Thursday, April 15, 2010

Denali Dreaming

It is April 15th as I write this--over three months since my last post, but more importantly, only two weeks until I leave for Alaska to climb Mt. McKinley (Denali).

January and February were still months of recovery from injuries. My left ankle was (is!) the last bone to heal from my fall in October. Three steps forward and two steps back has been the routine. Weeks will go by with seemingly little progress, then a breakthrough day will make me giddy with happiness.

Above, the Tetons in winter

It must have been during one those giddy moments when my alpine climbing partner, Lewis, gave me a call from Bellingham in early February. Another friend of his had piqued his interest by talk of going to Alaska, only to change plans soon after. As Lewis told me this, I volunteered that I'd be interested in going. Lewis wanted to do two routes--the standard West Buttress route, used by about 85% of parties that try Denali, followed by the Cassin Ridge, which on an average year might see only a few successful attempts. It was big talk for a guy who had just gotten off crutches, but it was also an easy thing to say, sitting on the comfort of a warm couch.

These past months have been focused on that goal. I tried skiing a bit in Jackson, but had little success as my foot was still hurting. I headed back to Bellingham to drop off some things in storage, then went to Red Rocks in Vegas (again!) with the help of friend Susie's driving to spend some time soaking in the pleasures of the spring desert and of being with my friends Sam and Brie and Susie. I climbed a bit, hiked a bit, and spent evenings going over gear lists for the upcoming trip. Finally, at the beginning of April, I returned to Bellingham to spend some time training and climbing with Lewis and again, going over gear lists and reading what we could about our planned routes. Picture: Climbing in Red Rocks

Though the official name of the highest point in North America is Mt. McKinley, the native name is Denali; this is also the name of the surrounding park and many people refer to the 23,320 foot mountain by that name as well. I prefer Denali, but may occasionally also interchange names. But whether called Mt. McKinley or Denali, the mountain remains the same.

Statistics on Denali are easy to find. The lowest recorded temperature was -100º (F). Fortunately I won't be going in winter, but even in May -25º can be expected. In 2008, the latest year where stats are available 1,272 climbers attempted Denali; 59% were successful. There were four deaths. The average trip length was 17 days. We plan on anywhere from 25-40 days as our plans include summitting twice by two different routes. Denali sits on a plain at 2,000 feet, and rises 18,000 above the plain (though we'll be flying in to 7,000 feet). Everest sits on a plateau at 17,000 feet, and rises 12,000 feet above this. So Denali is actually a taller mountain than Everest (though of course not higher).

But statistics cannot ready one for the sheer bulk and beauty of Denali, according to my friends who have climbed there. I am prepared to be overwhelmed!

Training in Bellingham. The Nooksack Cirque