The problem: an older group with inaccurate expectations combined with a trip leader/translator who wasn't willing or able to guide effectively.
Denali is perhaps the hardest of the well-known mountains to climb. Everest is higher, harder to make it to the top, but Sherpas carry all your gear - you don't have to haul heavy loads, just stay healthy. Denali is two weeks of carrying 60+ pound packs, often coupled with 40-pound sleds - not an easy thing even if you've trained for it.
Instead, several of our climbers kept asking for lighter loads and slower travel speeds. But you can't leave your food behind (and I'm not paid enough to carry a 120-pound pack), and we were already the slowest group on the mountain. There are some things you can't change if you want to make it. 35-pound packs were referred to as "heavy" and our already conservative pace was too fast. Not a good sign.
We lost one climber on a carry to 16,200' to chest pain - not good in an older smoker! His teammate went down the next day when he couldn't make it to the first break without sitting down in a heap in the middle of the trail. The rest of us made it to high camp (17,200') just in time to wait out the storm, but in all honesty it wasn't brutal, just long. Our fearless interpreter nearly lost heart, but our last possible summit day dawned clear and calm. Sweet!
Unfortunately, one of our climbers pooped out after half an hour, and park regulations require that clients be accompanied by a guide even in camp. I turned around with him and another we didn't think would make it and warned repeatedly: If anyone else has to turn around, we're out of guides and the summit bid is over. If you don't think you will make it the whole way, spin now or risk the group's success. Sure enough, two hours later another climber was done and the only person who actually should have been on the mountain (the guy with the vodka below) had to come down without the summit.
What to take from this? Robert and I are both pretty culturally sensitive, have travelled extensively, and want to get people to the top if it can be done safely. But we couldn't communicate directly with the climbers, and the translator often wouldn't manage the group as we knew needed to be done to have a successful climb. He hadn't been on the mountain before and didn't like to be the bearer of bad news - a bad combination for a place as demanding and potentially dangerous as Denali.
But I met a bunch of other guides and rangers I'd seen in passing before, built some relationships with them and got more comfortable on the mountain. Robert was great to work with, and everyone came back with all their fingers and toes (how do you ask if someone can feel their fingers if you don't know their language?). My nose didn't fall off this year, and we flew off the mountain just in time. So we'll send some extensive notes to the office, hope there are more realistic expectations next year, and avoid the Japanese trip if not!
It's beautiful in Seattle and I'm back, and life is good.