, Ray\ Pirate Lake\ land -- federal\ trade manufacture site\ guiding -- interested\ expeditions -- Denali\ guiding -- apprentice\ Genet -- guiding style\ summit\ West Buttress\ high camp\ Redington, Joe Sr.\ Butcher, Susan\ Stapleton, Rob -- photographer\ sled dogs\ dog sled -- descent\ Denali Pass|

Section 20: Okonek, Diane\ Genet, Ray -- death\ Mt. Everest\ rescues\ Genet, Ray -- wisdom\ mountains -- dangerous\ impact -- family\ death -- high school partner\ avalanches\ climbing -- serious\ Sullivan, Kathy -- work\ Denali -- guiding\ Weber, Sep\ rafting\ hiking\ business -- custom trips\ Genet expeditions -- West Buttress\ Ruth Glacier\ guiding -- infancy|

Section 21: Denali\ Genet -- guiding\ Genet, Ray -- style\ groups -- large\ National Park Service -- disagreement\ incidental business program\ guiding -- concession\ National Parks -- regulations\ safety -- public\ mountains\ altitude|

Section 22: screening process\ summit -- attempt\ motto\ safety record\ client -- high altitude mountain sickness\ National Park Service -- policy\ clients -- maximum\ expeditions -- limits\ control\ changes\ safety problems\ people -- increasing|

Section 23: Okonek, Diane\ High Altitude Medical Research Project\ Denali\ Mills, Dr. William\ Hackett, Peter\ research -- cold weather\ camp managers\ problems -- high altitude\ researchers -- care\ people -- imaginative\ medical lab -- Denali\ facilities\ communications\ rescues\ doctors\ National Park Service Station -- 14,000 ft\ facility -- dependence|

Section 24: researchers -- climbers\ basecamp\ army\ drug study\ drug -- Decadron\ placebo\ rescues\ accident -- gully\ West Rib\ Orient Express\ terrain -- unforgiving\ belay\ trouble -- descending parties\ sastrugi\ snow -- drifted\ fall\ helicopters -- unavailable\ rescues -- cable\ toboggans\ basin|

Section 25: weather -- conditions\ comatose\ doctors -- stability\ Randall, Francis -- base camp manager\ climbing party -- Japanese\ West Buttress\ high camp\ Denali Pass\ fall -- icy slope\ injury -- broken leg\ radios -- 17,000 ft\ Waterman, Jonathan -- climbing ranger\ terrain -- steep\ knee -- strained\ pack -- hall|

Section 26: rescues\ weather -- poor\ attitude -- people\ safety -- priority\ pilots\ climbers|