Trails and tribulations near Bellingham
50 lb pack, 10 lb ankle weights, 65 lb tree stump
My training had gone well, at least in the few weeks before departing for Alaska. I had returned to Bellingham in early May in order to spend some time climbing and training with Lewis, one of two partners for this trip. We got in some ice climbing, glacier travel, and skiing around Mt. Baker, as well as carrying heavy packs up the trails in the Chuckanuts. But as we left Bellingham, I couldn't help but think that my current level of fitness would have been nice to be at three or four months previously. In the past, I've been secure in the knowledge that I could keep climbing literally all day; Lewis and I have done a couple of climbs of 24+ non-stop hours. That type of fitness is an essential component of confidence in the mountains; the ability to simply keep moving in all types of conditions can get one out of a lot of problems! I wasn't so sure I had that in me at this point. I hadn't really tested myself since The Accident.
But leave Bellingham we did, on May 30. We planned on two full days in Anchorage in order to organize gear and shop for food. At Sea-Tac, our bags weighed in at 49 pounds each; four bags of gear between us, almost 200 pounds sans food and fuel. What the hell was in there? Cerebrally it all added up to match our gear lists—tents, sleeping bags, winter clothes, skiis, and climbing and camping gear for two routes—but certain parts of my mental faculties just couldn't handle that number—and it was only going to increase!
Perfectly packed bags
We spent our time, which stretched to three days, in Anchorage according to plan. Fortunately Lewis' friend loaned us the use of his house there while he was out of town. Our gear and food quickly spread throughout the kitchen and living room as we went through our lists. Another friend of Lewis initially helped us around town, giving us the local beta. I met Patti for the first time, and between the three of us we finally got everything packed and ready for the mountain. Patti didn't have a lot of climbing experience, but she is an exceptional long distance athlete. Every team going to Denali needs to have an official expedition name; considering the shape Patti was in, I figured that Lewis and I were just a couple of cupcakes compared to her, and thus our name was born: Team Patticupcakes.
Taking over the house in Anchorage
After one last long shower in Anchorage, we took the Purple Shuttle to Talkeetna on Tuesday, May 4th, and were able to fly out to the glacier the same day via Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT). The weather that day was a good indication of the rest of the trip, clear and affording wonderful views of Denali as we approached, but slowly closing in as we landed on the glacier in another world at 7,200 feet. The weather dictates so much of the climb, from gear selection to simply being able to move or not move. We were expecting to get hit by at least one storm, one that would typically bring 50+ mph winds and temperatures of -25º (F) or less. I've had no experience climbing—or living—in these temperatures, and I blew through several months of a normal budget in purchasing some big ticket items for this trip.
First views of Denali on the flight in
Glacier landing at base camp, 7,200 feet
The first full day on the mountain we spent further organizing gear and Lewis rigged up our sleds with brakes and, well, rigging . Denali peaked through the clouds—it looked to be still quite a ways away! The next morning we awoke to snow and low clouds. We decided to follow the trail to the end of the wanded section, a few miles, and loaded up half our gear for a carry. This became standard operation over the next few days. We would carry half our gear to a cache area, bury it for protection against marauding ravens, and return to our tents for the evening. The next day we would pack up camp and and then carry the rest of the gear to the next stopping area. The day after that we would either rest or, if the previous cache was short of camp, we would go back and bring in our cached gear and food. This way we never carried our full load of 150 pounds. Even these half loads were heavy, and we divided the load between the packs on our back and the sleds at our heels.
Heading out to 7,800'
The glacier is at 7,200 feet; the first camp is at 7,800 feet, a small nominal elevation gain but one which goes first down a hill a few hundred feet, then climbs back up and follows a long glacier flow to finally end at the bottom of a steeper section at the 7,800 foot level. There are a few options for the second camp; we cached at 9,200 feet one day, then after a rest day and a weather day (couldn't move because of a weather system) we moved from 7,800 to 11,000 feet. The day after, we went back down and brought up our cache from 9,200 feet.
