Disappointed Not Defeated – Denali Denies Williams Summit
By Radix Team 12/09/2017 8:44 am
Dave Williams 

In August 2013, Dave Williams decided to become the first person to climb the highest mountain in each of the seven continents, from the nearest shoreline. He would climb the world’s tallest summits to raise $100,000 and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. The ambitious explorer has previously summited Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Europe’s Mount Elbrus and Aconcagua in South America. In May 2017, Williams embarked on a trip to Alaska to climb Mount Denali. With a summit elevation of 6,190 metres above sea level, Denali would be his fifth summit attempt.

The trip would prove to be his toughest yet, both physically and mentally. Williams experienced intense mental anguish in Alaska – ironic, considering the expedition was inspired by his experience of loved ones suffering from mental illness and depression.

More than 40 days were spent in harsh conditions, in the hope of a summit. However, Williams’s attempt would eventually end up joining the vast array of other climbers who were also denied a summit in 2017. In a season blighted by extreme cold, strong winds at high altitude and excessive sun and heat at the lower glaciers, this year’s season has been described as one of the worst in Alaska for two decades. In 2016, 60% of climbers summited. By the end of May, only 16% of climbers attempting Denali in 2017 had summited.

Hearing about Radix Nutrition from nutritional advisor, Mikki Wiliden, Williams approached Radix to find a nutritional routine that would support his performance in harsh environments. Maintaining an optimal diet whilst in such an extreme location has been virtually impossible, until now. Typically, those performing in remote locations have focused upon energy and suffered from diminished nutrient intake, which can lead to deterioration in physical and mental performance during an expedition. With Radix, Williams could achieve a nutrient-dense diet during his summit attempt for the first time, with remarkable effects on health and performance. Radix designed the new Expedition Range – with a specific purpose to achieve peak performance in extreme situations. In conjunction with Williams, Radix focused upon designing a higher-fat-and-calorie version of its trademark nutrient-dense meals. Mike Rudling, Radix’s co-founder and Technical director, said;

“We identified several key areas where we could make an impact on Dave’s nutritional needs. We designed a range of meals with a high nutrient content from some of our favourite sources, such as grass-fed beef bone broth, while significantly raising the energy content. In addition, we worked on product weight reduction and reduced the product’s physical size by 19 grams per meal, as well as the amount of water required to rehydrate it. We identified these last two key points so that the products we supplied, fit Williams’ gruelling schedule as seamlessly as possible. With Dave’s feedback and real-world testing, we have since improved the product further and look forward to launching the range soon.”

Upon arrival in Alaska, Williams felt strong and began stage one (running from sea level to the base of the mountain) with relative ease. Fuelled on Radix meals – he was full of energy, feeling good. On day three however, his right knee began to ache and it gradually worsened as the miles clocked up. 

“I was running 42km per day, but with increasing pain, I frequently needed to stop to ice my knee. By day four I couldn’t bend the knee and I was trying to run without bending my leg, swinging it out to the side.”

Despite this, after four days, his running journey was completed and he began phase two – joined by climbing partner, Mike Boston.

“I embarked on the next leg with renewed vigour, glad to have stopped running – my knee was less painful. However, we had not been hiking long before it became clear that we were up against a new unforeseen problem. The river was swollen, telling us too much snow had melted up ahead. If it is too warm, snow is unable to freeze hard enough at night to enable safe travel.” 

Cutting a path through wet snow is physically draining, even harder when pulling a sledge. It took an entire day to travel 4km and they had planned to cover at least 20km daily.

“I was torn between heart and head on day seven. Over a period of three days, we had not been meeting our daily targets and I knew the chance of success was diminishing. Contemplating having to turn around and repeat every step again was soul-destroying. I questioned whether it was worth trying to summit at all and started looking for excuses, knowing I could blame knee pain as a legitimate reason to stop.”

 Williams’ foreboding about the first attempt was justified. The risk of dangerous crevasses forming in glaciers increases in warm conditions. Without the required conditions to allow swifter passage, there would be no way to get onto the glacier. Supplies of Radix meals on the sleds were running low and soon after, conditions worsened. It became evident there would be no chance of completing the approach to base camp and the two men reluctantly turned around.

Assessing risk is a vital skill. If a climber needs rescuing, they are taken off the mountain and their permit to climb is revoked for the rest of the season.

“We didn’t want to jeopardise our summit window by pushing on, when a rescue was almost certain. It was the toughest call though, because I would no longer be able to achieve a true ‘sea to summit’ climb. After retreating, we’d need to be flown over the glacier to the base for a second attempt at the summit. 

The warm weather in the area was unusual in May. Locals remarked how uncharacteristic the elevated temperatures and swollen river were.

