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Redemption on Denali's West Buttress
Trip Report

Redemption on Denali's West Buttress

Redemption on Denali\'s West Buttress

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Alaska, United States, North America

Object Title: Redemption on Denali's West Buttress

Date Climbed/Hiked: Jun 17, 2005

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Spring


Page By: snowflake

Created/Edited: Apr 2, 2010 / Jan 14, 2012

Object ID: 610025

Hits: 2544 

Page Score: 78.27%  - 9 Votes 

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June 17, 2005: 17,000 foot camp on Denali's West Butress.

A chorus of wristwatch alarms woke me from my spotty on-again/off-again (mostly off-again) sleep at 3 AM. I hadn't been sleeping well for the past week, partly due to the ever increasing altitude, but mostly due to the inescapable fact that cold lumpy snow - even if separated from you by a Thermarest pad - just isn't cozy. This moment started the day that I had been thinking, dreaming, fantasizing, worrying about for months: the day of my attempt on the summit of Denali, some 3000 feet still higher than our tentsite and the highest point in North America.

The three of us sharing the VE-25 tent sat up in our -40 degree down bags and, working in contemplative silence, started putting on our clothing for the ascent. On this climb I was with one old friend of many years and one new friend. John was from San Francisco and we had climbed Shasta together many times, while Nikos was a Greek that I had met for the first time only 12 days ago; Nikos was the guest of Z, who had finished his seven summits by summitting Everest on the same day as Nikos; Z had planned this Denali trip, hoping to get a second summit of Denali.

Today would be the culmination of all my mountaineering experience acquired in the past twenty years - a final exam during which my mind would return to the joyous times I've had frolicking in nature's playground juxtaposed with the failures and disappointments in that same venue. Summiting today, I hoped, would make everything right again somehow.

Flashback: Late May 1986, the Chinese Karakorum.

On summit of 6050m peak above K2 North Ridge BC
Summitting a 20,000 foot peak isn't something most Americans get to claim, and wasn't even on my radar screen a year previously. But here I was hitting this milestone in the Chinese Karakorum, right next to K2. OK, the peak was 6050 meters high so technically not 20,000 feet, but those are just numbers, right? I had summitted this nameless peak with other members of the support team for the 1986 American K2 Expedition. Our job was to arrive at base camp a month ahead of the "famous" climbers and stock advanced base camp at the base of K2's North Ridge. As there are no villages on this side of the peak and therefore no local porters, the expedition leader came up with the ingenious idea of packaging our unpaid toil as an "adventure travel opportunity of a lifetime." Hell we even PAID to do this, but because we were seeing an area of the newly-opened China that hadn't seen Westerners in ages it was worth every penny.

Peak 6050 towered above base camp,beckoning for the month we were on duty. Once the final loads had reached ABC, our team rewarded ourselves with a climb. As we had been living above 14,000 feet for a month the camp at 18,000 feet didn't seem all that high. The final steps on the 6050's Northwest Ridge didn't yield the view of the K2 North Ridge route that we had expected: a cloud - the only one that day - sat between us and K2. But the rest of the view!!! Fantastic! This climb got me hooked on international high-altitude adventures: Ladakh, the Mexican Volcanos, and Peru.

June 6 2005:

Mt. Hunter shrouded in fog
Our Denali expedition started in earnest on June 6 when the skis of Doug Geeting's 1971 Cessna 185 touched down at Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Lisa, the base camp manager, arrived with sleds for our gear - well, half out gear. Due to weight limitations we had to divide the team in half along with the gear. Nikos and I flew together while John and Z stayed behind to fly out when the Cessna returned to Talkeetna. Nikos and I spent the day preparing camp but it soon became clear that the weather wasn't going to let our team rejoin, so we packed our gear for a carry that night to camp 1. Because crevasse bridges are more solid at night when the snow re-freezes, most Denali climbers make there trips on the lower mountain at night. So near the Arctic Circle the term "night" is dubious as it never gets dark in June on Denali - we did not take flashlights on this climb.

