|Denali-The Hardest Climb of My Life (Part 2-The Climb)|
(AK state highpoint, highest point in North America, one of the 7 Summits).
Denail-means “the High One” for Athabascan Indians
Denali was the hardest endeavor I have ever gone after in my life. If you want to read a lot of the why, you can read the back story here in Part 1:
If you are just looking for a trip report, some beta on climbing Denali, or my summit bid story, read on here in Part 2. We chose to do the most popular route on the mountain called The West Buttress. We being, Scott Kime-Trip Leader, Thomas Beuerman, and Roger Flahive. I met these guys through my involvement with the Colorado Mountain Club. (www.cmc.org)
Denali is a self-supported climb. That means no Sherpas. We have to carry all of our own climbing gear, tents, sleeping gear, cooking supplies, and food. There was so much stuff which filled my backpack and duffel. I didn’t know how I would have room to hold all of my gear and, the food we would be getting from the company we hired to provide our food-Exposure Alaska! This alone makes this the hardest climb of my life.
Note: Before our trip we met with a Denali guide, Sebastian Grau with Mountain Trip, He lives here in Colorado Springs and was willing to meet with us. He gave us many great tips, tricks and suggestions. To help others, I am sharing his ideas and they are noted throughout by [*……]
Day 00-June 10 Travel Denver to Anchorage
June 10th was the day we flew from Denver to Anchorage. All four of us made our scheduled flights as well as our packs and duffels. Yay for an initial mini-victory!
Day 01-June 11 Travel to Talkeetna, NPS Check-In, Fly to Glacier
After a night in Anchorage, Don Wray, owner of Exposure Alaska picked us up to drive us the 2 hours to Talkeetna. Exposure Alaska provides adventure tours for tourists and logistical support for climbers. I highly recommend them! (https://exposurealaska.com) At 9:00am, Don picked us up with a van loaded with all of our food. I must say, it is worth the expense to hire his company to provide expedition food and not have to go shopping and re-packing it in Anchorage. If you want to hire them, you must book them early. They turned down several teams this year because they buy food in bulk and can only serve so many teams.
Most people climb Denali in May or early June. The reason is there are less crevasses opened up. However, it’s usually much colder with a lower success rate early in the season. June 11thwas our scheduled mandatory meeting with the National Park Service. The sign in the NPS office showed the current success rate up to June 11th this year was less than 48%.
At our NPS meeting we got an overview of the mountain, and picked up our CMC’s. CMC’s are “clean mountain cans.” It is required that you do your business in a bag in the can and not leave poo or toilet paper on the mountain. Great....more weight to carry!
Back at Talkeetna Air Service, it was the moment of truth. Weigh in time! We weighed all of our gear now with our food. We all received 40.5 pounds of food each from Exposure Alaska! Yikes! That brought our total weight to 462 pounds which came out to 115.5 pounds per person. We were under our 120 pounds per person allotment. Whew!
[*White gas/fuel is not part of your weight. Each climber gets a gallon of white gas on the glacier.]
Our team (Colorado One Step) was given a flight time of 6:00pm to fly to the glacier. It was pretty darn exciting to finally be heading to the mountain after months and months of planning, and training and dreaming of this expedition.
Wheels were off the ground at 6:11pm and we were now Denali bound!
The views out the windows were incredible. It’s something else to fly through a high mountain pass and to look out the window of the plane and have the mountains above you!
These mountains are spectacular! In Colorado we don’t have glaciers, and crevasses and seracs and bergschrunds.
In no time the nose of the plane was lined up with our runway. Crevasses were on the right, crevasses were on the left, and Mt. Hunter (14,573’) in front. We landed at 6:38pm…I was surprised it was only a 27-minute flight.
In a short amount of time the plane was unloaded of all our gear and gone. We checked in with the base camp manager and got two sleds. One for Scott and one for Thomas. Roger and I brought our own sleds from home since Thomas is military and could travel with up to 5 bags free of charge. (I was glad we brought our own sleds since I didn't see anymore around except the 2 Scott and Roger got!)
