Denali 2005 – West Buttress Route – Team “Burnt Tongues”
29 May – 18 June 2005
By Bob Dawson, with Wayne Herrick and Jeff Kunkle
The three of us had planned on this trip for just about a year. We started with what we thought were six or seven fairly firm team members, but eventually whittled down to us three. Three is actually a good number for such a trip, and though we would have liked to share this mountain with some more friends, it all worked out well.
So we trained hard in the Colorado high country, all winter and through the spring, bought gear, read trip reports, did Crevasse rescue training. We were ready both physically and mentally for this big mountain. We knew going in though that all the training and preparation in the world wouldn’t matter if the weather didn’t cooperate. And we found out that the weather on Denali DOESN’T generally cooperate. The mountain really doesn’t care about you, whether you have a chance to summit or not; if you are reasonably comfortable or not. This mountain is cold and harsh and totally indifferent. This mountain is beautiful. This mountain is The High One. It dominates the Alaskan skyline for hundreds of miles in all directions. We were so ready to give this a shot, so finally the day came and off we were to Anchorage Alaska. Thankfully some very good friends of ours in Colorado (Beth and Keith Bershader) have family living in Anchorage; Pam (Beth’s sister) and Rich Todd, and these fine folks took us under their wing and provided physical and emotional support to our trip, picking us up at the airport, driving us to and from Talkeetna and boarding us in their fine home in Eagle River just north of Anchorage. Rich even likes to cook, and after the climb, we sure did like to eat! This worked out so very well.
What follows is a brief day-by-day itinerary of the trip, followed by some overall thoughts about climbing The High One. Team Burnt Tongues was ready to go. Our team name, by the way, was derived from a particular infirmity suffered while climbing Aconcagua together; we had all developed painful sunburns on our tongues on that pristine summit day 18 months ago. We have since learned to climb with our mouths closed as much as possible! So we flew direct from Denver into Anchorage on 28 May 2005 and headed to Talkeetna the next day….
Day 0 – Sunday, 5/29/05: Anchorage -> Talkeetna
Scheduled to be “Day 1” as we were planning on flying to Kahiltna Glacier and starting the climb this day, but weather forced our little ski-plane to turn around just before “One Shot Pass” and “head back to the barn” in Talkeetna. We spent a frustrating night in a cheesy bunkhouse there after grub and beer at the West Rib B&G. Oh well! Try again tomorrow.
Day 1 – Monday, 5/30/05: Talkeetna -> Base Camp -> 9200’ Camp
Now with bright sunny skies, we landed on the glacier at maybe 9:30am, sorted gear, loaded our sleds and headed out. What made this day stand out like a sore thumb was the intense perceived HEAT. It was damn hot hiking up that lower Kahiltna Glacier. At one point Jeff’s Suunto watch claimed it was 102 degrees on his wrist. Sure, everyone tells you: “Hike this lower glacier at night”. Did we listen?
When we hit 7800’ camp we were still feeling fresh (like baked bread) and decided to push on to a camp at 9200’. So up “ski hill” we went (immediately above 7800’ camp). This last leg took much more effort than anticipated, so we arrived at 9200’ camp quite exhausted but happy that we got a good amount of approach travel under our belts. So-so weather the entire day; mostly cloudy with some periods of sun. We found a decent existing camp that needed very little snow digging or improvement.
Day 2 – Tuesday, 5/31/05: 9200’ Camp -> 11000’ Camp
Woke to more cloudy weather, headed up towards 11000’ camp. Stopped to chat with a couple of dudes camped at 9500’; Jeff recognized one of them as “Sasquatch” (Zach) from Aconcagua! Small world! We had spent quite a bit of time with Zach on the big A, including summit day. We pushed on up another steep hill then hung a hard right near Kahiltna Pass and up another significant rise and topped of at 11000’ camp. I was quite knackered on this final approach to 11K, and started to get grumpy. These heavy loads and sleds really take it out of you. We again found a decent existing site and settled in. Still iffy weather, but certainly good enough for travel at this elevation. Not a very scenic day due to poor visibility. Still we felt great; we were at 11K camp only 30 hours after leaving base camp, making serious progress up the mountain.