We left at 1 AM, roped together in case of a crevasse fall, with me leading and pulling a sled while Nikos carried an extra heavy pack. When carrying sled, the sled trailing behind you is tied at the rear to the climbing rope to prevent its wandering or - more seriously - from crashing on top of you in case of a crevasse fall; but the last person on a rope therefore can not pull a sled and compensates with a heavier pack. We covered the 5 miles and 1000 foot elevation gain pretty quickly, buried our gear the requisite 3-foot-deep (to thwart the ever-hungry ravens), and returned to base camp for a well deserved sleep while we waited for John and Z to arrive.

Flashback: October 1989, Yosemite Valley.

"You know, I think that ledge you are on is as far as we are going to get today. I'm going to set a cam and you lower me down", my partner called to me, seven pitches up the 12-pitch Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock in Yosemite Valley. It had been difficult judging if we had been moving fast enough - we probably were doing well but the long approach to the climb's base coupled with the abbreviated daylight in early Autumn had cut into our schedule and darkness was approaching. We tied in on a butt-wide ledge and settled down for a very long, sleepless night where I would watch the moon arc overhead and see the headlights of a park service vehicle stopping at my car. The next day - tired, dehydrated, the water bottles long empty - I'd get back to my car to see a note: "Call your wife. She is worried".

June 7, 2005: Denali Base Camp.

John and Z arrived and we practiced crevasse rescue for the nth time and that night moved camp to the 8,000 camp. We spent an acclimitaztion day there, watching returning climbers who had been defeated by unending high winds at 17,000 feet.

June 9, 2005.
With the four of us tied to a single rope, we did a carry to the 11,000 foot camp. It was lightly snowing and visibility was low, but not too bad. Being the last on the rope, I didn't pull a sled but compensated by carrying a heavier pack. At 9300 feet, Z announced that he was going to abandon the climb. I was surprised - Z was a seven-summitter and had done this trip before but the shear amount of gear needed for Denali was just overwhelming on this trip. Fearing the loss of his experience I volunteered to pull his sled - arguing that he would get stronger over time - and we swapped rope positions. After an hour I was in agony - best described as "unceasing and unrelenting pain" - my muscles would unexpectedly fail and I would drop to my knees.

When we got to 11,000 feet we buried the cache of gear, but Z didn't bury his. That said it all - our team was down to three. When we returned to 8,000 feet we re-organized the logisitcs: We'd take two VE-25s to 14,000 feet, with just one needing to go to 17,000 feet. We would leave one stove, along with a Megamid, with Z. We'd take two MSR white gas stoves to 14,000 feet and then rely on the cartridge stoves up higher.

Flashback: June 1990, Mount Shasta.

"God can't even see me" I muttered to myself as I searched for the faint imprint of my footstep from the previous day. I was at 10,000 feet on Green Butte Ridge, attempting a solo ascent of Shasta - my first time on that mountain. I went to sleep the evening before in a bivy bag inside a trench I had dug and had woken up in total whiteout; visibility varied between 3 and 5 feet and there was no difference between the snow-covered ridge and the sky. I felt like I had died and woken up somewhere that wasn't Earth - just a uniformly white universe. After waiting for the visibilty to improve (which didn't) I packed up and followed my previous day's footstep - step by step - until many hours later I bumped into a tent belonging to some skiers I had met the day before.

June 10, 2005: Denali 8000 foot camp.

Windy Corner
I led our rope team to 11000 feet, setting a even pace and making sure we stopped every 30 minutes for water and every 90 minutes for food. Even with the deliberately slow pace we beat yesterday's time by an hour. We spent the next day resting and gazing up Motorcycle Hill, which leads to the 14,000 foot camp. 11000 foot camp is in a narrow valley and doesn't get direct sun intil about 10:30 AM and as it was my job that day to melt snow for the team, that rest day didn't seem very restful, at least my toes didn't think so.

June 12, 2005
We left for 14,000 foot camp that day. As the route is steeper on Motorcycle Hill and when rounding Windy Corner, we buried our snowshoes and proceeded with crampons.

We also decided to leave the sleds down low too as the slope of Windy Corner. The snow quality was good and with each step my crampon points sank deep into the firmly packed snow and I knew that slipping or falling would be nearly impossible that day.

