Peak(s):  Denali - 20308
Mt Hunter - 14700
Date Posted:  06/15/2016
Date Climbed:   05/24/2016
Author:  I Man
Additional Members:   dereferenced
 The Mountain of Broken Dreams: Round 2 (or 3) with the Big D   

The Mountain of Broken Dreams

Denali (20,308')
West Buttress (intended Cassin Ridge - WI4, 5.8, Steep Snow, AK Grade 5)
Mt Hunter (14,700') attempt
West Ridge (5.8, WI3, Extensive Cornices)

Air Carrier: Sheldon Air Service - Highly recommended

Climbers: Peter Hamel & Matt Grabina
Team Tanaka (Tanaka, Tanaka....Tanaka....)

Keegan Young & John Fatseas, the Striking Vikings, were there the same dates as us and had a similar schedule and goal. We mostly stayed and went to the summit with them. An honor to share our adventure with such great guys! I have used a lot of their pictures and have notated which ones belong to which climber based off of the initials. Thanks a bunch for the photos.

Day 1: Travel to Anchorage, arrive in Talkeetna and sleep in Sheldon Air Service Hangar
Day 2: Orientation with NPS, fly to Basecamp and move to Ski Hill Camp (Camp 1 - 7,800')
Day 3: Single carry to 10,000ft, drop cache, move to 11 camp (Camp 2 - 11,200')
Day 4: Back carry from 10k, Sleep at 11k a second night
Day 5: Move to 14 camp, leave cache at 11 Camp
Day 6: Back carry from 11k, return before storm hits
Day 7: Rest/Storm
Day 8: Attempt summit, turn back in whiteout at 17k
Day 9: Rest/storm
Day 10: Summit from 14k, return to camp
Day 11-13: Rest from summit and wait out weather while hoping for Cassin window
Day 14: Give up on Cassin and move back down to basecamp to pursue other objectives
Day 15: Leave for Hunter, bivy at base and begin up at night
Day 16: Bail off Hunter, return to basecamp and fly out
Day 17-23: Alaska Road Trip / Drink beer!

Mt Foraker (17,100') as seen from near 14 Camp on the West Butt

Earlier this year Peter Hamel (Dereferenced) and I decided to take a trip to Alaska together. Over the years since our Liberty Ridge 2012 trip, we have climbed extensively together both at home in CO and around the world. It is a rare thing to find a true mountain partnership, where skills and ability match up with ambition, risk tolerance, style, etc. I have been very fortunate to have such a fantastic partner in Peter, one of the most driven, experienced, and accomplished big mountain climbers that I know. After attempting Cho Oyo solo and unsupported (Spring 2015) and climbing Aconcagua solo (January 2016), he was ready for a more technical challenge. We had first looked at the West Ridge of Mt Hunter due to time constraints with my job, but the situation wound up allowing for a full 3 weeks off. There was no doubt about what our goal would be at that point.

Mt Hunter (14,700') - "The Hardest 14er", also seen from similar spot on the WB

Concerning Cassin

Another view of the Cassin Ridge (5.8 WI4 AK Grade 5)

Cassin Ridge is often called the trade route of the Alaska Range, but if you look at the actual number of ascents that is far from true. Most alpinists consider an ascent of the Cassin to be a career defining achievement, and though I know many who have gone with the route in mind, I don't have any friends who have even gotten on it, let alone sent. The combination of technical and committing climbing in one of the most challenging ranges in the world, at altitude, makes the likelihood of success very low. The NPS estimates that less than 10% of teams pulling Cassin permits ever leave to get on the route.