Scott and Thomas rigged their sleds and we dug a cache hole in the snow to stash a small amount of food for our return. That was in case we had a weather flight delay in flying out. It was above freezing with the sun still shining bright, and so our plan was to hike through the night when the snow would re-freeze and make the snow bridges stronger. We waited until the sun would drop behind the mountains to begin. We were in our snowshoes and hiking at 10:40pm.
[*Recommended to hike from Base Camp at the airstrip to Ski Hill Camp at 7,800 all in one trip as a single carry. It’s a 5-6 miles and a long day since you are hauling everything.]
[*Pull sled by attaching it to backpack. Use a “screamer” release system on tether cord. This will help in case both climber and sled falls into a crevasse.]
[*Use an adjustable clove hitch to attach rope to sled/clip a carabiner to top of duffel attached to rope.]
From base camp at 7,200 feet, you start by hiking down Heartbreak Hill dropping 500 feet to 6,800’. It gets its name for when you return.
[*Lay a GPS track since there are lot of crevasses. You may get engulfed in clouds/fog on your return trip.]
Watching the sunset/alpenglow on Mt. Foraker was outstanding. Hiking through the twilight in this huge, glaciated valley was absolutely surreal. I loved it. What an awesome experience. The size and scale of these mountains is hard to comprehend. As we hiked up the Kahiltna Glacier I remember hiking by Mt. Crosson (12,352’) that was on our left. I was baffled by how hour after hour we were still right beside it! We made it the 5.5 miles to the 7,800 (Ski Hill) camp in 4 hours 50 minutes arriving at 3:30am. By 4:00am the sunrise was hitting Mt. Foraker (17,400’) and we had our tents up. We made a quick meal of Top Ramen so we could get some sleep.
[*Once tent is up, take off boots immediately to start drying. Hang socks up in top of tent. Put on dry socks and down booties.]
[*Don’t walk around in down booties. They get wet. Put down booties into outer plastic boots or over boots to walk around in.]
[*7,800 camp is highly crevassed even though it is flat. It may look and feel safe but it is not! Wand perimeter, and stay inside.]
It can be hard to sleep with the bright sunshine. The eye shades we brought were good to have. Also, the heat that builds up in the tent makes it hard to sleep. Nice view out the tent door at 10:15am.
[*Wear a super light sun hoody for those hot, sunny days.]
Day 02_June 12-Cache Day
cache | kaSH | noun: a collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden or inaccessible place: an arms cache | a cache of gold coins. • a hidden or inaccessible storage place for valuables, provisions, or ammunition. verb [with object] store away in hiding or for future use
We started out with sausage and egg burritos for breakfast. They were really good! Today involved leaving the sleds in camp and hauling a backpack full of food up to 9,500’. My pack had weighed 52 pounds at weigh in. I figured a cache pack would be lighter, but I was so astonished how heavy it felt! Ski Hill is steeper and way longer than it looks. It’s up here on Ski Hill where you can fully see the vast size of the Kahiltna Glacier. It’s hard to comprehend. Everything looks so close and yet takes forever to walk to. You can barely see the tents below us (right of cloud shadow) back at 7,800 camp.
[*Take a food/fuel cache to 10,000 feet.]
[*Haul your caches in your pack, not your sled.]
[*Keep a log of what you leave in each cache so you don’t forget.]
I am use to hiking 2-3 mph back in Colorado, and an occasional slow pace of 1 mph on steep terrain. Today, it took us 4 hours to go only 2.4 miles! After digging out a hole in the snow and burying our cached food, we turned around to head back down to our camp at 7,800’ for the night. But before we could get back, we were hit with our first snow storm. It started with flurries in the sun, and soon turned to gray, semi-whiteout conditions. I made a mental note of how stifling hot it had been in the sun and then immediately really cold with clouds and wind. It was such a huge swing on the “feel-like index”.
[*Wand all caches. Attach 2-3 wands for center wand. You can easily get 4 feet of snow. Wand all 4 corners so you know where to dig.]
Back at camp, it was time for dinner. We were extremely blessed by Scott who did all of our cooking for us. It was fun seeing what our mystery dinners would be since we weren’t given menus in advance. The reindeer sausage and pasta was really spicy and good.
