My old brother Dirk (OK he’s 40) and I recently returned from a fun, successful summit of Denali (20,320’) AKA Mount McKinley in Alaska. We climbed via the classic West Buttress/Washburn Route.
It has been Dirks life long goal to climb the highest and most majestic point of North American. At seven years of age he recalls being awe struck by a picture of McKinley “the great one” hanging on his grandmothers Maurine Anderson’s wall. He decided he was going to climb that mountain when he grew up.
Dirk introduced me to mountain climbing on Mount Sneffels and we immediately vowed to climb all 54 of the Fourteeners in Colorado. Soon after we had climbed a few of the aesthetic peaks we were hooked. Dirk told me of his plan to up the ante on Denali and I agreed to accompany him on the journey. We had originally planned to climb it in 1995. We had climbed many more of the highest mountains in the lower 48 and a training climb of 18,500ft on Pico de Orizaba near Puebla, Mexico in March of 2000.
Ready for the Pain
Now 2005, ten years after our original date, and just months from Dirks 40th birthday, and me soon to face marriage at 31, we were ready to spend our eyes out and work our bodies into metal. We were humping 80 plus pound loads up our local Mount Garfield and to 14,000 feet on Mount Quandary and other high mountains and valleys with good winter access. Dirk rented a cabin at Mesa Lakes for the month of May in order to try to acclimate to higher elevation.
The Send Off
Before our trip began we heard that two twin brothers from Iowa had slipped and fallen down Denali Pass just below the summit. Nearly the entire mountain had formed a sheet of blue ice and was rather intimidating for the early season climbers. The two were the first of the year to summit but not successfully as they did not return alive. This was a bad start to this years climbing season and everyone who knew of our trip was a bit worried about our well being on the mountain. There are no guarantees so we were nervous as well but we had trained pretty hard and were excited to finally get a shot at the big one. Our Uncle Dan threw together a last chance Schnell family barbeque. We had a truly heartfelt send off despite the fact that we were chewing into our last minute packing time. After leaving the fuss made by family members who were sure we were going to die, we headed for Denver for a direct flight to Anchorage.
Shopping Cart Blues
Denali Gear at Talkeetna Air
Once in Anchorage we rented a pimped out full size black Kia(!?) for cruising Anchorage for supplies. We had two days to find food for the trip. This part of the task was made a bit more constrictive as Dirk and I are both gluten intolerant and can’t eat anything with wheat, rye, or almost any grains. Rice, corn, limited amounts of oats, and potatos are passable forms of carbs for us but not common in American fare. We found carbo-salvation in eight huge bags of potato flakes among other dried lightweight blandness. In one and a half days we had already wore out our feet just in shopping for nearly $800 in food and more in last minute gear and supplies.
Talkeetna Air Taxi
After thinning out the load, we arranged a shuttle to Talkeetna and to the Air Taxi “Bunkhouse” where we shacked and fought for sleep in the unrelenting twilight that passed as night time this far north in the summer. Saturday afternoon we were scheduled to fly in to the Kahiltna Glacier at 4:00pm. The weather is often touchy and did not cooperate with our plans. The ceiling of clouds was dropping. It appeared that we would not be flying anytime soon. I fell in to the coming “Riff-Raff” party and donned a blue tarp and duct tape “Wonder Boy Cape” and prepared mentally to hang with the locals. At the last chance for the day at 8:00pm Dave the former Air Taxi owner decided that the cloud ceiling may be high enough to fly low up the glacier instead of the usual “One Shot Pass” short cut route taken by most planes in good weather.
View of a rare flight up the Kahiltna Glacier as the cloud ceiling was too low to make "One Shot Pass."
