The Denali Prep Course
My mountaineering career started a few years ago when I moved to upstate New York. With the Adirondacks near by I was able to hone my skills however most of my mountaineering education was self taught. I have made numerous ascents of alpine routes in the Adirondacks including the North Face of Mt. Gothic’s. However, I have wanted to climb in the bigger ranges and get formal education so I can tackle some big mountains.
I decided that 2008 would be a good year to make a big climb and in May I will be making an attempt on Denali (Mt. McKinley) on a private expedition. However, my lack of glacier experience worried me. So this winter/spring I enrolled in Alpine Accents 8 Day Denali Prep/Winter Mountaineering course.
Getting ThereI had to leave school a little early in order to make this trip. On Friday morning I left school at 2:30 a.m. with a two hour drive ahead to Syracuse International Airport. My flight was at 6:50 a.m. and I couldn’t miss it. I also wasn’t sure how much time I would need at the airport. I had a lot of luggage, two fully packed XL North Face Duffels and my North Face Spire 30 as my carry on. It was a miracle I wasn’t changed excess baggage as I knew at least one of my bags was over the 50 lb. limit.
My flight left on time and after a brief connection in Detroit I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport. I booked a seat on the right side of the airplane hoping to see Mt. Rainer but to my disappointment the sky was overcast and I couldn’t see a thing. Little did I know that it would not be until the last day of my trip that I would see Rainer in its entirety.
After a twenty minute cab ride I was at my hotel in Seattle, exhausted from my trip and sleep deprived from the previous week of mid-terms. I had slept no more than 20 hours the past week and was in need of a good nights sleep before my trip. However, before any relaxation in Seattle I needed to get a few items. This included an extra Nalgene, a Grivel long bar for massive size 13 Scarpa Invernos, 40 ft. of prussic cord and a few other small things. I was nervous because I really needed that crampon long bar, which
I soon found was very hard to find.
Feather Friends was the answer to my problems and as soon as I had all my things I took a well deserved nap.
The Beginning, Day 1
The next morning I was up early, ready for the trip and excited about the weak to come. I showered and was off the Alpine Ascents office to organize all our gear and pack for the trip.
I was surprised about how light I was traveling. My Zero North Face sleeping bag, EV2 and 8 freeze dried breakfasts and dinners made my load considerably lighter than that of others in my party.
After a quick stop in Ashford and at a grocery store we were on the mountain, with full packs and toeing sleds. Because it was late in the day and snowing considerable we did not get high on the mountain. We established camp at around 5,000 ft. just below the tree line. The fist night was uneventful and rather uncomfortable. And my 10 year old sleeping bag was not that warm especially considering the fact that we were on the mountain in winter (March 20 is the first day of Spring for 2008.) I was contemplating bringing my -20 Marmot Col Eq Bag, but was advised against this by one of my guides. He said that if I were a warm sleeper I would be fine with a Zero bag, but on the first night I realized I was a cold sleeper. Therefore, for the entirety of the trip I slept with my MH Down Jacket and MH Chugach pants on. Ill definitely be bringing my -20 bag on Denali
Getting Started, Day 2 and Day 3
The first day was rather uneventful. We went over footwork and cramp technique as such as French and American styles. We also went over how to hold an Ice Axe. These we very basic concepts that I already knew, but I didn’t mind going over again.
The second day we further developed our camping techniques including how to find safe camping spots and route finding. We also went over some knots and belay technique such as the hip belay, munter hitch and ATC. Most of the first two days was refresher for me, but I wasn’t disappointed.
Self Arrest, Day 4
On day for we got up early and ascended the mountain to a spot where we would be able to practice self arrest and traveling on a fixed line. I have not had extensive experience with either of these and was happy to be practicing these concepts again. However, the weather was horrible. The winds were high and it was extremely cold. And anyone who has practiced crevasse rescue knows how much snow you get in your collar, up your selves, down your pants and up your jacket.
The fresh powder made this worse and we were all to happy to get this part of the training over with. For me ascending the fixed line was natural and required little instruction. I have watched numerous mountaineering films/documentaries and read “Freedom of the Hills” about a hundred times, so that part of the training was easy.
At the end of the day we were all exhausted and glad to be back at Base Camp.
Crevasse Rescue, Day 5
The crevasse rescue day was the most important and anticipated of all the skills ive gone throughout. I don’t think you can thoroughly learn crevasse rescue from a book, and while one of the guides told us he taught himself crevasse rescue in his basement I want to learn it hands on. Denali is one place where you want to be completely self sufficient and well versed on crevasse rescue. My climbing partner punched through a crevasse last year on Denali and I wanted to be ready for this.
After a large breakfast we found a good spot to practice crevasse rescue. We would be simulating teams of three, rotating spots. The person in the crevasse would have to prussic out, the middle person in the crevasse would have to arrest the fall and the leader in the rope team would have to stabilize the rope and set up a hauling system.
