Mt. Baker in a Dress

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This is Linsey’s 97th peak out of the 100 highest in Washington, on track to the be youngest to finish this year. I’m on track to have eaten 100 Chipotle burritos this year, so we share a special kinship. Thanks Dereck, Cecil, and Bartek for coming along. Thanks Dereck for belaying me on the crevasse lip pics.

Gear Notes: Route is steep ice and a verglass-y rock band on top of the Roman Wall, otherwise it’s straightforward. We solo’d from the summit down, but for newer climbers I’d say be ready for some white knuckling on top of the Roman Wall - we saw a lot of parties get stuck here (a couple pickets + screws would be good).

Approach Notes: Trail, then boot pack, jump 2-3 times, then ice, then rock, then crater.

Mt. Rainier - Disappointment Cleaver - Single Push + Snowboard Descent

Dereck stepping onto the Disappointment Cleaver (11,000ft) from the broken up Ingraham Glacier as the sun rises.

I’ve always wanted to snowboard down from the summit of Mt. Rainier.

Dereck and I started out sometime shortly past midnight on Tue July 1st. The lower mountain had severe winds that forced me to adjust my board or get pushed on my face.

The winds lessened as we climbed higher. I reached the summit crater 6 hours and 56 minutes after leaving the parking lot. Not a record, but fast for me. It would be fun to stay fit and try again with skis - my board is heavy.

The mountain was the most mild I’d seen it, only a few crevasses that were barely worth mentioning. We snowboarded over all of them on the way down.

The summit was nice - sunny, very little wind. We chatted with three rangers who were up there for their 3rd day in a row. They said the crevasses were opening up fast - they noticed them getting visibly larger each day.

I asked about Lib Ridge (I wanted to climb it this year but I’m afraid I’m missing my chance) - they said people have been on it quite a bit since the accident. One party was swept 1,000ft down in an avy, uninjured, and self-rescued by retreating back down.

Boarding off the summit was fun. We cruised across the crater and down the upper mountain without issue. The snow was soft enough to edge. We descended most of the DC to the top of the guide’s fixed lines. The deadly runout you see below the DC while descending was a good reminder not to fall.

There were 4 areas you had to take off the board: DC bottom, Cathedral rocks, Muir, and Pan face. Only the first one takes sort of a long time. After Pan face we boarded all the way to the parking lot. The severe winds had stuck around, but only down low, so they cooled you off in the rising heat.

I skied down Baker, Adams, and Rainier last year. This year I boarded down Baker, now Rainier, so I guess I might go board down Adams this weekend. But then I should probably get on some more tech routes.

The real story here—however—is that Bellingham is getting a Chipotle this fall. I was complaining about this to one of the rangers who lives there and he filled me in on the news. Post N. Cascades climbs when you just want to get home but you also want a quick, good meal - this is now going to be possible!!!

All pics are from my phone. Follow my Facebook page for photo updates in your feed.

Little Tahoma at sunrise.

Dereck and I on the summit.

Dereck boarding across a narrow bridge of a bottomless crevasse.

Ingraham Glacier camp from the Disappointment Cleaver.

MT. RAINIER - KAUTZ GLACIER/ICE CLIFF

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Me skinning up the last 20 feet to Rainier’s summit. Photo by Alin Flaidar.

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Walking to edge of a cliff on he Wapowetry Cleaver around 11,000ft. A “super moon” lit up the mountain nicely.

Alin, Dereck and I summited Rainier via the Kautz Glacier route this past Sat/Sun. We carried over and descended the DC route Sunday morning. I skied down where crevasses would allow.

Highlights:

  • We made it up to the base of The Turtle (~9600ft) in about 3 hours.
  • No rope was needed until the Ice Cliff (~11,300ft). Crossing the lower Nisqually and ascending The Fan was straightforward.
  • There was a huge party (30 people?) camped at the base of the Turtle from the Utah Climbing Club. We didn’t see them for the remainder of the trip. There was a somewhat larger party who ended up camping above us at Camp Hazard. We got up earlier to avoid getting behind either large parties – thank god! We did see four people above Wapowety Cleaver as we came down the DC route. 
  • There was a chance of Thunderstorms in the forecast, so we brought a 4-pound 3-man tent which I would’ve rather left home to save weight. I watched a thunderhead form the entire afternoon until sunset, then dissipate into nothing. No precip. A Chihuahua-sized rat circled our open tent looking for food – I tried to scare him off. I slept 0 hours.
  • There was a small drip/water run-off at 11k, but it dried up in the afternoon! Disappointing. The water below The Turtle won’t dry up as far as I can tell.
  • Right before crossing the ice chute area below the Kautz Ice Cliff, large blocks of ice (car sized) came down in front of us. We crossed this section in a hurry 5 minutes later.
  • Both the lower and upper ice cliffs were a lot longer than I was expecting. For the upper cliff we climbed near some large nieves penitentes on the right, which we used for rests periodically. We simul-climbed both sections fairly quickly, Alin leading. He placed the occasional screw. There was hard ice all the way up, most of it good (picks and front points stuck well). It got a little rotten near the top. A fall most places would definitely have been catastrophic.
  • This was Dereck’s first time ice climbing and he did great. His rock skills transferred nicely. I would’ve been shitting my pants simul-climbing those long stretches with two people’s lives on my shoulders (or straining calves). He had a screw and a tethered axe just in case he got pumped at an inopportune time. I had the same as I’m certainly no ice-climbing star.
  • Above the Ice Cliff there were several large crevasses, some hidden. I jumped one and my left leg punched through. I planted both tools and pulled myself out. Dereck jumped the same crevasse and both his legs punched through. He did the same, Cliffhanger-style. Neither of us died. We then punched through a couple more random spots. This was a dicey section, especially with the increased temps. Our pace quickened up toward the Nisqually above the Wapowety Cleaver.
  • We saw one other party above the Ice Cliff – a guy named JR who was cruising with his son. He’d done the Fuhrer Finger the weekend before with his girlfriend. We had been looking at the Finger from below The Turtle – it looked gnarly. JR knew the way so we followed him around and down around Wapowety Cleaver. He had cruised past all of the other climbers still on the cliff and caught up with us. I guess some had asked him to wait behind them, which he of course didn’t. That would’ve been a big mistake and probably cost him hours and an even riskier descent down the DC.
  • There’s a huge crevasse system that cuts you off from joining the DC route up high, so you traverse toward Pt. Success then up to Columbia Crest.  It was cool to see this new area near the summit and to see the DC route from a different perspective.
  • I skied across the summit crater and then we boiled a couple liters at the crater rim before heading down.
  • I skied down to around 13,000’ in shitty, uneven snow, where the first major crevasse bridge awaited. It was hot, I wasn’t about to die when that thing collapsed so I waited 15-20 min for Dereck/Alin and we roped up.
  • The DC descent is sketch now—especially in the heat. Dereck and I were up there less than 2 weeks ago and it was the tamest I’ve ever seen it. Things had changed dramatically – stuff opened up everywhere – longer jumps, sketchier bridges. The snow was also super soft and wet by the time we hit the bad sections. I honestly don’t know what was riskier, simul-climbing the Kautz Ice Cliff or descending the DC in that heat.
  • I skied Ingraham Flats, the Cowlitz, then down from Muir to the top of Pan Face then almost to the parking lot. I was dehydrated and overall had a sad time descending due to heat, lack of water, and zero sleep the night before. The snow was heavy/wet – overall the descent gets a thumbs down. I also haven’t skied much this year so my skillz are poor, making it harder. The snowboard descent 2 weeks ago down the DC was much more fun. Still I don’t regret bringing the skis.
  • I met Dereck/Alin in the parking lot maybe 1-2 hours later. Dereck’s heels were badly blistered. I needed to pick my gf up from the airport so we had no time for a celebratory meal, but we all felt really good about getting this one. Alin and I especially, who have had it on the list for years. This was Dereck’s third summit: He’s done the Emmons, then he snowboarded down the DC with me after a single push, now Kautz. Not a bad intro into mountaineering.
  • This was my ninth time summiting Rainier. I still really want to do Liberty Ridge, the Tahoma Glacier, Gib Ledges, and board down Fuhrer Finger. Next year hopefully. This was Alin’s first climb this year - his bike fitness paid off as he was in great shape.

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Sky in the Paradise parking lot. Iphone pic.

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Rainier and the super moon from an Eatonville gas station. Iphone pic.

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Dereck and I headed up “The Turtle” below the Kautz Ice Cliff. Photo by Alin Flaidar.

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At our 11k camp on the Wapowety Cleaver, watching a thunder cloud form due east. Forecast said chance thunderstorms, we saw none thankfully. Photo by Alin Flaidar.

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Drying my sweaty socks out, can’t beat the view. Iphone pic.

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I couldn’t sleep all afternoon due to the heat, light, and some other reason I don’t understand. I watched this thundercloud grow large, then dissipate over a 4-hour span. We had clear weather with low wind from here to the summit that night.

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The Kautz Ice Cliff from our camp.

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Our tent is left, Camp Hazard is to the right. A lot of people camped here. The boulders above Camp Hazard look like they could come loose at any moment, so we stayed away.

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Just above Wapowety Cleaver on the Nisqually Glacier.

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Alin’s self-portrait on the Nisqually Glacier.

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On the Nisqually Glacier above 13,000ft. We can see the DC climbers, which is a completely new perspective for me. Large impassable crevasses/icefalls separate us.

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Pt. Success - another climber we met named JR and his son. They helped us with route finding above the Ice Cliff.

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JR and his son behind a crevasse that seemed to span the entire Nisqually Glacier. End running this to get to the summit caused a detour toward Pt. Success.

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I snowboarded down the DC under two weeks ago. The DC route now looked completely different as the warm temps have been peeling open crevasses everywhere. This is on the Ingraham Glacier near the DC entrance.

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Really rough sketch of the line we took up to the summit.

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GPS track overlaid on Google Earth map. Red lines indicate paths we should have taken.

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The lower Nisqually and The Fan were very straightforward. We didn’t rope up until the Ice Cliff above around 11k ft. We should’ve taken the yellow path here.

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You can stay closer to the Cleaver as you get toward the top, crevasses permitting. 

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DENALI: THE WEST BUTTRESS: MAY 24th-JUNE 6th 2014

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North American terrestrial ceiling, taken June 4th 2014 around 4pm afer 12 days on the mountain. We were lucky as this has been one of the worst weather years on Denali with a summit success rate in the teens when we arrived (now in the 30% range). 

Some of the most interesting cloud formations/movements I’ve seen. Mt. Foraker and Kahiltna Dome as a storm approaches.

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DENALI: THE WEST BUTTRESS: MAY 24th-JUNE 6th 2014

Pain, I came to feel, might well prove to be the sole proof of the persistence of consciousness within the flesh, the sole physical expression of consciousness. As my body acquired muscle, and in turn strength, there was gradually born within me the tendency towards positive acceptance of pain, and my interest in physical suffering deepened.

—Yukio Mishima Sun and Steel: Art, Action and Ritual Death, referenced in Steve House’s Beyond the Mountain

I was forced to admit that on this, my first trip to Denali, I too had grossly underestimated the mountain. I had listened to the rangers’ warnings; I had heard no less experienced an alpinist than Peter Habeler pronounce that McKinley’s storms “are some of the worst I have ever experienced”; I knew that when Dougal Haston and Doug Scott had climbed McKinley together just six months after standing upon the summit of Everest, Haston had said they’d been forced to draw ton all our Himalayan experience just to survive.” And yet, somehow-like Adrian in 1986-I hadn’t really believed any of it.

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

Certainly, the climbers who call Washburn’s route a ‘cattle prod’ have been deceived by the severe mountain sickness or a whiteout, because walking the ridgecrest from 16,000 to 17,000 feet is the penultimate mountaineering experience next to summiting. On a good day, you can revel in a three-mile drop to the tundra below—a greater drop than most Himalayan giants. Or you can look east and see Mount Sanford, more than 200 miles away. Or you can meet legendary international mountaineers stumbling down after having suffered up high.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

I asked one of the doctors, Howard Donner, why they volunteered to spend their summers toiling in such a godforsaken place. “Well,” he explained as he stood shivering in a blizzard, reeling from nausea and a blinding headache while attempting to repair a broken radio antenna, “it’s sort of like having fun, only different”

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

INTRODUCTION: A DEPARTURE FOR ME

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Selfie overlooking Mt. Hunter from the 17,200ft high camp. It was cold.

Denali’s been on my list for a while. The scale of these Alaskan peaks offer a plethora of photo-opportunities for depicting the insignificance of man against the grandeur of nature. Denali was also a proving ground for climbing other big mountains in the Himalayan/Karakorum ranges, or at least a better vetting process than the smaller Cascades peaks I’ve been climbing in terms of altitude, expedition timeframes, frigid temps, etc.

Before Denali I’d only been as high as Rainier’s summit at 14,411ft in a variety of conditions. My skin knew only above zero degree temps. How would my body react at over 20,000 feet in the arctic cold? As low as 10,000ft I can easily get AMS-like symptoms. As far as the cold, I’m not really sure how I ever leave my warm sleeping bag on freezing alpine mornings. I’m kind of a mountaineering prima donna in some respects. That said, I’ve managed to pull off a lot of climbing over the past 5 years - typically carrying more weight and meeting more demands on movement due to an interest in night photography. For these 1-3 day Cascade climbs I’ve been able to dial-in what works for me with food, layers, tents, stoves, etc. But I’ve never been on a climb greater than 3 days. Denali could be 21 days.