[*Use a platform of wood covered with aluminum foil under stove to block heat and prevent melting snow and pot tipping over.]
[*Melting snow for water is a full-time job. Start stoves when you arrive in camp. Fill water bottles at night. Leave pots full overnight. It’s quicker to melt a little ice than to melt snow down into water.]
[*Use a trash compactor bag to fetch clean snow away from camp for your water. (Avoid yellow snow!) Use sled to drag it to camp.]
Day 03_June 13-Move to 11 (Motorcycle Hill) camp
We slept in until 8:00am which was really nice! We were surprisingly tired from our previous cache day. Day 3 was a move camp day. We were packed up and moving at 11:03am. To haul heavy sleds from 7,800 camp to 11,200 camp was a much bigger chore than I ever expected.
[*Keep 3 days of food on you at all times.]
[*For rest stops, stay spread out keeping rope taunt. If you have 2 rope teams, you can pull one up alongside the other for social interaction. Stay diligent to prevent crevasse falls.]
[*Bring and use hand sanitizer. Don’t get gastrointestinal illness and pass it around!]
With all of our gear, it took us a half hour longer, or 4 and a half hours to reach our cache location at 9,500’. It was then that we found our blunder! We didn’t dig more than 3 feet down to prevent the ravens from raiding our cached food.
It looks like a lot was lost, but it really was less than a days worth of snacks that the "devil birds" got too. (My daughter, when she was 8 years old, came up with term "devil birds" when a crow stole her peanut butter sandwich during recess.) It took a long time to get to the 11,000 camp. With our cleanup delay at the 9,500 cache, it took us 8.5 hours. It turned out that this was one of my hardest days. The final slope leading up to the 11,200 camp was steep and relentless. And I'll make mention of something here...being spread out on a rope to prevent crevasse falls, you can't carry on a conversation with your partners. So, you spend most of the day alone. You are in your own head for hours.
[*Avoid camping at 9,500 camp. There is fog down here all the time. People think it’s a blizzard and will often not move.]
I was wiped out by the time we finally arrived a 11,000 camp at 7:30pm. As if hiking and hauling gear isn’t enough, then we had to set up camp. Roger and Scott worked hard digging out our kitchen. It can be a lot of work. Later during the night, I could tell from my thick, dark brown urine, that my body had really been stressed that day.
[*Don’t set up tent near edge of camp. There is serac fall and avalanche danger here. Stay in lower part of camp.]
[*It snows a lot in 11 camp and will be hard to dig out. Don’t build walls here. Let the wind blow away snow from your tent.]
[*Cleaning snow off of the tent never a shovel. Use your hands. Shovels will slash your tent!]
That cone shaped tent is a Black Diamond Megamid. It’s a floorless tent that we used that for a camp kitchen. (Thank you Derek Rutledge for loaning us your Megamid!) It’s really nice where all of us can come together as a team and to have a place to get out of the weather. The next photo below was a sunset view out the Megamid. We didn’t get to bed until 11:45pm.
[Take down Megamid’s center pole if storms are coming. Better not to snap the pole from a huge snow.]
[*Listen to FRS radio Channel 1 at 8:00pm each night for weather report from the Base Camp manager.]
Day 04 June 14-Retreive cache
We had another nice leisurely morning. Didn’t come out of the tent until 9:00am. No reason to rush. This was a retrieve cache day. We left our 11,000 camp at 12:11pm for the 9,500 cache. What had taken us 4 hours to hike up the day before, only took us 50 minutes to hike down with empty packs. It took us a half hour to dig out our food and stuff it into our packs. Then, the hike back up to 11,000 camp took twice as long as coming down taking 2 hours 9 minutes arriving back at 3:52pm. But that was still half time it took us with sleds and heavy backs the day before.
Just after we arrived back at 11,000 camp, clouds and fog spilled over Kahiltna Pass and filled in the 9,000’-10,000’ valley just as Sebastian had warned us about. Glad we didn’t camp down there. Thanks for the tip Sebastian!
We had cheese and sausage on crackers for appetizers and then at 6:30pm dinner in the Megamid
Day 05 June 15-Cache day
This was another cache day for us. The day was foggy on and off all day. We got up at 6:00am since we had gone to bed early the night before. We ate a hearty breakfast of eggs and hash browns, and headed out and up Motorcycle Hill at 8:52am.
