Denali – West Buttress

Denali, Alaska Range, AK


I was excited to finally meet up with Dirk, Dominik, and Natasha to climb the mountain I had been dreaming about for some time now—Denali! I had been mostly training on my own, but previously climbed Shasta with Dominik and Natasha to determine how we worked as a team and become familiar with each other’s climbing styles.

I flew into Anchorage where I met up with Dirk, and then we caught the train to Talkeetna. The train ride was great and being able to stand and stretch our legs was a real luxury. In Talkeetna, we met Dominik and Natasha, went over our gear and then explored the metropolis of Talkeetna before our orientation meeting with the Rangers. The next day we were supposed to fly out but clouds had socked in the landing strip so our departure was uncertain. I guess this is quite common. So we went through town waiting for a phone call saying, “get you a*ses back to the runway, we are taking off in 15 minutes,” which came at about 4:00 PM.

We scrambled to get our boots on and our bags into the plane and we were out! This flight was the only time in my life where I thought looking out the windshield of a plane and seeing mountains was a good thing. We made a good landing on the Kahiltna glacier and watched our plane leave us there. We then started the long process of figuring out what we had forgotten. That night we stayed at the base camp as weather was predicted to be nicer the following day. The first five days were amazing, the sun was out, there was a little breeze, we moved from one camp to the next with no issues.

We did a double carry to 11,000 ft and set up camp there. On day five, Natasha, Dominik and I all woke up with a phlegmy cough and sore throat; we all had upper respiratory infections. We decided resting at 11k would do us a lot of good, and we questioned our ability to recover quickly at 14k. By that evening we had all worsened and decided to start the Z-packs that we had brought. Another day at 11k had us on the men, and the nice weather was still holding up. We did another double carry up to the camp at 14k (nomenclature = camp 14), and were lucky enough to pass windy corner twice without ever feeling a single gust of wind.

Upon arriving at 14k, our weather luck was about to change. The forecast called for a LARGE sustained low pressure system to move in. I decided I didn’t want to spend the next week or so in my tent, so I built an igloo clubhouse for our team. It was about 10’ across, and we were able to wait out the week of snow falling at about a foot a day in luxury. At one point we had 8 people inside the igloo watching Guardians of the Galaxy on Natasha’s Kindle. After about two weeks on the mountain, a three day (Friday-Sunday) weather window arose in the forecast with a very large storm moving in the next day. We decided this would probably be our only opportunity for summit so we packed up started to move towards the next camp at 17k.

Unfortunately, this was not our best day as a team. We were moving slowly and not communicating as effectively as we should have been. Dirk had a heel injury that was acting up and making the steep climbing difficult. By the time we reached the headwall and fixed lines, there was disagreement in the group about the conditions and whether or not to continue. We decided to go up the fixed lines and re-evaluate. However, halfway up we ran into a snag. Dirk’s section of our line had wrapped around the fixed line before he attached his ascender, and now at the first anchor he was forced to do barrel rolls around the fixed line. After three spins, Dirk developed vertigo and couldn’t continue. With a line of people behind us, I decided the best situation would be for Dirk and I to return to camp at 14k while Dominik and Natasha continued up the fixed line (Dominik was at the front of the rope there was not a good way for him to securely transfer to the descending line). Dirk was having a very hard time maintaining balance so I decided to short rope him until we were in a safer area. Friday night all four of us were back at camp 14, and had a long discussion about the day’s events and what needed to happen to keep our group functioning better. Now the question was whether or not to try to move up again in the morning and try for a Sunday summit. The forecast called for temps of -53 F, including a 10 mph wind chill. Natasha admitted that she did not want to deal with weather that cold and decided to stay back. Dirk didn’t think his heel was in good shape, so he also chose to remain at camp 14. Dominik and I decided to make an attempt, and agreed on strong turnaround criteria due to the approaching storm.