So yes, Denali would be different. Harder. A hot shower and a Chipotle burrito would no longer be 1-2 days away. A single “blue bag” and a couple of clean, simple freeze-dried meals wouldn’t be enough for waste disposal and sustenance. I wouldn’t be able to check NOAA.gov or atmos.washington.edu and bail/postpone if the weather wasn’t good. I couldn’t check zappos.com if a cool new shoe came out with bright colored laces. I was going to be climbing in storms. I was going to cook messy meals with messy pans and fickle white gas stoves. I was going to shit in a bucket already filled with other people’s shit, sometimes without privacy, almost always in cold, windy + snowy weather. I was going to be pulling heavy sleds in addition to carrying a big backpack across heavily crevassed, icy terrain. I was going to have to deal with 5 other people. Daily. For up to three weeks. In tight quarters.

I’ve definitely suffered on poor weather epics in the Cascades. I backed off a Mt. Baker North Ridge attempt in a heavy snow/rainstorm, and completed a Shuksan North Face/Fisher Chimney traverse in similarly miserable conditions, climbing through the night, soaking wet in freezing temps. I figured Denali suffering would be multi-layered and represent a next-level “hurt” compared to these local climbs. Still, I was really excited to test myself. If I could adapt to Denali’s harsh conditions it would mean a lot of interesting objectives were within my reach. Ama Dablam, Everest, downtown Chicago in November without an umbrella (or maybe just an umbrella that didn’t quite cover all of me)? 

THE WEST BUTTRESS ROUTE?

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Mark and I cackle as Scott lambastes a slightly overweight mountaineer starting up the West Buttress. “Instead of measuring your granola out into little premarked baggies, spending hours threading orange flagging around little sticks of bamboo to mark the route you’re sharing with a thousand other people, you should have been training!” 

—Steve House, Beyond the Mountain

I always figured I’d climb Denali’s more technical West Rib first. I even took a weeklong ice climbing class five years ago—immediately after climbing Rainier for my first time—to set the West Rib stage. The West Buttress route looked too easy, crowded, overall lacking as a “real mountain” experience. Because I hadn’t been high altitude-tested or experienced negative 40 degree temps, however, the “Butt” seemed like a good place to get my feet wet (no pun intended…seriously there’s no pun here, Denali’s mostly snow/ice, not water). If I could survive the West Buttress, then I could take on more technically challenging routes—at altitude—in these harsher environments. Also I was generously invited by a friend and his buddies to do the West Buttress route, not the West Rib. Sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that present themselves.

Now having climbed the “Butt”, I’d say it’s more technical and generally more challenging than I expected. I thought it’d be more like the Rainier Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons glacier-like walk-up routes. It’s nothing like that. Not that you can’t make some fatal missteps on these main Rainier routes, you easily can. Getting on the Disappointment Cleaver at around 11,000ft is a great example: One wrong step can kill you. This is especially true if someone had tied your bootlaces together at the Ingraham Flats camp as a prank. But the West Buttress route has a lot more “one wrong step and your dead” areas, plus the scale and harsher conditions exacerbate the risk. Jon Krakauer attempted it unsuccessfully in 1987:

The West Buttress of McKinley, it is often said, has all the technical challenges of a long walk in the snow. That is more or less true, but it’s also true that if you should, say, trip on a bootlace at the wrong moment during that walk, you will probably die. From 16,000 feet to 17,000 feet, for instance, the route follows the crest of a knife-edge ridge that presents a two-thousand-foot drop on one side and a three-thousand-foot drop on the other. Furthermore, even the flattest, most benign-looking terrain can be riddled with hidden crevasses, many of which are big enough to swallow a Greyhound bus, no problem.

I figured the West Buttress to be a farmer’s route; I mean, how challenging could a climb that succumbed to three hundred freds and hackers a year possibly be? Plenty challenging for the likes of me, it transpired. I was continually miserable, and frequently on the brink of disaster. My tent was starting to shred even in the relative calm at 14,300. The unceasing cold caused my lips and fingers to crack and bleed; my feet were always numb. At night, even wearing every article of clothing I had, it was impossible to stave off violent shivering attacks. Condensed breath would build up an inch of frost on the inside of my tent, creating an ongoing indoor blizzard as the gossamer nylon walls rattled in the wind. Anything not stowed inside my sleeping bag-camera, sunscreen, water bottles, stove-would freeze into a useless, brittle brick. My stove did in fact self-destruct from the cold early in the trip; had a kind soul named Brian Sullivan not taken pity on me and lent me his spare, I would-as Dick Danger so eloquently put it-have been in deep shit.

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

It’s also ironic how some of the best alpinist die on less technical routes. Lionel Terray—for example—died guiding a 5.7 rock route in France. Mugs Stumps—Alaskan climbing legend—died falling into a crevasse on lower angle terrain. This is after he climbed some of the harder routes in the Alaska Range. Read Accidents in North American Mountaineering, it’s often the experienced climbers who are dying in falls on easier stuff.

Since Allen Carpe’s death in 1932, eleven climbers on Denali have died in “freak accident” crevasse falls. Nine of those climbers were of Mugs’s caliber and had let down their guard on lower-angled glaciers, travelling without rope, with a short rope, or with slack ropes.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

DENALI: BIG, COLD, AND UNPREDICTABLE

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The combined effect of cold, wind, and altitude may well present one of the most hostile climates on Earth.

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

That sounds intimidating, and it should. It’s the type of mountain where in May you can ask how bad an incoming storm looks and receive this reply:

…the person relaying the forecast replied with a macabre chuckle, “Well, major enough so that when it hits, everyone who’s above 15,000 feet is going to die…”

…and they aren’t kidding. You don’t want to get caught in a bad storm above 16,000ft on Denali, even in June. While waiting at the 14,200ft camp I asked the rangers about the weather at 17,200ft. They said with 40-60mph winds your fortified ice walls can topple easily. Your tent can start to shred. While you’re trying to rebuild your walls, blocks can be blown away just as quickly as they are put up. The rangers weren’t going up there anytime soon. A Lithuanian team who camped next to us at 14,200ft did go up to 17,200ft+ during a storm, however. I imagined them crawling on their belly in a raging blizzard to retrieve a snow saw, blown out of their hands from a 70mph gust.

When the weather finally calmed, we met a Lithuanian party member coming down. He said his tent had been shredded at 17,200’ and he had to crawl to the emergency NPS locker to get another one. He said some other things that sounded pretty bad but he had a thick accent so I didn’t understand. I didn’t need to though. His facial expressions and his “I survived a harsh Denali storm at 17,200’ and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt” cotton t-shirt said it all.

Jonathan Waterman’s describes one particularly bad storm that occurred while he was a park ranger on Denali:

Within 30 hours, more than 5 feet of snow fell at the 7,000-foot base camp; winds of 100 miles per hour hit the 14,300-foot camp. Over a month’s time, 22 climber would be rescued.

For the next few sections I’ll further describe Denali’s scale and “hostile climate” while comparing it to Everest. Everest serves as the most widely accessible point of reference for “extreme” climates, so it’s a good illustrative tool. Let’s start with a blog entry except from someone who’s climbed both mountains:

Quite a few people have asked me how Denali and Everest compare and they are quite extraordinarily different. Everest for the most part is far more comfortable, especially from the Nepal side. At hints of bad weather, we can escape down to base camp and drink our hot lemon teas and sit in comfy chairs. Denali in a shorter period, has a much higher work load. Overall I remember the heat of the western cwm of Everest, on Denali, in May, it’s the mind numbing cold even as low as 9,000′.

Brad Jackson Denali vs. Everest

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Mt. Foraker encased in a Lenticular and other storm clouds.

THE SCALE

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View of the 14,200ft camp (dots in the center frame) from around 17,000ft. Foraker is straight ahead.

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"David and Goliath". I face down Mt. Hunter from the Kahiltna. 

One of the largest landforms on the planet, McKinley’s hulking massif occupies 120 square miles of the earth’s surface, and its summit stands more than 17,000 vertical feet above the rolling tundra at the mountain’s foot. Mt. Everest, by comparison, rises a mere 12,000 feet from the plains at its base.

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

The scale in the Alaska Range is like nothing I’ve experienced. Walking along the lower 44-mile long Kahiltna Glacier and seeing Hunter (14,573ft), Foraker (17,402ft), Crosson (12,352ft), and of course Denali (20,237ft) rise from thousands of feet into the clouds was eye opening for me. Rainier’s Emmons and Mt. Baker’s Coleman glaciers all of a sudden seemed small by comparison.

High on the West Buttress—which is reached over a week after starting out—you can see just how tiny the 14,200ft camp looks, dwarfed by all of the massive features of rock and ice. Looking out at the vast landscape, I suddenly felt like nothing in this world: A small 35-year-old spec contemplating millions of years of large-scale geological transformations. A humbling sight.

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An icy ridge on Foraker. I couldn’t talk anyone on the team into climbing part of this to show scale/produce an even more compelling picture.

THE COLD AND WIND

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The intense cold is, of course, another unique feature of Denali, comparable only to the Antarctic ranges. The Himalaya is tropical by comparison. On the South Col of Mount Everest (26,200 feet) in late October, the lowest temperature we recorded in 1981 was 17 degrees below zero. On Denali, this would be a rather warm night at only 14,300 feet in May and June. Temperatures between the high camp and the summit even in the middle of the summer are routinely 20 to 40 degrees below and even lower at night. This combination of extreme weather and temperature pummels the unprepared.

Peter H. Hackett, M.D. from the preface of Surviving Denali by Jonathan Waterman

Having never lived in Wisconsin in winter or been the target of Don Rickles’s crowd work, the extreme cold was going to be something completely new to me. Dave measured temps as cold as -38 degrees Fahrenheit. Park Rangers warned us that they see a lot of frostbite for summit attempt with wind speeds even above 20 mph. Any exposed skin can freeze almost instantly, and frostbite can permanently damage tissue.

I met a climber at the 7800ft camp who explained that we were lucky this year, temps-wise. Summer temps had come early in 2014. Last year his -40 degree sleeping bag caused him to shiver in early May at only 7800ft! To stay warm on the upper mountain he had to put on every single piece of clothing he carried, inside his sleeping bag. Every few hours he’d run around his tent just to keep from freezing. In his case Bradford Washburn’s statement, “This kind of climbing is about 90% trying to stay alive and warm, and 10 percent climbing”, was certainly true. The feeling of never being able to get warm must be one of the most miserable feelings humans can experience, at least before hypothermia arrives and warms you into death. This climber was trying the West Rib this year with a friend who had never been to Denali. They were about to make their way up the Valley of Death, and avalanche and crevasse-prone fork of the Kahiltna which leads to the base of the Rib. He must have felt spoiled this year not having to shiver so much, so early. Unfortunately the storms were the worst this year than they’ve been in a while.

Art Davidson’s 1967 winter ascent of the West Buttress had his team experiencing temps as low as negative 148 degrees:

For a moment I experienced a keen awareness that up here the cold, surrounding us like a living thing, was waiting patiently for a chance to slip into our bodies.

There were nights—especially at the 14,200ft camp—that were extremely cold even without wind. Everything uncovered in our tent would become enveloped in frost. I didn’t think of leaving my sleeping bag for any reason, and I really wish my pee bottle was larger. An avalanche could’ve been heading right for our tent and I wouldn’t care. Someone could’ve offered me sour cream and onion Pringles and I wouldn’t even…well no…I’d get out of my bag for those.

But the wind really made you truly cold. Whenever its icy trajectory intersected with exposed noses or cheeks it felt was like someone was slapping you—hard—in the face, while hissing loudly directly in your ear before, during, and after. I resented it. I just wanted it to stop, and I felt like each gust that knocked me off balance was a personal assault from Mother Nature. These thoughts reminded me of how egocentric we humans can be. Nature doesn’t care about our feelings. Art Davidson:

The wind’s vicious, I told myself. It’s diabolical. Silently cursing it became a pastime. I tried to think of all the words that described its evil nature— fiendish, wicked, malicious. I called it a vampire sucking the life out of us. But the wind didn’t hear me, and I knew my words were irrelevant anyway. The wind wasn’t malevolent; it wasn’t out to get us; it had no evil intentions, nor any intentions at all. It was simply a chunk of sky moving about. It was a weather pattern, one pressure area moving into another. Still, it was more satisfying , somehow more comforting, to personify the wind, make it something I could hate or respect, something I could shout at.

But then the wind would be gone, and the experience on the same terrain would be altered dramatically, making it almost unrecognizable in the calm.

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Cloud formations resembling something a painter would put down on canvas from around 11k ft. Strong winds pick up around Foraker and the Kahiltna Dome.

THE EFFECTIVE ALTITUDE

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Denali also renders the climber more hypoxic; the barometric pressure is lower for a given altitude than on mountains closer to the equator. This difference becomes noticeable above 10,000 feet or so, and makes the summit of Denali equivalent to anywhere from 21,000 to 23,000 feet in the Himalaya (Mt. Everest is at latitude 27º N), depending on weather conditions. The barometric pressure is also much lower in the winter than in the summer. Lower barometric pressure means less oxygen in the air; therefore Denali is more of a hypoxic stress and physiological challenge than one might expect for its altitude.

Peter H. Hackett, M.D. from the preface of Surviving Denali by Jonathan Waterman

Altitude worried me more than cold temps. At least you have some control over your warmth via clothes selection. AMS can come out of nowhere and put you on their knees, regardless of fitness, hydration, etc. Sure you can do things to minimize your chances, but there’s no guarantee.

Harry Karstens—the first to reach Denali’s true summit—described the effect of altitude on his party:

The remaining 1,000 feet (300 m) went very slowly because the thin air made breathing difficult; they had to stop every few steps to catch their breath.

I didn’t move quite that slowly, but I definitely felt like the altitude was pushing down on me—hard—as we rose higher. At both 14,200ft and 17,200ft I’d wake up in the middle of the night breathing heavily, trying to take in more oxygen. 14,200ft has half the oxygen vs. sea level, and it diminishes further climbing higher. Once I reached 19,000ft I was struggling to move continuously due to hypoxia.

