Three days after departing Kathmandu, Nepal we walked into the Denali National Park Ranger Station in Talkeetna, Alaska for our briefing prior to climbing the mountain.
The immense hewn logs, the soaring atrium and the round river rock fireplace, surrounded by deep, comfy couches was an easy place to settle into. When I spotted a rare copy of my Seven Summits Solo coffee table book set prominently on the center table I couldn’t help but take it as a good omen.
Roger Robinson welcomed us, and as my team included Paul Teare, my Everest Kangshung Face climbing partner, who I’d also previously done the South Face of Aconcagua with, as well as Denali, and my partner Josephine Clark, just back from over 6,000 meters in the Himalayas, our briefing was a conversational combination of Denali stories, route review and the ever so important poo barrel briefing.
Roger Robinson has driven the implementation of the Clean Mountain Can (CMC) which has been instrumental in keeping the mountain in the pristine condition it is in today. A simple plastic barrel, a screw tight lid, and a few bits of webbing, all custom designed, has ensured that Denali hasn’t turned into the poo mountain that many of the 7 Summits suffer from.
With a host of people that work in Alaska also doing the southern summer in Antarctica, Talkeetna is an easy place to bump into everyone from guides like Larry Holmes who I’d shared Vinson Base Camp with over Christmas, to Ali Lee who has just started a unique shop, didi DADA, in an old log cabin in Talkeetna.
We also met up with Brook Bennett and Chris Heintz from New York, who were hoping for a quick ascent of the peak if stars aligned and weather permitted. A day after they left New York the first sector of their journey was successful as we flew out of Talkeetna and less than 30 minutes later dropped down onto the glacier.
By late afternoon we were roped up, with harnesses on, prussiks dangling, ascenders armed, and skis pointed up the hill. As a friend pointed out long ago on my first climb of Denali as I stood tangled in gear, “Robert, if you can just get past the toilet, you will probably make it.” Leaving camp on a peak like Denali often seems the biggest challenge.
With 40% of the teams climbing Denali from overseas, there is a wide range of climbing styles on the mountain, with perhaps one of the biggest changes over the years being the number of skiers, both approaching the peak and also skiing the steep couloirs above 14.2. On the way down, while sleds may put a damper on any soaring turns, they glide down the track and swoop lightly over the crevasses.
The trail this year was a wide swath of packed snow, the mix of early snow showers and skiers lending a highway effect to the journey. With sleds, the sun and draped with gear, the journey is never easy. The hills start gentle and get steeper, the sun starts low and warms up, until it is soon best to travel in the night hours. With our 30 May departure, it would only be marginally dusky for a few hours a day – the one thing we certainly didn’t need was a headlamp. Lightweight tops and compression tights would see a lot more use than our heavy down jackets this year.
As you head up the mountain, you tend to pass and repass certain groups. The duo of Frenchmen, we suspected secretly carrying a case of Burgundy, were moving at our pace, slow in other words, and dropped into camps either before or just after us. Their approach was one of unconcern, plenty of time to savour the hill and their sleds stuffed to the brim with brightly colored alpine bags.
In contrast, guided groups were much more serious, with rope classes, crevasse talk, food talk and departure times all discussed in detail. People had done real training and were focused on doing everything right. We were mostly trying to conserve our limited Tequilla supply and make our way through a vast food bag supplied by Don Wray at Exposure Alaska. With everything from breakfast burritos with home made salsa to Reindeer sausage and pasta on offer, we were certainly not going to go hungry.
Windy Corner was to hold the only real storm in 2 weeks of climbing, a proper blizzard with sideways snow, blasting winds and even a reason to put on the wind trousers. Having lasted an hour it soon relented and we climbed back out into sunshine.
At 14.2 Camp we finally reached the climbing, the lower mountain being simply an approach to what is really the Base Camp for routes on this side of Denali. With a seasonal ranger camp, upwards of a 100 people, snow walls in all directions and outdoor kitchens all in place, it is a home away from home, where suddenly all the gear in the sled proves useful.
Next to us a group of women military veterans moved in, with a good music selection and a propensity to wearing hot pants on sunny days. Their laughter started the mornings and finished off the evenings, obvious they had the right team and right approach to the heights above.