Day 3 – Wednesday, 6/1/05: Carry load to 13500’ Cache
Snowed 1.5 feet overnight! Serious digging out in the AM. This story turned out to be not unusual. It snows a lot on Denali. It pretty much snows every day on Denali. Thankfully lots of people had already headed up Motorcycle Hill breaking a nice trail for us. We carried a decent sized load of food and fuel up to a cache at 13500’. “Windy corner” wasn’t, and the day turned out beautifully bright and sunny. After caching our load we made it back to 11K camp in about 45 minutes under clear sunny skies (finally). This is a particularly pretty portion of the lower route.
Day 4 – Thursday, 6/2/05: Move to 14000’ Camp
Our second time up Motorcycle Hill seemed now like a breeze; nice day to push to 14000’ camp, certainly. Passed by our 13500’ cache and over drooping, delicate snow bridges over huge beautiful but ominous crevasses. Arriving at 14000’ camp, we found a good site next to a huge AAI camp/cache and fixed it up nicely. Again, off-and-on snowy/sunny/iffy weather just like previous days.
Day 5 – Friday, 6/3/05: Retrieve 13500’ Cache
Easy day; took about 15 minutes to walk down to 13500 cache, then maybe 45 minutes back up to 14000’ camp with the goods. Rest of day took it easy, but prepared to make carry to high camp.
Day 6 – Saturday, 6/4/05: Carry load to 17200’ Camp Cache
With decent sized loads, we headed up the Headwall; this portion of the climb was significantly tougher than I had anticipated, especially on the fixed line portion. This is not to say it was very difficult, just steeper and more exposed than I was expecting. Past the fixed lines is a fine ridge run from 16200’ to 17200’ camp, including more fixed lines just below Washburn’s Thumb. The weather was fairly socked in so we didn’t get a real good look at this portion of the climb until later. I bonked big-time close to the end of the route, but re-fueled and felt fine afterwards. Made it to 17K camp and buried a good-sized cache of summit clothes, food and fuel. It was a real cluster-f&%k coming back down the fixed lines at Washburn’s thumb with all the people coming UP these lines.
Day 7 – Sunday, 6/5/05: Rest Day
Finally, a complete rest-day was on tap. I personally needed this; perhaps Wayne and Jeff did not, but we all at least enjoyed it. Zach and Charlie went ahead and moved up to 17200’ camp this day for a possible summit attempt tomorrow (didn’t work; they made it to Denali pass and turned around due to high winds). I read a book. Or two.
Day 8 – Monday, 6/6/05: Move to 17200’ Camp
We were feeling great, and cocky as all hell and thought maybe, just maybe we had this puppy in the bag, and had a good chance to summit the next day. The really bad weather wasn’t “scheduled” to arrive until Wednesday, so maybe…. So we moved to 17200 camp and settled in. This time up the fixed lines was a relative breeze, and the ridge run was sunny and beautiful. This ridge from 16200’ to 17200’ camp is simply gorgeous and fun. This evening is perhaps the most memorable time (excepting summit day) of the trip. Bright sunny skies over a sea of clouds around 12000’ or so, zero wind and non-bitter temperatures. We all wandered extensively around high camp taking zillions of pictures of the surrounding views.
In retrospect we probably could have summited right at this point, leaving camp at 6-7pm or so, summiting at midnight, back down by 3-4am. This seriously crossed my mind. Sure, it would have been chilly on the summit at midnight. Had we known about the next week’s worth of weather, perhaps we might have gone for it.
