Dangerous things happen over beer!Belmore Browne, Frederick Cook, Hudson Stuck and Bradford Washburn. By distilling all this, I felt I had achieved a mature understanding comparable to a novice who’s never visited the state. I learned that Alaska keep beat to its own drum.
Mt. McKinley, Densmore’s Mountain, The Churchill Peaks, the ‘Middle-Aged Crisis Mountain’ etc. Denali has rightfully grown into a household name despite how one chooses to acknowledge it. The mountain serves as a one-time end-game of sorts for some, a destination to prove one’s ‘metal’ for other bigger mountains of the world and occasionally, as nothing more than a tick on a list to be completed (God forbid!).
Denali is typically approached as an expedition. It’s not often that one finds climbing teams approaching the mountain in an alpine fashion. The logistics that go into an expedition (successful or not) can literally take six to ten months to plan. Even the most innocent, innocuous tangents can ruin a climb if group morale and dynamics don’t mesh. The reasons that make Denali the epitome of ‘Other Annapurnas’ in the lives of men are as rocaille and subjective as who achieves the summit and who doesn’t. There is no equation or formula for the professional who must turn around due to the weather and bad snow vs. the novice or intermediate who guides themselves to the summit in spectacular weather.
Denali has a vertical rise of roughly 18,000ft. It boasts an impressive 20,138ft of prominence, is located only 3.5° south of the Arctic Circle and is widely regarded as one of the coldest mountains outside Antarctica. Summit success rates typically hover near the bulge of a standard bell curve going as low as 31% (1987) and as high 67% (1983). The mountain simply does not grant easy passage.
The weather on Mt. McKinley is volatile. It is subject to fronts and systems coming down from the arctic, across the Behring Strait from Russia and up from the Northern Pacific. Bad weather on Denali is the rule. The only thing that one can truly do to better one’s odds of success is to follow that one-word maxim…patience. Being subject to these three different areas (in terms of weather), storms can last for days and with the mountains’ proximity to water, snow is typically measured in feet. The winds, just like as happens with the remainder of the world’s tallest mountains, can shut down all traffic on the mountain for days.
Consider Denali and Mt. Everest (two formidable and well-known mountains). A likely but somewhat apt description would be like putting up a heavyweight boxer (Everest) against a schizophrenic hockey player. Even in the best conditions, Denali is a serious mountain. If it’s a battle of wills and perseverance, the mountain will probably win in the end, stoicism usually does.
The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest in the Park coming in at roughly 45 miles. Ironically enough, it is also one of the least crevassed. A number of years back, the Ruth Glacier, a prominent ice flow in the southern reaches of the park was measured via sonar to see how deep the ice extended below. From the summit of nearby Mt. Dickey to the moraine bottom, the final measurement came back at almost 9,000ft! This puts the actual glacier at roughly ~3,6000ft thick and the Ruth Gorge as among the deepest in the world.
Denali was first spotted by George Vancouver in 1794 who reported seeing two massive, snow encrusted mountains in the distance. There was also an early Russian expedition in 1834 to the unknown peaks but little progress or information is available about this particular venture.
The mountain has many names. Up until 1897 when William Dickey wrote to the New York Sun,
But this was an account made and put forth by white man. The inhabitants of the Alaskan coast and interior referred to the mountain in their own peculiar tongues and languages. In the Susitna region, the mountain was referred to as ‘Doleyka.’ Within the Alaskan interior, the mountain was known as Denali (The High One). For those living around the Cook Inlet on the southern coast, it was known as, ‘Traleika.’ The Russian people knew the mountain as, ‘Bulshaia Gora.’ Pre-1897, white people were kind of at a loss as to what to label or call the mountain since the current local monikers had no English equivalent. However, early on, the mountain more or less adopted the name of a local prospector and was colloquially known as, ‘Densmore’s Mountain.’ A bit romantic to be sure and void of any outside political influence, it was sadly not meant to last. Some of the interior locals living in and around Fairbanks took to naming the peak(s), ‘The Churchill Peaks.’ But even that great name couldn’t weather the ebb and flow of taxonomy. Which, brings us right back to 1897 and a local gold prospector named William Dickey. For whatever reason, his name for the mountain stuck and it was henceforth referred to as such. There has been a bit of a grassroots effort lately to start referring to the mountain by its original, native name to pay homage and respect to the indigenous populations.
The mountain may indeed wear different masks pending on the weather, grant easy passage or swat some climbers but in the end, the mountain will always bear and carry a Gemini name: McKinley and Denali.
Looking back to September of 2008, Gabe Hogan and I were at my place in Lionshead (Vail) talking about all manner of things mountainous, snowy and steep. Gabe and I were piecing together small fragments, scraps and trying to make sense of the collateral debris from the previous weeks’ talk of mountains and foreign aspirations. We had an idea of what we wanted to do but it was as yet, still a work in progress. We hadn’t reached the final stage of distilling our brainstorming sessions. I knew what I wanted, or at least had decided upon but I was a little hesitant in asking. I’m a firm believer in alcohol sometimes. A good stout or Belgian Ale can often function as a purveyor of fine ideas when called upon…no need to reach for the ‘green fairy’.
I drained my glass and looked down at the foam running down to the empty bottom, thinking of how to say what I wanted. “So, ah, Gabe. What are your thoughts about climbing something outside of the lower-48? Say, something like McKinley.”
Gabe’s eyebrows freaked out and disappeared into his hairline. “Denali? Hell, Kiefer. That’s a serious mountain. It’s a dream of mine to climb it.”
“Yeah. And imagine what it would be like standing on its summit!” A smile flashed across Gabe’s face like two snails racing.
“Ok. Yeah, I’m definitely interested.” Gabe acknowledged. “Just say the…”
Word is that a lot of people climb or at least attempt Denali by way of a guide service. I honestly felt that as much as Gabe and I had done, we didn’t need the help or assistance of a professional guiding service. Not to mention, with a guided group, one can only go as fast as the lowest common denominator of the group. Taken as a whole, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Considering the National Park Service issues roughly 1,200 climbing permits each season and the success rate somewhere south of 60%, hiring a guide can be a very positive thing and even a rewarding experience, increasing one’s odds of attaining the summit. I think Gabe and I lacked the initial faith in ourselves to continue with these ideas on our own. So we looked into the guiding option. We researched and talked to representatives from: Mountain Madness, AMG (Alaska Mountain Guides), Mountain Trip, AAI (Alpine Ascents International). I even forwarded an e-mail I received from Bob Covill in the CMC (Colorado Mountain Club) to Gabe from his attempt in 2007. However, in the end, neither one of us could afford the cost of a guide. I felt like someone had just sucker-punched me in the gut. Neither one of us wanted to forgo the holidays or our families for a climb. So we went back to looking at mountains within Colorado, only we were more melancholic about it, more subdued. Our spark, zest was gone. There’s nothing in Colorado that can even hold a candle to Denali. It was a hard decision to make. Sometimes, the past and the future look the same…and that’s not easy to accept.
Denali was dead.
Two months later, the thought of climbing Denali still hadn’t left my head. It lingered like the old foam stains on the inside of a beer glass. My nagging suspicion that we could actually do this on our own just wouldn’t dissipate. I asked if Gabe would want to meet me at Garfunkel’s (Vail) one night when I got off work and talk about Alaska. “Gabe. I still can’t get Alaska out of my head. I’ve been looking at Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker, Ham & Eggs Route on Moose’s' Tooth…even Eskimo Pies and I still keep coming back to Denali. Something just doesn’t feel right; I don’t know, kinda hard to explain. It’s the urge. Do you know what I mean?” And indeed Gabe did. And since Gabe and I were on the same page, we knew it wasn’t the Murphy’s talking or his bastard friend, Jameson.
