We woke up in Talkeetna after our first night in Alaska and went to the Ranger Station. We attended the required presentation, paid our permits and obtained the poop can we were to use higher on the mountain. We got our stuff together and were soon flying to base camp with K2 Aviation. I would suggest going with K2 as it is very easy to get a flight off the glacier back to Talkeetna as they have such a large fleet.
The flight in was breathtaking. The mountains were some of the most dramatic I have ever seen. Everything is huge and beautiful. It was amazing to see Denali up close for the first time. Once we landed on the glacier we wasted little time and started making out way to camp at 7,800 ft. This is a relatively flat five mile trek but since it was the first time I have ever pulled a sled it was difficult. The heat of the day was causing large avalanches to fall all around us. The valley was filled with a constant rumble, but we were far from danger. Once we made it to Camp 7 we were able to set our tent in an existing snow wall, and after some minor repairs we were set to go.
Andrew woke me up saying, “Dude, we need to get going. It’s almost eleven o’clock!” I freaked out and looked at my watch but it said 6:50am. Andrew, coming from North Carolina, forgot to reset his watch, so we fell back asleep lightly humored by the event. We finally woke up at 7:30 made breakfast and melted water for the day.
Mistake #1: We brought Backpacker’s Pantry for most of our meals because they are light weight and easy to cook. What we didn’t find out until we were on the mountain is that each meal has less than 300 calories per serving; about the amount of a small fry at McD’s. At most we were getting 700 calories a day from these meals when we needed to be getting around 3000. Those meals are simply a crappy diet food you take when backpacking to lose weight. Needless to say we came back pretty skinny as I lost 20 pounds off my already frail body.
We left camp around 11:45 hoping to make it to Camp 11. Ski Hill is the first major hill you encounter. My shins and heals started to hurt pretty bad and it became very difficult to hike. Once we made it to Camp 9 we decided to stay there as we were tired and I needed to address my feet before moving up again. I had blisters on my heals and shins so I treated them with mole skin and athletic tape. Again we were able to set our tent in a pre-existing camp.
May 20th - 22nd
It only took us a little over an hour to make it to Camp 11. It is a pretty camp as you finally get to see some views out to the North West; however, that view consisted of large clouds and the weather report called for snow that afternoon. Sure enough it started to snow and it was our first storm. We were again able to set our camp in an existing walled area and this remained true for us at every camp during our climb. Our spot had a rather large snow cave we were able to cook our meals in during the storm which was very helpful.
That evening climbers were heading down from Camp 14 and were looking for camps. We decided to let a small group of climbers share our camp as it was quite large.
Over a foot of snow fell during the night and continued the fall the whole day. There was no wind during the night and the snow was soft and fluffy. How I wish I had my skis. We dedicated the day as a rest day and it was pretty uneventful besides the occasional shoveling of snow off and around the tent.
The previous night was not much different from the night before as snow continued to fall but it came with quite a lot of wind. Our tent was covered in a large drift and we spent most of our day shoveling the snow out of our camp. The wind and snow continued the rest of the day and made for a second frustrating rest day.
May 23rd - 24th
The weather was clear but cold. We heard horror stories of people lost in the storm plowing through chest deep snow trying to make it down to Camp 11. Andrew and I decided to allow a few groups leave before we did so they could break trail for us up to Camp 14. The trek was smooth and it took a little over four hours to get to Camp 14. It was so nice to be climbing with out the sleds and light packs as we only intended to leave a cache of supplies and descend back to Camp 11.
Mistake #2: Believing that at Camp 14 you could use cell phones from Verizon and Cingular. I bought a Verizon phone almost solely for this trip. Andrew also had a Verizon phone. Despite my phone showing that I had service it didn’t work, however Andrew’s did, but for some reason didn’t work on the summit. I was frustrated with my phone as it didn’t work the whole trip, but Andrew was nice enough for me to use his phone.
As we descended to Camp 11 the temperature became colder and colder. It was amazing how much better the weather was at Camp 14 than Camp 11. In fact, Camp 14 saw very little snow during the storm compared to the three plus feet at Camp 11.
It was snowing again! Pissed off we decided to ignore the weather and make our way to Camp 14. Once we cleared Motorcycle Hill the clouds broke up and the weather was perfect, but down below Camp 11 was still socked in. We heard many stories about how Camp 11 would get hammered by storms that wouldn’t even touch higher on the mountain, and Andrew and I were happy to be out of Camp 11 for good.
Windy Corner was not so windy and the day was beautiful as were the views. Once we established our camp a group of Koreans asked us if they could also cook in our kitchen area and we agreed. To thank us they gave us Korean candy that was pretty good. Also, a Japanese man was descending to go home and he gave us rice and soup mix he had left over that he didn’t want to carry down. This food was a life saver as our own food wasn’t very adequate for the calories we needed.
May 25th - 28th
We took this day as a rest day. It was a beautiful day. We played Frisbee and invited other climbers to join us. A film crew from a French TV station was filming a documentary on Denali and they decided to film us playing, so maybe we made it on French TV! We also hiked to “The End of the World” and took some pictures of amazing views of Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker. Again, some fellow climbers were looking to unload some food and we were happy to take it off their hands. It was some really good dried fruit and various trail mixes.
