First off, we’d like to thank our guides Don & Sarah Carpenter. They were phenomenal! They kept us well fed, happy and most importantly, kept us safe. Thanks guys! Safe travels on your climb that starts on the 21st.
We’d also like to thank our families & friends whom followed us on the blog and supported us from afar. I know that from time to time it was hard on some people in the group to be away from their loved ones, particularly when got the horrible news about the Alpine Ascents team that took a fall high up on Denali Pass.
Climbing Denali was hands down the most amazing experience I’d ever had. From the second the group met up until we picked up our haul from the ocean and left, it was a great trip.
We were fortunate enough to get an incredible weather window which allowed our team which was also pretty damn strong to punch it and get to the top in 13 days. We only took one “rest” day prior to our push to the top. Our rest day included cutting snow blocks to build walls and fortify our tents at Camp 3 (14,200ft). We also took the extra time to nearly build an igloo out of the bathroom to give a bit more privacy to the previously exposed comode. It was less exciting to modify this bathroom as compared to the one at our 7,800 camp which I built a TV, magazine rack & TP holder.
I guess that’s what altitude will do to you. You’d rather minimize your exertion and maximize your time in the tent laying down either reading, listing to your iPod or just thinking about what you’ll eat/drink when you get back to civilization.
Surprisingly though, everyone was recovering quickly and it didn’t feel like we were killing ourselves just to get higher up on the mountain. That translated into us moving or carrying on a regular basis instead of taking extra rest days. We also got to take advantage of a cache that was placed at 13,500ft by an earlier group that decided to turn around. That saved us from having to do a carry to 13,500 and instead we just went on an acclimatization hike to the top of Motorcycle Hill which was about 12,000ft. The next day we just moved straight to Camp 3 at 14,200ft instead, followed by a back-carry to pick up the food cached at 13,500ft.
At this point, it’s worth reflecting on some heavy news that we got prior to that acclimatization hike. While we were at Camp 2 at 11,200ft, we learned that an Alpine Ascents rope team went down while descending from high up on Denali. When they came around Denali Pass about to descend the Autobahn when a climber in the group lost their footing and fell, pulling the rest of the rope team down with them. Unfortunately and sadly, this accident took the lives of two climbers while seriously injuring a third. This news was pretty intense, and forced us all to take a step back and re-evaluate what it was that we wanted to attempt. We agreed that we should all sleep on it before making any decisions on whether to proceed or turn around. In the morning, we all reached consensus that we wanted to proceed while taking this news as a chance to reiterate the need for caution and attentive climbing. This was a serious accident, but we all knew that these kinds of events are possibilities when climbing in the mountains. This year has been an exceptionally bad year in terms of fatalities, which put everyone on a heightened state of alert. Due to high winds, and low snowfall, the route high up on Denali was primarily exposed ice which made it especially susceptible to falls.
Ultimately, the accident is what encouraged the earlier team to turn around and gave us the opportunity to use their already cached food and move straight to Camp 3. While we were still saddened by the incident, we were also relieved to save a full carry to 13,500. This allowed us to get to 14,200 camp feeling really good. The following day, we had a rest day which is where we built walls and just relaxed around camp, drinking hot drinks and eating all day.
Altitude is a funny thing, its effects are still not entirely known, but one thing for sure is that you don’t feel as good as you do at sea level. Common side effects include: headache, nausea, lack of appetite, lethargy, and generally just feeling run down, not to mention that you feel out of breath a lot easier. The best thing you can do for yourself is to stay hydrated and drink as muc water as you possibly can, even at night, which also means you’ll be peeing ALL the time. I learned my lesson on that one from Shawn. Next time, I’m bringing a 96oz bag to make the evening sessions even just the slightest bit more enjoyable as opposed to trying to kneel in your sleeping bag and go in a Nalgene bottle, which the tent mates always love.
Summit day was pretty intense in hindsight. We’d moved up to High Camp (17,200ft) from Camp 3 the day before which was preceded by a carry up to 16,600ft (just under Washburn’s Thumb). The original plan was to have a rest day after the move to High Camp to give people a chance to somewhat recover from two long days of big carries. When we go to the cache at Washburn’s Thumb our packs weighed between 80-90lbs given that we could no longer rely on sleds to take some of the extra load that we needed to carry. At this point, I’ll mention that when we picked up our cache, we’d already been traveling for roughly 4-5hrs with 60+lb packs with a super steep headwall in between.
Given that the headwall is so steep, it has had fixed lines run on it which you clip in with an ascender and back it up with a biner on top.
Once we go to High Camp, exhausted, we got to chop out platforms for our tents, which fortunately were not too bad. We quickly got our tents setup, sleeping bags moved in and we hunkered down for the rest of the night. Sarah & Don kept us happy with door to door room service bringing us hot drinks, water and dinner to allow us to maximize the recovery period. Sarah was our hot drink hero!