It was backbreaking work, especially arresting the falls which really hurt my lower back. Those BD Alpine Bod Harnesses have absolutely no padding and while they are light and flexible, under pressure they are not a whole lot of fun. We used 6mm prussic throughout the exercise, even thought I plan on bringing some ascenders/ tibloc’s to Denali.
Camp Miur Push, Day 6
The entire week we were on the lower portion of the mountain and everyone was eager to get some strenuous exercise. The entire week the weather was horrible but today we disregarded the cold and windy conditions and tried to make it to camp Miur. The going was very slow because of fresh snow and avalanche conditions. I didn’t mind the cold so much and was happy to get above 8,000 ft.
Unfortunately the weather really came in around 2 p.m. so we all decided to turn around, just short of camp Miur. I believe our altitude was just shy of 10,000 ft. so I was relatively satisfied with this. But it wasn’t a new highpoint for me, which was kind of disappointing.
On the way back down we had to descend some dangerous slopes between 40-60 degrees. This was harry because they all were poised to avalanche, but we had to get down. We did not bring overnight gear with us so we were out of options. On the way down, close to the tree line there was one slope in particular that worried me. It was at a 45 degree angle and the powder was very loose. Our lead guide kicked of a small slab but I would soon find out that he did not break release enough of the slope. As I descended, the guide directly below me, an large slab broke off, about the size of a large SUV. I came crashing down on top of him burying him up to his waist in snow. The looked on his face confirmed my fears that I had just been caught in an avalanche and that we had to get out of that area quick.
We descended the slope at delayed intervals to prevent the entire team from being caught in a slide all at once. After about an hour were back at base camp, happy to be off the upper reaches of the mountain, and myself happy to be alive. I still think it a miracle that the entire slope did not avalanche after my human triggered slide. Crazy things happen in the mountains.
Tying up the Ends, Day 7
In the morning we woke up a little later and a little sorer than the day before. We went over running belays and simul-climbing as well as escaping a belay. These concepts are pretty easy to grasp, especially if you have an experienced guide to show you everything. By noon we were done with these and ready to move onto some avalanche work. In the afternoon we built an avalanche pit and began some avalanche training. This is a skill that most climbers overlook, which I find amusing because avalanches are one of the leading causes of climbing fatalities. I should also mention that during the course of our trip we saw multiple climbers and skiers climb and ski down routes without digging a pit or checking if the slope was avalanche prone. On a few occasions one of our guides (who was AIRE Lever III) made comments on the stupid decisions people were making on the mountain at that time.
This day turned out great in the end, and we were all happy to have completed the course. Despite the wind, snow (it snowed all 8 days) and cold temperatures morale was still high.
I think we were all looking forward to a hot shower, clean cloths, a real meal and a little celebrating.
Food, Shower, Beer, Bar and Girls, Well deserved on the eight day
The morning of the 8th days was perfect. There was not a cloud in the sky and I could feel even the slightest breeze. If we had been a little higher on the mountain this would have been a great opportunity to summit.
We all got out of our sleeping bags, skipped boiling water and went straight into breaking down camp. We got some good shots of the mountain and were off down to the trailhead…looking forward to some good food.
After an epic bathroom visit we were on out way to a local diner in a town I cant remember. We all sat down will full intentions of stuffing our faces, table manners was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
My Breakfast consisted of:
• Four large chicken fingers
• An 8 oz. steak
• Two eggs over medium
• A basket of fries
• Two pieces of toast
• Hash browns
…I finished every last moral including the orange slice garnish…and I was still hungry. But I had enough to hold me over, at least for the drive back.
Once back in town I called some relatives to let them know I was in one piece, and then took a well deserved shower. These are called hour-showers, often accompanied by a nice cold bottle of beer (if you haven’t had a cold beer in a hot shower you haven’t lived yet.) I was feeling much better after having just washed myself about a dozen times. So it was off to bed for a little R n’ R before the night on the town.
We all met early at a nice Latin restaurant, I think it was called Pochos or something like that. Well anyways we started a little slow on the drinks but I had every intention of drinking my brains out. Eight days on Rainer is not what every college kid envisions for his spring break and up to this point it had been a sober one. I think it goes without saying that I had some serious drinking to catch up on.
Tequila is my Kryptonite (that’s a different story) but little did I know that 1) Out lead guide was a Tequila connoisseur and 2) that this restaurant had an enormous selection of tequilas. And so the shots started.
After not seeing women in a few days I was a little frisky for the opposite sex. The flirting started and I thought I was doing O.K., well maybe not O.K. but I thought I was doing well. I don’t remember why but we decided to leave that Latina place and off it was to another bar. This is were my night ended as three bouncers threw me out of this piece of **** bar.
Despite my rough last night in the rainy city I really enjoyed the trip and the people. You can never be too ready for the unexpected and I would highly recommend this course to anyone going to McKinley.