“Dam, Gabe. I truly think we can do this on our own.”
Now I’m not going to sit here and say that both of us were excited and bloated with glee at this new development, we weren’t. If anything can be said, the two of us became more somber and serious of mind. The rollercoaster anticipation of working on a dream was quickly replaced with the grave reality of logistics, gear, training and a singular focus that would rival any honey badger. We employed doubt not as an endgame but as a tool of sorts. We used it to keep ourselves grounded and not get carried away in the excitement.
This is not your typical four hour drive, grab coffee and arrive at the trailhead for a long day kind of mountain. People lose appendages (and worse) on Denali. General statistics dictate out of 1,000 climbers, roughly 550 make the summit with 3-4 deaths. At times, Denali is known to grant no quarter. Staring at each other across the small expanse of the table, speaking only in broken sentences and half-formed words, the fifth of such meetings we had, these three aforementioned tenants now carried a gravity that we hadn’t felt before; a feeling similar to the impending dread that's felt at the onset of a poorly studied-for exam.
“We can do this. I want to do this. This can open doors to the larger mountains we both want. Let’s do this.” Gabe said in a monotone voice. Sitting on the edge of my seat staring at the beer coaster in silence, absently concentrating on the aftertaste of porter in my mouth and biting my lip (bad habit), I looked up at Gabe.
“Ok. So who’s coming with us?”
• Gore Range Brewery
• Personal Experience
Personal preferences, lists, scatterplots & The Gore Range Brewery all went into the decision making process of who to approach. Gabe and I set up a meeting in Boulder at Applebee’s that consisted of Gabe and me, Chris Pruchnic, Dan Rush, Colin Miller, Derek Wolfe, Jon Stasney and Mark Yoder. Eight people is a lot of people in one group, too many really. I turned out to be the common denominator in that, I was the only one who knew everyone else. Due to time and group commitments, work, finances and of course our families, it was expected that some of us would drop out. Derek had to back out because of work responsibilities. Mark and John also dropped out due to I believe, group age dynamics. That leaves five people. A prime number but certainly more manageable than eight (imagine food & water requirements for eight people for three weeks!).
Five people however, are still a prime number. It makes roped travel a less-then-ideal situation, something that should be resorted to and not initiated with. What we all wanted was that elusive sixth member. I believe none of us voiced our thoughts on this because the time was getting so close to that 30-day mark. Eventually Craig Burger became the sixth man. Colin and Gabe knew him best and their word is as good as gold.
We practiced together, climbed together and e-mailed openly and truthfully to each other by way of a Yahoo Groups account that Chris had set up. When your team is spread out from Glenwood Springs to Denver to Fort Collins, any outlet for communication is crucial. Complacency on expeditions is akin to failure. Over the next few months, we filled in the rest of the details in regards to group practice, accommodations in Talkeetna and climbing schedule. We were set and confirmed with six people under the expedition name, “Summit Bound”.
We were set to be in Anchorage May 13th (myself a day earlier to attain a few last minute provisions and to sight-see down the Kenai) and in two days we would start our trek across the glacier as hopeful travelers looking for inspiration, warmth and ourselves; in many ways, a trip that was both anachronistic and impulsive, especially for Craig.
The route we were planning on climbing was the West Buttress, also known as the Washburn Route in honor of Bradford Washburn who first pioneered it in 1951. Up until then, the Muldrow Glacier (north side) was the standard way in, coincidentally; both routes merit an Alaskan grade II designation (out of VI). I’ve even seen the West Buttress referred to as the Handicap Access Ramp (I like that one).
I don’t know what an Alaskan Grade II translates into in terms of Colorado mountaineering, but considering 7,200ft base camp is a world of ice, snow, bergschrunds and all life is derelict, I don’t think there is a comparison.
Friday, 15th May "Goodbye Basecamp"-“Touchdown!”
Permanent snowfields cover almost 75% of the mountain. The one thing that I noticed almost immediately once the McKinley Massif came into view from the Super Otter as we flew in towards Base Camp, was the abundance of hanging glaciers, serac‘s and seemingly non-ending bergschrunds. :eek: The ‘schrunds’ indicate, at least to me, thick ice. So being someone who enjoys couloir climbing back here in Colorado, I next started to scope out and scrutinize the walls and couloirs. Alaska, at least within the Park, doesn’t have snow climbs; they’re all mixed ice/firn climbs. This was a prominent feature when we stared in awe at the surrounding mountains at Base Camp. The lowly Mt. Frances (10,450ft) looks just as committing and difficult as Mt. Foraker (17,400ft) and Mt. Hunter (14,570ft) is on a level all onto its’ own (known as North America’s most difficult fourteen thousand foot peak).
We all chipped in and sped our bags and gear off the airstrip onto the side. I walked over to the Base Camp Managers tent, checked in and grabbed our fuel for the next 19-20 days, about 7 gallons worth for six guys.
It took us about 2½ to 3 hours to prep everything and make ready for the glacier. We would soon know the sheer enjoyment of roped travel although Chris already knew how much fun this part was!
We dropped out of Base Camp and progressed down Heartbreak Hill (a well-named segment) onto the Kahiltna Glacier and followed the previous sled tracks and wands. The descent is a loss of 500ft. Most people camp the first night at the Northeast Fork (Camp-1) since the increase from the low point on the glacier (6,700ft) is almost 1,100ft. This is done in 5.5 miles but keep in mind, you’re also carrying roughly ~65lbs in your pack and pulling another ~60-70lbs in your sled. Other than the phenomenal sights of being walled in by rock and ice, nothing about it is enjoyable. The travel is slow, methodical and tiring. But complaints aside, this is what we trained for!
We arrived at an empty site a little ways from the rest of the tents sometime in the early evening. This is where instinct took over, I’m happy to say and everyone almost immediately, once we were rested, took to leveling a tent platform, building snow walls, prepping the stoves and setting the tents up for the night. Having years of winter camping experience is invaluable. It got cold fairly quickly once we stopped so insulated layers came out. We had a good view up into the “Valley of Death”. Also known as the Northeast Fork where routes such as the West Rib, Cassin Ridge and Reilly’s Rib originate. There were no tracks leading up into it and judging by the size and number of the crevasses, I can see why. Denali and West Kahiltna Peak looked beyond measure. Staring at the upper flanks some 9,000ft higher, I can honestly say it was intimidating, awe-inspiring and it made me question myself, ‘What the hell have you gotten yourself into Kiefer?’ Then my sense of humor kicked in and I had to admit, it was sure better than staying home watching Drew Carry butcher The Price is Right.
We stayed up for a little while drinking hot tea and talking. We were all pretty jazzed. That whole evening felt completely surreal. But as usual, the temperatures forced a retreat to our bags and we gladly accepted our Mountain Hardwear, REI and Western Mountaineering cocoon’s, which would become our homes for the next 15 days.
Short Video from Camp-1 at 7,800ft
Journal Entry (all entries are unedited)
Day 1- Friday: We were postponed leaving Talkeetna due to weather. The TAT had their offices and hanger and bunkhouse across the road and hostel-type accommodations across the street/RR. When we woke, it was drizzling and overcast w/a low ceiling.
We had break at the Roadhouse and called TAT at 7:00am. We finally left Talkeetna at 11:45 and landed at KIA at 12:15pm.
The flight in on the Havilland Otter was breathtaking and even that doesn’t describe it.
