This is the story of the successful Dutch Denali Expedition (DUDE) in 1999. Our team consisted of three friends Joris de Wit. Remko de Lange and myself Jan Wuite.
April 1999, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. It was going to be last minute work again; we were required to apply and pay for the climbing permit 60 days in advance. At that time however it was quite uncertain whether we could actually go to Alaska. Remko and I were busy trying to finish our master’s thesis on the glacial geomorphology of Ireland, where we spend most of our time the fall before. More importantly we had to wait for our acceptance to work at the Matanuska glacier field camp in the Chugagh Mountains, South Central Alaska, where we would be helping conducting glaciological research that’s going on there for quite some time. It was the last requirement for our degree. More then a month later we finally got the good news, we could start working in August. We had four weeks to organize our expedition, trying to get the necessary gear together, buying tickets, making reservations for the aircraft that would fly us to the mountain, reading reports of earlier expeditions, finishing our thesis and last but not least mentally and physically prepare for the tough times ahead. Considering the fact that most people start organizing Denali expeditions years before, we did a very good job.
We left for the US on June 6. It was a horrendous journey since Alaska is basically on the other side of the earth. In Atlanta we had to split up, Joris would take a different flight path, but we all arrived around the same time in Anchorage 24 hours after leaving Amsterdam.
A long bearded taxi driver brought us to our hostel where we were just barely able to reach our beds. Like all days during the previous month the next one was a busy day, while in the mean time we were trying to cope with our jet lags. We had to buy a tremendous amount of food, enough to feed 3 men for 25 days. It was difficult to get the essential calories together everything being light and ultra light diet stuff. Besides that we still had to buy some crucial gear like insulated over-boots, snow saws, spades and an extra stove. Since we had no car, we had to return to our hostel several times, each time carrying huge loads of bags to the astonishment of our fellow room mates. By the end of the day (read 11 pm) we were finally done, our credit cards red hot. Early next morning our shuttle to Talkeetna would pick us up.
We had a huge pile of backpacks and bags next to us while we were waiting for the taxi to arrive, luckily we were able to stow everything in the back. A 3-hour ride brought us to Talkeetna. Along the way we caught a first glimpse of Denali towering icy high above the other two giants Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter. Our driver dropped us off at the Doug Geeting Aviation office, one of the companies that fly to Denali. Our flight was scheduled for next day and although there were no guarantees it looked like the weather was going to be fine and we could fly out.
Talkeetna is a pleasant little village, with a mixture of tourists, climbers, locals and bush people. There was still a lot of work to do. We had to report to the park office and watch the mandatory slide show of all the dangers that we would face, we had to buy more food and extra rope, pee bottles and cigarettes, we had to repack all our gear and sort all our food into day rations, and tons of other crucial things. We were not in the Alps anymore; overlooking one small item could mean the difference between success and failure of our expedition. Did I mention our 11-hour jetlag?
We spent the night in Doug Geeting’s bunkhouse, where we had a beautiful view on Foraker, Hunter and Denali, and next morning we woke up to find a beautiful day. We took a last shower before we got a ride to the airstrip. First our gear had to be weighed, all in all around 150 kg’s. Since there was a limit that the plane could carry Remko went first with another team and some of the gear. Joris and I had to wait for another hour or so before it was our time, spending most of the time smoking cigarettes and listening to our radio. Yes a radio is one of those vital items for us. Carrying its extra weight is well worth the effort, considering its positive influence on our mood. This is not something that has to be taken lightly; in fact it is the most important thing on expeditions like these.
Our 45-minute flight in the ski-equipped Cessna was a magnificent experience; first above the tundra followed by the foothills of the Alaska Range and then the famous one shot pass, not for the weak hearted. It seemed that the cliffs on both sides of our plane were within arm reach. The final decent took place above the huge Kahiltna glacier, a staggering river of ice more then 5 km wide and 50 km in long. Denali international airport is based on the Southeast Fork, a side arm of the Kahiltna. It is a small strip marked by stakes, base camp is situated right next to it at an elevation of 2200 m (7200 ft). Our landing was smoothly and when we stepped out of the plane we entered a different world. We found ourselves in the middle of a vast and icy amphitheatre; peaks towered high above our heads, the dimensions were unbelievable. Remko helped us unloading the plane. We reported to the famous ‘Base camp Annie’, she is the base camp manager and responsible for weather reports and the airstrip. She also provides fuel, since it is not allowed to bring it on the plane, and the small kiddy sleds that are used for carrying loads up the mountain.
The roar of a huge ice avalanche on the far side of the airstrip accompanied us while we were setting up camp.
