From Friday 20th May until Monday 13th June I was on a trip to climb the West Buttress route on Denali (or Mt. McKinley), with its summit at 6194 meter or 20327 feet, in Alaska, USA.
I left on Friday 20th May, 10:15 from Schiphol Airport, with a Delta flight to Seattle. Being a flight to the US, they use every form of screening they can find, meaning: passport/boarding-pass check, full body-scan, carry-on luggage security check, personal interview/screening. After all this I finally got on the airplane. It turned out that Delta had just implemented a new 'comfort class' in their economy cabins, and I was lucky enough enough to be seated there. After an uneventfull flight, which allowed me to catch up on some movies (The King's Speech is a must-see), we landed in Seattle. A few things stood out there: 1. again: security screening - it took a full hour to get past customs, 2. mountains: Seattle is surrounded by mountains, from the Airport you look directly at the Cascades. This was actually a nice way to be welcomed to the US. After another hour it was time to board my Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage. After another uneventfull 3 hour flight, we landed in Anchorage. A quick taxi to Earth Bed & Breakfast, and it was finally time to get some sleep!
Saturday 21st May, one of my fellow climbers had arranged a pick-up by Talkeetna Taxi, a Talkeetna/Anchorage transport service, managed by Talkeetna local Tim. The pick-up was at 10 am, the ride took just under 3 hours. And then we were in Talkeetna, a nice little drinking town with a climbing problem. I loved it from the moment we drove into town. In Talkeetna (TKA), we stayed at the Roadhouse, in 'Lil' Cabin In The Back', nothing to luxurious, but fine for us. The advantage of staying at the Roadhouse: GREAT breakfast, but more about that later. First it was about time to get some lunch. We had arrived in TKA on the day of the start-up of a new little lunch shack; 'My Little Dumpling', which served authentic russian dumplings (AK has a Russian heritage), which really hit the spot. After lunch we visited the Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS), the guide service for our trip. Great to finally see it for real, after having seen so many pictures of it on their blog. After dinner at the West Rib, and a beer at the Fairview, it was time for bed.
Sunday 22nd May was the day we, the entire group, had enrolled in the Denali Skills Workshop at AMS. It was really nice we had all chosen to do the workshop, as it saves a lot of time on the first day of the expedition, both in Talkeetna during the Gear Check, and on the Glacier (skills review). First step during the workshop is the climbing gear check. AMS makes you bring a lot of climbing gear, but not to worry, it all serves a purpose. I might write a post about all the technical climbing gear, and the different set-ups later. After the gear check, time for some excercise: crevasse self-rescue (ascending a line), crevasse rescue of others (z-pulley systems) and fixed-line travel. After a long but fun day, everybody went to bed early.
Monday 23rd May was a big day - the first official day of our expedition! After a 7:45 pick-up from the Roadhouse and a quick last Skype session with Thea, we arrived at the AMS office again. The day was all about preparing to fly onto the glacier at the end of the day. First: gear check again. This time not the technical climbing gear (we had covered that the day before), but all of the other gear, which was lot. There will definately be a seperate gear-list with this post. I will also write some reviews for gear I got from
www.ultralightoutdoorgear.co.uk, one of my gear suppliers/sponsors (thanks again Mark!). After having made final decisions about what gear to take and what to leave behind, My total pack + duffelbag weight was 55 lbs - not too bad! This was, however, whithout groupgear like tents(+/- 4 lbs), food (+/- 20 lbs) and fuel (+/-10lbs)... So the total weight was to go up some.
After the gear check and getting everything packed it was time to visit the National Parks Service (NPS) Ranger Station. The rangers give a briefing which included information about all the practical and safety issues of the mountain. This includes the 'Clean Mountain Can' (mountain-style 'outhouse'), but also information about the route, and how to prevent frostbite. After the visit to the NPS, we dressed for the glacier, and went to the local airport. We flew on to the mountain in a DeHavilland Beaver on skis, which was a great experience - we had great views of the mountains. I got to fly 'shotgun', and was able to shoot a lot of video (which I'll upload to Youtube later). After the landing on the glacier, we quickly pitched the tents, had some dinner and went to bed (well, to the sleeping mats & bags). Tip: to not sleep cold, -fully- inflate your pads.