The weather during this period had, after a few nice days, turned cold, windy, and generally socked in. This weather wore on us all; it was depressing to not see the sun. On an off day, Patti and Lewis climbed Motorcycle Hill, a steep hill that comprised the next section after the 11k camp. As they arrived at the top to look over the ridge, they came upon a couple of French climbers who had also stopped to enjoy the view and take a break. One of the climber's sleds started to slide away from him, and he took a couple of quick steps to grab it before it went over the edge. He succeeded in catching the sled, but was now over a slab of hard blue ice. The momentum carried him across the ice and shot him between two large rocks that marked a point of no return over the edge, and he slid down a gully out of view. His partner, Lewis, and three other climbers in the area tried to make contact with the climber to no avail, and Lewis called in for help to the rangers stationed at 14,000 feet.
Lewis and Patti escorted the remaining French climber back to camp at 11k while a helicopter dropped a ranger as close as possible to the fallen climber. The climber had slid some 2,000 feet and didn't make it. How quickly things can go wrong in the mountains! Mountain climbing takes place in one of the most beautiful playing fields imaginable; the canvas on which we practice our sport is vast, inspiring, and terrifying all at once. In an average year, 2 to 4 climbers will perish. If climbing Denali were an organized sport, there would be calls to ban it. Imagine if in boxing or mixed martial arts, among the most brutal of sports, there were a death every 150 matches.
Lewis and I made a cache at 13,000 feet on what proved to be one of our worst weather days on the mountain. The wind at Windy Corner was, appropriately enough, windy. Climbing Motorcycle Hill wasn't too bad, but Squirrel Point gave us our first taste of the wind which only increased from there. Forty miles an hour steady, with gusts of fifty or sixty was our estimate. I was literally blown off my feet a few times, and it was with great relief we dropped our loads and returned to the relative quiet of 11k camp. Climbing the last hill before Windy Corner also gave me my first indication that something was not quite right with me. Though that hill was less steep than Motorcycle Hill or even Squirrel Point, I simply could not find my rhythm. We had begun to catch some parties that had left camp before us until that slope almost brought me to a standstill. That particular angle was just hell on my ankle, and it felt like I was dragging a useless appendage along, a la Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects.
After several more days we finally established ourselves at 14,000 feet. This camp is located in a large bowl, at the base of a 2,000 foot “headwall” which contained the steepest climbing of the route. Even at this, the route is not that steep. The route we are doing, the West Buttress route, follows a line pioneered by Bradford Washburn in 1951 and has become the standard route on the mountain. Of the approximately 1,100 people who will attempt Denali this year, 80-90% of them will ascend via the West Buttress. It is a non-technical route; that is to say, a minimum of actual climbing skills are needed to ascend. Fitness, the ability to acclimatize, tenacity, and will are by far the more important prerequisites. That is not said to minimize the difficulty of the route; still only 50-60% of those who begin the route will stand on top of the mountain. Rather, the difficulties simply lie in areas other than the ability to swing an ice axe, set gear, or equalize an anchor.
We stay at 14,000 feet for a few days before going higher. It's a convenient place to be, somewhat sheltered, with the ranger's tents nearby, and is a chance to chat with new acquaintances and to find out who you know that they know, and most of all to simply rest and acclimatize. The rangers patrol the mountain for 30 days before being replaced by another group. The rangers who happen to be on the mountain at this time are all friends of Patti and Lewis from Yosemite. The climbing community is small, down to two degrees of separation. At 11k I had noticed an apprentice guide for one of the companies that looked familiar; I finally asked him if he had ever been to Bellingham. He replied that he had taken an AAI class there one time a few years ago, and I finished his sentence by saying, “and I was on that class with you!”. Yes, he was one of the participants on a twelve day rock and alpine class that introduced me to the joys of mountaineering some seven or eight years ago.
