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Denali is a great mountain. I first attempted to climb it back in 2009 as my first expedition with a great group of guys from Colorado. There were six of us, the leader was Chris Pruchnic whom we lost way too early in 2010 (miss you buddy). I got a stomach bug at 14k and was not strong enough mentally or physically to overcome it. I have climbed several big mountains since then and have learned a lot, but always knew I would go back to Denali someday. Ten years later in 2019 I had another great team of guys from Colorado, this time a bit smaller with only three – myself, Spencer Villano, and Derek Schatz. We were going to climb the normal West Buttress route. All three of us were motivated to summit Denali from 14k camp, as opposed to suffering at the 17k camp. We trained hard. I have become a big believer in the Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnson. Their methods simply work. My typical training week for Denali was: Monday early morning two or three hours at the gym strength and swimming, Tuesday night a lap or two up my training hill mount Morrison, Wed and Thu easier cardio recovery days, Friday afternoon I’d drag anywhere from 45 to 65 pounds up Mount Morrison for a lap or two, and Saturday a morning in the mountains, usually on skis. My regular was to ski Greys peak from the highway. I think I did this at least ten times over the 2019 winter. Although Greys is far from the most interesting peak, Greys is usually shielded from the wind when its nasty out in the winter. The trailhead is only 35 minutes from my house. Being able to ski above 14k for a solid cardio outing, and then be home by noon so I could spend the rest of the weekend with the family is the best thing about it. When weather was better and I had more time we got up more interesting peaks like Longs. Also all three of us did a blitz weekend to Mexico to climb Orizaba early in 2019 to get some higher altitude in. We left for Alaska feeling strong and ready.
Derek and I flew up to Anchorage on 5/22 while Spencer drove to Alaska with his girlfriend Maggie in his camper. Spencer took the year off work, and lived it up to the fullest climbing all over the southwest with Maggie, and hitting some big peaks like Aconcagua and Denali as well.
We used Sheldon Air Service for our glacier flights and were very pleased. We stayed in their bunkhouse in the hangar for free. We had plenty of space to sort our gear. Most importantly we were flown into the mountains when the other companies weren’t flying, and on the back end we were the first to be picked up when other groups weren’t yet flying. Sheldon was more relaxed yet just as competent as the main two other services. Highly recommend them.
We flew to the glacier on the morning of 5/24. After sorting our gear at base camp and then digging a cache of some food and beer, we immediately started the slog up the glacier. We each had around 125 pounds between pack and sled. But it wasn’t too bad since we had all trained with weight. I had some trouble with my sled tipping over but one of the guys re-secured it and I was able to then stop all the sled name calling. Spencer and I were on skis, and Derek was on snowshoes. We thought it might be a bit of a cluster to mix modes of transportation, but it wasn’t too bad.
We made it up to 10k that first day. Our first night on the mountain we became aware of a never-ending battle with our stoves. Neither of our stoves were working that first night. It was a sobering thought that we may have to head back down because of our stoves. After an hour of priming, cleaning, shaking, cursing, and probing we got one of them going. We got very intimate with our stoves on Denali and learned that some days they were happy and for other days for no apparent reason they were not.
The next day we had an easier day from 10k to 11k camp. We were racing a storm, and wanted to get to 11k to have enough time to secure a good campsite. The slope right before 11k was a little steep. Luckily I had purchased new skins earlier that year that were stickier than my old ones, otherwise no doubt I couldn’t have skinned up that hill without a spill.
The next two days we sat out the storm in our tents. This wasn’t so fun. Especially because in hindsight we chose a poor campsite that was dug out too deep. All the snow from the storm seemed to accumulate right in our little burrowed out area. We didn’t have our cook tent set up either, just a half assed rigged tarp across two sides of a snow wall. This was probably the least fun part of the trip for me. It was cold, wet, and the snow seemed to get everywhere in this campsite.
The one saving grace of the storm was we ate a lot of good food. Our rest day breakfast’s that Derek cooked were particularly awesome. Lots of hash browns, eggs, and bacon. What else do you need?
The storm finally cleared and on day 5 we made a carry to 14k camp.
The next day we moved to 14k camp. We passed a lot of people coming down the mountain who didn’t have summit success. It sounded like May had been a challenging month for the weather.
Our first day at 14k camp, day 7, May 30 we made an acclimating run to the fixed lines at about 15k. We were all feeling pretty good. This was my birthday and although I missed my family I was pretty happy to be celebrating it at 14k camp on Denali.
Our group dinners were also really good. Either pasta and sausage, or tacos with chicken. Its very important to have good food on Denali. We planned for 20 days on the mountain – 10 group dinners and breakfasts, the rest were personal. I brought a shit ton of variety which is essential.
The next day we did an acclimating run to 17k camp. I wasn’t feeling so good this day. In fact we stopped a few hundred feet fellow below the camp and turned around, because of me. We roped up on this ridge, using the fixed pro. It was a total cluster on the ridge. Large guided groups were so slow. We would have to wait in places up to 30 minutes. But the scenery up there made it not so bad.
On day 9, June 1st we rested and recovered. We were contemplating a summit push. We were feeling a little less confident about pushing from 14k due to the time it had taken us to get to 17k and back the previous day. We thought maybe we’ll just go it the normal way and use the high camp. Our plan was to move to 17k the next day and go for the summit the day after. We had hired a weather service – Chris Tomer. Thus far he had been pretty spot on. Alaska is tough to predict, and he is about as good as you can get. He was calling for high winds the next several days. The NPS was predicting glorious weather with low winds and a high of 10F on the summit. We decided to go for it, hoping Chris was wrong.