With a low pressure weather system moving in to the area in a few days, the guides decided that we should make our summit bid the following morning about 9:00am. Fortunately, at the start, we had bluebird skies and it seemed like it was going to be a perfect day for it, albeit everyone still a bit tired from the two previous days. Starting to head up the Autobahn, it gave everyone a bit of pause to reflect on what had happened a few weeks prior. We all traveled safely and carefully with this in mind, which paid off by seeing the safe return of the entire team.
We pushed up the hill, one step at a time, and made it to the top of the Autobahn in about 2.5hrs, even though it should have taken about an hour less. I think everyone was slow to get started based on the previous few days in addition to taking extra time to be safe. We took our first break, got something to eat, and started to notice a lenticular cloud building above Denali, which was cause for concern. After a quick pow-wow, Don & Sarah deemed it safe to proceed at least until the next break which would be around the Zebra Rocks area of the upper mountain and then reassess. We kept on, and everyone was still feeling good. After that second break, I think people got a bit more energy with the sun coming out and seeing that we were making good progress.
Although, at this point, the wind set in and stuck with us for several hours until we were nearly at the same spot on the descent. We also got some snow that was being picked up by the wind and whipped in our face. The wind seemed to be non-stop, even though in the big picture it really wasn’t blowing as hard as it is known to on the hill. It may have been 20+ miles an hour? Any bit of skin that was exposed sure felt it and reminded you that you were layers of clothes away from frostbite or more serious cold injuries.
We kept plodding past Archdeacon’s Tower, and onto the Football Field until we got to the base of Pig Hill, which was the last main obstacle before we gained the Summit Ridge. The Football Field, as the name implies, is a big, long, relatively flat expanse of snow & ice that you slog along on until you reach the base of Pig Hill. Fortunately, the worst part of the field was the wind whipping across it. Otherwise, it was a welcomed reprieve from the continual uphill march we’d been on up till that point. When we got to the base of Pig Hill, it looked pretty daunting, largely because everyone had been pushing so hard up to that point and one more steep hill just looked like it was going to be too much. Fortunately though, we had fixed lines on the hill which slowed every body down while they clipped in and made sure they were safely attached. This pause was awesome, because it broke the hill up into manageable chunks. About half way up the hill, at least for me, it sank in that we were going to make it to the top!
Once at the top of Pig Hill, we took one last break to have some food & water before our last push to the summit! The Summit Ridge wasn’t too long, but was like an aggressively rolling hill with the cornices that had been wind loaded over time with a trail about a foot wide. There were just a few places for us to clip into for protection in the event of a fall, which made it all the more precarious to navigate. Combine all of that with other teams coming down from the top who were exhausted and not properly giving way to climbers heading up made for some interesting situations. One Polish climber had to be given a shot of Dexamathasone because he seemed to be suffering from HACE and was having a really hard time functioning at all. Several people just stumbled around and didn’t seem to be able to get out of the way without nearly tripping over ropes and each other.
Finally, after one last cornice, the summit was in sight and we were almost there. On the last little incline towards the summit, all of the emotions held back for the trip came out. What a sense of relief, accomplishment, satisfaction, completion, elation and camaraderie all at once. We made the top as a team, no question. We all chipped in to carry more than their fair share at one point or another. Everyone was looking out for everybody else throughout the whole trip. No one was it in for themselves, and we all made decisions as a group. It was such a cool feeling to be there with a group of people that had worked so hard together to see the look on everyone’s face (even through the exhaustion) and see how happy everyone was at that point in time was irreplaceable.
We had to keep our guard up though and not get too caught up in the moment as we still had the descent ahead of us which would be no easy task. After our brief moment of celebration on the summit, we were off to head back down the mountain as quickly and safely as we could.
We moved quickly, and fortunately everyone still had enough gas in the tank that we didn’t have to take any unusual stops or breaks and could just keep trucking.
When we got to the Autobahn, everyone made sure that they used good footing, and were very careful with every foot placement the entire way down. After we were about 20-30 minutes into the descent of the Autobahn, we got held up by the group of climbers that were having a lot of trouble and were going exceptionally slow. This tacked on an extra 1-1.5hrs to that portion of the climb which, in worse weather conditions, could have been a real issue. Frostbite, hypoxia and other illnesses were top of mind for our guides whom wanted to see the congo line moving a lot faster than it was. Fortunately though, we made it through unscathed and were back at camp about 11:30 at night after climbing for 14.5hrs that day. Everyone was wiped out and could imagine nothing better than being in their sleeping bags to get warm and drift off too sleep.