[*Up Motorcyle, Squirrel, and Polo Hills, avoid going after a huge snow storm. They can avalanche.]
Getting up the 700 vertical feet of Motorcycle Hill took us a little over an hour. Even though it was a little crowded, we never caught up or were slowed down by the other climbers. From the top of Motorcycle Hill, the route turns a hard right and goes up the steep Squirrel Hill.
This was another day of being hot and then cold with the sun and shade of the clouds. I had the Katy Perry song “Hot N Cold” in my mind. After Squirrel Hill is Windy Corner known for its tunneling effect of the winds. However, today we had no wind and it was just fine. We got to the cache location at 13,500’ after 4 hours and 50 min.
[*After Windy Corner and before 14 camp, cache around 13,500’.]
[*Beware! After cache and next to the mountain, it can avalanche.] (see photo below)
After digging out a snow cache and burying our food, we headed back to 11,000 camp and got there in about 2 hours arriving at 4:30pm. It was this evening that we ran into the other Colorado Mountain Club group. That was fun to see them and celebrate their successful summit bid. They then gave us their CMC banner to take with us to use later. We ended up eating not one but two dinners this evening! And while in the Megamid, we heard a really loud noise. We jumped outside to witness a huge serac fall right next to our camp! That was ominous hearing that loud freight train type sound as it rumbled down. While it’s hard to tell, but that block of ice in the middle, is probably the size of a bus! Thanks again Sebastian for the tip of where to camp here!
Day 06-June 16—Move to 14,200 (Basin) camp
We woke at 7:00am where we ate breakfast, tore down camp, and dug out a cache hole. The cache we would leave here was things we wouldn’t need up higher such as snowshoes, trash, dirty socks, and some food for the return trip down.
[*You can leave a full CMC/poop can here in 11,000 camp cache]
[*You can leave snowshoes in 11 camp. But take one pair to 14 camp for the lead person in case you have to break trail in deep snow when you come back down.]
We then started our climb up to 14,200 camp. On top of Motorcycle Hill you get this incredible view. That snowfield/glacier above is 100-300 feet thick!
[*Sleds go to 14 camp. There is so much to carry with all the trash and CMC’s.]
We are still climbing with sleds which made for another long hard day. Above Windy Corner over to 14,200 camp involves some side-hilling. Thankfully none of our sleds flipped over on the way up.
It was up here where we got to see the largest crevasses of the entire trip. This crevasse here is large enough to fit a whole apartment building in to!
Getting to 14,200 camp took us almost 8 hours. Again, this meant alone time on the rope. I spent an awful lot of time in prayer. I prayed for wife, my kids, my very sick and bed ridden mother, I prayed for help with my issues, and of course I prayed for safety and success for me and my partners. But one of the things that happened to me during these times was.... I was listening to God. (Normally I talk to Him, I don't LISTEN to Him.) And at three different times, I literally broke down in tears as I was hearing and sensing... He was giving me this dream of Denali.
[*Camp away from the mountain towards the right/south side of camp. It can avalanche down into 14 camp.
[*This is the place you want to be. 11,000 camp gets too much snow. 7,800 camp you aren’t acclimating.]
[*Build walls in 14 camp. You will be here many days.]
14 camp....what a spectacular place to be in!
The guys choose a tent sight that involved digging it out to accommodate two tents. Hard work! It took us 2 and a half hours to dig out, set tents, build walls, put up Megamid, and arrange our bedding. We didn’t’ eat dinner until 9:30pm. This was another day that took it’s toll on me. My back hurt really bad! Trying to set up my bed, or taking off my boots, I literally would fall back (lay down) every few minutes to give my back a rest. Ibuprofen was my friend! We finally crawled into our sleeping bags at 11:30pm.
Day 07-June 17-Retreive Cache
We slept in this morning which was so nice…and so needed! (My back was thankful!) We had Coucous for breakfast with apples and cinnamon. Yum! We left 14 camp at 12:40pm to retrieve our cache down at 13,500’. Surprisingly, it only took us only 20 minutes to get there. After a half hour we had our stashed food dug up and packed away in our packs. We were back to 14er camp in a round trip time of only 2 hours. This was a welcomed “easy day” after the overtaxing day before.