The plan was to leave for Camp 2, 9 miles further up the glacier, early next day. In that way it is easier and safer to walk over the Kahiltna Glacier since the snow is frozen solid. So we got up at around 3 am, but to our astonishment it took us more then 4 hours to get ready. This was to blame on several factors, of course it was our first day here, it was a chilly morning, we had no experience with loading the sled and attaching it properly to the rope, but most of all there is just a lot of work to do. Getting dressed takes a lot of time; we’ll talk about getting out of your clothes and preparing for bed later. Preparing breakfast takes a fair amount of time when you have to melt snow; later on we did this before we went to bed. Then you have to stow away your sleeping bag, sleeping pads etc, break of the tent and load the sled. Then getting on the rope takes its fair amount of time. The sled has to be attached to your backpack, not to close so that it bumps into you every step, not to far since that will pull you of your feet, and a very important thing: it has to be attached to the rope. Not only because the person behind you can control your sled a little, preventing it from falling in crevasses, but most of all to avoid having to deal with the load when you fall in a crevasse. While hanging in a crevasse the last thing you want to deal with is a heavy load pulling you further into the depths, so you also need to be able to get rid of your (heavy) backpack, preferably without losing it. So we also attached that to the rope. Any way the best thing is not to fall in in the first place. Then we spend some time trying to cope with the snowshoes, but it turned out we didn’t need them that day or the following one for that matter. It was a good thing we brought them however, for our way back.
So at around 7 we were ready to go, the first part is downhill onto the main glacier, right around Mt. Francis, through a heavily crevassed section, then slowly uphill for about 9 miles. There were some low hanging clouds, but not to bad. We took several stops along the way. In addition to the sleds our packs were really heavy. We had decided to do this part of the route alpine style, carrying everything with us, instead of carrying loads and returning the same day to go up once again the next day. Because of that our progress was slow, but steady. The advantage is that we didn’t have to go over the same dangerous area twice and it saves us several days. Around noon we arrived at our proposed campsite at an elevation of 2400 m (7900ft). At that time the valley was as hot as an oven and of course no shade for miles around. We were prepared for extreme cold, but didn’t expect this heat. We found an abandoned site, which saved us the work of building our own snow walls that are necessary for the fierce winds that can sweep around here.
Next day the weather looked promising and we left early again. The route would take us up a long slope called Ski Hill, apparently there is good skiing here, but that was not our goal. We had to jump some deep dark crevasses, not an easy task with a backpack and sled. We were getting quite tired around noon and the weather deteriorated. Soon we found ourselves in the middle of a white out, you could just see the person walking in front of you. We decided there that we would set up camp (approximately 2900 m / 9600 ft), again on an abandoned site. First thing you do when arriving in a camp is to stay on the rope and probe the whole area to be sure there are no crevasses underneath. We marked the perimeters with some bamboo stakes that we brought with us for that reason (and for route marking). Stepping out of the marked zone without rope is dangerous, you are camping on a glacier and crevasses can be everywhere. Soon after we had set up camp the weather cleared and the sky turned blue again unraveling fantastic views over the Kahiltna glacier beneath us. We settled in the sun and put our radio on. To our astonishment we could receive a rock sender, and to our amazement they played Monster Magnet, our favorite band at the time. Alaska rules!!
6 o'clock in camp 3, time for the daily Denali weather forecast on cb-radio provided by Base camp Annie.
We got up very early next morning to start with the last part of Ski Hill. However, we were soon very cold and realized the weather was not good at all. It also started snowing. We quickly went inside again to warm our very cold feet. Jeez it was cold. We decided to crawl back in our sleeping bags and take a rest day, our first since we arrived in Alaska, so we could use one.
It kept snowing all day and we were happy with our decision to wait one day, since next day turned out to be fine! [Jan in Camp 3] [Remko on route to camp 4]. The goal was to reach the base of Motorcycle Hill camp at around 3350 m (11,000) ft. This is situated in a basin at the very beginning of the Kahiltna glacier. From the camp you have a view over the Kahiltna Pass and you can see the vast tundra’s north of Denali. We found an abandoned site, however, it was filled up with drift snow. So it took us about a half hour to clear it. Again we could enjoy the sun after the work was done.
We decided to do the journey to the next camp, the advanced base camp, in two steps. First we would bring a load of equipment and food halfway to Windy Corner, named after the infamous weather conditions there. We would return the same day. The day after we would go to next camp with the rest of the load. Finally we would retrieve the equipment at Windy Corner the day after that. And that was how it went.
