Denali, North America

My 2nd of the Seven Summits

Denali is not an altogether friendly place. There are innumerable crevasses, wide and deep. It is remote, which becomes all too evident as soon as the buzz from the single engine of the retreating Cessna disappears into the vastness. The temperatures are cold, the wind unrelenting, and there is nothing but ice and rock and snow as far as the eye can see. But, it is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.

A group of us, including Jay and Luis met in Talkeetna, AK, “a drinking town with a climbing problem.” Upon our arrival, one of the cooks at our hostel,who had been hittin’ the bottle a bit back in the kitchen, took it upon himself to describe to us the dangers of climbing Denali. Dieter proceeded to tell us, with full German accent in affect, “the mountain will spit on you! Conditions are very bad. You must have two tools! The mountain will send you home in a body bag and will spit on you if it likes.” And so on. Much expectorating was discussed, as I remember it. We had much fun at Dieter’s expense, although some of his words rang true before our expedition would conclude.

Our expedition began on the Summer Solstice, the tail end of the climbing season on Denali when the crevasses on the Kahiltna glacier start becoming too open to cross and the frequency and intensity of Denali’s famous storm systems increase. Due to the glacier’s late-season condition, we decided that we would move at night on the lower portion of the mountain to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and firmer ice conditions.

The weather was great for the first 10 days of the expedition. We moved up the mountain quickly and were ahead of schedule. We managed to establish our advanced base camp (ABC) at 14,200’. Soon thereafter, we made a carry to the top of the headwall (16,200’), which marks the start of the upper ridges of the West Buttress route. We buried our cache early that morning and returned to ABC. Upon our return, spirits were high, the weather was perfect, and conditions were great.

The next day we found ourselves in the midst of a full-fledged Denali storm. The snow was dumping and the winds were relentless, blowing up to 80 mph. In order to rescue our camp and entrench ourselves safely, we spent the entire day shoveling snow, cutting ice blocks, and building ever-higher snow walls. It was backbreaking, exhausting work, made all the more miserable by the total whiteout conditions. The storm was relentless and, therefore, our defense had to meet its intensity. We each spent countless hours shoveling snow, rebuilding walls, and fortifying our tents, only to have more snow dumped on us as the subsequent snowdrifts created by the incessant wind overwhelmed our defenses.

The storm eventually lifted, nearly eight days and eight feet of snow after it started, but that did not leave us much time to make a push to the summit. We were short on supplies, more bad weather was forecasted to arrive shortly, and, most importantly, the steep 2,000-foot headwall that we had to climb was loaded with avalanche potential that would require days to settle to an appropriate level of risk. We quickly surmised that this Denali expedition was over.

I returned to Alaska at the end of May, ’04, with Jay and Luis to make a second attempt to reach the highest point in North America. After our previous attempt in ’02 was thwarted by an epic, eight-day storm, we returned to the mountain as a small, efficient team of three.

Upon arrival at base camp (7,200’), conditions seemed promising, so we moved right away to Camp I in one push. Normally, at this point on the mountain, we would start doing double-carries, where we carry excess food, fuel and gear to a point near where we would camp next, cache it, and then return to the previous camp for the night. Then the next day we would proceed to the next camp, thereby climbing to that point on the mountain twice – hence, double-carry. This helps climbers acclimatize to the altitude and reduces the weight burden per climber to about 50 or 60 lbs. for each carry. With the weather poor but each of us feeling strong, we decided to gain an extra day by moving to our camp in another single push. This proved to be a very tough day, as we climbed up several steep sections of the mountain with 130 lbs. on our backs and in very warm conditions (the thermometers on our packs reading as high as 80° in the sun). By the time we reached Camp II we were exhausted, dehydrated, and extremely wet, but it was well worth the hardship as this day set us up from a timing standpoint for the rest of the climb.

On the eighth day of the expedition, we moved up the fixed lines on the steep West Buttress headwall (60°+ slope). We put in a cache at Washburn’s Thumb (16,800’), but the weather had been deteriorating throughout the day and we returned to ABC in a whiteout. Fully expecting to be unable to move to high camp the next day, we slept in and proceeded to eat a big breakfast. However, by 9am the weather seemed to clear enough that we opted to move to high camp after all. We were one of the only teams that decided to move higher on the mountain that day in those questionable conditions.

By the time we reached our cache at the top of the headwall, the weather deteriorated to a full whiteout. We moved very carefully up to high camp along the knife-edged ridge, where one side drops 3,000’ back down to ABC and the other 2,000’ to the Ruth Glacier below. The winds were especially concerning as we struggled to keep our balance with very heavy packs, while walking across icy rocks in crampons. After another few, arduous hours we arrived at high camp (17,200’).

This storm proved to be more resolute than the others we had been dealing with up to this point. However, by beating the storm to high camp, we were able to wait it out up there to be in position to summit once it cleared, while many teams were pinned at ABC like we had been in ‘02. Finally, several days later, on June 12th, the storm subsided (at least somewhat). We awoke to continued high winds, but the clouds had dissipated and the snow had ceased. However, the steep slope up to Denali pass at 18,000’ was loaded with fresh snow and the winds were still whipping on the ridge above. Many teams that weathered the storm with us at high camp decided to make their summit bids and left camp by 9am. Several other teams elected to wait for a better weather window, as the forecast was promising for the following day.

We debated and vacillated between staying and going all morning, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the winds and the other teams’ progress. Finally, at noon, we decided that the winds had relented enough to make a summit attempt feasible. We did not want to chance missing this weather window in the hopes that the next day’s weather might be nicer. From our experiences on this mountain, we learned to take what it was giving and not to wait for better conditions that may never arrive. Another wise decision.

We moved up the steep and powder-loaded Denali pass and then up the ridge to 19,500' in stiff and sustained winds. After traversing the ridge, across the “Football Field,” we reached the base of Pig Hill, which led to the final summit ridge. After an already tough day, Pig Hill provided an unwelcome challenge of 700 feet of steep, vertical terrain to gain the final summit ridge. We traversed the ridge for a while and finally attained the summit at 9pm. On top, it was clear and cold (approximately –25°), but with little wind it was fairly pleasant, all things considered. We spent 20-30 minutes on top celebrating, taking pictures, and soaking in the views from the roof of North America and then it was time to go down. That’s when things got interesting.

On the descent, we noticed some lenticular clouds (like Aconcagua’s Viento Blanco) forming over the North Summit, and the winds gusted to 50-70 mph while the blowing spindrift stung our exposed faces. Descending Denali Pass’ steep, snow-loaded slopes in these conditions was a harrowing experience. We actually passed right by where a Canadian climber fell to his death when we were on the mountain in ‘02. It is not a place where you can afford a misstep. Despite the challenges, we made it back to high camp safely and elated and exhausted.

We awoke the next morning and everyone felt strong enough to descend all the way to base camp in one push… no small feat. We broke camp and started our descent at 3:30pm and finally reached the landing strip at base camp at 6am the next day (a long and arduous 15-hour descent). It was a long night. We covered ~12 miles and descended over 10,000’ of technical terrain with
heavy packs and sleds. It was brutally tough on each of us (knees, quads, and badly blistered feet taking the brunt of it), but we made it down. In fact, with each step over the last several hours of descent, my simple mantra timed to each step was: “warm food” move a foot, “cold beer” move
the other foot. Soon, we were back in Talkeetna for a warm shower, hot 2lb musk-ox burgers, and cold beer, which was fortunate timing as yet another storm moved in that night, lasting five days, which prevented the teams that remained behind from summiting.