150 Peaks: Denali | Team Mammut

Sunday, August 12, 2012

150 Peaks: Denali

This trip really began in February with lots of phone calls and e-mails to prepare for the logistics of the trip. The team even met one weekend in March in Ouray, Colorado for some ice climbing and to discuss logistics. Early June was filled with food preparations, gear checks and weighing each item to determine whether it was worth carrying on the mountain.
Finally the day arrived to travel to Anchorage, Alaska where final preparations would be made. Food and fuel was purchased and gear was exploded into the streets for the final packing. On June 16th we drove to Talkeetna, the launching point for most attempt on Mt. McKinley, or Denali as it is known. We arrived in time for our meeting with the National Park Rangers where we were issued a Clean Mountain Can (CMC) to be our toilet for the month, and warned of all the dangers of climbing on Denali. At 4pm we were at the airstrip ready to fly onto the glacier! The flight in is worth the price of admission by itself. From the flat flood planes that surround Talkeetna the mountains begin to rise quickly. The flight takes you over “Little Switzerland” on the edge of the Alaska Range, through “One Shot Pass” and deep into the mountains to deposit you at basecamp at the foot of 14,000’ Mt. Hunter and 16,000’ Mt. Foraker.
Gearing up at basecamp



Once at basecamp we were anxious to get moving. Though it was late in the day, it was a good time to move through the heavily crevassed lower Kahiltna Glacier. With warm temperatures at the 7,800’ basecamp and 24 hour daylight, we quickly rigged our sleds, cached emergency food and fuel in the snow and headed down “Heartbreak Hill” to begin our journey into the night. We are all on skis, which makes crossing the massive crevasses much safer, and towing a 100 lb kiddie sled behind us laden with food and gear for the expedition. Going downhill with these beasts riding up behind you is no easy trick, but we eventually make it, turn North and begin climbing up the glacier. Even after 9 pm it was warm enough to be wearing just a t-shirt. After a couple hours a snow squall came in, reducing visibility along with the temperature. We reached the camp at 7,800’ at 2 am and quickly set up the tent and settled in for the night. We planned to sleep in the morning until it got too hot in the tent, then pack up and begin travelling late in the day after it cools and the snow bridges are stronger. In the late morning snow squalls blew in again reducing the visibility to almost nothing so we decided to continue resting until the weather improved.
After a full day of rest at 7,800’ waiting for better weather, we began slogging the 3km and 2,000 vertical up to the next camp. While this seems like a small distance to move in one day, with the amount of supplies we are hauling the pace is not exactly fast. After 6 hours of skinning in exceptionally warm temperatures we made it to camp and pitched the tent. In the evening the clouds filled in again and it began to snow quite hard. In the morning we awoke to several inches of fresh snow, and reports of more up higher on the mountain.
Thanks for the great gear, Mammut!

We woke early, hoping to start off before it got too hot again. It was cold in the morning, but as soon as the sun hit at 9 am it suddenly got t-shirt hot again. We set off anyway for the short but steep climb up to the 11,000’ camp. It was sweaty and hard, but we made it in about 2 hours. We moved into a nice tent site and spent the afternoon sunbathing and sorting food and gear to be cached further up the mountain. After a nice afternoon nap, we decided to take advantage of the cool evening to carry some gear up to “Windy Corner”. We loaded our packs with about 40lbs of technical climbing gear and food and set off up ”Motorcycle Hill”. This was the site of an avalanche a few days earlier which claimed the lives of 4 Japanese climbers whose bodies remain somewhere below the ice.
On our way up the clouds returned as they had each evening and it began snowing lightly. It was still warm and the visibility was good so we continued on up to 13,000’ where we dug a hole in the snow and threw in our gear. We turned around and got 2,000 vertical feet of fantastic powder skiing all the way back to the 11,000’ camp, arriving back at 11 pm. We ate a big dinner and sleep came easily after such a hard days work.
The next day we are woken up by extreme heat in the tent again, forcing us outside for coffee and another round of sorting gear into piles. We waited as long as we could for cooler temperatures, then headed off to make another cache of food and gear at the 14,200’ camp. We followed the same route up Motorcycle Hill to Squirrel Hill, around Windy Corner, which was not very windy at all and in great shape, allowing us to ski right through and even tow our sleds without too much hassle. At 14,000’ it was considerably colder in the late evening air and we all bundled up in our big puffy jackets and pants. We pitched a tent (we actually had 3 tents with us?!?) put our stuff inside, switched the skis into downhill mode and pushed off. Unfortunately the previous day’s powder had cooked in the sun and then refroze. This made for some “challenging” skiing back down to the 11,000’ camp. The clouds were well below us with some drifting up creating an amazing sunset that lasted for hours on our way back down.
Leigh dropping the knee above 12,000'
Moving day! After 3 days and 2 nights at 11,000’ we were in a good position to move up to 14,200’. We had heavy packs and one sled stuffed with food and fuel. Justin and I took turns dragging the pig up the steep hills one last time, arriving at camp just before midnight. We found an abandoned tent site with tall walls and enough room for our big tent and a cook tent, so we moved right in. Building walls of snow around your tent is time consuming (but also a good way to pass the time) and necessary for protection from wind and storms. We would spend the next couple days at 14,200’ acclimatizing, skiing and digging better and better platforms in our campsite.