The next day, everyone wasn’t exactly fully recovered yet, but 17 camp sucks, so we needed to get the hell out of their as soon as we could. The less time spent at High Camp the better. We packed up all the tents and group gear then started to head out. We got about 20 minutes out of camp and heading down the ridge line towards Washburn’s Thumb before Don made the call to turn the group around due to winds, cold temperatures and the general sense of well-being of the group at the time. As disappointing and heart breaking as it was to have to turn back around, head up hill, and set up camp as it was, it was the right move. We were drained from 3 brutal days and could desperately use a “rest” day. We got back to high camp, and begrudgingly setup the tents again. No one was feeling chipper, so getting back into our sleeping bags wasn’t too much of a bummer. We just laid in camp all day, drank hot drinks and tried to recuperate as best we could.
The next day the weather gods were smiling upon us, so we got up and again tore down our campsite. This time, I had the luxury of carrying about 3 days worth of shit from 6 people. Fortunately it was frozen rock solid and was strapped on for dear life. Shawn tried to give it a go the day before, but with being exhausted and the can not being tied super tight, it was making it unsafe for him to carry as it was flopping all around the place. Not a good look to get tugged down the hill by a poo can, if you ask me.
We made it safely down the ridge, and then through the fixed lines to get back to Camp 3 (14,200ft) for a few hours to rest, re-charge and grab our cache from a few days earlier. Once we packed up, we loaded our sleds and said goodbye to the upper mountain that granted us passage to the summit a few days earlier.
We cruised down the mountain, past Windy Corner, which was more windy this time around than it had been the first time through. All the while, we had the luxury of “walking the dog” or letting our sleds full of gear slide down the hill in front of us which of course didn’t want to cooperate at all. They were sideways, behind us, in front of us, and pretty much anywhere except where we wanted them. Being on the rope, with sleds and other people is a test in patience, that’s for sure.
Passing down Squirrel Hill and finally Motorcycle Hill before we arrived at Camp 2 (11,200ft) where we set up a couple tents, had some tuna mac for dinner and passed out for a couple hours. Don woke us up about 12:30am or so to get us out of bed so we could get a good start down on the lower glacier before it warmed up. Yesterday, there had been 11 confirmed crevasse falls, and rightly so, Don & Sarah wanted to get a move on so that there wouldn’t be 8 more confirmed falls. We powered down our buttered bagels & coffee, then boosted out of camp.
When we left, we literally were in the clouds and walking almost blindly down the mountain. It was a very surreal feeling to walk in the fog as thick as we were while being on the snow. It was almost to have any context of where you were, whether you were going up hill or down hill. The only reminder of going downhill was when your sled would come sliding up next to your feet when the person behind you zoned out for a few minutes. Aside from that, it was pretty tough to have any idea where you were headed or where you were. Don & Sarah traded off taking the lead as it was pretty nauseating to be out front and have no context where you were going. It was pretty disorienting to say the least. Every once in a while, you’d walk over a snow bridge and see huge holes in the crevasse where someone had inevitably punched through in the last few days. A good reminder that we still were not done with the mountain, and that there were plenty of objective hazards with which we could hit.
In the spirit of the rest of the trip, we made it to the infamous Heartbreak Hill, which is the last hill up towards Base Camp and the runways. We pushed through the hill in typical fashion, just wanting it to be over sooner than it would give up. I think because we were so near the end the hill just didn’t want to let go. Finally though, we made it to BC where Sarah was again our hero and whipped up some bagels with ham & melted cheese with tons of butter all over them. We thought we were in heaven with the first one, not knowing that we had two more coming!! They were the best thing I’d eaten in a while. In the mean time, we had set up a few tents as it didn’t look like we’d be getting out anytime soon considering the extensive cloud cover in the area.
Slowly, but surely, the clouds dissipated and they started running flights through to try and drain the back log of people that hadn’t been able to fly out for the previous few days. One after another, a tired and haggard team were hauled off the glacier headed back to civilization where you could get the best beer & burger you’d ever had only to be topped off with a shower to watch the 2-3 weeks of stench off.
I was pretty psyched to get back to Talkeetna when we did. For one, it meant I got to celebrate my birthday in the town instead of on the mountain. I’m sure it would have been great on Denali, but it was even better where it ended up. Hobbs, the owner of the Fireweed, was kind enough to make me a birthday cake from scratch which of course everyone sang to. I promptly had my face pushed in the cake right before I was going to take a “birthday bite” by Elena. After we’d had an amazing dinner, cake & coffee, we all went downtown Talkeetna to the Fairview Inn (and Dimview Out) to have celebratory drinks!
All in all I have to say that this was by far the most incredible thing I’ve ever been apart of in my entire life. The mountain revealed increasingly amazing views day by day, coupled with a great group of people that by far made the trip what it was. We commonly joked that the trip consisted of a lot of laughs with a little climbing in there somewhere. It was the truth. That mountain wouldn’t have been the same without you guys & gals.
Until the next adventure,