Date: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 – Saturday, June 8, 2013 Team OMG (Original Mountain Gangstas): Shawn (sdkeil; team leader), Scott (AzScott), Kelly (moon stalker), Kyle (letsgocu), Ryan (kushrocks), JD (tnjds), and myself
(Rope Team #1: ‘Puge Shenis’ or ‘PS’ = Shawn, me, and Ryan; Rope Team #2: ‘60-meter Problem’ = Kelly, Scott, and Kyle) Route: West Buttress (standard) from Base Camp at 7,200’ Stats: 51.25 total miles; 20,600’ total elevation climbed
Perpetual Sunset: Denali’s powerful profile illuminated by the setting sun over the Alaska Range: Taken from the north at Wonder Lake on June 12, 2013 at 11:03pm
De•na•li (Den Ah Lee), noun.
1. a mountain in south central Alaska; the highest peak in North America (20,320 feet high)
2. the native Athabaskan name for Mt. McKinley which translates as "The High One”
3. a luxury version of the GMC Yukon, made to compete with the Cadillac Escalade
4. a 2013 expedition with friends that will go down as one of the highlights of our lifetime
Our proposed vs. actual itinerary:
Fair Warning: this is long
"When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it." – W. Clement Stone
I'm not sure how or where to begin, or even how to end this. I remember talking to Shawn in 2010 about a trip to Denali in 2013. He and Scott had chatted about it even further back. We started planning last July, and the team and commitments to buy permits was settled by October. Denali consumed us all the time. Several group conference calls, research, physical training and preparation, and endless amounts of emails everywhere in between have all gone into the planning and execution of our 2013 Denali expedition.
A fraction of our preparation – clockwise from upper-left: Crevasse-rescue practice; Team meeting/conference calls;
Longs Peak (North Face/Cables route) training climb; Planning my weird, finicky meals was a giant task itself (a special
thanks to my best friend, Abby, for organizing and packing them); Provisioning of and repackaging 36 cans and 21 days’
worth of Mountain House dehydrated mouthwatering deliciousness for the team!
Fast forward to May 19, 2013 – a large 14ers.com crew throws us a wonderful Denali send-off party at the Yard House and we receive a snow picket signed by everyone wishing us good luck (thank you all!). Our team is trying to finish up work or school, scrambling to buy last-minute gear and pack as we leave in 2 days (that’s the beauty of procrastination – if you wait until the last minute, you only have a minute to get it done = #ProcrastinationWin). May 21 arrives – our departure date. As we approach the coastal lowland city of Anchorage, those on the right side of the plane are able to see Denali. Ryan’s aunt and uncle, Jean and Randy Souser, greet us at the airport with a Ford F350 and capper more than large enough to haul our excessive amounts of gear back to their house where they generously have offered to host us for the night.
NPS Orientation & Fly to Denali Base Camp (7,200’)
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
"To reach the base of Mt. McKinley, you can either hike for 10 days or fly for 30 minutes." – Denali’s West Buttress, p. 96
Jean and Randy cook up a delicious breakfast for us, Alaskan-style: Reindeer sausage, eggs, hash browns, and fruit. We savor every bite knowing it’s our last real meal for a while. (We are so grateful to both of you for the wonderful hospitality before and after the trip – thank you so much!). There was a mix-up with the shuttle when it finally arrived (late) and long story short, a girl from California I had randomly connected with on Twitter stepped out of the van – truly a small world and cheers to those chance meetings. En route to Talkeetna, we make the requisite stop in Wasilla for last-minute snacks and perishables. And we all confirmed…you cannot see Russia from Wasilla.
We leave the Chugach, enter the Alaska Range, and arrive in Talkeetna shortly after. First stop is a check-in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), a plane we chartered to Base Camp. TAT runs an impressive operation and we highly recommend them to future climbers. The next hour is spent sorting, weighing, and tagging our bags in hopes we get to fly to the glacier tonight – total gear weight for Team OMG: 840 pounds. The next stop is the National Park Service (NPS)/Talkeetna Ranger Station where we obtained our permit, discussed several mountain logistics, and received the highly anticipated CMC’s (Clean Mountain Cans) – the lovely green cans with biodegradable plastic bags in which we will expel biological waste in. We choose to take 3 cans – one per tent, and they certainly provided us with entertainment throughout the trip. The orientation seems to heighten awareness that things are getting real at this point. We also study the stats board for Denali and Foraker this year: 5 successful Denali summits upon our check-in and 389 summits two weeks later at check-out! On the way out of the office, JD rolls his ankle. We go straight to the local clinic for assessment and x-rays, of which both prove to be negative for anything broken. They call it a sprain and put him in a boot with crutches. We are all crushed, quiet.
The crew back at TAT confirms good weather and our flight out to Denali Base Camp is a go. JD decides to still fly to the glacier with us in case his ankle feels ok to go tomorrow – that lifts our spirits a little bit. We change into gear and help load the plane, and I think some, if not all, of us feel one of those waves of reality sweep over again. Wheels up at 5:30pm.
Loading the Otter while soaking in the last few minutes of cell phone service: Photo: Shawn
The 40-minute flight to base camp is incredible: we leave the lowlands and terrain quickly steepens as we move into the rough and rugged mountains of the Alaska Range. Aerial views of large serac fields and active crevasses almost inexorably take our breath away.
All aboard with JD as co-pilot:
We fly in along the spine of the Alaska Range and witness some of the most intimate views of many features
of this highly glaciated topography: Photo: Ryan
We land at Base Camp on the Southeast Fork of the lower Kahiltna Glacier around 6:10pm. Landing on a glacier for the first time is pretty exciting, especially when you see little specks of a community below at camp; this truly is expedition-style climbing and something new for all of us. We are all shocked to actually be here. If this excursion hasn’t become real for anyone yet, it certainly does now as we watch the plane that connects us miles and miles to civilization fire up and roll out of Kahiltna International Airport (or airstrip). After checking in with the Base Camp manager, Lisa, we pick up our fuel and sleds and stake out a camp site. A late dinner meant a late bedtime, but we know we are on a nighttime travel schedule on the lower glacier the next few days to avoid increased crevasse danger and heat.
Base Camp (7,200’): iPhone photo: 5/23/13, 8:04am
We watch as our pilot leaves us far from reality at Base Camp; First dinner as a team (inset):
Day 1: Base Camp (7,200’) to Ski Hill Camp (7,800’)
"Today is the start of a new adventure. New challenges to face, new memories to make, and new obstacles to overcome." – Nishan Panwar
Ski Hill Camp (7,800’): Photo: Kelly
We wake mid-morning to a light snow squall, eat, rig the sleds, build a base camp cache, and spend the time we could with JD. Although slightly better, JD’s ankle still isn’t weight-bearable yet and he announces he won’t be moving forward with us on the expedition. We spent so much time over the last year talking and preparing, that his early exit leaves us all with a feeling of gloom and emptiness. We also see our first avalanche of the trip – so powerful and loud that everyone stops what they’re doing. It’s really hot on the lower glacier – like being in a giant solar oven - so the remainder of the day is devoted inside tents. JD caught the next flight out and we begin gearing up for our departure.
