Many parties choose to spend their first day and night on the mountain at KIA in order to begin acclimating to the altitude. Since Dane and I had spent the previous month in Colorado at over 9,000 feet, there was no reason for us to waste perfectly good weather. So, as soon as we got our sleds, we loaded them up and began our slog toward the summit of the highest point in North America.
Due to the latitude and the phenomenon of atmospheric squish, altitudes on Denali are effectively about 2,000 feet higher than the equivalent elevation closer to the equator. The landing strip is at 7,200', so in effect, our trip began with the same level of oxygen in the air that we had accustomed ourselves to for the last month.
|Feeling quite awkward with the sled|
The sleds were quite awkward at first (going slightly downhill), until I figured out how to employ the "Bad Dog" technique described to us by a stoner guide who was on a personal trip. This technique basically entails short leashing your sled with your hand so that it has no choice but to stay right at your side, nestled against your ski boot as you slide. Add to this the fact that both Dane and I had to go the same pace (we were roped together) and the slight rolling nature of the terrain, and we quickly discovered why people tell such horror stories about dragging sleds around Denali. Even so, it beat making two trips and carrying everything on your back. By the time we finished the downhill portion of the trip to our first camp, the sleds became more of an asset than a liability.
|Approaching Camp I|
|Camp I at 9,800', Bottom of Ski Hill|
Clouds were building that evening, and we'd heard rumors of a mild storm coming the next day. However, advice I had received from numerous Denali veterans was that you'd never make it to the top if you refused to move camp in a little weather, so we planned to get up the next morning and more camp as high as 11,000 feet.
|Leaving Camp I on the morning of Day 2|
The morning of our second day on the mountain arrived to reveal another day of good weather, so we packed up camp and started up Ski Hill for the second time. We made good time up to our Cache at 9,000', unburied our sleds full of gear, and continued up the mountain with them in tow. Thin cloud layers came and went along with a little wind throughout the day as we skied through Kahiltna Pass on our way to Camp II. At 3:00 pm, 6 hours after leaving Camp I, we had gained 3,200 feet in elevation and arrived at the base of Motorcycle Hill (11,000') with all of our food and gear.
|Dane on his way through Kahiltna Pass with Denali's West Buttress proper in the background|
|Camp II at the base of Motorcycle Hill (11,000')|
The route above 11,000' gets a little steeper, so we decided to call and end to our liberal use of the single carry method. On day three, during yet another beautiful day, we carried a load of extra food, fuel, and clothes to 13,500', a place known as Around Windy Corner since it's just past the notorious Windy Corner. About half way there, we encountered the first section of the sidewalk-like trail that we couldn't ski up. This was due to the combination of steepness and iciness, requiring us to don our crampons for the first time of the trip. After gaining about 300' in crampons, we were able to switch back to skis and continue up, through, and around Windy Corner. This was by far the windiest section of the route thus far, but we knew the 30 mph winds we encountered were nothing compared to the 60-100 mph winds that are frequently reported there.
We skied the entire way back after caching our load at 13,500 feet. Most of it was icy and/or crusty, but the final pitch down Motorcycle Hill back to our camp was covered with a few inches of amazing powder! I felt really bad for all the people doing what we were doing who didn't have skis. While we played our way back down to camp in a matter of minutes, they endured a nice three-hour march.
|Motorcycle Hill from 11,000' Camp. The farthest right (skiers left) tracks are ours.|
Our fourth day on the mountain, we moved camp from 11,000 feet to 14,200 feet (aka Camp III, aka Basin Camp) in wonderful weather yet again. As it turned out, this is the third and final location we would set up our tent. This time, with ski crampons, we were able to leave our skis on for the entire ascent up to and past Windy Corner.
|Looking down at Camp II from high up on Motorcycle Hill|
|Taking a break at Windy Corner with Mt. Foraker in the background|
|Camp III, Basin Camp, 14,200'|