|THIS MOUNTAIN I MUST CLIMB|
THIS MOUNTAIN I MUST CLIMB.
I write this on the flight home from Anchorage to Denver while the details of this amazing adventure are still fresh in my mind. I left out quite a bit but for the sake of not making this report to long this is my recollection of the past 2 weeks.
Denali… The Great One ….Mt McKinley. However you choose to refer to this mountain it demands respect. It is a massive mountain of granite coated in snow Ice and seracs it rises about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) from its base, which is a greater vertical rise than Everest's 12,000-foot rise (3,700 meters) from its base at 17,000 feet (5,200 meters).
I climbed my first colorado 14er in 2010. Shortly after getting the 14er fever mountains around the world fascinated me. The one that really grabbed my attention the most was Denali. Something about the Alaska Range was love at first sight. I finished climbing the 58 colorado 14ers in 2012 and began giving a go at this beast some serious consideration. I needed a partner. My great friend Michael who climbed most of the 14ers with me also had the same vision. The choice was easy we would set a goal to go the following season. We rounded up a bunch of gear grabbed a couple partners. For whatever reason the trip never came to fruition. Next thing you know years had passed by and life had taken over family, careers, and age. It was always one day we will do it but when the pandemic of 2020 hit I felt as if the window was rapidly closing. I knew the only way this was ever going to happen was if I added Denali to a checklist. I’m really good at completing checklists. The list would be to complete all the state high points. I already had about 18 done with only a few hard ones left. The goal was to finish them all standing on the highest mountain in North America as the finisher. Over the next two years 2020,2021 I set out on many road trips with my wife tagging all these high points. It was great being able to explore rural America to big cities with the goal of standing on top of these mountains and visiting these points of interest. Fast forward to November 2021 both Michael and I were fully committed to Denali 2022. We needed a partner. Without anyone in mind with the same sense of commitment as us and not wanting to go as a group of just two for safety reasons I put a post up on the World Of Mountaineering Facebook page. I got about 20 responses of interested climbers many with great resumes. One stood out. Dan was fairly green and didn’t have a particular strong resume. He had just been climbing for about 4 years mostly alpine rock in the Tetons. His highest peak prior was Mt Whitney in CA via the mountaineers route. What he lacked in experience he had in tenacity and desire. I had a good feeling about this guy so we agreed to have him join our team. We began training, prepping the next couple months November and December we got out met and climbed Torreys Peak via Kelso Ridge. We were pumped for this trip. Unfortunately in January I caught a bad case of Covid and got a pneumonia. I was 100% sure the trip was off yet again when I could barely climb a flight of stairs, lost 16lbs in 2 weeks and felt like my lungs were destroyed. Dan encouraged me to not throw in the towel yet as it was still early enough to recover. May 30th was still a long ways out. I was not optimistic but agreed to not cancel anything.
Fast forward to March 1 I was back to square one but had recovered to the point I could start light exercise. I started slow but every week I got better and by the time the end of May rolled around I felt like I was strong enough to give it a go.
Two weeks prior to flying out we get an email our flights had been canceled. We all panicked and luckily found a replacement flight this time with a layover and increase price. Then the day before our flight I get another email that flight had also been canceled. We were all beyond disappointed at this point. Was it a sign that we should not be going? I said I’m going back online to find one more flight if it’s not on the same day I’m out and the expedition is off. After a few hours of searching we found a flight that went through Minneapolis and took it. 3rd times a charm!
May 30th we arrived in anchorage with all our gear. We had arranged for Gary with Go Purple Shuttle to pick us and our gear up and drive us to our launching pad in the small bustling town of Talkeetna. Upon arrival Michael asks where’s my backpack. We all looked at each other with panic. His pack had stayed behind at the airport 2 hours away with a bunch of essential gear. We must of overlooked it while loading the giant pile of duffel bags and backpacks. Luckily by the time we realized this Gary was only 15 minutes outside of Talkeetna headed back to Anchorage. He agreed to return for Michael for a small fee.
Michael went back that evening found his backpack at the airport and had to spend the night there. Dan has a friend who lives in the area and he agreed to take Michael back to Talkeetna in the morning in time for our orientation with the ranger. Woo Hoo another disaster averted!!
After all these hurdles we had overcome our luck was bound to change. We set out with a renewed mindset.
May 30th we loaded all the gear onto the air taxi and we were finally off to basecamp. After a beautiful 30 minute flight over the local green lands and rivers transitioning quickly to the glaciated Alaska Mountain Range we landed on the Kahiltna glacier at 7200ft. Mt Hunter, Mt Foraker, and Denali all dominated the views. We heard and saw a couple avalanches coming off the surrounding peaks. It was evident we were no longer in Kansas.The plan was to only hang out at basecamp long enough for the lower glacier to freeze and head out that evening. We buried a 2 day cache of food about 4ft deep for the return in case we couldn’t fly out due to weather which is common and actually happened to us. In order to identify where your cache is located teams use bamboo sticks with a sticker and team name attached.
