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lukeh

[TR] Denali - West Buttress With a DSLR 5/23

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Trip: Alaska Range - Denali - West Buttress With a DSLR

 

Date: 5/23/2014

 

Trip Report:

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North American terrestrial ceiling, taken June 4th 2014 around 4pm afer 12 days on the mountain. We were lucky as this has been one of the worst weather years on Denali with a summit success rate in the teens when we arrived (now in the 30% range).

 

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Some of the most interesting cloud formations/movements I've seen. Mt. Foraker and Kahiltna Dome as a storm approaches.

 

Click on any photo to see a larger version or click here to see all photos on Facebook.

 

DENALI: THE WEST BUTTRESS: MAY 24th-JUNE 6th 2014

 

Pain, I came to feel, might well prove to be the sole proof of the persistence of consciousness within the flesh, the sole physical expression of consciousness. As my body acquired muscle, and in turn strength, there was gradually born within me the tendency towards positive acceptance of pain, and my interest in physical suffering deepened.

--Yukio Mishima Sun and Steel: Art, Action and Ritual Death, referenced in Steve House's Beyond the Mountain

 

I was forced to admit that on this, my first trip to Denali, I too had grossly underestimated the mountain. I had listened to the rangers' warnings; I had heard no less experienced an alpinist than Peter Habeler pronounce that McKinley's storms "are some of the worst I have ever experienced"; I knew that when Dougal Haston and Doug Scott had climbed McKinley together just six months after standing upon the summit of Everest, Haston had said they'd been forced to draw ton all our Himalayan experience just to survive." And yet, somehow-like Adrian in 1986-I hadn't really believed any of it.

--Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

 

Certainly, the climbers who call Washburn's route a 'cattle prod' have been deceived by the severe mountain sickness or a whiteout, because walking the ridgecrest from 16,000 to 17,000 feet is the penultimate mountaineering experience next to summiting. On a good day, you can revel in a three-mile drop to the tundra below--a greater drop than most Himalayan giants. Or you can look east and see Mount Sanford, more than 200 miles away. Or you can meet legendary international mountaineers stumbling down after having suffered up high.

--Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska's Mt. McKinley

 

I asked one of the doctors, Howard Donner, why they volunteered to spend their summers toiling in such a godforsaken place. "Well," he explained as he stood shivering in a blizzard, reeling from nausea and a blinding headache while attempting to repair a broken radio antenna, "it's sort of like having fun, only different"

--Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

 

INTRODUCTION: A DEPARTURE FOR ME

 

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Selfie overlooking Mt. Hunter from the 17,200ft high camp. It was cold.

 

Denali's been on my list for a while. The scale of these Alaskan peaks offer a plethora of photo-opportunities for depicting the insignificance of man against the grandeur of nature. Denali was also a proving ground for climbing other big mountains in the Himalayan/Karakorum ranges, or at least a better vetting process than the smaller Cascades peaks I've been climbing in terms of altitude, expedition timeframes, frigid temps, etc.

 

Before Denali I'd only been as high as Rainier's summit at 14,411ft in a variety of conditions. My skin knew only above zero degree temps. How would my body react at over 20,000 feet in the arctic cold? As low as 10,000ft I can easily get AMS-like symptoms. As far as the cold, I'm not really sure how I ever leave my warm sleeping bag on freezing alpine mornings. I'm kind of a mountaineering prima donna in some respects. That said, I've managed to pull off a lot of climbing over the past 5 years - typically carrying more weight and meeting more demands on movement due to an interest in night photography. For these 1-3 day Cascade climbs I've been able to dial-in what works for me with food, layers, tents, stoves, etc. But I've never been on a climb greater than 3 days. Denali could be 21 days.

 

So yes, Denali would be different. Harder. A hot shower and a Chipotle burrito would no longer be 1-2 days away. A single "blue bag" and a couple of clean, simple freeze-dried meals wouldn't be enough for waste disposal and sustenance. I wouldn't be able to check NOAA.gov or atmos.washington.edu and bail/postpone if the weather wasn't good. I couldn't check zappos.com if a cool new shoe came out with bright colored laces. I was going to be climbing in storms. I was going to cook messy meals with messy pans and fickle white gas stoves. I was going to shit in a bucket already filled with other people's shit, sometimes without privacy, almost always in cold, windy + snowy weather. I was going to be pulling heavy sleds in addition to carrying a big backpack across heavily crevassed, icy terrain. I was going to have to deal with 5 other people. Daily. For up to three weeks. In tight quarters.

 

I've definitely suffered on poor weather epics in the Cascades. I backed off a Mt. Baker North Ridge attempt in a heavy snow/rainstorm, and completed a Shuksan North Face/Fisher Chimney traverse in similarly miserable conditions, climbing through the night, soaking wet in freezing temps. I figured Denali suffering would be multi-layered and represent a next-level "hurt" compared to these local climbs. Still, I was really excited to test myself. If I could adapt to Denali's harsh conditions it would mean a lot of interesting objectives were within my reach. Ama Dablam, Everest, downtown Chicago in November without an umbrella (or maybe just an umbrella that didn't quite cover all of me)?