Despite some wind and snow in the morning we decided to make our way up the headwall and leave a cache at 16,200 ft. The wind and snow continued during our climb to blinding visibility at times. My thumb had gone numb while ascending the fixed lines and it felt like I might have a little frost nip but it was just really cold. We left our cache on the ridge and started to descend the fixed lines. It was difficult because many parties were also ascending the “descending” fixed line due to slower parties on the “ascending” line which made things complicated trying to get around climbers.
Another rest day. We went sledding at the base of the head wall. It was steep and hard to control the sled, but very worth it.
Another rest day. We wanted to go up to Camp 17 but the weather decided otherwise. High winds on the ridge from 16,200 ft to Camp 17. It looked nasty.
May 29th - 31st
Finally great weather! We moved up to Camp 17. We left our cache at 16,200 ft. behind to stay light. We could always get it if we needed to. Andrew started to hit the wall once we hit the ridge. It is crazy how altitude affects different people. He was in such better shape than I was in the beginning but now I was cruising and he was dragging. I feared that if he was hurting this bad we might have to go back down to Camp 14, but once I told him this he started to pick it up. No wind and perfect weather. The ridge is exposed but there are no hard climbing moves; although one wrong move could be your last.
High winds and snow at 4 am. Another rest day. We slept in late. As high winds continued to pound the upper reaches of the mountain we decided to fetch our cache at 16,200 ft. Andrew climbed much better this day. The ridge became my favorite part of the climb as it has great views and the most exposure. It is also nice to be on a little rock again after being on nothing but snow for the past 12 days.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Expedition climbing is for the patient at heart. You don’t climb Denali. Denali lets you climb it, and you have to wait for it. Weather was really bad. Lots of wind, lots of snow. I didn’t wonder farther than 10 feet from the tent to go to the bathroom. Speaking of going to the bathroom; we rigged our bucket with a plastic bag so we wouldn’t have to carry the bucket full of poop all the way down the mountain and we gladly got rid of the bag into a deep crevasse on our descent at Camp 11. I believe there are new standards to deal with waist on the mountain, but we thought this was a clever idea. It started to clear up as we went to bed and the weather report called for fair weather the next day. We were hopeful.
Summit Day! We woke up and it was snowing but little wind. Visibility was pretty good. Due to the nature of the climb to Denali Pass you cannot pass rope teams as it would be too dangerous. Andrew and I decided we would leave a few hours after the first party giving us plenty of room to go at our own pace. A large number of groups had left and they were all packed together about half way to the Pass when we left camp. With in an hour we were already stuck at the end of the pack! The pace was painstakingly slow; about a step every half minute. I was starting to get cold and mad. The weather was also starting to get worse as the wind started to pick up as we neared the Pass. Once we reached the Pass we were able to go our own pace. Most of the groups were taking rests and we were able to pass all but a few groups. With in the first few hundred feet of climbing we were able to pass the remaining groups ahead of us and we were breaking trail! No one had been past Denali Pass for three days due to the previous storm so there were no foot prints, no markings, no trough to follow. It was a true wilderness experience. Andrew and I had the mountain to ourselves. The weather started to clear as we climbed higher and the wind started to dissipate. It was beautiful. The last slope before the summit ridge was the most difficult as deep, fresh snow made progress slow. Andrew and I were also concerned about the slope cleaving off as we were in prime avalanche conditions, but we chose our steps wisely. Once at the summit ridge we had to be even more careful. The ridge was freshly corniced and beautiful, but we passed through with no problems. Andrew and I were able to spend about half an hour on the summit by ourselves before a soloist came along and took our picture. The hike down to Camp 17 was rather uneventful. The weather continued to be beautiful. There were still some parties making a late go of it. We ran into one group at Denali Pass and they were still going for the summit! People were returning into the camp well through out the night.
June 2nd and 3rd
The worst day of my life….maybe. The descent of Mount Robson may have been worse. You can read about that trip
also here on SP.
Mistake #3: Andrew and I decided we wanted off the mountain as fast as possible. In one day we made the descent from Camp 17 to base camp. It wrecked my legs and feet. We got back into camp just at sunset (which is close to midnight). A long day, and probably not worth it, but it was nice to be a few steps and one flight away from being back on dirt and grass.
We flew out first thing in the morning. We were able to book a room in the Road House which is probably the best place to stay on a tight budget. I highly suggest it as it is right in town, close to everything, with really good food. We were also fortunate enough to run into Fred Becky at the Road House Diner and have quite an entertaining conversation with him. He had never climbed Longs Peak and we were giving him suggestions of what routes to take as he was planning a trip there.
I hope this trip report helps you in your success of climbing the West Buttress. My final suggestion would be to NOT climb the West Buttress and seek a different route on Denali. There are many different options that are of similar difficulty and you would be apart from the monstrosity of people. To climb a mountain should be a wilderness experience and you won’t get that on the West Butt!