This picture nicely shows the 3 most common routes on Denali

Peter and I knew that a 3 week trip would likely guarantee us the summit, but would not be enough time for Cassin unless the stars really aligned. After all, we had spoken to a couple of parties who had sent the route in 16 days total trip in 2015. Damn lucky. You need a weather window to fly in, a weather window to move up the mountain, to acclimate, to summit, to climb Cassin (which for us was 4 days), and then to move down the mountain and fly out. That is a lot to ask of the Alaska Range. We were lacking in the technical skill, but experienced in the big mountain and alpine climbing arena, particularly 'technical snow.' We estimated 1 day for descent and 3 days for the route, with the option for 2 days on route if we were total G's. We had chosen to avoid the Northeast Fork aka the "Valley of Death," which is most common these days. Peter had already been up it in 2014 on a climb of the West Rib, and we both wanted to avoid unnecessary objective hazard. The common way to attempt Cassin these days is to climb the West Buttress first and then leave a camp at 14k, descend via the Lower Rib or the Seattle '72 ramp, and then climb Cassin in alpine style before returning to the safety of 14k on the West Butt. This would be the strategy Peter and I would employ. Secondly, we knew that we needed to go as light as possible in order to give ourselves the best chance of success. The less time we were on route, the safer we would be, simple as that. In the true modern alpine style, we committed fully to moving fast without any regard for being stuck in a storm. Only climb in good weather, rely on your ability to keep moving, retreat upwards if need be.


Just a quick section on gear here. Though we did not get to try this system out on Cassin, we did try it on Hunter and we also feel confident that this system will work in other ranges around the world as we continue to push higher and more technical. We developed this system through our experiences climbing in the greater changes, as well as here at home in CO and applying the experiences of others that we emulate.

Tent: Mountain Hardwear Direk2 - "2 man" single wall tent, fully waterproof
Pads: Inflatable pads only, I used the Big Agnes Q Core
Sleeping Bag: Feathered Friends Spoonbill AKA "The BroRito"
Stove: MSR Reactor, 1.7L pot, 4 cans of fuel, 8oz each
Clothing: VERY limited, mostly synthetic insulation, no big puffy for Hunter (would have taken on Cassin). HUGE thank you to Arc'Teryx Denver, specifically Monique and Mario, for working closely with us to bring down our overall gear weight and for the gear!
Packs: Arc'Teryx Alpha 45
Ropes & Rack: 2 40m 8mm half ropes, assorted rock gear, 2 pickets, 6 screws (Petzl Laserlight), 6 regular alpine draws, 2 double length, personal glacier gear & Anchor material
Food & Water: 1 Nalgene each, roughly 1 freeze dried meal for each night per person (could stretch this a few days past) and some personal snacks

The jist of it: You will be a little cold at night and a little hungry in general, but a 20lbs 45L pack would allow us to move quickly over difficult terrain and make a tremendous difference higher on the mountain, the "cardio crux."

The "BroRito" in testing phase at my house

Alpine Style packs!

The Trip: Climbing The "Big D"

The West Buttress is commonly considered a walk-up, or a mid-life crisis route, or whatever. It is not uncommon to see people learning to use crampons or how to jug a rope at 14 camp. Insane, I know, but those people rarely ever summit. Sure, you can get lucky and get a run of perfect days in June and "easily" summit Denali, but in general I would now say that getting to the top of Denali is a pretty tall order. This was my second attempt and Peter's 3rd since 2013, and neither of us had yet reached the summit. This time, regardless of Cassin, we knew we wanted to make it to the top. Reaching the summit of Denali has always been a huge goal of mine; despite my interest in technical climbing, 'slogging' big mountains is my true passion.

Denver airport...transitioning to 'expedition time'

Peter and I feeling psyched to fly onto the glacier

To give ourselves the highest chance of reaching the summit, and to be safer (in our opinion), we knew we wanted to daytrip the summit from 14 camp. This is well documented in Training for the New Alpinism and is commonly done these days, but as with all things, change comes slow. The traditional crowd, as well as the NPS, does not agree that this is a wise decision. However, I personally feel the evidence is overwhelming. The NPS does in fact discourage people from taking risk and says things like "Sure, 14 to summit can be done, but only for the most elite athletes." I disagree, but oh well.

14 to Summit
The Pros:
You only need a single weather window, instead of 2-3 days if you use 17 camp
No chance of being stuck at 17 for a long time before or after your climb
No need to carry a heavy pack to 17k
Overall, much higher chance of success

The Cons:
If shit hits the fan, you're done. No bivy gear is carried and you are relying wholly on your own ability to get yourself down in the event of bad weather or an emergency. To some, this ups the risk factor, but for many other alpinists, putting the risk in your own hands is much more desirable. After all, we climb to test ourselves and the mountain is merely an arena.