 

THE WEST BUTTRESS ROUTE?

 

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Mark and I cackle as Scott lambastes a slightly overweight mountaineer starting up the West Buttress. "Instead of measuring your granola out into little premarked baggies, spending hours threading orange flagging around little sticks of bamboo to mark the route you're sharing with a thousand other people, you should have been training!"

--Steve House, Beyond the Mountain

 

I always figured I'd climb Denali's more technical West Rib first. I even took a weeklong ice climbing class five years ago--immediately after climbing Rainier for my first time--to set the West Rib stage. The West Buttress route looked too easy, crowded, overall lacking as a "real mountain" experience. Because I hadn't been high altitude-tested or experienced negative 40 degree temps, however, the "Butt" seemed like a good place to get my feet wet (no pun intended...seriously there's no pun here, Denali's mostly snow/ice, not water). If I could survive the West Buttress, then I could take on more technically challenging routes--at altitude--in these harsher environments. Also I was generously invited by a friend and his buddies to do the West Buttress route, not the West Rib. Sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that present themselves.

 

Now having climbed the "Butt", I'd say it's more technical and generally more challenging than I expected. I thought it'd be more like the Rainier Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons glacier-like walk-up routes. It's nothing like that. Not that you can't make some fatal missteps on these main Rainier routes, you easily can. Getting on the Disappointment Cleaver at around 11,000ft is a great example: One wrong step can kill you. This is especially true if someone had tied your bootlaces together at the Ingraham Flats camp as a prank. But the West Buttress route has a lot more "one wrong step and your dead" areas, plus the scale and harsher conditions exacerbate the risk. Jon Krakauer attempted it unsuccessfully in 1987:

 

The West Buttress of McKinley, it is often said, has all the technical challenges of a long walk in the snow. That is more or less true, but it's also true that if you should, say, trip on a bootlace at the wrong moment during that walk, you will probably die. From 16,000 feet to 17,000 feet, for instance, the route follows the crest of a knife-edge ridge that presents a two-thousand-foot drop on one side and a three-thousand-foot drop on the other. Furthermore, even the flattest, most benign-looking terrain can be riddled with hidden crevasses, many of which are big enough to swallow a Greyhound bus, no problem.

 

I figured the West Buttress to be a farmer's route; I mean, how challenging could a climb that succumbed to three hundred freds and hackers a year possibly be? Plenty challenging for the likes of me, it transpired. I was continually miserable, and frequently on the brink of disaster. My tent was starting to shred even in the relative calm at 14,300. The unceasing cold caused my lips and fingers to crack and bleed; my feet were always numb. At night, even wearing every article of clothing I had, it was impossible to stave off violent shivering attacks. Condensed breath would build up an inch of frost on the inside of my tent, creating an ongoing indoor blizzard as the gossamer nylon walls rattled in the wind. Anything not stowed inside my sleeping bag-camera, sunscreen, water bottles, stove-would freeze into a useless, brittle brick. My stove did in fact self-destruct from the cold early in the trip; had a kind soul named Brian Sullivan not taken pity on me and lent me his spare, I would-as Dick Danger so eloquently put it-have been in deep shit.

--Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

 

It's also ironic how some of the best alpinist die on less technical routes. Lionel Terray--for example--died guiding a 5.7 rock route in France. Mugs Stumps--Alaskan climbing legend--died falling into a crevasse on lower angle terrain. This is after he climbed some of the harder routes in the Alaska Range. Read Accidents in North American Mountaineering, it's often the experienced climbers who are dying in falls on easier stuff.

 

Since Allen Carpe's death in 1932, eleven climbers on Denali have died in "freak accident" crevasse falls. Nine of those climbers were of Mugs's caliber and had let down their guard on lower-angled glaciers, travelling without rope, with a short rope, or with slack ropes.

--Jonathan Waterman, In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska's Mt. McKinley

 

DENALI: BIG, COLD, AND UNPREDICTABLE

 

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The combined effect of cold, wind, and altitude may well present one of the most hostile climates on Earth.

--Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

 

That sounds intimidating, and it should. It's the type of mountain where in May you can ask how bad an incoming storm looks and receive this reply:

 

...the person relaying the forecast replied with a macabre chuckle, "Well, major enough so that when it hits, everyone who's above 15,000 feet is going to die..."

 

...and they aren't kidding. You don't want to get caught in a bad storm above 16,000ft on Denali, even in June. While waiting at the 14,200ft camp I asked the rangers about the weather at 17,200ft. They said with 40-60mph winds your fortified ice walls can topple easily. Your tent can start to shred. While you're trying to rebuild your walls, blocks can be blown away just as quickly as they are put up. The rangers weren't going up there anytime soon. A Lithuanian team who camped next to us at 14,200ft did go up to 17,200ft+ during a storm, however. I imagined them crawling on their belly in a raging blizzard to retrieve a snow saw, blown out of their hands from a 70mph gust.

