I began climbing in 1987. My third climb was a hike up Mt. Dana in Yosemite with my future wife, Dovie. We were very proud of ourselves for making it to 13,000 feet. On the summit, a more experienced climber proclaimed that you have to climb above 14,000 feet to climb a real mountain. Her arrogance helped motivate me to climb all 70 14ers in the contiguous 48 States.
While climbing the 14ers, I learned about Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali, became a tentative long-range goal. I began gathering information on climbing it.
I planned to climb McKinley during the 1993 climbing season (May or June). I registered for a guided trip to test my high altitude performance on Mexico's volcanoes (17,342, 17,887, and 18,700). Two days later I lost my job and had to cancel both trips.
Even though I had made nearly 400 climbs, including solo climbs above 14,000 feet in the winter, I knew better than to tackle McKinley without a guide. In February 1993, I wrote to the National Park Service (NPS) asking for information on climbing McKinley. I wrote to all seven guide services licensed to guide on McKinley. I listed my experience and politely asked, "Why should I pick you?" One guide service was out of business and never responded. Five sent slick brochures and said they would be happy to take my money.
American Alpine Institute (AAI) wrote saying I didn't have enough experience to climb the West Buttress, let alone the harder West Rib route. When I got done feeling insulted, I started thinking. Maybe AAI just had higher standards. I realized the easiest way to screw up an expedition was to go with incompetent partners. I decided to get the necessary training and go with AAI.
After a week of private instruction from their most experienced guide, AAI accepted me for the West Rib expedition. Then they cancelled the trip for lack of clients. They offered to give me a refund or switch me to one of their West Buttress climbs.
I really wanted to do the harder West Rib route, so I took the refund and signed up with Mountain Trip. They had the most experience guiding the West Rib. I bought some new gear, practiced what I learned from AAI, and trained hard.
1994 West Rib Trip
Day 1 Sunday 5-8
I flew to Anchorage via Seattle. Some people I met on the plane gave me a ride to Hillcrest Haven Bed and Breakfast. Three climbers from England were staying there. They were frantically trying to locate the climbing gear the airline lost. They got their gear just before flying onto the glacier to climb McKinley.
Andrew, 27, a pediatrician from Australia, was the only other member of our team staying at Hillcrest. John, 33, an attorney, lived in Anchorage. Paul, 32, a banker from New York, was staying with friends in Anchorage.
We met our guides and each other as expected. Gary, 48, ran Mountain Trip and had been climbing in Alaska for 20 years. Dave, 46, was a rheumatologist who met Gary as Gary's client. They had been climbing and racing bicycles together for several years. Dave's main climbing was an annual trip to McKinley as Gary's assistant. We went over our equipment and discussed plans for the trip. Andrew and I went to dinner after the others left.
Day 2 Monday 5-9
Sharon, who runs the shuttle service with her boyfriend, picked us up and took us to AMH and REI. I bought a thermos, a daisy chain, and a "beak." The others all bought stuff they either forgot or didn't know they needed. Sharon drove us to Doug Geeting Aviation in Talkeetna.
We checked in with the NPS and bought lunch. As we were about to board the plane, Andrew got word that his sister committed suicide the day before. After several phone calls to Australia and a lot of soul-searching, he decided to go with us. Andrew asked us all to bear with him if he lost his sense of humor. Then he kept us all laughing most of the trip.
The Dramamine II and calm weather helped me get to the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,300 without loosing my lunch in the cramped plane. The weather was warm, overcast, and snowing lightly. It was light enough at 10:20 PM to take hand-held photos of the tents at "Kahiltna International Airport" (KIA). I discovered that I had left my toilet paper in Reno and begged some from Dave and John.
Day 3 Tuesday 5-10
The weather was warm and snowing lightly most of the day. It was too cloudy for other climbers to fly on or off the glacier. It got clearer and colder in the evening. A lenticular cloud, indicating high winds, covered the top half of McKinley.
We carried and dragged our gear to near the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. We used drag bags and sleds to carry what didn't fit in our packs. They call them drag bags because they have so much drag. The load was way too heavy for me. The harness and pack dug into my hips. I spent several miserable hours straining with all my might to take just one more step. Dave and Andrew practically hauled me up the glacier by the rope the last couple of hours.
Day 4 Wednesday 5-11
I saw the summit for the first time while sitting on the camp toilet. What a view!
We carried and dragged food, fuel, and climbing gear to 9,600 on the northeast fork using snowshoes. Then we returned to our camp at 7,600 on the Kahiltna. It was sunny and hot. We kept clear of crevasses but witnessed many avalanches. The load was much less than on day 3, but I really had to struggle with it.
Day 5 Thursday 5-12
It was partly cloudy in the morning, snowing lightly in the afternoon. Then it cleared slightly by 10:00 PM. The company and the food were both good.
We cached our snowshoes, ski poles, and some other gear before breaking camp. We moved everything else to 9,600 and made camp.
Day 6 Friday 5-13
The weather was decent in the morning, with light snow in the afternoon. We carried food and fuel to the base of the West Rib at 11,000. We passed and crossed many crevasses. Gary had me lead the descent back to camp in a whiteout. The sun came out and most of the guys took off their shirts. The sun shined directly on our tents until nearly 9:00 PM.
