ANCHORAGE - A pair of climbers trying to put the first woman at the summit of the tallest peak in North America in winter have abandoned their ascent after spending 12 days in a snow cave.
Artur Testov and Christine Feret of Knik were heading back down the 20,320-foot tall Mount McKinley in Alaska'a Denali National Park.
Feret delivered the news late Thursday night in a satellite call to climb coordinator Josef Princiotta of Anchorage.
A break in the weather allowed Testov and Feret to leave their Kahiltna Glacier snow cave at 10,000 feet, where they'd been trapped for almost two weeks by howling winds and whiteouts.
They descended to 8,000 feet Thursday and hope to get picked up at the 7,200-foot base camp by Sunday.
The summit was at least a couple of days away in the best of conditions, and conditions have been anything but optimal for the pair. From the start, the expedition was hindered by low-pressure systems that brought zero visibility, making it impossible to travel in any direction.
Princiotta told the Anchorage Daily News the climbers made their home in a snow cave too short to stand up in and about as big around as a dining table that seats six.
Temperatures outside were about minus 25 and only about minus 5 inside.
Testov and Feret were burning two to three times more fuel than what climbers on the move need, putting a big dent in their supply.
"As the days went on and on, they really couldn't tolerate another five or eight days at a higher altitude with less fuel," Princiotta said.
There was also the calendar to consider with the spring equinox approaching. If Testov and Feret reached the summit even one day later, it wouldn't count as a winter summit. To qualify as a winter summit on Denali, a climber must reach the top between the Dec. 21 winter solstice and the March 20 vernal equinox.
Darryl Miller, an experienced climber and a former Denali National Park ranger, said the spot where Testov and Feret hunkered down is in a stretch of mountain notorious for relentless winds and zero visibility.
"It's just a bad place that can just shut you down," Miller said. "It's inherently bad there."
Testov - one of the most experienced winter climbers in Denali history - made the decision to turn back.
"Christine wanted to keep going and he wanted to come down," Princiotta said.
Princiotta said the climbers seem no worse for the wear.
"They were eating mashed potatoes, salmon strips, hunter sticks. They had some bologna and boiled it for soup, and they had concentrated citrus drinks," he said.
They reported no injuries and no frostbite. And despite all that time in cramped quarters, they're still talking to each other - and making plans for another climb.
"They may try again in the summer on the other side, the Wickersham wall," Princiotta said.