 

When the weather finally calmed, we met a Lithuanian party member coming down. He said his tent had been shredded at 17,200' and he had to crawl to the emergency NPS locker to get another one. He said some other things that sounded pretty bad but he had a thick accent so I didn't understand. I didn't need to though. His facial expressions and his "I survived a harsh Denali storm at 17,200' and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt" cotton t-shirt said it all.

 

Jonathan Waterman's describes one particularly bad storm that occurred while he was a park ranger on Denali:

 

Within 30 hours, more than 5 feet of snow fell at the 7,000-foot base camp; winds of 100 miles per hour hit the 14,300-foot camp. Over a month's time, 22 climber would be rescued.

 

For the next few sections I'll further describe Denali's scale and "hostile climate" while comparing it to Everest. Everest serves as the most widely accessible point of reference for "extreme" climates, so it's a good illustrative tool. Let's start with a blog entry except from someone who's climbed both mountains:

 

Quite a few people have asked me how Denali and Everest compare and they are quite extraordinarily different. Everest for the most part is far more comfortable, especially from the Nepal side. At hints of bad weather, we can escape down to base camp and drink our hot lemon teas and sit in comfy chairs. Denali in a shorter period, has a much higher work load. Overall I remember the heat of the western cwm of Everest, on Denali, in May, it's the mind numbing cold even as low as 9,000'.

--Brad Jackson Denali vs. Everest

 

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Mt. Foraker encased in a Lenticular and other storm clouds.

 

THE SCALE

 

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View of the 14,200ft camp (dots in the center frame) from around 17,000ft. Foraker is straight ahead.

 

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"David and Goliath". I face down Mt. Hunter from the Kahiltna.

 

One of the largest landforms on the planet, McKinley's hulking massif occupies 120 square miles of the earth's surface, and its summit stands more than 17,000 vertical feet above the rolling tundra at the mountain's foot. Mt. Everest, by comparison, rises a mere 12,000 feet from the plains at its base.

--Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

 

The scale in the Alaska Range is like nothing I've experienced. Walking along the lower 44-mile long Kahiltna Glacier and seeing Hunter (14,573ft), Foraker (17,402ft), Crosson (12,352ft), and of course Denali (20,237ft) rise from thousands of feet into the clouds was eye opening for me. Rainier's Emmons and Mt. Baker's Coleman glaciers all of a sudden seemed small by comparison.

 

High on the West Buttress--which is reached over a week after starting out--you can see just how tiny the 14,200ft camp looks, dwarfed by all of the massive features of rock and ice. Looking out at the vast landscape, I suddenly felt like nothing in this world: A small 35-year-old spec contemplating millions of years of large-scale geological transformations. A humbling sight.

 

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An icy ridge on Foraker. I couldn't talk anyone on the team into climbing part of this to show scale/produce an even more compelling picture.

 

THE COLD AND WIND

 

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The intense cold is, of course, another unique feature of Denali, comparable only to the Antarctic ranges. The Himalaya is tropical by comparison. On the South Col of Mount Everest (26,200 feet) in late October, the lowest temperature we recorded in 1981 was 17 degrees below zero. On Denali, this would be a rather warm night at only 14,300 feet in May and June. Temperatures between the high camp and the summit even in the middle of the summer are routinely 20 to 40 degrees below and even lower at night. This combination of extreme weather and temperature pummels the unprepared.

--Peter H. Hackett, M.D. from the preface of Surviving Denali by Jonathan Waterman

 

Having never lived in Wisconsin in winter or been the target of Don Rickles's crowd work, the extreme cold was going to be something completely new to me. Dave measured temps as cold as -38 degrees Fahrenheit. Park Rangers warned us that they see a lot of frostbite for summit attempt with wind speeds even above 20 mph. Any exposed skin can freeze almost instantly, and frostbite can permanently damage tissue.

 

I met a climber at the 7800ft camp who explained that we were lucky this year, temps-wise. Summer temps had come early in 2014. Last year his -40 degree sleeping bag caused him to shiver in early May at only 7800ft! To stay warm on the upper mountain he had to put on every single piece of clothing he carried, inside his sleeping bag. Every few hours he'd run around his tent just to keep from freezing. In his case Bradford Washburn's statement, "This kind of climbing is about 90% trying to stay alive and warm, and 10 percent climbing", was certainly true. The feeling of never being able to get warm must be one of the most miserable feelings humans can experience, at least before hypothermia arrives and warms you into death. This climber was trying the West Rib this year with a friend who had never been to Denali. They were about to make their way up the Valley of Death, and avalanche and crevasse-prone fork of the Kahiltna which leads to the base of the Rib. He must have felt spoiled this year not having to shiver so much, so early. Unfortunately the storms were the worst this year than they've been in a while.

 

Art Davidson's 1967 winter ascent of the West Buttress had his team experiencing temps as low as negative 148 degrees:

 

For a moment I experienced a keen awareness that up here the cold, surrounding us like a living thing, was waiting patiently for a chance to slip into our bodies.