We learned there were three groups ahead of us on the West Rib. Rodrigo, one of Gary's guides, had an assistant and three clients at 14,700. (The fourth client had turned back). Mark, also working for Gary, had two clients at 12,800. (A guide and two clients had turned back.) A private group of four Colorado climbers, the "Rib Runners," was at 11,000. The Rib Runners had retreated from the couloir that begins the West Rib after they caused a small avalanche.
Day 7 Saturday 5-14
We moved our camp to 11,000. We expected the Rib Runners to move their camp. We wanted to use their campsite so we wouldn't have to dig our own and build snow walls from scratch. Andrew and I did camp chores while the others began fixing the ropes and carrying loads. The Rib Runners were having trouble above, but they didn't ask for help.
11 climbers died on McKinley in 1992. Two of them were Italian climbers who froze on the nearby Cassin Ridge. Gary and Dave were guiding the West Rib at the time.
Four Italian guides had climbed the West Buttress route from 14,300 the day before. We met three of them carrying gear. They had come to retrieve the body of one of their friends who had died in 1992.
Dave was going through an ugly divorce and had gone absolutely bananas over his new girlfriend, Barbara. Everyone told him not to rush in. Barbara had introduced Dave to NSA, a Buddhist sect, and Dave had begun chanting. We discovered that the guides were dumping the trash into the crevasses.
Wearing medium underwear and sometimes a GoreTex shell or possibly a pile jacket was warm enough. The -30ºF sleeping bag was very hot, considering that our coldest temperature so far was +8ºF. My feet were a little cold, so I switched to overboots. Most days were warm with just enough snow to be annoying.
Day 8 Sunday 5-15
The weather was perfect. The guides finished fixing two 700-foot lines. We carried loads to 12,000 and then rappelled back to camp.
Gary's West Rib experience was paying off. The 700-foot lines reach good places to cache our stuff that shorter lines wouldn't reach. Climbing the static lines was strenuous but didn't require a lot of skill. John was the only one having trouble climbing the 40º-45º ice in the couloir.
We heard that the Rib Runners made it to Wishbone Camp at 12,800 at 11:00 PM Saturday. The four Italians set up camp at the base of the Cassin Ridge. We heard a helicopter and learned later that a Canadian couple had fallen 800 feet from Denali Pass. The man fell and pulled the woman down the mountain with him. She died of her injuries. He was suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, and other injuries when they rescued him.
We were getting 11-13 hours of rest every night. Everybody really stunk and we were only one third of the way through the trip.
Day 9 Monday 5-16
We broke camp and climbed to 12,000. I waited five hours in a whiteout while the guides moved the fixed lines from the couloir to the rib. Then we moved camp to 12,800, using the campsite that Mark and the Rib Runners had used. My ascender iced up on the second 1,400 feet. We still hadn't dug a camp from scratch. However, there was always work to do repairing walls, etc.
This climbing would have been really fun if it weren't for the heavy loads and awful weather. We heard two major avalanches below or behind us. The weather improved in the evening so we could get good views of Mt. Hunter and the McKinley summit.
Day 10 Tuesday 5-17
It was windy for the first time. The temperature was probably -5ºF at night. My sleeping bag was still too warm, but my hands and toes got really cold during the day. We went back down to 12,000 to get the stuff we left there on day 8. Paul loaned me a Petzl ascender for the day and it worked fine. It was an easy carry except for the cold.
We all worked on the walls around the tents after the carry. The food was still generally good. Gary, Paul, and I were sharing a tent and getting along well. Dave, Andrew, and John were whooping it up every night.
Rodrigo and Mark and their clients were at 16,300, an exposed camp. Steve, another guide working for Gary, was with his clients at 14,300 on the West Buttress route. Scott, yet another of Gary's guides, just had a client evacuated by helicopter at 8,000 because of seizures. The weather forecast was bad, so I got out my down pants and a warmer shirt.
Day 11 Wednesday 5-18
The weather was terrible as predicted: high winds and snow. Paul and I stayed in the tent all day. The others spent the morning repairing the walls damaged by the wind. They didn't want our help because they didn't have enough shovels for everyone. John used his ice axe to clear snow from around his tent. He ripped the tent in several places. Gary was furious. We piled snow and drag bags against the ripped tent to protect it from the wind.
We were all experts at using our pee-bottles without even getting out of our sleeping bags. I waited six hours for the weather to improve so I could take care of more serious business. The weather never improved, so I ventured out into the storm anyway. Dave was still chanting. We were finally high enough to get good reception on our FM radios. We had all been missing our loved ones at home. A storm day when we can't climb gives us time to miss them even more.
Two of the Italians climbed to 14,000+ on the Cassin Ridge. We heard on the CB that Rodrigo has a seriously ill client. It sounded like High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Rodrigo was trying to take him down to 14,300 in the storm. We knew they were in trouble, but we couldn't find out what was going on, let alone help them. The forecast was for more high winds.
Day 12 Thursday 5-19
We had lots of wind and snow during the night. The weather cleared but stayed windy. The forecast called for another storm. We moved our camp down into a crevasse. We learned later that Rodrigo had camped there.
Rodrigo and his sick client made it to 14,300 where there was medical help. The wind destroyed their tents at 16,300. The other guides brought the remaining clients down.
The Italians on the Cassin Ridge lost their tent and some other gear in the wind and called for a rescue. Gary, the NPS, and others tried to evaluate their situation. They explained that a helicopter couldn't rescue them from a knife-edge ridge in a wind storm. The Italians, who didn't speak much English, finally understood and began descending. We watched their progress and reported to the NPS. The NPS dropped a tent for them at 11,000 at the base of the West Rib. Two British climbers planning to climb the West Rib retrieved the tent and waited for the Italians.