Moving from Base Camp to Ski Hill Camp is the section with the most mileage on the route. We leave Base Camp bearing our full 100+ pound loads for the first time at 7:30pm and immediately reach Heartbreak Hill – a 400-foot descent right out of camp. We already start thinking about how unpleasant it’ll be on the way back. At the bottom of Heartbreak Hill (6,800’), we turn slightly northwest onto the main Kahiltna and have a mellow 1,000’ gain over 5 miles to Ski Hill Camp. It is different traveling at night and having it remain light all day. These 5 miles seem more like a half marathon with the heavy sleds to me. Shawn sets a great steady pace taking us to camp 5 hours later at 12:30am on the 24th. Recap: Day 1 goes alright with a few sled problems (none of us had never really pulled sleds like that) and the crevasses that we crossed had very large and solid snow bridges. That was a huge benefit we were looking forward to by climbing slightly earlier in the season (in a record-high snowfall year). Another late bedtime awaits us.
Team OMG roping up to head out of Base Camp and get the gangsta’s rollin': Photo: Shawn
Starting the climb with a 400’ descent on Heartbreak Hill and trying to manage the newly discovered favorite piece of gear – the sleds.
The left branch of trail is the split to Mt. Foraker: Photo: Kyle
Leaving the SE Fork of the lower Kahiltna and heading northwest on the main Kahiltna towards Ski Hill Camp: Photo: Kelly
Midnight glacier travel as we reach Ski Hill Camp (7,800’), and Kyle stacked with gear at the backside: Photo: Kyle
Moonrise over 7,800’ Camp during our second night on the mountain: Photos: Kelly
"I’m only this far and only tomorrow leads the way." – Dave Matthews Band
9,500’ Camp: iPhone photo: 5/25/13, 10:57am
After falling asleep around 2:30am, we get out of the tents around 10:30am to a mild breeze, stunning views of the southwest side of Denali rising 13,000’ feet above us, and Shawn playing our groups’ theme song: Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta by the Geto Boys, which then becomes a morning tradition – gangstas gotta stay loose, you know. We fire up the stoves, eat big breakfasts, and discuss options for the day. Option 1 is to stick to the original plan of hiking up Ski Hill to 9,500' Camp (which is a small intermediate camp not used frequently) or Option 2 is hiking to 9,500' Camp, taking a long food break before pressing on to 11,200’ Camp near Kahiltna Pass. No decision was made yet. If I haven’t mentioned how hot it is on the lower Kahiltna, allow me to do so now – it’s scorching. I decide it’s a good day to shave my legs (I don’t do the whole hairy leg thing too well).
Embarrassing but necessary – yes, I’m shaving my legs. But I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do so
than sitting before the NE Fork of the Kahiltna with Denali as a backdrop!
We retreat back into our tents for several hours to get out of the blazing swimsuit weather we are experiencing - are we on Denali? At 4:00pm, we call our friend and meteorologist Chris Tomer from FOX 31/Channel 2 News for our first on-scene weather report, and who we are very fortunate to have forecasting this trip. It couldn't have read any better: low winds the next 4-5 days with a potential summit window June 3-6 and no precipitation predicted. That settles our decision for climbing today - we'd take our time, acclimate, and go up to 9,500' Camp. That also allows us to ease back into a day-traveling schedule from that camp. We see another head-turning avalanche, too.
One of several giant avalanches we saw on the trip (7,800’ Camp). Although the avalanches were distant
enough to not pose a threat, it’s another humble reminder that anything can happen any time or anywhere
on the mountain: Photo: Ryan
Scott rigs his beloved sled for the move to 9,500’ Camp as we pack up. By now it’s no secret the sleds are
the worst part of this whole thing: Photo: Shawn
We leave 7,800’ Camp at 7:30pm and soon reach the base of Ski Hill, our first significant incline of the climb with 1,000’ of vertical gain. We cross another large flat section before arriving to 9,500’ Camp at 10:35pm and it is cold – measuring 18 degrees plus wind-chill when we walk in. We work as quickly as we can to build camp and boil water and are finally in the tents at 1:00am, knowing tomorrow will be the last day of carrying all of our gear at once, and on snowshoes.
The first rope team (PS) leaving camp just below Ski Hill while 60-meter Problem had more problems: Photo and caption: Kelly
Business as usual: Shawn leads our team. I better get used to staring at his behind for many days to come:
Looking south down at 7,800’ Camp and out across the massive Kahiltna glacial-cut valley from Ski Hill: Photo: Kyle
Day 3: 9,500’ Camp to 11,200’ Camp (‘11k Camp’/ Motorcycle Hill Camp)
"It’s awesome meeting new people and hearing their story and learning what makes them who they are."
11,200’ Camp: iPhone photo: 5/25/13, 8:38pm
We all rise from our snooze around 8:30am to a slightly chilly breeze, a rather vacant camp (9,500' Camp is a small intermediate camp) and beautiful views looking back at the vast lower Kahiltna. Water boiling/melting and breakfast is the first order of business like every morning thus far. More tearing down camp, repacking backpacks, and loading sleds up on rope teams takes a few more hours. We're starting to figure out our systems a little better. This day was our third movement day in a row all single-carrying 110 pounds or more of gear and food up to each camp. Today, we also start our switch to a day schedule with a mid-day start at 1:30pm from 9,500’ Camp. Most of this leg of the route is a gentle rise across the upper Kahiltna Glacier before bearing a sharp right (east) just below Kahiltna Pass. From here the incline turns quite a bit steeper, and we navigate around a steep side hill before a short ascent into camp at 11,000’. We definitely feel the effects of pulling weighted sleds at this point as the trail steepens and are ready to lighten that load after today. Once again, it was another hot day traveling on the glacier and if it hasn’t been clear yet, those sleds are so annoying!
In fact, let me have Ryan tell you more about the sleds (turn sound on):
Left photo: Kelly
Our team working up a steeper section above Kahiltna Pass on the move to 11k Camp hidden around the corner: Photo: Kyle
A slight breeze greets us when we arrive at camp at 4:30pm. But after dinner and setting up camp for the next two nights (it’s amazing how excited you get when you don’t have to set up and tear down camp every single day), it turns out to be gorgeous, calm, and warm. We meet a 3-person team (Carl and Fredrik from Sweden, and Jan from Montreal) who we would end up spending much of the remaining trip with. This is where another feeling of 'this is really happening' came into play; instead of meeting people on peaks in our home state and asking where in Colorado are you from?, it’s where in the world are you from? Pretty cool.
11k Camp is the neatest camp so far – it’s not as casual as the lower ones, much more inhabited, longer sun-hit, more hidden crevasses, steeper territory and large seracs wrap closer around us. It feels like a true mountaineering camp. And it’s the first camp we can eagerly empty contents of the CMC’s into a poo crevasse. In bed at 8:30pm and the sun was still shining - if I were to guess the time right now without knowing, I’d guess 3:00pm. We sound like broken records saying how weird it is that it's so light out, but for some reason it doesn't get old talking about it.