 

There were nights--especially at the 14,200ft camp--that were extremely cold even without wind. Everything uncovered in our tent would become enveloped in frost. I didn't think of leaving my sleeping bag for any reason, and I really wish my pee bottle was larger. An avalanche could've been heading right for our tent and I wouldn't care. Someone could've offered me sour cream and onion Pringles and I wouldn't even...well no...I'd get out of my bag for those.

 

But the wind really made you truly cold. Whenever its icy trajectory intersected with exposed noses or cheeks it felt was like someone was slapping you--hard--in the face, while hissing loudly directly in your ear before, during, and after. I resented it. I just wanted it to stop, and I felt like each gust that knocked me off balance was a personal assault from Mother Nature. These thoughts reminded me of how egocentric we humans can be. Nature doesn't care about our feelings. Art Davidson:

 

The wind's vicious, I told myself. It's diabolical. Silently cursing it became a pastime. I tried to think of all the words that described its evil nature-- fiendish, wicked, malicious. I called it a vampire sucking the life out of us. But the wind didn't hear me, and I knew my words were irrelevant anyway. The wind wasn't malevolent; it wasn't out to get us; it had no evil intentions, nor any intentions at all. It was simply a chunk of sky moving about. It was a weather pattern, one pressure area moving into another. Still, it was more satisfying , somehow more comforting, to personify the wind, make it something I could hate or respect, something I could shout at.

 

But then the wind would be gone, and the experience on the same terrain would be altered dramatically, making it almost unrecognizable in the calm.

 

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Cloud formations resembling something a painter would put down on canvas from around 11k ft. Strong winds pick up around Foraker and the Kahiltna Dome.

 

THE EFFECTIVE ALTITUDE

 

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Denali also renders the climber more hypoxic; the barometric pressure is lower for a given altitude than on mountains closer to the equator. This difference becomes noticeable above 10,000 feet or so, and makes the summit of Denali equivalent to anywhere from 21,000 to 23,000 feet in the Himalaya (Mt. Everest is at latitude 27 degrees N), depending on weather conditions. The barometric pressure is also much lower in the winter than in the summer. Lower barometric pressure means less oxygen in the air; therefore Denali is more of a hypoxic stress and physiological challenge than one might expect for its altitude.

--Peter H. Hackett, M.D. from the preface of Surviving Denali by Jonathan Waterman

 

Altitude worried me more than cold temps. At least you have some control over your warmth via clothes selection. AMS can come out of nowhere and put you on their knees, regardless of fitness, hydration, etc. Sure you can do things to minimize your chances, but there's no guarantee.

 

Harry Karstens--the first to reach Denali's true summit--described the effect of altitude on his party:

 

The remaining 1,000 feet (300 m) went very slowly because the thin air made breathing difficult; they had to stop every few steps to catch their breath.

 

I didn't move quite that slowly, but I definitely felt like the altitude was pushing down on me--hard--as we rose higher. At both 14,200ft and 17,200ft I'd wake up in the middle of the night breathing heavily, trying to take in more oxygen. 14,200ft has half the oxygen vs. sea level, and it diminishes further climbing higher. Once I reached 19,000ft I was struggling to move continuously due to hypoxia.

 

GENERAL WORK

 

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Cecil fortifying our protective tent walls with ice blocks cut using the saw (why the saw is still sticking out of this block I don't know).

 

I spent a lot of time on the mountain packing, un-packing, putting up and taking down tents, boiling water, and making meals. I mean a lot. If you can't re-use existing camp sites with pre-built walls, etc., then you're in for many more hours of work. For me this type of manual labor is necessary, but painfully boring.

 

Brad Jackson compares the amount of work on Everest vs. Denali:

 

Without Sherpas and Yaks, I learnt a lot on Denali. The end of the day does not happen when you arrive at location. Arriving just means setting up camp and building walls. Even departing from Camp 1, it took us 5 hours to dig up our tents after a 2 day blow smothered our tents... Denali was overall colder and the workload was more constant on Denali with fewer rest days (Denali vs. Everest).

 

On the plus side I'm now great at watching water boil in pots lined with food residue.

 

THE TEAM

 

My friend Cecil invited me on this climb. His friend Dave was coordinating the expedition in September 2013 with a few of his Utah climbing buddies. Our team ended up being super strong. Very physically and mentally determined. The team was split between Utah and Seattle, but everyone made time to put in the requisite training and--with Dave at the head--we all communicated well to ensure we brought all of the right equipment, etc. The Utah guys ended up being really lighthearted and fun, but still serious and committed to making the summit safely. The team broke down as follows:

 

Dave - Team logistical coordinator who also runs a guiding company in Africa. Based in Salt Lake City. Cecil met Dave and the other two Utah guys a while ago on an Orizaba climb.

Brandon - Oncologist from Utah who runs the non-profit organization Radiating Hope which provides radiation oncology services to developing countries. Based in Salt Lake City. I climbed with Brandon in 2011 on Rainier's Disappointment Cleaver route (photos and report here) to benefit Crohn's disease and lend photographic support to his charity.

Tom - Commercial airline pilot with encyclopedic knowledge of greatest hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. Based in Salt Lake City.

