We spent our fifth day on the mountain and first day at 14K actively acclimating. And by actively acclimating, I mean sitting around, eating, drinking, and sleeping. We did go on a short, flat ski over to the Edge of the World and back. The Edge of the World is simply the abrupt transition from the flat basin that contains Basin Camp to the steep ruggedness that is most of the mountain.
|The Edge of the World|
After enjoying the views for a while, we realized we could see Camp I down at 7,800 feet, 6,300 feet almost directly beneath us.
|View of Foraker and the Kahiltna Glacier from The Edge of the World|
We also spent part of this day familiarizing ourselves with Basin Camp. There were close to 150 people here for the entirety of our stay at 14K, including a simi-permanent National Park Service ranger camp. As far as I could tell, the purpose of the ranger presence is to help ensure that climbers are following the rules (mainly waste disposal related), maintain the shitters, and coordinate rescues. They also post a weather report every day, which is highly unreliable at best, but nonetheless nice to have.
|One of two shitters (note that there's a high traffic trail right about where this picture is taken from). Modesty has no place here.|
Instead of heading right out of camp toward the West Rib, we opted to ski left toward the fixed lines that mark the standard route up the mountain, the West Buttress. We went up the fixed lines to 16,200 feet where the ridge of the West Buttress is officially gained, then hiked along the ridge to 17,200 feet where most parties climbing the West Buttress route set up their final camp before making a summit attempt. From here, the Rescue Gully leads straight down to Basin Camp in a short, steep, 3,000 foot drop. We figured this would be a good trial run for the lines of the Messner Couloir and the Oreint Express that we hoped to ski down from near the summit later in the trip.
|Skinning up to the base of the fixed lines on the West Buttress route|
|Looking at 14K from the base of the fixed lines, Mt. Hunter in the background|
|Dane leading the ridge from 16,2 to 17,2|
|Looking down the ridge at about 16,800'|
|The top of Rescue Gully (picture taken on day 14)|
Our seventh day on the mountain consisted of a scouting/acclimatization trip to 16,200 feet on the West Rib and setting up our cook tent. Clouds moved in when we were about half way up to the rib, making the scouting trip almost useless. Once we gained the rib, the visibility ranged from none to mediocre. During one of the mediocre times we were able to make out the first part of the climb on the ridge proper, which we decided was good enough for our scouting purposes. We proceeded to ski down most of the way to camp in a whiteout, which we referred to as braille skiing since we were forced to feel our way down via our skin track because everything else was equally white. Finally, about 700 vertical feet before reaching camp, the clouds lifted to provide us with several turns of amazing powder!
|Route from 14K to the Upper West Rib on the skyline|
|Setting up the cook tent|
We'd yet to have a full rest day where we didn't do anything active, and Dane was fairly insistent that we do this. Thinking we might make a summit attempt the following day, we rested, ate, drank, and did a little work fortifying the walls for out cook tent.
When our alarm went off at 3:00 am, we looked outside our tent to find clouds engulfing the Upper West Rib. We opted to sleep in as we had many days of food left to wait for a more ideal weather window. We skied halfway up to the West Rib to get our legs moving once again and had yet another braille ski down for about 1,200 vertical feet.
|Switching into downhill mode in the whiteout|
Similar to the day before, we set our alarms for 4:00 am. Upon looking out of the tent, we saw clear skies in most directions with the exception of the West Rib, our intended summit route. I convinced Dane that this was similar to the weather the previous day where it just got nicer all day long, so we started preparing to make our move. By 5:45 we were kicking steps in ankle to shin deep snow towards the West Rib. We didn't bring skis as we had previously decided not to attempt a summit ski descent, and we would be descending the West Buttress, thereby not passing by our stashed skis had we chosen to approach with them.
|Looking toward the West Rib from camp in the early morning of Day 10|
|Dane leading up after gaining the West Rib|
|Looking down after climbing a couple hundred feet up the ridge|
We spent an hour huddling in the inescapable wind and cold on the football field, trying to eat and drink enough to recover from our previous 13 hour ascent. We weren't sure when we reached the football field if we would continue to the summit or immediately descend the standard route 5,300' back to camp. After eating, drinking, and assessing the route and our situation, I decided I felt good enough to make the summit, 800' above us, and still have enough reserves to make it back to our camp at 14K. Dane, having less of a peak bagging drive than me, decided he'd rather go down. Since we were now on the main route, traveling solo seemed prudent enough, so I went up while Dane went down, with the intentions of stopping when he got out of the wind so we could continue the descent together once I caught up to him.
|Classic arms length summit shot|
At 9:15 pm on May 30th, I stood on the summit of Denali at 20,320'. I was all alone and for probably the first and only time on the entire trip, I couldn't see a single other person. I took a few pictures but didn't waste too much time as it was already late and I knew Dane was huddled in the cold somewhere waiting for me.
|View from the top of North America|
|Proof that I really was there|
This next bit will sound overly dramatic and cliche, but I'll try to explain what I was feeling anyway. On the way down, I remember feeling like there was a separation between my mind and body. Like my mind knew exactly what I needed to do (get down the mountain to my sleeping bag), and it forced my body to comply with its wishes. Like my body cared that I was really tired but my mind was unsympathetic. I'm not sure how else to better describe it, but after descending about 1,000 feet from the summit, as my summit "high" wore off, this is how I felt the rest of the way down.