Ryan, Scott, and Kyle take the in the radiant views 11k Camp has to offer as clouds shift over Kahiltna Dome:
Day 4: Cache to 13,500’ (Around Windy Corner)
Sunday, May 26, 2013
3.5 miles RT; 2,300’ elevation gain; 6.25 hours
"Avoid dampness by regulating your pace and not allowing yourself to overheat." – Freedom of the Hills, p. 374 (5th ed.)
Our day starts at 8:30am. Up until this point, every move we’ve made was a single-carry – carrying all of our supplies with us to each camp. But in order to get to 14,200’ Camp, there are two steep hills to climb that wouldn’t be a good idea with fully-weighted packs and sleds, so we double-carry up to that camp. Caching all but four days’ worth of food, fuel, and gear we didn’t need helps lighten the load when we move up to 14k Camp tomorrow. Additionally, the carry to 13,500’ helps with acclimatization for our flatland gangsta.
Flanked with crevasses and seracs, Motorcycle Hill is the steepest hill so far. We watch as three climbers descend (from 11k Camp):
At 12:45pm, we are roped up and ready to begin an ascent right out of camp up Motorcycle Hill – a consistent and moderately steep snow slope and the hardest of three hills that reside between 11k Camp and 14k Camp. We welcome the relief of switching to crampons from snowshoes. We cross our first crevasses with narrower snow bridges; they don’t pose any big problem but that internal voice says it’s just 'become more hyper-aware' time. Although it’s the first real steep climb we’ve come upon, our packs feel great compared to what we went through the previous three days. Surprise, surprise…the sun is roasting and Ryan and I are losing liters of water. I’m pretty sure the amount of water that exited my body up this hill was enough to solve this whole drought problem we have in Colorado. The snow is excellent for crampon purchase and we’re enjoying the nice pre-installed boot pack. I’ll admit I was a bit jumpy to climb Motorcycle Hill knowing this was where the Japanese team was wiped out by an avalanche last year, but my nerves are quieted when we top out 40 minutes later at 1:25pm. Not to mention, we have beautiful views of blue ice-filled couloirs and surrounding peaks while refueling.
Our team climbing Motorcycle Hill while passing a crevasse on the move (inset): Photos: Kyle
Kyle cresting the top of Motorcycle Hill with a dramatic landscape behind:
The next task is Squirrel Hill – a series of rises that steepens in some places, often wind-scoured and firm neve – capped off with side-hilling. It’s the first place we can see a fall being more consequential. It’s less steep and shorter than Motorcycle Hill. Squirrel Hill goes fairly quick and we stop for another break in the Polo Field – a spacious snowy plain that gradually ascends around the 13,000’ region. The trail in the Polo Field splits us from avalanche runoffs from gullies on our left and crevasse-scattered plain on our right, taking us to another short and steep hill below Windy Corner.
Looking at a team coming down Squirrel Hill from the top of Motorcycle Hill: Photo: Kelly
Scott and I at 13,000’ in the Polo Field, Windy Corner in the background: Photo: Shawn
Extreme winds and high rock formations can make Windy Corner a dangerous area to be, but it certainly does not live up to its name today thanks to a large high-pressure system surrounding the mountain recently. It’s calm and hot as we round the Corner (13,350’) and a half mile to go to the cache site. Another steep and narrow side-hill grabs our attention; we traverse across safely and can’t help but wonder what this will be like with sleds tomorrow. We snag a cache hole that a group just vacated and make it bigger for the six of us. This cache site provides us our first real look at most of the upper mountain. Denali towers 7,000-feet over us still, teasing us with a few fleeting glimpses of her remote, rugged face as clouds roll by. Another reminder that yes, we know we aren’t on home soil and we know she can put us in our place at any moment.
After an hour at the cache site, we leave at 5:30pm and return back to 11k Camp at 7:00pm for dinner and water-melting. We get in the tents around 9:15pm, quickly followed by a light snow shower passing through from the Gulf.
Day 5: 11,200’ Camp to 14,200’ Camp (‘14k Camp’/ Basin Camp)
”The introduction is now over.” – Kyle, quoting Gerry Roach after we made it to 14k Camp
14,200’ Camp: iPhone photo: 6/2/13, 9:49am
We get out of the tents at 8:00am - breezy and chilly and anxiously waiting for the sun to crest the ridge. We set a goal of a 10:30am start time today to move to 14k Camp. However we know well enough by now that whenever we set a start time, we add at least an hour to that before we are actually roped up and moving. A few flashes of impatience cross some teammates’ features. Things just take longer to organize, pack, rig, and rope up. We now have mastered the college-boy start each day, but our tradeoff is climbing in hotter temperatures. We’re also climbing only in base layers simply to keep the sun off; otherwise a t-shirt and shorts might feel better.
We depart camp at noon, right back up Motorcycle Hill. Let’s be honest here: even with half of the original weight, pulling the sleds up a steeper hill is still really tough work. It is also our fifth day in a row doing work at elevation. It’s taxing but we make consistent progress up Motorcycle Hill, around Squirrel Hill and again to Windy Corner. The side-hill traverse went better than expected with sleds in tow. We pass our 13,500’ cache and climb the last 700’ to camp on a gentler slope. We’re exhausted, but seeing the colony of tents ahead gives us enough motivation to get there. We stroll into camp a little late at 6:30pm, exhausted, and have to build camp – what? All the other camps had pre-built snow walls and kitchens thus far, so why on the hardest day yet can’t we find another one? Taking turns doing different jobs from sawing snow blocks, to building a snow wall fortification, to boiling water helps conserve what little energy remained. We also note we are in proximity to our new friends on the Swedish team. The thermometer reads -10 degrees, but Alaska cold feels different from Colorado cold.We quickly learn our first lesson of life at 14k Camp: it’s a smart idea to already be in your tent and sleeping bag before the sun drops over the ridgeline around 9:20pm. Reaching 14k Camp also marks the end of the approach to the Denali massif. This was certainly an exciting day during the course of our mission, because it was a real transition from the approach of a long slog on the lower Kahiltna to the actual mountaineering and climbing aspect. Finally at 10:30pm, we get in our tents and retire for the night.
In transit to 14k Camp, we pass our 13,500’ cache site and look back at each intricacy of this massive glacier – threatening crevasses,
deep blue frozen portals, and jagged emerging seracs as they reach down Denali’s west flank: Photo: Kelly
Shawn does another stellar job leading us into camp at 14,200’: Photo: Ryan
My turn to melt water as we establish camp at 14,200’ after a big and tiring push from 11k Camp. Captivating views
of Mt. Hunter (14,573’) to the south and Mt. Foraker (17,402’) to the southwest dominate our landscape:
Not feeling particularly energetic after a day of grinding out vertical, we rest until 11:00am and pick up where we left off in camp construction last night – start building a kitchen and finished snow walls for the tents. We all make our first call home to our families to give updates. At 3:00pm, we rope back up and back-carry from 14k Camp to reclaim our cache at 13,500’. The excursion is a short 25-minute walk back down and a 50-minute hike up to camp, where we arrive back to at 4:40pm for more water-melting and dinner. We observe another avalanche to lookers’ left of the Headwall – loud and alarming. After six consecutive days moving, we step into the tents at 9:15pm in much need of our first true rest day tomorrow.