First part of the route to Windy Corner is very steep. It is a section called Motor Cycle Hill, which turned out to be quite a struggle with our heavy packs. We took a break on top of the steep wall and had a beautiful view of our surroundings. The next section up to Windy Corner went slowly uphill, on our left the West Buttress on our right the Kahiltna Peaks. It took us a couple of hours to reach Windy Corner at 4115 m (13,500 ft) and luckily the wind was not that strong. We dug a deep hole right around the corner in the shadow of the West Buttress and cached our gear before returning down again. An unlucky move caused my water bottle to fall out of my hands rolling towards a crevasse and I was just barely able to grab it, but my crampons punched a hole in my Gore Tex pants. You should cache your stuff at least 1 meter deep, otherwise you have the risk of the crows ripping your bags and eating your food. We marked the site with a bamboo wand and went down again. The path went trough a series of seracs with deep crevasses in between. Our way back to camp went without any problems and we enjoyed our dinners back in camp.
The following day we broke off camp and cached our snowshoes (which we hadn’t used thus far), we wouldn’t need them higher up. Again we had to climb Motor Cycle Hill and negotiate the crevasses around Windy Corner. We passed our cache and went on to the advanced base camp. A final steep section up to the camp drained the energy that was left in us...
Advance Base Camp is located at an elevation of 4330 meters (14,200 ft). It is a small village of up to hundred tents. It did not take long for us to find two suitable abandoned campsites, and while one of us set up the stove the other two pitched the tents. The view from the camp is overwhelming. To reduce environmental impact and disease two toilets have been placed in the camp. One of them is conveniently located in the center, so that virtually everybody can look at your efforts. The other is far more popular and is located at the edge of the camp. The view from this rather exposed toilet is arguably the most magnificent that you can get from any toilet seat in the whole world. My friend you wouldn’t believe. Still it takes some time to get used to people walking by as the toilet is located halfway in between the camp and the ranger tents. Mountain climbing asks a lot of you both physically and mentally.
Remko and I went back to Windy Corner the following day to retrieve our cache. We could clearly feel the effects of altitude. And we had planned a couple of rest days at the camp. It was already quite an achievement that we had reached this altitude with so much equipment and food and in reasonable health and good mood! During the three days of rest we had some snowfall, but the winds were not that bad. Besides that there were enough spells of clear weather in between, and I can now say the weather this season was perfect. We spend the days reading (I read a book about some woman who had a very bad time on Denali, she was all the time complaining about climbing etiquettes and about how cold it was), repairing equipment (Remko’s brand new MSR Dragonfly didn’t work, a potential reason for failure of an expedition, if we had not brought two with us => always bring two) and preparing for the next section of the climb which could be seen from the camp for most part of the route. Every day we saw climbers, like ants in a row, working their way up the headwall. This is the steep slope rising up to the actual West Buttress, after which the standard route is named.
Several times people came by our campsite to listen to our music and to tell their stories. We heard stories of success and stories of failure. Some stories were encouraging others were discouraging. We got a lot of nice food from people returning back down; especially the cocoa was very welcome. The evening before we decided to go up again we met some fellow Dutchmen of the Cops on Top expedition. They had some bad experiences higher up and decided to go back down since bad weather was predicted. They were so kind to let me borrow their special police cell phone so I could tell my love that everything was ok and that we were going up the next day.
The weather didn’t look all that good in the morning and there were rumors about possible bad weather, but we finally decided to give it a try. We were fully packed with gear and food for 5 days. Our goal for the day: Camp 5, located high on the West Buttress at an altitude of 5240 meters (17,200 ft), which meant a climb of almost 1000 meter with full equipment. The steep icy headwall has a maximum inclination of 60º. Fixed ropes placed by rangers to prevent accidents from happening secure the steepest sections. When we finally arrived on top of the headwall (4940 m / 16,200 ft), we saw some clouds coming in. Not all that bad but enough to raise concern with some fellow climbers who were slightly panicking and returning down. At first we were convinced of their arguments, but after careful observations from our meteorologist Remko and a conversation with a guide, which happened to camp at that spot, we decided not to follow in their steps, but instead follow our route over the sharp ridge towards High Camp. This was by far the most scenic part of the route, even though some (harmless) clouds came in. Progress was very slow, the altitude had an effect on all of us, I was doing relatively fine. [Remko on the West Buttress] Late that evening we arrived at High Camp. Suitable spots were scarce in the camp and we had to clear a campsite from some gear that was cached by a Japanese group, rules are very clear on the mountain: don’t occupy a campsite with your gear if you are not sleeping there. Since we arrived so late and found only one spot we pitched only one tent and huddled together with the three of us for the night. Crammed with three people in a tent the morale increased dramatically!
