Denali - Need I Say More?
Like most climbers I went to Denali full of enthusiasm, some trepidation and a lot of gear. Coming out of another cold Canadian winter my friends thought I was nuts for going to Alaska just as spring was arriving. My wife Sue, an avid climber herself, was none to happy about me leaving either. Oh she wasn't upset that I was going, she was upset because she wasn't! So off I went with friends Byron and John from British Columbia hoping I wouldn't be divorced when I returned. We called ourselves the Crazy Canucks and met in Anchorage on May 7, 2005. I hoped I didn't make a bad impression with Byron who we picked up at the airport after I had enjoyed too many beers. The next day we were up early to shop at REI and could not believe how many small planes I saw up here. On the 9th we packed up our gear and headed off on the three hour drive to Talkeetna. When we arrived we dropped off our gear at Talkeetna Air Taxi and headed for town?
Talkeetna - A quaint little drinking village with a climbing problem
After arriving in Talkeetka I had to do one thing for sure, get my picture taken with the famous Talkeetna sign. I think every climber that has passed through here has had his or her picture taken with this sign. Too bad I couldn't find any of those classic bumper stickers that read "Talkeetna, a quaint little drinking village with a climbing problem" ha ha ha. Speaking of drinking, the next thing I had to do was head over to the famous West Rib Pub to look at the pictures, have a burger and fries and drink beer. Not being a big drinker I didn't opt for the equally famous Ice Axe Ale which The Anchorage Press defined as "a liver-shattering 9% alcohol wobbler that goes down like water". I think they use it in their planes when they're running low on fuel.
The Flight in to Base Camp - 7,200'
On May 10th we loaded up all 375 pounds of gear for the flight into base camp. The flight over the countryside is awe inspiring to say the least as you start to feel the excitement of the coming adventure. Words can't descibe how it feels to see the Alaskan Range and Denali for the first time on the horizon. After flying through the spectacular One-Shot Pass we finally land at Base Camp on the south-east fork of the Kahiltna Glacier where Lisa, the Base Camp Manager, is there to greet us with a smile. It was only 10:00 AM but the sun was getting hot already. We chose to stay in camp overnight so we could "take it all in" and enjoy the moment. Others headed straight out for Camp 1 over five miles across the Kahiltna Glacier. Since I generate a lot of heat when I move I would have melted travelling along that trail in the heat of the day.
Camp 1 - 7,800'
On May 11th we got up at 4:00, ate breakfast, packed and were on the trail by 6:00 AM which suited me just fine. With my 40 pound pack and 70 pound sled I new it was going to be a long day and I'd rather be working hard when it was cool out. I purposely brought with me light-coloured soft shell pants and jacket so I wouldn't overheat in the hot sun. However, my friend John was doing a greater share of the work breaking trail and hauling a heavier pack and sled. Then again, he's 15 years younger than me. When we arrived at the base of Ski Hill we set up camp and John and Byron made a quick sprint up the hill to bury a cache of food and fuel we would pick up the following day.
Camp 2 - 11,000'
On May 12th we overslept and didn't get up until 8:00! Damn *^%$#%$ quiet Suunto alarms. Today we had planned to move to Camp 2 at 11,000' but were caught in a storm at Kahiltna Pass. We quickly set up camp around 10,000' as heavy snow was bogging down our already heavy sleds and all three of us were wasted. The following morning we slept in (on purpose this time), ate well and prepared to carry a load to Camp 2 at 11,000'. Snow was still falling so I decided to take my heavy sled up so I wouldn't have to haul it the next day. May 14th we again woke early and moved up to Camp 2 in about two hours. My pack was a little heavier at 50 pounds but I didn't have to haul that damn sled through the snow on those steep angles. Experienced my first altitude related headache that went away with a few Advil and liter of water. The snow was still falling but the temperature inside our tent reached 80F at noon!
Windy Corner - 13,500'
May 15th, Happy Birthday Kristin (my daughter who is 23 today). Once again we're up early at 5:00 AM. My friend John is a firm believer in the alpine start and we have developed a reputation on the mountain for being the early Canadians. Other climbing parties see us off in the morning wishing us a good day, breaking trail that is! The snow is deep as we make a carry past Windy Corner. The weather is good and we're lucky there isn't any wind at the famous corner. We bury our cache and head back to camp just as it starts to snow heavily. In the next 5 hours we would receive a foot of snow with another foot falling overnight. Everything is covered in snow as we try to melt snow and eat while shovelling out around the tent every now and then. Later we receive sad news as we learn that two climbers, 55 year old twin brothers, had fallen to their deaths down Denali Pass where they were found the following morning.
Camp 3 - 14,200'
May 16th we got up late but it didn't matter. All the other teams were standing around waiting for us to break trail up Motorcycle Hill in the fresh snow. Again climbers wished us a good day as we started off for Camp 3 at 14,000' plowing through the heavy snow with John in the lead. Climbing the "Hill" was extremely difficult with the packs and sleds and we rested at the top of the hill long enough to allow a guided party on a carry to Windy Corner to pass us (let them break trail for a while). We continued around Squirrel Point to Windy Corner in sunny weather and no wind! Plenty of ice on the Corner as we went through carefully and skirted the large crevasses outside Camp 3. Arriving at camp totally exhausted we finally found a good site, set up our tents and ate. Unfortunately our site was one of the furthest from the two toilets. Surprising how the altitude affects you up here. Going to use the toilet I had to stop every 50 feet to catch my breath! How the hell was I going to make the summit if I was out of breath trying to make the toilet? Good thing I stopped smoking two months ago.