Day 13 Friday 5-20
It was clear and cold (-10ºF) at 9:00 AM. The expected bad weather never materialized. All we got was a little fog and wind. We fixed one 700-foot rope on the ice dome and moved camp to a crevasse at 14,700. After four nights at 12,800, I felt really strong. I shoveled snow and built walls for two hours after reaching camp.
We saw the Rib Runners above us. They climbed to 16,000 and then retreated down to 14,300. The Italians got themselves (and apparently their frozen friend) off the Cassin Ridge and down the Japanese Couloir.
Day 14 Saturday 5-21
Several of us were breathing slowly, getting out of breath, and then taking several deep breaths to catch up. Dave said this was "Cheyne-Stokes" breathing and that it is common.
We tried to retrieve our remaining food and fuel from 12,800. High winds and some fog and clouds turned us back. We spent the rest of the day in our tents.
Day 15 Sunday 5-22
I shared a tent with Gary and Dave the last three nights. They were both big guys and were hogging the tent. I could hardly move my legs. I removed the gear rack from my harness to make wearing the harness with a heavy pack more comfortable.
We had poor weather in the morning, which improved by afternoon. We retrieved our food and fuel from 12,800. This was important, since we were nearly out of food at 14,700. We removed the fixed line on the way back up. Andrew and I noticed that Dave was going very slowly and resting often. He wasn't acclimatizing well. He told us later that he held up the 1993 climb because of altitude problems. John was also slow and having trouble climbing the ice.
Day 16 Monday 5-23
I slept better after taking a cough drop for my dry throat. The sleeping bag was very warm. The guides were displaying impressive patience and little emotion during the storm days.
It was partly sunny but very windy (except in our crevasse camp at 14,700). We spent the day reading, listening to radios, and hoping for better weather. Gary said the camp at 16,300 had very little protection from the wind and was a bad place to be in a storm. Rodrigo and Mark proved that. The British climbers, whom we met the day before at 12,800, said they were moving to 15,300. We never saw them.
We heard on NPR that the winds were 50-70 MPH at the relatively protected camp at 14,300 on the West Buttress. The forecast was for at least two more days of bad weather. Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) and Alaska-Denali Guiding (ADG) guided West Buttress trips turned back. Two Korean climbers were ice-climbing near the fixed line on the West Buttress. One fell and died. The other, a NPS volunteer, was missing.
Day 17 Tuesday 5-24
The weather was mostly sunny with a little wind and snow. It was warm enough to sleep with the sleeping bags unzipped most of the way. We fixed two lines and carried food and fuel to 15,700. Morale improved. We saw a helicopter land at the 14,300 camp, below. Gary was afraid we might run out of food before we got a chance at the summit. We ate only half the usual dinner.
The British team moved camp to 14,700, near us. The NPS evacuated an unconscious climber from 11,000.
Day 18 Wednesday 5-25
The weather was good at camp and below. It was windy above, with lenticular clouds on McKinley and Foraker. Gary didn't want to move camp because of the wind. We ate a skimpy breakfast and no lunch to save food. John gave me a Cliff Bar he was saving.
The British team used our fixed lines to climb to 16,000 and then retreated down to 14,300. Rescuers found the frozen body of the second Korean climber, still attached to an anchor. Neither Korean had any warm clothes.
Three climbers from the East Coast arrived and camped in the spot the British had just vacated. They had climbed all the way from 11,000 in the last 24 hours after acclimatizing for several days at 14,300. They also cached some food and gear at 16,300. They had passed us on day 4 or 5. Gary had commented that only about 10% of the people who tried McKinley this way made it.
Day 19 Thursday 5-26
The weather was great. If we had moved camp Wednesday, we would have had a perfect summit day Thursday. However, the wind might have blown us off the mountain on the way up. Gary probably made the right decision.
We moved camp to 16,300 where Rodrigo and Mark had camped. Gary, Andrew, and Paul went first and came back down to carry gear from 15,700. John was too slow to make two carries with the others. I helped Dave remove and carry the fixed lines. We also helped carry some of the gear from 15,700 to 16,300. Dave was climbing very slowly. He would take just a few steps and then rest. We spent two hours digging in and building walls at camp. We also found some food and fuel that Rodrigo had left behind.
The forecast was light snow on Friday and wind on Saturday. Friday looked like our only chance for a summit try. We ate an extra big dinner. We each took two lunches for the summit try. I got out my expedition long johns and made a quart of GatorLode.
The East Coast climbers moved their camp to just above us at 16,300.
Day 20 Friday 5-27
We woke up at 6:00 AM and, as usual, began melting snow and cooking breakfast. One of the stoves hadn't been working right, so it took a long time. My feet were cold, and the foot warmers Dave gave me wouldn't work. As we were ready to start up, we found out that John hadn't put on his warm pants. My feet got colder while we all waited for John.
We finally started climbing very slowly at nearly 10:00 AM. It was snowing very lightly as predicted. The East Coast climbers were already out of sight above us. We spent a lot of time fooling with fixed lines just above camp. There were several shredded tents at Balcony Camp (17,000). It's a bad place to camp but a good place for a break. John and Paul both wanted a slower pace. I was still cold and wanted a faster pace. They won. Dave was taking only a few steps and then resting.