Day 08-June 18-Rest Day
It felt really cold this morning in my sleeping bag from 5-7am, before the sun started to warm things up. Even in a -20 degree sleeping bag I was cold. I put on a jacket and down pants and crawled back into my sleeping bag and was able to warm up and go back to sleep from 8-10am. Since this was scheduled as a rest day, after breakfast we practiced climbing a fixed line and passing pickets right there in camp. Scott is so good as a trip leader and teacher. I have really grown to appreciate all he has brought to our team. After our practice session we then went through what we would cache the next day up at 16,500’. It was really good to have the time on a rest day to organize our food and gear. Had it not been a day off, we may have had to rush doing this critical process of organizing and packing. It was comforting to know we had the time to really think through our gear and supplies and what we would want/need at 17,000 camp. Then it started snowing. It snowed all afternoon and through the night which ended up dumping about a foot of new snow. We had hired Chris Tomer, a meteorologist at a Denver TV station, as our weather forecaster who sent us weather updates via my satellite InReach device. This snow storm was exactly as he predicted. We were so blessed to have accurate forecasting and to have this storm fall on our rest day! Not only can incredible scenery be found in 14 camp, so can the humorous antics of other climbers!
[*Bring a paperback book to read. When finished pass them around.]
I didn’t get a picture and wish I would have had time, but when we were hiking up to 14 camp, we actually passed a climber hiking with a full-size blow up doll on the top of his back. It was hilarious! I took this amazing photo in 14,000 camp of this window to the world below.
Day 09-June 19-Cache Day
Today was our day to climb the infamous headwall above 14 camp. Fixed lines (ropes attached to the mountain that climbers attach themselves to) are put in due to the numerous falls and accidents on this section of the mountain. While eating breakfast, we kept looking out the door of our Megamid and looking up. No one would leave camp this morning to break trail in the fresh snow….so we finally decided to do it. We got on the trail at 10:10am.
[*Do a cache run up to 16,400 to help your body acclimate.]
[*Above 14 camp it’s 2.5-3 hours to the fixed lines.]
[Leave camp between 7-8am because of the heat. The sun bakes the slope.]
Once we started, several other team then followed suit. Being the first team out was tough going in the deep snow. We were willing to do it, thinking it will be nice not getting backed-up behind other climbers at the fixed lines. (Thanks Scott for leading and breaking trail!) However, having the trail covered under the snow, we must have missed a turn as we ended up having our way blocked by a deep crevasse. This caused us to have to back track down about 100 feet which then put us behind two other teams. Argh! We got behind a Russian team and a Brazilian team that must not have known what they were doing, because they were taking forever on the fixed lines! We waited and waited and waited and probably lost two hours to these guys. A guided team chose to move over and go up the down line.
I must say, climbing the fixed lines was way harder and steeper than I was expecting. I was surprised how much work and effort climbing that headwall with a heavy pack took. It was quite draining! But once up on top of the ridge at 16,000 feet, the views made it all worth while!
[*Along 16k ridge, there are a lot of accidents. It looks gentle but a slip results in a long slide down! Pound pickets and clip in your rope. If you take a break, pound in a picket and clip in yourself and your pack.]
To look down 2,000 feet at the 14 camp below, to see that sea of clouds in the glaciated valley’s, and to see the Hunter mountains rising majestically up from the depths, was a sight to see! This impressive beauty and massive scale was God showing off his handiwork. Instead of leaving our cache at the top of the headwall at 16,000’, we were feeling good and continued on up to 16,600’ to a feature known as Washburn’s Thumb.
[*From 14 camp to 17 camp, it’s about 7 hours. You will be on ridge for about 3 hours. No need to clip rope into chest harness on 17 ridge. Not worried about crevasses. Use short rope technique and clip into pickets.]
[*You will need a spade to dig into the hard packed snow up here.]