We all work on making a kitchen and finishing snow wall protection at 14k Camp from the previous night; Foraker dead center: Photo: Ryan
Day 7: Rest Day at 14k Camp
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
"There were a couple of photo-finishes where you were just twisting it so fast to get it shut." – Scott, on the odor from using the CMC
A solid 12 hours of sleep and we rise at 9:30am, starting to take note of the times that climbers started, ascended, and descended the Headwall and fixed rope lines. Kelly cooks the guys and herself blueberry pancakes – the first of the group meals, and we talk about whether we would in fact take a 4-day cache of supplies up to 16,200’. Our original itinerary says so, but after seeing how much work we’ve done already, we thought about making the move to High Camp in one big load. In the end, sticking to the original plan of caching/acclimatizing to 16,200’ won the argument.
Every day at 14k Camp, the weather dawns sunny and warm, and then clouds engulf the area in the early afternoon accompanied by light snow showers until later in the evening when the sun reappears. One activity to do on a rest day at 14k Camp is a short 0.25-mile excursion over to ‘Edge of the World’ – the edge of the plateau on which 14k Camp dwells with a 4,700-foot straight drop down to the lower glacier. Later in the day, we take time to practice some fixed protection work at camp – running belays and ascenders. After dinner, we climb in the bags at 8:45pm in preparation for an ascent and load-carry to over 16,000’ tomorrow.
A short walk to the south end of camp brings you to ‘Edge of the World’ – a 4,700’ drop down to the NE Fork of the lower Kahiltna Glacier.
A fish-eye photo near the edge, and Shawn and Kelly explore this exposed feature (insets):
Uninterrupted alpenglow paints a polychromatic canvas on Mt. Foraker – Kyle’s timely view in the middle of the night: Photo: Kyle
Day 8: Cache/Acclimation to 16,700’ *
Thursday, May 30, 2013
3 miles RT; 2,500’ elevation gain; 9.5 hours *Kyle and Ryan went on to cache all of our supplies at High Camp
"Be happy for this moment, for this moment is your life." – Omar Khayyam
The alarms sound at 7:30am, once again with an intended start time of much earlier than actual. It’s so chilly and tough to emerge from our tents before the sun crests the ridge and hits camp. Water took forever to melt. Another lesson learned: melt all the water needed for that day the night before. At this point in the trip, there was a lot of instability in our targeted summit (days) – Chris Tomer informs us that a low-pressure system is moving in and the dates for the summit window changed (as expected). So we wanted to take advantage of this good-weather day to move food and fuel up to (essentially) High Camp. Roped up and ready to go at 10:35am. The first section right out of camp is known as the Headwall – a 1,200’ ascent on moderate terrain that leads to the base of the fixed rope lines at 15,400’. For Scott and Kyle, every step over 14,500’ was a new PR in elevation – it was exciting! The next segment, the ‘fixed lines’, is a steep 800-foot gradient of sustained 45-50 degrees with pre-installed ropes by the NPS. We get stuck behind a guided group and had to wait for a bit on some small snow ledges just below. Finally it is our turn to clip into the fixed lines using our ascenders – another exciting moment for Team OMG! The weather quickly changes as a big cloud and near whiteout shifts in, robbing much of our visibility. Descending climbers assure us the skies open up at the top of the lines. Right away, we face the crux of the fixed line portion – an opening bergschrund covered with vertical ice. For some, it was our first ‘ice climb’. The fixed lines take some time – we all pass protection every 30-50 feet, and most of the time the intervals between each piece of pro and when we arrive at an anchor rarely matches. One teammate gets around an anchor and three steps later another one would yell out to stop for pro.
Me: Pro, Caroline ……… Clear!
Shawn: Climbing (I echo back to Scott)
Scott: Double pro, Scott and Shawn
Me: All clear
Shawn: Climbing …
… is typical dialogue for the remainder of the day. A few more bottlenecks on the ropes, too. Arm muscles grow tired waiting on the lines; there are times in these log jams when I secretly hope somehow the ropes can magically take us to terminal velocity at 16,200’ but we have to wait. At least there is a nice staircase from all the previous traffic this season for us.
The Headwall and fixed lines with climbers ascending and descending both (from 14k Camp): Photo: Kyle
Team 60-meter Problem (Kyle, Scott, and Kelly) halfway up the Headwall at 15,000’. 14k Camp is seen in the center of the photo: Photo: Ryan
Waiting our turn to clip into the fixed lines as we watch the traffic jam (15,400’); Ryan on steep ice just below a crevasse as clouds conceal us: Photos: Kyle
Looking down the fixed lines from my standpoint – Ryan and Kelly grind out the fixed pro on a steep incline:
We top out on the fixed lines at 2:20pm and detach from the system. Intermittent clouds pass through, but we are awe-struck with stunning views of the valley floor on the north side of Denali – a 16,200-foot change in elevation and the most prominence any of us have seen. Due to improved weather and all of us feeling strong, we decide to move up and cache higher – around 16,700’ at the base of Washburn’s Thumb. Now on the West Buttress proper, the ridge has several steep and exposed stretches, with fixed protection. Enter situational-awareness. However, a climbing team apparently stole the carabiners that the NPS put on each picket, so we placed and cleaned our own. A few teams try to pass us on their descent – poor form and we don’t understand why. We reach the base of Washburn’s Thumb at 4:15pm. Kyle and Ryan want to continue on and dump the cache at High Camp (17,200’). Although still feeling strong, the rest of us now worry about the time and how much we still have to descend. So they offer to carry all of our supplies up to High Camp while we begin working our way down – very nice of them to take that on!
Scott enjoys a break in the clouds along the West Buttress at 16,400’: Photo: Ryan
Working the running protection while Kelly, Kyle, and Scott follow skillfully on one of the many steep, exposed sections of the West Buttress.
Things start to get narrow: Photo: Shawn
Another shot looking up on the narrow ledge at the rope between Ryan and I and some fixed pro (16,550’): Photo: Ryan
Ryan and I on another narrow, exposed part of the ridge proper as Shawn (not seen) leads us to the base of Washburn’s Thumb: Photo: Kyle
We switch ropes and the four of us are now on the 60-meter rope; hmmm, I hope that doesn’t mean problems. We part ways with Kyle and Ryan, and carefully descend back down the exposed terrain and fixed lines. We are back to camp at 8:00pm and stay up with water ready for the guys when they return an hour and a half later. Man, they’re fast. Today was great – we all felt strong; rest followed by great teamwork on ropes and several re-fuel /re-hydrate breaks make it a textbook undertaking. The temperature falls hard and quick, and we go to shelter at 10:20pm.