We took another break at 17,760. I told Dave I wasn't even breathing hard and that this was the easiest climbing of the trip. He said "Good for you, Bob!" in his most sarcastic voice. We stopped briefly at 18,000 for John to fix his Crampons.
We stopped again at 18,360. We had light winds and light snow. We didn't know how much wind would be on the summit. Andrew and I wanted to continue. I was warm now, and had been eating while climbing and still wasn't out of breath. Paul and John were willing to quit, but wanted someone else to take the heat for turning back. Dave was complaining about how it was going to be a twenty-something-hour day if we continued. Gary didn't seem to want to split up the group. Dave, Paul, and John couldn't go any faster. Gary decided to turn back.
When we got back to camp, we took a break and ate the Lasagna dinners that Rodrigo left. I suggested listening to the weather report to see whether we could try again on Saturday. Everyone pretended not to hear me.
The East Coast climbers returned to camp. They were hooting and hollering because they had made the summit. They said the weather wasn't too bad on top.
Gary didn't want to be at 16,300 if the weather turned bad. We packed up and started down at 11:00 PM. We post-holed down to 14,300, with the drag bags sliding all over the glacier behind us. We found the West Buttress trail and followed it to 12,500. We camped there at 3:00 AM without setting up our tents.
Day 21 Saturday 5-28
We got up fairly early and melted snow for water. We skipped breakfast and ate leftover lunches as we headed down the mountain.
The weather was perfect except for some wind late in the morning. We should have stayed at 16,300 for another summit try.
Everybody was ready for a shower and some real food. We picked up the cache we left on day 5 and hiked all the way back to KIA, dragging our sleds and drag bags. As on day 3, the weight really took its toll on me. We un-roped at the southeast fork and the other guys beat me to KIA by at least an hour. We spent a couple of hours socializing with other climbers before it was our turn to fly back to Talkeetna.
We called our loved ones, took showers, and then gorged ourselves at a local restaurant. Most of the guys went drinking while I crashed on the floor of Doug Geeting's bunkhouse. It was midnight and still light out.
Day 22 Sunday 5-29
Sharon woke us at 5:40 AM. We grabbed rolls and coffee before she drove us to Anchorage. We rode with some of Steve's clients. They had all reached the summit via the West Buttress. I flew back to Reno via Seattle. It took less than 48 hours to get from 18,360 to Reno.
1994 Trip Summary
Day 1 Fly to Anchorage.
Day 2 Drive to Talkeetna, fly to KIA.
Day 3 Carry everything to 7,600 on the Kahiltna.
Day 4 Carry loads to 9,600 on the NE fork of the Kahiltna.
Day 5 Move camp to 9,600.
Day 6 Carry loads to 11,000 at the base of the West Rib.
Day 7 Move camp to 11,000.
Day 8 Carry loads to 12,000 in the couloir.
Day 9 Move camp to 12,800 on the West Rib.
Day 10 Carry loads from 12,000 to 12,800.
Day 11 Storm day.
Day 12 Storm day.
Day 13 Move camp to 14,700.
Day 14 Storm day.
Day 15 Carry loads from 12,800 to 14,700.
Day 16 Storm day.
Day 17 Carry loads to 15,700.
Day 18 Storm day.
Day 19 Move camp and loads to 16,300.
Day 20 Summit attempt to 18,360, descend to 12,500.
Day 21 Descend back to SE fork airstrip, fly to Talkeetna.
Day 22 Drive to Anchorage, fly back to Reno.
Failing to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley was the biggest disappointment of my life. I had planned this trip for six years, only to have three guys who couldn't handle the altitude spoil it for me.
I decided to organize and lead a private expedition of three climbers for 1995. I chose the Riblet route. It follows the West Buttress route to 14,300, heads east to 16,300, and follows the West Rib route to the summit. The Riblet doesn't require fixed lines, so we wouldn't have to carry so much weight.
I studied more books on organizing an Alaskan expedition, worked on equipment lists, and contacted the NPS and the Talkeetna air services. I started collecting some of the gear we would need.
The hard part was finding suitable partners. I even wrote to Andrew in Australia, only to learn that he had died in a climbing accident. By January, I had one partner I wasn't 100% sure of and no prospects for the third member of the team. I cancelled my plans to lead my own trip.
I signed up with AAI again to climb the West Rib. This time I told them I would settle for the West Buttress if they didn't have enough clients to do the West Rib. They not only filled the West Rib trip, they had a waiting list.
I trained harder than ever, climbing nearly every weekend. As a test of my determination, I crawled the last 200 yards to the summit of Mt. Rose on my hands and knees in 80 100 MPH winds. During the week, I lifted weights and worked out on a stair machine wearing a fifty pound pack. When I left for Alaska, I weighed the same as when I was 15 and was in much better shape.
1995 West Rib Trip
Day 1 Sunday 6-4
The plane was 45 minutes late leaving Reno. I missed my connection in Seattle. However, the next plane to Anchorage got me there only 30 minutes late. I took the hotel shuttle to the Barratt Inn and checked in. AAI had arranged for me to share a room with Larry, a West Buttress climber.
We met in one of the hotel rooms for introductions, an orientation meeting, and the equipment check. Steve was AAI's second most experienced guide at 24. He had been guiding all over the world for several years. Steve had guided McKinley before and had climbed the West Rib to 16,000. Eli, 30, had many years of experience, but was making his first Alaska climb. This was AAI's first West Rib trip, and Steve had obviously done lots of research on the route.