Tuesday 24th May was the first day of glacier travel, with a single carry to camp 1, or 7800' (2400m) camp. A single carry means you carry all your gear in one time, which means: heavy. We got up early, and were out of camp relatively quick, if you consider we had cleaned-up camp and set-up the rope and sled-rigs for the first time as a team. In just under 5 hours we walked into camp. After having probed the area we set up camp and relaxed a bit.
Wednesday 25th May was a day for a forward cache/carry to just under 11k camp. The goal of a cache is to not have to carry all your stuff at one time. After a solid breakfast of bagels with bacon and creamcheese we set off at 9 am. We reached the cache-site around 1 pm. During our walk up we constantly played 'tag' with an Alpine Ascents group. As they were on their move day (to the next camp), we did not see them again after the cache-point. Moving back to camp we were treated to magnificent views of the lower glacier.
Thursday 26th May was the day of the move to 11k camp. Having walked most of the route yesterday, we made it to camp in good time. The only new thing on the route was a steep part, know as Kahiltna Pass, just before camp. This was the first time I noticed the altitude, as I was a bit tired and light-headed when we got to camp. Luckily all was fixed with some rest, food and water, water and water.
Friday 27th May was the first back-carry day, where we picked up the cache we had made on the 25th. We left before breakfast, were at the cache-site in about 20 minutes (descending is much faster then ascending, off course), and were back in camp before 10 am. Back-carry days are rest days is disguise, as you're only active for a few hours and then rest. After we got back we had a hashbrowns lunch and some real 'cowboy' coffee (don't drink the last bit!). In the picture you can see the curious way our guides tried to improve reception of their radios, to be able to receive the daily 8 pm weather.
Saturday 28th May we carried to a cache just around Windy Corner. From this day we stopped using the snowshoes and sled, and went on only with crampons and backpacks. Most teams do this from 14k camp, but it's a guide-preference thing. It turn out to be a good call, als I imagine using sleds up motercycle hill and around windy corner would be a pain. Unfortunately we lost some climbers, Jody and Tracy, today, due to physical problems. Chris, our second guide took them back to base-camp.
Sunday 29th May was again a move-day, to 14k camp this time (AKA Basin Camp, Medical Camp or Advanced Base Camp). We arrived there in good time, but that was not the end of the day, as at 14k camp you have to fortify camp with snow-walls. So, after we got to camp, we pitched tents and started building, until 5 pm. It was a good feeling to get to 14k camp, as I felt we were now in more of a position to 'really' climb the mountain, as you're higher on the mountain, and high camp (17k) is fairly close. At this time we were only with five (Joey, our lead guide, Jon, Bruce, Zach and myself), we were hoping Chris could get back to us in time, to be able to follow the same acclimatisation schedule.
After a long day, we went to bed (well... sleeping-bag) early.
Monday 30th May we back-carried to Around Windy Corner. It was clear we were at higher altitude, as it was much colder at night, and everything outside and inside the tent was frozen. After reaching the cache fairly quick again, the work started, as we also needed to carry everyting Chris, Jody and Tracy had cached there, so there were 5 to carry an 8 man cache. In the end there was a bonus though, as the lunch- & snackfood Jody and Tracy had cached could be devided between the rest of group. Which was nice, because when you pack your lunches and snacks, you think you know what you'll like on the higher mountain, but some more variety is definately welcome when you're really there. After some R&R some of us talked for a while with AMS guide Greg Collins, who summitted Denali 28 times (!). His tips: rest-step and pressure-breathe as much as you can.
