Denali Ski Expedition – Spring 2014

This is the story of my trip to climb and ski Denali in the spring of 2014. For the full photo dump see this post.

Grabbing breakfast in Talkeetna

The goal of skiing off the summit of Denali isn’t a new one, rather it’s something I’ve been preparing for and thinking about for several years. The timeframe was set a couple years ago, after Hans and I spent a couple weeks on a lower glacier in the Alaska Range. After that trip, I got more heavily researching routes, equipment, food, schedules, partners, weather, costs, etc. Preparation was almost all-consuming for months, but it was ultimately comforting to know that everything I could control was taken care of. That left me with one major worry: the weather. We were in shape, had all the gear we would need (and none we wouldn’t), had our food sorted, but even the best alpinists can get shut down for weeks at a time on Denali. To this end, I hired Chris Tomer to do our forecasting, as he specializes in mountain weather and has successfully forecasted for multiple Denali expeditions, and dozens of other expeditions around the world. In the last conversations I had with Chris before we flew to the glacier, it was clear that we only had somewhere around 72 hours to get from Kahiltna Base to our final camp at 14,200’ – including a double carry from 11 to 14 camps, that’s around 15 miles to cover and 10,500’ to climb – before a storm moved in and made getting there much more difficult.

Matt, Myself, and Marc about to fly to the Kahiltna

The weather played a role even before we got to Denver International Airport. I caught a ride from work to DIA just as severe thunderstorms with tornado warnings hit the area, delaying our departure by an hour or so. Not one to put in any effort for the sake of its customers, Frontier stuck with the planned flight time and got us in to ANC over an hour late. As an aside, take a right-side window seat for the flight if you ever fly to Anchorage. The views of the St. Elias Mountains are breathtaking from 30,000’. As soon as we landed, Marc called Gary, our driver with the Go Purple Shuttle, who didn’t mind we were late getting in and gladly took us to the one Safeway along the way to Talkeetna to pick up a few last-minute food items – cheese, butter, baked goods, etc. We also made a quick stop at a Taco Bell drive through, since it was after midnight and none of us had eaten since lunch.

Heading out from Kahiltna Base

We finally rolled in to Talkeetna around 2am, during the brief period of time it was actually dark out. Gary dropped us off at the Talkeetna Air Taxi bunkhouse where we caught a couple hours of sleep before making final preparations. As soon as we woke up we got going with our final gear sorting and packing, went to the Talkeetna Roadhouse for the Full Standard breakfast – a must before departing on any expedition to the Alaska Range, and checked in at TAT and with the NPS Rangers. We had a time booked with the Rangers for mid-afternoon, but were able to move it up to just after noon which allowed us to get on a flight to the glacier at 3pm. During our check-in we discovered that the summit rate for the season was already at an abysmally low 24%, a number that would not improve during our trip. Jordan White, Anton Sponar, Aaron Diamond, and Evan Pletcher were at Kahiltna Base when we arrived, getting some R&R after skiing Hunter and Foraker in the preceding weeks. We chatted with them for a few minutes, deposited our base camp cache, got our sleds rigged up, and started heading up the glacier.

On the five mile traverse from Base to Ski Hill

Unfortunately, the trek up Denali starts with a descent of a few hundred feet on what is known as Heartbreak Hill. We roped up at the bottom of the hill and started slogging in to the evening, ending up at Ski Hill Camp at 7,800’ five miles and a few hours later. As we arrived, a military team from Fairbanks was starting an overnight carry up to 11 camp. We found an existing camp site with nice walls and a good layout, got our tent set up, cooked outside in the cold, and went to bed until the sun crested the mountains late the next morning. At some point late in the night, they returned and were sound asleep as we were getting ready to go. Curiously, I found a figure-8 knot in the middle of one of our ropes and can only guess that it was one of the Army guys having some fun. My compression sack for my sleeping bag tore while packing up for the day, though with a team of three engineers, a good-enough fix was created from extra cord in a matter of minutes.