Shawn leads Team PS as we descend the steep fixed lines (left photo) and looking back up them (right photo): Photos: Kelly
Days 9/10: Rest Days at 14k Camp
Friday/Saturday, May 31/June 1, 2013
Kyle and Ryan move to High Camp on June 1
"Denali’s northern location means that the climate around its summit presents one of the most severe year-round averages of any spot on earth." – Denali’s West Buttress, p. 44
May 31: A planned rest day. Camp activities include: building a mini-golf course using bamboo wands as hole markers, a lacrosse ball, and inverted ice axes as clubs; movies on the iPad’s; recharging electronics; reading; and emptying the CMC’s in the designated crevasse. We politely use these days to cleanse as we make a botched attempt to remove some of the fromunda we’ve all got going on. It feels nice but the clean smell only lasts a few hours. We also have now discovered Kelly’s hidden talent of a gourmet chef as she cooks up a storm for group meals.
June 1: Things just got a little more interesting now. We call Chris Tomer again and he informs us of the low-pressure system coming in by the end of the day tomorrow and could hang around for a week; the storm’s departure has slowed. He says he doesn’t see any more ‘good’ weather like we’ve been experiencing with the high-pressure system for the remainder of the trip. We all knew we should have moved up today – one more lesson learned: if you have one, call your meteorologist every day for weather reports rather than every 3 days. Rookie mistake. Over breakfast, we have group real talk about plans to move up; Kyle and Ryan encourage moving up to High Camp today to try and beat the incoming storm with a summit attempt tomorrow. Big-time mixed feelings about this. Although tempting, Kelly, Shawn, Scott, and I aren’t proponents of racing a storm, especially since we have 12 days left of provisions. We elect to stay behind in hopes another window would develop. If there are two guys who could beat a storm, it’s Kyle and Ryan, and they choose to pursue the attempt. They quickly pack up camp and leave to climb up to 17k Camp. Meanwhile, Shawn, Kelly, and I go chat with the rangers and a lead RMI guide to ask their trusted opinion on the weather. Rangers say the incoming storm isn’t strong due to no predicted precipitation totals, 20mph winds are bearable at 17,000’ and higher, and suggest we move to High Camp tomorrow to wait out the storm up there – typically this isn’t what you hear for Denali. The recent forecast calls for lows around -10 and winds nearing 35-40mph on the upper mountain. The guide, who has guided 25 times on Denali, tells us he never really listens to the daily weather reports we receive via FRS radio; he simply looks at the sky when he gets up in the morning. So, we spend the afternoon and evening packing, ready to leave in the morning for High Camp if the weather looks ok. If at least there is a brief summit window, we would be in position to summit from up there. The Swedish team is also on board with the game plan. Kyle raises us on the radio just after 9:00pm telling us they made it, that 17k Camp is pretty empty and there are plenty of open spots with snow walls to camp in. We get in the tents at 9:30pm, ready for an early alarm and any possibility to move up to High Camp.
Kelly unveils her hidden talent of a gourmet backcountry chef – pizza, quesadillas, pancakes, and fajitas
to name a few luxuries on rest days: Photo: Shawn
Day 11: 14,200’ Camp to 17,200’ Camp (‘17k Camp’/ High Camp)
Sunday, June 2, 2013
1.75 miles; 3,000’ elevation gain; 6.75 hours
Kyle and Ryan attempt the summit
Just Do It – Nike
17,200’ Camp: iPhone photo: 6/3/13, 5:53pm
Alarms go off at 7:30am and we were happy to see the RMI guided group up and moving, too. The four of us don’t leave camp until 10:50am. We reach the base of fixed lines in 2 hours; the Swedes are just ahead of us. Everyone else stays back at camp. Same rhythm and dialogue as the previous acclimation day – up the Headwall and again on the fixed lines, only this time with heavier packs. At least we are done with the sleds for the next few days. We know what to expect up to 16,700’. Still though, that allows little margin for error. We find ourselves back at the base of Washburn’s Thumb – a prominent rock outcrop that has a second set of (short) fixed ropes. Kyle told us the ridge from Washburn’s to High Camp was ‘no joke’ and we were prepared for some serious exposure. We work our way up the short fixed rope pitch and negotiate around the thumb itself as light snow falls on us. With low visibility, we didn’t exactly experience the exposure part of the ridge Kyle told us about; it certainly is narrow but almost feels like some sort of geofence exists. This ridgeline towards camp is one of the most spectacular parts of the climb – narrow sections above the clouds with dramatic drop-offs on either side of you and gorgeous views (which we learned on the descent when skies cleared). We weave up and around the ridge and check every foot placement – some sections are narrow enough that foot misplacement could be consequential. Arrival into camp at 5:35pm. The snow wall isn’t very high at Kyle and Ryan’s camp so we join forces with the Swedish team where we deconstruct a previous camp wall in order to make a bomber camp for all of us. A big team effort tonight; tough and exhausting work to construct camp in the cold after a grueling move up there. But we got it done and let me be clear, this is a beast of a fortified camp! Because we spend so much energy building, that seals the deal on taking a rest day tomorrow. Now Shawn, me, Kelly, and Scott find a way to cram into a tent for the next 4 nights. It is 10:00pm by the time we get to bed and it takes forever to warm up after being outside so late at this elevation. Involuntary shivers run within the body throughout the night – it takes a long time to get warm.