I felt like a little kid marveling at all the neat animals at the zoo! I was ecstatic beyond words looking at the mosquito and bear infested marshes. I can see why Dr. Cook said any expedition to McKinley is a maritime endeavor.
The glaciers and lower snow-capped peaks, my God! It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The ridges are all snow and serac. Ice covered knives and bergschrunds that would swallow an RV. And the real gem…Denali.
It completely silenced me in awe and dare I say, fear. The sheer vertical rise it lords over the rest of the Alaskan Range is impossible to understand until one sees it for themselves. It left me speechless. I looked over at Dan. I don’t know which was bigger, my eyes or my mouth. The severity of the trip finally hit home.
The plane flew in close to some ridges and peaks that must have been carved by Gerber. The amazing part is not the snow…it’s the ice, seracs and running bergschrunds. There’s nothing like this in Colorado. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had multiple excuses running in my head to not go. It’s intimidating.
Plane banked hard on the turnaround to the landing strip.
We descended through the clouds and landed (smoothly) at KIA (7,200ft). We all pitched in to unload as quickly as possible so that the plane could again take off.
We were a bit disorientated at first. The reality of everything was mind-boggling. I walked over to the ranger tent, talked to a ranger standing outside and checked in with Lisa. We grabbed our fuel…7 gallons…It took almost 3 hours to get out of Base Camp & off towards Heartbreak Hill. Lugging an average of 133 pounds each. This small incline is gonna be a bitch on the way out.
The first few days are nothing more then an exercise in stamina and mental endurance. It’s roughly 9 miles of snow slog and grade-A winter camping. One of the books said snow on Denali is industrial strength.
We arrived late today shortly before 8:00pm. The sun gave the impression of something closer to 5:00pm or so. The night was a bit of a blur to be honest. I was so wrapped up in the scenery. I’m tired and cold. Time to call it a day.
Saturday, 16th May-Move to 9,800ft
I believe we all woke around 9:00am the next morning (Saturday)…a good alpine start! And to be honest, it didn’t get much earlier than this either. We found out later at 14K-Camp that any earlier, the temperatures were irritatingly cold. Don’t get me wrong, the temperatures were well within what we have here in Colorado but the humidity certainly played a part.
The only thing of any substance this morning was that I volunteered to throw our ‘shit-bag’ into a near-by crevasse. I tied in to the rope and Gabe belayed me out to a marked crevasse. I walked out to where I was within easy viewing distance, basically 3-4 vertical feet of the far wall in the crevasse. I threw the bag in…waited…waited…and after four seconds I finally heard the plop. I turned around and looked at Gabe. I had a HUGE excited smile on my face that said “get me the fuck out of here!” Yeah, that got my heart racing for a few minutes.
In addition to camp-1 being at the elbow of the Northeast Fork, it also lies at the bottom of ‘Ski Hill’. The glacier at this point starts to rise noticeably to about 10,000ft or so before leveling off again. There is one more rise of about 1,000ft to 11K-Camp, which is where a lot of people spend the next couple nights acclimating.
I had a lot of trouble negotiating Ski Hill and the side hilling that was necessary to skirt a covered but marked crevasse. This worked my legs fearsome and shredded my patience. My sled kept tipping over and wouldn’t stay right side up. Believe me; the language that came out of my mouth would have made Sam Kinison blush. It was aggravating, irritating and physically exhaustive work. A team of four Italians that we rode up to Talkeetna with a few days earlier passed us on this stretch. It was all I could do to keep from unleashing on one of them who decided it was easier to just ski over my rope instead of side-stepping it. It’s a wonder there isn’t more altercations between climbers due to differing international climbing ethics.
It wasn’t a particularly long day but physically, it was a hard one. The sleds were throwing tantrums and for some reason, sled management wasn’t what it should have been. So we decided to stop at 9,800ft instead of continuing on to 11-Camp. Any outward appearance of skill or proficiency that day was shattered in aspect. We called it an early day, stopped and built a great campsite. This is also where the saws came out for the first time to cut and align blocks. For some reason, every night that we spent, no matter what elevation we laid our heads at, we always had a great kitchen area.
Somehow, Gabe was nominated Camp Chef and re-christed'Cookie' (Don't ask). The man cooked, boiled water and organized the ‘kitchen area’ for probably close to 90% of the trip. Fact, we’re still looking into getting him a custom MSR patch that says XGK Expert. The stoves got more finicky and hard to prime the higher we went but Gabe was always on top of it. Having three stoves was a brilliant move. We ate well and out of the 15 nights we were on the mountain, I slept the best this night. No waking, no stirring, nothing; just a good, deep sleep. Two Italians or Austrians were camped just below us and a group of six people were above us. They spoke English but I couldn’t decipher the accent. We had good views down glacier and stellar views of Mt. Crosson and Sultana Ridge on Mt. Foraker. Dan and I witnessed the tail end of a small avalanche coming off Mt. Crosson, but certainly not the last. It was a good site that promised an easier Sunday as we trekked up to 11K-Camp.
Day 2- Saturday: We got up late. It was cold. The view up into The Valley of Death was intimidating. The whole spur glacier was entirely crevassed horizontally. There were no tracks leading up into it. Since there hasn’t been any new measurable snow and this was the gateway for Cassin and The Rib, I think conditions speak for themselves.
I threw our shit-bag into a nearby crevasse hole. Gabe belayed me. It took a few seconds, maybe 4 or so until I heard a splot. That scared the hell out of me! I gave Gabe a look of excited fear that must have said, “Get me the fuck out here!” What a place.
We moved to 9,800 camp. Really tired today. Problems with the bloody sled. I think the low was -9° according to Craig's therm.
Sunday, 17th May-Now we’re getting somewhere!
Again, we woke when we couldn’t take the bright intensity of the sun any longer. It’s an absolute treat on a climbing trip not having to utilize alpine starts. We only used alarms a couple days. Everyone did their normal routine and since there were no crevasses where we were camped, we were forced to carry the poo-bag with us to 11K-Camp or I should say; Chris was ‘the man’ in this endeavor. But he carried one of the CMC’s (clean mountain cans), so it was fitting & logical anyway.
A bit of a digression on wildlife that’s found on the glacier…is that there isn’t any. Any animal you might encounter remarkably got lost or was blown in by a storm or high upper winds.
As we were breaking camp Sunday morning (day 3), we discovered a dead sparrow in our rear vestibule (Chris’ and my tent). The poor bird had frozen to death overnight. What happens is that Sparrows and Finches get blown into the Central Alaskan Range and due to the sheer energy expenditure of staying aloft with no food on the upper mountain, the birds become trapped.
Because of this, they have little to no fear of humans. It’s not uncommon to be stopped either on the trail or at camp and have these little guys hopping around & investigating your sled, pack or spread out gear around the tent looking for food. It’s sad. Our dead little friend was probably doing just this and found an alcove to take shelter. But ultimately, the bird succumbed to the temperatures. Ravens are the only bird that can fly in and out, cruising on the high ripples of wind. This was the coldest morning that we recorded. When we woke, Craig had reported that it was -13°. We broke camp, ate heartily and moved slowly up to 11K-Camp. This short segment only took us three hours. Mt. Capps looked difficult despite it being an 'easy' peak.
11K-Camp was amazing. It was buzzing with people from every corner of the world. Even though not everyone spoke English, everyone was linked in that we all shared in a common goal. The place was a virtual town. The main thoroughfare runs straight through the encampment towards Motorcycle Hill and a confusing network of alleys and side streets radiate outward like that of a small Turkish village. Colin & Dan took to unpacking and everyone else started to dig out and improve the old tent site we moved into, like six hermit crabs. The site of 11K-Camp sits in a small basin protected by Motorcycle Hill to the northeast and a huge slope directly northwest.