We were expecting that taking our cache from 14,200’ to 16,600’ would take us 5-6 hours. With our wrong route/crevasse detour, 2-hour delay on the fixed lines, and the time digging and burying our cache up at Washburn’s Thumb, it took us 10 hours round trip. We got back to camp at 8:05pm.
[*Best way to descend a fixed line? Clip PAS to rope and wrap arm around fixed-line.]
[*Last person uses their ascender or Petzel micro traxion as a backup anchor.]
Day 10-June 20-Rest Day
Taking our cache up to 16,500’ was a long, hard day. So, we decided to take another well needed rest day which was actually right according to our written itinerary. Sleeping in once again was great! One of the highlights for me was reading a book from start to finish during our down times. And you see me and Roger both sitting in our tent. We both brought camp chairs. We used them in our tents every morning and we took them into the camp kitchen for meals. Worth the small additional weight and highly recommended!
Today we took a hike out to what is called the “Edge of the world.” It is a cliff overlook off of the 14,000 camp plateau. This view (when the clouds allow) is where you can see 6,000 feet down to the glaciers below. Even with the clouds, this place is still incredible!
To have a full day hanging out in 14 camp allowed us to see that there are people from all over the world up here. We found people from Japan, Italy, China, Israel and of course Russia and Brazil. This is one of the “Seven Summits” after all.
Day 11-June 21-Move to 17 (High) Camp
Climbing this narrow ridge from the top of the headwall at 16,000 feet up to High Camp at 17,200 feet was one of the highlights of the climb. The views are stunning from this ridge in all directions and here you feel like mountaineers instead of hikers.
[*Travel light to 17 camp. Leave heavy meals, skillets, Megamid behind. Take freeze dried meals.]
The slope angles heading down both sides of this ridge were steep and dangerous, so we did play it safe and clipped our rope into the fixed pro along the way. Sebastian did tell us there have been many unfortunate accidents, falls, and deaths up on this ridge.
The headwall above 14 camp and this high ridge is where the climb shifted from glacier hiking to mountaineering! What an invigorating section!
It felt really good to come around the bend and to see 17 camp there in the midst. We were fortunate to score two pre-made tent sites with fortified snow block walls. Yay! We didn’t have to put in all that work. However, Thomas and I did have some extra work to do. After we unloaded our packs, we turned around and hiked back down to 16,500’ to retrieve our cached food and supplies. Scott and Roger stayed at 17 camp to put up tents, start dinner, and start melting snow into water.
[At 17 camp, you feel the altitude here. It’s cold. Don’t’ camp next to the rescue box with the 1,000’ rescue rope. The winds are worse here. Go on up the hill to the actual camp.]
[*Don’t hike around in down booties in 17 camp. Put feet into plastic boots and put on crampons for safety.]
Day 12-June 22-Summit Day!
The suggestion from those who have done this climb is to, wait for a delayed start. It’s usually very cold at 17 camp until the sun hits it. And, it's very cold on the route in the shadows. And so, we waited for the sun to come over the ridge and start warming the route up to Denali Pass. The slope up to Denali Pass is called the “Autobaun and is very steep. You can see other climbers in the shadows which is why people delay. We didn’t start until 11:08am.
[*Don’t leave until 9-11:00am. The route is in the shade and it’s cold. It’s a full 2 hours up to Denali Pass and no real place to rest.]
It’s much steeper than it looks and was slower going than I anticipated. And there are open crevasses at the bottom of this slope. That’s why there are pickets pounded in the snow for climbers to clip their rope into, even though the photo below shows we bypassed a picket.
[*Take lots of non-lockers for your team to clip into the fixed lines or use your own running belays. Last person collects your biners and pickets. Stay roped up all the way to the summit.
At the top of Denali Pass we took a break. There is a good place to sit on some rocks and flat ground. Up at 19,500’ we entered the huge expanse under the summit called the "Football Field." This is a crevasse free plateau where it’s safe to come out of the rope. We just kept going roped up. No one person had to carry the rope this way.
[*Crossing the football field, you can group up. There are no crevasses here.]
It was here that we came upon an emergency situation.