Peter and I decided that the target time would be under 12 hours round trip, but that was unrealistic so we hoped for under 15. We would accept under 18, but anything over 18 was outside of our risk tolerance. We trained extensively specifically for this part of the trip, which would also overlap for Cassin. I barely trained at all for carrying loads and that sucked....but in the end that part doesn't really matter, in my opinion.

Finally, if you aren't in shape to do the 6,000ft summit day, then you have no business being on Cassin.

The start of the trip went well and we were able to fly onto the glacier as early as our schedule would allow. We then casually but deliberately made our way to 14 camp. At this point in our career, this is relatively easy, yet painful, for us. Peter is far stronger than I at hauling loads and he is always ahead of me while carrying more weight. We were pleased to be at 14 with all of our gear by the 5th day on the mountain. We made our first attempt on Sunday May 22nd in a marginal forecast and turned back in a whiteout at 17k. The 4 of us spent a bit of time huddled in camp waiting for the weather to clear, as we expected there could be clear weather above Denali pass. We could not see where we were going though. This was only our 7th day on the mountain and summiting likely would have been very tough. The attempt served us well as an acclimatization hike. The next day we rested and prepared for another attempt on Tuesday, May 24th. Peter and I prayed to the Inflatable Tube Man in the hopes that the wind would die down, as high winds had plagued the upper mountain.

"Tanaka Tower," an offering to Tube Man

Sometimes Denali has the Conga Line thing going on....this is Motorcycle Hill just above 11 Camp

Team Tanaka & The Striking Vikings tents' at Ski Hill Camp (7'800') - JF

A Hilleberg Tent commerical HA! Ours is the first one, the Nammatj 3. This was our main tent. This is taken at 14 Camp

Great views above 11 Camp, Father & Sons wall on the left

Peter heading down from 14 to retrieve our cache

Peter thinking "How much longer do I need to hang out with this fool?!"

Peter and I left camp around 730am, and it was cold, but not nearly as bad as some of our horrid memories from early May 2013. One of the downsides of attempting to daytrip the summit is that you have to start in the "shadow." A couple of hours later we climbed into the sun on the headwall below the ridge at 16k and moved along the ridge towards 17 camp. The conditions were great, it was sunny and the wind wasn't too bad. The climbing on this section of the route is excellent. It took about 3.5 hours at a casual pace to reach 17 camp. Here the 4 of us regrouped and discussed a plan for moving higher. None of us were sure if we would solo the Autobahn (commonly considered to be the most dangerous part of the route) and we had brought a rope per team. The plan was to regroup above Denali Pass to get everyone's thoughts.
Me on the ridge around 16,500' (JF)

John & I on the ridge on Summit Day! Good times! (KY)

Keegan & I approach 17k (JF)

Me barely visible going up the Autobahn (JF)

When I topped out on the pass, the wind was instantly brutal. My optimism quickly turned to pessimism as I wondered if going higher would be safe. Luckily I was able to find a spot out of the wind to wait for the rest of the guys, or I likely would have had to keep going or turn around. I decided to drop my pack here and put on my warmest clothing, take water, and a snack and head to the top. Peter and I agreed that the Autobahn hadn't been that bad and that it would be every man for himself for the remainder of the climb.

Keegan on what we think was probably Squirrel Hill...a bit of fun climbing for a short section (JF)

Peter heads towards the summit in the frigid morning hours

Striking Vikings on the headwall

Striking Vikings on the ridge

The wind was incessant and frigid. We estimated ambient air temps hovering around -20F with 30mph winds. The worst part was that we were climbing straight into the wind. The route looked nothing like what I had expected from reading and looking at pictures. Eventually, we arrived at what was obviously the Football Field and saw the summit ridge high above. It was both demoralizing and motivating; however by this point I was having serious concerns about frostbite, specifically on my face. Now above 19,000ft my pace had slowed to a crawl as well - talk about a mental challenge. This was also when we started seeing other climbers above us. Several groups had left from 17 camp around the same time as us that morning and the first of them were coming down from the top. From the football field we were told it was at least 2 hours to the summit. Blah.