I had already talked on the phone with Vince, 35, an unemployed engineer from Santa Barbara, California. I had also spoken with Scott, 44, a dermatologist from La Jolla, California. I met Jim and Lisa, both 37, in the parking lot before the meeting. Jim was an engineer and Lisa wrote technical manuals and proposals. They were from Kirkland, Washington. Keith, also 37, was a chemist from Mt. Vernon, Washington. Keith attempted the West Buttress route with AAI in 1990. They turned back at 19,000 because other climbers couldn't function at high altitude. They tried again and turned back because of bad weather.
Scott explained that he wanted to do an experiment during the climb. He wanted volunteers to wipe one foot each night with alcohol, and put a special prescription antiperspirant on the other foot. He wanted to see whether the foot with the antiperspirant would be noticeably dryer or warmer. Everyone volunteered to participate.
During the meeting, Steve got a phone call from Jack, a former AAI guide. Jack and a partner had just done the very first ascent of "The Elevator Shaft," a very technical ice climb on a smaller peak near Mt. McKinley. Many other climbers had failed on this climb.
Day 2 Monday 6-5
We all had breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. A Suburban with a broken windshield arrived to take us to Talkeetna. The driver was Sharon, who drove our group to Talkeetna and back in 1994.
It was raining in Talkeetna, and a whiteout on the Kahiltna Glacier prevented planes from landing. While we waited, the guides announced there was a misunderstanding about climbing helmets. They weren't on the official equipment list, so none of us brought them. (Mountain Trip doesn't use them on the West Rib.) Steve and Eli thought we should all have helmets. AAI offered to rent them for anyone who wanted one. We all accepted their offer.
We paid our fees to the NPS and watched their safety slide show. The weather in May had been terrible. After a dry winter, a single May storm brought eight feet of snow. Fewer than 10% of the climbers had made the summit. We got some food and slept in our tents near the K2 bunkhouse. The weather didn't clear until around midnight, long after we had gone to bed.
Day 3 Tuesday 6-6
Jim, who owns K2 Aviation, woke us early. The weather was perfect. Using several planes, he got both AAI groups onto the SE fork of the Kahiltna Glacier by 8:30 AM. Jack flew in right after us with his girlfriend, Jeanie.
We set up camp on the glacier. Each guide shared a three-man tent with two clients. Jim and Lisa got the two-man tent. Keith insisted on digging out the snow in front of our tent for easier access. The snow was hard. He broke a tent pole and cut the tent with his ice axe. We had a replacement pole flown in the next day.
We roped up and began our first carry at 1:30 PM. We went down 500 feet before turning up the main Kahiltna Glacier. We left a food and fuel cache at 7,700 on the Kahiltna. We met a couple who had retrieved six pairs of abandoned skis from the base of the West Rib. Several people were climbing on the glacier un-roped.
We got back at 7:00 PM. Dinner included a salad and two fresh pies. Alex Lowe, a Teton guide, stopped by. He had just climbed the Riblet route in three days, round trip.
Day 4 Wednesday 6-7
It snowed several inches during the night. We moved our camp all the way to 9,600. This put us a day ahead of schedule. At lunch, Lisa demonstrated her "Lady J." (A Lady J allows a woman to urinate standing up like a man.) Keith was really strong. Jim and I had a little trouble with our loads. My left knee hurt and I had two minor blisters.
A six-person Mountain Trip expedition made camp nearby. They had already made a carry to 9,600, so they were one day ahead of us. It was their fifth day on the mountain. We discussed sharing fixed lines with them in the couloir. They said Gary Bocarde was at 14,700 on the West Rib with a father-daughter team. We heard that three Spaniards climbing the West Rib had been missing for two days.
We had a mixture of sun, clouds, and snow all day. It was snowing when we went to bed and it snowed lightly all night. I was sleeping well and appreciating the earplugs and sleep mask.
Day 5 Thursday 6-8
We started down in the morning to get our cache from 7,700. It was snowing lightly with very little wind. It became a whiteout. We couldn't find our way through the crevasses, so we turned back at 9,000.
We ate dinner and took a nap. It was very hot inside the tents. There were some birds hanging around our camp. We found one dead in the snow. Steve and Eli were having trouble with the radios.
The weather cleared about 3:00 PM. Steve asked if we wanted to try again to retrieve our cache, warning us it would make for a very long day. Everyone wanted to go. We were on our way by 3:20.
Steve gave us a talk on altitude sickness while we ate our lunch at 7,700. He really knew his stuff. The safety with AAI was better than with Mountain Trip. The lunches, however, weren't as good. Gary Bocarde came skiing down the mountain alone. We saw a few avalanches on the way back.
We got back to camp at 11:20 PM. Mountain Trip took a rest day, so we were even with them. Steve was right: it WAS a hard day. Vince was very strong. Eli read (without a light) well past midnight.
Day 6 Friday 6-9
We got a late start because we were up so late the night before. My knee and blisters were better. The weather was perfect. Mountain Trip broke trail to 10,700 and turned back at some major crevasses with weak snow bridges. The crevasses were much worse than in 1994. We left our cache with theirs at 10,700. I was following Lisa, and she was very strong.