We set out for camp 1 at around 10pm. We hiked through the night with the advantage of unlimited light 24/7 this time of year pulling 60 lbs of gear and food on the sled and another 50 on our backs.The trek to camp 1 is a mostly flat 5 mile stretch only gaining 600ft elevation. We arrived 4.5 hours later set up our first camp. We were surprised how quickly it got cold once the sun set even though it was not dark outside.
May 31 we woke up ate breakfast packed and set out with the goal of getting to the lesser used 9500ft camp doing a single carry. This day was a low moment for me and it was only day 2. Going up ski hill reality had set in as I baked in the heat and already exhausted with the heavy sled I was pulling. I thought to myself “This mountain is going to break you down and take your soul.” I didn’t want to portray my doubts to the team but I could tell they felt the same way. We got to 9300ft and decided we all had enough for the day. We didn’t even make it to our goal of 9500ft. There was a makeshift camp right off the main climbers path we took it and regrouped for the night. We realized doing single carry’s in the heat of the day was inefficient and would destroy us before we even got to 14kft camp. We agreed to try splitting up our loads and starting earlier in the day when it was not as hot. This would require more walking but less weight.
June 1 we took a load of about 50lbs mostly food and fuel in our backpacks to the 11kft camp and cached it there. It felt good not pulling a sled which none of us were a fan of already. It took about 4 hours to get to the 11ft camp and only 1.5 hours to get back to our 9300ft camp with empty backpacks. Our spirits lifted and slowly our confidence built.
June 2 we would moved up to camp11k with the rest of our gear and set up the tent there. Another day of smooth sailing other than the brutal heat. It was about 40 degrees but felt like 110 with the solar reflection coming off the snow. This was when we realized how crucial it is to cover all exposed skin to prevent massive sunburn. I think we all got some sunburn this day despite taking all the precautions we could. Once we got to our 11kft camp we set up the cook tent. It would be the only time we used it on the entire trip. It came in handy to give some shade and relief from the blistering heat. In hindsight it was nice to have but not worth the extra weight and space it took to only use once. That night the temps dropped to the single digits. My mind was blown how it could go from almost unbearable heat to freezing our asses off in a matter of minutes. The temperature fluctuations were insane!
June 3rd this day we took a cache up over motorcycle hill and past a place called windy corner at 13,500ft. The climb was tough with 60lb packs but still better than trying to move up in a single carry with all 100lbs of gear and food. The return to 11ft was fast and easy with empty backpacks. I was starting to really like this carry cache strategy vs single carrys. We also met another team from colorado Emily and Josh. We knew they were going to be on the mountain the same time as us and had agreed in our prior communications to have each other’s backs with whatever we could do to make us all more efficient and successful.
June 4th At this point we started to get the hang of what we absolutely needed and what we brought that we probably shouldn’t have. We decided to leave a bunch of food and other unnecessary items at our 11kft cache. I was pumped thinking our packs are only going to get lighter and more manageable. Wrong! For some reason the packs never seemed to get any lighter except for summit day.
We went up to 14kft camp this day. It was a tough push and at 14kft I began feeling the altitude. I could tell we were getting pretty high at this point. I was getting winded by doing simple things like walking around camp or tying my boots. I knew we would need 2 or 3 nights here minimum to prevent altitude sickness. They say elevation on Denali feels higher than what it actually is because of its northern latitude. I agree it felt more like we were at 16,000ft. We found a sweet spot to pitch our tent with snow walls already built and a bathroom area next door. It was a comfortable camp and a sense of community. There were probably 50 tents set up and 100 climbers from all over the world all with aspirations of getting to the top of North America.
June 5th The only thing on the agenda for the day was to go down to 13,500ft and retrieve our cache. At this point it dawned on me that we had a problem. Not all our gear food would fit in our backpacks for the descent and we should have brought 1 sled up to 14kft like most other teams had done. I didn’t stress to much because the focus was getting higher we cross that bridge when we got to it.
June 6th We decided to take our first rest day. We needed it. We had been going hard and had stuck to our game plan of never resting on good weather. It did snow a couple inches each night we were at 14 camp but the sun came out during the day and was very pleasant outside. Emily and Josh also had arrived at 14k camp this day and we decided to go check out a place just outside camp called the edge of the world. It’s a rock that overlooks the entire route we had taken to get there. It looks down at camp 1 7000ft below with amazing views of Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker. We took our hero pics here then went back to camp to settle for the night. The higher up we went the colder it got at night and our -20 & -40degree rated sleeping bags were much appreciated.