After caching at 16,000'
There are six guiding companies that are allowed to guide on Denali, and about 25% of climbers who attempt Denali will do so using one of these companies. While using such a guide service is somewhat expensive, those who do so stand a slightly higher chance of success than non-guided parties. The guides work long hard hours and the success rate is testament to the leadership of the guides, especially considering the wide variance of skill and conditioning levels of a typical party.
At the steepest part of the climb, the guiding companies have set up a series of fixed ropes to help safeguard—and aid—the route. As we ascend from 14k camp to make a cache at 16k, we clip into these ropes using an ascender, basically a handle with a one-way ratchet that we pull on to help pull ourselves up the rope. Although the slope is only 40-50% and I would normally just use an ice axe and no rope on such a section, I am only too happy to have the ropes at my disposal. We are climbing to 16,000 feet, the air is thin, and I am tired. I'll take any help I can get!
After burying our cache, we descend back to camp to rest before the final two legs of the journey: a move to camp at 17,000 feet, and then the summit day. The weather has been consistently good during this period. I am amazed at how warm it really is; daytime temperatures at 14k are near 25º, and with the heat of the sun not only directly above but also reflecting from every angle off the snow, it is quite comfortable to stand around in a short sleeve T-shirt. Temperatures inside the tent can reach 90º or more. Until a cloud goes over the sun that is, and then it suddenly feels like the ambient temperature of 25º! Although it never becomes completely dark, once the sun falls behind the mountains (around 9:30 p.m at this particular camp), we quickly head to the comfort of the tent and our sleeping bags.
Doing what it takes to stay warm
On the day we plan to make our move to 17k, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. with one strikingly clear thought in my head: I am not going to make it. I have been ignoring the pain in my ankle, made considerably worse by the climb to 16k, but the recognition has suddenly come to the forefront of my conscious. I lie there alone thinking only of failure for a few hours till Lewis and Patti wake up, and tell them of my thoughts. As it turns out, Patti was on the edge of going or not going and now decides that she needs a bit more rest; she has started to have a bit of pain upon inhalation and wants to wait till that gets better before ascending further. So Lewis climbs up alone that day with the goal of moving some of the gear from 16k on up to the high camp at 17k.
We wait a few days for Patti's symptoms to disappear, to no avail. In talking with my friend Matt, we discover he had the same symptoms. His went away after four days, and we gain hope. He decided to go up, but the symptoms reappeared with a gain in altitude and upon hearing that, Patti makes the decision to go down. By this time however, I have displayed one of the traits of a successful alpinist—a short memory. I think that my ankle maybe wasn't that bad and I probably can make it up. I'm also a little concerned for Lewis—he could easily make the top from 14k by himself, but there is no way he can carry down all our cached gear. Two trips would be necessitated, and I can't burden Lewis with that responsibility. So after yet another day's rest, Lewis and I head up the fixed lines to 16k and then across a ridge to the 17k camp. The ridge is by far the most aesthetically pleasing part of the whole route, and I am glad to be able to make the traverse. It feels good to be shod with ice axe, crampons, and rope. The only thing that doesn't feel good is my ankle.
On the ridge between 16 and 17,000'
On the ridge with 14k camp visible below
More on the ridge
We find a wall fairly well made for our small tent, and relatively quickly are set for the night. I say “relatively” because everything takes longer at altitude. At 17k there is only half the oxygen available as at sea level. We move a little slower for everything. Even at 14k I would find myself getting out of breath for no particular reason, even if just standing around. And although the boiling point of water is lower at elevation than at sea level, it still takes longer to get to that temperature. We spend a few hours everyday just making water from snow, a tedious but extremely necessary process. We've left our large tent at 14k for Patti, and have a smaller two person tent at 17k. But the tent is so small that only one of us can move around in it at once. To get ready for bed, one person waits outside till the other has themselves fully coccooned in his bag. Only then can the second person do the same!
