Planning and ReasonSince my sophomore year as a student at Purdue University, when I started climbing and hiking, I dreamt of climbing North Americas tallest mountain; Denali. At 20,320 feet, I knew it would take me a few years until I grew personally comfortable with the technical and environmental challenges of such an adventure. Shortly after the 2009 Cops on Top memorial expedition to Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, my good friend Steve Janke and I proposed the idea of climbing Denali; again in honor of a fallen police office.
Early in 2010, we launched the planning phase of the expedition that was officially named the 2010 Cops on Top Denali Trooper Michael Haynes Denali Memorial Expedition. Steve and I then started interviewing and selecting team members and pitching the expedition idea to several sponsors. After many phone calls and email exchanges three other team members were selected. They were deputies Nelson Grant and Caleb Pleasants with the Flathead County Sheriffs Office in Montana and Officer Tim Wenthe with the Montana State University Police Department. Sponsors such as 5.11 Tactical, Mammut, Talkeetna Air Taxi, 40 Below, and Primus (to name a few) started contacting Steve and I and eventually became official team sponsors.
Like Aconcagua, on Denali I kept a written journal to document my experience and to keep my sanity. My day-to-day journal entries will serve as a trip report of my personal experience of climbing Denali…not to be used as a guide.
Pre-climb (May 1-3, 2010):4-May 1: After several delayed and rerouted flights, I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska and met John and Theresa Daily (old friends of Cops on Top who agreed to house us to save money) at the airport. My first impression of the Daily’s was of ease and comfort. After Steve arrived, we drove to the Daily’s house where we shared a beer and went to bed early. The rest of the team will arrive tomorrow.
May 2: Waking at 7:30 am, I realized the time change might present a small problem for me. The restoif the team arrived later that day. Later in the evening the Daily’s cooked the best Alaskan king crab that I have ever eaten in my life. It was definitely a great pre-climb meal. It also gave the team a chance to get to talk and go over plans.
May 3: Today the team traveled to Talkeetna. Steve, Tim, and I drove with Theresa while Caleb and Nelson flew to Talkeetna in John’s plane. What I remember the most is being able to see Denali for a vast majority of the time while traveling to Talkeetna. I was awed by its sheer size and could not wait to get started up her snowy slopes. On our way to Talkeetna, we drove past a very serious traffic accident (that was later determined to be a fatality). I hoped that was not some crazy sign of things to come. After arriving in Talkeetna we ate lunch, checked in with the Talkeetna Air Taxi, and “experienced” the metropolis of Talkeetna.
The Climb (May 4-23, 2010)May 4: We left Talkeetna at 12:30 pm via the Talkeena Air Taxi. There were no clouds in the sky and the view of Denali and the surrounding mountains was so impressive I can not even begin to describe it in writing. I was able to ride co-pilot to Bill as we flew onto the Kahiltna glacier. Needless to say, most of the team took several pictures along the way. After a smooth landing on the glacier, we checked in with the base camp manager and the park service. That evening, for me, dinner was tuna, cheese, a bagel, and chocolate washed down with water and warm tea.. The realization that we were actually getting ready to climb Denali and its sheer size was starting to set in. After setting up tents and burring our team emergency cache, we settled in and all went to sleep.
May 5: Cinco de Mayo! After being asked by the NPS to wand the trail to our next camp (to which we did), we left around 12:30 pm. We were slammed with whiteout conditions on our journey to Camp 1. Caleb fell chest deep into a small crevass, but was able to climb out with no problem. The last 1 ½ hours of the hike were extremely difficult to navigate. I would have to credit Steve with being able to maintain a visual on the “trail”. I could not believe how massive the crevasses were as we blindly navigated to Camp 1. After arriving at Camp 1, we dug in and set up out tents, melted water and ate a good meal, and went to bed.
May 6: Today we left camp around 12:30 pm. We all felt strong and felt that doing a single carry to Camp 2 would possibly buy us some time higher up on the mountain. After a grueling climb up Ski Hill, we reached our camp completely exhausted. I think we under estimated the weight of our sleds and the strength it would take to do a single carry. We were all wearing our red and black Mammut coats with the Cops on Top logo sewn onto the chest, so we were easily recognized as “cops”. This in itself was a great conversation starter. It was very cold at Camp 2 and this marked the first evening that Tim climbed into his full body down suite to keep warm. At 9:43 pm we all retired to our tents and went to sleep.
