Dates: 4/25/2012 - 5/22/2012
Location: Denali, Denali National Park, AK
4.26 Day 1 - Base Camp to Camp 1. Flew out to the
range with our 375lbs of gear and supplies, quickly cached at an unoccupied
base camp (7,200') just barely under "construction" for the season,
set out via skis and sleds to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill onto the main
Kalhiltna Glacier and cached for Foraker, then progressed the remaining of the
5.5 miles to Camp 1 (7,800'). Weather was clear and perfect. There
are only 3 other teams on route at this point, one guided and two independent -
we're part of the vanguard. We dig in moderately for this camp.
4.27 Day 2 - Camp 1 to Camp 3. Ascend Ski Hill 1,800' over 2.5 miles,
decide to push past Camp 2 (9,400) for another 1,800' over 1.5 miles to Camp 3
(11,200'). Terrain not technical but lots of work required as we're still
weighted down heavy and I discover the "drag" of a drag bag vs.
sled. Again weather is perfect allowing us the opportunity to make superb
progress in just a couple of days still via skis and sleds. We dig in
moderately for this camp and also put up the Megamid Light (floor-less pyramid
dining/communal tent) and immediately deem it well worth its miniscule weight.
4.28 Day 3 - Camp 3 (carry). Travel now on foot, 2-person carry to the top of
Motorcycle Hill (approx. 11,800') instead of much higher since conditions
turned icy and we foolishly left behind crampons. Determined skis
definitely to be left at 11K (conditions vary by year, and personal decisions
may be made to still ski/carry them to next camp).
4.29 Day 4 - Camp 3 (carry, take 2). Overnight temps were -10, some wind
now in the morning. Slept well but starting to learn that early starts
(7am) aren't worth it trying to deal with keeping hands and feet warm getting
ready. Day warms up significantly around 9/930. Also, guided team
of 9 people beating the trail is worth the wait. Weather is again
perfect, especially important as Motorcycle Hill leads to Squirrel Hill and
through/around Windy Corner. Terrain now more technical - some hard ice,
no-fall crampon travel, navigation challenges, crevasses abound, etc. We
carry mostly food, fuel, and group gear about 2/3s of the way and cache at
13,500, then return to Camp 3.
4.30 Day 5 - Camp 3 to Camp 4 (ABC - Advanced Base Camp). Cache skis, 1
sled, small amt food. Snow overnight filled in our trail and sets the
slopes up for avy danger to consider. Weather is again really nice
(again, Windy Corner travel much safer in good weather). We recover our
cache at 13,500 and suffer under full loads to cover the never-ending 700' through
big crevasses - a total of 2.8 miles gaining 3,200' to the ever-important Camp
4 - Advanced Base Camp (ABC) (14,200'). A damn good accomplishment after
just 5 days! The weather was just too good to last. We build an
extensive camp - tent, 'mid, latrine all with good walls.
5.1 Day 6 - Camp 4. Rest day! Sort of. Always something to do
- we reinforce/build-up walls, boil water and make food every 4 hours.
One of the teams heads back down to recover from sickness. Only 3 of us
here. No sight of rangers yet or broadcast from Base Camp (weather
forecast). We're really on our own, chit chat a bit with the other two
teams, the big guided group and 2-person Vail CO team. The Headwall looms
behind us - the next step. The Edge of the World is opposite - providing
stupendous views of the range, an stomach-dropping steep drop to the valleys
5.2 Day 7 - Camp 4. Lousy night - mild AMS setting in triggered by
malfunctioning stoves. Also wind gusts 40-50mpg throughout the
night. Little sleep. We build additional walls to deal with the
non-prevalent winds. We move around the plateau to exercise legs and
lungs. Temps sometimes rise to 5 above, but more often stay below zero
during day. Nights are -15 to -25.
