Training and Preparation
It has always been a dream of mine to climb Mt McKinley since my dad summitted the mountain in 1989. He gave my all of his climbing gear when I was a teenager and it sat in my closet for the longest time until I got the bug to climb Mt. Rainer. So in 2002, a friend and I enrolled in RMI’s program founded by Lou Whittaker and climbed the disappointment cleaver route of Washington’s highest mountain at 14,410. After that I had my sights set on Denali. (native name for Mt. McKinley).
I trained almost everyday for eight months prior to the climb. My workouts consisted of getting on the stairmaster with a 30lb pack on for 45min to an hour. I ran roughly thirty miles a week outside and fifteen of those miles being uphill. I hiked/ran Mt Si in North Bend and various other mountains in the central cascades. I even hiked around my neighborhood pulling a tire with a 50lb pack on to simulate expedition life on Denali. They say that Denali is one of the hardest mountains to climb because your have to carry all of your own gear to support twenty-two days on the mountain. This differs from other expeditions including those in the Himalayas because you have porters and sherpa that help a great deal with load carrying and pack weight.
Camp I and II
I arrived in Talkeetna, Alaska on May 6th to join up with the rest of my expedition members at our guide service, AMS (Alaska Mountaineering School). The group consisted of three guides and 6 clients. The clients included a French Canadian, two Portuguese climbers who would be the third and forth climbers from their county climb Denali, two Alaskans, and me. We were all anxious to fly out to the glacier and get this adventure started. You have fly to base camp at 7,200 because the nearest road is 60 miles away through mountains, tundra and mudflats. It takes an additional twelve days to hike from Talkeetna to the base of the Denali. Luckily, we flew out on time and didn’t get stuck in Talkeetna like many expeditions do because the weather in the mountains makes it impossible to fly in. When we arrived we started to build camp. This consisted of probing for crevasses, clearing out a flat area in the snow and building snow walls to protect us from the wind. The wind on the mountain can blow up to hurricane force and completely blow a tent off the mountain with the occupants inside. We were always very careful in building camp and securing our tents with six guy line anchors buried in the snow to ensure our tents didn’t blow off the mountain.
The next morning we started off to camp two at 7,800. Our packs weighed 50lbs and we were each pulling a 40-50lb sled. The trip took six grueling hours and only got us 600ft higher on the mountain. This is the day that most people give up because it’s a taste of what life is like for the next twenty plus days. The temperature that night was low at around -5 to -10F. I learned very quickly that you have to do certain things around camp to ensure your comfort in these conditions. Most importantly, always sleep with your water bottles and socks. Your water bottles will freeze solid if they are outside your sleeping bag resulting in a stern reprimand from the guides and extra time to thaw them out. You must always be sure your socks dry out after each day of climbing. If you wear wet socks you will get blisters and possibly trench foot which is very painful, especially when you have a lot of extra weight on your feet. Sleeping with items you want dry is your best bet.
The next morning we woke up and walked to the posh hut which is a kitchen shelter we make at every camp. This is done by digging about four feet deep in the snow and ice to construct two benches with a table in the center. After the interior design is completed a teepee is erected around the benches and table making a living area for the expedition. When the stoves are fired up and everyone is inside eating, telling stories, and talking about the climb, it is actually twenty degrees warmer in the posh hut. When you’re not climbing or sleeping, the posh hut is the place to be because you have all the hot cocoa, tea, and coffee you can drink as well as meals that are prepared. We’re not talking freeze dried meals either. You have everything from real macaroni and cheese for dinner to English muffins with jam and pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast. It is absolutely necessary to eat loads of carbohydrates on the mountain for energy and recovery.
After breakfast, we loaded our packs and sleds and headed off to cache some gear higher on the mountain. This kind of expedition requires that your double carry your loads to make your pack and sled weight more manageable. It also helps in acclimatization to higher altitudes. The process is to carry half of your gear you don’t need until higher on the mountain. When the guide decides on a cache area, we would dig a 4x4 foot hole in the glacier and bury our gear and food that we wouldn’t use until later. We would then fill the hole and shovel a large mound of snow on top to spare it from glacier crows that will find your gear and eat all the food that you buried. After our cache was complete we went back down to 7,800 to sleep and acclimatize.
Camp III and IV
We awoke to another beautiful day on Denali, had breakfast in the posh, broke camp and loaded the rest of our gear for the move to camp three at 9,700. It took us around five hours to get to 9,700 and when we arrived we set up camp in a site that was just moved out of by another expedition. This lightened our work load of building snow block walls and leveling paths for our tents. They even had a pretty sweet posh site. It was fortunate for us because little did we know we were going to be there for a while. The next three days we were stuck in a snow storm that halted every expedition 11,000 and below from going higher. Each morning, we had to dig our gear out of four feet of fresh blown snow from high on the glacier and new snow from the swirling clouds in the sky. My tent mates and I would have to get up every three hours during the night to dig our tent out to prevent total collapse from the weight of the fresh snow. Two of the guides and myself went on a scouting hike to see if the visibility got better at 10,000. It didn’t, and the wind was blowing around 40 and the temp was around 10F and dropping.
Finally the next morning, the low pressure system moved though and we were able to break camp and move higher on the mountain. We picked up our cache at 10,000 and moved to camp four at 11,200. We were very fortunate not to get stuck at 9,700 very long because the visibility seems to linger at 10,000 and below. If you get stuck at those altitudes, you can run out of time and food and your chances of summiting become less and less with each passing day. So we’re at camp four and by now we were all used to building camp and getting ourselves organized, however, expedition life was taking it’s toll on a few in the bunch. Fingers were getting cold and dehydration was setting in from the long move and building camp was getting harder and harder. There were members of the team that were really starting to show signs of fatigue. I was getting worried about one member in particular because of her inability to keep up with a standard pace. If someone quits the expedition, the guide must find a way to get that person down the mountain either with another expedition already heading down or he must send one of our guides down with them along with a tent and a stove. If enough people quit, the entire team must go down and that’s a hard pill to swallow if you are one of the people who feel great and ready to push on. So, I was worried.