How much longer could I push it and still be safe? I take a lot of risk in the big mountains, but it has always been calculated risk. Sure, I wanted the summit of Denali as bad as anything, but was I willing to give up my nose for it? Hell no. I needed to be extra vigilant and stop and make sure to take care of myself if I was going to make the top. Again I thought about turning around. In fact, until I reached the top, I hadn't really expected that I would make it.

The "Autobahn" and Denali Pass as seen from 17 Camp

The Football Field (JF)

Roughly one hour after being on the football field, I arrived on the exposed and WINDY summit ridge. Conditions were absolutely miserable. This was only my second time above 20,000ft and I felt OUT there. It certainly helped that I was the only one up there at the time.

USGS Summit Marker

Between 430 and 530pm local time, all 4 Colorado climbers reached the summit of Denali. I snapped a photo of the summit marker and immediately turned back to descend. At the time all I could think of was taking care of myself, getting down safely and not losing any body parts. I expected that I would soon throw up, as I often do on major climbs, but other than that things were going well and I made quick time down hill. Peter is the fastest downhill walker I have ever met and he quickly caught up. Being the last one to summit for the day in such gnarly conditions must have been scary. Soon enough all 4 of us were ready to descend the Autobahn again. Peter and I chose to solo and the snow had softened significantly making it feel secure.

The summit ridge (JF)

The Striking Vikings descend the Autobahn and near the end of a long day (JF)

Passing through 17 Camp, we did not envy the other climbers who were settling back into their tents. Some had already been up there for days and the upper mountain had experienced some serious wind events. The trip down from 17 to 14 was pretty trivial and quick and I was extremely grateful to not risk getting stuck at 17. It would turn out that none of the other teams would make it down to 14 for 3 more days, and many of them got frostbite (some were even evacuated from the mountain by helicopter). It had taken many of those teams 12 hours round trip to reach the summit and return, from 17 camp. A very, very tired me arrived back at 14 camp around 9pm, roughly 13 hours after setting out. I felt as if I had just been to war and I took my time moving through camp. No one seemed to notice as I stumbled into my tent, they were all relaxing and hanging out. Most had assumed there was no way to make the summit that day.

Peter and I went to bed without eating or drinking much, or really feeling like people....but right away I felt the tremendous sense of satisfaction. I live for this shit. I also got to achieve this dream on the last day of my 20s, the next morning I woke up to my 30th birthday.

The South Face of Denali taken on the lower Kahiltna

Peter skis towards basecamp with Mt Hunter looming above

Decision Time

We spent the next few days mostly in the tent, occasionally getting out to shovel. We were getting restless and the forecast was not improving at all. The entire season so far had been terrible for weather, even high pressure systems were accompanied by snow and low visibility. THe high winds never really went away. With time running down and a very low confidence that we would be able to get on route, we made the decision to return to basecamp. As I write this, I have spoken to a few people who have confirmed that no one even attempted Cassin so far this season. Funny thing is we had debated staying longer to wait for a window, glad we didn't as it would not have mattered. It was difficult to accept that we would not even attempt the route we had trained and planned so much for, but the truth is that I had always expected this. I know I will be back one day to try again, and again, until I get the chance. I want the route that badly.

There were many options from Kahiltna basecamp at our skill level, but it was getting somewhat late in the season. The weather still hadn't really settled, but we hoped being lower down would alleviate some of our concerns. Summit day had been intense and we were interested in more favorable climbing down low. We easily arrived on a route choice, the route we had originally intended to do:MT Hunter, the West Ridge. We made the trip from 14 to basecamp over 7 hours on Saturday May 28th and had a miserable time skiing with sleds. Finally, the trip from Ski Hill to basecamp was euphoric and enjoyable as i reflected on our journey so far. I had a ski binding issue towards the end, but otherwise we arrived back at camp without incident.