On Saturday morning, we made great time up to the fixed lines, anchored on and moved smoothly up the headwall. At the top of the fixed lines we uncovered a cache we had there to eat some Polish sausage and cheese, and we moved up the rocky ridge to camp 17. At the high camp we dug in and built walls, and then we built some more walls, and then we dug a bit more. This camp is known for being unforgiving and ripping tents to shreds when the weather gets bad. At dinner that night Dominik told me that he was not sure he would be able to climb fast enough tomorrow to make summit, especially with a storm approaching the next day. This was not a large surprise as our pace on the ridge was much slower than what we were originally hoping for.

At this point, two friends from camp 14 arrived. Derik’s partner was also having issues with the altitude, so Derik and I decided to pair up and go for summit together if Dominik was not feeling acclimated by the morning. This turned out to be the case, so Derik and I left camp together at 8:00 AM in lovely -20 F weather. The winds were supposed to pick up after about 5pm, so we knew we needed to move fast, and by 9:45 we had made it to Denali Pass and were feeling great. Two hours later we were across the football field and looking up at hog hill I could help but thinking, “Dang, that is bigger than I was expecting!” About two steps into hog hill the altitude hits me: my head started to throb, my steps slowed and I start to feel tired. Moving up hog hill took what seemed like forever, and the winds started to pick up while the temperature was dropping.

I started to focus completely on breathing and walking. The step—breath--step rhythm I had been moving at became the step—breath—breath—step—breath—breath—breath rhythm. When we finally made it to the ridge, we could feel the full brunt of the wind, and it took our breath away. We were expecting -53 F after a 10 mph wind chill. We found winds near triple that… it was COLD!! After a quick discussion about how we felt, we decided to push the little distance further to the summit. We made it there just before our 3:00 PM turnaround time, snapped some photos and got the heck out of there. On the way down we passed two other groups of two, and all six of us made summit. The other ~40 who tried for summit that day turned around at or before the football field.

Back at camp 17 my headache was no better. I packed up the tent and went down to 14k where I met up with Dirk, Natasha and Dominik who were drinking hot cocoa in the Igloo. It was at that point I had my largest regret of the trip, much like on Mt. hood just two months earlier where I wished that my group had been on the summit with me. We had all worked so hard together, laughed so hard together, gotten pissed off together; we should have been on the summit together. On Monday the storm moved in as promised so we stayed at camp 14 another day. On Tuesday the weather still wasn’t great, but we were ready to head down. I gave the igloo to a group of veterans who were climbing to raise awareness for veteran suicide, and we headed down.

This time windy corner was ready to earn its namesake. I don’t know how hard the wind was blowing but we got HAMMERED. Dirk took a step into a crevasse, as did Natasha, because we couldn’t see anything. We eventually got around the corner with our sleds in pieces and our faces frozen. At 11k camp we started to look for our cache there, which included our snowshoes, but there was not a single recognizable feature at that camp. For almost 10 days it had been snowing at least a foot a day, and the camp had been buried, rebuilt and buried again. Our cache and the wands marking it were completely buried under the snow. We set up camp and started a probe line. After 5 hours with no luck, and snow continuing to fall at a tremendous rate, I got discouraged and tried to go to bed. I didn’t get any sleep though, because every hour I had to get up and dig out my tent.

Eventually I figured that trying to sleep was also just wasting time, so I went out to continue searching for the cache. After 2 hours of nothing, I found a buried wall that looked familiar. Dirk, who had searched for about 5 hours longer than the rest of us, got excited and we used that wall to locate the approximate location of our cache. Another two hours of looking here lead us to nothing and I went back to bed. An hour later Dirk yells to us that he found it! The cache with our duffel bags, sleds, snowshoes, and food was recovered, and we wouldn’t have to post hole for the next ten miles in ten feet of fresh snow. I don’t think we had ever dug so fast as a group as we did when uncovering that cache. A little more sleep and we booked it down to the landing strip to await our flight and get the beers that I had buried. Perhaps the best IPA of my life!

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