Three Friends Plan the Expedition of a Lifetime

Summiting Denali Without a Guide

Sam, Ethan and Tyler.

On May 8, 2022, Sam Nofziger, Ethan Bouvet and Tyler Howe flew out of the small town of Talkeetna, Alaska, onto the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to begin an adventure they will never forget — attempting to summit Denali, the tallest peak in North America at 20,310 feet. What’s more, they planned to do it without a guide.

I had to ask how their parents reacted. Sam’s mom, Lenae, had reservations. “My parents and extended family live in Alaska, so I know how easy it is for things to go wrong in the Alaskan wilderness and on Denali in particular,” she shares. "What it came down to for me was turning my focus from what could go wrong to what an exciting adventure this was going to be for Sam.” Tyler’s mom, Linda, felt the same, adding, “I was certainly scared about the thought of them going up there, especially without a guide, but they were doing all the necessary research and were giving themselves plenty of time to prepare.” Tyler also had a satellite communicator and sent texts nearly every night, which was a great relief to all the parents.

To backtrack, Sam and Ethan met at Holy Family Kirkland Parish school and have been friends since third grade, while Sam and Tyler met at Lake Washington freshman year. While all three became interested in climbing via different paths, they eventually joined forces when Sam invited Ethan to climb Mount St. Helens with him and Tyler. After that, they continued expanding their skills by climbing whatever peaks they could find in the North Cascades and, in the summer of 2021, summitted Mt. Rainier twice without a guide. That’s when Sam revealed his dream of attempting Denali’s West Buttress. As Sam recalls, “They were receptive and interested, and all my mom’s family lives in Alaska, so I had that connection.”

That fall, they left for their respective colleges, where they trained for what they were about to attempt. “Climbing Denali requires strong aerobic endurance, the ability to move at a consistent pace for many hours, and a high level of physical strength,” Sam explains. The effective available oxygen at the summit is less than half that at sea level, so every step takes effort. With May and June the main climbing months for Denali, they set their date for early May of 2022.

To give some perspective, the route gains nearly 14,000 feet over 16 miles from base camp to the summit. Teams typically use five camps as they work their way up. Weather on Denali is one of the greatest challenges, as temperatures can swing from 80 degrees F in the sun to -30 degrees F when a system moves in. Winds exceeding 100 mph have been recorded mid-mountain, which devastates camps, drops the windchill drastically and accelerates the effects of frostbite.
In addition, the three would be hauling nearly 200 pounds of gear each, some on custom-built sleds and the rest in backpacks. “We planned for 26 days' worth of food and three and a half gallons of fuel to ensure we would have enough to make it up and down with resources to spare in case of an extended storm,” says Tyler.

After nearly a year of planning, training and investing substantial funds in equipment, they found themselves at a 7,000-foot basecamp. “We were quite excited, but it’s a bit surreal when the plane leaves, and it’s just you and your pile of crap,” says Sam with a laugh. With the threat of a storm rolling in, they immediately began their trek to the first camp at 7,800 feet. They’d just started moving when it hit full force. “Sam was in the lead, and we were suddenly surrounded by clouds; it was actively snowing, and we were losing the trail that had been put down,” says Tyler. “I eventually took over the lead, as I’ve done a lot of backcountry skiing and am used to those conditions, but we were completely disoriented, so we ended up setting up camp halfway to the first camp instead.”

Frightening as that was, their scariest moments came on day eight, between the 11,000-foot camp and the 14,000-foot camp. “We had gone up a day or two prior and had left most of our food and fuel at 13,500 feet, so now we were moving the rest of our camp,” Sam says. “It was a normal day with no sign of bad weather, but when we came around a corner at 13,300 feet with a half mile and 500 feet of elevation to go, this storm came out of nowhere.” Winds of 30 to 40 mph slammed them, snow was blowing in every direction, and the wind chill dropped to nearly -10 degrees. “I was in the lead, but my legs were starting to struggle, and I was getting off course because snow had covered the path,” he says. Tyler and Ethan could see he was faltering, so Ethan took the lead as they had drastically slowed, making frostbite and hypothermia serious concerns. “We were losing feeling in our fingers and toes and were tugging on the rope pulling Sam along,” says Tyler. “We truly felt a threat to life and limb and were harshly reminded of how the weather on Denali is the biggest risk climbers face.”

After finally stumbling into camp exhausted, they collapsed in their tent, shedding tears of relief. “We knew the odds we were playing with,” Sam admits. Tyler agrees, adding, “As climbers, you know these things can happen and the only way you will make it is to work through them and try not to panic. That’s what we did, but we had also made peace early on with the fact we might not make it back.”

On day 12, the three began moving the gear they would need for the final ascent up to high camp at 17,000 feet, but at around 16,000 feet, Ethan began to suffer from altitude sickness. They quickly headed back down to the 14,000-foot camp, but when he still wasn’t feeling well the next day, they had a decision to make. Should they summit without him or end their adventure here? “I hated the thought of leaving Ethan because we had all put in the same amount of work and couldn’t have gotten that far without him,” says Sam. Tyler felt the same, but then Ethan said, “I’m a part of this team, and even if I don’t make it to the top, knowing I helped my friends successfully summit means a lot.”

So on the two went. “As summiting became a reality, Tyler and I both got emotional,” Sam recalls. “We talked about all the work we’d put in and all the support friends and family had given us. I’d been leading, but the last few feet, we joined hands crying and summited together.” Tyler says, “It was tears of joy to the nth degree. The whole time it was easy to forget where we were and what we were doing, as you don’t feel the presence of the summit until you are on it.” As one of the Seven Summits of the World, and arguably the toughest, knowing they had joined an elite group of climbers just added to their emotion. And to remind Ethan how vital he was to their success, they took a selfie with Sam’s arm around Tyler and his other extended out for Ethan.

After taking videos and photos and even FaceTiming Tyler’s mom, they headed down to high camp for the night. The next morning, they descended 14 miles from high camp to basecamp at 7,800 feet, hoping to catch a flight out ahead of a three-day storm that was looming. Joining up with Ethan at the 14,000-foot camp, Tyler jokingly remarks, “In the two and a half days we were gone, Ethan had made all these new friends and created this whole life there!” The climb had taken 15 days total, with 13 to the summit and only two to return to base camp.

As they flew away with the beautiful Alaska Range descending from view, they felt a mixture of relief for having done it and sadness for having the expedition end. But these adventurers aren’t stopping here. Tyler plans to go back and climb Denali via the more technical Cassin Ridge and to climb in a couple of other zones there that have great ice climbing. He also competes for the USA Ice Climbing Team in competitions around the country and the world. Sam is off on exchange to Cusco, Peru, until December, where he hopes to climb at least one 6,000-meter peak and to have Ethan join him for some climbs there as well. We wish them well in their endeavors and applaud them for their amazing feat.

For more about their expedition, go to