Scott and our guides went ahead to find a route through the crevasses. Eli, who was leading, fell through snow bridges three times. He climbed out easily. They finally found a route through the crevasses and fixed ropes for everyone to climb the next day.
While waiting for Scott and the guides, we saw many avalanches, none near our route. We also saw a helicopter flying around near the top of our route. We learned later that one of the missing Spaniards had fallen 4,000 feet to his death. Alex Lowe and two others rescued the other two Spaniards. They had frostbite and altitude sickness.
When we returned to camp, a private expedition of four had camped near us. They had made two carries from 8,000 in one day. Their expedition name was long and confusing, so we just called them "The Dreamers." Jack and Jeanie camped near us too. They left a cache at 14,300 on the West Buttress route the day before. They were traveling very fast and light. AAI and Mountain Trip agreed to share fixed lines for the rest of the trip. We told the Dreamers, who didn't have fixed lines, that they could use our lines as long as they didn't get in our way.
Day 7 Saturday 6-10
The weather was nearly perfect, but very hot in the sun. Jack and Jeanie started early and climbed to 12,800. AAI and Mountain Trip moved camp to 11,000, using the fixed lines for security. We all went back to 9,600 to get the caches we left there the day before.
The Dreamers made a carry to 11,000 and returned to 9,600. After a rest, they moved camp to 11,000. We agreed to leave the fixed lines for them if they would retrieve them, which they did. They were nearly dead when they finished. They were grateful to discover that I had shoveled a tent pad for them while they were getting the ropes.
Day 8 Sunday 6-11
It was cloudy in the morning, clearing in the afternoon. The Dreamers slept late while the four guides installed 2,800 feet of fixed line all the way to the top of the couloir. The Dreamers gave us some freeze-dried beef stew, which we ate for lunch. The guides finished the fixed lines at 4:00 PM. The Mountain Trip guides were too tired to make a carry, so their clients got a rest day.
Our group started to make a carry to 12,800. We just got started when a big rock came crashing down the couloir. We sat around until 5:00 PM before Steve decided it was safe to continue. We got to 12,800 at 8:00 PM. I took measurements of 40º, 45º, 46º, and 42º in the couloir on the way up. I measured the ridge above the couloir at 42º, 38º, and 35º. We rappelled back to camp, passing the Dreamers on their way up. The thirteen-hour day Steve and Eli put in put us two days ahead of schedule and one day ahead of Mountain Trip.
Day 9 Monday 6-12
Mountain Trip got an early start carrying loads to 12,800. We moved our camp to 12,800. We met Mountain Trip on their way down at the top of the couloir at 12,350. We gave them the right-of-way on the fixed lines as the Dreamers had done for us the night before. It only took me two hours of climbing to get to 12,800.
We camped near a small crevasse where Jack and Jeanie had camped. We spent a lot of time building walls around our tents to protect them from the wind. The dinners had been good, but Vince and I never got quite enough to eat. It was colder, so I switched to heavy weight long johns and began wearing my light down jacket around camp. The Dreamers arrived at 8:40 PM and camped just below us.
Day 10 Tuesday 6-13
The four guides removed the fixed lines from the couloir and re-strung them on the ice dome. Mountain Trip moved their camp to 13,300, picking up part of their cache at 12,800. We ate dinner for lunch before carrying loads to 14,700. The Dreamers made a carry to 13,300.
Everyone was doing well. However, Lisa was a little slow and Scott's crampons kept coming apart. We were due for a rest day, but wanted to move camp to 14,700 first.
The weather was great until the evening. The forecast called for a storm Wednesday. I was a little cold Monday night. I put the +25ºF liner in my sleeping bag and was warm the rest of the trip. Most of the others were using Diamox to help acclimatize.
Day 11 Wednesday 6-14
We had snow and wind all Tuesday night and all day Wednesday. We cooked breakfast in the tents and took a rest day because of the bad weather. That's what I get for keeping my camera with me and leaving my only book at the cache at 14,700! We all slept in, sat around, read, and played cards. When the weather improved in the evening, we had dinner outside.
Mountain Trip and the Dreamers took a rest day too. Mountain Trip retrieved the rest of their cache from 12,800. We heard on the radio that some Taiwanese climbers had headed for the summit in the storm and were in trouble. The forecast for Thursday was more marginal weather.
Day 12 Thursday 6-15
The weather was good in the morning with clouds, and possibly light snow, below us. We moved camp to 14,700 and used the same crevasse camp Mountain Trip used in 1994. It was even better this time: a 43-foot long room with a roof and walls on all sides. Steve and Eli fixed ropes on the steep slopes above camp. I thought I had lost my harness, but we eventually found it wrapped in one of the tents.
The Dreamers camped just below us. Mountain Trip carried loads to 14,700. The three expeditions have been cooperating, but there has been a little friction over who has priority on the fixed lines. We saw two climbers at about 14,000 on the Cassin Ridge. We saw a helicopter and a plane high on the West Buttress route. We didn't hear anything more about the Taiwanese climbers.
Jim and Lisa were feeling isolated in their tent, so they moved into a three-man tent with Scott. The guides took the two-man tent. I got stuck between Keith and Vince in the other three-man tent. Keith snored, and Vince liked to play rock music through the tiny, terrible-sounding speaker in his radio. (The rest of us used headphones.)
So far, everybody had been doing Scott's antiperspirant experiment without noticing much difference. When several of us started wearing vapor-barrier socks, we immediately noticed a difference. I reported my one dry foot to Scott and used the antiperspirant on both feet after that.