The flight was mysterious perhaps due in part to the nature of the clouds concealing and revealing the rugged walls of the long Kahiltna valley and ripped, tortured glacier not far below. We arrived smoothly on the ski planes skids to the Kahiltna Glacier that evening the 28th of May. We were hurried out of the plane with our loads of gear, skis, and many sharp pointed accouterments. We buried extra food near the strip, rigged and loaded up the plastic kiddy sleds and were off that evening for five miles to the next camp at 7,800” camp at the base of “ski hill.” All our training had helped, especially with the sleds on the uphill, but it did take a bit of time and complaining (from me) to get used to the initial downhill of “Heartbreak Hill.” We made a relatively quick but grueling ascent of the Kahiltna Glacier to the 14,200’ Base Camp in 4 days. We single carried an average of 125 lbs each day. The route is most commonly double carried and takes more than a week for the approach.
Basecamp "Mothership" Igloo.
IGLOO- Once at 14K camp we spent the first three days building a palatial 11 foot igloo using the Ice Box™ Igloo form by Grand Shelters from Colorado. The Igloo was an absolute joy and very advantageous for our two weeks of acclimation, waiting for a weather window to move on the 17,200’ camp and hopefully the Summit. Our fellow campers often complained of howling wind and building snow drifts during the nights. We had no problems with flapping frosted nylon and slept warm and cozy, unaware of the unpleasant conditions faced by our tented friends. The Ice Box Kit weighs in at 4 pounds but was well worth the comfort and security it provided for our trip.
HILLEBERG™- We used a Swedish tunnel tent called the Hilleberg Namatj 3 GT. Even with double poles, The Hilleberg weighs about the same as a the commonly used North Face 25’s but the huge front vestibule serves as a great cook tent and gear storage. We had many comments on the sturdy design and the fact that cooking and hanging out in the vestibule saves the weight of carrying a cook tent.
14er Hang Time-
Dirk read eighteen novels with his free time. I idled my time rigging cord keepers to everything possible to keep things somewhat organized and prevent loss. For instance, I tethered a spoon to my GSI cup’s lid, thus avoiding having to dig through multiple pack pockets at meal time. Not that practical in the real world but good practice for knot craft! I've forgotten most of it already. Bummer
During our two weeks of acclimatization we Skinned up to make camps at 7,800 feet at the bottom of Ski Hill, at 9,800 on top of Ski Hill, and at 11,200 at the base of Motorcycle Hill. Above 11.200 we carridce the skis to 14,200 foot Basecamp. Above 14, we climbed the headwall to make a cache at 16,400 on the upper ridge and then skied back down. This is the highest elevation that Dirk and I have skied from. We skied nearly every day above camp and had dry light powder replenished nightly. We had tested some advanced Carbon based ski technology from Goode Skis. Dirk and I used the Goode C80 (80cm at the waist.) The skis were fascinating to all who actually touched them; they look like monsters but weigh about the same as XC skinny skis. I recommend skiing (especially on Goodes!) to anyone on Denali, just be sure to tie two accessory cords horizontally across the bottom of the sled or you will suffer and cry the whole way down (or half the way down like me.)
Irish Ayes! and other life long friends made on Denali
We befriended a very experienced expedition group of Irish climbers; Pat Falvy, a Seven Summit Veteran and renowned Irish guide, Gerard McDonnell a very accomplished alpinist, John Cerry, John Doud, John Roche (a man from Limrick!) and Claire O’Leary, the first Irish woman to Summit Everest. We also made friends with ex-pat Irish from New York City in Lisa and Ayden and there friend American friend Jamy Bacchus (who rescued my Beko nose protector from the Road House and sent it back to me) This Irish group in particular made our trip a worldly and entertaining affair. We had frequent meals, tea, varied conversations and even a movie night supplied by Jess Roscelly (Young Nasty Man) on DVD. We were surprised to find we were accompanied by fellow Grand Junction climbers on the route and were treated sage advice a talent show at 14K camp by former Denali Guide Jim Hale, his sons Mike and Jonathan, niece Missy Hale, and Steve Nutting.