GENERAL WORK

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Cecil fortifying our protective tent walls with ice blocks cut using the saw (why the saw is still sticking out of this block I don’t know).

I spent a lot of time on the mountain packing, un-packing, putting up and taking down tents, boiling water, and making meals. I mean a lot. If you can’t re-use existing camp sites with pre-built walls, etc., then you’re in for many more hours of work. For me this type of manual labor is necessary, but painfully boring.

Brad Jackson compares the amount of work on Everest vs. Denali:

Without Sherpas and Yaks, I learnt a lot on Denali. The end of the day does not happen when you arrive at location. Arriving just means setting up camp and building walls. Even departing from Camp 1, it took us 5 hours to dig up our tents after a 2 day blow smothered our tents… Denali was overall colder and the workload was more constant on Denali with fewer rest days (Denali vs. Everest).

On the plus side I’m now great at watching water boil in pots lined with food residue. 

THE TEAM

My friend Cecil invited me on this climb. His friend Dave was coordinating the expedition in September 2013 with a few of his Utah climbing buddies. Our team ended up being super strong. Very physically and mentally determined. The team was split between Utah and Seattle, but everyone made time to put in the requisite training and—with Dave at the head—we all communicated well to ensure we brought all of the right equipment, etc. The Utah guys ended up being really lighthearted and fun, but still serious and committed to making the summit safely. The team broke down as follows:

  • Dave – Team logistical coordinator who also runs a guiding company in Africa. Based in Salt Lake City. Cecil met Dave and the other two Utah guys a while ago on an Orizaba climb.
  • Brandon – Oncologist from Utah who runs the non-profit organization Radiating Hope which provides radiation oncology services to developing countries. Based in Salt Lake City. I climbed with Brandon in 2011 on Rainier’s Disappointment Cleaver route (photos and report here) to benefit Crohn’s disease and lend photographic support to his charity.
  • Tom – Commercial airline pilot with encyclopedic knowledge of greatest hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. Based in Salt Lake City.
  • Cecil – Buddy/climbing partner and recent nursing school graduate. My connection to the rest of the team. Seattle based.
  • Wesley – Cecil’s friend who did a stint as a guide. Seattle based.
  • Me –Software Designer/Program Manager who photographs/makes videos with most of his spare time.

PREPARATION: LOGISTICS

Dave did a great job of pulling together the logistics required for the climb including permits, schedules, flight bookings, food, fuel and transportation, etc. We ended up going through a logistics company—Exposure Alaska—for food, fuel, van ride from Anchorage to Talkeetna, flight from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna Glacier, a steel shovel, sled rental, and some toilet paper/hand sanitizer at a cost of $1099 per person. I never did the work to figure out the cost of doing this individually, but with tight schedules across the team for prep and a quick back-of-napkin addition it seemed like a reasonably cost-effective idea. The flight alone is $585 through Talkeetna Air Taxi. The hand sanitizer alone was at least 80 cents…so you do the math.

The flight to Anchorage from Seattle was only $240, and we stayed at the Microtel for about $60/person (hotel was clean, served a decent breakfast, almost zero dead prostitutes in the spacious closets).

Less the equipment below, we’re only at $1400 so far for the trip cost. The emotional/trauma-based cost of watching each team member shit into a bucket in open-air bathrooms, however, can’t be measured as easily.

PREPARATION: CONDITIONING

I started running back in November, but a knee injury forced me to retire from running in March/April before I planned to run another half marathon in Vegas with my girlfriend Audrey. Following that I mostly did local conditioning hikes: Tiger Mountain’s “Cable Trail”, Mt. Si, Mailbox Peak, and Mt. Rainier’s Camp Muir. I tried to get out 1x/week. Most of the time I wouldn’t bring much weight, but as we got closer to May 2014 I did a lot of heavily weighted hikes (60-70 pounds). I supplemented all of this with frequent mountain bike rides (I have a 12 mile loop that gains a lot of elevation). I also played scrabble with specially-weighted letters that were harder to pick up and move onto the board.

I never got an actual “climb” in the whole time, which was unfortunate, but I ended up being in pretty solid shape. At least I told myself that each time I flexed in the mirror after doing 3 pull-ups nightly. More specific training around sled pulling could have helped further, but sled pulling sucks and I hate it, so overall my training plan worked out in my favor.

PREPARATION: PROVISIONS/EQUIPMENT

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Most the equipment I brought to Denali (minus snow shoes in favor of skis). This doesn’t include the food/fuel we picked up in Anchorage. I’d end up pulling most of this in a sled and putting the rest on my back.

The core set of personal equipment is easy to check based on gear lists provided publicly by all guide companies (e.g. RMI, AAI, IMG, etc). At the base it’s essentially everything you’d bring on a local cascades alpine climb, but more + warmer/stronger stuff.

Expanding on “more + warmer/stronger stuff”, below are the differences and some opinions/lessons-learned on each subject.

FOOD

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just bring a crossbow on the mountain and hunt polar bear for sustenance. First off, crossbows also require arrows, which are expensive. Secondly, there are no bears of any kind on the route. Hence you need to bring food with you, and you need to bring a lot of it. 1kg (2.2 lbs) per person, per day. For 15 days that’s ~33 lbs of food.

The logistics company was a great time-saver in this department, but—in hindsight only—I would’ve procured all of my own food. You should only bring stuff you’ll love, and I personally like my food as simple as possible in terms of prep + clean-up. The logistics company included food I’d never eat (so extra weight), and some of the preparations were a little too involved. In the mountains the last thing I want to do at the end of a rough day is go through an elaborate cooking process. I almost always just want to eat quickly and sleep. Or eat quickly and climb in the morning. Again I only came to this conclusion after going through the experience.

I hate doing dishes in my regular life, so “cleaning” and re-using pots (that were never completely clean) was painful. I still cleaned dutifully and got used to it. My tolerance for reduced sanitization and hygiene increased every day, but once off that mountain I went immediately back to my germ-a-phobic, picky ways that annoy more hardened people. Actually I didn’t even wait until I was off the mountain. A gummy ring Brandon threw me on the last day hit the snow before my hand. I gave it to Tom after he made fun of me.

I’d definitely bring a pot dedicated to “just water” for simplicity/cleanliness. I’d also bring more tang, etc. to make the water more desirable. You need to drink a lot of it, sometimes it’s hard.

Art Davidson talks about having a breakfast of cheese, salami, and candy during his winter ascent. This is more my style as there isn’t any dishes, cooking to be done, and it still taste great. Bagels and cream cheese were also good, and I could’ve done with more oatmeal, something I can eat everything morning without getting tired of it.

For lunch you definitely want to keep food handy and warm:

To make our lunches edible it had become necessary to carry the candy bars, sausage, and cheese close to the heat of our bodies to thaw out their rocklike consistency.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

It’s sort of a rule in the Cascades, but with the extreme cold of Denali it’s pretty critical. Dave chipped a tooth on a frozen Snickers, a story I’m considering submitting to the 2014 Accidents in North American Mountaineering annual publication. After I tell people this chipped tooth story, they typically ask me how Dave’s funeral went, e.g. was the catering was good? Was there swearing in the eulogy? Etc. Believe it or not, he actually survived the Snickers-chipped-tooth incident!

Ok onto water – you really need to bring a lot of it. 3 weeks worth, so about 84 liters. I’m kidding you melt snow, but you should start out with 2-3 liters, unless you want to walk 40 feet on the Kahiltna after leaving the plane, get thirsty, then have to unpack your stove and melt a bunch of water while the plane waits for you to get out of the way. This actually happened to us. No it didn’t, but we all almost got on the plane without filling our bottles in the ranger station sink. I saved the day here (holds for applause).

A final point on keeping things simple with regard to food: The NPS Denali booklet quotes from Joseph Wilcox’s diary on “lassitude”, or lack of motivation that can occur in high altitude environment. Joseph Wilcox’s 1967 party was involved in one of the worst accidents in the mountain’s history. More on that later.

With five people crammed in the tent, morale decreased rapidly. There was no interest in cooking meals and by the next day no one was even interested in melting drinking water. We found ourselves very apathetic…not caring whether or not we got enough to eat or if our gear was wet…we just lay there and waited with little or no sleep…by the morning the cold had taken its toll…Jerry Lewis and I had numb feet and I had numb fingers.

FUEL AND STOVES

Stoves keep you alive and hydrated. You spend a large chunk of time on the mountain watching a pot boil (it still boils if you watch it, I tested this about 30 times throughout the trip). We brought a gallon of fuel per person (~6 lbs). I love my MSR Reactor stove, but for Denali you have to bring fickle white gas stoves like the MSR WhisperLite or DragonFly. We had two WhisperLites and one DragonFly. I really hate these stoves vs. something like the Reactor due to abysmal ease-of-use, but they’re more reliable in the extreme cold and higher altitudes. Plus they allow you to avoid bringing dozens of propane canisters. That said I did see some people with Jet Boils. In this Slovak Direct video (Andy Houseman and Nick Bullock), I believe you see them using a Reactor, albeit they are going light/fast up a technical route in a very short amount of time.

I asked the rangers at the 14,200ft. camp what they thought of the Reactor-type stoves. They said propane-based stoves don’t work consistently/reliably in the cold, you can get frostbite just trying to light them, and you end up with bags of empty canisters. Needless to say our white gas stoves ended up working pretty well, and I became somewhat proficient with Cecil’s WhisperLite. The biggest tip here is to bring a spare pump. We had one break, and despite having multiple stove repair kits, we did not have a spare pump. Because we had 3 stoves though it wasn’t a disaster, but a stove is obviously your lifeline to hydration.

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Our first “night” at the 7800ft. camp. As the trip progressed there was less and less psuedo darkness. Boiling water and cooking seemed to take up a significant chunk of the total trip time.

TENT

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Brandon taking care of some camp chores near his tent.

The 2-pound, 2-person or 4-pound, 3-person tents used in fair-weather Cascade climbs won’t work on Denali. You have to get something heavy (11 pounds+) like the Mountain Hardware Trangos, the top-shelf Hillebergs, or the tent I bought, the Eddie Bauer Katabatic 3-Person tent. These types of tents will withstand the potentially fierce 50 MPH + winds and hold/shed the several feet of snowfall you’ll face throughout the trip. The Eddie Bauer tent did fine and had plenty of room for 2 bigger guys. That said I guess I’ve been spoiled by Hilleberg’s design which allows the inner tent + fly up at the same time. It saves a lot of time. Like my food, the last thing I want to do at the end/beginning of the day is take more time than necessary to put up/take down a tent, which you’ll do a dozen times. The ideal Denali tent is probably something like the Hilleberg Nammatj GT or the Staika, which was used on the ill-fated early season Muldrow Glacier expedition earlier this year. I haven’t used either though, so take that with some salt grains.

STEEL SPADE SHOVEL

You need it…in addition to your aluminum shovels. It breaks through the hard stuff when building camp. It also can become critical if you need to build an emergency shelter. Read about this accident on Pig Hill from 2012 where someone died and a guiding company almost lost their license to guide on Denali—in part—because their group did not bring a spade shovel for their summit push. Also—of course—read -148 Degrees to familiarize yourself with the epic snow shelter built by Art Davidson’s team on Denali Pass that saved their lives.

The spade shovel can also be used as a second tool on the steeper, icier terrain you’ll find on the Cassin or West Rib. OK, no it can’t.

WARM CLOTHES

I brought two down coats (one big – Eddie Bauer Peak XV, one lighter – OR Incandescent Hoody), some down pants (Feathered Friends Volant), and multiple warm mid/base layers. Quite a few people were wearing one-piece down suits, which seemed like overkill/less flexible, but I guess you can’t predict the weather. Some people also just run super cold. My setup worked perfectly for this trip. As mentioned previously, I did talk to a climber at our first camp who did the West Buttress last year in early May. He said it was so cold he had to put all of his clothes on in his -40 degree sleeping bag to stay warm down low. In 2014 the mountain was a couple weeks ahead in terms of warmth (meaning this year’s June 1 felt like last year’s June 14th or 21st). I didn’t wear the heavy down coat up high, but I had on a lot of mid-layers, the lighter down coat, and kept moving.

The main thing I took away, however, is to bring less clothes to save weight/bulk. I mostly wore the same thing. If you get wool the odor isn’t a big deal. I’d avoid bringing “changes” of clothes. Just bring enough to keep warm in one layer system. Also pastels and brighter colors are currently “in”, something to consider very seriously when selecting clothing. That said I’d check fashion blogs beforehand and these things can change rapidly each season.

The day you change your underwear will be a happy day (typically 5-7 days in). Definitely bring 1-2 extra pairs unless you hate yourself and everyone around you. If you do hate yourself and everyone around you, one-pair is fine.

Final tip is to bring 2-pairs of medium weight “long johns”, vs. one medium and one expedition weight. It’s more flexible, less weight. For up high you just wear both.

Gloves? I brought my OR Alti Mitts for up high, my Raab Ice Gauntlets when it wasn’t frostbite-y cold, a couple pairs of lighter weight liner gloves. I also brought these moo cow print gardening gloves for the plane rides and for just hanging around camp looking for fellow gardeners. All worked well.

SLEEPING BAG

I went with the -30 degree Eddie Bauer Karakorum -30 Stormdown bag. Worked just fine, but I’d rather have a waterproof bag. The down in this bag is water resistant I guess, but why would you want to get the nylon all soaked through in the first place? You get a lot of condensation in the tent and a couple times the temps rose and the snow would turn to water once it landed anywhere. It would just be nicer to have a fully waterproof bag, just in case. You never know, you might sit on Cecil’s pad and pop his pee bottle that was carelessly left underneath inside the tent at 17,200’ on June 4th at exactly 11:33 PM. Hypothetically speaking.

