Jun 11, 2018

Denali Expedition Recap

Summit Ridge
I won’t be writing about the day to day as that was succinctly put in the twelve “Denali Transmit” posts which you can peruse at your convenience.  What I am going to write about is the special place the Alaskan Range was for me.  Last night I finished a well put-together and riveting book called “To the Top of Denali” by Bill Sherwonit and he goes over the history of climbing Denali until present day.  One thing I took away from it and that reaffirmed my original assessment is just how damn lucky we got with the weather.  I don’t mean simply while on the mountain, but the fact we got to fly into Kahiltna International Airport a day early, and fly out within two hours of returning to Base Camp to Talkeetna, the launching point of most, if not all, Denali excursions.  Sure it snowed on the expedition, even when we were within 1000 ft (300m) of the summit, but we didn’t have to contend with major spring storms and high winds when it mattered most.  The climbers who gave it a go in late April, early-mid May were hammered and by the time we arrived at the Talkeetna Ranger Station for the mandatory 1hr plus orientation, the statistics board showed only two people had summit Denali. 

The year to year seasons on Denali vary in terms of summit percentage but the average is around 52%, with one half of climbers guided and the other independent.  This year there are 1150 registered climbers, with 381 completed climbs and 179 summits. That’s a 47% success rate (as of 6/8/18). [UPDATE: As of July 12, 2018, there were 1114 completed climbs and 496 summits for a 45% success rate.  The climbing season is over and there is no one active on the mountain.]

Ever since early March, when I started planning this expedition, I took the trip seriously, more so than usual.  Although I had been higher in altitude previously, the environment, skills required, and self-sufficiency needed would demand more of me than any other trip.  This is a place where death and injuries including frostbite are not uncommon.  After my climbing partner on this trip, Avedis Kalpaklian, signed on, I focused the next two months on reviewing and going over roped travel, crevasse rescue, creating a detailed gear list, putting together our intended itineraries (standard and aggressive), schlepping 45-55 pound loads up and down 10,066 ft Mount Baldy (in addition to my usual trail running), arranging logistics, learning about the West Buttress route, and dialing in every other small detail that a trip like this can only demand. 

That coupled with the fortunate weather made for a successful trip.  We summit the 20310 ft (6190m) mountain in twelve days and the entire expedition lasted fourteen days, about seven less than what we had planned for.  This doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging or difficult, or that I didn’t have a low point or two, but two weeks total with all limbs and appendages intact with a summit to boot, is fortunate.  These are humbling mountains and they have my utmost respect.

With that said, there were some things I hadn’t done before.  For example, rigging and pulling a heavy sled in addition to a heavy pack to accommodate 127 pounds, consistently digging 5-6 foot caches, ascending and descending fixed lines on up to 50-60 degree snow and ice slope, and leading steep snow slopes with snow pickets as running belays.  On top of that, we were constantly assessing the weather and determining whether and when we should move.  Besides the direct sun occasionally warming up the closed tent, the living temperatures were usually between -25F and +10-20F (depending on altitude and not including wind chill).  We stayed four nights at 14200ft  and two nights at 17200ft on the way up and one night at each on the way down.  There were two nights for me that were downright miserable, with sleep and warmth hard to come by.

Now to the Alaskan Range.  Well, what can I say that the photos you’ll be seeing can’t convey any better?  Just the flights to and from the glacier are spectacular in their own rights.  The range is a desolate mystical place and I felt like a speck among giants.  It’s a place that makes you feel vulnerable starting with the hidden crevasses under your feet to the random serac falls and avalanches that come booming off mountain slopes.  It’s an environment that’s constantly in flux with the heavy, unrelenting hand of pressure and time shaping it.  From the first to the last day I had to stop several times to simply stare and wonder.  It’s an experience that gave my life enough of a nudge to point me in a slightly different direction than the course I was on.  Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but those are the types of experiences I cherish most.  I’ll end with an excerpt from my journal on our final day:

“It was quiet and I felt like I was the only one on the mountain with the dawn light.  Although the packs were absolutely crushing, the morning views of the Kahiltna and surrounding peaks were why I come to the mountains.  The silence sang so loudly I had to stop several times and gaze in wonder.  The descent to Camp II was a killer and with every step came a grunt.  After digging out our cache that included sleds we made our way down to Kahiltna Pass with occasional sled mishaps.  After turning south towards “Ski Hill” I was richly rewarded with stunning vistas.  With the crisp cool air and gradual descent, it was about as perfect and satisfying a time as I can have.  A smile with elation naturally came upon my face.  The unspoilt snow glistened with the shower of morning light, the snow underfoot was the perfect firmness, and the body and mind were completely relaxed as I walked through this glaciated Eden.  These mountains were showing off, though I know in the back of [my] mind they can be equally as treacherous.  However, for the moment it was bliss.  This will not be my last time in the Alaskan Range.”

You can click here for select photos and videos or the link under "Travel Photos."   

Jun 5, 2018

Denali Transmit #12 (Final)

June 5, 2018

I've been back in Talkeetna now for a couple of days after having finished the trek out on Sunday, June 3. We've been very fortunate with the weather and that allowed us to fly in and out without a hitch while some wait up to a week for a weather window. The descent back to Base Camp was at times splendid and other times absolutely trying. The weight of the gear, food, and excrement alone was at times torturous on the steep downhills before we got the sleds back, but the early morning views and the quiet stillness of the surrounding range was something I'll cherish. Now is a time of reflection for me. I plan on gathering notes, photos, and some video from the expedition and turn it into something, perhaps. If you enjoyed this and would like more, please don't hesitate to subscribe.

Jun 2, 2018

Denali Transmit #11

June 1, 2018

We knocked off the bastard, to paraphrase the late Sir Edmund Hillary.  The summit of North America was ours at 6:40 pm, Alaskan Standard Time (if that exists).  Just got back in the tent and can't move.  A very challenging and sensational day.  I am so ecstatic but I literally just want to crawl in my sleeping bag.  We're starting our descent tomorrow.  Shouldn't take more than a couple days to get back to Base Camp.

May 31, 2018

Denali Transmit #10

Back in Camp IV about 45 min ago after picking up our cache at 16,200'.  Today went a lot better on the ridge and my god the views were spectuacular and the ridge was so fun.  Sometimes on a knife edge, sometimes 3rd class scrambling on granite in crampons.  Anyway, we are eating and drinking so we can be prepared for a summit attempt tomorrow morning around 10 am.  It's too cold to start any earlier with temps being in the minus twenties.  We're excited and are focused on tomorrow.  We have our fingers crossed for the weather.  

May 30, 2018

Denali Transmit #9

Absolutely brutal but spectacular day.  We are in Camp IV after a 8 hr 15 min day.  I don't even know where to begin, but going up the headwall with a full pack, leading the technical sections on the West Buttress, and winding away on its ridge while snowing some and sunny some.  Barely ate anything all day but we are thrilled to be in our tent resting.  Did I mention we are fried?  Anyway, tomorrow we go back on ridge to pick up our cache, but it'll be a much shorter day. And then Friday, we may have a go at the summit.

May 29, 2018

Denali Transmit #8

Today we decided on a rest day here at Camp III and tomorrow we move to our final camp, Camp IV.  Then we may take an active recovery day up there on the following day, and pick up our cache a little lower before making a summit attempt Friday.  Hope the weather holds a bit.  Tomorrow there is an 80% chance of snow, but who really knows.  I'm ready to make a final push up to the summit.  I've paired down all unnecessary gear for the next few days to keep the weight lower.  

Denali Transmit #7

May 28, 2018

Got back into camp after caching at Washburn's Thumb @ 16,200', our final one.  Today was the start of the real alpine climbing.  Fixed lines up a 50 degree ice slope and descending was pretty wild with magnificent views.  The weather continues to be decent minus the sub-zero nights, but we don't know what each day brings.  I'll keep you posted on our plans.  For now, tomorrow would be a move to Camp IV at 17,200' or we could get stuck here with the weather.  Barring something crazy, we could have a summit attempt this week.

Denali Expedition Recap

Summit Ridge I won’t be writing about the day to day as that was succinctly put in the twelve “Denali Transmit” posts which you ...