Standing on top of one of the seven summits is a goal sought after by people the world around. At 20,320 feet, Denali, aka Mt McKinley, is North America’s tallest mountain. Some claim that it is more difficult to climb than Everest. This is likely due to the heavy packs, deep snow, lack of Sherpa support, and arctic temps. Since I have not yet climbed Everest I can't confirm that claim, but I do know that climbing Denali is very difficult.
Janelle and I “bumped” from the Tokositna Glacier directly over to the Kahiltna Glacier after our successful climb of Mt Huntington via the Harvard Route. That climb took 3 days, followed by 4 days of waiting on clear weather to fly, so we still smelled relatively fresh, at least by Denali standards.
Our 4-day bad weather nap on the Tok we left very rested, and a little antsy to get going. Two hours after landing at the Kahiltna basecamp we were moving our huge sleds to Camp One, located 5.5 miles away at 7,800 feet.
Skiing makes the experience of hauling heavy loads way more enjoyable. Skinning up the gigantic Kahiltna Glacier by the light of the midnight sun was amazing. It was almost beautiful enough to take our minds off the collective 300lbs of equipment trying very hard to crush us. Three hours of brut hauling later we arrived at camp.
The next morning we carried half our kit up Ski Hill and beyond, to the 11K’ camp. This took 5 hours. After burying those supplies three feet under the snow, and GPS waypointing its location for easy retrieval, we skied back down to 7,800’ camp….in 10 mins!
Two days later we were ready to schlep our loads from the 11K’ camp to Windy Corner. This requires going up Motorcycle and Squirrel Hills. Motorcycle Hill would become the site of the fatal avalanche that took four Japanese climbers’ lives while they descended this slope two weeks later. Trying to haul a sled and a pack up the hill proved to be impossible, and extremely frustrating, with the two feet of fresh snow that had fallen the previous day.
Deep fresh snow makes for horrible climbing and great skiing, so we decided to ditch the sleds, and skin to the top of both hills carrying only our packs. Then come back and get the rest of the load later. The best part is that we got to ski down in between loads. All told we climbed and skied this part of the mountain four times. The “quad-carry” is definitely the way to go…with deep snow and fun skis.
On day 5 we arrived at 14 Camp (located at 14,200 feet). This high altitude gypsy tent city is quite the anomaly. There are roughly 150 people from all over the globe, congregating in this barren beautiful white frozen patch of snow. Everyone has fortified their plot of snow with large ice block walls. These walls help prevent the neighbor’s dog from crapping on your lawn. They also serve as wind blocks, so your tent doesn’t break during the huge storms that sweep the area on a regular basis.
It’s easy to spot the civil engi-nerds among Camp 14’s tent city, as their walls are constructed perfectly, with ice blocks fitting together to create airtight fortification.
Once our little campsite was constructed we rested. About that time the routine of living on Denali set in hard and fast. The routine looks something like this.
9:00AM: Bladder screams you awake. Answer the call, using the brimming pee bottle. Still below freezing, so its back in the sleeping bag.
10:45: Cold water droplets hit face every 30 to 60 seconds, caused by the melting hoarfrost that built up on the inside of the tent.
10:50: Get fed up from the Chinese water torture. Put on a flock of down, go outside.
11:15: Breakfast time: Hot cocoa, pancakes (“bootied” from a group descending), bacon. All cooking done in the kitchen tent, which then becomes the hang out tent.
11:50: Poop in a plastic lined 12-inch tall green plastic can, hoping that a ground blizzard doesn’t pick up and freeze your bareness while squatting over it.
12:00: Hang out in the cook tent, shooting the bull with new friends, talking about the weather, other climbs around the world, and playing the game called, “have you seen that youtube video where…”
2:30PM: Go for a ski tour just outside of camp, sometimes with climbing gear, sometimes without.
5:00: Lunch time: Cheesy Quesadilla, with salami and mustard…add guacamole on special days.