Our first camp, at Ski Hill

The slog up Ski Hill made for a rather trying (and tiring) day. The sun was beating down on us without so much as a gentle breeze to cool things off, and the hill is relatively steep for dragging 120lb of equipment up it. Every half mile or so we’d come to a flatter spot and take a quick break to cool down, eat something, and most importantly, drink some water. Our plan for the day was to get to 11 camp, but at 9,600’ (another common camp) we were about ready to call it a day. We took a break, talked about how we all felt, and looked at the existing sites around us. There were a couple that seemed decent, but a rather large guided group was settling in for the evening and we weren’t too thrilled with the prospect of being near that. A mile or so off in the distance we saw what appeared to be a couple people just hanging out, and what might’ve been snow block walls. I took a photo and zoomed all the way in on the camera screen, and found that we were looking at an absolutely huge camp site with just a couple people on their way out. Though we were all tired, it was an easy decision to get a little bit more distance behind us, and we found ourselves in a veritable glacial palace without anyone else in sight. I called Chris Tomer once we were settled in to camp, but he wasn’t able to talk as there was a tornado over Lakewood. I love thunderstorms and wished I could’ve seen it, but otherwise I was still too busy to miss home.

Marc giving his opinion of our 10,000′ camp

The next morning was a repeat of the last. Breakfast, tear down camp, pack, and head straight up the steep hill heading to camp at 11,200’. The climb went relatively quickly, and the temperatures were quite pleasant thanks to heavy cloud cover and a light breeze. We had some struggles with the sleds thanks to the off-camber nature of much of this part of the climb, but ultimately made it to camp without incident. We once again found an existing camp site, and – even better – an existing cache hole more than six feet deep just waiting for someone to come along and use it. We quickly sorted out the gear and food we decided to leave at 11 Camp, chucked it in the hole along with two of our sleds, and buried it. After making lunch, we packed up our ridiculously heavy packs – I estimated mine to be 85lb – and hauled them up past Windy Corner to a cache site at 13,500’. We weren’t so lucky to find an open cache and had our first experience with the bulletproof snow that makes up most of the snowpack higher on the mountain. A couple frigid hours of cutting blocks and prying apart chunks of snow with our shovels got us a deep enough hole to keep our food and gear safe for the next 24 hours. We left our skis at the cache, and had a quick walk back down to 11 Camp under spectacular golden near-sunset light.

Mike, thrilled to drop his pack at the 13,500′ cache point

We woke up on Memorial Day knowing we were right on schedule to beat the storm to 14 Camp. Between the direct carry to 14,200’ along with Marc and I going back to retrieve our cache from 13,500’, we put in another 3,900’ of hauling absurdly heavy load. We truly lucked out at 14 Camp as we arrived to take the only open site. Had we been a bit later getting there, we would have had to clear and level a site, and build walls up all before heading to bed. The site we found only had half-coverage with walls, but it was enough for the relatively calm weather we had at the time. Though I was constantly anxious about the weather, I was fairly confident that we would make it once we were settled in at 14. We had three weeks to spend on the mountain, and got to 14 Camp in 72 hours – it’s typical to take nine days to get that far. We were all exhausted, and I considered those three days the hardest of my life. Fortunately, we planned on two full rest days at camp which coincided well with a storm moving in. I was glad we made it up to 14 when we did, as that evening I sat and watched the clouds flowing over Windy Corner like a river. We cooked up a good tortellini dinner and had hot tea and cocoa before crashing hard.

Clouds flowing over Windy Corner like a river

Tuesday was a very welcome rest day. We slept in, made a huge breakfast of coffee, hot cocoa, hash browns, bacon, butter, cheese, eggs, and tortillas. It’s amazing what the little things like that will do for morale. I called Chris after breakfast and talked weather, and the latest was that Sunday or Monday looked like our first summit window. It was Tuesday, which gave us a perfect amount of time to acclimatize, learn some of the route, rest up, and be ready to go after the summit as soon as it cleared. Being able to sit back, rest, and not worry about hauling loads up the mountain was about as relaxing a morning as I could imagine. Eventually we got to work reinforcing our camp, extending walls all the way around our site and building them up from four to six feet high, as heavy winds were forecast to move in soon. The radio I brought was able to pick up a music station from Anchorage, which made for a pretty enjoyable afternoon of playing in the snow. Despite the coming storm, our hopes of skiing the Orient Express or Messner Couloir were largely dashed as the last look we got at them showed nothing but blue and black ice. The next rest day was much less eventful – we slept in ate, drank, talked to the climbing rangers about conditions, slept some more, ate some more, and got ready for a climb up the fixed lines the next day.