Looking up Washburn’s Thumb – the second set of fixed rope protection on Denali’s West Buttress (16,700’):
Kyle looking up at the last third of the ridge leading to 17,200’ Camp (top photo); Looking back down the ridge
towards the top of the fixed lines as Ryan enjoys every second (bottom photo):
(Both ridge photos taken on Kyle and Ryan’s cache trip the previous day)
**Because we ended splitting our group up, here’s Kyle’s take on his and Ryan’s time up at 17k Camp and a summit attempt until we all met up again:
June 2: "I slept pretty well considering we were camped over 17,000ft and what we were about to undertake. We got out of the tent in the morning to a haze over camp, with Denali Pass visible for the moment we decided one more time that we were going to give it a shot. I walked down to where the Rangers were camped to let them know we were going to give it a shot. They warned of the winds that were predicted by the NPS forecast, which was not what Chris was predicting, I told them we would get to Denali Pass at least and evaluate conditions from there. It’s hard to see really what is going on until the winds are hitting you in the face. From High Camp, the route ascends a very steep snow slope and side-hills over toward Denali Pass at 18,300ft. This part of the route is known as the Autobahn because if you slip here there is little chance of self-arrest before the bottom. This section has plenty of fixed protection to clip our rope into and in no time we were standing on Denali Pass looking toward our next objective. There was minimal wind once we reached the pass, and even seemed to be a clearing above. The next part of the route is somewhat on or just on the face from another ridge line. There is quite a bit of fixed protection in this area, sometimes seemingly unnecessary. At this point we could see several wands ahead of us marking where the route and protection was going. We keep climbing, seeing little moments of sun, and waiting for the clouds to open up as we ascended. After the ridge, there is a broad area just below a rocky outcropping called Archdeacons Tower. We took our first real break here at about 19,200ft. We discussed the conditions that didn’t seem to get any better. We couldn't see Archdeacons Tower that was only a few hundred feet away. We decided to keep pushing farther since there really didn't seem to be much wind to speak of, and the temperature was pretty reasonable, really our only issue was the visibility although we could still see a few wands up the route. We knew that most of what was left was pretty broad and safe to walk if it was well-wanded. After passing Archdeacons Tower which we were tracking on GPS, we dropped into a large flat area named the Football Field. This is a .25mile area at about 19,500ft just before the final big push of the route. We made quick work of this area even though visibility wasn't improving. That last big push is the final steep hill called Pig Hill. We found some fixed protection here and the wands seemed to make some kind of system of switch backs, but we sort of just ascended once we found protection to clip into. We had to take a break mid-way up Pig Hill as we had been moving pretty fast all day and the elevation was starting to catch up to us. Finally we topped out on the hill at 20,100ft which was the beginning of the summit ridge. There was only one problem: now, when we really needed it, the visibility hadn't improved. I will never forget the sight of seeing the wand marking the first point up the rolling summit ridge seemingly floating in white space (aka the “wand in space”). There was absolutely no context to go by, just everything white. We couldn't even tell how far away the wand was because we didn't know how far it was sticking out of the snow. We paused a while to talk about a potential plan on getting up the ridge, even tried to set up some short belays off an anchor to walk further out, but eventually decided it was no use we would have to end this summit attempt 200ft short of the highest point in North America. Just as we stood on top of Pig Hill the storm decided to kick in and start dumping snow, and the wind was picking up a bit. Still not what the generic NPS forecast had predicted, but it was time to high tail it back to High Camp. We took a more direct line down than we had taken up, we still had pretty good visibility of the wands and we were familiar with the terrain at this point, as much as you can be from 20 feet of context. We made it back to the ridge in not much time where we were able to get the rest of the team, who had moved to High Camp that day, on the radio to let them know we were okay and headed down, which was news the rangers were interested in since they had assumed the conditions were worse than they were and that we would probably be turning around after Denali Pass. We were soon back to Denali Pass and headed back down the Autobahn, which decided to give us trouble now that there was a fresh 10-14 inches of snow on the slope. The running protection that had caused us to not even need to think much on the ascent of this section was now buried, and unless there happened to be a wand marking where a picket was, was now unavailable to us. Needless to say, we had to take our time descending this section searching for pickets when we needed them, spending quite a bit of time in self-belay position making good use of the pick or our ice axes and front-points of crampons. There was a narrow (maybe 6-8 inch) ledge boot pack cut into the slope that might as well have been a highway on the way up, but finding that was mostly impossible on the way down. After several hours of slow moving, protected and unprotected, we finally made it to the bottom of the slope and back to camp. Heck of a day on the mountain, certainly one I will never forget – an epic adventure we were so tired from that we fell straight a sleep without melting snow, cooking food, or even taking off our boot liners. There happened to be a Nepalese Sherpa, stationed at High Camp with the rangers who said to Ryan, "You and friend… very strong… make it so far in storm," which is about the compliment of a lifetime… (Advice to other people climbing at altitude: take the time to force yourself to eat and melt water, you will thank yourself the next day.) One of my most fulfilling days in the mountains, and it didn't even net me a summit."
Kyle in the white-out approaching the "wand in space": Photo: Ryan
Day 12: Rest/Weather Day at 17k Camp
Monday, June 3, 2013
"Yo, wassup homie!" – Shawn, trying to be gangsta
We wake up around 8:30am, all claiming to have had very little sleep last night for many expected reasons. Kyle and Ryan are back and it’s a big rest day for them, too. Nothing too exciting to report – this camp is definitely much colder and higher winds than any we have already stayed at. Snow falls throughout the day. Rumor has it the weather is supposed to improve tomorrow and more so the following day. The four of us talk and agree to make a summit attempt with the Swedish team tomorrow. Whenever skies do clear during our stay at 17k Camp, the views from here are remarkable and it finally feels as if we tower over everything. It’s also a nice place to enjoy some solitude. We try and rest all day, which as Scott says, “is a chore. The body just doesn’t work too well that high. Sleep is marginal, nighttime low temps are below zero”, and eating – oh boy – where do we start with this? Eating is really hard up there; your body needs nourishment but doesn’t want it. Food has to be forced down. There’s a sound reason for that.
It’s going to be a cozy 4 nights up here! Scott is the guilty photo-bomber. Shawn and Scott
hang out at The Ritz Carlton of snow fortresses at High Camp (bottom):
Spectacular views from High Camp (seen on the left) hold our gaze. Foraker still dominates center, 17k Camp is seen on the left,
and 14k Camp is barely distinguishable just above bottom-center: Photo: Kyle
Day 13: Summit Attempt (to Denali Pass at 18,300’)
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
1.75 miles RT; 1,100’ elevation gain; 5 hours
"With every new day, there is a promise of something new... something that makes that day better than the day before." – Unknown
We rise from a rough night of slumber at 8:00am and see the RMI group getting ready to go. We wait for late sunlight to hit the notorious Autobahn and leave camp at 10:30am (this was the first day we were on time!). We come into this recognizing that the Autobahn, a steep 1,000-foot rising traverse to Denali Pass, has been the location of more fatalities on Denali than any other place on the mountain. It isn’t as bad as expected. Snow conditions are pretty good for crampon bite and the ‘bahn comes furnished with fixed protection. Still, it was another one of those hyper-awareness sections. The winds pick up as we close in on a spot just above the pass 2.5 hours later at 18,300’. These winds out of the northeast would hit us all day and as a result, frostbite could have been waiting to jump at the slightest weakness anytime we exposed skin. The summit wasn’t in the cards today. Trusting their rationale, RMI turns around here and so do we. We get stuck for nearly an hour behind them on the lower Autobahn, and got back into camp at 3:30pm.
The infamous Autobahn – an ascending traverse from High Camp to Denali Pass at 18,200’ on steep snow and ice. We cross the
bergschrund seen in the center of the photo:
Stuck behind the RMI group on a vertical section while descending the Autobahn: Photo: Kelly
Another satellite call to Chris Tomer this afternoon now reports the winds getting worse for Wednesday and Thursday. We didn’t like that and questioned if we should have just pushed on today. So after another discussion and the boys feeling better after a second rest day, we planned for a final summit attempt tomorrow as a group (we only brought up 4.5 days of food and fuel). We decided to bring two sleeping bags, two pads, and two bivy sacs to the summit. After dinner, we go to bed at 9:30pm for a few hours of shut-eye hoping to have better weather for our summit bid. As Kelly mentions, tonight in the tent is where it really sinks in that we may not summit. Not a place to get greedy here, but the gangsta mentality argues back and says, it’s not going to get me! Despite the extensive amounts of planning and preparing, it all comes down to this one day. It’s hard to swallow the reality that tomorrow is our (at least the four of us) one and only shot at the summit. If Denali chooses to have a fierce response as a result from having people on her slopes, we knew we would have to turn around. You have to go in with the mindset that sometimes the hardest thing to do and the right thing to do might be the same. We switch gears in conversation, ending the night with light-hearted discussion of whether Scott should wear his full bunny suit on the climb tomorrow.
Day 14: Summit Day!