Recon of the 'Hardest 14er'

There were many options from Kahiltna basecamp at our skill level, but it was getting somewhat late in the season. The weather still hadn't really settled, but we hoped being lower down would alleviate some of our concerns. Summit day had been intense and we were interested in more favorable climbing down low. We easily arrived on a route choice, the route we had originally intended to do:MT Hunter, the West Ridge. We made the trip from 14 to basecamp over 7 hours on Saturday May 28th and had a miserable time skiing with sleds. Finally, the trip from Ski Hill to basecamp was euphoric and enjoyable as i reflected on our journey so far. I had a ski binding issue towards the end, but otherwise we arrived back at camp without incident.

We took our time getting things together on Sunday morning as we knew we needed rest and it was relaxing and rejuvenating to be back at basecamp. Really we wanted a rest day, but the forecast suggested our time was limited and the West Ridge is not something one takes lightly. Ideally we would get some climbing in before a small storm moved in, hunker down, and then send the route. We would also need to descend in one day, a tall order, before the next, larger system came in. We allowed up to 5 days, with safety margin for 7, though we did not actually have that weather window. Weather considerations aside, our ambitious schedule looked like this:

The long West Ridge of Mt Hunter

Day 1: Ski from BC to ABC below West Ridge, assess conditions then move up the ridge hopefully to camp at 8,900' or PT 9,500'
Day 2: Move past the Cat Ears and through rock band. Climb the ice dome and traverse the cornice crux. Camp around 11k near Ramen icefall
Day 3: Summit and return to high camp
Day 4: Descend to ABC, return to BC

Approaching the West Ridge, the dangerous NW Basin variation is visible

The problem was that a storm was forecasted to move in on Monday and then again on Thursday or Friday. We would definitely need to spend some tent time waiting (which didn't jive with our gear/style) and we would absolutely need to be down before anything major hit. Ok, cool, we understood the risks and what needed to happen and we set out. We left basecamp shortly after 1pm and enjoyed some of the most epic ski touring imaginable. Once you get off the beaten path, everything changes.

Terrain low on the West Ridge

We arrived at ABC for Hunter at 3pm and made the necessary gear changes. There was a party ahead of us that we had heard about and their tracks were clearly visible ahead. We had high hopes that they would send, so that we could just follow in their footsteps. I have no shame about following another team's footsteps while traversing cornices of this magnitude. THis route is well known for its dangerously horrifying snow conditions. Realistically, it is rare that anyone gets up this route. We started up the route, but post holed crazy amounts. It dawned on us that it was the afternoon at 6,000 ft and almost June. Wet slide danger was high, as was the required effort to get anywhere. The decision to turn back and wait was pretty easy.

Approaching the start of the West Ridge

What a view!

We spent the next several hours just hanging out in our tent. It was some of the most enjoyable time I spent on this entire trip. The freedom of being on a new mountain and away from the crowds reminded me of my trip to Mt Logan 2 years earlier. I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world spending time with one of the best friends I'll ever have. All that being said, I was anxious to get going and excited to climb. I wondered if things would improve at all, though, as my previous experiences up North have taught me to always be skeptical. Unfortunately I was correct and there was no improvement when we headed up after 8pm.

We chose to press on as we knew it was either do that, or turn back. I don't think either one of us were ready to turn back, and it had taken a tremendous amount of willpower to not fly off the glacier when we arrived at basecamp. This was my big trip for the year, and I was there to climb. Peter had spent the past few trips chasing big goals, only to come up short. We both felt a lot of internal pressure to continue. We consistently commented on the fact that we would at least like to swing tools on this trip. I got my wish leading up the steep bergschrund crossing, but it was brief.

In the small basin to gain the West Ridge

Some seracs to be mindful of

I kept climbing, leading us higher into the shitty snow, and now an oncoming storm. We had passed the brief danger of serac fall and we had made some progress, but visibility was starting to deteriorate rapidly. This was a concern. Not only did we need visibility for the cornices we were approaching, but the storm was supposed to be minor and much later. I thought all of these things in my head, but still I pressed on. It is not uncommon for me to step well outside of normality when in the big mountains, and I knowingly take risks much bigger than anything I would dream of taking at home. None of that mattered though, it was clear there was only one choice. I turned around and made the suggestion to Peter. Soon we were heading back down. Our ability to make quick, good decisions together has always been one of our strong points.