Life at 14,200'
May 17th is a scheduled rest day and John and I descend to Windy Corner to pick up our cache. It takes 15 minutes to descend and 90 minutes to return to camp. The weather at 17,000' has been bad and few have attempted the summit. May 18th we're up early again to ascend the fixed ropes on the ice headwall. Two climbers left earlier but turned back at the bottom of the ropes in the cold weather. We continue and to me it feels like we're on Mount Washington, NH in January in cold temps and high wind. We ascend to 16,200 but it's tough climbing up the ice at altitude. After spending an hour we return to camp. May 19th we again use as a rest day and travel to the "Edge of the World" to get a look at Camp 2 over 3,000 feet beneath us.
Camp 4 - 17,200'
May 20th we're up late, pack and again ascend the ice headwall. It's easier going this time as we get stuck behind one of the slower guided groups, we aren't climbing as fast as we normally would but they're kicking good steps. Across 16 Ridge we're still stuck behind and wait beneath Washburn's Thumb due to a traffic jam. We arrive at Camp 4 but there aren't many people there. May 21st we wake up late to a windy day which put a damper on our planned summit attempt. Wind continues through the day and we start planning an ascent for the following morning. Resting at Camp the wind starts to die down and at 2:00 PM we discuss a summit attempt at night since it doesn't get any darker than dusk at midnight and the winds should only diminish during the evening.
The First Attempt
May 21st at 3:00 PM we're dressed and begin our summit push. Lights winds continue as we ascend Denali Pass skirting several crevasses and the bergschund to reach the fixed anchors, which the two unfortunate climbers before failed to use. The going is slow and cold at this altitude when we reach the top of the Pass at 18,200'. We're in good spirits and excited but John's hands are starting to hurt. Several years ago John suffered a bad frostbite injury on Mount Logan that affects him still to this day. We continue to the Japanese weather station but it isn't going well for John. He's done the majority of the work up to this point on our climb carrying a heavier pack and pulling heavier weight, he's wasted and his hands just aren't getting warm. Unbelievably he appologizes and we all decide it's better to descend than push a bad situation.
From the top of Denali Pass we again clipped into the fixed anchors as we descend with the thoughts of those unfortunate climbers fresh in our minds. The route is not difficult but the objective hazard of sliding down the Pass is high especially when you're cold and tired. We descend without incident as the wind picks up and it begins to snow. Having descended the majority of the pass the weather has now turned into a blizzard as we approach the rock buttress separating Denali Pass from the Messner Couloir. In whiteout conditions we can no longer see the bergschrund or the crevasses. Roped together Byron slips and I sink my ax in while he arrests his fall. I place a screw and clip us in as John makes his way towards us. I agree to lead out while John belays me for 50-75' and then I head straight down hoping I've passed the crevasses on the right. We make it out of the pass but can't see to navigate towards camp. John has a good idea, he looked before the visibility got too bad, and also turned on the GPS. In only 20-30' of visibility John leeads us back to camp where we arrive at 9:30 PM. Unknown to us at the time a group of 15-20 climbers had ascended to Camp 4 that day and were out securing their tents in the high winds as we walked into camp seemingly out of nowhere. From then on we became known as the Crazy Canadians. The whole thing reminded me of "Touching the Void". Simon!
The Second Attempt
While resting on May 22nd at Camp 4 we watched the large group of climbers who had come up the previous day ascend Denali Pass and hear them return around midnight after a successful day. On the morning of May 23rd we started out on our second and last summit attempt. The weather was good as we quickly ascended Denali Pass. At the top of the Pass John's hands were fine and while taking a break we watched as a young German team began their ascent a few hours behind. We continued passing the weather station on the left cutting across the cirque beneath the ridge. The weather was starting to turn colder and began to snow heavily. Up to this point it had been sunny and warm enough that I had my TNF down suit tied off around my waist. In limited visibility we climbed what we thought was the summit ridge after plodding along for hours only find out we we only at Archdeacon's Tower. Our hearts sank as the snow let up just enough for us to see the Football Field and Pig Hill! Off we went into the wind as we crossed the field and ascended the appropriately named hill through fresh snow. On the ridge we anchored our packs, grabbed our cameras and began to cross the summit ridge.
After crossing the heavily corniced summit ridge and hours of climbing the Crazy Canucks finally reached the summit of Denali at 20,320'. It was cold, windy and visibility was limited so we didn't get any of those nice summit shots with the beautiful Alaskan Range in the background. However, that didn't diminish the moment and we enjoyed a good 20 minutes on the top taking photos and congratulating one another. As we descended back to Camp 4 the weather improved and we spent our final night sleeping soundly knowing that in a couple of days we'll be back in Talkeetna celebrating at the West Rib like so many climbers before. I have to thank John for all his hard work and both he and Byron for putting up with my whining because my short little 27" legs had trouble keeping up with them and they were in better shape than me.
Two Days to Talkeetna and What About that Divorce?
The next two days were a blur as we descended from Camp 4 to Camp 2 at 11,000' in one day then proceeded all the way out to Talkeetna on the second. Wow, two days after being on the summit we're back at the pub! The only bad thing was that it was so hot on the way out my feet had blisters on top of blisters and I could barely walk up another appropriately named feature, Heartbreak Hill. I didn't think I was going to make it but thanks to Lisa at Base Camp we got to enjoy the sunny day sitting in lawn chairs and drinking lemonade as we waited for our ride out. What a life! Speaking of life, the following day we travelled to the cemetery to pay our respects to those climbers who didn't come back. Back at the Roadhouse we enjoyed a good breakfast before heading back to Anchorage for the flight home. That night I arrived back home and was greeted with hugs and kisses from my lovely wife and daughter. Well, I got to climb Denali and didn't get divorced. Could life be any better?