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
5 miles RT; 3,100’ elevation gain; 12.25 hours
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
All signs point to yes, the summit bid is a go today!
Alarms buzz at 8:00am; Shawn plays Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta again and that seems to get the competitive juices flowing. Something just feels different about today – I/we can’t explain it. I mentally slip back into college sports, when you’re on that game day flow – that’s what whatever this feeling is feels like, and we all share some version of it. We emerge from the snug tent and see a -10-degree temperature reading, slowly changing to -5 degrees, and then zero as the sun starts to hit (a good sign). We also are happy to see almost every other person in camp (the RMI guided group and NPS rangers) up and moving, even with the unfavorable NPS weather report from last night (another good sign). And it feels really encouraging that our team is back together (more signs). It’s now 10:45am and we’re quickly en route to the start of the booter back up the Autobahn, which for reasons I cannot explain, looks both familiar and tantalizingly foreign to me.
Clipping into an anchor as I work my way around a ledge near 18,000’ on the Autobahn: Photo: Ryan
We shave 30 minutes off our time to Denali Pass from yesterday and make it in 2 hours. Skies are clear and the winds were less than yesterday – reinforcing signs keep evolving. From Denali Pass, we move past Zebra Rocks and head south, running parallel to the ridge until roughly 19,300’ where we pause for a good break a few hundred feet below Archdeacons Tower. The first 1/3 of this ridge along Zebra Rocks has sporadic sections of fixed pro – it’s milder compared to the Autobahn. Temperatures hover around 0 degrees, but the winds are fairly minimal.
Team PS follows Shawn’s lead along Zebra Rocks above Denali Pass at 18,500': Photo: Kyle
Looking back down at Denali Pass as Kelly and Scott begin their work: Photo: Kyle
Our first view of the summit and Archdeacons Tower is motivating but keeps us focused on the task as hand: Photo: Kyle
We take a much needed break on the back side of Archdeacons Tower around 19,300’ before dropping a hundred feet into a giant 0.25-mile plateau known as the Football Field. The flat terrain is nice relief and a solo climber passes us on his descent saying the summit was beautiful. We get to the bottom of Pig Hill, the last big hill before the summit. It doesn’t look so bad from the Football Field, but it proves to reach just over 40 degrees and is a demanding section at this elevation. Energy is drawn out and our steps slow even more ascending Pig Hill. It takes us to a landing at Kahiltna Horn joining us with the summit ridge. We break here again and with only 200 feet of ridge between us and victory, reflect on this moment. All sorts of emotions stir as we can see what is left of all the hard work put into this. We eat while waiting for the RMI group to descend this narrow and exposed ridge. Although there is fixed protection, it is not a place you want to pass around other teams.
Scott and Kyle on a short break in the Football Field. Don’t underestimate Pig Hill from this vantage point: Photo: Kelly
Our team on the steep and exhausting grind up Pig Hill: Photo: Kelly
We take a break at Kahiltna Horn and look at the 200 feet that separates a dream from reality. Kyle shows us
the infamous “wand in space” from his summit attempt while we wait for a group to descend: Photo: Kelly
Now it’s our turn - game on. We cautiously work our way through the last set of fixed protection. A 30-minute climb across the airy, exposed, and narrow summit ridge feels like a sporty finish to the top. We reach the top of North America at 6:15pm and tears uncontrollably spill out of most of us with all the emotions we’ve been through these past two weeks. One additional rare bonus: the summit is ours for nearly a half an hour until the Swedes arrive. Sunny and not a cloud in the sky, we estimate the ambient air temperature to be somewhere between -10 and zero with minimal winds. This isn’t how we pictured summit conditions to be like. We each call our families, and most already knew from following Kelly’s Spot tracker. Breathtakingly beautiful views surround us; they’re unlimited and the farthest any of us have ever seen. Standing on the summit is a feeling that is unrivaled by anything else I’ve had in my life. And so begins the photo shoot of summit shots.
Like a boss, Shawn navigates the massively exposed summit ridge
(the NPS rangers look like ants on the summit). Ryan and I follow suit: Photo: Kyle
Looking back at Kelly and Scott taking their last few steps on the knife-edge and finish this aesthetically pleasing route with style: Photo: Kyle
Views from the summit are easily the best in the state for the effort. Hunter, Foraker, and the summit ridge to the south (top pano);
and Denali’s North Summit falling 850 feet below us (bottom photo): Photos: Kelly (top); Kyle (bottom)
Two summit photos (because I couldn’t decide which one to use!): the signature fish-eye shot and a standard one.
Regardless, there is no replacement for hard work. Standing together in our element as the highest people in
North America, we all congratulate each other on a job well done:
Ryan remembering our good friend, Rob Jansen, next to the summit marker with a Rob patch and prayer flags
sent to him from Rob’s family:
The Swedish team reaches the summit 30 minutes after we do. Scott and Ryan switch rope teams for the descent. We leave Denali’s summit 50 minutes after arrival at 7:05pm. Game faces are back on and we know it’s no victory lap back down to camp. Managing all of the protection is still a lot of work and we’re beat. No difficulty with the descent and it goes pretty quickly. We stroll back into camp 4 hours later at 11:00pm without incident, bodies completely depleted. Half of us force food down the hatch while the others beeline for the sleeping bags. Our 4-man tent finally settles in at 1:00am.
Looking out at the Football Field and Archdeacons Tower as we come down Pig Hill: Photo: Kelly
Kyle, Kelly, and Ryan descending the Autobahn, 9:25pm: Photo: Shawn
Shawn and Scott man the stoves in -10 degrees back at camp in their 8000m down outfits.
Gangstas always keep on rollin’:
A beautiful end to a long day – kind of like a powerful symphony as it quiets down (17k Camp, 10:54pm):
Days 15/16: Descent to Base Camp/Fly Out
Thursday/Friday, June 6/7, 2013
14 miles; 10,600’ total elevation loss;
400’ elevation gain from Heartbreak Hill;
21 hours total
I think there’s value in going through a grueling, painful experience together. You can’t hide your weaknesses in that setting.
Ultimately these two days morph into one blur and ends up being one big 39-hour push down to Base Camp.
June 6: We manage 5-7 hours of sleep, get water going, and break down camp while discussing descent options. It’s either get off the mountain as fast as we can or split it between two days; the former wins, plus thoughts of real food and showers to boot. The NPS was also highly advising night travel on the lower glacier now as more slots were opening up so we didn’t want to burn a day sitting at an intermediate camp before traveling again. We say goodbye to High Camp at 1:00pm and the four of who missed out on seeing this exposed ridge in cloudy weather sure have a brilliant sight of it coming down. Washburn’s Thumb feels harder descending than it did going up. At the top of the fixed lines, we clip back into the system for 800 feet of stop-go fun. We get to the harder of two crevasses first and couldn’t believe the change over the 4 days we were gone – much tougher to negotiate since it was starting to open up. This crux requires us to rely on the fixed rope, “quasi-rappelling” as Scott calls it. Kyle helps us all through. The heat wave starts again on the Headwall and we get back to 14k Camp at 4:30pm. We’re here on an executive break for the next 6.5 hours and split jobs between melting water, setting up a shelter, empty CMC’s, digging up the cache of duffels and sleds plus re-rigging them, and cooking. And how could I forget? The team volunteers me to tote a sled full of food and fuel we prefer to not haul back down around camp to try offloading some weight. I work the main thoroughfare through camp with my food truck with some success; most people just want to talk. Kelly energizes the team with some killer fajitas. The sleds are all rigged but our overall weight still feels unacceptably heavy. Adiós to 14k Camp at 11:00pm and not even 30 minutes into the descent do we have a domino effect of problems start to happen… yes, all with those sleds.