The well known British climber and Guide Harry Taylor arrived with a few friends. Completely avoiding the crowds, they set out in the evening hours up the ropes, three lone figures cresting the ridge, then rolled through High Camp at 17.2 under cover of what passes as darkness and summited alone early the next morning.
Hoping to emulate that plan, two men who camped beside us, left camp early the next day and were back sometime later, sitting heads in hands and with nary a word or smile to be seen, their attempt at a day ascent from 14.2 to the summit gone wrong somewhere on the heights above. I’d camped out with Harry on the North Ridge of Everest when he and Russell Brice had kindly offered me a tent space to save me an early retreat from the heights – and knew attempting to follow in his footsteps isn’t something for the faint of heart.
I also met up with John Race, proprietor at Northwest Mountain School, who has an enviable 20 for 23 record (now 21 out of 24 following this years climb) on the peak guiding clients. His comment on our planned one day attempt was to leave early – “if you have to climb in the cold, better to do it at the front part of the day than the back end of the day.” That made good sense and our departure time slid forward yet another hour.
For acclimatisation, we hiked up the hill to 15,000 feet, and the next day went up the ropes to 16,000 feet, and the next day went further along the ridge to 17,000 feet. Then we went back to bed.
On my three previous climbs of Denali I’d always gone from 14.2 to the summit, but normally by more direct routes straight out of Camp to the summit. Roger had pointed out to Paul and I at our briefing, “we aren’t spring chickens anymore,” which Paul repeated as we dragged our sleds up the hill with long frequent rests and hashed out our plan at 14.2 for the big push.
We wanted to leave at 4:30 a.m., but in a rather enthusiastic rush got up a bit early, and on the only day time really counted, started the march up the hill at 3:54 a.m. Oh the joys of that oh so precise technology. So far, so good, on the early start anyway.
The sun reached us on the ridge after a morning of lonely shivering up the ropes and along the shady buttress above Washburn’s thumb. The weather, perfect for the preceding week, was set to be perfect for yet another day. With the early snows this season, the trail was packed and fast, the snow pickets conveniently placed more frequent than most would find necessary.
At the 17.2 High Camp, a U.S. military group were happy to have us leave our stove and snacks in their Camp and sent us up with a few extra liters of water to speed us along our way. We emptied our thermoses of a 2nd morning coffee.
The military climbing team was outfitted in camo gear, and backpacks were filled with enough gear to bivy – ice axes approached 90 cm’s – and they marched happily up the hill and summited before us.
The long walk out to Denali Pass was slowed by guided groups moving along ponderously, but the trail was broad and packed, more snow pickets in place, and as we reached 18,000 feet, the North American continent spread out into the lower clouds far below. Our only worry was rising thunderheads that were building and shooting out lightening in the heat far below us, but they soon played out and faded as the day advanced.
We paralleled a large NOLS group and then passed them, as they suddenly turned and disappeared back down the mountain behind us. Other groups of 2 or 3 came and went, the altitude overcoming the urge for more than casual greetings. Wind came and went, a man coming from the top I congratulated, said “thanks, but no view up there.” Luckily even that would soon change to our advantage.
The sadly but aptly named Pig Hill was just that, a last scramble up a few zig-zags to the summit ridge, but the summit now so close there was no turning back. I climbed up behind a German couple who were climbing only with light ski poles – who commented “these work, we are making progress.” Just as long as you or anybody around you doesn’t slip I guess.
The summit ridge was as grand as ever, a rollicking, rolling final ice walk to the top, the trail pounded in hard. I’d taken my book cover photo for To Everest via Antarctica of Joe Blackburn on the way down long ago and it was good to see that while the cornices had expanded, the section of thin trail at the apex of the ridge was still there and as spectacular as ever.
The Military team went galloping past headed back down, we headed up to a summit devoid of people, a rare stomp to the top of a 7 summit accomplished alone and unfettered.
Weather: sunny. Wind: Nil. Visibility: Unlimited.
It wasn’t exactly warm, but it was pleasant enough and photos, snacks and the last of the drinks were soon all completed.
It had been a long day up, and would feel even longer down, but with the summit behind us, happy feet would get us home.