IntroductionDon Sheldon Amphitheater
Denali National Park, Alaska, USA
In June 1983, Bill Crouse and I spent 30 days climbing in the area of the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. We attempted Reality Ridge on Denali, attempted a big wall on the Gargoyle and skied down into the Great Gorge.
Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and we were soaked in daily torrential rainstorms. June was not the best time to climb around Denali, but we had to finish our semester at San Jose State University before we could leave for some climbing. The wet weather greatly impacted the climbing conditions are no doubt contributed to our failure to ascend Denali.
We flew into the Don Sheldon Amphitheater with K2 aviation. After landing, Bill and I set up base camp about a mile from the landing strip. We discovered very quickly that torrential thunderstorms were a daily occurrence. Our down clothing and sleeping bags were always wet.
Approach to Denali
Since we planned to traverse Denali, we attempted to hike over to the base of Reality Ridge without skis. To our dismay, we post-holed up to our crotch with every step. This was surprising, because in 1979 we had been able to drag our sleds up the glacier without the need for either snowshoes or skis. We tried again with skis and made it to the base of Reality Ridge, but got completely soaked in a 24-hour-long rainstorm. We returned to our base camp in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater to dry out for a couple of days. When we returned to the base of Reality Ridge we were pinned down on the glacier for two days by a raging snow storm.
Rain on Reality Ridge
The weather finally cleared and so we began climbing Reality Ridge. We decided to take a different start, instead climbing a broken face on the southeast side. We climbed a prominent chute, traversed a rotten rock band, and climbed snow chutes leading up to the ridge crest.
The snow was extremely rotten from the daily rainstorms. We post-holed up to our chest with every step. Climbing was more like digging. You had to dig out the snow above you, shovel it down to your feet and pack it down so that you gain a foot or two to take another step upwards. But all you did was sink up to your chest. Progress was extremely slow, about 100 feet per hour. All the while it rained.
The conditions were so bad that we reverted to climbing at mostly night to take advantage of colder temperatures.
High on the face we ran into chutes that were full of avalance debris. All of the chutes ended at vertical rock bands. We traversed around a bit and climbed small steep chutes trying to find a way up. After a couple of difficult mixed pitches and 24-hours of climbing we appeared to have reached a dead-end at a big rock. Fortunately we found a way around the big rock and bivouacked on a snow shelf.
Above “The Big Rock” we finally broke through onto easier ground. We reached the steep ice chute that led to the summit ridge after four days of climbing! The ice chute was rather steep, so I led without a pack. We fixed our rope and jugged with packs. We bivouacked again between two boulders in the ridge crest.
Once on the ridge crest, we finally made good time. The ground was easy and fun. Occasionally we place a piton just to have some protection now and then. Everything went smoothly until we reached the top of peak 10,370 feet.
Once we reached the top of Peak 10,370 feet, we ran into real problems. The ridge crest became very narrow and dropped off steeply on both sides. At times the ridge rose upwards quite steeply. The problem was that there was no protection and no belays. The hard snowy surface wasn’t solid enough for ice screws. If you didn’t tread lightly then you’d punch through into a bottomless depth hoar. Ice axes and deadmen were useless for protection. Our belays had all the security of a deadman placed in Styrofoam pellets.
At one point I attempted to bypass a dangerous section by descending below onto the snow flutings to traverse below it. The snow was so bad that I floundered, sinking and sliding further down the flutings the more I struggled. Since I couldn’t even climb back up the rotten snow, Bill literally hauled me back up to the crest.
Further along the ridge I plummeted 30 feet down into a crevasse when the surface collapsed. Fortunately Bill was able to hold me despite the fact that we had no protection and no belay. That was the last straw, however. We turned around and descended in defeat.
Big Wall Attempt on the Gargoyle
We retreated back to our base camp in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. We rested and licked our wounds. Since the snow was so rotten we decided to try our hand at a big wall on the Gargoyle. We didn’t have any big wall gear, but we figured that we would make do with what we had. Thus, on day 16 of our expedition, we skied over to the base of the Gargoyle in the Great Gorge.
Over the next two days we climbed six pitches up the southeast face of the Gargoyle. We climbed in double leather boots, so anything over 5.7 required aid. We climbed six pitches and fixed our ropes back to the glacier. No sense bivouacking again in sub-freezing temperatures if we didn’t have to.
The next day we jugged our ropes up to our high point. We had the pleasure of watching two ENORMOUS snow avalanches just 100 feet left of our route. At the top of the sixth pitch, I waited for Bill to jumar the free-hanging rope up to my stance. I was studying the large overhanging chimney directly above when the sound of rock fall reverberated from within. Suddenly an avalanche of refrigerator-sized boulders came bouncing out of the chimney and whizzed by the belay at warp speed, spraying me with ice and small rocks. I yelled “ROCK!” at the top of my lungs and ducked for cover on my 1-by-2 foot ledge. Bill later said that he heard a commotion, and looked up just in time to watch the giant blocks sail by him as he spun on the rope.
That was all the coaxing we needed to rapidly rappel back to the glacier and head back to base camp.
The Great Gorge
We stayed in base camp for another day or two, resting drying our clothes. Since we had nothing else to do, we skied overnight five miles down into the Great Gorge.
We spent the remaining days of our adventure in and around base camp. We had plenty of booze, supplemented by the case of Buckhorn beer that K2 aviation flew in for us. There were many people staying at the cabin, so we had some rambunctious parties. The favorite: “Aurora Borealis,” made from Tequila, Gatorade and snow. And, of course, we burned our underwear on the last day. After wearing the same underwear for 30 days, what else can you do?