Next morning Remko felt sick, Joris and I were still tired from the day before, the weather was not very good and it was snowing, so the decision was easily made: we would stay in camp today. Joris and I pitched the other tent in a camp site that had just become available. We attached the tent bombproof to the ground and also reinforced the snow walls; the storms are notorious up here. We drank thee and cocoa all day and cooked inside our tents.
Unfortunately the following day it was still snowing and visibility was not good, however as the day passed the weather gradually cleared and we decided to give it a try. Since we have 24 hours of daylight, it didn’t matter at which time we would leave. So around 2 pm we were ready for our summit bid. Remko decided to stay behind, he was still not feeling well. Dressed in down and Gore-Tex we were heading for the summit.
The climb starts out with a steep exposed slope towards Denali Pass, the stretch is called "Der Autobahn", since a lot of accidents happen on this part of the route. Joris was leading and I followed him on the other end of the rope. Progress was slow and difficult. Sometimes you would step on very hard ice, with the potential of surfing down the slope on a slab of ice, sometimes you would step in knee-deep snow. Drifting snow came down the face and tortured us. Half way up to the pass we met a group of guided clients on their way back down after a practice day. I can’t recall exactly but one of them was yelling at us, since we were using their trail on our way up, and passing was a little bit difficult, I guess the poor fellow was panicking.
After a two-hour climb we reached the pass where we were welcomed by a fierce wind from the other side. We took a short break behind a rock. The most strenuous part of the route was behind us. Five minutes after we left again, it was getting so enormous cold and wind chills were getting extremer, we could feel our exposed skin freezing. We decided to put our facemasks on and we almost looked like astronauts. However we were both feeling good and we resumed our climb.
Not much further there was a short section that was secured with a fixed rope . A possible fall without the security of that rope would lead to a fall over the edge of the Messner Couloir, back to ABC 1500 meter lower. We met a fellow climber returning from higher up who seemed to be alone. He did not react to our greeting, which made us a little suspicious of his well being, but after waiting for his (safe) descend down the fixed rope we went on again. The weather held fine, it was very cold, but that's what you can expect at this altitude at this latitude. I had to move my toes constantly to keep the blood running. Since I put on my face mask my sunglasses constantly fogged up, and ice build up around my mouth.
Suddenly we could see the true summit of Denali! We decided to leave our backpacks and rope behind, which at that time seemed a logical decision for both of us (however later we could not recall why we made that decision). We climbed a little higher until we reached the football field, a large flat area approximately 200 meters below the summit. The summit seemed to be within reach, the weather was still ok, we both felt fine. At that time we knew we were going to make it to the summit! While we crossed the vast plateau a small aircraft flew over us. There were two more obstacles in front of us, the summit headwall and the summit ridge. When climbing the headwall we stumbled upon a group of 4 Japanese climbers, we were eager to pass them but that was not really possible. Once we reached the summit ridge they offered to let us go in front, but a quick look at the ridge was enough to make the decision to let them lead the final section to the summit. And with a polite gesture we let them go in front. We studied a lot of pictures of the route as preparation for the expedition, somehow we never got a good photo of the summit ridge. Especially the first section was knife edged with formidable drop offs on both sides, 300 meter or so to the left, to the right approximately a tenfold of that! Not for the weak hearted!
Joris went first and I followed shortly after that, regretting that we left the rope below. We soon stumbled upon the Japanese again and we made this incredible picture of them scaling the summit corniche. Not long after that it was our time, it was 23.30 June 19th: We were on the summit, on the summit of Denali, the summit of North America! I couldn't help it but I screamed it out with joy! The Japanese kept rather quiet after my roar. We took some photographs and soon realized that we were actually getting extremely cold. The wind was fierce up here. Remko later told us that it was -25C down in high camp 1000 m lower on thee summit it could easily have been below -30, not even considering the wind chills. Not a place to linger around longer then necessary! We quickly retraced our steps down the ridge. Joris took this picture of me crossing the football field. We were soon on the place were we left our backpacks and went on down to the Denali Pass. Passing the Achdeacon's Towers we had a beautiful view over the Alaska Range west of Denali. The descent down to High Camp from Denali Pass was nerve wrecking. We went down very slow but careful, most accidents happen on the descent. Sometimes we would slide down in the loose snow and had to arrest ourselves using our ice axes. We clipped into all the protection we could find, but did not place any ourselves. It took us almost 2 hours to descent, approximately the same time as it took us to ascent this part. It was very cold, but the wind was not so bad now. When we finally reached the base of the slope we could see Remko in the camp. We did it! Remko was feeling better now and he had made a lot of thee for us, which was very welcome since we did hardly drink anything during the climb as our water bottles were frozen within a half hour after leaving camp. We checked our extremities and everything seemed to be fine. Totally exhausted we took shelter in our sleeping bags. That night I had to rub my toes several times since they were feeling numb (it took a couple of weeks before that was cured).