BOOTS/OVERBOOTS

I bought the La Sportiva Baruntses a couple years ago for a Rainier winter ascent that never happened. After spending a lot of money on custom orthotics and going through 2 boot fitters to bend/stretch the sidewalls, I could finally wear them without significant hot spots. If they fit like the Nepal Evos I would’ve had zero problems, but they don’t for whatever reason. The Spantiks (probably the ideal Denali boot) don’t come in my size. A lot of people had the single boot systems you see on 8000m peaks like Everest. The Millet Everest GTX or the Sportiva Olympus Mons Evo were pretty common. Like the one-piece down suits these seemed much less flexible and probably hot on the lower mountain. This probably meant wet, sweaty, blister-prone feet. One UK military team was pulling these out of boxes at the airport. They looked unworn – a bad sign. Maybe these integrated boots make sense if you have feet that get really cold, really easily, or you’re doing an early May ascent.

I also brought ski boots (lightweight Sportiva Spitfires) to the 11,000ft  camp and cached them with my skis. For overboots I went with the Forty Below K2 Superlights, which I only wore on summit day and they worked just fine. I didn’t have a big problem with cold feet at any point, but again weather was warmer compared to previous years. Sometimes I’d get cold toes after standing around too long up high, but nothing serious (I cried a little, but you couldn’t tell with my goggles on). At least one other climber named Andy did get frostbite on a big toe, but he’s doing OK now.

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Standing alone on the edge of the rocky cliffs just outside of the 17,200ft camp. The 14,200ft camp is seen as a cluster of dots 3k feet below. 

SKIS

I didn’t want to buy expensive, new ski boots just for this climb, so I decided to follow Cecil’s lead: Bring what I had and cache it lower, then carry my mountaineering boots in the sled. This worked out nicely. I own the La Sportiva GT skis with the tiny, weight negligible Sportiva RT bindings (< 8lbs total). If I were to do it again I probably would’ve brought the skis up to the 14,200ft camp as you can run laps in nice, dry powder from 14,200-15,200ft. A lot of skiers did exactly this and I was jealous. On our descent the whole mountain was covered in fresh powder, so it would’ve been nice to ski it some more of it. Motorcycle and Squirrel Hill with a sled may have been awkward to descend, however.

SLED

Strap a bunch of cord to a plastic kid sled and you’re good. The sled was annoying skiing down from 11k, but not too bad. PVC pipe may have been nicer to keep the sled from trying to pass me on the steeper stuff. Overall pulling the sled did really suck. It’s just a lot of weight, especially on steeper sections like Motorcycle Hill and the icier sections of Squirrel Hill (11-12.5k feet). Sleds would tip over on Windy corner and even find their way into crevasses, but you could mostly just muscle through it. We were all pretty happy to get to the 14,200ft camp where we knew our sleds would hibernate until we went down again. The way down wasn’t fun either, but it went by pretty quickly.

TIP: Don’t try to ride your sled down the 15,000-16,000ft 50-60 degree blue ice headwall, even if dared with taunting chicken noises. Use the fixed lines instead. Reinhold Messner supposedly learned this lesson the hard way.

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Cecil pulling a sled as we move up the Kahiltna glacier toward the 11k camp. We were all pretty overjoyed to finally be rid of our sleds at the 14k camp in a few days.

BACKPACK

I had a custom 100L+ Dan McHale pack made a couple years ago to help haul all of the photography/video equipment I bring on climbs. It worked nicely for this climb. You want a bigger pack for flexibility IMO, especially for things like split cache carries. A couple people had smaller packs and it can limit what you can carry. I used this 10oz 25L pack for the summit push from 17,200ft (and as a stuff sack before that) – worked out nicely.

AVALANCHE GEAR

There was dissension within the group on whether to bring transceivers. Avalanche fatalities on this route—while not common—have occurred and there are plenty of avy slopes plus falling snow to load them (Motorycle Hill, Squirrel Hill, headwall below the Buttress, smaller slopes on the Buttress, Denali Pass, above Denali pass, Pig Hill). I didn’t have a strong enough opinion here based on the available West Buttress avy data to put stakes in the ground on transceivers. We ended up lightening our heavy loads by leaving them at home, for better or worse.

OTHER GEAR

We brought a 50m and a 60m rope, a couple GPSs with topo maps/route info loaded, a few pots for cooking, a picket/screw each, a couple snow saws, a shovel each, probes, and we rented a sat phone.

I made limited use of the sat phone, and found a kindred spirit here in Jonathan Waterman while re-reading “In the Shadow of Denali”:

Although we did keep our friends and family informed, contact with the outside world depressed us. Mountaineering involves a necessary isolation, and, once broken, the lurid fantasies of showers, hot meals, and the opposite sex ravaged us as cleanly as a subarctic tempest.

It was still nice to check-in with Audrey as she updated me on local mountaineering fatalities just before my summit attempt.

DRUGS

I brought Ambien, Diamox, and Cipro, Sunny D, and some purple stuff. The Ambien worked great. It allowed me to sleep at night despite noise. There shouldn’t be any shame in taking Diamox. You can’t train altitude sickness away, people are just affected differently even when all things are equal (fitness, hydration/satiation, acclimatization schedules). You aren’t stronger because you don’t feel the effects of altitude, you might just be lucky.

As the storm continued, trade in critical supplies became brisk and cutthroat. Expeditions with an abundance of some particularly valuable commodity like toilet paper, cigarettes, Diamox (a medication to prevent altitude sickness), or Tiger’s Milk bars found increasingly favorable rates of exchange. I had to trade away an entire half-pound of Tillamook cheese to secure three Diamox tablets.

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

Thankfully I didn’t need the Cipro. I should’ve also brought antacids as I developed a bad case of acid reflux at 14,200ft. It got even worse as I ascended further. This doesn’t happen to me in regular life. Tom was nice enough to spare some of his Tums. He also was generous with Imodium AD which serves to purposely constipate you, preventing inopportune defecation urges. The team also had Dexamethasone, but thankfully no one needed it. Although on those really cold mornings an injection would’ve probably helped us leave the tent.

Ibuprofen was also used a lot to manage various sources of pain, some emotional.

PERSONAL GEAR/CLOTHES

The rest of the gear is standard personal stuff you’d bring on a 1-2 day cascades climb.

PEE BOTTLE/WASTE DISPOSAL

Based on some advice from a colleague I brought a 1.5L collapsible Nalgene. I would even go bigger next time. To quote Barbara Walters, “bring a huge pee bottle if you ever climb Denali”. Getting out of tent in the middle of the night in a storm is the last thing you ever want to do. I usually go 2-3 times per night, even at home. The 1.5L I believe only gets you 2.

For solid waste we intended to bring two CMCs (Clean Mountain Cans) provided by the ranger station, but we ended up with only one. Someone left one on the Ranger Station’s front porch area. Handling solid waste matters—or “taking a shit” as some would say—was probably the single worst part of the trip for me. We all shared this really thin, shitty (pun intended), biodegradable bags that would fill up in about 6-7 goes. The designated bathroom areas were often fully completely open to the elements, that had an inspiring view but left tender flesh dangerously exposed to the full brunt of a windchill” (Krakauer, Eiger Dreams…this hasn’t changed since 1987 it seems).

PREPARATION: PHOTOGRAPHY

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The midnight sun on the West Buttress ridge.

The incredible stillness, immensity, and remoteness of the world that only the three of us inhabited gave me the notion that we were stopping for a moment in a fairytale. Something magical about the ice and rock and sky seemed about to disappear. I tried to grasp an impression of the forms and colors around us, because I feared they would suddenly vanish, to be recalled only with the vagueness of a dream half remembered, like a memory from earliest childhood.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

The primary difference in preparation here vs. a shorter Cascade climb was around power and storage. I ended up getting the Sherpa 50 Solar kit to charge my Canon batteries. I also brought 5-6 extra batteries. For storage I brought a combination of SD/CF cards totaling over 500GB in storage.

I ended up using 2 batteries for the entire trip, and never changed out a card. Reasons? When the weather was good, we were moving. When the weather was bad, there wasn’t anything to capture. My idea of 1-2 time-lapses every day? Didn’t come close. So I carried a lot of extra weight, but you never know, the weather could’ve been great 7 days in a row in which case I may have taken much more video/time-lapse footage. Also there is never really any darkness during Alaskan summers, so you aren’t doing battery-draining long exposures.

I brought my heavy Canon 5D MKIII and my trusty 16-35 f2.8 and 70-200 f4 (no IS) lenses. I should’ve brought an extra lens cap, however. Mine fell hundreds of feet down on the fixed lines. I missed some great shots later as my front element froze. If someone finds the lens cap somewhere in a crevasse below the headwall, please return it.

Camera-geek talk sidebar: I’m looking forward to the lighter weight, full-frame mirror-less systems to offer more ultra-wide zooms and work out their kinks. The Sony A7R looks like a huge step forward, but it was too new/un-tested to rent and bring on a 3-week expedition. Plus there isn’t a smaller, lighter ultra-wide zoom lens which I require. Weight + bulk savings would’ve been nice though.

PREPARATION: LITERATURE

I really have a hard time reading uninspired guide books. I’m sure I should’ve read Denali’s West Buttress: A Climber’s Guide to Mount McKinley’s Classic Route, but it looked boring. Instead I re-read some old favorites that had better stories.

  • -148 Degrees by Art Davidson. One of my favorite mountaineering books of all-time. It’s about the first winter ascent of Denali in 1967 on the West Buttress route. It’s full of colorful characters of all different personality types and experience levels. I’m surprised a movie has not been made yet based on this book, there’s so much great material here.
  • In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley by Jonathan Waterman. A great set of stories from someone who’s done everything from guiding, to working as a ranger, to independently climbing some hard routes including the first winter Cassin Ridge ascent.
  • Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakaeur. Krakaeur has a chapter in this book dedicated to his failed attempt of “the Butt” back in 1987. He had put up a FA on the Moose’s Tooth south face in 1975. I like Krakaeur’s account because he puts this route—often thought of as a walk up—in perspective as something not to be taken lightly. He himself only made it as high as 17,200ft and suffered quite a bit in the process.
  • Beyond the Mountain by Steve House. Steve House did several first ascents around this area, including one solo on the Washburn Wall he called “Beauty is a rare thing”, which tops on out on the West Buttress. When I first read this book a few years ago I was fascinated with how he just took off solo from the 14,200ft. West Buttress base camp and climbed thousands of feet up this unknown route, which included vertical ice sections. He also talks about his speed ascent of the Slovak Direct route. Andy Houseman and Nick Bullock did the 6th ascent of this route and documented it via video here.

STORM TIME PASSING: LITERATURE

In anticipation of sitting in a tents waiting out storms, I ended up buying one of the cheap, older kindles and loaded it with several books. At only $50, 6 ounces, and 3 weeks of battery life I think this is the way to go for those who read in the mountains. Books I ended up making dents in included:

  • Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He’s aggregated info about how everyone from Kafka to Simone Beauvoir to Fellini to Stephen King structure their daily lives.
  • The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is the third Dostoyevsky I’m reading. It’s definitely not as accessible as “Daily Rituals”, so my tired mind kept favoring Currey’s book at night before going to bed.

Bringing more movies/podcasts would’ve been nice too. Adds variety for those stormy tent-bound days. The Utah guys had this dialed.

CREVASSE DANGER

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Whenever I’m on a glacier an considering climbing un-roped, I always recall the beginning of Minus 148 Degrees, when the crazy Frenchman, Farine immediately falls into a crevasse and dies at the very beginning of their trip:

For the first time Dave turned to look behind himself. His face went blank with shock, then tightened with anger. Where he had expected to see Farine there was only an empty glacier….His eyes were open, staring blankly. George couldn’t find a pulse…the face was puplish. George pronounced him dead.

The irony is that the guy was very experienced, plus the team had undergone months of planning for this trip. It was extremely anti-climactic, sort of like Guy Pearce dying at the beginning of The Hurt Locker.

Jonathan Waterman also writes about one of the most dramatic crevasse survival stories on Denali:

…three Koreans from the Je-Ju Universtity expedition unknowingly began setting up their tent on top of a crevasse bridge at 15,000 feet on the West Buttress. Suddenly the 200-by-40-foot-wide bridge broke… buried by bridge blocks he thought would die slowly so he began chewing his tongue to bleed to death faster. The blood filled the snow around him, allowing rescuer’s (including Jim Wickwire) to spot and pull him out, pulply, blood-clotted tongue still intact with a broken back.

Most of the crevasse danger on our trip was on Motorcycle Hill (above 11,000ft) and Windy Corner (below the 14,200’ camp). The rest of the route was pretty tame crevasse-wise.  Tom fell into a crevasse on Windy Corner—up to his waist—during our descent. He self-extricated pretty quickly. I got my sled stuck in one on Windy Corner on the way up. I don’t like talking about it.

One other slightly strange incident happened to me while out taking pictures solo past the 17,200ft camp around midnight. I was walking along the ridge crest looking for interesting shots. I also wanted to practice my French technique traverse a bit more on steeper, hard ice as I figured there’d be a lot of that type of climbing on “The Autobahn” (steeper section below Denali Pass from 17,000-18,000ft) the next day. I walked across a 35-ish degree icy slope with a safe run-out a few times. I took a few more pictures, then started heading back. I stepped on one section of the icy slope and heard a sound with more reverb, or echo. Something sounded hollow. Then I heard what sounded like pieces of ice bouncing off more solid ice, then crashing below. I tried to pick my path carefully back to the tents. There were some cracks in the ice, but the entire terrain did not look crevasse-prone.