Evening snowstorms kept coming in, dropping up to a foot of new snow. We took advantage of the “acclimatization days” for some creamy powder turns on the hill below the fixed lines and above the 14,200’ camp. Most people don’t use skis on Denali and I’m not too sure why. It is safer to travel over the crevasses, more fun on the days when there is nothing else to do and a much, much faster way to descend. I guess some people just don’t know what they are missing!
Home sweet home at 14,000'
After planning to carry a load up to the 17,000’ camp but getting weathered out on that day, we finally got a nice day to head up. We packed a load of food and fuel and started up the hill toward the fixed lines. There are ropes and pickets in place on the steepest sections from here on up the mountain. This helps to facilitate safety and alleviate any “bottlenecking” of climbers pitching it out on their own. We ended up being almost alone on the fixed lines with a couple parties way ahead of us and a couple way behind. On the way up the clouds rolled in again and it began to snow. The wind picked up toward the top and the temperature dropped a bit. When we reach 16,000’ and the top of the fixed lines Leigh decided she had had enough for one day, so we dug a hole in the snow, dropped our cache inside, and headed back down the fixed lines and the relative warmth of 14,000’. Another day of snow and cold would follow with reports of someone being caught in a small avalanche just below the fixed lines and another party wandering around in the clouds unable to find the camp even though they were just a couple hundred feet away. That night we received about 18” of fresh making the next day a ski day!
Powder skiing above 14 camp


On the 28th of June the weather was nice with a forecast of some good days to come. This was to be our chance to summit. We took a leisurely morning getting ready to go and hit the trail at noon. Leigh had decided that the high altitude wasn’t her game and she would wait at 14,200’ camp for our return. Justin and I made good time up the fixed lines where we picked up our cache from the previous climb. The ridge from here to the 17,000’ camp is the longest, most technical part of the climb. While it is not very difficult, there is exposure on both sides and a fall would not be advisable. We took advantage of some fixed pickets along the way to clip our rope in for protection. The steep part at “Washburn’s Thumb” was fixed with rope making it go rather quickly. A short break after this steep step and then we were almost there! Short of breath but feeling strong we rolled into camp and began digging in, melting water and settling in for the night 5 ½ hours after leaving 14 camp.
Our planned rest day at 17,000’ was more than necessary. We both woke up with classic symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, headache, nausea, dizziness, and my favorite “general malaise”. Justin faired better than I and actually got out of the tent eventually. I spent most of the day trying to sleep and drink water. Eventually we both began to feel a bit better and ate a good dinner late in the evening, still hoping for a summit bid in the morning.
Climbing the ridge to 17 camp

A little time cured everything and we woke up in the morning feeling good and ready to go. Unfortunately the mountain had other ideas and the forecasted calm winds and clear skies did not materialize. We delayed our departure, worried about the moderate winds at camp and the ominous cloud cap over the summit. After a couple hours of waiting and kicking the snow we decided to give it a go and hope things improved by the time we got higher on the mountain. We were traveling light for once with just warm clothes, 2 liters of water and some food in our packs. We stuck out toward Denali Pass with good cramponing snow and warm temperatures. As we got closer to the pass the wind picked up and the snow conditions turned to ice. We were happy to clip into the fixed pickets along the way to protect us from tumbling into the large crevasses a thousand feet below us. When we finally popped over the pass two hours later, the wind was kicking about 30 mph and we pulled on our warm down layers. A few hundred feet later we were out of the wind tunnel and the temperature returned to a reasonable zero degrees Fahrenheit. It was slow going now, with about 3 breaths needed for every step taken as we were above 18,000’.
Climbing toward Denali Pass on Summit Day