We decided to sleep in the following morning, since it was very windy. It seemed that we had chosen the perfect weather window for our climb! Later we heard that nobody was able to reach the summit the days after. Later in the day when the wind was down we broke off camp to go down to ABC. Not even 5 minutes into our decent we went around a corner to be greeted by a very fierce wind gust, which almost made us decide to go back to High Camp. Luckily later on it died down a bit. There are some very steep exposed sections along the ridge where the slope went convex downhill into the depths. We were quite sure that this had to be the place where several people slipped the year before. This was a very nerve wrecking part of the route, since we were all a little tired. After a while we reached the top of the head wall again. We were totally alone now and there were clouds everywhere. Descending the headwall is quite tiring and we were all exhausted once we unclipped from the fixed rope at the bottom. But finally we made it back to camp, where we soon pitched our tents and were ready for another feast.
We regretted that we did not pitch the tents very firmly, since that night we got hammered by a full force storm with extreme wind gusts! The tent shook like crazy but luckily held, thanks to the snow walls probably. We were glad that we were not in high camp anymore! It was impossible to descent the next day, it was snowing heavily and there were still strong wind gusts. We stayed in our tents all day. That evening the sky cleared again and we had a beautiful view on Mt. Foraker.
We left the camp the following day, hoping to reach the airport in the evening. Windy Corner looked completely different now, evidence that the ice is on the move here. Just around Windy Corner we traveled through a layer of clouds, when we got out again we found ourselves in between two cloud layers, very interesting. We soon reached our cache at camp 4 again and went on after a short break. The going was a lot easier downhill. To prevent the sled from bumping into the heels of the last person on the rope, it was attached behind the second person on the rope (me), so I had actually 2 sleds behind me. It was Remko's task to act as a brake for them. We also put a rope with several large knots underneath the sledge for extra braking power. Just before we reached our camp 3 again the snow got deeper and deeper and we decided to use our snow shoes for the first time. It turned out to be very difficult to walk with them and we fell numerous times, but it was almost impossible to walk without them.
It was already late when we reached the bottom of ski hill again. We were however determined to reach Base Camp that day and decided to push on. Whether that was actually a good decision is disputable. It was late in the day and the snow bridges tend to be less solid. What followed was maybe the most nerve wrecking part of the whole expedition. Open monster-sized crevasses lured everywhere trying to catch us. At one time we had the feeling that we were standing on the same snow bridge with all three of us over the full length of our rope. Several times one of us fell waist deep into the snow/crevasses (I was actually spared most of the time, since I was the lightest). That happened despite the snow shoes we were wearing, that made it also very difficult to get up again, add to that the load of our back packs!! Later on I saw that happen to Joris in front of me, I turned around to notify Remko, but to my astonishment he was also waste deep in the snow. I could only hope that they (hence also me) were not above the same crevasse. We were getting very tired (I was still hauling two sleds), but we dared not to rest, it was simply to dangerous. We rounded Mt. Francis, where the crevasses were especially large, deep and dark, and we finally reached the relative safe Heartbreak Hill, the last obstacle before we would reach Base camp. We were happy to be out of the crevasses fields but the 200 meter climb drained our last reserves. Finally we could see the landing strip, but it was getting closer annoyingly slow. A half hour later we were safe! At that time a huge load fell of me ( I am not talking about the backpack), a load that was on our shoulders for the last 3 weeks. The first thing I did was digging up our cache which had some nice food and cigarettes! And this is how I looked at that time. We pitched only one tent and huddled together for the night listening to an awful show on the radio, none of us had the energy to turn it off.
First thing we did the following morning was reporting to the camp manager, who radioed our flight company. We were told that it could take a while since they first had to fly with a couple of tourists. However just a little later we were told to pack our gear since the plane would arrive in 10 minutes. We broke our record breaking up camp! And 10 minutes later the plane was there, this time we could all fly together. When we got out of the mountains again we all noticed something weird: the color green. After 3 weeks of snow and ice we were not used to this anymore. Our pilot made a dive over a large river and we flew just over it for a while. And then we reached civilization again. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, the day was warm: time for a shower and a feast!