I met up with Dane at Denali Pass (18,200') on the West Buttress route. The route was very well wanded, easy to follow, and non-technical. When I found him, he was wearing all of his clothes and curled in a ball like an Alaskan sled dog, sound asleep. Unable to escape the wind, he had just curled up behind a small rock and let the spindrift blow in around him. When I woke him, he cleared the snow that had accumulated between his eyes and his glacier glasses and we descended together.
We made good time on the way down until we got to the base of the fixed lines, only about 1,200 feet above camp. At this point, I was so tired I could only walk for a few minutes before needing to rest. I remember counting 100 steps, resting, and repeating. Dane wasn't moving a whole lot faster. We ended up reaching Basin Camp at 1:30 am, just under 20 hours after leaving. Although we experienced nice weather the whole time we were gone, we found the tent covered in 8 inches of snow when we returned. I'd never before experienced fatigue like this. I needed food, water, and sleep. Sleep won, as I promptly crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out. I think Dane managed to eat something before joining me.
So excited for a rest day! Dane could not resist the urge to ski the fresh powder that accumulated during the previous day, so he went up toward the West Rib and got a few turns in. I was still too tired to join him and my legs too sore.
|Celebratory whiskey and cards - what rest days are all about|
The last rest day felt so good, we decided to have another to celebrate the first day of June. It snowed off and on all day, but we still went out for a short ski toward the fixed lines. It was good to get the legs moving again, and I felt better than I thought I would.
Best powder day of the trip! We skied two laps for a total of about 3,000 feet up toward the fixed lines and my legs felt great. The morning was noticeably colder than previous mornings, which probably just made the powder that much better. Dane is feeling good and has decided he might regret returning home without tagging the summit. The weather looks good for tomorrow, so we set the alarm for another early start.
|Good morning Dane. Your cheesy fried bagel with sausage fried in bacon grease is ready.|
Yes, we ate well. In true NOLS fashion, we alternated cooking on a dinner-breakfast schedule so we always cooked two meals in a row but never two in the same day. The bacon grease made everyone downwind from us jealous.
|Dane shredding the gnar|
|Me, almost needing a snorkel|
I got up around 7:00 to make Dane a hearty breakfast before he made a solo summit bid from our 14K camp. By 8:30, he was off at a brisk pace, beating the hoards of people to the base of the fixed lines on the West Buttress route. Since we had descended the entire route the previous day, we knew it was safe enough and within Dane's ability to solo to the summit and back.
|Dane looks like a little spec as he races toward the fixed lines.|
As Dane moved rapidly up the West Buttress, I went back to sleep. A few hours later, I got up and began ascending to 17,200', where I planned to meet up with Dane on his way down. It was a real nice day until about 3:30, when the anvil shaped clouds that had been threatening all day finally engulfed me in fog and light snow. Up higher, as Dane later reported, the weather was still clear. I waited at the 17,200' camp where a few dozen climbers were camped for 3.5 hours before Dane showed up at 6:15 pm.
|Clouds chasing me up the ridge from 16,2 to 17,2|
|Dane's summit shot!|
|Looking down the summit ridge|
After refueling at 17,200' we descended back to 14K, arriving at 8:00 pm, giving Dane an official and respectable round trip time of 11.5 hours to summit from 14K.
When we returned to camp, we noticed that the Lou Dawson crew had moved in next door. Lou is a well known ski mountaineer in Colorado. He had been to Denali once before and failed to reach the summit. This time he was back with his son and a slew of great young skiers from the Aspen area in attempt to ski off the summit. I knew they were going to be up there, so it was great to meet them all before we left. Several days after we left, most/all of them climbed and skied down all the skiable parts of the West Buttress route. Even with some additional snow, the more coveted lines off the summit plateau were still out of condition for them.
It was looking like the mediocre weather that moved in yesterday was around to stay for a while, so we decided to spend one final day at 14K before descending back to the landing strip. We spent a bunch of time in the Dawson party's big cook tent, sharing stories, listening to music, and drinking the rest of our whiskey. We ended up giving most of our extra food and fuel to them as well to avoid carrying it down the mountain.
We woke up to find Dawson's party tent flattened by about a foot of fresh snow. Later, this new snow would fuel and avalanche starting in the Messner Couloir and running straight towards the crowded Basin Camp, stopping plenty early but creating a bit of a scare nonetheless. We spent the morning packing up and getting rid of the last of our extra food. Dane was not looking forward to snowboarding down with a sled, so he strapped everything to his pack in epic junkshow fashion. I stacked his sled in mine and skied down using the "bad dog" technique, which worked wonderfully.
After charging up Heartbreak Hill, the section of the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier that is uphill on the way back, I think we were looking at a 6 to 7 hour descent from 14K. I once again began to feel bad for the poor people on snowshoes, but then reminded myself that it was their own fault for not skiing.
|Back at KIA|
Due to the weather, climbers had been stacked up waiting for a flight out for the last three days. This was the first day of flyable weather, so there was a whole slew of flights earlier in the day. By the time we got there at about 7:00 pm, everyone was cleared out and we were on a plane in less than an hour.
Day 17 and Beyond
With several extra days before our scheduled flight back to Denver, we decided to hitchhike around Alaska after spending a day in Talkeetna taking care of our gear. First, we went up to Fairbanks to visit a friend of mine from Boulder who grew up there and happened to be home visiting his parents. We then made it down to Homer, where we spent a bunch of time relaxing and met up with the Fry's at their Bear Creek Winery. Several logistical complexities later, we were at the airport in Anchorage with all of our gear, ready to fly back to the lower 48.
|Summit Shot, courtesy of Nancy Holliday|