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Nick Aiello

[TR] Denali - Messner Couloir 6/10/2010

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Trip: Denali - Messner Couloir


Date: 6/10/2010


Trip Report:

Here's a very brief description of my attempt at climbing the Messner Couloir on Denali. This route begins by deviating left from the Upper West Rib Cutoff above the 14,000' "Basin Camp," or Advanced Base Camp, on the mountain. The route ascends up through a chokepoint in a giant Y-shaped couloir that is clearly visible towering above 14-Camp. Twice, avalanches from this couloir have come close enough to me at Basin Camp to send most people running for their lives - as though they're fast enough to outrun an avalanche of that magnitude!!


Thus this route, like most any other, has a certain degree of objective hazard that must be continually assessed for a safe attempt. However, I feel that it is a striking, semi-technical, underestimated direct line from 14-Camp to the edge of the Football Field, above 19,000'. I cannot wait for a second go at this route.


When I was 20 years old, I was doing poorly in college in New Jersey. By working part-time as a bike messenger for a small company in Manhattan, I saved up for my first trip to Alaska. My best buddy Paul and I did the trip on a shoestring, spending under $2k apiece round-trip, from the Boston area. We had the incredible adventure of driving 4,800 miles to Alaska through the Yukon Territory. The venerable Mark fuckin' Westman did our Denali orientation! And then flew into the Range.


Photo by Paul Calabro


I got the idea to climb the Messner after doing an acclimatization day trip to High Camp at 17,200', and back to 14-Camp.


Selfie climbing the West Buttress headwall, off to the side of the fixed lines


The idea really germinated because I was star-struck.


Colin Haley and Bjørn-Eivind Årtun were skulking around Camp, waiting to climb groundbreaking new shit. I was incredibly humbled and impressed when these heros of mine asked, with honest interest and humility, what we were up to. They seemed truly psyched to share their report of climbing the Messner a week prior, and were amazingly nice to nobodies like ourselves.


Paul was having some difficulties acclimatizing, and one other member of our party of four was hell-bent on a summit pic - his way or the highway.


14-Camp in 2010


So, I decided to go for it on a night of cold, clear weather.


The Messner Couloir is the obvious Y-shaped gully at center.


Leaving at midnight to take advantage of cold conditions, but twilight at the darkest hour, I followed Colin and Bjorn's skin track towards the Rib, then branched left in to the Messner. Climbing solo through a complicated bergschrund was trying on my nerves. I had to stand atop the lower lip of several crevasses, plant my tools on the steep opposite (uphill) wall of the crack, and then frontpoint for several feet before pulling myself onto lower-angle terrain. The blue-black, silent void of those cracks still tugs at my heels to this day.



400-speed, 35mm film at a slow exposure around 3AM.


I climbed through the chokepoint, and the steepness of the snow and ice relaxed. But as the snow became deeper, I hopped from rock island to rock island, growing wary of avalanche risk.



Basin Camp can be barely seen in the middle-right of this picture from roughly 18,000'


I felt as alone as a solo astronaut. At 5AM local time, was I the highest person in the hemisphere who wasn't in an airplane? With each step, I felt more alive. But the snow kept feeling worse, until I could bear it no longer. The windslab was too deep, and getting worse as the ridge rounded off. As much as my ego and I wanted to press on and summit, it was time to go. I bailed off from approximately 19,000', +/- 250 vertical feet.



High in the Couloir.


I began the laborious, scary task of traversing off to the left, North, towards the Fantasy Ridge. From there, I descended to a slumbering High Camp at 17,000', and made my way back to Basin Camp.



Near High Camp, defeated.


But I had not come for a summit photo, I had come for adventure. The descent to base camp was yet to test me, and it would be a hard gauntlet to run. And then, Paul and I drove home in his trusty Ford Ranger in just 4.5 days: far more dangerous than most of our time on Denali.


To finish, a gratuitous quote from Apocalypse Now!:

"Sell the house. Sell the car. Sell the kids." I'm never coming back from Alaska. "Forget it!"




Gear Notes:

One ice tool and one axe worked great for this route. Overboot, mittens, daypack.


Approach Notes:

Take 2 to 10 days to climb to 14,000' Camp.

Edited by Nick Aiello

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nice effort nick. im sure mark and colin would get a kick that they helped you, but always remember the fire comes from within! :)

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Nice! Was camped at 17 some years back & watched a Japanese snowboarder drop into the Messner. He rode carefully but right above the choke he caught an edge and tumbled face-first. Did a full cartwheel and self arrested with his ice tool. I think everyone on the mountain did a collective gasp & sat staring. The snowboarder sat for a second, composed himself & then dropped the rest of the run in perfect form.


We later saw him at a restaurant in Anchorage surrounded by beautiful Japanese women.

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