Feeling small on a big mountain
Eventually we reached “The Football Field”, a large flat area at 19,500’ and my previous high point on the mountain. Here we took a good rest, downed some water and food and stashed one backpack in the snow. The hill in front of us is about 40 degrees steep and only 500 vertical feet, but it takes 2 hours to climb it. At the top of this hill we are on the knife ridge snow arĂȘte to the summit. At this point we can look down the South side of the mountain to the Cassin Ridge, where we had originally intended to climb. The ridge in front of us has overhanging cornices on both sides, and some crazy rime ice formations of the Southern side. It is a bit surreal as airplanes are passing eye level or below and the evening sun is hanging low on the horizon. Winds were light to moderate and the temperature was not too far below 0  making it reasonable on the summit, though we didn’t want to stop for long. Our video cameras froze up, and the still cameras didn’t do much better, but we got some quick summit photos and then turned around for the return journey. It had taken us 8 hours to reach the summit after leaving camp, and we had a long way to get back.
Happy faces on the summit!

Back down at the Football Field we took another long rest. I think Justin even had a nap all curled up in his down jacket. It was hard to motivate, but I didn’t want to spend the night there, so we got out gear back on, ate some food and headed down the hill. The sunset laid out in front of us was beautiful and gave a sensation of warmth on the way back to Denali Pass. We had another rest just before the pass, then punched it around the corner and within view of camp…just 1,000 feet higher than the tent. With each step we took down the mountain we felt better and better as the air got thicker. As we pulled into camp, the sun was disappearing just below the horizon or just coming back up, it’s hard to tell when you are that far North. At midnight we crawled back into the tent after 12 hours on the move. We brewed some water, ate some food and slept like the dead.
Sunset...or sunrise?

Back in camp we eat and discuss our next move. We had planned on another week before we had to leave. We intended to climb the Cassin Ridge, but weather, conditions and conditioning took that off the table. Now we had the choice to do some skiing on the mountain, or head for burgers and beers at the West Rib back in Talkeetna. We got a weather forecast that sounded like a big storm was headed our way toward the end of the week, so it was decided we should head to basecamp sooner rather than later. Better to get a flight out off the glacier before the storm rather than sit and wait for days on end for the weather to clear.
Climbers on the fixed lines above 14 camp

We get up relatively early and begin breaking down camp. The lower part of the mountain is safer for travel in the evening and at night when the snow bridges are stronger, so we have plenty of time to pack up. We leave 14,200’ at 5 in the evening with heavy packs and towing 2 sleds. This proves difficult going back across Windy Corner as Justin’s sled refuses to stay upright. Eventually we stop to repack it and take the rope off for a bit of a ski descent. We make it down by slinging the sleds out in front and driving them like a horse buggy down the hill to the 11,000’ camp. Here we stop to dig up some trash and leftovers that we had cached on the way up. The hills are a bit mellower from here down, so the skiing and sled driving gets a bit easier and we make good time down to the 7,800’ camp. We take a long break for 4 hours here for some dinner and to let the lower glacier freeze up some more before we head back to basecamp. At 2 am we start back, counting the number of holes where other teams had fallen into crevasses. Thankful for the skis once again we glide past until the flats of the glacier at 7,000’. It’s amazing how long it takes to climb Denali compared to how fast you can descend on skis. Here we put skins back on and once again realized why it is called “Heartbreak Hill”. We climbed 400 vertical feet back up to basecamp to find that, due to the opening crevasses and melting snow, basecamp and the airplane landing strip had been moved another mile up the glacier. Continuing on we finally reached camp at 6 am after 13 hours of travel. We threw up the tent, not caring where, and crashed out inside hoping to fly off the glacier in a couple hours. Unfortunately the weather had another idea, and low clouds and snow kept the planes from flying that day and we had to wait (sleep) until the next day before we could fly out.
All packed up and headed home

We were lucky enough to get the first flight out on the 4th of July, and landed back in Talkeetna early in the afternoon. It was shocking to be suddenly plopped in the middle of a tourist’s 4th of July celebration, and we took advantage of all the food and espresso we could find. We were fortunate to get a shuttle back to Anchorage and civilization that afternoon and suddenly found ourselves saying good-byes and sorting gear and packing for the trip back home.
A great big “THANK YOU” to all the people at Mammut for making this expedition happen, as well as to Justin and Leigh for all their hard work and effort on the mountain. Though this was my third time on Denali, it was my first time standing on the actual summit. A real big mountain expedition experience, Denali is a true gem of a mountain and it was great to be back in Alaska. 

2 comments:

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