Day 9 – Tuesday, 6/7/05: Aborted Summit Day, Move down to 14000 Camp
Hah! Right! About 3-4am Monday “night” / Tuesday morning the winds picked up big-time, and it sure wasn’t going to work to summit this day. In fact, the dire weather reports scared us into aborting staying at 17200’ camp and we packed up (in fairly high winds) and hightailed it back down to 14000’ camp. Fourth time on those damn fixed lines! We left a good cache of stuff at 17200’ camp for our subsequent return. As such, we were committed! We all had hundreds of $$$ of gear left at 17200’ camp waiting for our eventual return. On our way down we passed Zach and Charlie, and after making camp again at 14000’, they stopped by and talked. After much reflection they finally decided to bag it and head down the mountain. I gave Zach a message to send to folks of our situation, and he gladly relayed this info when he got back to Talkeetna. Sorry Zach and Charlie you had to go down!
Day 10 – Wednesday, 6/8/05: Sit at 14000’ Camp
So begins one of many days of waiting for better weather, the first couple here at 14200’ camp followed by more at 17200’ camp. All in all I read 5 books on this mountain. Many of these days were similar; lousy weather early followed by partial sun in the afternoon followed by lousy weather in the evening. We saw lots of huge lenticular cloudage over both the Denali summit and nearby Foraker. Huge winds up high. We were glad to be down at 14000’ camp in lieu of 17200’ camp for a couple of days.
Day 11 – Thursday, 6/9/05: Sit at 14000’ Camp
More of the same! (MOTS) Melt. Drink. Read. Eat.
Day 12 – Friday, 6/10/05: Move back to 17200’ Camp
OK, so the weather reports were looking slightly better, and at least the severe winds were abating a bit, so we decided (2 out of 3 of us in agreement) to move back to 17200’ camp to be in place for a summit bid. So, load back up and head up that damn headwall one more time. As with the second time up this turned out to be quite easy, and again we had a fine ridge run from 16200’ to 17200’ camp. Lousy weather when we arrived though; cloudy windy and cold, but we worked well together and set up a decent camp in near record time (given the severe conditions), climbed into our cocoons and settled in.
Day 13 – Saturday, 6/11/05: Sit at 17200’ Camp
Here begins our slightly higher version of MOTS; days of lousy windy cold snowy weather with a few periods of sun. Thankfully these periods of sun would be enough to thoroughly dry our or tents as every night we had significant condensation on our tent walls, despite what we thought was adequate venting. More book time!
Day 14 – Sunday, 6/12/05: Sit at 17200’ Camp
MOTS! Lots of snow accumulation this day and subsequent digging out of the tents. Since we were mostly out of books now, I started reading labels on gear and food and Jeff was thoroughly enthralled with his CB user’s manual.
Day 15 – Monday, 6/13/05: Sit at 17200’ Camp
More of the Same! We awoke to even lousier weather than previous days, and it was looking really bleak for this trip being successful. Sort of a tradition on these climbs, Jeff and I both carry a sleeve of Pringles for post-summit nutrition and celebration. It seemed like potentially massive bad-luck to break these open before summit day, but I had been eyeing my can for a couple days now. So, on this bleak morning, I decided what-the-hell and popped mine open and Jeff and I scarfed down ½ the can. Not liking onion flavor, Wayne didn’t want any. The effect on Jeff and I was definitely very positive, and we immediately felt somewhat better. Hopefully the mountain gods would forgive my lack of patience.
Bless their hearts; an ambitions RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Institute) group helped everyone out and decided to poke at a summit day, and broke trail through very heavy snow and potential Avalanche conditions and headed up to Denali Pass. The guide turned out to be a very experienced one, with decades of Denali experience. We watched him slowly make his way up, leading a 4-man team followed by another, digging snow-profile pits every 100 yards or so on the most slide-prone section of the slope. After many hours of toil, the entire group of 8 had made their way to the pass with a couple other groups in tow. It turns out that all but a party of two Spaniards turned around at or above Denali pass and returned safely to camp. The two Spaniards wound up summiting somehow. More power to them! Tough Hombres. I believe these two plus one other were the only people to summit Denali from the previous Sunday to this day.
This particular day I read Henry Stuck’s account of his party’s first successful ascent of Denali back in 1913. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the 1913 summit day was this very day, June 13th. Interesting book! Many aspects of this old expedition were very similar to modern ones, but other aspects were completely different, like the practice of hauling massive amounts of firewood to high camps, and using moccasins (with many pairs of socks) on their feet.