I had mild Cheyne-Stokes breathing and couldn't sleep, so I took 1/2 of a Diamox tablet. After that, I took 1/4 tablet each morning and evening until we descended and had no more problems.
Day 13 Friday 6-16
We carried loads to 16,100, using fixed lines on the steeper sections. There was a lot of ice with fresh snow covering it. My right crampon came off twice while I was front-pointing on a very short section of 60º ice. Scott was having trouble with his crampons too. We both fixed our crampons and didn't have any more trouble.
Everyone seemed strong. I told Lisa she could do everything as well as the men except eat. Keith and I didn't think much of eating lots of salami and other high-fat foods for lunch at high altitude.
The Dreamers got their cache from 13,300. Mountain Trip moved their camp just below ours.
The weather was cloudy with some snow and whiteout conditions. When we got back to camp, a small avalanche had partially filled our crevasse camp. We had taken most of our shovels to 16,100, so it took two hours to dig out. We were ahead of schedule, so we started eating extra food for dinner. Vince and I finally got all we could eat.
Day 14 Saturday 6-17
The weather was nearly perfect all day. Mountain Trip got the jump on us and moved their camp to 16,300 first. When we got there, they were chopping out tent sites in the ice with their axes. They looked pleased that they beat us to the exposed camp where the wind destroyed Rodrigo's tents in 1994. Steve picked out a much safer camp to the left of the ridge. We dug a large tent pad and built walls. There was no wind, and the sun shined directly on our camp until after 11:00 PM.
The Dreamers carried loads up to 16,300. We saw two parties on the Cassin Ridge. George Dunn, one of our guides on Mt. Rainier in 1989, was leading a climb of the Riblet. They made a carry to 16,100 and returned to 14,300. We heard on the radio that one Taiwanese climber had died and four had been rescued.
Keith and Vince really hogged the tent at 14,700, crowding me from both sides. When I said I expected the use of my own mattress at 16,300, Vince accused me of kicking him in the head. I solved the problem by switching tents with Scott.
Day 15 Sunday 6-18
It snowed several inches during the night. My feet were a little cold, but I slept well. The weather improved and we had sun on the tents by 1:00 PM. We had planned a rest day, so I didn't get out of bed until 3:45. We had a meeting to discuss our summit climb the next day. Everybody was mentally ready and the weather looked good.
A group of four climbers from Colorado camped on the ridge just above Mountain Trip. They were climbing alpine-style, moving each camp in a single carry. I saw them the day before at 13,300 as we left our camp at 14,700. They said they appreciated using our campsites as they followed us up the mountain. Mountain Trip retrieved the rest of their gear from 14,700. They didn't get back with the ropes and our anchors until 9:30 PM.
Steve and Eli fixed ropes on the steeper sections between camp and 17,000. Eli strung most of the rope. Steve came down early to help with dinner and organize gear for summit day. We all ate big dinners.
Day 16 Monday 6-19
We woke up earlier than usual and ate breakfast while getting ready to go. It didn't take long to melt snow for water with five XGK stoves. I made a quart of GatorLode and grabbed nearly a pound of See's fudge I'd been saving. Each rope team carried a sleeping bag, a stove, a pot, and a first aid kit. We were on our way to the summit by 8:15.
We had nearly perfect weather all day. However, it was cold in the morning and most of us started up with cold hands or feet. Once we got into the sun, we all warmed up and stayed warm. My down jacket stayed in the pack all day.
The trip up went smoothly. We just marched up the West Rib, up the Orient Express, and across the Football Field to the summit. Eli was the only one having trouble with the altitude. He slowed down a lot above 19,000, but still managed to lead our rope team to the summit.
We got to the summit at 5:15 PM. I was feeling great and did most of the hollering and celebrating. Steve was celebrating too, while the others were too tired for such nonsense. Eli was concentrating on keeping his lunch down. It was clear and windy on the summit, with scattered clouds below. We took turns having our pictures taken and started down.
We were the only ones to summit the West Rib that day. However, there were at least 30 people who made it up the easier West Buttress route. We met the other AAI expedition, including Larry, on the summit. Three climbers had turned back at 14,300, one due to HAPE. We learned later that a 15 year old girl climbing with her father became the youngest woman to climb Mt. McKinley.
We stopped just below 19,000 on the way down to raid the packs the Spaniards left behind when they were rescued. Steve got most of the good stuff. Eli was feeling better, so we took a long break in the sun.
We met two Japanese climbers at 18,500. They were climbing un-roped, pulling snowboards behind them. In broken English, they asked where the Messner Couloir was, and we pointed it out. We all thought they were asking for trouble, but we didn't try to talk them out of it. We didn't think they would understand us, let alone take our advice.
We met two Russians on their way up at 17,500. They were on their fourth day on the mountain. They asked about campsites, and we told them there weren't any good ones above 16,300. They continued up anyway.
We got back to camp at 10:30 PM. George Dunn's RMI expedition had camped just below us. The Dreamers were also camping nearby. Mountain Trip took a rest day.
There was a group of people at the bottom of the Messner Couloir. George told us one of the Japanese climbers started an avalanche while snowboarding. The avalanche carried him down the couloir, breaking several bones and leaving him paralyzed. A helicopter took him to the hospital.
We ate another big dinner. Eli was the first to bed. I stayed up until nearly 1:00 AM.