We spent the night at ABC in our alpine system, and returned to basecamp the next day. Before too long we were in Talkeetna and enjoying the comforts of society. It did not take long to long for the mountain again and there was much discussion about heading back. There was so much to climb. Instead we rented a car and drove all around the state, hiking and sightseeing around the incredible State of Alaska.

Peter heading down the ridge once the weather moved in

Alaska, wow, I don't really know what to say. This was my third trip in 4 years and I have never been so psyched to go back. My mind often wanders around the world, but at this point it is hard to imagine going anywhere else next season. The mountains there are just on a whole new level and offer challenges to last a lifetime. I enjoy going after long term goals, like Denali, which took 2 trips and am hopeful that after a couple more trips I might stand on top of Hunter. I have decided my goal for the range is to go for the "Triple Crown (Denali, Foraker, Hunter). The transition back home is never easy, but there sure are some amazing things at home that I missed. After the year I have had, I am extremely grateful to all of the people who helped to make this trip happen for me. All I can say is, "What's next?" This is what I live for.

Feeling pretty good at the end of a multi-week adventure (probably smelling pretty good, too!)

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
06/15/2016 20:45
Good read - congrats on achieving your dream of making it to the top!

06/16/2016 08:28
Congrats on getting to the top! I work with a dude who did the Cassin route on his first try, more than ten years ago. I guess he just got really lucky.

06/16/2016 09:27
--for putting together a detailed report. Enjoyed reading it.

Very cool
06/16/2016 12:10
Thanks for posting this adventure eh.

Gold Rush shot
06/16/2016 12:51
Image 23 reminds me of those famed Alaskan Gold Rush shots up to Chilkoot Pass from Skagway.

Nice job!!!! Looking forward to reading in detail.


06/16/2016 16:24
Forecast on Denali today is a high of 10 degrees at 17,000 with 10 mph winds.
Our summit day forecast was a high of -20, winds 35-50 mph. (actual wind felt more like 20-30, though)
If I ever go for Cassin again, the main thing I'd do differently is go in June instead.
This late May trip still felt warm, though, relative to our first trip (May 4th start date) where I was shivering in a -40 bag at night. I still used the -40 bag this year, but rarely needed to zip it up at night.

06/17/2016 14:19
Congratulations on your summit. Brought back memories of my own trip as well. Enjoyed your pics of the upper mountain. Our summit day was completely socked in so I have no real memories of the terrain higher up...everything was gray. So thank you! Very impressive pace on summit day from 14 - 20. that's pretty awesome! Your round trip times sounds about the same as for most parties starting out from 17. Although, I'm sure your time would have been even faster if you hadn't had to carry Peter in your backpack the whole way up

Big Schwimm
06/20/2016 16:08
Congrats! Looks like we just missed each other. I went up to climb the west rib and weather forced us over to the buttress. We summited on May 30th.

As it should be.....
06/24/2016 10:24
That which stirs our souls deeply are never easy. They are hard, they push us to places we're not sure we can go. It's why we do it. Well done Matt. Great TR, awesone pics, and the best birthday present you are likely to ever have!

I Man
Thanks guys!
06/24/2016 11:43
Jeff - Thanks for your comment! It was rewarding for sure.

Polar - yea, lucky indeed! Luck is a big part of it. Very good for him.

FlatProf - Thanks for taking the time to read. Glad you enjoyed

12ersRule - I have seen that pic before! It totally looks like it. Thanks for reading the report

Peter - THERE IS NO GOD BUT TUBE MAN!! (Yes, let's go in June next time)

Donald - Thanks man! Glad you enjoyed the pictures. Maybe one day Peter can catch up with me at altitude, LOL

Big Schwimm - COOL!! Congrats on your climb.

Mike - Thanks for your thoughtful comment, looking forward to climbing with you in September.

Congrats on reach a goal!
11/02/2018 20:50
I just read your report here. Congratulations on persevering and reaching the top of North America! Well done...although a bit ambitious doing it from 14er camp. But hey, you are young! Your love of the mountains up north there is inspiring. Climb on!

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