We moved up to 17k camp on day 10, June 2nd. Sure enough it was windy as hell up on the ridge, just as Chris predicted. We had to stop on the ridge for the real large gusts, to be sure we didn’t get blown over. It was a nightmare setting up our tent at 17k in that wind. It was a long night. Extremely windy, cold, and I had a bad headache as well. The summit was out of the question with that wind. We headed down early in the morning. The difference between 14k and 17k camps is very drastic. Once back in 14k camp life was better again.
On day 12, June 3rd the forecast for the next several days was not looking good. More high winds. Derek was not up for the waiting, and headed down with a team from Boise who had been waiting in 14k camp a few weeks trying to get the Cassin. They never had the weather window needed for the Cassin. It was a bummer to see Derek leave the expedition, but I completely understood his decision.
After Derek left, Spencer and I thought the best thing to do was to get into the Scotch I had lugged up there. I had brought up a large flask, and we killed it that afternoon before dinner. It was a great way to relieve the tension of the upcoming days of waiting. We were hearing of people pushing to the summit in these high wind days, and were also hearing of many cases of frostbite up high. An Italian lady coming off the Cassin could barely walk due to the pain of frostbite. Another Japanese man, who we would later talk with in Talkeetna got very nasty frostbite and had to be rescued from 17k camp.
The waiting wasn’t too bad for me since I had brought 3 books and several movies on my phone. The mornings I read and in the afternoon watched a movie before dinner. This routine made me not lose my sanity too much. Talking with all the other teams up there also helped.
June 7th was looking to be a very good day. We thought we were very acclimated and recovered after spending a night up at high camp. We decided to stick with our original plan and go for the summit from 14k camp. We got going around 430am, and it was damn cold at that time before the sun came out. I had the new La Sportiva G2’s and put on my overboots in the morning. Spencer had the La Sportiva Olympus Mons. Both of our toes still got a little cold up on the ridge at 16k that early in the morning.
We still stayed roped up on the ridge. We used less pro than we had previously to make things faster, but roping up still slowed us down a bit. This was on me as I preferred to rope up. Thankfully Spencer is a relaxed dude and didn’t mind, even if it was slowing us down a little.
We made it to 17k camp a little after 8am, and luckily we timed it perfectly. All the guided groups were just getting out of their tents. They wouldn’t be leaving for at least an hour for their summit pushes, so we would not be stuck behind them. We took a long break and ate a lot of food, and stashed some gear. We made our way up Denali pass in good time. From there it was a nice easy route to the summit, passing all the features I have read about – Archdeacons tower and the football field. Both of us were feeling pretty good, taking a short break every hour or so.
We made the summit in early afternoon, very happy to be there. We hugged, took some pictures and sat on the top of America for 20 minutes by ourselves.
As we headed down the summit ridge a group of Navy Seals came up, in their arctic warfare whites. I congratulated them and thanked them for their service. There were lots of special forces guys on Denali this year. An Army Ranger I had talked with at one of the lower camps had done 13 tours between Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was not even 30 yet. Much respect to these warriors.
Back at 17k camp we took another long break, brewed up and ate. We got moving again and slowly made our way down the ridge and back to 14k camp. Along the way we came upon a guy who had lost his boot. Another guy we had met lower on the mountain, also from Colorado, was helping him already along with several others. He had set up a deadman and was about to belay the guy off the ridge to fetch his boot. Thankfully he said he didn’t need any help, and we carried on.
Back in 14k camp we were cold from the exertion, and this was the only time during the whole trip either of us put on our heavy super puffies, while we were cooking and eating in our cook tent. Much food and tea was consumed, very satisfied with the day. 17 hours total including a few hours worth of breaks at 17k and the summit.
The next day we headed all the way down to basecamp. We skied un-roped for the upper glacier as the crevasses were minimal. Spencer had an issue here with his skis and sled. I had poles on my sled, which allowed me to ski downhill much easier than Spencer, who just had cord on his sled. At around 10k feet somehow one of Spencer’s skis popped out, and went zipping past me down the glacier. I thought it was gone. I went after it though, and a half mile down the glacier I saw a guy walking up carrying Spencer’s ski. Talk about good luck.
We slogged in to base camp late at night, put down our sleeping bags on the glacier next to the airstrip, and got a few hours of sleep. We woke up and retrieved our cache, and were drinking beer and eating Pringles by 10am.
Our plane arrived a few hours later. We loaded up and headed out of the mountains. Back in Talkeetna more beer was had, along with burgers at the West Rib pub.
Spencer and Maggie drove me back to Anchorage the next day, where I used the remainder of my United miles to fly home.
It was great to get back to Alaska and get to the top of Denali. Thanks to great partners, and an understanding wife, it happened.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Bro, Great work, great report, and photographs. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. In light of Veteran's Day, thank you for sharing about your encounter with the NSW team and the Ranger, nothing but respect.
Nice man...I really don't read many of these TRs anymore, but this one caught my eye and I'm glad I read it! Brings back good memories (and some bad ones), but congrats on your perseverance and summit success!
Thanks for writing up the trip report Colin.
My biggest learnings from the trip were to be patient waiting for weather and use a ski setup like Colin had with rigid poles. Oh and you can never bring enough scotch!!
We ran into each other on Grizzly D (recognized each other from Sherman back in Jan 2018) right as you were getting ready to taper down....I'd wondered recently if you were successful on Denali and that would be a resounding yes! Big congrats and nice write up!
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