Note- Gerard McDonnel just recovered from a rockslide incident on K2 this 2006 season. He that cracked his helmet fractured his skull. He is expecting full recovery. It can happen to anyone, dangerous sport this posting is.
Patience is Key-
For twelve days Dirk and I waited patiently for the weather to clear. According to the Climbing Rangers weather board, there was to be a clearing on Friday, but it had been pushed back to a Monday or Tuesday clearing. Just in case we got up at 5am each morning and geared to move up to 17K. Each day we would look up and see strong winds pounding the 17K ridge and Summit. Many people had ignored these signs and moved up. We had many pre trip warnings from Dr. Peter Hackett among others not to mess with high winds or unnecessary exposure to higher altitudes that 16,200’.
Going for the Summit!
Just below the Summit on the large Corniced Ridge. not bad at all in good weather.
Schmoosing the wife on the Summitc of Denali. It worked]
After two weeks of waiting and several false morning starts, the Irish gave the signal to move to 17K camp and hopefully a clear summit day shortly after. When we reached the 17K camp many of the climbers had been there for 4, 5, even nine days waiting for a safe summit day. The constant hubbub around camp was that they were all sick of waiting around and were ready to descend and give it up. Dirk and I were upbeat and optimistic about a nearing summit window. I believe we may have imparted some confidence as we saw many of the griping parties sticking around for a shot at the summit.
We were accompanied at 17K by Jess Roscelli. Jess was sponsored by our fellow fledgling GROUND outerwear company. Jess is a fan of eVENT but was very impressed by the function and performance of the LOKI gear and made suggestions as to possible athletes for LOKI to sponsor. After one night at 17K Jess went solo for the summit on the June 14th and made a round trip in 5hrs and 15 minutes, he said he literally ran down the route. I think he wanted to impress his well known climbing father with a quick time.
The Irish team woke us at 4am. We headed out after them and took a leisurely paced 5hrs to reach the summit from 17K. I suffered from a mild headache if I pushed my pace much harder. I lacked hydration. When I had more liquid my condition improved dramatically. We had a rare and stunningly clear day the morning of the 15th. We had plenty of time on the summit and for photos on the descent. We were one of a few parties to have a clear summit view as the second half of the day clouded up. The Irish had great timing, we were very lucky they had shared with us.
Things We Learned
The Anderson Brothers exstatic on the Summit!
NEW LOKI TRICKS FOR OLD DOGS-
The LOKI gear we had on the trip was most impressive. We had purchased expedition weight down jackets and expedition mitts. We ended up using our Primaloft/Pertex LODUR jackets 99% of the time. We never used anything more than thin liner gloves under our integrated LOKI mitts. We used the expedition down jackets only one time for 20 minutes in -25 below temps the first night at 14K camp; I never used any thing but the LOKI mitts. (Two improvements: large interior water bottle pockets and more pack friendly pockets.)
On the lower elevations and for milder afternoon temps, the LEVITY Shell using eVENT fabric was excellent. It showed a very wide temperature range, rapid and convenient protection for the hands and face made all the difference. The eVENT fabric “wicked” and dried moisture very quickly when working up sweat on the climbs and when skiing out to the Kahiltna Air Strip.
Everyone that witnessed the LOKI mitts and Facesheild in action were astounded intrigued. There were two basic reactions to LOKI on the mountain: people either wanted one, or wanted to sell them for us to their home shop or distribute to their country! The one negative comment was that we are too “low-key” and “have an advertising problem.” I think that direct exposure is the best way to get LOKI across. I believe people will adopt LOKI on a natural schedule more if it is not hyped out before it is matured and ready for acceptance.
See Alaska, not just the D!
We went rough style with Nick fosters rickety truck up the Hual Road past the Arctic Circle to Atigun Pass and climed some neat peaks.
