Denali 2016

Denali 2016

 

Denali 2015

 

At 6,194 m / 20,322 ft, Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest mountain in North America.  It is also the third highest of the seven summits.  Although Denali is lower than Everest (8,848 m / 29,029 ft) and Aconcagua (6,962 m / 22,841 ft), the elevation gain of approximately 5,500 m / 18,000 ft from the base to the summit is the largest of any mountain in the world above sea level.  The combination of elevation gain, the absence of porters to help with load carrying, and Alaska’s extreme cold and frequent storms make Denali a formidable challenge, second only to Everest among the seven summits.
 
There are numerous routes on the mountain, some of which, like the Cassin Ridge, are classic test pieces for the world’s best alpinists.  Not being one of the world’s best alpinists, I’ll be steering well clear of the Cassin!  I thought long and hard about routes for this trip, and was very tempted by an attempt on the West Rib, but in the end I decided to return to the West Buttress to maximize my chances of getting to the top.
 
The West Buttress is the easiest and therefore most popular route on the hill, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy!  It is not a technical route, but it’s long, frequently subject to fierce and prolonged storms, and generally bloody hard work!  I know this because I’ve already spent nine weeks on the West Buttress over the course of three expeditions in 2009, 2012 and 2015.   On my first attempt in 2009 I was forced to turn around on summit day, just above a feature called Denali Pass (5,550 m / 18,200 ft), with a frostbitten cheek caused by very high winds.  On my second attempt in 2012 we became stuck at the penultimate camp at 4,330 m / 14,200 ft in a 10 day storm.  We spent the time playing cards, digging out the tents and listening to avalanches until our food and fuel ran out, forcing us to retreat to Base Camp.  Although we made it down safely, four climbers from another team who descended ahead of us were tragically killed in an avalanche. On my third attempt in 2015 we reached the high camp at 17,200 ft, but after waiting several days for a weather window for our summit bid, an incoming storm left us with no option but to turn around again.
 
The three week expedition starts with a spectacular ski plane flight from the outpost of Talkeetna to Base Camp, on the Kahiltna glacier, at 2,225 m/ 7,300 ft.   From there climbers set off towards the summit, 18 miles away and 4,000m / 13,000 ft above.  The length of the route, cold temperatures and the need to be able to wait out the frequent storms mean that a lot of food, fuel and gear is required.  Setting out from Base Camp it is typical to be carrying a 75 lb pack and dragging an 80 lb sled.
 
The number and sites of the camps vary a little from expedition to expedition, but it is typical to set up four camps above Base Camp.   Every camp has to be established on arrival, and usually involves several hours of work digging out sites, cutting blocks to build snow walls and a toilet, putting up the tents and then melting snow and cooking. 
 
After reaching Camp 1 it is typical to take two to three days to move between each of the higher camps.  A standard strategy is to spend the first day caching part of the gear in a snow hole half way to the next camp, and then return to sleep at the lower camp.  On the second day you climb all the way to the next camp with the rest of the gear, and on the third you down climb to collect the cache and bring it up to the new camp.  This helps with acclimatisation and reduces the loads to a more manageable 50 lb pack and 50 lb sled.
 
The sleds are taken as far as the penultimate camp at 4,330 m / 14,200 ft, known as Fourteen Camp.  From here the terrain up to the final camp at 5,250 m / 17,200 ft, known as Seventeen Camp, is too steep to drag a sled, which means a tough carry up fixed lines and then along an exposed ridge with a pack of 80 lbs or so.
 
Weather permitting, teams go for the top from Seventeen Camp.  Summit day is a long, hard slog, typically lasting about 14 hours, I am told!  After the summit it usually takes a long two days to make it back from Seventeen Camp to Base Camp with very heavy loads and the pleasure of sleds constantly knocking you off balance.   Back at Base Camp there is usually a final wait for a weather window to fly out to Talkeetna, which can take several days if you are unlucky.
 
Hopefully the Denali weather will be kinder on my fourth attempt and allow me up to the top to complete my seven summits.  If not I’m sure I’ll be back!