June 7th we slept in until the sun came out and warmed things up outside. It was a cold night and got to -5 degrees.We looked at the next section of the route called the headwall knowing it was going to be 2000 ft of grueling suck with 60lb backpacks on. We all agreed we didn’t want to do what most teams do by climbing it with a load to cache at 16,000ft then returning to 14k camp. We decided we would do one more single carry to the final camp at 17kft but we had to go as light as possible and only take the necessities and 3 days worth of food and fuel to get us through our summit push. We cached more stuff at 14kft that we didn’t need up higher.That morning Josh and Emily set out to join us en route to 17k camp. Emily began feeling some altitude sickness shortly after leaving 14kft. Her and Josh had a discussion and he asked if he could join us.She had no problem with it so he did.
We communicated via the radios. We had a Mountain Hardware Trango 4 man tent but it was already pretty tight. Sure we could fit 4 in an emergency situation but it was not ideal. Knowing that Josh seemed like a great asset and strong climber I agreed and said we would make it work. What a great decision this was as Josh would turn out to be a key player in our success at high camp and on the summit day. We waited for him at the base of the fixed lines as he charged up with a fast pace catching us quickly. It was then I could tell man this guy is a mountain goat. Once we were all 4 together we went over a weak snowbridge and attached our ascenders to the fixed lines. It was exhausting going up this steep blue ice section with 60lb packs but also very fun. We reached the ridge at 16ft melted some snow and hydrated before the slow tidius climb along the skinny ridge to 17kft camp. We arrived later that evening after an 8 hour day and quickly set up camp. The views up here were stellar. Made edge of the world lookout point at 14kft seem like child’s play.This lookout point was next level. You could tell this was getting serious the breathing was harder than at 14kft and the temperatures much colder. We took a few pictures,melted some snow, & ate before quickly getting in the sleeping bags. We looked forward to another rest day the following day. That night we all went to bed exhausted. Luckily the weather forecast called for clear skies the 8th and 9th but the 9th would involve more wind and colder temperatures later in the day. We hired Chris Tomer "best in the business"do our daily weather forecasts. What an advantage that gave us in our planning as he nailed it on a daily basis
June 8th Surprisingly we all got in a few hours of sleep despite the high elevation and frigid overnight lows -10. When the sun finally came out it warmed quickly. We ate breakfast and we all knew what each other was thinking. Our motto from the beginning was never rest on good weather that’s the #1 way to fail on Denali. We had all recovered enough from the previous day to give it a go.Worst case scenario we fail and try again on the 9th. We set out around 11am. Knowing it would be a very long day I messaged our families of the change of plans and that we were going for the summit and it would likely be at 12-14 hour day.
We roped up Josh led the autobahn section where most falls and deaths occur on Denali. Pickets were already in place by the rangers and the guide companies so we took advantage of them and did a running belay. I felt secure and safe going up knowing if anyone fell it would only be a 10-15ft. Doing the running belay slowed us down significantly but the weather was nice I was still in a baselayer at this point and knew with it not getting dark in Alaska this time of year we could climb through the night and come down anytime during the middle of the night it didn’t matter what time. When we got to the top of the autobahn it got significantly colder. We layered up and left the harnesses and rope there as there are no more technical sections that they would be required beyond this point. Shortly after this Dan began to bonk. He had nothing left to give. We discussed options. Was it time to get him down? Could he wait there in his down suit until we returned from the summit or did he just need a long refuel break?He could barely stand at this point. We checked him for altitude sickness he didn’t have it just pure old fashion exhaustion. Turns out he didn’t eat breakfast that morning. We made him take in some calories. He felt a little better after and we agreed to let him keep pushing on a little higher but I was not optimistic he would get very much higher. At this point my disappointment was at an all time high. We were close to 19,000ft and I may lose this summit because a weak partner. We slowly kept going and to my surprise Dan’s pace continued to get better. To the point that I couldn’t keep up. Shortly after I began feeling weak. It was my turn to crash. I got to the point I could barely take another step near a flat section called the Football Field. It was protected from the wind and a great place for an extended break. I was so sleepy I could have fallen asleep there for hours my eyes were closing. I started eating GU after GU and anything salty to replace my electrolytes. I hydrated and mustered up enough strength to get to the section at 19,500ft called the Pig Hill which leads to the final summit ridge.Michael was also starting bonk here. Josh was the only one still feeling strong with the exception of Dan who somehow had come back to life.