This trip was not only a training trip, it was also an opportunity to test some gear in Denali like conditions. It was winter during our Denali Prep course on Rainer and the mountain threw some intense storms our way. Because of this trip I have a much better idea of what to bring and what to leave in my kit bag at home.
Here are some things I really likedMountain Equipment (U.K.) Guide Gloves – Very warm and they dried out quickly even when I got snow inside the glove. The leather hands make working with ropes, carabineers, straps and tools very easy. The Gore-Tex body and sleeve of the glove helps keep out the elements. I highly recommend these gloves for cold weather climbing or Alpine mountaineering between 7,000 and 20,000 ft.
Cloudveil Rayzar Soft-Shell Pants – Made of Scholler Soft-shell Fabrics these pants stood up to all the elements. In fact I didn’t wear my Gore-Tex Pro Shell Pants once. These pants kept the wind and snow out and they were much more comfortable and flexible than a hard shell. Furthermore, the bib and reinforced knees made these pants warm when tested with extreme conditions.
Scarpa Invernos – I was surprised by the performance of these boots because they are some of the cheapest double boots on the market. I was a little concerned about weather I adequately broke them in before the trip. But I did not get one hot spot or blister the entire trip, and the weight was hardly noticeable. They have a large profile for most crampons but for long slogs up mountain such as McKinley these would be fine.
Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero Jacket – This is a tested and proven product. I was taking it on and off the entire trip . There were points during the trip when I was really cold, but as soon as I got this on I was super toasty. I would wear this jacket when standing around for instruction, waiting for the team on trail, cooking food or just taking a water break…it had a million uses.
Snow Peak Titanium Spork – Leave the sets and lexan models at home, all you need is this baby. Super easy to clean and really easy to use.
Here are things I didn’t likeMountain Hardwear EV2 – This is a great tent when fast and light is the priority. But by no means is it a comfortable tent. It can be loud and condensation builds up match easier on this tent than on most other comparable models. I love this guy for my short / solo trips but I you plan on sleeping more than a week on the mountain (and you have a partner that can split it with you) go with the Trango 2
Backcountry food is determined by multiple variables. Weight, variety, caloric intake, nutritional value, ease of preparation and palatability are all considered when creating a back country meal plan.
SnacksI Brought Gus, Shot blocks, fruit bars and leathers, breakfast bars, cliff bars, harvest bars, sesame bars, nut bars, candy bars, sport beans, cookies, brownies and a variety of things to keep me eating and strong. I brought only one flavor of each item so that in case I didn’t like something I know I wouldn’t have to eat it again.
I would recommend
• HIT Cookies
• Soft Baked Cookies
• Dried Mango (its not moist like dried apricots)
• Chocolate Cliff Bars
• GU Shot Blocks
• Jelly Bean Sports Beans
• Fruit Roll Ups
• Any Candy Bar
• Breakfast Bars
• Top Ramen
I did not recommend
• Just about all the organic energy bars. Maybe I just picked the bad ones
• GU jell (brought about 20, didn’t use a single one)
• Fruit Bars
• Dried Apricots (they became soggy)
I wouldn’t worry so much about what to bring, just have a lot of variety and bring more than you think you will eat. You don’t want to have to eat things you don’t want (I had no desire to eat GU Gel and I didn’t have to because I has options). Snack food is also great for those times when you don’t feel like making breakfast or dinner.
Also, don’t bring too many processed things. Bring salami, beef jerky, dried fruit, cheese, pita bread, peanut butter, jelly, bagels…I forgot to back these and really wish I had them
BreakfastI’ve said it once and ill say it again, variety. I cannot stress this enough. Keep KISS in mind when you are preparing your meal plan. KISS; Keep It Simple Stupid. Breakfast usually consists of oatmeal, granola, pop tarts or ramen. And you are going to really want some caffeine early in the morning. Personally I can only eat oatmeal or granola once every other day or else ill get sick of it (I only use ½ my freeze dried granola and berries). I wish I brought more Ramen and Pop tarts for breakfasts.
DinnerAfter a long day no one feels like cooking for half an hour. I chose to bring 8 freeze dried meals and had no problem with eating them; however, I do no think I could have gone much longer without eating some fresh/non-freeze dried food. I recommended a good balance of freeze dried and non-freeze dried food, 2 freeze dried to one non-freeze dried seems to work best.
It is also important to bring a few packs of ramen along. Ramen is great because it takes the same amount of time to prepare as a hot drink and the Top Ramen brand has 500 calories. If you need to boost your caloric intake at any given meal ramen is great.
Miscellaneous food itemsThis might not seem like an important category but it is. Sometimes a little spice or sauce is all a meal needs to turn it from disgusting to delicious.
Include: Salt, Pepper, Hot Sauce, Brown Sugar (good for coffee, tea and oatmeal), tea bags (assorted), instant coffee, hot chocolate, cider, Gatorade powder, and any other sauce, spice or miscellaneous thing you love to eat. The small things really do make a big difference.