5:30: Walk around camp, meeting those that just arrived.
8:00: Card games in the neighbors cook tent.
10:00: Dinner time: you name it, we ate it.
12:30AM: Feet are now too cold to have fun anymore. Crawl in the tent and watch 2-3 episodes of The Office on the ipad until the screen frosts over.
1:45AM: Still not dark outside, but go to sleep cause that’s what you were suppose to do hours ago.
This rock and roll lifestyle went on for days and days. When the weather was nice we would escape uphill as high as possible to help the acclimatization process. You see, we needed to prepare our bodies for the thin air little chunks at a time. All in preparation to climb the Cassin Ridge as fast as we possibly could.
We went to 16,200’, then again to 15,500’, and finally to 17,800’ before a four day storm locked us down. We felt stronger each day, so logging the time at the higher elevations was working. Our plan was to summit and ski the West Buttress, then rest for 2-3 days prior to going up and over to the Cassin. Our time was limited, so things had to line up pretty perfectly to make this plan successful.
The morning of July 16th had blue skies and little wind in camp. We packed our bags quickly and headed up the trail that had been beaten in by the 50 climbers in front of us. Since we were on skis, and only had daypacks, we were able to pass everyone before reaching the fixed lines on the headwall that takes you from 15K’ to 16K’. We put the skis on our packs, strapped on crampons and ascended the wall.
Pack weight is a huge part of moving fast in the mountains. We only carried two types of items, ingestibles and warm clothing. We left the rope behind, which upped the risk factor, but saved 8lbs of weight.
At the 17K’ camp we stopped in a friend’s kitchen tent for a 30 minute break to warm up, lube up, and bundle up. Denali Pass was next. From there up it is traditionally much much colder. Once we rounded Denali Pass the winds from the North picked up, forcing us to cover all exposed skin. I wanted to switch my sunglasses to goggles, but did not want to take the time needed to get in my pack and put them on. Instead I pulled the drawstrings tight on my hood, faced down wind, and kept plodding along.
We reached the summit around 5:00PM, 7 hours after leaving 14 Camp. It was cold, windy, but relatively clear and amazingly beautiful. Probably the most beautiful part was that we still had the skis on our packs, and they were about to go on our feet! The most novel part about ski mountaineering is that it turns the worst part of climbing into the best part….the descent.
The snow was bulletproof wind-blasted nastiness from the top to about 19K’. It’s the kind of skiing that can make your fillings fall out. We would take three to four turns then have to catch our breath for half a minute. The skiing wasn’t great, but it sure beats walking.
The best snow we found on the Phantom Wall, which rises above the 17K’ Camp. Turn after turn we cut up this slope. The air was getting thicker, the views were amazing, and my altimeter watch was having trouble keeping up with the speedy descent.
We stopped briefly at the 17K’ Camp to chat with friends, then walked down the West Buttress to the top of the fixed lines. There was more good snow to be found here, all the way back to our tents. We were tired, but grinning, as we crawled into the bags that night. We had just skied the West Buttress from 14 Camp in a little less than 12 hours.
The following two days we rested. I thought we would bounce back quicker than we did. The two nights after the summit push we packed our bags for the Cassin Ridge. Things were not looking that great, but we were going to be ready if they changed.
That night we set the alarm for 4AM to give us plenty of time to get started on the route. At 3:30AM what felt like a significant earthquake shook us awake. This was followed by serac fall. Scary. Then the wind picked up, and it started snowing. Things were not looking good.
In the mountains it is very easy to make a host of sound excuses not to put your body through more physical and mental exhaustion. I think we had a number of really good ones, which lead us to become part of the statistic stating that 90% of climbers who register to climb the Cassin Ridge never even get on it. Next year I hope things are different.
Alaska 2012 was a great experience for us. Climbing the Harvard Route on Huntington was the highlight for me, and skiing for the summit of the highest point in North America was a close 2nd.