Upon arrival, this slope was entirely snow covered. I made a remark to Chris that it looked like it would make for a fine snow climb save for the huge bergschrund directly at the fall line. The winds throughout the night dusted off the new powder and revealed mottled ice underneath. Windy Corner’s small glacier and a route variation called the ‘Trans-Canada’ sit directly to the east dropping off severely into camp by way of a huge sérac. The thing was almost 50% ice and 50% snow. It was amazing and menacing at the same time. As much as I wanted to throw myself at it, testing my burgeoning skills on névé and ice, I was equally scared and impressed by it. Memories of Little Bear Peak back in Colorado came washing over me in terms of knowing what direction I wanted to take my climbing.
A few of us were sore from continual adjustments from our packs and sleds.
The plan was to unload and cook a good dinner and make a carry to 14K-Camp the following day. Since we were all coming from Colorado, we wanted to minimize our time lower down on the glacier and make speed for 14K-Camp. No one felt any effects from altitude, which was to be expected but no one wanted to dawdle either. If there’s no invitation to troubles, don’t go looking for any. 11K-Camp was a good place. And it seemed like a good spot to introduce to everyone our hidden 7th member, Stephanie! While coming back from Estes Park, I called up a mutual friend, Stephanie to see if she wanted to meet Gabe and me at Oskar Blues in Lyons for beer and food. So sitting there, Gabe came up with a brilliant idea, why not ‘spice’ things up a bit during the climb? So Gabe got online and bought a blow-up doll (non-sexual…I think) that we affectionately named, Stephanie. All I’ll say is that she was a huge success and quite popular among the climbers on the mountain, very popular with the guys. Our team slowly became well-known on the mountain! Thus far, the temperatures hadn’t been all that cold, not at least, what we were expecting. What we were expecting were temperatures down in the negative double digits. Mornings still had some bite but that’s why we have insulated layers!
Day 3- Sunday: We woke and broke camp & hiked up to 11 camp. A few of us are hurting. The continual adjustments in the sleds and packs are taking a toll. We had a good site. Cold morning today. Day warmed up nicely though. Craig and I threw the Frisbee around for a spell. As we were packing up, I discovered a dead sparrow in the rear vestibule of Chris’ tent. Froze to death.
Don’t know why, but I took it a bit hard. The birds that get blown off course up here truly are at their energy limit, in plain survival mode. Sad.
The plan is to use heavier meals down low (chix, ramen, couscous) and dehy up higher.
So far, so good.
Only day 3 and I’m fuckin tired of wearing sunglasses 24/7. Pretty much when we’re NOT inside the tent and don't EVEN get me started on sunblock.
Better get used to it pal. 11 camp is a cool place.
Monday, 18th May "-Carry to 14-Camp"-First carry to 14-Camp
Since I’ve never climbed in South America or the Himalaya’s, having porters to ferry one’s gear and provisions must be a Godsend. We gladly said good-bye to the sleds. We roped up not really changing partners too much. We had Team Alpha (Chris, Dan & Gabe) and Team Nacho (Craig, Colin, myself). It was Craig’s idea to start referring to everyone as nachos. Eclecticism does an expedition good with its’ randomness and hilarity. And with Craig, it ran deep. As long as it makes everyone smile, I say go with it. Laughter means better morale.
The carry to 14K-Camp was an easy day although it was extraordinarily windy. A few times at the top of Motorcycle Hill and rounding Windy Corner, we were knocked around, staggering on our feet. I can see how the winds up there can be demoralizing and defeating. It’s hard to fight through it. The top of Squirrel Hill consisted of a massive ice flow. Dan and I looked over into the deep gorge on our left and saw a huge avalanche coming off a western gully. Something must have fallen off a small hanging glacier at the top. It was beyond incredible! The power was downright frightening.
Once we reached 14K-Camp, it was amazing to see everyone! When we checked in at NPS headquarters in Talkeetna a few days previous, there were 321 people on the mountain. When we checked out, I believe there were 374 people on the mountain. The success rate when we checked in on the 14th was 33%. When we checked out on the 28th, it had risen to 44%, still grim but somewhat par.
14K-Camp was another town. But compared to 11K-camp, this place was an outright metropolis of fabric and grungy inhabitants. The one striking and amusing feature was the pit toilet. It was located directly dead center in the middle of camp, right on Main Street! It was oddly funny but the pee-hole next to it was a sight to behold: a deep, dark, yellow cavernous hole that was just plain gross but in an amusing way. I haven’t seen any references to any of this stuff, so I’ll be the first! You could throw a Chihuahua into it! We didn’t stay long. We dug a 5’-6’hole for our equipment, marked it and walked back down to 11K-Camp and spent that evening eating, drinking and talking to pretty much everyone.
It was Monday the 18th and was what I would consider a very good day.
Tuesday, 19th May
-Hardest day of the trip
Tuesday was a day that we were looking forward to. It seemed that once we reached 14K-Camp, we would be within striking distance of the summit. We roped back up, Team Alpha took one sled and Team Nacho took one sled. The winds were still up to their usual riddles and games but not as strong. Despite whatever loads one is carrying, the winds pretty much force you to keep moving. It’s one thing if the winds are calm or slightly breezy with single digit temperatures but 30+ mph winds quickly suck the warmth & motivation out of you. I can see why some people have said part of the challenge of Denali is overcoming the mental quicksand. It feels like you’re trying to reach up into the ether and grab what secrets are hiding, flying around on the cold currents to overcome the mental fatigue. Perseverance is the key.
I volunteered to take the sled up Motorcycle Hill (Second Picture). I wasn’t looking forward to it but I was feeling pretty good, strong. We didn’t stop for long at the top. The one good thing we had this day was that the Korean team whom we had been leap-frogging since we landed on the glacier was a good deal ahead of us. That meant their slow gait would not be a problem for us today.
Coursing up Squirrel Hill, which involved a traverse to gain access to a ramp, I found out what exactly what exhaustion was. The footpath was narrow to begin with on what was probably a 35° slope. Our sled flipped multiple times along this stretch. Colin, who was tail gunning, was forced to walk 8-10 steps up slope to keep the rope taught and the sled right side up by applying counter-force to the slope. My quads were screaming at me on this segment. It worked for a little while then we lost our cooking board and a sleeve of tent poles! We watched helplessly as they slid all the way down the slope to a small rock fin that guarded the precipice of upper Peter’s Glacier. Talk about demoralizing! We needed those poles. Craig had to untie and walk down and retrieve them since Colin and I were already directly engaged with the sled. We wanted to belay Craig down but we couldn’t shift our attentions away from the sled. So I took Craig’s coil, Colin shorted the rope between us and we powered the sled up to a shallow depression at the start of the ice flow. Craig was successful and came back with the poles and reported we had lost one. Of course, we had no idea which one. Was it to the North Face Mountain-25 or the Mountain Hardwear Trango-4? I had my Mountain Hardwear EV-2 (my particular tent of choice) buried at 14K-Camp in the gear cache. So if things looked grim because of this loss, we still had my 2-man tent to rely on. Craig tied back in and we motored our way to the top of Squirrel Hill and finally to the icy flat stretch between the zenith and Windy Corner.
Halfway across the flat stretch, the back of my legs and butt actually started to go numb. I was reaching my physical threshold. I couldn’t pull any further than a few meters at a time before I had to stop and breathe/rest. I was mixing songs seamlessly in my head from Neil Young, Ministry, Sisters of Mercy, Tom Waits and quotes from Family Guy.