May 7: The day before, we again decided to make a single carry to our next camp (Camp 3 was located at 11,000 feet). Sled pulling was tough today. The sun was very hot. After reaching Camp 3, we spoke with several climbers who described terrible and unclimbable conditions above 17,000 feet. Some doubt ran through the team, but we had plenty of time on the mountain. Digging the “tent hole” and building walls was tough. Caleb made a wonderful toilet next to the tents. We could clearly see Motorcycle Hill from our camp…it was big. Caleb and Nelson shared with the team their visit with Trooper Haynes’ wife. I could tell it made an impact on them as they were familiar with Trooper Haynes. Trooper Haynes’ district included the Flathead County area.
May 8: It was Saturday and I had been in Alaska for one week now. The last three days have been tough. Today was a rest day so the team sat around and drank plenty of fluids, ate high calorie food, and read books. We spoke with some climbers that came down from high camp. They stated they only made it to 19,500 feet before turning around because of extreme wind (claiming wind chill was –48 degrees). As we were performing tent maintenance, a Russian climber approached us and introduced himself as Stanislav Zinkov. Zinkov was a very nice person to speak with and explained he was on Denali in 2006 where he met the 2006 Cops on Top team. Zinkov made a lasting positive impression on each team member. I boiled water for 2 ½ hours today. This was foreshadowing of how much time would need to be spent by the team boiling water higher up on the mountain.
May 9: Mothers Day! On our way to Windy Corner I remember standing on an ice patch just above Motorcycle Hill thinking to myself that someone, if they slid here, would die. It was an uncomfortable place to stand for some reason. I kept moving. Battling extreme wind and cold, we finally made it above Windy Corner and buried a cache at 13,500 ft. My toes were very cold today. I lost too much body heat climbing up Windy Corner. I knew then I would have to dress differently. After making our way back down to the 11,000 ft camp, we retired early.
May 10:To tired today…could not write anything. Made it to the 14,000 ft camp after what seemed to be a difficult climb not only because of conditions but overall team communication.
May 11: It snowed over night. Snow covered the tent. Ice inside the tent. Spirits are low. Water bottles are all frozen. I can not believe how COLD it is. I knew that it would be cold but come on! I think the rest of the team feels the same. The weather is so bad that we are all confined to our tents. Sipping tea, eating snacks and reading seems to be the daily activity. Around 5:04 pm, we all dressed and went outside to repair our snow walls. Most of our food it at the cache so we are rationing what we eat so people are getting hungry. We are definitely suffering.
May 12: Weather broke this morning so Steve and I went to retrieve the cache at 13,500 ft. This gave Steve and I a chance to talk. The rest of the team stayed at camp and fixed walls and melted water. I would have to say, pulling sleds from 13,500 ft to 14,000 ft was very difficult. More weather started to move in. The wind again started to pound the tent. I was able to speak with the camp NPS Rangers today who stated it was a bad weather year on Denali. Great, I thought, just what we needed.
May 13: Still snowing at 11:30 am. I finally “woke up” around 1:30 pm with a massive headache, which after drinking a liter of water, went away. The Headwall looks busy today. People look like ants in single file as they climb the fixed ropes higher on the wall. We finally got around to putting up the Mountain Hardwear Kiva today, which quickly became the party tent and occasional hangout of our friend Stanislav and others. It was nice to have a place to go, cook food, gather and stretch. Today, Steve and I suggested that everyone eat a lot of calories today to prepare their bodies for the strenuous climb up the Headwall.
May 14: Temperatures, according to the NPS Rangers, fell to –25 degrees. It felt like it too. Today a high-pressure system blew through the area and pushed out most of the bad weather. UNO in the Kiva became popular as bad weather again blew through. Bone chilling winds pounded the camp all evening. At 11:14 pm, the team went to bed. My finger and toes are cold and almost numb.
May 15: National Peace Officer Memorial Day. Today we remembered Trooper Haynes and the sacrifice he made protecting the citizens of Montana. We also remembered all of the law enforcement officers that have been killed in the line of duty. It was a special day for us. A large storm blew through camp last night. A lot of snow covered the ground and tents. It took some time digging out. The Kiva was hammered by the wind but not damaged. Today is day 6 of being at 14,000 feet. The team is starting to nag at each other for little things. We are bored. We need to climb! It actually warmed up today a bit and was somewhat comfortable to lounge around outside, repair walls, and walk around the camp and visit with other climbers. Many teams are turning around because of the lack of time they have and perceived weather at the top. We have plenty of time left and are patient. Today I asked Steve when he thought we would summit. He said the 21th….I said the 20th. At 10:30 pm, I awoke to the sound of movement around camp. People are talking, laughing, and packing their gear. Weather has broke and there is a “buzz” in the air. People are anticipating moving higher on the mountain in the morning.