Overall our morale was very low at this point. We were just about out of food; I had enough for one more day only. After that I would have to go around and beg! The weather patterns looked to be unchanging. As with all days waiting for better weather, we all melted our entire next-day’s supply of drinking water (5 liters for me) and packed/checked our summit packs.
Day 16 – Tuesday, 6/14/05: Summit Day!
Woke to still lousy weather. We knew that time had run out for us though, and had to do something. So we geared up with nearly every warm thing we had and decided we’d simply head up to Denali pass, the first 1000’ of the summit day climb, and see what it looked like. Thankfully the RMI group had broken a nice trail for us the day before. Another group of 4 started out ahead of us, followed by two of our new pals, Matthew and Kondi. So, we gave it a go! The first section of this was for me the crux of the entire Denali experience. No protection on this section of the Denali Pass ascent, and we cut through what I consider to be a significant Avalanche threat. So I put faith in the RMI guide who thoroughly probed it the day before, and I put faith in my crampons and most importantly my rope team and we headed up. Step after step of careful foot placement on the soft snow. After maybe 500 feet of ascent we were past the Avy slope and to a place where the guide services place pickets, so the rest of the way to the pass was at least protected from a severe fall. The weather was still looking miserable though, and really none of us thought we had a chance in hell of a serious summit attempt. Nearing the pass, were a couple of people waiting, hunkered down as best as they could out of the wind, waiting for the weather to improve. We took a 15 minute break with Matthew and Kondi on the lee side of a rock outcropping and assessed our situation.
We were all still plenty warm at this point. All fingers and toes functioning just dandy, and our energy levels were at 100%. so, why not push it a bit further? The wind was the absolute worst of the day going over the pass. Not horrendous though, maybe 40-45 MPH stuff. Temperatures right around 5-above or so. Our Colorado jaunts in the winter were just as bad! God-bless climbing good old Mt. Elbert every January. So, we pushed on to the gentle ridge portion of the ascent, past an old weather station. We still didn’t think we had a prayer at this point, but why not continue? Matthew and Kondi followed behind us, but soon they decided to turn around and descend (I believe they successfully summited the next day though).
Another 500-800 feet of ascent and holy-mother-of-god it was looking up! Soon to our amazement we climbed right out of the muck into blue skies! AND, the wind seemed to die down significantly. Wow! Maybe just maybe! Another hour or so, approaching the famous Football Field and I was beside myself. I KNEW that barring something catastrophic event or weather change that we had this puppy IN THE BAG! Sure enough, it only got better the higher we climbed. Up and up, across the Football Field, we caught the steep slope to the summit ridge. Another ½ hour and there we were, on the final ridge! We stopped in a nice wide spot, ate, drank, kissed our lucky asses and headed up the final summit ridge.
This final summit approach was probably the finest 300’ of climb in my (relatively sheltered) life. Glorious beautiful heavily corniced ridge leading up to the roof of North America. I was (secretly, at the time) all choked up and weeping like a damn baby.
Two guys were approaching from the summit above and one of them yelled out: “Burnt Tongues?” (our team name). It was Wally and Bob, two dudes from Colorado who had attempted the Cassin Ridge route! How cool. Too bad they had to abandon Cassin, but at least they summited Denali for their first time. We chatted for a few minutes and promised to get together later to compare notes/pictures.
On up the ridge now, one more little bump ahead that I figured was the actual summit, I stopped and coiled the rope stretched from Jeff to myself and he did the same for Wayne, and the three of us together stepped up the last few yards on to the Top of the Continent. We made it! Somehow, we made this all work. All the planning, training, gear buying and toil that we were convinced 6 hours beforehand were all for naught and suddenly we were there. Somehow this particular continental high point, the top of our OWN continent, was the sweetest one yet.
One other guy was there, Italian I believe, was soon joined by his companion just behind us. Nice that they were there as we were able to take full group pictures this way. They headed down before we did, so for a while the three of us owned the summit of The High One.