Marc during our afternoon of building walls

The following morning we got up, made our typical breakfast, got dressed, and headed up towards the fixed lines. We must’ve passed a dozen or two people in the climb from camp to the fixed lines. As we started up, a Chinese guy who said his name was “Joe” hopped on behind us. While certainly fit, he was entirely inept with his equipment. Conditions were approaching whiteout at 16,300’ on the West Buttress, and though our plan was to go hang out and eat lunch at 17 Camp, we quickly decided that it was a terrible idea and turned around to head back down. Joe on the other hand was insistent on going to 17 Camp, despite having only a small pack, no partners, and a clear lack of mountain sense. Matt showed him how to clip back in to the fixed lines for descent before we headed back to camp. Once we got back down, Matt went and talked to the rangers about “Joe.” It turned out his partners bailed at a lower camp but he pressed on solo, dead set on making the summit. Eventually the rangers were able to track him down, get a translator on a sat phone, and explain that he would almost certainly die if he didn’t descend. A guided group agreed to take him down with them a few days later, and “Joe” was able to at least get off the mountain alive. Winds in 14 Camp that night were quite strong, and we were glad we built up the walls around camp as high as we did.

Mike on the West Buttress on a training day

The forecasted storm settled in, and Friday, our 7th full day on the mountain, was another rest day. My morale shifted along with the weather throughout the day, but given the weather there wasn’t much to do beyond talk and think. We were growing more dissatisfied with our food options, to the point that Marc was quoted as saying “I would even eat a fucking Domino’s pizza.” Breakfast was fine, most of the rest of what we had was fine, but none of it was good. Any of the lentil soup options were not settling well, and the texture of dehydrated everything was enough to kill our appetites if we didn’t work to make it more palatable. One thing I know now, if I were to go back I would take tortellini for dinner every night of the entire trip. Saturday was similarly unpleasant for climbing, so we took another rest day. At this point, planes hadn’t flown from base camp in six days. We passed a lot of descending parties on our way up, all of which were just sitting and waiting for the weather to clear so they could go home. I did not envy them. We couldn’t see anything around us, but heard plenty of avalanches going off above us, including a number on the aspects we would’ve liked to ski. It was suddenly firm that we were going up and down the West Buttress, and all we had to do was wait for our weather window.

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Marc with the two-man British team camped next to us

Sunday was an early wake up (7:30am) with a lazy start (noon). Our plan was a simple one, get our skis cached at 17 Camp and hang out having lunch to get some more time at elevation. The late start got us stuck in an hour and a half long traffic jam at the fixed lines, as a huge guided group carrying big loads crawled up the face. It was good to spend more time up high, but also reinforced the need to get out early on our summit day. Once we arrived at 17 we debated pushing on for the summit, but made the tough call to take our time, go back down, and rest and acclimate a bit more. The following day was our final rest and prep day before going for the summit. My most interesting note was from a conversation with Anton about a pizza from Jalino’s in Boulder way back when, a Thanksgiving Pizza. Normal crust, cranberry sauce, carmelized onions, garlic mashed potatoes, cheese, pulled turkey, and stuffing. I look forward to doing this at home soon. I was a big ball of nerves heading in to these last few days, but I settled down as it got closer and I knew that all I had to do was execute.

Matt at the top of the fixed lines on summit day

Tuesday, our summit day, was a long one. We got out mid-morning, after a big breakfast and letting the sun crest over the ridge. It was another familiar trip up the fixed lines, along the West Buttress, and to 17 Camp where we retrieved our skis and took a break. It was pretty cold and breezy, but entirely tolerable. We hit the Autobahn and instead of traversing over to the wind tunnel that was Denali Pass, we booted straight up the face. A bit above 18,000’ Jordan arrived, leading his group up the bootpack we set. The seven of us took a break around 18,500’ to eat, drink, chitchat, and adjust layers before heading up for the summit. Another thousand feet of slow slogging later we found ourselves at the football field, the sun dipping towards the horizon and casting a golden hue, but not concerning us since we knew we still had hours of daylight. I was in pretty bad shape at this point, largely thanks to the wind. It was coming in pretty strongly from my left, and kept blowing my hoods and mask out of place. Fortunately I was still able to recognize the sensation of windburn and frostbite, and Marc helped me square away my layers to protect against the wind. Around 10pm AK time we all topped out to -30F with 25mph winds. Jordan, Anton, Evan, and Aaron were all just about to depart from the summit as we arrived, so we all congratulated each other and made quick work of getting ready to head down. I couldn’t get my bindings to line up with the holes in my overboots, having to strip them off and hope we got down quickly enough to keep my toes from freezing. We got our ugly ski descent underway, and things started to warm considerably as we dropped elevation. The sun set as we were descending the ridge around 16,500’, with a very gradual decline to just below the horizon. A slow and methodical (non-ski) descent of the fixed lines brought us down to the only good skiing of the day, with deep powder covering the 1,300’ back to our tent. 18 hours after we set off, we were back at camp firing up the stoves for food and drink, too exhausted to be excited.