There was a Japanese team of six. One of them, a 68 year old man, had basically collapsed and couldn’t go on. Since Scott is an emergency room doctor, he offered to help them. They gladly accepted our assistance. Scott used his pulse ox and found that this man’s oxygen saturation as only at 50% and his heart rate was extremely elevated even though he was sitting and not moving. We quickly assessed that the reason this man collapsed was he was suffering from HAPE…high altitude pulmonary edema. This is a life-threatening situation where fluid accumulates in the lungs due to not being acclimated to the altitude. We learned his name was Toru. Toru had been coughing up blood and phlem out of his lungs for the last couple thousand vertical feet. We saw the brown-ish red spatters in the snow as we were coming up. This man was not in a good way. One of the Japanese men was attempting (un-successfully) to make a call for help on a satellite phone. All of our team had FRS two-way radios. So, I called out on the emergency channel 1. I couldn’t reach the National Park Service personnel due to our location however, I was able to reach a Denali guide up on the summit. He was able to reach a park ranger down in 14 camp and re-broadcast the information I was giving. It turned out that a helicopter rescue was not possible this evening due to the mountain below us was all socked in with thick clouds. Scott administered Diamox and Dexamethasone to Toru. These medications are very effective in treating altitude illnesses which is why we brought them with us. The 3rddrug which was suggested by the NPS doctor was nifedipine, which we didn’t have. However, the Denail guide above us did. So, he rushed down from the summit to give that to Toru. The Denali guide said to us under his breath, "if this guy stays up here through the night, he would probably be dead by morning." Whoa!
We all agreed that Toru MUST move down the mountain ASAP and we communicated that to the Japanese guy who could speak English. As it turned out, after about an hour and a half, the medications started to kick in and Toru was able to get on his feet and start hiking. He needed assistance and was moving slowly, but he was heading down! The Denali guide said he would take over from here, stay with the Japanese team, and released us to finish our climb since we were so close. Scott, being a medical doctor, wouldn’t/couldn’t in his conscience have left Toru if this guide hadn’t graciously offered to take over responsibility for Toru.
So they headed down and we headed up. We made it up to the top of Pig Hill in less than a hour. And it was now at this point, when I truly started to feel like we would actually make it to the summit! This is the stately, iconic Denali summit ridge I had seen in photos for years. Now I got to take my own!
[*Be sure to drink plenty to avoid frostbite.]
[*Clip in on final summit ridge or pound your own pickets.]
After years of dreaming of this moment, at 8:25pm, we topped-out on the summit! It was truly a surreal moment.
surreal | sÉËrÄÉl | adjective having the qualities of surrealism; bizarre: a surreal mix of fact and fantasy.
All of that planning, funding, training, and praying had come to fruition and we were now standing on the highest point in North America! I was expecting I would cry like a baby once reaching the summit. However, I think from already having three immense tear-fests on they way up, I guess I had already gone there. Plus the guys were not wanting to spend much time on top. So, as it turned out, we made it from base camp at 7,200’ to the summit at 20,310’ in only 12 days. (In the NPS office in Talkeetna, there is a placard that says the average climb take 17-21 days to summit.) We were so fortunate to have superb weather and gain the summit in 12 days. We were never force to stay in our tents a single day due to bad weather. That is almost unheard of. With no one else up there unfortunately, this selfie was all I got showing the four of us at the apex. But I did get the summit marker in the shot (under the CMC banner) to prove we were actually on top.
[*After summit, return to 17 camp to spend night. You will be tired after a 12-hour summit day.]
With our delay of an hour and a half with the Japanese climbers, we made it to the summit in 9.5 hours. No speed record for sure, which was just fine. Our descent back to 17 camp was relatively uneventful. However, the most difficult part of the entire summit day was going back down the autobahn. Some of our group actually turned into the mountain to down step. Again, this section is much steeper than it looks in pictures, and it was covered in soft snow which was sliding out from under our feet. I actually had to do a couple of self-arrests when my foot placements would break loose. Thomas was behind me and as trained, fell on his ice axe to arrest and capture my falls. It was 12:45am when we got back into camp which made for a long 14-hour day out. The guys went straight to their sleeping bags to go to bed. I went into the igloo to melt snow into water as we were all pretty much out of water. I had heard the warnings to be sure to eat and drink after the climb to make sure you rehydrate. And so I made some hot chocolate as a recovery drink and a hot soup.
