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.”
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