Cecil - Buddy/climbing partner and recent nursing school graduate. My connection to the rest of the team. Seattle based.

Wesley - Cecil's friend who did a stint as a guide. Seattle based.

Me -Software Designer/Program Manager who photographs/makes videos with most of his spare time.

 

PREPARATION: LOGISTICS

 

Dave did a great job of pulling together the logistics required for the climb including permits, schedules, flight bookings, food, fuel and transportation, etc. We ended up going through a logistics company--Exposure Alaska--for food, fuel, van ride from Anchorage to Talkeetna, flight from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna Glacier, a steel shovel, sled rental, and some toilet paper/hand sanitizer at a cost of $1099 per person. I never did the work to figure out the cost of doing this individually, but with tight schedules across the team for prep and a quick back-of-napkin addition it seemed like a reasonably cost-effective idea. The flight alone is $585 through Talkeetna Air Taxi. The hand sanitizer alone was at least 80 cents...so you do the math.

 

The flight to Anchorage from Seattle was only $240, and we stayed at the Microtel for about $60/person (hotel was clean, served a decent breakfast, almost zero dead prostitutes in the spacious closets).

 

Less the equipment below, we're only at $1400 so far for the trip cost. The emotional/trauma-based cost of watching each team member shit into a bucket in open-air bathrooms, however, can't be measured as easily.

 

PREPARATION: CONDITIONING

 

I started running back in November, but a knee injury forced me to retire from running in March/April before I planned to run another half marathon in Vegas with my girlfriend Audrey. Following that I mostly did local conditioning hikes: Tiger Mountain's "Cable Trail", Mt. Si, Mailbox Peak, and Mt. Rainier's Camp Muir. I tried to get out 1x/week. Most of the time I wouldn't bring much weight, but as we got closer to May 2014 I did a lot of heavily weighted hikes (60-70 pounds). I supplemented all of this with frequent mountain bike rides (I have a 12 mile loop that gains a lot of elevation). I also played scrabble with specially-weighted letters that were harder to pick up and move onto the board.

 

I never got an actual "climb" in the whole time, which was unfortunate, but I ended up being in pretty solid shape. At least I told myself that each time I flexed in the mirror after doing 3 pull-ups nightly. More specific training around sled pulling could have helped further, but sled pulling sucks and I hate it, so overall my training plan worked out in my favor.

 

PREPARATION: PROVISIONS/EQUIPMENT

 

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Most the equipment I brought to Denali (minus snow shoes in favor of skis). This doesn't include the food/fuel we picked up in Anchorage. I'd end up pulling most of this in a sled and putting the rest on my back.

 

The core set of personal equipment is easy to check based on gear lists provided publicly by all guide companies (e.g. RMI, AAI, IMG, etc). At the base it's essentially everything you'd bring on a local cascades alpine climb, but more + warmer/stronger stuff.

Expanding on "more + warmer/stronger stuff", below are the differences and some opinions/lessons-learned on each subject.

 

FOOD

 

Contrary to popular belief, you can't just bring a crossbow on the mountain and hunt polar bear for sustenance. First off, crossbows also require arrows, which are expensive. Secondly, there are no bears of any kind on the route. Hence you need to bring food with you, and you need to bring a lot of it. 1kg (2.2 lbs) per person, per day. For 15 days that's ~33 lbs of food.

 

The logistics company was a great time-saver in this department, but--in hindsight only--I would've procured all of my own food. You should only bring stuff you'll love, and I personally like my food as simple as possible in terms of prep + clean-up. The logistics company included food I'd never eat (so extra weight), and some of the preparations were a little too involved. In the mountains the last thing I want to do at the end of a rough day is go through an elaborate cooking process. I almost always just want to eat quickly and sleep. Or eat quickly and climb in the morning. Again I only came to this conclusion after going through the experience.

 

I hate doing dishes in my regular life, so "cleaning" and re-using pots (that were never completely clean) was painful. I still cleaned dutifully and got used to it. My tolerance for reduced sanitization and hygiene increased every day, but once off that mountain I went immediately back to my germ-a-phobic, picky ways that annoy more hardened people. Actually I didn't even wait until I was off the mountain. A gummy ring Brandon threw me on the last day hit the snow before my hand. I gave it to Tom after he made fun of me.

 

I'd definitely bring a pot dedicated to "just water" for simplicity/cleanliness. I'd also bring more tang, etc. to make the water more desirable. You need to drink a lot of it, sometimes it's hard.

 

Art Davidson talks about having a breakfast of cheese, salami, and candy during his winter ascent. This is more my style as there isn't any dishes, cooking to be done, and it still taste great. Bagels and cream cheese were also good, and I could've done with more oatmeal, something I can eat everything morning without getting tired of it.

 

For lunch you definitely want to keep food handy and warm:

 

To make our lunches edible it had become necessary to carry the candy bars, sausage, and cheese close to the heat of our bodies to thaw out their rocklike consistency.

--Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

 

It's sort of a rule in the Cascades, but with the extreme cold of Denali it's pretty critical. Dave chipped a tooth on a frozen Snickers, a story I'm considering submitting to the 2014 Accidents in North American Mountaineering annual publication. After I tell people this chipped tooth story, they typically ask me how Dave's funeral went, e.g. was the catering was good? Was there swearing in the eulogy? Etc. Believe it or not, he actually survived the Snickers-chipped-tooth incident!

 

Ok onto water - you really need to bring a lot of it. 3 weeks worth, so about 84 liters. I'm kidding you melt snow, but you should start out with 2-3 liters, unless you want to walk 40 feet on the Kahiltna after leaving the plane, get thirsty, then have to unpack your stove and melt a bunch of water while the plane waits for you to get out of the way. This actually happened to us. No it didn't, but we all almost got on the plane without filling our bottles in the ranger station sink. I saved the day here (holds for applause).

 

A final point on keeping things simple with regard to food: The NPS Denali booklet quotes from Joseph Wilcox's diary on "lassitude", or lack of motivation that can occur in high altitude environment. Joseph Wilcox's 1967 party was involved in one of the worst accidents in the mountain's history. More on that later.

 

With five people crammed in the tent, morale decreased rapidly. There was no interest in cooking meals and by the next day no one was even interested in melting drinking water. We found ourselves very apathetic...not caring whether or not we got enough to eat or if our gear was wet...we just lay there and waited with little or no sleep...by the morning the cold had taken its toll...Jerry Lewis and I had numb feet and I had numb fingers.

 

FUEL AND STOVES

 

Stoves keep you alive and hydrated. You spend a large chunk of time on the mountain watching a pot boil (it still boils if you watch it, I tested this about 30 times throughout the trip). We brought a gallon of fuel per person (~6 lbs). I love my MSR Reactor stove, but for Denali you have to bring fickle white gas stoves like the MSR WhisperLite or DragonFly. We had two WhisperLites and one DragonFly. I really hate these stoves vs. something like the Reactor due to abysmal ease-of-use, but they're more reliable in the extreme cold and higher altitudes. Plus they allow you to avoid bringing dozens of propane canisters. That said I did see some people with Jet Boils. In this

(Andy Houseman and Nick Bullock), I believe you see them using a Reactor, albeit they are going light/fast up a technical route in a very short amount of time.

 

I asked the rangers at the 14,200ft. camp what they thought of the Reactor-type stoves. They said propane-based stoves don't work consistently/reliably in the cold, you can get frostbite just trying to light them, and you end up with bags of empty canisters. Needless to say our white gas stoves ended up working pretty well, and I became somewhat proficient with Cecil's WhisperLite. The biggest tip here is to bring a spare pump. We had one break, and despite having multiple stove repair kits, we did not have a spare pump. Because we had 3 stoves though it wasn't a disaster, but a stove is obviously your lifeline to hydration.

 

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Our first "night" at the 7800ft. camp. As the trip progressed there was less and less psuedo darkness. Boiling water and cooking seemed to take up a significant chunk of the total trip time.

 

TENT

 

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Brandon taking care of some camp chores near his tent.

 

The 2-pound, 2-person or 4-pound, 3-person tents used in fair-weather Cascade climbs won't work on Denali. You have to get something heavy (11 pounds+) like the Mountain Hardware Trangos, the top-shelf Hillebergs, or the tent I bought, the Eddie Bauer Katabatic 3-Person tent. These types of tents will withstand the potentially fierce 50 MPH + winds and hold/shed the several feet of snowfall you'll face throughout the trip. The Eddie Bauer tent did fine and had plenty of room for 2 bigger guys. That said I guess I've been spoiled by Hilleberg's design which allows the inner tent + fly up at the same time. It saves a lot of time. Like my food, the last thing I want to do at the end/beginning of the day is take more time than necessary to put up/take down a tent, which you'll do a dozen times. The ideal Denali tent is probably something like the Hilleberg Nammatj GT or the Staika, which was used on the ill-fated early season Muldrow Glacier expedition earlier this year. I haven't used either though, so take that with some salt grains.

 

STEEL SPADE SHOVEL

 

You need it...in addition to your aluminum shovels. It breaks through the hard stuff when building camp. It also can become critical if you need to build an emergency shelter. Read about this accident on Pig Hill from 2012 where someone died and a guiding company almost lost their license to guide on Denali--in part--because their group did not bring a spade shovel for their summit push. Also--of course--read -148 Degrees to familiarize yourself with the epic snow shelter built by Art Davidson's team on Denali Pass that saved their lives.

 

The spade shovel can also be used as a second tool on the steeper, icier terrain you'll find on the Cassin or West Rib. OK, no it can't.

 

WARM CLOTHES

 

I brought two down coats (one big - Eddie Bauer Peak XV, one lighter - OR Incandescent Hoody), some down pants (Feathered Friends Volant), and multiple warm mid/base layers. Quite a few people were wearing one-piece down suits, which seemed like overkill/less flexible, but I guess you can't predict the weather. Some people also just run super cold. My setup worked perfectly for this trip. As mentioned previously, I did talk to a climber at our first camp who did the West Buttress last year in early May. He said it was so cold he had to put all of his clothes on in his -40 degree sleeping bag to stay warm down low. In 2014 the mountain was a couple weeks ahead in terms of warmth (meaning this year's June 1 felt like last year's June 14th or 21st). I didn't wear the heavy down coat up high, but I had on a lot of mid-layers, the lighter down coat, and kept moving.