The next day as we approached the “Autobahn” Cecil and I both experienced what I just described. The sound and feeling of being on something hollow, something that might collapse. The terrain was unchanged by the time we got back. It was hard to tell if it was a large crack or just a smaller air pocket under the snow and ice.

ACCIDENTS AND INJURIES

Many climbers experience the undeniable and powerful dreams of plunging endlessly through space, of blood rinsing your face with the smell of copper, of running but not moving in front of a monster avalanche, or any of a hundred deaths so textured and memorable that they give pause to even our best climbs.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

While on the mountain we heard about a couple of serious close calls, one case of frostbite, and our team experienced a few non-serious blunders. What follows is a brief summary of each.

OTHER TEAMS

Fall from headwall while ascending fixed lines

When I arrived at the 14,200ft camp I was exhausted and out of water. A climber from a neighboring tent came over and offered me water, a gesture which meant a lot. He and his partner were self-proclaimed “older climbers”, and had been stuck in camp for a while due to poor weather. The next day his partner set out on an acclimatization climb up a steep headwall below the 16,000’ West Buttress ridge. The headwall is the primary route up to the 17,200’ high camp, and is protected with fixed lines due to the steep (50 degree+), blue ice. On nicer days you see bottlenecks as dozens of parties take turns on the lines.

This climber finally got onto the fixed lines, but parties ahead were moving too slowly. He unclipped and started to solo around them. He fell and started hitting people on the way down. Luckily he became tangled in one party’s rope which stopped his fall. One eye was frozen shut. His arm was either broken or something semi-serious was wrong with it. We heard the story outside our tent when he returned. He’s pretty lucky to be alive, as I’m sure he’ll agree. Falling on 50+ degree solid blue ice can easily be a fatal mistake, both for you and anyone in your path.

They left the next day, heading down back to the airstrip. I’m glad he’s ok and sorry they didn’t get to climb higher. They did give me and Cecil a can of sour cream and onion Pringles, which (maybe sadly?) was the highlight of my day.

Fall from headwall while descending fixed lines

While we were up higher we heard another story of someone falling on the same fixed lines, this time on the way down. They tumbled past the base of the fixed lines and fell directly into a large crevasse everyone crossed on the way up. Thankfully the crevasse looked worse than it actually was: It was only 15 feet deep where the climber fell. I didn’t hear any further details on this.

Frostbite on toe

We all met a nice guy named Andy who we ended up seeing the rest of the way up the mountain. After coming down back to the 14,200ft camp, I learned he had frostbite on his big toe. I didn’t get all of the details, but it sounded like it’s something that slowly crept in over the past week. I hope he has a fast, full, recovery. Andy loaned me some of his water when I ran out around 19,500ft.

OUR TEAM

  • Multiple minor falls on the West Buttress.There’s a steeper, icy section around 16,200ft on the West Buttress that I had a little bit of trouble navigating on our ascent. On the descent Tom, Brandon, and Dave were descending this section when somebody slipped. The party immediately self-arrested and easily caught the fall with the help of freshly fallen snow. It happened again when someone else fell, and again they arrested the fall easily. Overall pretty minor but a good show of proper reaction by the team.
  • Minor Crevasse fall on Windy Corner. On the descent I knew the area with the highest crevasse danger would be around Windy Corner at 13,500ft. As I rounded one of the last corners, focusing on pulling the weight of full 2 sleds as the slipped down the hill sideways toward a crevasse, I heard Cecil yell “Wait!” Tom had punched through a snow bridge and was waist deep in a crevasse. He was able to self-extricate and we continued down the mountain. I think he was singing a Paula Abdul song pre-fall, and he picked up the chorus almost immediately after self-extrication (“Straight up now tell me” I think?)

Also, while this accident didn’t happen on our climb, it’s one of the more interesting cases I’ve read about on Denali. It included a fatality due to a guide leaving his party as he hadn’t brought adequate emergency equipment to the summit: Accident on Pig Hill. Definitely worth a read.

THE CLIMB

FLIGHT FROM TALKEETNA TO THE KAHILTNA: GETTING FRESH ALASKAN AIR

I asked Twin Otter pilot if I could sit up front and take pictures. A bonus was that the passenger-side window actually rolled down. The pilot allowed me to stick my camera out the window for photos unobstructed by plexi-glass.

We were all impressed with how little runway space the plane actually needed before it vaulted into the air like a helicopter. Soaring over the tundra and across the glacial moraines, I realized we were actually doing this thing. Up until this exact moment, I thought everyone was joking about climbing Denali.

I took as many pictures as possible while trying not to completely freeze the pilot by opening/closing the window. On each window-opening, cold gusts of wind would shoot into the cockpit. The pilot looked like he was dressed for the beach, so I was expecting to look over and see him encased in an ice cube like a cartoon.

As we approached the Kahiltna glacier, I couldn’t make out the actual glacial surface due to the flat light. I opened the window for the some final pictures of some spires on Mt. Hunter. Thankfully the pilot could make out the snow/ice runway and we came to a stop shortly after the Otter’s skis touched down on ice. He was a little annoyed with me for opening the window as we landed, but I apologized gave him a tip to try and smooth things over.

The plane was unloaded and—after making a quick cache—we were off down Heartbreak Hill. Cecil and I on skis, the others booting it. Cecil and I left our skins on for the descent as we were still getting used to our sleds. I had to make quite a few adjustments on the way down. The rest of the team got really far ahead, but we eventually caught up and were at our first camp as the lights dimmed.

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A view straight down from out the window of the Twin Otter that took us from Talkeetna to ~7k ft on the Kahiltna Glacier. The pilot let me roll down the window and stick the camera out, although he wasn’t super happy when I did this while landing. 

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Another view from the Otter as we get closer to Denali. This is near the terminus of one of the large glaciers, maybe even the Kahiltna (I’m not 100%).

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The team unloading our ridiculous loads from the plane immediately after landing at base camp on the Kahiltna glacier. We wouldn’t see the pilot again for 2 weeks.

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Another plane getting ready to take off as the sun sets late in the evening.

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ROUTE OVERVIEW

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Overview of the West Buttress route which starts in the upper right.

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Another view of the upper route.

LOWER MOUNTAIN: TAKING IT ALL IN

By the time we hit Camp 1 at 7800ft, I was so blown away by the scale my perception of what “vast” meant in the mountains was permanently altered. My eyes had now been exposed to glaciers, seracs, and towering granite+ice walls that were different from anything I’d ever seen. It’s always a special moment in life when you see something that’s completely new to you for the first time. This is why traveling and mountaineering is so exciting to me, it really does open up profound new worlds of experience that you can’t get staying in the same place, doing the same thing.

I had recently hired a helicopter pilot to film aerial footage in the North Cascades. I’d been trying to make that happen for years – it was a dream of mine. It finally came true and the experience was unforgettable. Now—a few weeks later—I was already seeing new landscapes that lit up my eyes. I owe a lot to having the ability to visit these special places.

After taking over an abandoned campsite, we cooked and boiled water in relative darkness. All of the gear seemed to be working, and everyone seemed to be getting along just fine. In the morning we packed and starting moving up the mountain with fairly low visibility.

Our next camp was near 10,000ft. Both mine and Cecil’s feet were suffering from our ski boots. To minimize weight, I had borrowed the liner from my mountaineering boots for my ski boots. Having never climbed with this combo before, my feet unexpectedly resisted the idea by getting hot in several spots. Thankfully I had brought a full arsenal of foot protection and was applying to solve the problem. I finally gave up at 10,000ft and switched to mountaineering boots, attaching my skis to my sled. My feet were still relatively unscathed, but Cecil’s didn’t look as good. Despite having obvious blisters, etc., he finished the entire climb without really complaining at all. Well at least not outwardly, I think I heard him on the sat phone one night whining, “but mom my feet really hurt” when he thought nobody was listening. We were listening, Cecil. We were listening.

At the base of Mt. Crosson and the Kahiltna dome I took pictures of a few impressive ridges. I would’ve loved to see climbers on these ridges to really illustrate the massive scale of rock and ice. No one was going to do it though, so we have what Ansel Adams and Bradford Washburn would describe as only two people in these photos: the photographer and the viewer.

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The base of Mt. Crosson and the Kahiltna Dome as we made our way up the Kahiltna Glacier.

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Traveling up the massive Kahiltna Glacier.

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Foraker, Crosson, and the Kahiltna Dome layered.

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A closer view of the same, I love the texture/shadows the ridge/seracs create.

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Watching a plane skim the glaciated hilltops further up on the Kahiltna.

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Cecil modeling the eskimo-ish Feathered Friends parka.

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Serac shadows on fresh snow.

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Wands for marking the path in bad weather, crevasses, our caches.

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Cecil and Dave completing a top secret mission to dispose of s#%$ in a crevasse.

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Dave on the lower Kahiltna. 

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Selfie near 9-10k ft.

11,000 CAMP: A BEAUTIFUL STORM

It happens to me at the most unexpected moments. When I’m completely absorbed in the dreary rhythm of plodding, no more aware of myself or my surroundings than some mule packing a heavy load, I’m sometimes surprised by what I can only describe as a sort of mystical clearness of perception.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

By the time we reached the 11k camp we had been on low angle terrain that didn’t demand much in the way of focus/concentration. We plodded along with our sleds in tow, occasionally taking breaks to rehydrate and refuel. Once we reached 11,000ft a big storm was brewing. A lenticular started forming over Mt. Foraker, and low, fast moving, dark clouds started rolling over Foraker and the Kahiltna Dome out towards the Peters Glacier.

I immediately went for my camera to setup a few time-lapses. Based on I’d seen on the lower mountain weather-wise, I was afraid good pictures/footage were going to be scarce. I’m glad I acted here as these shots ended up being my favorites from the trip. Pre and post-storm shots often are the most compelling due to the interplay of clouds, sky, sun and shadows. 

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Cloud formations resembling something a painter would put down on canvas from around 11k ft.

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Cecil practicing his “magnum” look. He told me he shouldn’t even really be talking about this look as it’s nowhere near ready.

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Foraker (left) and the Kahiltna Dome (right) bracing themselves for a storm.

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A bush plane dwarfed by the stormy, Alaskan landscape.

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A bush plane last flight over the stormy Kahiltna Dome before a storm came in and grounded flights for 6 days.

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Light and darkness on the Kahiltna Dome.

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What I wouldn’t give to get a climber up on the seracs in the foreground.

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Noirish shadows from low-flowing storm clouds.

MOTORCYCLE + SQUIRREL HILL, THE POLO FIELD: ICE, HIGH WINDS, CREVASSES, SLEDS, CACHE

We rested and set out on a cache carry up the next day. Motorcycle Hill is the first steeper stretch of terrain on the route. Also the most crevasse-prone as it turns out. In 2012 a group of four Japanese climbers were killed in an Avalanche on Motorcycle Hill (more here). There would be at least one crevasse fall on Motorcycle Hill before we left, and several at the upcoming “Windy Corner” per the rangers.

At the top of Motorcycle Hill there’s a saddle, then another steep hill called Squirrel Hill takes you to a flat area called The Polo Field below Windy Corner. Both hills were icy and relatively steep. We made it to the top of Squirrel Hill where the wind had picked up to 50mph and was blowing us over. Wesley wanted to turn around, but Brandon appeared out of nowhere and wanted to at least make it to the Polo field to drop all of the gear we’d lugged up here in this storm. I was impressed at his persistence and calmness. Visibility was dismal, and the wind just worsened the higher we climbed. I was on the fence about continuing vs. retreating, mainly because I hadn’t heard the day’s forecast. It was unclear if the winds expected to pick up even further. If the winds picked up to 80-100mph we could’ve been blown off the mountain. I can handle bad weather, but I didn’t want to die in a 100mph windstorm. We pressed on and reached the polo field pretty quickly where we dug a cache and quickly retreated back down to the 11,000ft camp.

The next day we needed to pack up and move up to the 14,200ft base camp. We’d need to now carry sleds up the icy, steeper hills we climbed the day before. The weather hadn’t really improved much. I filled my entire 100L back to the top and loaded the rest of mine and Cecil’s gear in our sled. Carrying this amount of weight up that terrain ended up being pretty epic. By the time we reached the cache I was hurting trying to keep pace with my rope team that was carrying significantly less weight. 

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Dave, Brandon, Tom at the top of Motorcycle Hill. Taken from Squirrel Hill. Both hills are steeper than they look, especially when icy. When not icy, they are easy/benign. Motorcycle Hill had the largest crevasse danger of any other area on our route except for maybe Windy Corner just below the 14k ft camp. Both locations saw several people falling into crevasses.

WINDY CORNER: CREVASSES GALORE

For an instant I pictured climbers reaching Windy Corner in some future season; they might find the coils of our rope frozen to the ice and wonder how it had happened that a rope had been left out in the open.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

We dug up the cache at the polo field around 12,500ft., distributed the weight a bit more evenly, then started up towards the infamous Windy Corner, now each with a sled. Windy Corner was in a mild mood, but was riddled with crevasses as the rangers had warned. My sled sort of got caught in one crevasse/ice wall and we had to make several coordinated maneuvers to finally get it free. The weather had calmed down by now and was bordering on nice. We slogged up the remaining 700ft from the 13,500ft cache area and on into camp. Here we’d rest a few days and finally be rid of our sleds – thank god.

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Dave about to round the crevasse-strewn Windy Corner. 

