Denali 2018

It’s about 3am and I don’t think I have slept for more than 20 minutes without waking up because despite spending a couple hours preparing our tent platforms, it feels like I am sleeping with my head downhill. The thought to flip around has been running through my head all night and I finally work up the energy and motivation to make the move and hopefully salvage some part of this night. I wiggle my arms out of the sleeping bag, grab my wadded up parka that is my pillow, and with the best intentions of making a stealthy flip that will not wake up my tent partner I clumsily maneuver 180 degrees. I get myself situated and come to the saddening conclusion that the surface of snow I am sleeping on must be bowed, because after all that effort it still feels like my head is downhill. I try to silently grab other items of clothing to prop my throbbing head up to alleviate this head ache and get some sleep, but I feel doomed to spend the rest of this night on this bed that feels like sleeping on top of a rainbow (only much less magical.)

 

As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with our perfectly flat tent surface, that’s just what life feels like the first night at high camp on Denali’s west buttress. At 17,200 feet above sea level, life at high camp is underscored with headaches and the feeling like you can’t get a full breath. I gladly got up first to fire up the stoves in our vestibule and started making breakfast to distract myself from that night’s sleep. My tent partner said he did not remember my noisy flip during the night but at one point woke up with the same feeling of having his head downhill and saw that I had flipped around. He wondered if that was the solution but never mustered the gumption to follow suit. I told him he was probably better for it since it didn’t help.

 

I’m sure this is a very normal way to spend the night before summit day on Denali. We usually like to take a rest day after arriving at high camp so that hopefully anyone who slept like I did will have a chance to acclimate a little better and get a good night sleep before attempting the summit. But with 50 MPH winds predicted to hit the following day, we only had one shot at getting up there before our weather window started to close. We were a team of five, two guides at either end of the rope with three guests in between.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHeading up some steep ice by Zebra Rocks

     We made steady progress up the mountain, passing the obstacles that have all been named by guides and park rangers over the years, marking our way to the icy crown of North America: The Autobahn, Denali Pass, Zebra Rocks, The Arch Deacon’s Tower, The Football Field, Pig hill, Kahiltna Horn, and finally The Summit Ridge, and the True Summit. Clouds moved in and out all day, the winds were on their best behavior and the temps were quite pleasant. At the Football Field (19,500’) the clouds had us socked in and I was afraid that we would summit in the “ping pong ball” which means no visibility and no views. As we ascended Pig Hill, the clouds parted and we had amazing 360 degree views from the summit where we could see the whole Alaska range stretching out below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Great conditions for a handstand!
Summit Ridge
Stopping for a photo on the summit ridge

We made it to the summit from high camp in just under 7 hours and round trip back to high camp in 11.5 hours. After a quick dinner of instant mashed potatoes and Ramen noodles followed by a few cups of tea to attempt to stay ahead of dehydration, which is inevitable in the dry air at that altitude, I laid down on the same perfectly flat sleeping surface as the night before and I slept like a rock all night long. It’s amazing what 24 hours of acclimatization and fatigue will do to the perception of your sleeping conditions.

 

There is an old saying I really like, “getting to the top of a mountain is only half-way”. What follows on Denali after summit day is one of my favorite days of the trip, and that is The Death March! With such an ominous name it does not sound like something enjoyable, but with the right attitude, it’s a pretty amazing thing.

 

The true Death March starts at high camp the day after summiting. High camp comes into the sun around 8:30 or 9:00 am depending on the time of year. It’s brutally cold up there when the sun is not shining on you and guaranteed you’re tired as hell. So if it sounds like a casual wake up, it kind of is. We had a simple breakfast of instant oats and coffee, broke down and packed up our camp and hit the trail by about noon. There is a small hill that must be climbed on the way out of high camp. At a normal elevation you could run right up it with a pack on. At 17,200’ and after summit day it feels almost impossible. Going is slow and steady down “The 16 Ridge” clipping and unclipping the rope into fixed protection to keep the whole team from sliding off the ridge if one person falls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Moving along the 16 ridge. We use fixed protection here to guard against team falls

