The hazy, indefinite figure of that mountain dominated the horizon of her hometown and her childhood imagination. She dreamed of making her way to its foot, its flanks, its summit. And Fairbanks in the 1980s was the right place to let such dreams run free.
Back then it felt more like an outpost than any sort of normal civilization, kind of like “West Virginia meets Siberia,” she says with a laugh. Growing up, her hero was Susan Butcher, a local and four-time winner of the Iditarod.
“You’d actually see her, walking around and getting groceries at the grocery store,” Leighan remembers. “She was about 5’3”, and she was just this little petite brunette. And I looked at her, and it was hard to imagine that she’d been out on a thousand-plus-mile dogsled race and won it.”
Both her parents were mountain lovers — her dad, Tom, first came to Alaska with an NSF grant to study glaciers, and her mom, Nancy, worked as a mountain guide on Mt. Rainier in the early days.
Leighan’s childhood was shaped by the rugged landscape, a flat economy, and her parents’ penchant for remote places and outcomes unknown. “Dad would drag us on all sorts of adventures,” she says. “There were some running-out-of-food ones, and flat tire ones in the middle of nowhere, and climbing peaks in the eastern Alaska Range as 10-year-olds. My dad's favorite thing was the road trip with no food in the eastern Alaska Range in this old Land Cruiser from the 60s.” Her mother often read her mountaineering books, and Leighan mostly remembers the tragedies, like K2: The Savage Mountain.
“I was a horribly uncoordinated kid, and pretty shy, so I got axed out of softball and things like that at an early age and just started running, because that was the easiest sport to do. And Alaska was pretty bust in the 1980s, so we didn’t have a lot of money for really expensive sports. But we could buy running shoes, and so I would just run.”
That turned out to be great conditioning for her dream of meeting up with Denali. And in her last year of high school, as a graduation present, her parents signed her up for a Denali expedition organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
Unlike commercial expeditions, which fly in to 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier to attempt the West Buttress route, the NOLS expedition tackled the seldom-traveled Muldrow Glacier route, where one must walk all the way in from the road. After weeks of effort, the team had established camp on the upper mountain and were preparing for a summit bid when a storm struck.
“There’s this legend of the White Wind,” Leighan says. White Winds is the name of a book by Joe Wilcox about the 1967 expedition in which seven climbers perished attempting to climb the Muldrow.
“There’s this theory that there’s this really vicious storm event that can happen on Denali that is really, really bad… And I didn’t really believe it, but on our expedition we were hit by this really bad storm. It got worse and worse and worse. And on the third or fourth night of the storm, two out of the four tents were airlifted by this mysterious blast of wind. Something – I don’t even know what it was to this day – just airlifted those tents, and I was in one of them.”
Leigh’s team spent the next several days fighting for survival. Numerous pieces of equipment were lost when their tents were destroyed, including one of her boot shells — a potentially devastating loss, as it would be hard to get down off the mountain without it. With eight people crammed into each of the two surviving tents, everyone was at their limit. When one of her teammates stumbled outside to go to the bathroom and found her boot buried in the snow, it felt like she had won the lottery.
“Long story short, we all made it off the mountain, some of us with pretty good frostbite… but no one died.”