BASECAMP (14,200FT): STORMS AND REST DAYS

Even on expeditions, when rest is hard to come by and much appreciated, [Alex] Lowe was an oddball. He’d cop pull-ups on a ship’s rigging en route to Antarctica, or do dips in a snow pit he dug at base camp – George Whistle

My shoulders/neck were in pain and I was getting dehydrated after running out of water a few hundred feet lower. Cecil and I found the last available pre-built camp spot and set down our gear. A group of Ukrainians had left the campsite and put a cache just outside of it. They were up at the 17,200ft camp, which we were hearing was getting hit with some nasty 60MPH+ winds and experiencing temperatures in the negative twenties (w/o wind chill). I was exhausted from the epic pull of probably over 100 pounds of gear up Motorcycle and Squirrel Hill in abysmal weather. I sat down and drank the last little drop of water in my Nalgene. A neighboring Polish team came over and tried to defend the camp site for the Ukrainians, but another American team defended our decision to take it. It was the last campsite available, the Ukrainian cache was outside the tent platform area. Who knows when they’d be coming back? It turns out the Ukrainians took several more days to return after already being gone several days.

The American climber who defended us also came over and gave me a liter of water, which I graciously drained quickly, moved by the gesture. A few days later when the Ukrainians finally returned after a harrowing failed summit attempt in what I can only imagine was trauma-inducing weather, I tried to return the favor. “What?” one of them said angrily to my offer of either hot or cold water. “No”. They couldn’t speak much English. I couldn’t tell if they didn’t accept any charity on principle, or if they were angry that we now inhabited their campsite. Maybe both. I managed to coax a little bit of information out of them. They had actually tried to go for the summit in that awful weather, and made it within a few hundred meters. But the visibility was extremely poor and they were forced to turn back. I can only imagine how cold it must have been up there with the wind. You could see the snow blowing off the high ridge with awesome power. You could hear the low rumble of the jet stream at night. The daily weather reports for 17,200ft+— posted on a small whiteboard outside the ranger tent—portrayed a sad state of affairs up there with increasing wind speeds and sinking temps.

Several days were spent at 14,200ft waiting for the forecast up high to improve. Rangers hadn’t been up to 17,200ft in a while due to the poor conditions. We learned that no planes had been able to land on the Kahiltna airstrip at 7,200’ for five days due to the storm. They had 100+ people waiting there to get out, and 100+ more were back in Talkeetna waiting to get on the Kahiltna. One ranger couldn’t remember a time when bad weather had persisted so long during the climbing season. Before we left the ranger station in Talkeetna we’d seen the summit success numbers. I believe they were in the teens. Some people had been at the 14,200 basecamp for ten days. People were starting to head back down, but others hesitated because they knew they’d just be waiting at the 7,200 airstrip in a cloud.

Time passed by slowly at the 14,200’ camp. Cecil and I talked about doing planks to stay fit, but breathing was hard enough for me. If you forgot at all that you were at 14,200ft all you had to do was speed walk or run 50ft and your hyperventilation would remind you. No one tried any Alex Lowe-style pull-ups, at least not that I could see. Killian Jornet was around somewhere, but we never ran into him.

We made a couple trips to a lookout point called “The Edge of the World” which offers amazing views of Mt. Hunter over a few thousand feet of exposure down to the northeast fork of the Kahiltna. Both times visibility was bad so it just looked like a rock that disappeared into a white, overcast cloud. Not even worth pulling out the camera. We also did an acclimatization hike up near the base of the fixed lines at around 15,000ft. All of the skiers were getting laps. The snow was perfect – super cold and dry powder.

Finally we got word the weather was going to clear up for 1-2 days. We needed to get up to the 17,200ft camp to stage a summit attempt in the best weather possible. I had decided I wouldn’t go for the summit if the wind was much above 20MPH. I care too much about my fingers, toes, and face to risk permanent damage from frostbite. Cecil agreed. We had to get up to 17,200ft and take advantage of whatever was going to be the best weather day to summit. 

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Foraker encased in painterly clouds from the 14,200ft camp.

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Keeping the feet happy, especially after getting some hot spots from the ski boots lower down. We left our skis at 11k ft. before continuing up on crampons only to 14k+.

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I like showers, toilets, warmth, cleanliness, tap water, personal space…this is me not getting that for going on 8 days.

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Cecil in front of Mt. Foraker outside the 14,200’ camp.

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The “edge of the world” lookout is on the right, but visibility wouldn’t cooperate for days on end. I hear the view from that spot is gorgeous, we only saw white walls on our visits then we had to continue up the mountain. 

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Dramatic visit by a guided member to the “poop” crevasse, where you’d dump a full bag of your group’s business into a bottomless crevasse at the 14,200 ft. camp.

THE HEADWALL (14,200-16,000FT): STEEP BLUE ICE

Above us rose the longest stretch of steep ice on the West Buttress route; swept by wind and avalanches, its hard, blue surface was clear of snow.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

On day nine we cached a bunch of our gear, strapped on our 50+ pound packs, and made our way up to the blue ice-covered headwall. Fixed lines start at around 15,200ft and top out on the West Buttress ridge around 16,000ft. We ascended the fixed lines using an ascender with a carabiner as a backup while making transitions. Transitions occur when the fixed lines attach to an intermediate, buried picket and you have to disengage your ascender and reattach it on the other side. The fixed lines are one reason the West Buttress route gets shit from more experienced climbers. I’m sure it’s the same on Everest’s South Col route. Fixed lines make otherwise technical terrain more accessible to those with lesser technical climbing skills. We all knew the story when signing up for this climb and weren’t about to “prove anything” by climbing without the fixed lines. Without using the fixed lines we’d definitely want to put in running ice screw belays, which would take longer and put others at risk (it can get crowded). You might as well do another route like the West Rib, or even the Rescue Gulley a la Killian Jornet—in my opinion—if you’re going to shirk using the fixed lines on this headwall. It definitely is steep and the ice is super hard. A slip on this without protection would probably mean death to you and anyone in your path on the way down.

I wanted to take a few pictures on the fixed lines. After clicking off a few of Cecil on the steeper, blue-icy sections I lost control of my lens cap and it flew down the headwall, never to be seen again. I’d have to go the rest of the trip with an exposed lens, which caused me to miss some great shots.

From the bottom, the fixed lines appeared much shorter than they actually were. There were also more transitions than I expected which took more time/energy. When we finally neared the top, I could feel the cold seeping in and hear the wind starting to hiss and roar. We had expected this transition coming out of the protected 14,200ft basin up to the exposed ridgeline, but the forecast had been overly optimistic. 

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Cecil making his way up the fixed lines between the 14,200 ft camp (tiny dots top-right) and the 16,200 ft ridge above. Thick blue ice coated the headwall below the fixed lines on what felt like 60 degree terrain. A couple accidents happened on this section, one due to someone un-clipping and soloing to get around a slower party. You could use two tools up this section w/o the lines, but it’s sustained and the climb gets harder from here so I don’t see a strong reason to deviate. If you’re going to tackle sustained, steeper blue ice you might as well go up the upper West Rib. 

THE WEST BUTTRESS (16,000-17,000FT): STAYING WHILE EVERYONE ELSE LEAVES

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I gave myself to this new vision of the organism who lived and breathed and even tolerated us clambering on its back

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

By the time we reached the start of the knife-edge ridge at 16,200 feet, two hours after setting out, the breeze had risen to twenty knots and clouds were starting to obscure the sun. Upon reaching 17,000 feet, an hour later, we were climbing in a full-blown blizzard, with near-zero visibility and a forty-knot wind that froze exposed flesh in seconds. At that point Hargis, who was in the lead, quietly did an about-face and headed down, and nobody questioned the decision. After surviving the West Ridge of Everest and Gasherbrum IV, Hargis was apparently not interested in buying the farm in pursuit of the Butt.

—Jon Krakauer, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

Reaching the top of the fixed lines I noticed a large queue forming on the “descent” line to my left. This included a park ranger and what looked like a half-dozen guided teams. Once Cecil, Wesley and I made it off the fixed lines we could clearly see—and feel—why the mass exodus was taking place. Fierce winds, cold temps, and extremely poor visibility were presumably causing team leaders to make the call to go down to protect clients. The Utah guys (Tom, Dave, and Brandon) had already gone ahead. After several attempts at radio contact, we gave up trying to understand what sounded like what Tom would sound like after 15 beers (reception was poor).

I volunteered to do a solo reconnaissance mission up the ridge to try improve the FRS radio reception. As I walked up past the queue of people trying to get off the ridge the weather seemed to worsen. My nose was exposed and one climber said it looked really white. I immediately covered it up as whitening flesh can be an early sign of frostbite, at least according to a “So you want to learn more about frostbite?” Facebook group I frequent.

Surprisingly the route started to look a bit technical after a certain point with steeper rock and ice leading up the Buttress. I decided I didn’t want to solo further. Radio reception wasn’t getting any better either. Tom still sounded like his tongue had been removed through the static. I started retreating back to where Wesley and Cecil were putting on their warmest down gear near the top of the fixed lines. While skirting a roped, guided climber on the way down, he started freaking out because he felt like I was too close to him (I wasn’t, but I think he was nervous about the worsening situation). Nodding calmly to him and moving back, I re-joined Cecil and Wesley and we agreed to try and wait things out a bit. Weather was supposed to get better, and the Utah guys had already continued up ridge. Once we all had our big down coats, down pants, and goggles on, we felt comfortable enough to wait out the weather. Or at least try.

As we watched the line of guided parties descend, a party of two decided to join us waiting. We passed these guys a bit lower down, hearing one of them complain how slow the other was going. They both started putting on their one-piece down suits, which—due to the cold and lack of movement—actually looked nice at this point. It was hard to tell what their history/relationship was, but my guess was that one was homeless and the other was involved in a sponsored mountaineering program for helping the homeless. This is just a guess, but they do have these types of programs on Rainier in Seattle (e.g. this one). Both climbers were really friendly and we talked about having a beer after the climb.

After waiting a while, we decided to continue up the ridge. The weather wasn’t improving, one of the climbers said he didn’t think it was a good idea. He was worried about us. Being from Anchorage, he’d climbed dozens of other Alaskan mountains, and I guess things didn’t feel right to him. I don’t recall seeing either of them for the rest of the trip.

As we climbed higher we finally reached Dave’s team on the FRS radio. They were at Washburn’s Thumb (16,800’) which offered some refuge from the abysmal weather. Having run out of water, they were able to melt snow behind the Thumb and regroup. Despite worsening conditions, they decided to press on to the 17,200’ camp. They were closer to the camp than a retreat, and the weather forecast was supposed to improve dramatically the following day. Later Dave described the push from 16,000’ to the 17,200’ as the hardest thing they’ve done in the mountains, surely an experience they won’t soon forget.

Back down at 16,200’ we were struggling as well. We passed a few tents that had been propped up on a wider portion of the ridge. The idea of camping until weather improved sounded nice, but we kept moving, hoping to rejoin the Utah guys and avoid setting up camp twice. As we moved up a steeper, icier section, weather seemed to worsen further and our party was feeling spent. Dave’s team was at least 2 hours ahead in this shit weather. To complicate matters, a couple parties were coming down forcing us to coordinate passing each other on a steep, icy traverse that felt more like 2-tool terrain vs. a slog. Wesley suggested we rap down off one of the fixed pickets and setup camp near the other tents. Cecil and I agreed, although I could tell Cecil was anxious to join the other guys and continue up the ridge. I quickly began the first rap, then Cecil, then Wesley.

It took us a while to form a tent platform, but we finally built something that wasn’t too lopsided. Around 1am the sky started to turn pink so I went for a walk to take some pictures. I wish I could’ve climbed out on some of these cliffs overlooking nothing but pink and purple clouds below. It looked surreal and peaceful. Our camp must’ve been near the place where Art Davidson had slept out in the open one winter night, 47 years ago:

I caught myself letting loose a long “whooo— hooooo” like the arctic owl . I listened for an echo, but my voice had disappeared into the still air. Farine would have enjoyed this night. In a few hours the moon would set; in a few days , summit or no summit, we’d have to pack up and be gone from these mountains. I called out again, this time like a wolf. Then, though afraid to face it, I turned my head toward the moon, and howled as loudly as I could. Just at the moment I realized my hand holding the ice ax was shaking, I suddenly became self-conscious and hoped no one had heard. Howling at the moon was expected of wolves and coyotes, but not of a mountain climber. I glanced about for a place to sleep.

I chose to spread my sleeping bag on a tiny patch of more or less level snow barely 3 feet from the edge of the ice wall we had climbed up. I scrounged along the crest for loose rocks, and when I’d gathered a dozen I placed them between my sleeping bag and the 1500 -foot drop; should I start to slide or roll in my sleep I knew I’d wake up as I bumped into these fist-sized stones. Curled deep into the folds of down, delighted to be only an arm’s length from the edge, I fell asleep with that particular satisfaction and relief which can come from securing yourself from danger.

In the morning we were treated to clear skies and calmer air. We packed up, then started up the ridge again. I felt strong and more sure-footed this morning. We made good time up to another set of fixed lines below Washburn’s Thumb. I thought of Bradford Washburn and his wife Barbara passing by this rock over 60 years ago on their honeymoon. While most people go to Cancun or even a Las Vegas casino for their Honeymoon, Bradford took his wife to do the first female ascent of Mt. McKinley. I loved it – my kind of woman.

The entire ridge was still pretty icy, and I noted how much steeper and narrower it was getting. I had expected something much more straightforward, but this felt exposed and dangerous. After a while I got used to it. The precarious steps I’d felt on the ice on Motorcycle and Squirrel Hill were being replaced with more confident stride.

The wind was still biting, especially as we climbed higher. Any exposed skin would be stung quickly, forcing an adjustment to protect flesh.