We stopped at an old campsite below Windy Corner and sat for 15-20 minutes. I was done. Colin had to take over for a while from this point on. He & Craig would end up sharing the sled duties for the last mile. While sitting there thinking and staring at absolutely nothing, Craig extended a hammer-gel to me and asked if I wanted it. I stared at it for 10 seconds before I realized what it actually was. I remember Craig just smiling patiently. I took it, didn’t say anything except that it actually did taste like apple pie. I actually had mental difficulties deciding what it was and whether or not I actually wanted any.
The winds were still blowing but it wasn’t all that cold. Before we set out from 11K-Camp, Squirrel Hill was one of two spots along this segment I wasn’t looking forward to. The other was still coming up, the narrow traverse around Windy Corner. I was hoping, once I regained my composure that it wouldn’t present any problems with pulling the sled…but it did.
I took point, Colin pulled and Craig was on the end. We successfully managed the climb to Windy Corner but we had a plethora of people, four different roped teams and three solo people behind us. We caused a bottleneck on the traverse. I was starting to feel better but now Colin was hurting. Craig took the sled and we slowly made our way to the gear cache area at 13,500ft that many people use on the other side of Windy Corner. We elected not to on this trip due to the areas known crevasses and avalanche potential off the higher crags above Windy Corner. It took us a bit over an hour to hike the last .6-mile to 14K-Camp. Colin was finished and Craig and I needed some time of just sitting.
This last section is heavily crevassed and the trail crosses three of them with a substantial snow-bridge to the left of a huge, deep crevasse, easily six to nine meters across. We slowly ambled into 14K-camp like arthritic sloths and collapsed.
I broke the news to Chris that we lost a tent-pole. Both tents are labeled as 2-man but the EV-2 is a tight fit, it's meant for narrow ledges and small spaces. The Mountain-25 has room to spare, albeit heavier. So Chris and I preferred the North Face. We inserted one of the body poles from my EV-2 and we were fortunate that the pole did in fact, fit. We took some time digging out and building up the snow walls, constructing blocks and Gabe took to boiling water for food and drinks.
We didn’t do anything the next two days, Wednesday & Thursday other than rest and acclimate and talk to everyone at camp. Between our ‘friend’, Stephanie and the word ‘Nacho’, which had now become synonymous with our expedition name (we carved letters out of the snow and christened our camp, Nacho) we kept a few teams at 14K-camp entertained.
A lot of people climb Denali with big-mountain experience. Listening to the stories from some of them, lyrics from a favorite song of mine by Sarah McLachlan kept replaying in my head, ‘There's always a million reasons to feel not good enough’. Like I said, the mountain plays games with you and it‘s not always in a standard fashion.
After talking with a Russian named Artur Testov who is among only a small handful of climbers to summit Denali in winter, January of 1998 with another attempt in January of 2008, it humbled me enough to keep me more on the quieter side for the rest of the trip. Colorado is an appetizer compared to what’s out there and the enormous talent that I was sharing 14K-Camp with, made me feel at times that I was in over my head despite being in my element. Even the Italians were contemplating climbing down the West Rib to the bottom of the Southeast Fork, traversing to the Japanese Couloir and starting the Cassin Ridge. If it weren’t for the blow-up doll and our ‘Nacho Camp’, I would have felt like a phantom among a legion of strangers.
We met two guys, Mark from Anchorage and Thomas from Valdez who turned out to be two super-cool cats. We passed them a few days prior as they were taking a teammate (Todd) back down to Base Camp who was suffering from AMS but we met up with them again at 14-camp. For the rest of the trip, Thomas, Mark, and another team from from Boulder & Manhattan, Val, Cindy and Jaroslav and our group shadowed each other. We summited the same day and later, the next week, drank with them back in Anchorage, getting absolutely demolished (the liver is evil, it must be punished!). This was also when we met back up with Mark Yoder and John Stasney who were waiting for good weather!
They were held up for almost a week at 11-Camp due to weather. It was a surprise and good tidings to see them again! They were shocked and incredulous that one of their team members, a Dr. Gerald Myers from Centennial, Co whom they met off of Summitpost would take off by himself earlier the previous day for the summit.
He hasn’t been seen since.
Rest in peace, Gerald.
Day 5- Tuesday: Moved to 14 camp.
Thus far, the HARDEST physical day of the trip. Fuck. Utterly, completely exhausting. Near my limit. Colin not looking good either.
We took two sleds to 14 camp. Alpha team and Nacho team. I started off with the sled to
Motorcycle Hill, Squirrel Hill and just under Windy Point. Craig pulled up Windy Corner & beyond to the 13,500 cache site. Colin pulled for an hour and Craig finished. Holy shit. Our fuckin sled wouldn’t stay right side up. Flipped multiple times going to Squirrel Hill and the traverse of Windy Corner. Colin REALLY worked his ass off steadying the dam sled. Poor guy. Pretty consistent high winds. Hard to stop for long.
Back of my legs and butt feel like they’ve been worked all night by George Michael and Boy George. UGH!
Lost Chris’ tent poles mid flip. Luckily, they got snagged by some rocks. Craig unroped and chased em’ down. Colin and I powered the fuckin thing to a flat spot at the bottom of a shallow gully and waited for Craig. Craig returned with all but 1 pole. Didn’t look forward to breaking the news to Chris. A bit surprised actually that everything wasn’t INSIDE of the duffle. He took it pretty good.
Dam good thing we listened to Colin and brought a spare tent. Haven’t seen Colin this exhausted before. He looks bad. Worried.
Could REALLY go for a beer right now. Hell, could REALLY go for a woman right now! Shit, who am I kidding, so tired, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
Note to Self---back at base camp, make sure to burn that fucking sled.
Friday-Saturday, 22nd-23rd May-Gabe sets a personal altitude record & we lose a member
We found out the previous day that Colin wasn’t feeling good and today, as we were prepping our packs for a gear carry to 17,200 Camp, he still wasn’t feeling good. It had been 4-5 days since Colin felt well. The culprit was digestive and intestinal problems more than likely due to AMS. Roughly 30% of the climbers attempting Denali unfortunately are affected by this condition. There is no rhyme or reason to when and who AMS decides to effect. We started up the 35° snow slope towards the fixed ropes. We stopped at the bottom of the lines and saw Colin stop far below us, rest and turn around. We debated among ourselves and concluded that he simply needed another day or two to acclimate and hydrate. If it came down to it, one of us would hike back down with him and see him off back at the airstrip.
It was something we’d address and talk about once we got back down.
This was my first time on fixed lines as was Gabe’s. So with a little direction from Chris, we were off. Getting up over the bergschrund (15,400ft) was a bit tricky. Placing the ascender as far up the line as was possible (given the length of the cordalette) with the left hand, cocking the left foot up on a hold almost waist level and swinging the axe into the ice with the right, I mini-jumped, pulled myself to a pseudo-standing position and finished by swinging my left foot over to another hold, sliding the ascender up further, re-swung the axe higher & pulled myself up to a more level place and continued up the line. Looking down into the ‘schrund while doing this had a tendency of focusing you on the task at hand!
The second time went by much more efficiently once you got the hang of it.
The low to mid 50° ice headwall took a bit of time to get up but the views of the ridge were delicious once the saddle (16,200ft) was reached. We were well above the clouds. It reminded me of the way the clouds moved in and banked up against the coastline a few years ago on Tenerife while climbing Teide.
There was quite a crowd on the ridge and amazingly, there were our shadows taking a smoke break, the Korean team, it was borderline laughable!
We made it to High Camp, dug a cache and sped out of there. It was cold, windy and just generally unpleasant.