We take one rest day at 17k, a chilly one at that. Sometime during the day I realize once again that I am not going to make the summit. And this time there will be no week of recovery possible as the air is so thin here that most people do not stay more than a few days; if the summit bid is not made quickly, it likely will not be made at all.
High Camp, 17,000'
Lewis awakes the next morning for his summit attempt. Though the sky is clear in the morning, by the time Lewis' preparations are complete, the clouds have thickened and there is snow and wind in the air. Lewis presses on anyway, and soon disappears into the clouds, crossing the Autobahn and turning the corner at Denali Pass. During the day all the guided parties and most others who started that morning have turned back, bamboozled by the wind at Denali Pass, leaving only Lewis and three other climbers on the mountain.
Many portions of the West Buttress route have their own appellations. Motorcycle Hill and Windy Point have been mentioned, for example. On the way from 17k to the summit, there are other sections that have names. The Orient Express is so named as the first several deaths on this section were from Japanese and Korean teams. The aforementioned Autobahn section was similarly named, as the first death was a German who slipped and quickly attained highway speeds of Teutonic proportions. The rangers have installed pickets (essentially long aluminum stakes driven into the snow) that climbers can clip their rope into to help safeguard their journey. On the previous day, the rangers at 17k had gone up and placed in a few more pickets on the Autobahn to help fill in some exposed sections.
As a particular team traversed the Autobahn this day, the front climber slipped and fell. Unable to self arrest (i.e., to stop his own slide by using his ice axe), the climber slid some 40 feet down the slope until the rope came taut—caught by the picket between himself and his partner. I don't know whether or not the second climber would have caught the fall without the help of the picket—I doubt it. That saving grace of a picket was one that had been placed by the rangers the previous day. Another thin line between a minor incident and tragedy!
After about ten hours on the mountain Lewis returned, having reached the summit in light winds after the buffeting of Denali Pass was overcome. He was less than excited; he would much rather have reached the summit in the company of myself and Patti than by himself. But I thought it was still a solid achievement, especially since it was out of reach of myself this trip.
The next day we packed up and returned to 14k. Patti had been able to find someone to rope up with and so had already gone down. By this time Lewis and I were both just done. I wanted nothing more than a shower and clean clothes, and to eat anything but dried fruit and instant oatmeal. We packed up the next morning in a cold wind. A sled full of our extra food was drug around camp and the contents were quickly disbursed among other hopeful climbers. We certainly didn't want to carry down anything we didn't have to!
The descent was made in blowing snow with visibility limited to just a few hundred yards. I couldn't make out the trail well enough to ski it, and so we ended up walking down. Though we never encountered any major storms on this trip, the mountain seemed loathe to let us go without some type of final assault. It took twice as long as we expected to get down to 7,800 feet, where we tiredly pitched our tent well after midnight for (hopefully) the last time.
Hiking out in a whiteout
The next—and final!—day broke clear and warm. The last several miles back to base camp at 7,200 feet were interminable. And what a difference in the trail a few weeks had made. What had once been a barely visible track through the snow was now a well-trodden packed out trail with numerous detours from the original route as numerous crevasses had opened up with the warming weather. Fortunately there were two planes just ready for take-off as we approached base camp, and we wasted no time in climbing aboard. And we were fortunate, as we were among the last out for the next several days as a storm system moved over the area. A few hours later, and we would have been stuck at base camp for another two or three days!
Instead, we were able to spend those next few days in Talkeetna. We saw, smelled, and ate green things, a treat to several senses. The sighting of a butterfly took my breath away. And the food, oh the food! I spent several hours a morning at breakfast which merged straight into lunch, and was separated by mere hours from dinner! I don't think I had lost much weight, but it still seemed like I had a lot of room for food!
I'll probably go back next year. I would like to stand on the summit, but more than that Denali is just such a wildly cool place! There are other more technical routes I'd like to attempt and besides, I learned so much on this trip it would be a shame to not make use of that knowledge. So, Denali, I'll see you next year!