Tuesday 31st May was a rest-day turned wearther-day. We slept in to 9 am and then brunched to around 11.30. The plan was to go to the Edge of the World around 3 pm, and then to do some fixed-line ascension training. However, around 1 pm clouds started forming, so we moved the training to 1.30 pm. When we were done with that, the camp and The Edge were in 'inclement condidions' (clouds/fog/snow/light hail): hopefully we would get to go The Edge another time (It turned out we would not...) and hopefull Chris, who was moving that day to get back to us, would reach us. Luckily he did. He moved from Basecamp to 14k, basically in 1 day. Knowing the route, I know that took some determination!
Wednesday 1st June was supposed to be a rest-day, mostly for the benefit of Chris. However, the weather was good that day, and the forecast was unclear, so Joey decided we would do a casual day, and do a light carry up the fixed lines of the Headwall. This casual day turned out not to be so casual. But, what do you expect on Denali. The first time up, and down, the fixed lines took some getting used to. Luckily the route was well traveled when we got there, so there were some bucket steps, whick made climbing easier. After we got back to camp I was really looking forward to the next day, which was to be a rest-day. But...
Thursday 2nd June would not be a rest-day. Again, because of the weather and the forecast, it was smarter to move this day, to High Camp at 17k. The good thing was we knew about half the route, but that meant we also did not know the other half and also from 17k camp there is no back-carry, so we would have to pick up the cache as we moved up.
Normally this is a tough day, because after gettin to camp you also have build camp. We were lucky though, as Joey was in contact with another AMS group that was moving down from 17k camp that same day, which meant we could move in to their tents, pitched and snow-walls ready! Bonus! It still was a long day though, but as Joey had predicted, the climbing was some of the nicest on the entire route, as it was more exposed and different from the glacier-climbing we had done so far. So, a long but satisfying day in the end.
Friday 3rd June was finally (!) a rest-day. We slept in until 10 am, and did some work on the walls in the early afternoon. But apart from that nothing special. During dinner Joey gave us a briefing for summit day, which, technically could be any day now, weather permitting. The weather wasn't lookin to good though, so we were likely not to go up the next day, which was a blessing in disguise for me, as I was still tired from the days before.
Saturday 4th June turned out to be another rest/weahter-day though. The day we could go for the summit, Joey would wake us around 6 am, but at 6 am: no Joey, also at 8 am: no Joey. So, another day in the tent, resting. Well, not after removing a 2 foot high layer of snow from the tent anyway.
Sunday 5th June would also turn out to be a weather-day, woke up at 6 am, 8 am and finally 10 am, but no Joey, so no summit attempt. Breakfast was oatmeal, which was hard to get down. Not only do I not like oatmeal that much, it is hard to eat a lot at 17k. But, it's important to get in the calories! Even on rest-days at 17k your body burns an insane amount of calories. I helped our neighbouring AMS expedition beef up their wall this day. I also met Tucker, which was the the NPS ranger on duty at 17k. Tucker would turn out to be very busy, the next day. Everybody expected that the weather would clear up the next day, and probably -only- the next day. However, clear does not mean 'not cold'; the weather forecast predicted a low of about -15F (which equals -25 Celcius) that night at camp.
Monday 6th June would turn out to be THE day, finally, an attempt to climb to the summit! Unfortunately I stopped making notes after summit-day, so this is mostly from memory... We did however got woken up around 6 am, and we ended up leaving camp around 9 am. First up was the Autobahn, to get to Denali Pass. The Autobahn is in the shade at this time of day, so it was important to take care of hand and feet, fingers and toes, which meant: mittens, overboots and hand- & feetwarmers. It took us about two and a half hours to get up to the Pass. I was on the first ropeteam, our second ropeteam unfortunately got caught behind 2 groups which were slower up the Autobahn, and because of that they got very cold (standing still on a cold mountain in the shade can get very cold). When we joined up again, we all took care of our any cold body-parts. I had used feetwarmers, but they started to bunch up in my boots, so at that point, I removed them. Bunching up of feetwarmers, or socks, can lead to reduced blood circulation, which can lead to cold feet and eventually frostbite, so I't important to take good care, of everything.