The fixed lines below the thumb weren’t strictly necessary, but they were there, so we used them. Higher up we came across several snow/rock catwalks only a boot-width wide, with deadly exposure on both sides. There was 1,000 feet of this type of climbing, and although fixed pickets were placed in many of the sections, a fall would likely mean a broken bone or two if you were lucky enough to fall with protection that held. This section of the route was by far the most interesting, and served up the most breathtaking alpine eye candy. 

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We ended up camping at about 16,500ft on the ridge below the 17,200 ft camp after the climbing got steep and the fierce windows and lack of visibility would not let up. Dave, Brandon, and Tom continued through the storm ahead of us to the 17,200ft camp, which sounded like a massive undertaking that pushed them to their limits given the weather. I was impressed. 

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Morning around 16,500’.

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View of the fixed lines used to take the ridge from Washburn’s Thumb (16,800ft). 

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Cecil on the thin, rounded catwalk on the upper ridge before the 17,200ft high camp. Visibility was much better this morning, but the wind still bit you hard, especially on even the tiniest piece of exposed skin.

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Flaking the rope before continuing up to high camp. Cecil’s massive blue coat keeping him warm as the wind continues to cut.

17,200 FT CAMP

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After several days of inactivity and staring at the walls, a tentmate’s bad jokes, body odors, even his breathing can magnify into atrocities that no man can bear.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

As we rolled into camp Wesley was feeling fairly hypoxic. I probably should’ve been as well, but I was so high from the surrounding visuals, I could only think to walk toward the cliff edges directly ahead. Cecil and I went to look down at our 14,200ft camp, now just a smudge of dots smaller than my fingertip. The views from here were spectacular. You could see the camp, Windy Corner, the entire 16,000-17,000’ ridge on the Buttress, the fixed lines on the headwall, Mt. Foraker, Crosson, Kahiltna Dome, Hunter, the lower Kahiltna, my aunt’s house in Anchorage, Russia, probably even Mt. Huntington if I knew what to look for. After exploring the cliff edges a bit, I returned to help setup camp next to Dave, Brandon, and Tom’s tent.

The plan we to rest the remainder of the day, then get an early start the next morning to beat the possibility of large, slower guided parties up to Denali Pass.

My tent was sufficiently roomy with two people, but up high we had consolidated to two tents, three to a tent. This was uncomfortable, especially for a loaner like me who likes his space. I began to relate to Waterman’s statement above, but made the best of things. It didn’t help that I—the biggest guy—somehow had to sleep in the middle this night.

To relieve the claustrophobia I escaped for a late night walk with my camera. Alaska’s magic hour (twilight) happens around midnight at this latitude, which meant western massif was lit up with pink and orange light. I sat on the edge of the rocks overlooking the 14,200’ camp below. Some dude was taking a shit on the edge of cliff due east—where I wanted to explore—so I waited patiently then set off. What a view he had. I down-climbed some moderate snow slopes towards a series of cliffs, peaking over each one to look for a unique view. Staring up at Denali Pass—its snow and ice now reddish-orange from the last rays of our sun—I figured I should get some sleep. Tomorrow was going to be difficult. I sat out there a bit longer on the cliff edge while everyone slept, watching the sunset, staring across the vast landscape of rock and ice, thinking about nothing but the present moment. Sometimes life is a beautiful thing.

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Sun setting behind the 16-17k ft. ridge we climbed earlier in the day. I belive the Rescue Gully is below the rocks ahead. Killian Jornet used this route for his speed ascent/descent.

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Mt. Foraker and the 16-17k ridge under the midnight sun.

SUMMIT DAY

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We hurriedly angled back to the ridge, but because of the altitude I soon had to gauge down our pace to allow two breaths between each step. Every thirty steps I’d pause to count out fifteen breaths before continuing.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

Tears ran down their faces because it was their last visit to a place they loved more than any plot on earth…I remembered a comment murmured by one of the 1913 climbers: “It’s like looking out the windows of Heaven.” And suddenly my cheeks were wet, too.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

As they made their way up the summit ridge, they could see the graceful spires of Mt. Huntington and the Moose’s Tooth poking surrealistically out of a thick layer of clouds blanketing the Ruth Glacier, a distant thirteen thousand feet below. “I knew in an abstract, intellectual sort of way,” Yates explains, “that it was a beautiful view, but I couldn’t get myself to care about it: I’d been up all night; I felt totally strung out; I was just too tired.”

—Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

We got up early for the first time on Wednesday, June 4th. All other days we slept in to acclimatize or because we didn’t care. It never got dark at “night”, just colder, so time was flexible. But today we wanted to beat the guided teams up Denali Pass to avoid getting stuck in bottlenecks. We also wanted to maximize our time in the “warmer” part of the day. On Denali you don’t want an “alpine start” to the summit. It’s cold enough. You want to climb in the warmest part of the day to avoid frostbite, etc.

They call the section below Denali Pass at 18,500’ “The Autobahn”. A dozen people have fallen and died here over the years, including a Tacoma, WA woman in May after descending from the summit. “The AutoBahn” got its name from several Germans who died after shirking ice axes for trekking poles on this section. I feared the “The Authobahn” would be solid blue ice and we’d have to traverse precariously for a mile over 1,000ft of elevation gain. Thankfully a pretty good boot pack paved most of the way, although there were plenty of sections of solid ice. The snow was still pretty rock hard, hence falling wasn’t really a viable option. In fresh snow this section is probably cake as a fall would easily be stopped.

After getting to Denali Pass we un-roped and chatted with two Indian twins we’d seen lower on the mountain. Tashi and Nungshi Malik had done Everest last year, and were going to be the youngest and second pair of twins to summit Denali later that day. I asked them which mountain was harder, Everest or Denali? They said that both had different challenges, but that Everest was harder. I was disappointed.

Wesley decided to solo the rest of the route and took off. Cecil and I were torn about bringing a rope vs. shedding weight and soloing as well. I decided to take a guide’s advice and put the rope in my backpack. Having never done the route and recognizing comfort-levels soloing vary by person, bringing a rope just-in-case seemed reasonable. I took Cecil’s pack (we switched) and started up toward Archdeacon’s Tower. The route was steep and icy, but my confidence in climbing steep ice was at an all-time high so I moved quickly.

I started off strong, passing a bunch of teams, but as I climbed higher the altitude really started to push me down. Also Cecil’s pack was ridiculously heavy. It included the rope, his 50-pound down Feathered Friends “you-could-live-in-an-industrial-freezer-wearing-only-this-for-3-weeks-and-be-fine” parka, and some other things that seemed to weigh a ton. One of those things started vibrating when I set the pack down. I didn’t look or ask. Every time I look at Cecil now I picture him using—what I can only assume is a vibrating, 10 pound prosthetic cow’s vagina—behind a rock bad under Denali’s summit ridge. Anyway my summit pack seemed to weigh only 1/3 third of the weight of Cecil’s.

We agreed to ditch the rope at about 19,000-19,500’ as we were moving slowly by now. Finally approaching “the Football Field”—a large flat area below the final “Pig Hill” to the summit ridge—we hopped on the bandwagon of ditching our packs completely. This is the first and only time I used an ice screw on the trip for the existing purpose of anchoring my pack to the flat ground. Even on this mellow terrain I was moving at a snail’s pace. The altitude was winding me down, pulling my will to continue with it.

The “Football Field” is the same location that one of the worst accidents in Denali history is speculated to have happened. Several members of the Joe Wilcox party made the summit in 1967 while a menacing storm moved in, literally blowing them off/down the mountain to their deaths. Their bodies were never found, except for a corpse found later at around 17,900’ believed to be Steve Taylor, one of the stronger party members. Today was beautiful. We were lucky. But I can imagine how these seven men must’ve felt being in this same location almost 50 years ago. A fierce blizzard with winds like nothing they’d ever experienced or even knew was possible. A film played in my mind of a climber walking along on this nice, clear day intercut with scenes of 100-200 MPH winds in a blizzard on the exact same spot, with climbers futilely grasping at the ground to keep from being blown off the mountain. Knowing they were probably about to die.

As we approached Pig Hill, I knew I needed to dig deep. The flatness of the Football Field lulls you toward Pig Hill, and Pig Hill smacks you in the face as you try to shield the blows and blindly move up the last, steep stretch toward the summit ridge. Pig Hill is the site of a 2012 accident that left someone dead and more than a few people emotionally scarred for life. It’s just steep enough that you’d do it without protection, but you wouldn’t want to fall in anything but deep powder. A guided group fell on Pig Hill in 2012 with a guide who was unprepared to handle an accident. The result was a guide being forced to abandon his team and someone dying of exposure in a storm. Read more here.

I moved slowly to the top of Pig Hill with Cecil. Wesley came down about halfway up the hill and gave Cecil his puffy coat. Even though I was barely able to focus on walking, I still remember thinking that the coat was going to ruin summit ridge pictures. It was old and bland in color compared to Cecil’s current bright clothes.

We finally reached the top of the hill and I sat down on the summit ridge. Dave and the Utah guys were coming back from the summit and wanted a group picture. Someone else took the picture while I remained seated, too exhausted to stand right then. Everyone else was standing. I’d love to see that picture. I needed water and food and had neither. Dave had a couple of gummy candies he shared that tasted amazing. I needed 50 more. I could tell Dave was beat too and looking forward to finishing his descent. I could also see the climb had impacted him with some amount of profoundness. He warned us about not falling on the ridge as it was narrow with a lot of exposure.

As I sat there on the summit ridge I started becoming emotional. I was exhausted. I was worried about making a stupid mistake on the ridge due to exhaustion and falling to my death. I was reflecting about all of the challenges I’d overcome to get here, how close I was to the end. I told Cecil I needed a minute as a wave of emotion came over me and tears appeared behind my goggles. The whole thing caught me off guard, I wasn’t expecting to be this worn physically and mentally. If someone was to ask about the tears I was going to tell them that "I’m not cying, I’ve just been cutting onions. I’m making a lasagna…for one."

Getting up, I slowly made my way across the summit ridge toward the summit. Some people were coming down, I told them I was sort of “hanging in there” and to try and find a way around me. They obliged and I kept moving, focusing on every step. After a while, strength and confidence returned and I moved more quickly. Cecil and I arrived at the summit and I thanked him for staying with me. He brought a couple prints with meaning to him and I took pictures of him holding them on the summit. The view was breathtaking (hypoxia-based pun intended - I’ll be here all week, try the fish). I felt like a cliché getting emotional again by reaching the summit using the “easy” route, but I didn’t care. It didn’t take away from the experience of feeling a pinnacle moment the culminated from months of planning, training, and suffering.

The two white whales were still frozen in their arch out of the sea of ice fog and clouds. Long, snow-covered ridges of the McKinley massif flowed into the fog like white rivers into estuaries of darkness. I pictured the little animals that would be awake below the surface of clouds; ptarmigan and hares, moving with the quietness of the snow, would be hiding in their whiteness among the drifts, listening for prowling foxes and coyotes. Down there were streams half-choked with ice, winding across the tundra, with grayling responding to their currents in that unimaginable darkness beneath the ice…“Wow,” Dave murmured, breaking the silence. “This makes all the work worthwhile.”

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

Clouds had started rolling in around 19,000’ and below. I couldn’t take enough pictures, and my strength and enthusiasm increased as a result. It was getting late though. A storm was coming. We said some last congratulatory remarks to others who shared the summit with us, then started our descent.  

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Mountain Trip guide of the Malik twins approaches the summit.

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Cecil passing North America’s highest cornice.

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Two twins Tashi and Nungshi Malik approach Denali’s 20,237ft summit after climbing Everest last year. Vinson Massif in Antarctica remains on their “Seven Summits” list.

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The late afternoon sun shining brightly as climbers start to descend back towards high camp.

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Lone climber with a technical tool descending the summit ridge.

DESCENT

Cecil and I were both kind of fading in and out. We were exhausted and needed food and water, but had neither for a while now. We reached our packs on the Football Field. Wesley had drank the last of Cecil’s water and left the pack. Continuing down we reached the place where we had stashed the rope, then roped up. Both of us were nervous about descending the Autobahn beneath Denali Pass due to how tired we were. My eyes would close then open, like trying to stay awake on the highway late at night after a long climb with no sleep. Clouds were rolling in around us and the sun’s angle was getting lower, casting our shadows across the rocks, small crevasses, and spindrift. I started repeating phrases that included things I’d look forward to once off the mountain, “steaks, burgers, milkshakes, hot shower, girlfriend”. This kept me going and a bit distracted from the onset of fatigue.

We managed to safely descend some of the steeper sections above Denali Pass. Another guided team came into view as we reached the start of the Autobahn. Due to timing we were able to follow them down, leveraging running protection. At each picket we stopped to clip/unclip our rope, at each picket I wanted to sit down and rest but resisted. It was nice to not have to deal with placing biners/slings/pickets for the running pro, but they were moving so slowly it kind of prolonged our suffering. By this time I’d become so comfortable in the terrain that the pro felt a bit superfluous, even though I still felt exhausted. The Indian twins (Tashi or Nangshi) were behind us and I think they probably shared my fatigue and impatience. One of them kept unintentionally running into me when I stopped to wait for the pro to be passed. It was amusing.

As the sun set it cast a large, vivid halo called a “sun dog”, which happens when low angle light interacts with ice crystals in the air. Cecil pointed it out and I immediately took a picture. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, or at least not that vividly. We finally made it back to the 17,200’ camp and were quickly sleeping.

The morning brought a whiteout and a lot of fresh snow. We decided to solo down the West Buttress ridge. I’d become comfortable climbing in this terrain and wanted to descend more quickly. The Utah guys roped up and we followed. Near about 16,300’ a few of the Utah guys slipped on a steep snow slope, but self-arrested and recovered without much issue.