The descent of the fixed lines was straightforward and mellow allowed by a partial arm repel backed up with a safety ‘biner tied to the harness and clipped at every anchor. This allowed for an easy ‘walk-down’.
We spent the remaining day drinking and talking, discussing Colin’s situation and hydrating.
Unfortunately, the next day, Saturday, Colin wasn’t feeling any better. We stayed in camp taking another acclimation day. Colin, as much as he wanted one of us to accompany him down, didn’t press it. He found two Mexicans who were heading down, one of whom was a physician and since they spoke English and Colin a little Spanish, he was comfortable with this decision. Although I can’t say it rested well on the rest of us, especially Dan. But in the end, Colin descended; things would have only gotten worse.
Day 8- Friday: We got up on the late side today. The weather was acceptable so we all geared up today and made a cache run to 17.
I hate to say it but Colin still isn’t feeling good. Lots of GI probs. He turned a little below the fixed lines & unloaded his gear to Craig. Feel bad for the guy. I would feel like shit.
Amazing how altitude effects us. I mean, here we are at 14,200ft, basically the same elevation as Shavano & he’s not entirely immobilized but definitely suffering from some form of AMS. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. And he’s been up Chimbo and Coto. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Can only hope for the best.
The gear carry to 17 was a fuckin blast! It took us 7 hours roundtrip. It wouldn’t have been that long but we got stuck behind the Koreans again. Shit. If I were a snail, I’d be pissed! S-L-O-W.
The headwall was a blast. Tiring but super cool.
Prolly topped out near mid 50's towards the top. The bergschrund was maybe 80° but well stepped. Only 4-5 feet or so. A bit tricky to get up. Used axe, ascender and front teeth on both feet. The ice had some good steps chopped into it from all the crampons. Very nice.
It was a ghost town at High Camp. Extremely cold and breezy. Maybe somewhere around 2° to -5° not including the wind. On the way down, around Washburn’s Thumb, it turned noticeably warmer. Interesting.
No dinner tonight. I’m cold. Shit, I’m cold! Time for bed.
Tomorrow rest day.
Day 9- Saturday: Man, some strange-ass dreams lately. Chris has been having them too. Apparently he has his own Sushi-Boat! That made me laugh!
Woke this morning with “The Gnome” from Pink Floyd running through my head. Good song but weird. Yesterday, I could remember only fragments of a dream of playing with Opie, an old landlord’s dog and “Eastbound and Truckin” from Jerry Reed. Not gonna even guess at that one.
But, man. Last night dream was fucked up! I rarely remember anything but when I do, wow! Extremely vivid and detailed.
I was in a large suburban house. I was the only occupant. I walked over to the garage which was exactly the same size as the house. My cousin David was in there working on a truck. He hands me a carburetor and says some technical stuff. I look at it quizzically and hand it back.
I say to him verbatim,
”It’s nice David but I don’t understand any of it.” Next thing I know, some girl runs into the house all-crying. Kinda looks like Herimone from Harry Potter. She says a bad man is after her. It worries me. I suggest we break all the mirrors in the house so he can’t get her. So we proceed to break everything!
I turn around to smash a curio cabinet and a black arm swings out of nowhere and knocks me out cold. Then I wake up outside in the gutter with “The Gnome” playing in my head. Talk about random!
Then I critique it closer & come to the conclusion that I can’t keep any material possessions (prolly don’t care about them) and that I can’t keep or protect those I care about or love. Like the house, my life too, is empty & big.
I’ll die a pauper. Fuck that’s depressing.
On a lighter note, Dan likes the sleds SO MUCH he keep dreaming of pulling ice blocks in the sled. Now THAT sucks!
Colin isn’t doing any better today. Dan and him went to the med tent this morning to get a pulse-ox reading. It was 85 and 93 when he pressure breathed. Very high departure between readings. Sounds like the AMS is similar to what it was yesterday.
Dan put him on Acelazolamide today. He’s been taking multi-vits and emergency-c. I gave him some concentrated B-Vits and more emergency-c today. Dam, I hope Colin improves. It’s gonna suck if he has to turn.
We’re talking about moving to high camp tomorrow. Not certain if that will happen though. Fairly certain though that Colin probably won’t go any higher.
The line of people climbing to the headwall today is about 90 deep. Amazing! It looks like a scene out of the Charlie Chaplin movie, “The Gold Rush” where everyone is climbing Chilkoot Pass.
Lots of downtime today. We’re not too ambitious or talkative today. Kinda somber really.
Colin ended up going down. A team of 2 Mexicans, one a doc, took Colin down with them. He should be back in Talkeetna soon and on to Colorado. I get the impression he’s also homesick. A lot of options today. Too many to list.
We’re getting ready to make the move tomorrow to High Camp. Everyone ate good and drank plenty tonight. No one seems to be joking or in a gay mood.
Gabe has been a freakin rock star on the stove. He’s not buying shit back in Talkeetna. The dude's drinkin' for free.
Sunday, 24th May-Move to High Camp
We woke early, sometime around 7:30am and it was cold! It was one of the few days where we set an alarm. Our team didn’t exactly set any speed records on breaking camp on this expedition. From the horde of people ascending the wall yesterday, we knew we’d have to get up early & get to the fixed lines before the barrage of other climbers did the same.
Thomas and Mark were already halfway up the slope.
Saturday, there were so many people going up, we numbered at least 72 on a single count, it looked like a scene out of the old black & white footage from the Gold Rush of everyone heading up Chilkoot Pass. With the forecast being favorable for Monday and possibly Tuesday, everyone was just setting themselves in position for a summit bid, us included. The scenery above 14,000ft is so complete and sublime. You‘re almost afraid to blink for fear of missing a second.
I felt a bit sluggish today.
I didn’t have the energy or pep I had on Friday. But the climb to High Camp went smoothly and without incident. We stopped at 16,200ft, dug up our cached rope and continued up the ridge roped up. What a difference 48 hours can make. The ghost town that was High Camp on Friday had turned into a circus today! There were no free campsites. We choose the furthest wall, closest to the edge overlooking 14-Camp and set to work building snow walls, leveling the ground and retaining the existing wall as much as we could. It’s amazing how much slower things take to finish at this altitude. It took a long time to have two sites big enough for the 4-man and the 2-man tents. The snow was lousy, which didn’t help.
We really didn’t do too much else. We encountered Mark & Thomas again as well as Cindy, Val and John's team. Familiar faces do a lot to restore one’s motivation!
We ate well, drank well and hoped Monday would bring us to new elevation records.
Monday, 25th May "-Summit Day"-Summit Day, we lose another
We woke early the next morning, sometime around 7:30am. It was cold! It was one of the few days where we set the alarm. Our team didn’t exactly set any speed records on breaking camp on this expedition. From the horde of people ascending the ice wall the previous day, we knew we’d have to get up early & get to the fixed lines before the barrage of other climbers did the same. Thomas and Mark were already halfway up the slope.
Saturday, there were so many people going up, we tallied at least 72 on a single count, it looked like a scene out of the old black & white footage from the Gold Rush of everyone heading up Chilkoot Pass. With the forecast being favorable for Monday and possibly Tuesday, everyone was just setting themselves in position for a summit bid, us included. The scenery above 14,000ft is so white and sublime. It quite literally looks like one is climbing through the pages of some Werner Herzog novel. You’re almost afraid to blink for fear of missing a second of it. We had dug out one of our buried ropes from atop the West Buttress and continued moving towards Washburn’s Thumb (rock feature). When we reached High Camp, what we had found was that the ghost town from Friday had blossomed into a slow dance, a slow moving party of tightly wrapped but brilliantly-colored ants building shelters.