[*Next day, go down to 14 camp. Spend the night and a full rest day before going down. Then go from 14 camp all the way to base camp at the airstrip.]
We took Sebastian’s advice and spent a night at 14 camp as well as a full rest day. We got a good night’s sleep that night and took it easy all morning. We walked around 14 camp and visited other climbers. Scott and Thomas went back out to the Edge of the World and I took a sled full of extra food around 14 camp and begged people to take it. I was actually able to off load 25-30 pounds of food and fuel that we didn’t have to carry down! Then after dinner we packed up and headed out. It was at 8:30pm when we started our long hike through the night to base camp.
[*Use a “brake” (rope with knots) under the front of sled for going down to slow it down.]
We did the whole trip from 14 camp to 7,200 base camp in one long push. My sled got the best of me on the way down after we dug up our cache at 11 camp. I didn't repack everything correctly and my sled kept flipping over. Argh! We lost a good hour with my sled problems. (Hindsight...take the time to pack duffel with heavy items in the bottom. And use those orange Expedition sleds. They work best.) Surprisingly, we still did the entire hike down in only 9 hours pulling in at 5:30am. We couldn’t check in with the camp manager until 8:00am. Everyone is warned not to disturb her until she comes out. So we just got out our ground pads and took a nap. It was during this 2 ½ hours that we heard at least a half a dozen rock and ice falls coming down off the steep mountains around us. The sound of these are haunting! The base camp manager was up and out before 8am and we were put on the list and a scheduled flight. We arrived back in Talkeetna at 11:00am. This warm spell and good weather we got to experience moved the success rate from 48% up to 60%. And we couldn’t have been more thrilled to be part of those successful numbers on Denali!
In hindsight, this climb took longer each day, to accomplish each days’ objective. Our hiking pace was much slower than I was expecting. However, as it turned out, that was just fine. There were enough hours in each day to do what was needed to be done, and so going slow was not a problem. In fact, I believe it really helped. Going at a slower pace prevented us from overexerting and therefore prevented us from getting any altitude illnesses. And to be honest, it was really nice to never feel rushed or hurried at any part of this entire climb. Patient climbing partners are a plus!
[*Use wide mouth nalgene’s. Don’t bring bladder style water containers because you can puncture them.]
As far as the Japanese climber, Toru. He met up with NPS rangers at the top of Denali pass who had brought up oxygen. He was able to slowly hike down to 17 camp where he spent the night in a Gammau bag. He recovered somewhat but was unable to hike himself and all his gear off the mountain. We watched as a helicopter flew into 17 camp to airlift him off the mountain. Scott later received an email from Toru who was back safely home in Japan. He sincerely thanked us for our help and offered for us all of us to come visit him if ever in Japan. That was nice to receive that word.
[*Socks-take at least 5 pair. They will get matted, crusty, and smelly. 1 pair to sleep in only. Save 1 pair for summit day.]
[*Gloves, at least 2 pair because they will get wet. One pair to hike in one pair to build camp in.]
[*When going from light glove to heavier glove, put next pair inside your jacket to warm up. Don’t put them on cold. It’s too hard to warm them up.]
In the end, I couldn't have picked better partners. Each of one was strong, determined, and dedicated. Each was willing to do MORE than their fair share to accomplish each task at hand. No slackers here. Scott, Thomas, Roger, thank you for the summit of a lifetime! And I wish to publicly thank my wife Debra. She as been the most understanding, supportive and encouraging woman to me as I have pursued "the lists. And for that I am immensely grateful. I love you Debra Dear!
The amount of planning, education, training, and overall effort made this the hardest, and yet most rewarding peak, I've ever climbed in my life, not to mention having to own up to some of my own personal flaws. If you missed the back story of my personal journey leading up to this climb, you can read it here:
These are the scriptures that helped me change my mindset along this journey:
Proverbs 23:7 For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.
Psalm 37:4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Hebrews 11:6 Without faith it is impossible to please God.
Isaiah 41:10 Fear not for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
Philippians 4:8 ...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
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