Josh suggested leaving the backpacks there and only taking a water bottle up to the top to make the final few hundred ft easier. After trying to melt snow in our reactor stove which didn’t work because the canister had froze he gave us a little bit of his water to get us at least to the top of North America. After a 30 minute break it was time to dig deep as deep as I’ve ever dug. I could see the summit. There was nothing going to stop me even if it took hours I was not going to give up now. We had worked to hard to get here. Only 500 Ft of elevation to gain. We set a snails pace barely moving but moving none the less. It felt like no progress was being made. I was counting steps 5 steps then rest repeat. Finally we reached the summit ridge! I got goose bumps on my arms not from the -5 degree temperatures but because for the first time I knew we were going to make it. It gave me a renewed strength my pace got better. A few feet from the summit we all gathered and took the final steps to top of North America together. Me and Michael shed a few tears of joy. It was surreal to be standing on the summit of Denali after all these years of dreaming. The views were heavenly. We took some pictures and videos and flew old faithful. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. Even though it was -5degrees it felt very comfortable with little to no wind. I could have stayed up there for hours enjoying the views but like with anything all good things must end. It was time to work our way back to highcamp. The descent back to highcamp went rather smooth and surprisingly fast. We elected to stay unroped down the autobahn. I felt like this was the sketchiest part of the day. Tired shaky legs trying to carefully navigate a 6 inch wide path with a steep angled slope which would be hard to self arrest in the event of a fall. I went slow and was careful each step got 100% attention. I kept telling myself no mistakes here. While I’m in this deep concentration coming down the Autobahn a plane flew closely over head and scarred the living shit out of us. We thought it was a rockfall or avalanche. After that we continued without incident back to 17k camp. Me Michael and Dan were all useless that night. We had nothing to offer in terms of helping with the stoves. Josh the stud he is looked like he had just taken a walk around the park still had energy to get us hydrated as we crawled into our sleeping bags. I will forever be thankful to him for this and the help those last 500ft to the summit.
June 9 We woke up happy with our summit but tired and excited to get lower where we could breath better. We went down the ridge to the top of the fixed lines with our heavy packs. We all used the arm wrap technique to come down the fixed lines. After the fixed lines it’s about 1000 ft more on easier terrain back to 14k camp. We arrived at 14k and collapsed on our sleeping pads rested for a couple hours and hydrated. The ease of breathing was noticeable. After regrouping we decided to work our way down to 11kft. Packing our packs to the brim giving away food in order to make room to fit everything in our 100 liter backpacks. They were heavy!! We worked down to 13,000 ft when we encountered our first major storm of the trip. It came in fast and before we knew it we were in a white out having trouble identifying the route. Luckily the guides put up markers every 100ft or so. I led us down and had to stop several times to make sure we weren’t going to walk off into the abyss. At the top of motorcycle hill we ran into Emily and Josh who had left 14 camp a couple hours before us. Josh was struggling with controlling his heavy overpacked sled coming down Motorcycle Hill. I was happy to help him steer it as it was the least I could do for his help the past days few days on our summit push.We made it down without incident the snow continued most of the night. We were soaked and got into the tent after melting snow for the night. It really felt like Denali finally after 9 days of mostly sunny weather.
June 10 today we dug up all our caches and loaded them onto the sleds. Hiked out to basecamp thinking we would be flown out that next morning and eating real food and enjoying some much needed showers. We got to basecamp around 2am. We assumed we would be flown out first thing in the morning we didn’t even set up our tent just slept on the foam pad in our sleeping bags. It got way colder than expected even at 7200ft. It probably wasn’t the best idea to bivy and sleep in the exposed elements. I got cold that night for the first time of the trip. I was to cold to get out of the bag to set up the tent so I just toughed it out and prayed the sun wouldn’t take long to arrive. That morning we went to the basecamp manager and got on the waiting list for the next flight out only to learn because of fog the planes couldn’t land. It was the longest most boring day of my life. We all stunk, were tired, hungry, and just wanted to be back to civilization. The next morning our hopes were also destroyed as the fog still hadn’t cleared enough for the planes to make safe landings onto the glacier. Our frustration grew throughout the day until we got a word from Lisa the basecamp manager later that afternoon that we should be ready in the next 30 minutes the air plane taxi was on the way. 30 minutes later we were loading up saying our goodbyes to the mountain that inflicted so much pain while giving us so much joy! The flight out was amazing as we came over green land and starting seeing trees,green grass, flowers, and lakes it felt like we were finally done. Mission accomplished! That evening after landing we showered, ate, drank beer and it had finally set in that we had climbed the highest peak in North America in 10 days basecamp to basecamp. An amazing journey none of us will ever forget. Cheers!
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