5.3 Day 8 - Camp 4. Mutual blah-feeling day. Mild AMS.
5.4 Day 9 - Camp 4 (carry). Weather has been partly sunny, and much
colder. Everything takes longer, so it isn't until 1145a when we begin
our carry. Moderate snow/soft ice climbing through 1,200' leads to the
base of the steeper headwall, in fairly icy condition. Fixed lines from
previous year still in place and need to be dug out in places. Team Vail
pushes past in their eagerness to move to High Camp. Ascenders are icing
up and raw condition of slope make climbing much more strenuous than
expected. Below zero temps present challenges in working deftly and
keeping hands from freezing. We ascend another couple of hundred feet
past top of wall to cache at 16,460'. Descent takes 2 hours. Total
of 8 hard hours.
5.5 Day 10 - Camp 4. Rest Day. Celebrate Cinco Di Mayo with
Margarita Shot Bloks. Hey, you do what you can. Meticulous prep for
the move to High Camp tomorrow. Noticing some mild frost nip on finger
tips. Bare-handing any task is always short-lived. Extremities constantly
needing to be warmed during our time at this camp.
5.6 Day 11 - Camp 4 to Camp 5 (aborted). Pack up all but the 'mid (serves
as convenient cache for sleds and gear to remain behind). 20 minutes outside of
camp and Ron is moving terribly slow. Low energy, general malaise.
We abort about 45 min out and reset camp. Eat heartily to rebuild
strength. Vail team returns from reported summit (evidence is very strong
against their claim) - one member with bad frostbite on thumb and foot (later
learn that amputations are likely). Norwegian team returns, but will end
up not moving higher. It's just 2 of us now. We finally relieve a weather
forecast from Base Camp - it's minimal and not real helpful.
5.7 Day 12 - Camp 4 to Camp 4.5. Weather has been mostly cloudy, some
wind, and cold. Still, we pack up again and push for the move leaning for late
start and warmer temps. The ascent and headwall are even harder with the
additional weight. Arriving at our cache we determine it best to set an intermediate
camp at 16,400 rather than push on. The situation is spectacular perched
on the ridge overlooking 14K and the Northern slopes.
5.8 Day 13 - Camp 4.5 to Camp 5 (High Camp). Break camp and move the rest
of the way to the final camp - Camp 5 "High Camp" (17,200').
The climb is semi-technical, steeper but short slopes, ridges, and some fixed
lines around Washburn's Thumb. Altitude makes breathing more
difficult. Finally cresting into the level area of camp wind-swept and
barren. Ghosts of last year's camps all around - not much changes up here
in the harsh conditions. Difficult to dig in - lots of hard ice, not able
to quarry out blocks. Very cold, windy. Our BD Bombshelter is
critical to surviving the winds since only able to build moderate snow walls.
We have 4-5 days of food but hope to spend just a day or two here for a summit
5.9 Day 14 - Camp 5. Summit attempt. We and the leader of the
guided group agree that summit ridge looks good enough - not perfect.
Anything could happen and change, and we independently give ourselves a 50%
chance that it'll hold. As they say on Denali, most
days you just have to "get out and stick your nose into it". We
get a late start (again, it's subzero, so keeping extremities warm throughout
the preparations takes a lot of time). We end up behind the guided group
which moves slowly to conservatively protect the Autobahn (steep slope leading
up to Denali Pass). All of us have cold feet to
start - a mounting concern as the hours go by. Sometimes a painful flush
of rewarming (“screaming barfies”) in the hands or feet. Still, progress
is slow, and as we eventually pass them near the top - they're bailing and we're moving slow.
Winds have definitely picked up on the ridge. We push on for another 200
vertical feet, reaching the 18,000' mark.
With 1.5 miles and 2,000' feet to go, about 4-5 more hours, we decide to
turn it around.
5.10 Day 15 - Camp 5. Tentbound. High winds and very low temps move
in. A 5- or 10-minute stance outside the tent is unpleasant. Bare necessities,
then back into our cocoons. Basically eat and sleep. Wait for the
weather report - usually disappointingly sparse or broken
up. We mentally start ruling out Foraker at this point and commit to
sticking it out for Denali only.