May 16: Today we climbed the Headwall, up the 16 Ridge, and cached our supplies at the 17,200 ft camp. It was tough climb. Everyone is exhausted. Winds were high. Tim experienced some difficulties with the more technical aspect of the fixed lines on the descent. Late in the evening we arrived back at the 14,000 ft camp and went to sleep. I don’t remember eating anything when I got back to camp.
May 17: Today we rested. Tim elected to stay at the 14,000 ft camp and not climb higher. We got news that someone had fallen to their death above Motorcycle Hill just below Windy Corner. My previous feeling about that location came true. I knew I felt uneasy about that spot. Apparently the unfortunate climber fell off the edge and was lodged in a cravass. I felt so bad when I got the news. His family, so far away, could do nothing to help.
May 18: We climbed to the 17,200 ft camp and set up out tents near the Rangers camp. Walls had to be constructed. My toes were so numb that I feared that I would get frostbite. Quickly Steve and I’s tent was erected and I climbed inside to get warm. Warmth to my toes came very slowly. I could not see any frostbite but I knew I was close to injuring them. In all, it took us 9 hours to climb from the 14,000 ft camp to the 17,200 ft camp. Going was slow and steady, but we made it. Walls were constructed to block the wind.
May 19: Everyone is ready for a summit attempt. Weather reports indicate May 21st will be our first and best shot at the summit. Today, everyone seemed to be getting mentally prepared to make the climb to the summit. The team rested most of the day, ate high calorie foods, drank plenty of water, and more or less chilled out. Steve and I sat at the Diving Board for most of the day and looked down at the 14,000 ft camp and surrounding peaks. My gut feeling was we were going to reach the summit. Apparently a team went for the summit today and has not returned. Weather has turned for the worse high on the mountain.
May 20: My wedding anniversary day. I was able to call my wife, Annie, today and tell her that I loved her. Most of the morning it snowed and was cold. Mother Nature blessed us with 1 foot of fresh new snow last night. Again, like yesterday, the team prepared for a summit attempt. Camped just below a great view of Denali Pass, the team’s thoughts were at the summit. However, we had to wait for the mountain to allow us the opportunity to climb her. We found out the team that left yesterday for the summit was caught in a gigantic storm and finally returned back to camp around 5:30 am. I could not imagine spending the night on the upper portion of the mountain. I walked past a climber standing by his tent today. His lips were blue and he had a blank stare in his eyes. I could tell he was suffering from extreme AMS or worse. I tried to speak with him but he made no sense. Soon, while I was speaking with him, a guide came over and started administering oxygen to him. He was later taken down the mountain.
May 21: Not much was written for this day. We left camp around 11:00 am for the summit. The winds were mild and the temperature was about 10 degrees. Going was slow climbing to Denali Pass. Guided teams clogged the trail and slowed all climbing. After passing the guided teams above Denali Pass, we for the most part, were free to climb all of the way to the summit with general ease. I will never forget reaching the summit. Fulfilling Trooper Haynes’ mothers wish and holding the memorial plaque in my hands. There was not a dry eye on the summit. For me, a dream fulfilled and an officer memorialized. What could be better! I am sure it was windy at the top. I don’t remember. Emotions were flowing through my body. After taking several photos, we made the long journey back down. I wish I could write more…too tired.
May 22: Today we climbed back down to the 14,000 ft camp and were greeted by Tim (who was patiently waiting for our arrival). I unfortunately became of victim of frostbite as some of my toes became too cold. We ate and hydrated…then went to sleep.
May 23: Today was a grueling day. We packed up camp and climbed all of the way down to the Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp. Waited for our plane and flew back to Talkeetna where a cold celebratory beers were consumed.
Conclusion to a great climbIn conclusion, 4 of the 5 team members accomplished our goal of reaching the summit of Denali not only for ourselves, but more to celebrate the life, memory, and sacrifice of Trooper Haynes. For me, I can honestly say I felt his presence on the mountain. Standing watch over us. Protecting us along the way. We had a good team…a strong team and I am proud to have climbed North America’s tallest mountain with them.
Although not a literary masterpiece…that was my personal experience. I truly have to thank everyone who donated to the expedition as well as all the corporate sponsors. Without you, the expedition would not have gone so smoothly.
WE WILL NEVER FORGET!