After that first break, we had a shorter push, past the Weather Station. After that break we started moving again, but the wind picked up, which lead to longer pushes from that point on, because having breaks in the wind is just too cold. We passed the Football Field before I knew it. After het Football Field comes Pig Hill, or Profanity Hill. It deserves its name. Especially after what had been a long day already, getting up Pig Hill was hard, it seems to have no end. But, off course, it does, and on top of Pig Hill the Summit Ridge starts. A few in the group were startin to get tired, so after a good check if everybody was still willing and able to continue, we started the ridge. I found this to be a nice part of the mountain. Just like getting to 17K camp, the ridge is pretty exposed, and there are great views. And finally, after about 10 hours of climbing, the summit was in sight. It was a busy day on the higher mountain, because everybody who had been waiting at 17k camp for a few days took advantage of the weather window, which meant we had to wait our turn on the real summit. So first we sat for a few minutes just below the highest point of North America. Joey had rammed in a picket, and fixed the ropes to it, just to be safe.
Around 6.30 PM on the 6th of June we finally got our turn to stand on the summit of Denali. It was a great feeling. My third time on top of one of the seven summits, but only the first time with clear views all around; we could see the entire Alaska Range. Luckily somebody was willing to take pictures of the entire team on the summit. Unfortunately we did not have the time to take personal pictures on the summit, as it was very windy, and with windchill effect the temperature was around -30F or -35 Celcius. So after our brief celebration on the summit, we had to descend, which took about 4 hours in total. I found the descent to be very hard, and was glad to be back at camp around 11 pm, it had been a 14 hour day. When descending we noticed a lot of helicopter traffic around us. As it turned out, the SAR helicopter had rescued 3 individuals with either HACE or HAPE from the high mountain (19k or around 6000 meters). 3 individual rescues on the high part of the mountain on 1 day is busy. NPS ranger Tucker and his team of volunteer patrollers all helped and coordinated these rescues on-site, which meant they also had a long and hard (and probably cold) day, up there.
Tuesday 7th June we woke up around 11 am. Around 2 pm we had broken up camp and started our descent to 14k camp. We were moving slowly on the ridge, because of a very slow japanese team in front of us. When we finally got to the short section of fixed lines at Washburns Thumb, we had to stop completely, because one of the japanes decided he was too tired to continue, and just sat down and stopped moving. After some 'motivation' by Jon, he eventually moved a bit, so the 30 climbers who were waiting to descend, could pass him. You really find all kinds of climbers on Denali, including ones who should not be there... After descending the fixed lines of the headwall also, we got to 14k camp around 7 pm. We quickly pitched our tents, so we could take a nap. We woke up around 2 am.
Wedsnesday 8th June was the day (or, very eary morning) of the 'midnight deathmarch'. We walked from 14k camp back to basecamp in 1 stretch. Off course we took a few breaks, but they were few and not very long, so in essence we walked from 2 am to 11 am. The last hour was the worst, though. Now I know why they call it 'Heartbreak Hill'...
But, when we were at basecamp finally, we were done. Nothing left to do! Joey had cashed a sixpack at basecamp, so we could celebrate our trip, summit and safe return. Chris and I only had to wait for around an hour for a ride back to Talkeetna, the rest had to wait an hour longer. All in all we were lucky to get back so quickly.
In Talkeetna we unpacked our gear, aired some stuff out, and made arrangements for where we would stay that night, which would be the House of the Seven Trees. Really, any place that had a shower would have been fine, but the Seven Trees was very nice. That night we had a celebratory dinner at the West Rib and 'a few' drinks at the Fairview.
And that was it, the expedition was over. The next day we all had our last breakfast together at the Roadhouse, exchanged information and pictures and got on a shuttle back to Anchorage. It was a bit hard to de-acclamitize from the group and the expedition, but that's just the way it is. I had a great time and the expedition was a success. I hope I will return to Talkeetna and the Alaska Range again, some day!
Words by Sieto van der Heide - www.vanderheide.net