Pics and more pics. Hopefully my trusty Nikon worked just fine; the shutter was sounding a little bit slow and sluggish. I’ll know in a few days! Jeff took plenty of pics, and I took a few with my digital, so in any case we have a fine record of our summit on Denali.
The views were incredible, of course! No where else have I ever looked down 20,000 feet to green fields at sea level. And no where else would I likely do so again!
So now we’re half-way there. Time to safely descend this BAMF. The top two-third’s descent went super quickly, maybe 2 leisurely hours later we were back at Denali pass. The weather on the summit had deteriorated significantly, but was still reasonable, thankfully, as we passed quite few groups still heading up. I believe most or all these people made the summit successfully.
But now the real work began; the first half of the descent from Denali Pass went easily with the protection of the pickets, but then came that Avy slope and the unprotected portion…. Same story as on the way up; super careful with each and every footstep, planting the ice axe on each two steps. The snow seemed even softer than on the way up. Nothing to do but to continue on down, and quickly to get passed that Avy slope. What made this feasible for me is the comfort of having such a strong rope team. So finally the slope relented and by 8:30pm, 9 ½ hours after starting up we arrived back safely at 17200’ camp with huge smiles on our faces. Hungry and tired we ate and drank what we could stomach and eventually crawled into our sleeping bags and some happy slumber. Except that I couldn’t sleep at all; I was way too pumped from the climb. Maybe around 2am (who can tell as the light really doesn’t change!) I finally drifted off.
Day 17 – Wednesday, 15 June 05: 17200’ Camp -> Base Camp
What can I say here? The Death March this one is called. All the way from 17200’ camp to base camp in a fun-filled, Crevasse avoiding, 14 hour walk-in-the-national-park. Hardest physical/mental thing I believe I’ve ever done, given my depleted physical state. Still, thoughts of burgers and beer in Talkeetna drove us on. Poor Wayne and Jeff had to listen to me whine and dry-heave many times on this last leg. Man, was I ever “done” long before we reached base camp. I almost unclipped many times and said: “go ahead without me, I’m sleeping HERE. SCREW the freeking Crevasses!”. Sorry Jeff and Wayne that I slowed y’all up so much, but I really did the best I could. Relatively long stops at both 14000’ camp and 11000’ camp to dig up caches and eat helped, but the slog from about the 9000’ level to base camp, including the dreaded “heartbreak hill”, a 600’ final climb to base camp was tough. Oh well! I lived, and we made it to the slushy base camp by just before midnight and I crashed HARD into the tent. Unconcious.
Day 18 – 6/16/05: Base Camp -> Talkeetna -> Anchorage
Woke to the sounds of people milling about, discussing the arrival of our beloved ski-planes and rides off this damn glacier and back to the land of Real Cooked Food and Porcelain Toilets and Running Liquid Water. Jeff and I vowed that one of the first things we’d do back in civilization would be to stand at a faucet and turn the water on and off repeatedly, gleefully watching liquid water pour out in mass quantities; water that didn’t require hours of work to melt from snow. I vowed that all my winter/glacier gear was slated for the Ebay auction block. 3 grand worth of gear for the first 25 bucks that comes along!
So at right around 8:30, planes started arriving and by 10am we were all safely back in 80 degree temperatures at the Talkeetna Air Taxi office! By 11am we had sorted some gear (not that I cared about 25 bucks worth of smelly JUNK!), taken “mini-showers” in the TAT bathrooms (wet paper towels wiped over critical areas) and changed into our wonderful civi’s (brand-new Denali T-shirts from the TAT office and shorts and sneakers, oh glorious sneakers!).
We caught a quick shuttle into town (10 minute walk, but who the hell wanted to walk?), checked out at the NPS office, dutifully delivering our many days worth of poop in our CMC’s, and headed over to the West Rib B&G. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet. But: in the interim our AK support team (Rich and Jean) showed up and we had a nice reunion with them. Finally the West Rib B&G opened for business and the next 2 hours were one huge festival of gluttony, repeated at other establishments over the next couple of days. Food Glorious Food!