The next day we carried a load around infamous windy corner and cached food and gear at around 13,600ft. Windy corner made everyone nervous because it’s a section of the mountain that is famous for sending people down with severe frost bit and other injuries caused by rock and ice fall. A few years back, a guide for the company we were with lost a client here because a rock came off the west buttress and took the life of someone who didn’t even see it coming. We all thought about that and kept looking up as we were climbing in this section. When we finished caching our gear, we returned to camp four at 11,200 for the night and took a rest day to recover from the carry and to acclimatize. The process of acclimatization is very important when climbing this mountain because Denali and the Talkeetna mountain range are only 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The closer to either circle you get, the thinner the air gets. For example, if you are at the summit of Denali which is 20,320ft, it is comparable to being at 23,000ft or 24,000ft on a Himalayan mountain such as Everest because the Himalayas are much further away from either end of the globe. Many will argue that Denali is one of the most severe and harsh environments on the planet due to its northerly location. Anyways, to acclimatize, you must climb high and sleep low to produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of your body to stay healthy at high altitude. If you are not properly acclimatized, you can get AMS (acute mountain sickness) which causes nausea, vomiting and trouble sleeping. If not treated, AMS can turn into HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) which causes the lungs to fill with fluid or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) which causes the swelling of the brain. Each of these conditions will cause death if the climber doesn’t immediately descend to a lower altitude.
Camp V, VI and Summit
With our rest day completed we broke camp and headed off to camp five at 14,200ft. We climbed for around eight hours and I was completely spent when we arrived. All I wanted to do was sit on my pack and not do anything. Unfortunately, we had to build camp which consisted of building a thirty by four foot high snow wall to protect our tents which took another two to three hours. Luckily, we used a posh hut built by the AMS team in front of us. The guide of that team was Robert Link, who was one of the Americans on the peace climb in 1990 on Mt. Everest. He stood on top of the world with a team from Russia and China to aid in the peace between the three countries during those times. As we were having dinner in Robert’s posh hut, he came in and said that two climbers had fallen off Denali pass which is at 18,200 ft. I knew this would not be good because if you take a fall and can’t self arrest through this section you will fall/slide 3000ft to the bottom of the Peters glacier and will not survive. This is exactly what happened. We later found out from a guide that came down and had dinner with us that they attempted to rescue these climbers from North Bend, WA. They found one dead and tried to keep the other alive throughout the night but to no avail. A few days later we were carrying a load up the Headwall, a 50 degree slope with a giant crevasse below it, to cache and return to 14,200 when we heard the thump, thump, thump of a helicopter flying above us to recover those bodies from the glacier. I guess this really puts things into perspective when you’re heading up the mountain and they are flying dead bodies off. Of course you think about the lives that were lost, but we all knew the risk of coming up here, so I think we were all prepared for that kind of situation. We ended up staying at camp five for eight days due to extreme winds higher on the mountain. We also said goodbye to two of the climbers on our team because the guides would not let them go higher based on their pace and ability.
We finally got a break in the weather and a high pressure system was coming in which meant low winds and good visibility. It was May 25th which was our 18th day on the mountain and we headed for our cache at 16,200 and then on to our final camp at 17,200. This was the second hardest day for me due to the altitude, an extremely heavy pack, and fatigue. We set up camp which only three of us could be really productive in sawing snow blocks for our walls. Normally, the team would take a rest day here to prepare for the summit which is by far the hardest day of the entire expedition, but we had to take advantage of the weather window we were given by the mountain gods. We left camp at around 10am headed for Denali Pass (the section where the two Washington climbers fell). We climbed to Denali pass with no problem and took a break. We almost had to send one of the guides down because he was showing signs of AMS. We kept climbing because the weather was being good to us and soon made it to Arch Deacon’s tower and then one to the Football Field which is a large flat area that looks like a football field. I guess it would be the highest football field in North America at 19,300ft. We took a short break and then climbed up Pig Hill and onto the summit ridge. At around 5:00pm our team stood on top of North America and congratulated each other. With pictures and high fives out of they way, we made our way down into a blizzard that came shortly after we summited. The high pressure system moved though just long enough to give us that window and if we had left an hour later we would not have summited due to the high winds and low visibility. When we got to the Football Field, our French Canadian climber “hit the wall” as mountaineers and long distance runners say. He simply could not walk another step and when you’re roped to him that left you just as exposed as him, so we had a problem. I tried yelling at the guide 60 ft in front of me and he couldn’t hear because of the high winds and blowing snow. I finally put enough tension on the rope that he had to stop. When we reached him I let him know the situation and he went into action. We were at 19,000ft on Denali and a storm was brewing and this is no place to get stuck. We would be screwed!! He calmly got out a shot of dexamethadrone which is a steroid and gave it to the Canadian. A few moments later he was fine. He wasn’t 100%, but he did snap out of the state he was in. I could not believe it. When I saw him behind me earlier he had dropped his pack in the snow and was hunched over ready to collapse. Thank god we got him up and running or we would have been in a real situation. We finally made it back to camp six after a fifteen hour summit climb and there were collapsed people all over the place. We got everyone organized and got a great night’s sleep. We had done it!
That next morning we broke camp and climbed down to 14,200 where we were greeted by another AMS team on their way up. We spent the night at camp five and the next day we hiked all the way down to camp one at 7,200ft. We flew out the next morning and back to civilization. Twenty-two days was all it took for my dream to climb Denali a reality.