 

The main thing I took away, however, is to bring less clothes to save weight/bulk. I mostly wore the same thing. If you get wool the odor isn't a big deal. I'd avoid bringing "changes" of clothes. Just bring enough to keep warm in one layer system. Also pastels and brighter colors are currently "in", something to consider very seriously when selecting clothing. That said I'd check fashion blogs beforehand and these things can change rapidly each season.

 

The day you change your underwear will be a happy day (typically 5-7 days in). Definitely bring 1-2 extra pairs unless you hate yourself and everyone around you. If you do hate yourself and everyone around you, one-pair is fine.

 

Final tip is to bring 2-pairs of medium weight "long johns", vs. one medium and one expedition weight. It's more flexible, less weight. For up high you just wear both.

 

Gloves? I brought my OR Alti Mitts for up high, my Raab Ice Gauntlets when it wasn't frostbite-y cold, a couple pairs of lighter weight liner gloves. I also brought these moo cow print gardening gloves for the plane rides and for just hanging around camp looking for fellow gardeners. All worked well.

 

SLEEPING BAG

 

I went with the -30 degree Eddie Bauer Karakorum -30 Stormdown bag. Worked just fine, but I'd rather have a waterproof bag. The down in this bag is water resistant I guess, but why would you want to get the nylon all soaked through in the first place? You get a lot of condensation in the tent and a couple times the temps rose and the snow would turn to water once it landed anywhere. It would just be nicer to have a fully waterproof bag, just in case. You never know, you might sit on Cecil's pad and pop his pee bottle that was carelessly left underneath inside the tent at 17,200' on June 4th at exactly 11:33 PM. Hypothetically speaking.

 

BOOTS/OVERBOOTS

 

I bought the La Sportiva Baruntses a couple years ago for a Rainier winter ascent that never happened. After spending a lot of money on custom orthotics and going through 2 boot fitters to bend/stretch the sidewalls, I could finally wear them without significant hot spots. If they fit like the Nepal Evos I would've had zero problems, but they don't for whatever reason. The Spantiks (probably the ideal Denali boot) don't come in my size. A lot of people had the single boot systems you see on 8000m peaks like Everest. The Millet Everest GTX or the Sportiva Olympus Mons Evo were pretty common. Like the one-piece down suits these seemed much less flexible and probably hot on the lower mountain. This probably meant wet, sweaty, blister-prone feet. One UK military team was pulling these out of boxes at the airport. They looked unworn - a bad sign. Maybe these integrated boots make sense if you have feet that get really cold, really easily, or you're doing an early May ascent.

 

I also brought ski boots (lightweight Sportiva Spitfires) to the 11,000ft camp and cached them with my skis. For overboots I went with the Forty Below K2 Superlights, which I only wore on summit day and they worked just fine. I didn't have a big problem with cold feet at any point, but again weather was warmer compared to previous years. Sometimes I'd get cold toes after standing around too long up high, but nothing serious (I cried a little, but you couldn't tell with my goggles on). At least one other climber named Andy did get frostbite on a big toe, but he's doing OK now.

 

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Standing alone on the edge of the rocky cliffs just outside of the 17,200ft camp. The 14,200ft camp is seen as a cluster of dots 3k feet below.

 

SKIS

 

I didn't want to buy expensive, new ski boots just for this climb, so I decided to follow Cecil's lead: Bring what I had and cache it lower, then carry my mountaineering boots in the sled. This worked out nicely. I own the La Sportiva GT skis with the tiny, weight negligible Sportiva RT bindings (< 8lbs total). If I were to do it again I probably would've brought the skis up to the 14,200ft camp as you can run laps in nice, dry powder from 14,200-15,200ft. A lot of skiers did exactly this and I was jealous. On our descent the whole mountain was covered in fresh powder, so it would've been nice to ski it some more of it. Motorcycle and Squirrel Hill with a sled may have been awkward to descend, however.

 

SLED

 

Strap a bunch of cord to a plastic kid sled and you're good. The sled was annoying skiing down from 11k, but not too bad. PVC pipe may have been nicer to keep the sled from trying to pass me on the steeper stuff. Overall pulling the sled did really suck. It's just a lot of weight, especially on steeper sections like Motorcycle Hill and the icier sections of Squirrel Hill (11-12.5k feet). Sleds would tip over on Windy corner and even find their way into crevasses, but you could mostly just muscle through it. We were all pretty happy to get to the 14,200ft camp where we knew our sleds would hibernate until we went down again. The way down wasn't fun either, but it went by pretty quickly.

 

TIP: Don't try to ride your sled down the 15,000-16,000ft 50-60 degree blue ice headwall, even if dared with taunting chicken noises. Use the fixed lines instead. Reinhold Messner supposedly learned this lesson the hard way.