Day 17 Tuesday 6-20
We all slept late. It was cloudy and snowing lightly all day. Mountain Trip started for the summit at 1:30 PM. They didn't make it. RMI took a rest day. They never reached the summit either. The Dreamers appeared to be breaking camp to head down. We didn't see any activity at the Colorado climbers' camp and never heard whether they reached the summit.
We broke camp and started down in a whiteout at 2:00 PM. We stopped at 16,100 to pick up the gear we cached there on day 13. I was leading, and it was hard to find the way in the whiteout. I couldn't see George's wands very well. I fell in a small crevasse, and Lisa held the rope tight while I climbed out.
We met the two Russians at the West Buttress camp at 14,300. They had made it to 19,000 and then camped at 18,500 before climbing down. They had no idea how dangerous it was to travel so light and fast and camp so high. Even a minor storm would have put them in the same situation as the Spaniards.
We were all tired from the long summit day. The weight was really killing me. Jim was having back trouble. We got some extra sleds from the NPS and took some of the weight off our backs. I led the rest of the way to 11,000, where we camped.
Day 18 Wednesday 6-21
We got up at 6:30 AM, hoping to beat at least part of the crowd to KIA. An ADG group on the way up was one of many expeditions camped near us. Sarah, one of their clients, was having breathing problems. We agreed to take her down with us so their expedition could continue without interruption. Steve said guide services often help each other this way.
It was partly cloudy in the morning, deteriorating to heavy fog and light snow. It got hotter as we lost altitude, causing the snow to soften and our boots to sink in. Having made the summit, we didn't allow the poor conditions to spoil our fun. Sarah was doing fine. We stopped for lunch and picked up our snowshoes and other gear at 7,700 on the Kahiltna Glacier.
The snow was heavy and soft as we followed the tracks of some other climbers down the glacier. Their boots had sunk in at least a foot with each step. While crossing a snow bridge over a huge crevasse, we suddenly realized some of their tracks broke through the snow bridge! We could only see darkness as we looked into their tracks. We tip-toed across and were extra careful the rest of the way down the Kahiltna.
It was still snowing when we got to KIA at 4:00 PM. No planes had been able to land all day. The forecast was for more poor weather. We set up camp, ate yet another big dinner, and went to bed.
Fifteen minutes later we heard a plane. The clouds parted, the sun came out, and a Doug Geeting plane landed. Within minutes there were six planes on the glacier. Everybody was scrambling around trying to get ready to go. Annie, who runs the "airport" singlehandedly, was barking orders, helping load the planes, and keeping everyone in line.
We landed in Talkeetna just before midnight. Being the Solstice, it was still daylight. We hauled our gear to the K2 bunkhouse and took showers. I woke Dovie at 2:30 AM to tell her we made it. Most of the group headed for the only open bar in town. The restaurants were closed, so I just went to bed.
Day 19 Thursday 6-22
When I got up, Lisa had been drinking all night and was doing laundry. It was sunny, so everybody was drying gear outside. I ate a big breakfast, arranged transportation to Anchorage, packed my gear, and ate again. Jim and Lisa stayed in Talkeetna and planned to see Denali Park as ordinary tourists. The rest of us rode to Anchorage with Sharon and some of AAI's West Buttress climbers.
When I got to Anchorage, I checked into the hotel, went to McDonalds, called Dovie and my parents, and then went out for a pizza. Despite all the eating, I lost three pounds on the trip.
Day 20 Friday 6-23
I had to get up early to catch my flight to Seattle. Dovie had the day off and picked me up at the Reno Airport. It was great to be home.
This trip was much better than the 1994 trip: better weather, better guides, better partners, and we made the summit! But despite the success, I probably won't do another major expedition. It takes so much time and money, and the drudgery of hauling a heavy pack gets old quickly. Some of the best climbing in the world is just a few hours away in the Sierra. I can't wait to get back to it.
1995 Trip Summary
Day 1 Fly to Anchorage.
Day 2 Drive to Talkeetna and wait out a storm.
Day 3 Fly to SE fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,300. Carry loads to 7,700 on the Kahiltna.
Day 4 Move camp to 9,600 on the NE fork of the Kahiltna.
Day 5 Retrieve cache from 7,700.
Day 6 Carry loads to 10,700.
Day 7 Move camp to 11,000 at the base of the West Rib and retrieve cache from 10,700.
Day 8 Fix lines in the couloir and carry loads to 12,800 on the West Rib.
Day 9 Move camp to 12,800.
Day 10 Carry loads to 14,700.
Day 11 Storm day.
Day 12 Move camp to 14,700.
Day 13 Carry loads to 16,100.
Day 14 Move camp to 16,300.
Day 15 Planned rest day.
Day 16 Climb to the summit at 20,320 and return to camp.
Day 17 Retrieve cache at 16,100 and descend to 11,000 on the West Buttress route.
Day 18 Descend back to the airstrip on the SE fork of the Kahiltna. Fly to Talkeetna.
Day 19 Drive to Anchorage.
Day 20 Fly back to Reno.
Sounds like you had a poor experience with the first guiding company but was not detoured from attempting again but with someone else. I am starting planning in hopes of climbing in two years or less. I know this would only be an estimate but what was the total price it cost you to climb with travel expenses and all? There is about $600 to $800 worht of gear I feel I will have to get that I don't already have. And would be willing to attempt it again? be well
Lawrence Van Garrett