After a recouping meal at the West Rib, midnight kickball, libations at the Tee Pee, and meeting Anders from Norway for breakfast in the Road House, We were on our way to the Arctic Circle and beyond in the company of Nick Foster from Juneau AK. North of Fairbanks, We headed up the Dalton Highway, a dirt road known as the Haul Road for the Alaska Pipeline running north to through the Brooks Range, to the roughneck town of Dead Horse just south of the Arctic ocean. The landscape was surprisingly earthy. I had expected harsh and barren vastness of little topographical interest. To the contrary the land rolled in high waves which undulate from thick forest to dry Mediterranean scrub lands to sparsely spaced desert like stands of boreal pines which were perpetually in and out of wild fire during our journey. The sky was hazed with sweet smelling smoke and the dry warmth I expect from the valleys of middle Nevada.
At the advice of Wing Ding adventure guide Schafer Cox, we headed to the Gates of the Arctic National Park. We camped just north of Cold Foot on Gold Creek. Even though we were surrounded by 3,000 ft sloping peaks above the valley, neither cold nor dark of night truly fell on our camp as the sun circled the horizon. We then drove to Atigun Pass the northern most road pass on the continental divide. Atigun Pass was our high point in terms of latitude for the trip as we did not have enough gas in the vehicle to make the journey across the North Slope to the Ocean. We did however get to touch the beginning of the northern tundra and the see the end of all trees south of the pass.
While climbing the Atigun and Nugita Peaks (my names), we felt as though we were climbing on the moon having been freed from our 120 pound loads carried on “Mount Beefcake” just three days before. We climbed nearly 2,000 feet in around 15 minutes! We felt at home as the Brooks Range was very reminiscent of many peaks in the Front Range with “shaly” loose rocks of the Elks and powdery dust of San Juans all local Colorado ranges.
What Goes Up…….
After our climb we headed south with a mind for the time and Nick with a calm lead foot in order to get gas at the “Hot Spot” before midnight so we could continue our trip to Chena Hot Springs East of Fair Banks for some relaxation and a real shower. After soaking and teasing in hottest springs I’ve experienced we all had a nap on the rocks before continuing our southward trail to retrieve our gear from the Talkeetna Air Taxi compound. We had a pleasant visit with the locals and their musicians at a Solstice Party. The Talkeetna locals have a nice pace to life nice to experience, even at 4:00am.
The ladies convinced Dirk and I that we would do well to return home early. We scheduled with the airline and made time for one more day to visit the ever popular Kenai Peninsula. I slept most of the drive but remember admiring the mellow fjord of the Turn Again Arm and watching for the Bore Tide and Beluga whales that frequent the area just South of Anchorage. We had some diner style seafood in Seward and made our way to the sublimely gorgeous Homer Spit. The mountainous view across Ketchimak Bay blends with the gentle feel of Homer and its calm sheltered waters to make a very inspiring locale. We car camped in the rental car and woke for a beautiful breakfast at the Lands End Hotel followed by a brief and dry visit to my favorite bar in the world, the Salty Dog. Dirk has plans to return with his wife Theresa and maybe his two daughters for a longer stay, maybe even romantic stay.
Denali's Summit Ridge.
……..Must Have Down Time
Far too soon we hurried back to the Ted Stevens Airport for the usual midnight departure and a well deserved rest on the plane, ha. Actually we returned home for some much needed “decompression time” as mountaineer and writer Mark Twight terms it. Twight says that one will “blow up” at the world if they do not take time to realign after a big mountain trip. I was surprised at how much time I needed to reset to the hectic hustle of the real world, even in small town Grand Junction. Three weeks at a slow natural pace at high altitude had taken a toll that we seemed to have postponed until after our continued Alaskan explorations. Now in the LOKI office I feel relieved to be home, and excited and more educated on what it takes for future adventures that I keep scheming up by the dozens. Hopefully I will arrive at a challenge with in our grasp but for now I turn my focus to smaller mountains and my marriage to the tremendously gorgeous and genuine Randi Marsh.