Mike on the summit of Denali

We didn’t sleep too late the next morning, hoping to get back to base camp in time for a flight out. We tore down camp, said our goodbyes to the people in adjacent camps we’d come to know over the past week, chucked a big bag of poop in to a crevasse, and headed out. Matt volunteered to wrangle the one sled we brought up to 14 and handled it like a pro. The tent lashed to the top of the sled caused some balance issues though, so once past Windy Corner I took it off his hands. There was no room in or on my pack, so I carried it up front, held in place by my sternum strap and waist belt. It was unexpectedly pleasant to ski like this, and the descent down to 11 Camp was quite enjoyable. Countless climbers were heading up to 14 that day, being one of the nicer days in a long time on the lower mountain. Back at 11 we recovered our cache and found someone in need, so didn’t have to waste time filling it back in. Guided groups were enjoying the sunny warm weather, with at least a dozen gumbies shoveling out campsites for hours with no shirts or sunscreen on. I still shudder to think how bad their sunburns were.

The junkshow at 11,200′

From 11 down we each had our own gear sleds, and that’s where things got ugly for me. I ended up with most of the lighter bulky gear as well as the CMC, which made for an unbalanced and flippy rig. To keep control over the sled without risking it pulling me down with it when it flipped, I had it on a hand tether rather than attached to my harness or pack. At one point a bit below 11 Camp, it got away from me and took off down the glacier. I had to go pretty fast to catch back up and flip it to make it stop. The entire rest of the way down was miserable, but that was the most memorable part. Lesson learned, take a pulk with rigid arms, ski patrol style. Had we done that, we would’ve saved hours and I would’ve enjoyed the descent. A few hours later we were at the base of Heartbreak Hill, with planes taking off overhead from the airstrip. We decided to split up here, with me getting back to base as quickly as possible to try to secure us a flight out that evening.

Back at Kahiltna Base, nothing left to do but wait for a plane

12 days after landing at base camp, I arrived to find the Ski the Big 3 group hanging out by the airstrip and was informed that the last flight for the day was already gone. I was rather dismayed to hear that, since some weather was moving in and you never know how long you’ll be waiting for a flight out. Last time I was in the range, I had to wait a few days for things to finally clear enough to get out. Once Matt and Marc arrived we unrigged our sleds, changed in to puffy pants and boots, and started drinking. We had a six pack of beer, while Jordan had brought a few liters of celebratory whiskey that we all got to work on. The Army guys showed up and joined us, as one of their guys developed a pilonidal cyst at 14 Camp and they had to abandon the climb. Several hours later we all went to sleep in the snow, hoping for clear skies in the morning but not optimistic. We woke up at some point with the glacier completely socked in, set up our tent, and spent most of the following day sleeping. At one point I was awoken by a bird hitting me in the head inside our tent. It was startling at the time but hilarious after the fact.

Mike and a pile of gear, happy to go home

The next morning we woke to clear skies, tore down the tent in a hurry, and were greeted by Paul Roderick flying in an hour and a half earlier than normal to pick us all up. Being back on solid ground was a strange sensation. I walked over to get us checked out with the NPS while Marc and Matt repacked, and discovered that the summit rate for the season was way down at 16%. We got cleaned up and fed, booked airline tickets, and the next morning found ourselves back in Denver. None of us lost much weight, no one got sunburned, and there was only the most minor bit of frostnip and frostbite, we all skied off the summit of Denali, and we were back home just over two weeks after we left. Can’t complain about that.

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