5.11 Day 16 - Camp 5. Tentbound. Winds gusted to 70 or 80 MPH
throughout the night. Temps around -30/-35. Wind chill below
-100. Scary night but the tent held. Little sleep. Feeling
stiff and weaker. Starting to ration food to extend our stay for another
chance. Guided group attempted to descend but returned due to high winds
on descent ridge (trapped!)
5.12 Day 17 - Camp 5. Tentbound. Winds down to 30-40 gusts.
Temps still low, around -25 for a high. Need a miracle as running out of
food and fuel, losing strength. Feeling like space travelers in our
suspended animation cells waiting to be revived to live again and step outside
the ship. Weather report isn't what was hoped for,
and rather than risk another summit attempt without strength to return AND
break camp AND descend (otherwise be trapped at High Camp with no food or
fuel), we decide to descend tomorrow.
5.13 Day 18 - Camp 5 to Camp 4. Awake to one of the best days of the past
4 - summit ridge looks very good. But, we know it'll likely change and
the risk is too great for being getting trapped and into serious trouble.
Guided group also making a second break for it. We descend mostly without
5.14 Day 19 - Camp 4. Rest day. Pack up and prepare for remaining
descent. Visit ranger camp which is now established. Approx. 5 other
teams now here - rumors of 70+ people poised at 11K.
5.15 Day 20 - Camp 4 to Base Camp. We break camp, load all into 3 packs
and 2 sleds, descend past at least 50 people coming up from 11K (beautiful day =
perfect for negotiating Windy Corner). Retrieve the cache at 11K, strap
on skis and rapidly descend to the Foraker cache. Roll into Base Camp
around 10p...total trip around 9 hours.
5.16 Day 21 - Base Camp. Decompress. Dig up cache, drink some beers,
smoke some cigars, eat all the best of the remaining food. People and
plane watch. Soak in what base camp is all about (it's a strange place).
5.17 Day 22 - Base Camp to Civilization. We pack up camp the final time
back into our original bags, fly off the glacier back to Talkeetna. Big
breakfast at the Roadhouse. Showers (after 3 weeks without). Big
lunch. Big dinner. We've all lost about 10 lbs.
Don and Ron's fingers and toes are all mostly numb with frost nip - an annoying
sensation that should subside over the next month. Sarah is
unscathed. We could have cashed in our fingers and toes for a push to the
top in the colder/windier conditions, but that's for fools. Reports even today
of only 2 (of a 4-person) Swiss team having summited thus far into the season.
Such is the way with earlier season climbing - our superb weather early on
would have been better shifted a week later to when we needed it near the
top. Denali is a "great one", and she
decides when to let you pass. We could have hauled more provisions to
High Camp to wait it out longer, but anything beyond 3 days is really just not
practical (we stuck it out for 5 days!) - the body weakens rapidly up
there. We could have sat patiently at ABC for a "window", but
the forecasts just weren't detailed enough to assure us of one.
It's frustrating to make such hellfire progress early on - as of Day 7 we were
on track to possibly finish in 12 days! Then, the odds got even.
We've all come back with a much greater respect for the route. It's no
"walk up". It's damn hard work, times requiring technical work,
a lot of logistics and meticulous planning, a lot of pain and suffering (esp.
early season). Being out in front affords a very unique experience - it's
a big place to be almost all alone. On our way down we passed nearly 100-200
people on their way up. It was surreal. Rolling through camps that
were now crowded, we couldn't picture ourselves moving in those throngs.
Better to have been out in front and be turned away, we feel.
Summits are sometimes little demons that can color your effort or experience,
especially on trips that involve a single peak. You get so much out of
just being there, seeing amazing things, taking in their "tidings" as
Muir says. You tell yourself it doesn't matter, it's a journey not a
destination, but getting to the top certainly always seems to add a level of
joy, damn it all. The suffering girds you, strengthens your camaraderie,
makes the sweet days sweeter and reminds you of your place in nature. Regardless,
returning from such expeditions is always like being reborn - you’re tired and
wobbly, whiny, covered in slime, and voracious. It's a wonderful thing -
eyes and mind filled with new wonder.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow
into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness
into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn
leaves." -J Muir