The Damage: Jeff and I apparently lost about 10% of our body weight, but Wayne somehow lost no weight. Wayne is my new hero. I’m not joking. Besides the weight loss, not a scratch on any of us. And I believe all my (worthless) gear came back unscathed.
Days 19-21 – 6/ 17-19/05: Fun in AK and back to Denver!
This portion of the trip was, needless to say, marvelous, including eating, drinking, whale watching (sorry Beth!), Sea Kayaking on Prince William Sound, more eating and drinking and just plain relaxing, replenishing much needed nutrients. Many, many thanks to Rich and Pam Todd, our esteemed Anchorage Connection.
The overnight direct flight home was an Ambien-induced blur for myself. Walking out of DIA into clear, sunny dry Colorado skies was wonderful, and the icing on the cake for our three week adventure.
So that’s it! That’s our Denali experience in a nutshell. It was hard. It was wonderful. It worked.
Thoughts on Climbing Denali
I was prepared for this mountain physically, but somehow mentally it took me a bit by surprise. It really a bit tougher than I thought. It’s the combination of heavy loads, relentless work, bad weather and constant vigilance against the mountain’s dangers that take a toll. I couldn’t believe the number of people that climb this mountain solo, unroped, unprotected from crevasse falls.
The mountain is crowded. Sure it is; it’s a continental high point. People from all over the world flock to The High One, and 80% of these people choose the West Buttress route. The crowds didn’t bother me at all though, except a couple of times being stuck behind a large or incredibly slow group. One learns quickly how to avoid the traffic jams on the critical bottlenecks of the route. Do the crowds take away from the overall enjoyment? Probably a bit. But Denali is an incredibly beautiful mountain, and except for at the 3 main camps seems to easily maintain a pristine quality.
The couple days before our eventual summit were the really mentally tough ones; when things looked the bleakest weather-wise, when we thought we had virtually no shot at the summit. Then we caught our break, made the summit, and life was good again. I can’t imagine how badly we would have felt if we hadn’t had our summit chance. My heart goes out to that 55% majority of folks on the mountain that go through all this work and not make it up. Everyone is different, of course; not everyone (openly, at least) puts as much emphasis on making the summit as I do.
Things Done Right:
Our team, our gear and our preparation was right-on, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Top quality sleeping bags and tents helped greatly. Top quality clothing. Don’t scrimp on gear or training. Become an expert at winter camping. Become totally comfortable camping in sub-zero temperatures. We did, and this helped immensely. We talked to lots of folks that gave up at 14000’ camp and even 11000’ camp due to the harsh conditions. Again, winter climbing in Colorado is outstanding training for a summer Denali romp! Become comfortable climbing in snow/wind/cold. BE your plastic boots.
Things Done Wrong:
Food! I really screwed up here, and simply didn’t take enough of the right kind of food; food I could eat and enjoy for 17 days in harsh conditions. I was so sick of dehydrated food, I had to force myself to eat it. Next time I go on such a long expedition I’m going to bring a backpacking oven. And more junk food. More snicker’s bars. More cookies. More chips. I wound up losing 12-15 pounds, best I can figure. Not a huge deal, but the fact was I was physically depleted towards the critical end of the trip. I also didn’t take enough Gatorade powder. Drinking snow-melt gets really old, and the water has a stale taste to it. Having some sort of flavoring to add makes staying hydrated easier. Even some non-caloric artificially sweetened drink would be better than nothing.
Communications with the Outside World: Two words: Fa-gedaboudid. My cell phone did not work above 14K camp despite common beta to the contrary. No bars. No ones’ cell phones worked above 14K camp. Working cell phones are a myth on Denali. I asked a lot of different people with different phones and carriers, and nothin’. No biggie, but I was hoping to let outside people know when we were safely down from the summit and an ETA for our mountain exit, but this had to wait until we were actually out. Only a satellite phone is reliable up there and we bummed a few minutes from a dude and even THAT message was garbled and mostly unintelligible to the recipients (Pam and Rich in Anchorage).
That’s all folks! This trip ultimately turned out great, but is it ever great to be back in Colorado.