“As I retraced the route, I had time to reflect and rationalise the situation. Sea2Summit7 isn’t solely about summiting – it is a complex lesson in overcoming adversity and battling through when the going gets tough. Failure is an integral part of the journey. How I dealt with set-backs was more important than ever and I was reminded to look at the bigger picture and not get overcome by upsets.”

After a week’s wait, a possible weather-window emerged and the pair were joined by Canadian mountain ranger, Mat Trotter. The three men psyched themselves for an attempt at the summit, before flying to the base, to begin. However, a vast snowstorm suddenly came in and conditions became treacherous. Forced to cut a new trail, the men dug deep. Pulling a sled weighing 40kg made progress slow and they were two days behind schedule when they arrived at Camp 3 (11,000ft) and even further behind schedule once they reached 14,000ft. Progress was arduous and soul-destroying, but despite this, they made it to High Camp (17,200ft).

“We were up the mountain faced with a colossal decision whether to push for the summit. Because of high altitude and harsh conditions, you try to minimize time spent at High Camp. But unless a weather window appears, the only option is bedding down and waiting. With excessive winds, camps must be well-protected and carefully-constructed block walls protect tents during storms. One saving grace was the meals, they made us feel warm, full and alert – put a big smile on our faces. You cannot underestimate how important that is when morale is low and lack of sleep affects the mind.”

“During the previous five days, our summit plans were repeatedly hindered due to poor weather and altitude sickness. We’d had to stay put in foul weather and it was becoming harder to bear. When you are facing adversity over many days, thoughts of helplessness creep in and you begin to see increasingly less point in trying. That is when I had to dig deepest and remember what the expedition means to many other people. The magnitude of the situation became hard to ignore.”

“As the sun appeared (which happens around 2am) on day 38, we knew it was now or never – our last chance. 5-10km winds had been forecasted, but instead they were around 60km. We looked up to the summit and saw lenticular clouds. Our hearts sank. Coupled with the freezing temperatures, already below zero, this meant that the wind chill at the summit could be life-threatening. There is a summit attempt cut-off temperature of -35 degrees Celsius (air temperature and wind chill combined) and if it is there or below, you don’t go. Ultimately, the outcome was out of our hands – the mountain will dictate if you can climb. After all the energy spent on psyching yourself up to ‘possibly’ push for the summit, many days in a row, it is mentally exhausting. As it transpired, the temperature at summit reached -58 degrees Celcius – we made the right decision. But that didn’t make it easier to accept at the time, I was crushed. We all were.”


 Reflecting on the trip, Williams shared a very private moment with us.

“My happiest time was born out of a really dark moment. I was getting frustrated with my climbing mates because I felt they may jeopardise our summit attempt. Despite being more experienced than Mike and I, Mat (who was leading) was suffering altitude sickness. Mike had been battling a severe head cold since camp 3 and was having circulation issues with his hands. I, on the other hand, was feeling fit and strong and had even been carrying both mine and my friend’s gear at times during the hauls. I found myself becoming angry at hindered progress. Unpredictable weather was adding to my frustration and I found myself in a nasty headspace. But as I considered the situation, I realised they had volunteered themselves to help me with a cause that was equally as important to them. We all believed in Sea2Summit7 and there was no place for independent thinking – this was a team undertaking.”

“To snap out of negative thinking and aid in our morale, we decided to take a detour to see a famous view, known as the ‘edge of the world’. On arrival, the sight was humbling. Mist rolled down the mountain, it was out-of-this-world. Standing in awe, Mike, Mat and I were all roped to each another for safety and it reminded me no-one is more important than another – we were a team of equals. At that moment, I was incredibly grateful to have them with me and I felt shame at having been frustrated with my friends. I am not proud of that moment, but I know it was a pivotal reminder just how important it is not to let your ego get the better of you.”

“If you show up thinking you will summit, you are disrespecting the mountain. Regardless how prepared you are, success cannot be forced. There is such parity in these endeavours with human relationships. Despite best intentions, we cannot control others or force them to think and behave how we want. It is often about compromise – being supportive when times are tough and seizing opportunities when circumstances allow.” 

Sadly, circumstances did not enable a successful climb this time. However, incentivised by the lessons learnt and the motivation to achieve the entire Sea2Summit7 project one day, Williams has every intention of returning to Denali one day. Radix will continue to support Williams. 

Keep a look out on our website during the coming months, when our ‘tried and tested in Alaska’ Expedition meal range will be available for sale. 

If you would like to donate to Mental Health New Zealand and show your support for Williams’ Sea2Summit7 expedition, please follow this link:


or text SEA to 2446 to donate $3 straight away

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