Back at 14 camp after descending the steepest part of the mountain all you want to do is sleep, you can’t fathom walking ALL THE WAY DOWN in one night, but that’s what is going to happen. After naps, dinner, and the final packing and loading of sleds we head out a little after 8pm. One of the most objectively hazardous parts of the West Buttress route is walking beneath the West Buttress proper just above windy corner. This area is prone to rock fall and people have died here from being hit with falling rocks. We wait till after 8pm because that way the wall has been in the shade for a couple hours, hopefully giving it the chance to freeze all the loose rocks into place and permit our safe travel beneath the face.

     Because Denali sits above the 63rd parallel it never really gets dark between late May and August. The sun works its way around the horizon in a long oval, dipping just below the horizon for a couple hours. This means sun sets and sun rises last about two hours each, separated by three or four hours of twilight. Almost every other day on the mountain this is when we have been trying to sleep, often-times turning in before the sun has even left our camp, effectively missing this amazing time of color and beauty.

DSC05163
All I want to do when I’m back at 14 camp after summiting     

     Because Denali sits above the 63rd parallel it never really gets dark between late May and August. The sun works its way around the horizon in a long oval, dipping just below the horizon for a couple hours. This means sun sets and sun rises last about two hours each, separated by three or four hours of twilight. Almost every other day on the mountain this is when we have been trying to sleep, often-times turning in before the sun has even left our camp, effectively missing this amazing time of color and beauty.

During the Death March we get to see the whole spectrum of colors and light as the sun set, moved beneath the horizon, and rose again. We continue the downhill march, passing through our old camps and stopping to dig up the caches we left behind of trash, extra gear, and empty fuel cans. I have the same feelings at the same camps on the way down. Camp 2 (11,200’) I just want to keep moving. The sun is usually still up, casting beautiful golden light on the upper slopes of Denali and Foraker. When we get to camp 1 (7,800’) I just want to sleep. A mixture of muscle fatigue and lack of sleep starts to set in and I feel like I could lay down anywhere and be happy.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But, moving downhill into denser air starts to super charge your body and the reality of making a camp to sleep for a couple hours just to break it down and get on the trail again isn’t actually that appealing. We push on, like zombies, down the Kahiltna glacier towards the airstrip in the southeast fork where a plane will take us back to the land of the living where liquid water is available either hot or cold on demand and you can exchange money for someone else to cook your food. We arrive at basecamp thoroughly spent, happy to through a pad down on the snow, and catch an hour or two of sleep before having to get everything ready to be loaded into the planes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ready for a hot breakfast back in Talkeetna

I am always glued to the plane’s window flying in and out of the range. On the way in I love seeing the mountains rise up from the planes– the world below me slowly changing to a vertical land of ice and rock, looking at the peaks for cool lines to potentially climb or ski one day. On the way out I find it amazing how green and beautiful and alive everything is once you leave the world of craggy peaks and glaciers behind. The trees, and rivers and entire hillsides of green fully capture my attention and I cannot wait to be barefoot in in the dirt and grass.

Denali from the plane
Denali out the plane window on our way in.

The whole experience of toiling uphill for weeks, patiently acclimatizing and moving gear always upward with the hopes of standing on top, just to undo it all in one long night of marching downhill is what makes climbing Denali so much fun. It’s a ton of work sometimes in really harsh conditions. Summit or not, it’s a great way to spend your time and I look forward to many more seasons of work on that great mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Denali 2018

  1. Truly stunning photographs and a story that at first seems like almost anyone in good shape could climb the mountain until you describe the ‘death march’.

    Thank you for sharing your adventure.

    Like

    1. Thank you! Anyone in good shape can climb Denali, as long as you can carry a 50 – 60 pound pack, and tow a sled. The death march does not always happen, but its pretty fun when we get to do it proper!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s