After a couple hours we rounded Windy Corner, which thankfully did not live up to its name, and before me I saw Denali’s West Rib leading up to its summit. Due to the topography of the valleys we had been traveling through, this was the first time I could see Denali’s summit; our goal was getting more and more tangible.

Finally, after crossing a couple crevasses we reached the 14,000 foot camp, a tent city populated by over a hundred climbers and about a dozen Park Service rangers, doctors and high-altitude medical researchers. I could hear climbers talking in several languages – Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese – Denali is on the must-do list for climbers of all nationalities.

On the return trip, with an empty pack and every step leading downhill, I was able to relax and take in the incredible scenery. Light cloud cover alternately hid and revealed corniced ridges and snow spangled rock faces. Immense glacier systems and ice-carved cirques lay before me. On my MP3 player I listened to a recording of a recent KVMR broadcast of my wife’s folk music show – Laurie is a KVMR DJ – and I felt like she was traveling with me.

Flashback: November 1991, Orizaba.

Las Cruces Dawn
I was alone on the Jalapa glacier on Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America and the highest in Mexico. My partner had just turned back after realizing that his ever decreasing pace would not get him - or me - to the top that day, although it was still early morning. As he turned back I was met by three residents of Mexico City and I asked to join them. They agreed and in my best high-school Spanish I explained that we could either have two rope teams of two or one of 4. Their leader replied "Subimos sin cordas." and my mind quickly raced through the disaster scenarios. Two days previously I had read in a climbing log at Senor Reyes' house in Tlachichuca about a climber (roped) dropping into a crevasse near the crater rim, so I thought that roped travel would be prudent. But I really wanted to summit, so I went along, following the footsteps of their leader, with my rope in my pack in case he should drop through. After a short while he turned to me and said "OK It's your turn to lead". Great. I've got the only rope and it won't do much good with me at the bottom of a crevasse. But I dutifully took over and a couple hours later we hit the crater rim, and soon afterward was on the summit with three new friends.

June 14, 2005: 14,000 feet.

On the ridge after headwall
Today was a rest day, and I stroll over to the medical tent to get some advice on my blisters. For the rest of the day I ate, rested, and surveyed the next part of the route – a 30 degree slope that rises for 1200 vertical feet to a set of fixed lines, a series of ropes anchored into the ice that protect the 800 vertical feet of 45 degree ice.

June 15, 2005:
We decided on a plan where today we take one tent up to 17,000 feet, set it up and stock it with stove fuel, food, and our high-altitude clothes; then tomorrow we would do a light carry of just our sleeping bags and then get some sleep for a very early summit bid on Friday. Such plans are totally dependent on the weather which was forecasted to start turning bad late on Friday.

We set out for the fixed lines before sun rise, and reached them, 1200 vertical feet above our camp, as the sun came over the West Rib, warming our bodies and spirits. The group ahead of us, a guided commercial expedition, was preparing to turn back as a client had declare he couldn’t continue (a common occurrence on Denali) and so we clipped in to the fixed lines and proceeded.

At about noon we topped the fixed lines, and suddenly the entire character of the climb changed dramatically. Prior to this point we had all been traveling on a glacier with cliff walls rising above us, but now we stood at 16,000 feet on a narrow ridge that dropped off for thousands of feet on either side. Below me the Alaska range - peaks, ridges, cornices and glaciers – seemed to go on forever. “Now we are finally climbing”, I told myself, grateful for the new scenery.

For the next couple hours we followed the ridge, roped together for our mutual protection. If one of us were to fall off one side of the ridge, the others were prepared to jump off the other. Occasionally there were stakes hammered into the snow to clip our rope into in order to protect an exposed traverse.

After a couple hours we reached the Crow’s Nest, the 17,000 foot camp. Looking up to 18,000 foot Denali Pass which we must go through to reach the summit, we could see dozens of climbers descending from successful summit bids. We wondered if we should have just taken everything up with us today and not split the loads into two trips, for we wondered if we are going to lose the perfect weather window that these other climbers are enjoying. We set up our tent and turned back