June 7: My words won’t be adequate enough to accurately portray just how irritating the sleds are on the descent.
We’re not even to Windy Corner yet – a place where you easily can slide down into a jumble of crevasses if you lose control of a heavy sled – and some sleds start flipping over as we side-hill. Remember how I mentioned Scott and his beloved sled? This is where they get into a raging fight and the sled doesn’t back down. Friction on the snow doesn’t let them slide as easily as I thought. We have to act as a brake for the person in front of us while ‘pulling’ ours downhill, but constantly get yanked around from the person braking for us from behind. When we fix one sled another one will tip. It’s beyond frustrating. It takes double the normal time to reach Windy Corner and a sled tips again. We have a long wait here while Kyle works on adjustments but the upside is watching another infinite sunset. We’re moving again and get to Squirrel Hill. More sled problems but this time it’s mostly mine. It’s beyond frustrating for all of us. I’m pretty certain our sleds flipped a combined total of 200,000 times; double that and you get an estimated number of choice words that slipped out. I want to throw my sled into a crevasse as I pass by. At the top of Motorcycle Hill, we regroup and Shawn asks everyone to take the heaviest items out of the sleds and put them on our back since Motorcycle Hill is the steepest of them all. Crossing the crevasses with sleds spices things up and we are so relieved when we pull in to 11,200’ Camp around 3:30am. Here, we take a long break, dig up the gear cache, and switch spikes for snowshoes. Our saving grace is much mellower terrain now. An hour and a half later after we watched the sun set, we start to see the sun rise – so weird yet so awesome.
Collecting the cache and reassembling gear at 11,200’ Camp before a 9.5-mile/5.5-hour push to Base Camp: Photo: Shawn
Another Alaskan sunset resembles an inspirational fire in the sky, shortly followed with a sunrise light show prior
to a long trek back: Photos: Shawn
We leave 11k Camp at 4:45am and still have 9.5 miles of a slog ahead. Shawn, who as rope team leader, hasn’t totally experienced the turmoil caused by the sleds, sets a speedy pace as we travel through a tranquil night. We are back at the base of Heartbreak Hill faster than we know it. Everything hurts. The trail has already deviated from that which we hiked in on due to crevasse activity. Solar rays heat things up as we start the 400’ ascent up Heartbreak Hill. The hard truth: Heartbreak Hill lives up to its name and is undeniably one of the hardest parts of the entire climb. It doesn’t look too bad from the bottom. But every time you look up thinking you’re almost there, you see more hill. It’s brutal. We finally get back to Base Camp at 10:00am – 11 hours after we left 14k Camp (I will point out 3 solid hours were lost messing with the sleds). Elated to be there, we feel absolutely trashed/depleted/exhausted, blistered lips and feet, scabbed, sunburned, and there isn’t a place on a body that wasn’t hurting. Shawn describes it like being beat to the ground in a boxing ring twice and then some. Even though we descended faster than the average group, we conclude that this descent hurt way worse than summit day. After digging up our cache and disassembling the sleds (don’t ever care to see one again), the air taxi arrives at 11:00am. The flight out equally as good as the first and before we know it, we are reunited with civilization in Talkeetna. Little did we know that the grey skies and late-winter climate would change so drastically in two weeks into a lively green and warm spring landscape. It feels amazing to be back on the ground but hard to grasp the fact that we are. We find a scale to weigh in: as a group we dropped 60 pounds in 2 weeks; Kyle and Ryan own half of that. We check into a hostel and head for the showers – I think I cried when I stepped in – it felt so amazing. We head next door to the Denali Brewing Company for real food we’ve been drooling nonstop over the past week. Each of us orders a burger and we devour them in approximately 37 seconds. The celebration continues all night with other climbers and locals – the boys eat another dinner every hour at a new restaurant.
Before and after shot of the drastic climate change over a two-week span in Talkeetna: Photos: Kelly (left); Ryan (right)
Before and after team photo – Group weight-loss: 60 pounds. Quite noticeable on Kyle and Ryan:
First real meal about to be demolished at Denali Brewing Co. in Talkeetna:
After the trip, I was very fortunate to be able to go back into the park and take a 360-degree flightseeing tour around the mountain. A special thanks to my good friend, Shakti, and the awesome crew at Kantishna Air Taxi/Skyline Lodge for making that happen! (If you get a chance to see Alaska, go to Kantishna in Denali National Park). It was so cool to see various camps and parts of the route and I truly could not comprehend what our team just did. All that planning and now it’s over in a blink of an eye.
Aerial images of Denali taken during a nighttime flightseeing tour (June 11, 2013):
So I'll end this with where I began...I still don't know how to end it because a part of me doesn't want it to be over. Once you visit Alaska, it kind of grabs a hold of you and you kind of don’t want to leave. But here's what I do know: success on Denali infinitely rewarding. This expedition is put in a different category among our lifetime experiences. This was whole and epic and the epitome of genuine teamwork. It was the hardest effort I think any of us have ever taken on. One day we will be looking back at the memories of our lives and this is going to be one of those that is highlighted. “There are many people who go to Denali as friends and when they get home they never speak to that person again. We found a way to stay together and work together to get this mountain done. It definitely felt like it took all of us to make it happen, including the months of planning and prep work,” as Shawn said well. And we all know that damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.
With undying gratitude, I certainly can’t end this without a ginormous thank you to Shawn for being a great trip leader and to my entire team for a solid execution. And, I also know that I am so unworthy of all the blessings God has bestowed upon my life - standing on top of North America with five of my friends is certainly one of those.
Other Notable Points / What Worked, What Didn’t / Random Thoughts
• force yourself to eat, no matter how much you don’t want to
• if you are considering which stoves to bring on Denali: both of our MSR XGK stoves broke down multiple times but the MSR WhisperLite had no issues during the entire trip and seemed to melt snow faster
• make sure you try and like everything you bring to eat – I dehydrated over half of my dinners thinking they would be no problem to eat up there, but one bite and I never ate those again
• lighters don’t work well at 17,200’ feet if they are cold, you need to keep them in your pocket
• it’s always nice to have extra wet wipes
• travel-sized Febreze was nice to have around
• you can’t put enough sunscreen on
• Ryan says he would have killed for more salty snacks like Pringles, beef jerky, corn nuts
• we used PVC pipes for sled-rigging and despite the inevitable problems we had, we couldn’t imagine how much worse sled management would be using cord only
• there are no floating wands in space!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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