Descending the fixed lines were next. I was still wearing the same clothes I’d worn to the summit, and so far my body temp was fine. Once on the fixed lines I immediately overheated as it required a lot more effort to descend than I had anticipated. I tried to take off everything I would while anchored into the lines, but was still hot. Descending the remainder of the headwall was miserable due to the heat.

At the base of the headwall we noticed that it had dumped. 1-2 ft of fresh snow extended down to basecamp. I’m sure the skiers were happy.

We rested at the 14,200’ camp that afternoon and set off down the mountain around midnight. Maneuvering the sleds around Windy Corner, then down Squirrel and Motorcycle Hill wasn’t easy. I managed 2 sleds around Windy Corner, and Cecil helped manage these down the two steep hills. Wesley stayed in front and pointed out obvious crevasses and puked at least once. The entire lower mountain was covered in fresh powder, so this made things a bit easier due to increased friction and potential slip forgiveness. Around 2-3am the morning light cast the mountain in a purple glow. Everyone took note and enjoyed our gorgeous backdrop to a final descent. Our party took only one crevasse fall on the way down to 11,000’, then Cecil and I strapped on our skis for the remainder of the trip. 

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Descending the “Autobahn” section below Denali Pass (~18k ft) as Cecil points out really unique sun flare behavior. This is more or less what the sun actually looked like, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. The Autobahn is the scene of more fatalities on the mountain than any other location.

SKIIING WITH A HEAVY PACK AND SLED

I set everyone’s expectations that descending with a sled, pack, and skis was going to be a shit-show of embarrassing falls. I’m not a strong skier, and Cecil is pretty new to it as well. Surprisingly we both did really well, only falling one time from 11’000’ to the airstrip. The amount of snow fall kept the sleds in-check behind us, although on steeper sections like Ski Hill my sled would appear beside me, as if challenging me in a race. Steering out of established tracks and into fresh stuff mitigated sled aggressiveness pretty well. Also yelling at the sled helped.

After a pit stop at the Anchorage Team’s tent for some cold bacon around 7800’, we continued the remaining four miles back to the airstrip. The final stretch back up to the airstrip is called “Heartbreak Hill” as it bucks the downhill trend and rises about 800’ over a half mile or so. It lived up to its name. My heart was broken. Actually it wasn’t that bad. Cecil was way out ahead of me by this time. I was struggling with a personal issue that was causing a lot of pain/distraction, so much so I failed to switch my skis into tour mode. I think this slowed me down quite a bit, but I could also just be a weak human being.

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Iphone pic of our last gorgeous morning on the mountain, around 10,500 ft.

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Iphone pic at the bottom of Ski Hill.

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A nice Alaskan spine on Hunter near the airstrip. 

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Mt. Hunter - I’d love climb it someday.

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Southeast Kahiltna Glacier fork.

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Back at the 7,200ft basecamp. Cecil and another climber watch a chopper fly in for supplies.

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Another view of Hunter’s seracs (I loved this view).

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Another view of a spine on Hunter. I loved the shapes and shadows.

FLIGHT BACK TO TALKEETNA

Waiting for the plane was comical. First off, we were lucky to have planes even landing today. Others who had started their climbs earlier had to wait up to a week at the airstrip for weather to clear. That said, the Talkeetna Air Taxi coordinator said that we weren’t going to be able to leave until late that afternoon, maybe 3-4pm (it was 9-10am when we arrived). Everyone was exhausted and counting the seconds up to when they could shower and eat a burger or pizza. For most of us, this was the hardest thing we’d ever done in our lives. Some people waiting hadn’t showered for 3 weeks. We looked ragged. Our smell must have been disgusting. Layers of sunscreen, sweat, dirt, and who knows what else caked our blistered skin. By now the sun had become hot, reflecting off the airstrip, cooking us and heating up all of the bacteria attached to our skin, clothes, and hair.


The reason we had to wait until the afternoon was that Talkeetna Air Taxi needed to run their daily schedule of “flightseeing” tours. This meant we’d see our plane land while tourists unloaded, walked around the plane taking pictures of us and the landscape, then return to the plane and take off. Repeat. All of us sat there on the glacier like a freak show while tourists snapped photos, then left using all available seats in the plane. They were returning to running water, hot prepared food, and beer. I understood this was certainly a necessary part of the TAT business, but I was darkly entertained and tormented by the irony. If only the tourists knew they were delaying desperate castaways from reaching land while they made a spectacle of us. Maybe they did.

Fortunately we were able to get out earlier by splitting up the group. Cecil, Brandon and I rode in a tiny plane. This plane looked like a small Saab. It amazed me when our luggage and four adults actually fit into the thing with the doors closed.

The pilot wasn’t shy about getting close to the landscape, which made for a pretty unforgettable flight. Our arriving flight was pretty socked in, but now the weather was crystal clear. We could see for miles in every direction. Ice and granite walls lit up under the bright sun and cast shadows on the vast glaciers below. We flew directly over and beside granite walls and ridges. The pilot didn’t seem to have any fear about getting intimate with the Alaska Range’s features. We passed around my camera trying to get some good pictures, but I think the real visual treat was the motion of moving past these large structures at close range and high speeds, something lost in a still photo. I’d love to go back with and get some aerial video here. I’m still editing some aerial stuff I got in the North Cascades a couple months ago and I’m hooked on the perspectives you get floating above the inhospitable alpine terrain. 

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Cecil, Brandon, and I squeeze into a tiny plane for the ride back to Talkeetna. The views were amazing and the pilot wasn’t shy about low-flying ridges. I’d love to go back with a heli, cineflex, and a Red Dragon.

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Another view from the small plane against the vast, expansive mountains and glaciers around Denali. An unforgettable ride.

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Iphone pic of our last gorgeous morning on the mountain, around 10,500 ft.

RECOVERY

Physically we had set out lean and fit, with a very low percentage of body fat. After five weeks on the mountain Dave, Pirate, and I had lost an average of thirty-five pounds each, a situation we set out to rectify with enthusiasm— the second morning back I had a regular breakfast plus nineteen eggs.

—Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

The first step toward recovery was to shower, change into clean clothes, then eat as much as possible in Talkeetna without puking. I had lost 20 pounds on the trip after putting on 5 pounds pre-trip. My diet since has not been great, but I think the statute of limitations has expired on me eating maple bars a few times a day with “Denali recovery” as the excuse.

For the 4 days following returning to Seattle I mostly slept and did nothing. My girlfriend Audrey had flown in and was probably regretting it due to the boredom of me not leaving the bed or kitchen much, but I was happy to have her around after a 2 weeks of being around mostly dudes. On the 5th day I decided to test my fitness. I cruised up Tiger Mountain Cable Trail outside of Seattle, which is a popular training hike for mountaineers. I noticed that I was moving at a descent pace, but still had more energy. I was expecting to beat my record on this hike, but came up 5 seconds short. I think I was used to moving slowly on Denali, so I wasn’t pushing myself enough. A couple days later I tried it again and really focused on using the extra energy for speed vs. pulling an imaginary sled. At the top I looked at my watch and was happy to see that I’d beaten my old record by around 2 minutes (32 min, 30 seconds).

My upper body was another story. I think I’m still getting some strength/muscle mass back in my underused arms.

WHAT I WOULDN’T CHANGE

  • Timing. Per Dave’s research, we hit the window with the highest likelihood of summit success (June 2nd-5th).
  • Carry/movement strategy. We only did one cache run, and that was from the 11k camp
  • Bringing skis. The descent from 11,000’ was fun, and much faster/easier than booting it.
  • Down coat, layering, and boot strategy.
  • Diamox/Ambien combo.

WHAT I’D DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME

  • Purchase my own food to ensure I loved every ounce I carried.
  • Bring skis higher (to 14,200’ vs. 11,000’).
  • Leave a rope above Denali pass. We didn’t need it above this point, others might.
  • Bring less gear to power my camera.
  • Bring an extra lens cap or tether mine.
  • Bring fewer clothes (no “changes of clothes”).
  • Figure out a strategy to get climbers in more pictures doing interesting things.
  • Use a Hilleberg tent to avoid fly/inner setup issues.
  • Bring a couple movies, more podcasts.
  • Bring an even larger pee bottle.

WHAT’S NEXT

The mountain gave us what we had come for, and as we straddled it and held it and gently kicked it, I loved it more than I have ever loved a mountain before or since.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

Most importantly, by bringing myself over the edge and back, I discovered the passion to live my days fully, a conviction that will sustain me like sweet water on the periodically barren plain of our short lives.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

Talking about the tragic 1992 season “But no journalist wrote about the banality of city life or how easy it is to become yet another automation paying bills and working nine to five and being so removed from the primary necessities of life and so far from fear and natural beauty and human instinct that when death finally approaches in some antiseptic white room, just as you have been waiting for it, you sense that you have already been dead for years”.

—Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley

Climbing has shown me that I am all of these things: strong and weak, brave and cowardly, both immune to and at the mercy of the fear of death, all at the same time.

—Steve House, Beyond the Mountain

 “I don’t think I’ve ever suffered so much in my life and I decided a week before the climb (on the glacier approach) that I would do everything I could to get up but afterward I would do something a little different with my life…”

—Jonathan Waterman’s scrawl inside a granola box while in a snow cave with -30F weather outside after climbing the Cassin in winter.

All of these quotes come from those experiencing climbs far more intense than climbing the West Buttress route on Denali during the normal season. They also come from people who’ve lived these types of experiences dozens (hundreds?) of times, and who’ve pushed their limits further over the course of decades. But I still relate to the base sentiments. Taking risks, pushing yourself, putting yourself in uncomfortable environments. Loving and hating difficult situations, but not regretting having gone through them.

Near the end of the trip I felt like I never wanted to go through something like that again. It was miserable, uncomfortable, and near the end I couldn’t wait for it to be over. But after a couple days of being back in normal life, I wanted to go on the next one right away, wherever it was.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,

And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;

There are valleys unpeopled and still;

There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,

And I want to go back—and I will.

—Robert Service

A big thank you to the team for making this great experience a reality – what a trip. Also thanks to Rich Draves and John Sindell for sharing useful knowledge based on their Denali experiences for pre-trip planning.

APPENDIX: RELATED, OVERLAPPING/PERIPHERY DENALI NEWS

  • May 7th 2014 - Sylvia Montag (39 years-old, Tacoma, WA) dies in a fall on below Denali Pass on the “Autobahn” after becoming separated from her partner. They had ascended via the less technical Muldrow Glacier route, which is also the route Denali’s first ascender took. More here.
  • June 7th 2014 - Killian Jornet broke the speed record on the West Buttress route via the Rescue Gulley, 1 day after we left. He went up/down in just under 12 hours. Previous record holders included Chad Kellog (2003) and Ed Warren (2013).  Killian was acclimatizing while we were on route, but I didn’t see him or hear about him being there. Full details here.
  • June 11th – Everest record holder Melissa Arnot cancels a custom Denali climb due to poor weather patterns this year. This is interesting because it illustrates how lucky we were this year - only 30% of attempts have been successful when we left the mountain.
  • Four ski mountaineers skied Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker, and Denali in one trip, wow! Cecil met and talked with these guys. They said Hunter definitely had some scary sections. More here.

My Favorite Images/Adventures of 2013

2013 was a pretty good year for me in the mountains. Despite missing the first half due to a serious ankle injury, I was still able to accomplish climbs that pushed the envelope for me both technically and physically.

Highlights last year include ski descents down WA’s three highest peaks (including a solo descent on Rainier in one push), finally getting Baker’s North Ridge Ice Cliff after getting turned around 3x previously, climbing Stuart’s Complete North Ridge in a 3-night epic (one of Roper/Steck’s 50 classics and my most technical alpine rock climb yet), climbing Mt. Fernow which meant I’d now climbed 9 of the 10 highest peaks in WA, and of course the 24 hours+ of straight climbing on Buckner with Linsey and an epic boat, bus, bike ride extravaganza on Bonanza with Alin. I’ll never forget passing out on the ground—salami and wheat thins strewn about everywhere—after Linsey and I climbed until our heavy eyelids forced us to lie in the dirt with just enough energy to halfway eat something (Buckner).

Audrey and I ended up going on quite a few climbs/adventures together in ‘13. She’s always so great about being coaxed out of a warm sleeping bag to stand still with a headlamp, in the cold, often in precarious positions while I take long night exposures. The images she helps create often end up being personal favorites of mine, I really appreciate her willingness to try all sorts of crazy ideas.

In 2014 I’ll finally be releasing my Time-lapse project which will include aerial footage in the North Cascades. I’ll also be attempting a Denali summit in May. I’ve been training hard and am excited to try larger scale climbing outside the continental US. Rainier’s Liberty Ridge also on my list, and—who knows—maybe Goode to complete the 10 highest in WA.

Anyway, it’s hard not to be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in 2013, and I’m looking forward to new adventures and possibilities in 2014.

Most of the images below were taken with my Canon 5D MKIII + 16-35mm lens, although some are Go Pro video stills or Iphone pics. Click on any image to see a larger version on my Facebook page. Higher quality images can be seen on my 500px page.

MAY MOAB - CORONA ARCH with Audrey Sniezek

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JUNE MT BAKER - NORTH RIDGE with Alin, Catalin, Piotr

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JUNE MT BUCKNER with Linsey Warren

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JULY MT ADAMS - SOLO SKI DESCENT

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JULY MT RAINIER - SOLO SKI DESCENT

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JULY MT RAINIER - STEAMBOAT PROW with Brendan Dore

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JULY BONANZA PEAK with Alin

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AUGUST MT STUART - THE COMPLETE NORTH RIDGE with Jack and Audrey

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AUGUST FORBIDDEN PEAK with Audrey Sniezek

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OCTOBER MOUNT FERNOW with Linsey Warren

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DECEMBER MT RAINIER with Audrey Sniezek

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