All the available tent platforms had already been taken. We were forced to level two spots, saw chunks of snow/ice and build our own walls around the tents. This was an absolutely tiring and laborious process. The lack of oxygen and air pressure was very noticeable. But we were able to meet up again with Val, Jaroslav, Cindy, Mark and Thomas.
The weather widow according to the nightly NPS reports was looking to be Monday and Tuesday. A massive low pressure was moving into the area late Tuesday night and would last for the next 4-5 days dumping 8” and more of snow and scouring High Camp with 70mph winds and 14K-Camp with 40-45mph winds. Unbelievably, we still passed people on our way down, completely aware of the forecast that were still climbing towards High Camp. Each to their own I suppose.
Chris and I noticed a general weather pattern that seemed fairly consistent the last few days in that, winds were generally at their hardest in the morning and tapered off as the afternoon progressed into the early evening hours.
So as we roused ourselves Monday (Memorial Day), we didn’t bother joining in the chaos of High Camp that morning due to three reasons: we wanted to wait for the winds to die down as Chris and I had noticed (the snow devils and spindrift coming off Denali Pass and the upper ridge were massive), we had no interest in joining the ‘congo-line’ of people heading up the ‘Autobahn’ towards Denali Pass and lastly, we were all running low on water.
Due to the dry quality of the snow, it took almost three hours to melt enough snow for everybody.
Like I said before and basically reiterating what Dan had mentioned day’s earlier, patience is the name of the game on this mountain.
We did however, keep our slow preparations going for our summit departure and at 1:00pm, we set out for Denali Pass.
Between High Camp (17,200ft) and Denali Pass (18,300ft), there’s a moderately steep traverse known as the ‘Autobahn’. Most falls on Denali occur along this precarious 35°-40° traverse. It is anchored for running belays (pickets) and at busy times, it’s prudent to use them.
Some of the most dangerous and reckless behavior I’ve seen has occurred along this stretch on the way down. People, roped up mind you would traverse this section with nothing more than a pair of trekking or ski poles. I’ve never heard of a pair of trekking poles stopping or arresting one’s fall needless to say, the rest of a team.
While ascending what I thought at first was a solid snow/ice slope turned out to have multiple hollowed sections that I discovered during the descent. A few holes, in all likelihood created by fellow climbers, went down as much as 3-4 meters. It unnerved me.
We ended up getting stopped at Denali Pass for about an hour with four others waiting for the wind to die down. This is where Dan came to the sad conclusion that he wasn’t able to continue due to his feet swelling. He was at the point that a few of his toes were starting to go numb and his feet were starting to swell. Being the EMT of the group, no one questioned his decision and coming so far, it was a decision that was hard to make if not admirable.
People were turning back and heading down the slope while we were waiting there. Two members of a group that we were sitting next to tied in to our rope with Dan and proceeded back to 17K-Camp. Gabe, Chris, Craig and I covered all our exposed skin and pushed on around the pass into the wind hoping for a reprieve.
The people walking down the ‘path’ were mixed between those who turned around because of the wind and those who had successfully summited. What we found out was that the further away from the pass we climbed, the wind lessened little by little. By the time we reached a few hundred feet below Archdeacon’s Tower (another rock feature), the wind had almost completely abated; a lesson and prime example of the Venturi effect.
The route from Denali Pass to the Football Field (19,500ft) went smoothly and was as straightforward as they come. However, all morning I hadn’t been feeling ‘myself’. I was slower than the group and lagging behind all day. I left the group, told Craig to continue, that I’d catch up and dug myself a hole to perform some ‘business’. The dehydrated food I had the previous night hadn’t digested. I only make mention of this because it seemed, in hindsight, small meals and snacking are of more benefit to your body then ‘loading up’. Digestion at high-altitude is inefficient. Afterwards, I felt great! Back to my normal self actually. I did indeed catch up to the others as they were shedding their packs on the crest of an iced over crevasse. Looking up at Pig Hill across the Football Field was a bit disheartening. We knew Pig Hill topped out at a little over 20,000ft on a feature called Kahiltna Horn and I have to say, this last hill climb just made you shake your head in disbelief. It’s arguably the hardest section past High Camp due of course, to the altitude.
After I took care of my ‘personal business’, I was feeling great! So I slowly pulled away from my teammates and eventually passed two Brits ascending Pig Hill. This affirmed the previous months of training (3-4 days a week on the treadmill & 2-3 nights a week hiking up Vail Mountain after work to Eagles Nest) to virtually no training for Pico de Orizaba (Mexico).Then I saw Thomas and Mark coming down! It’s unfathomable that LaVoy, Browne and Professor Parker made it to ~20,250ft wearing multiple layers of wool, leather and fur and were turned around due to an increasing blizzard back in 1912. I don’t know if the men of the bygone days had more ‘grit’ and ‘tack’ in their bowels or if advances in clothing & technology have allowed current explorers to achieve more with less, probably a little of both I’d assume.
The summit ridge is NO PLACE you want to be in high winds. It is exposed, narrow, corniced in a few spots and as Chris pointed out, hollow by the sound our points made in a few areas. We could wiggle our front points in the snow and get a squeaky sound to emanate. The summit ridge is a very aesthetic and beautiful line. Back down on Pig Hill, I didn’t believe Thomas’ opinion of the ridge when he said,
“From the horn, it’s all gravy!”
But it wasn’t bad. Along this stretch, Gabe and I pulled away from the others. My emotions did get a hold of me for a minute near the summit and I did tear up. A quote from Hudson Stuck's novel, "The Ascent of Denali" (1914) has stayed with me and made an entrance in my head as I was standing there looking at The Moose’s Tooth in the distance,
“The view from the top of Mt McKinley is like looking out the windows of heaven”
--Robert Tatum, 1913
And I can understand why he said this. After laboring for 13 days or more on a singular goal, looking down on the multitude of peaks, some climbed, some unnamed, witnessing the boulevards and terraces of wadi ice first-hand, hanging glaciers & sérac’s poised to unleash a maelstrom of violence, it all hits you simultaneously. It’s almost too much for the human psyche without being affected by it.
Craig and Chris came strolling onto the small but broad summit and joined the rest of us. We shared it with some familiar faces; Val and Jaroslav were also there as was a lone person from Poland, one guy from Mallorca and eventually, the two Brits reached the precipice as well, a very long and tiring way from Manchester.
We reached the summit at 8:50pm. It was ours for a solid 30 minutes before reason took over and gave us the nod to get moving.
The descent went surprisingly fast. I was in my own little world for a while so the scenery passed by without notice. From Pig Hill looking out west, the ponds and lakes on the distant tundra looked like shiny, golden coins from the sunset.
I eventually passed Gabe and sped down the Autobahn passing a few others anxious to get back to camp. Walking along this section at 11:30pm, still buzzing from standing on the summit, the entire slope glowed orange and red from the sunset. It was completely surreal and something I hope to experience again before I die.
Dan was ready with fresh water and a thermos of hot water. I greedily drank a cup of hot water, munched on some gorp, absently shed my layers of equipment and clothing and hopped in the tent. I passed away into sleep just as the others were coming into camp…
“But tonight, the lion of contentment has placed a warm, heavy paw upon my chest.”
Day 11- Monday: It’s late. Somewhere after midnight. This is gonna be short.
We successfully summited tonight at 8:45pm. Got hung up at the pass due to high winds for an hour or so. Got tired of waiting and pushed through it. Don’t understand, a lot of people turned around. Gotta expect winds, man. Comes with the territory.
