Denali requires respect. It also requires skill and a lot of planning especially if you are not using one of the six authorized guide services. So with these points in mind I have previously filed an attempt on Denali into a ‘some day’ list.
That someday showed up sooner than I expected. Soon after the New Year I was invited to attend a meeting of fellow climbers, from Summitpost and 14ers.com, to see if we could form a private team for an attempt of the West Buttress route. Soon we were a group of six Colorado climbers (Gabe, Kiefer (trip leader), Colin, Dan, Craig and Chris) registering with the National Park Service (NPS) for a May adventure. Our team’s mission was to come home with all our fingers, toes and noses. The summit was secondary.
Now the real work began. While any climbing trip seems complicated planning one for three weeks with six climbers seemed to take on a life of its own. Just when one issue would be resolve two more would show up as if the trip planning was possessed by the spirit of the Lernaean Hydra. As did Heracles we diligently resolved each issue or task, and there were plenty of them.
With just over three months before our departure we started meeting weekly in the mountains to climb and camp, as well as, and practice the necessary glacier skills. The team had a wide range of experience so making sure everyone had the basics was important for the safety of the entire team.
In retrospect our ability to winter camp at altitude multiple times to test ourselves and our gear was key to having a comfortable experience on the route. Knowing how your equipment, partners and self perform under extreme conditions truly helps when the other numerous stressors on a long expedition are added to the mix. It has been said by many sources that you need to be comfortable with winter camping and the use of your camp stove and other equipment in severe cold. This certainly cannot be underestimated; do not assume a sole winter camping outing will suffice. Go camping in wind, cold and storm as you will experience the same or worse conditions on Denali.
Additional training, vital to our success, was climbing 13ers and 14ers with packs as much as possible. Along with sled practice and crevasse rescue training under realistic conditions we felt as prepared as we could be by the time we left for Anchorage.
Prelude Thursday May 14th: After our late arrival into Anchorage we loaded into the Denali Overland Taxi van for our three hour trip to Talkeetna. A quick stop at the Fred Meyers in Wasila was included to purchase the final supplies for the team. And before anyone asks we could not see Russia.
Once in Talkeetna we went to the NPS headquarters for our check in and climbing briefing. We had reserved a mid afternoon appointment so this went quickly. We were able to ask all the questions we could about the mountain and route
conditions. We also got our CMC’s—Clean Mountain Cans—to use as our toilets while on the mountain. Looking at the status board it was clear we were there in the early season. The success rate to date was low which did not bode well for our success.
Our next task was to resort equipment in preparation for our hoped for 0815 flight the next morning. Our bush pilot of choice, Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), allowed 125 pounds of equipment per climber with additional weight allowed at $1 per pound. Our
best efforts and three and a half hours resulted in in 885 pounds of gear for six of us. We planned to leave two cases of beer, food and other essentials at basecamp in case we spent extra time before flying out but we still had plenty of weight for our packs and sleds. Once we were finally packed it was time for dinner at the West Rib for a final meal of burgers and beer before more beer and live music at the Fairview. The food at the West Rib is good with cold beer and great service. For anyone successful in summiting Denali they allow you to sign the walls or bar. We stayed in town at the bunkhouse owned by TAT.
l-r: West Rib, Mainstreet with Fairview on left, Organizing 800+ pounds of gear, Gear ready to go!
Day 1 Friday May 15th: With a 0815 flight were up early. We woke to rain and heavy cloud cover which is not favorable flying weather. This allowed us enough time to get a delicious breakfast at the Road House. Comprised of a bakery, restaurant and lodging the Road House fills up. It is a cozy and warm establishment with communal tables, overstuffed chairs by the fire and the smell of baked goods drifting through the air. The meals come in two portion sizes—half and full—which are listed on the chalkboards on the wall; great food with very reasonable prices
A sightseeing tour was scheduled for 1100 which would give our pilot a chance to evaluate the conditions to the glacier and hopefully get us out in the afternoon. The weather started to break around 1100 and we were told to get ready to go! We flew out just before noon for our half hour flight. We started off over forest and tundra and a braided river which soon gave way to rocky hills and glaciated mountains. With the spotty cloud cover we were able to see the jaw dropping views of ice and rock. We weren’t in Colorado any more.
We flew by camp and down the Heartbreak Hill to inspect the landing before turning around to land up the slope. It was one of the smoothest landings I have every experienced in a plane; the skis helped I am certain. We were the second plane in for the day so the runway was in good condition. We were also the last plane to land at basecamp for the day. This camp is also known as 7200 camp which is its elevation in feet.
We quickly pulled our mountain of equipment out of the plane and moved it off the runway while eager, but weary looking, climbers clamored to load their gear and head back to civilization. I paused and wondered if they had been successful or not during their visit.
After checking in with Lisa, the camp manager, and getting our seven gallons of white gas we started packing our sleds for the journey up the glacier. We also cached the beer and a few days worth of food to await our return.
We finally headed out of camp at 1500 fully loaded with packs and sleds as two different rope teams with Craig and I each on the sharp end. The full impact of the sled on our travels was showed quickly as they overturned because they were top heavy or ran into the back of your legs as we went down Heartbreak Hill to the Kahiltna Glacier. Our goal was the 7800 camp approximately five miles away. The route, created from the many ahead of us was a well marked groove in the snow, meandered up the glacier hopefully avoiding any crevasse hazards along the way. Occasionally we passed wands—bamboo sticks with a colored flag—marking the route.
The 7800 camp is located at the base of ski hill. We made it to camp in five hours just as the sun was ‘setting’ behind the ridge which quickly lowered the air temperature. As we approached camp it was clear that it was already full at this late hour. A few hundred yards before the camp was an unoccupied camp that with minor modifications could accommodate our tents.
What is the big deal about finding an abandoned camp you might ask? The answer is hours of saved labor. While low on the glacier we could get away without protecting our tents the normal practice is to surround your camp, or tents, with a wall of snow. This wall should be as high as your tent and several feet from it on all sides to protect the tent and your sanity from the wind. Winds on Denali can easily be 40-50 mph or more making the tent vital for a climber’s survival. The walls are built out of blocks of wind compacted snow that are cut with a snow saw and then stacked to complete the campsite. So finding a camp with existing walls saves valuable time.
It took several hours to set up the tents, reinforce the walls and dig a kitchen. Gabe started brewing water and getting prepped for dinner while the rest of us finished building camp and organizing gear for the night. Six guys drink a lot of water each day which means hours of brewing—melting snow and ice—to replenish it daily. We did not know it at the time but Gabe became our camp ‘cookie’ for the majority of the trip brewing water, making meals and keeping the MSR XGK stoves running—we brought three of them and a repair kit. Thanks Gabe!
Video: The view around our 7800 camp.