Dan turned at the pass. Feet swelled and toes went numb. Like he said, sounds like a circulatory issue. We have the same boots, Nuptse’s.
Good weather on top. Stellar, perfect weather. Summit ridge exposed. A fall would be bad. Long day. No dinner tonight. Passed a group of two roped climbers, two solo people and lower down, two teams of three. Felt terrific on the descent. No effects from the altitude. Some couloirs on the North Peak look like they’d be good climbs. Need to buy technical points. Time to get serious about ice.
Summit temps estimated between –5° and 5°
Blood red sunset.
Tuesday-Wednesday, 26th-27th May-We get our first taste of Denali weather
Knowing that some serious weather was moving in, everyone was anxious to get down as low as possible. It felt like we had cheated the mountain in terms of having great weather. Our experience with Denali’s infamous weather had thus far been very atypical. Being stuck at 17K-Camp or even 14K-Camp was not on the agenda nor were we planning on putting it there. Although true to form, we woke somewhat at leisure Tuesday morning and even though we again, didn’t set any speed records breaking camp, we moved with a solid purpose. Though now, Craig wasn’t feeling well. The previous summit day had seriously tapped his energy reserves. He had to dig deep to keep going and because of reaching his threshold, I think this enhanced a bit of AMS.
Craig would not be his normal self until the morning of the 28th. By the time we had reached camp, it had started to snow lightly. We immediately proceeded to dig up our cache. Now we had a predicament on our hands. There were five of us but enough gear and food for six. Plus, the food we had would last for another 9 days! We planned on summiting with six people and spending more time on the mountain then we actually had. We had to get rid of the extra food. Dan and I loaded up one of the sleds and pulled it around camp announcing free-food, a common practice. We probably gave away close to 80% of what we had. Though I’m sure having that storm roll up in the next day probably helped.
To prove further what a small world it really is, before we left for Alaska, Chris and I had received an e-mail from a guy named Matt who works for Corporate Vail Resorts in Broomfield. Through a small network of friends that include Barry and Donna Reese (who forwarded our e-mails to each other), there might be a chance we’d run into each other since we’d be on the mountain at essentially the same time. After all, stranger things have happened.
To cut to the chase, while Dan and I were giving away food, I lingered around this one group in particular talking to one of the guys. After 10 minutes or so, we exchanged names, looked at each other suspiciously and smiled.
“Matt! How the hell are ya!?”
What are the odds of running into someone you’ve only e-mailed and have never met? Let alone on a mountain a few thousand miles away? It was absolutely amazing. So we stayed and talked for another 15-20 minutes until I got called back to lend a hand in packing.
But it gets better.
A friend of mine who works at Bag & Pack in Avon, Co. told me a co-worker of his named, Ron was also planning on being on Denali a short while after us. I talked to this guy on the phone a couple of times but we couldn’t get any training climbs synched. While continuing to give away food, I kept talking to this one particular guy because he seemed pretty cool. I got a good vibe off him. Eventually I asked him where he was from,
“I live & work in Avon, Colorado.” He said while cutting snow blocks.
I looked at him in a scrutinizing manner for a few seconds, said nothing, then,
“Ron!” Then he stopped what he was doing and looked at me with a shocked expression,
“Kiefer?” Then of course, we had to start another ‘sewing circle’.
I swear, once I can see but twice? That almost goes way beyond coincidence. We packed up everything and headed out for 11K-Camp. And wouldn’t you know it. Once we reached Motorcycle Hill, guess what? We got stuck behind our good Korean friends again! I mean seriously, how does that happen? What a wild and surreal day.
Upon waking the next morning, we woke to fresh snow, winds and some cold temperatures. The clouds had blotted out most of the surrounding features at camp.
We picked up a guy named Greg at 11K-Camp as we were planning to leave. He was a guide with one of the companies looking for a rope to tag along on, needing to get back down to Base Camp. The whiteout down the glacier lasted the entire length. The only reason we made it back to Base Camp this day was because of Chris’ GPS. If we didn’t have it, we’d be spending another night on the glacier. The whiteout was all encompassing and disorientating. I haven’t experienced anything like it here in Colorado. I had similar conditions on Snowmass Mountain back in March but nothing this complete. To drive home the confusing atmosphere further, somewhere below Camp-1, we astonishingly ran into the Korean team again (seriously!).
They too were heading back to Base Camp…only they were moving UP the glacier back to Camp-1. They had NO IDEA of where they were. With the crevasses on the lower glacier, this was a bad place to get lost. We post holed a few areas a lot deeper than what was comfortable. I held my breath more than a few times. Looking back, we had a regular ‘conga-line’ of people following behind us, including Val and Cindy who tagged along! In total, I believe we had 17 people in our line. From a bird’s point of view, we must have looked like a giant, drunk caterpillar! To anyone on the ground, we must have looked like an ambush of ghosts waiting to happen.
But we did eventually make 7,200ft Base Camp again. I checked back in with Lisa (Basecamp Manager), set up camp (ALL next to each other), and we celebrated with lots of beer and schnapps and hoped that the weather would cooperate for a departure the following day. There were now six less statues holding court in the garden of dreaming and from start to end, after a total of 14 days on the mountain, 11 emaciated pounds lighter (personally) and a noticeable difference in my belt size, our McKinley expedition had reached its end.
Time for some R&R in Anchorage and down on the Kenai Penninsula!
“One cannot conceive of grandeur burial than that which mighty mountains bend, crack and shatter to make.
Or a nobler tomb than the great upper basin of Denali.”
--Hudson Stuck (Archdeacon, Climber)
Rest in Peace, Gerald
Craig Burger's Picture album
Thoughts...Impressions & thoughts:
- Of the three air taxi services that fly climbers onto the glacier: K2, Talkeetna Air Taxi and Hudson, I cannot recommend more highly using TAT. Having two Super Otter planes in their fleet, TAT has the [only] capacity to fly using IFR (instrument flight rules-GPS). The other two services use only VFR (visual flight rules). So what does this mean?
This means that when the weather is inclement, cloudy or bad, the other two services must postpone any flights on or off the glacier until visibility improves. Using IFR, the pilot has the ability to navigate through these conditions so long as ground conditions are marginal and upper winds are manageable. This means the WORLD when you’ve been sitting on the glacier for a few days waiting for the weather to break and all you want is to get back to Talkeetna.
- Bring extra tent poles, guy-lines, cordalette, duct tape and spectra. It’s amazing how useful these mundane items are when the situation calls for it.
- Use sunblock with zinc oxide. After 14 days of using regular 50-spf sunblock, I still looked like a light-complected Jamaican.
- If possible, do not bring any food onto the glacier that has water or moisture in it. IT WILL FREEZE unless you sleep with it.
- Practice peeing in a bottle lying side-ways before hand! I don’t have to comment what a catastrophe this can be.
- When it comes to food, calories! Calories! Calories! Fat and Carbohydrates are your friends!
- Bring one more stove then you think you’ll need and know how to use the service kit. If your stoves all break or stop working, game over.
- A –20 bag is plenty warm enough (for most people). If you need to, you can always buy a liner.
- Learn the following knots: Clove, Figure-8 on a Bight, Overhand, Prussik, Butterfly, Girth and a Munter can be useful.
- Practice with a sled first…before you land on the glacier. This will save a lot of headache.
- If possible, do not bring sleds past 11-Camp.
- Small moist towelette squares (the ones restaurants give out with buffalo wings) seem to work better than wet-wipes. The packs of wet-wipes freeze solid.
- In regards to training beforehand, my personal opinion is that good cardio is more important followed by a strong inner core.
- Bacon! Bring Plenty!