 

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Cecil pulling a sled as we move up the Kahiltna glacier toward the 11k camp. We were all pretty overjoyed to finally be rid of our sleds at the 14k camp in a few days.

 

BACKPACK

 

I had a custom 100L+ Dan McHale pack made a couple years ago to help haul all of the photography/video equipment I bring on climbs. It worked nicely for this climb. You want a bigger pack for flexibility IMO, especially for things like split cache carries. A couple people had smaller packs and it can limit what you can carry. I used this 10oz 25L pack for the summit push from 17,200ft (and as a stuff sack before that) - worked out nicely.

 

AVALANCHE GEAR

 

There was dissension within the group on whether to bring transceivers. Avalanche fatalities on this route--while not common--have occurred and there are plenty of avy slopes plus falling snow to load them (Motorycle Hill, Squirrel Hill, headwall below the Buttress, smaller slopes on the Buttress, Denali Pass, above Denali pass, Pig Hill). I didn't have a strong enough opinion here based on the available West Buttress avy data to put stakes in the ground on transceivers. We ended up lightening our heavy loads by leaving them at home, for better or worse.

 

OTHER GEAR

 

We brought a 50m and a 60m rope, a couple GPSs with topo maps/route info loaded, a few pots for cooking, a picket/screw each, a couple snow saws, a shovel each, probes, and we rented a sat phone.

 

I made limited use of the sat phone, and found a kindred spirit here in Jonathan Waterman while re-reading "In the Shadow of Denali":

 

Although we did keep our friends and family informed, contact with the outside world depressed us. Mountaineering involves a necessary isolation, and, once broken, the lurid fantasies of showers, hot meals, and the opposite sex ravaged us as cleanly as a subarctic tempest.

 

It was still nice to check-in with Audrey as she updated me on local mountaineering fatalities just before my summit attempt.

 

DRUGS

 

I brought Ambien, Diamox, and Cipro, Sunny D, and some purple stuff. The Ambien worked great. It allowed me to sleep at night despite noise. There shouldn't be any shame in taking Diamox. You can't train altitude sickness away, people are just affected differently even when all things are equal (fitness, hydration/satiation, acclimatization schedules). You aren't stronger because you don't feel the effects of altitude, you might just be lucky.

 

As the storm continued, trade in critical supplies became brisk and cutthroat. Expeditions with an abundance of some particularly valuable commodity like toilet paper, cigarettes, Diamox (a medication to prevent altitude sickness), or Tiger's Milk bars found increasingly favorable rates of exchange. I had to trade away an entire half-pound of Tillamook cheese to secure three Diamox tablets.

--Jon Krakauer. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

 

Thankfully I didn't need the Cipro. I should've also brought antacids as I developed a bad case of acid reflux at 14,200ft. It got even worse as I ascended further. This doesn't happen to me in regular life. Tom was nice enough to spare some of his Tums. He also was generous with Imodium AD which serves to purposely constipate you, preventing inopportune defecation urges. The team also had Dexamethasone, but thankfully no one needed it. Although on those really cold mornings an injection would've probably helped us leave the tent.

 

Ibuprofen was also used a lot to manage various sources of pain, some emotional.

 

PERSONAL GEAR/CLOTHES

 

The rest of the gear is standard personal stuff you'd bring on a 1-2 day cascades climb.

 

PEE BOTTLE/WASTE DISPOSAL

 

Based on some advice from a colleague I brought a 1.5L collapsible Nalgene. I would even go bigger next time. To quote Barbara Walters, "bring a huge pee bottle if you ever climb Denali". Getting out of tent in the middle of the night in a storm is the last thing you ever want to do. I usually go 2-3 times per night, even at home. The 1.5L I believe only gets you 2.

 

For solid waste we intended to bring two CMCs (Clean Mountain Cans) provided by the ranger station, but we ended up with only one. Someone left one on the Ranger Station's front porch area. Handling solid waste matters--or "taking a shit" as some would say--was probably the single worst part of the trip for me. We all shared this really thin, shitty (pun intended), biodegradable bags that would fill up in about 6-7 goes. The designated bathroom areas were often fully "completely open to the elements, that had an inspiring view but left tender flesh dangerously exposed to the full brunt of a windchill" (Krakauer, Eiger Dreams...this hasn't changed since 1987 it seems).

 

PREPARATION: PHOTOGRAPHY

 

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The midnight sun on the West Buttress ridge.

 

The incredible stillness, immensity, and remoteness of the world that only the three of us inhabited gave me the notion that we were stopping for a moment in a fairytale. Something magical about the ice and rock and sky seemed about to disappear. I tried to grasp an impression of the forms and colors around us, because I feared they would suddenly vanish, to be recalled only with the vagueness of a dream half remembered, like a memory from earliest childhood.

--Art Davidson, Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

 

The primary difference in preparation here vs. a shorter Cascade climb was around power and storage. I ended up getting the Sherpa 50 Solar kit to charge my Canon batteries. I also brought 5-6 extra batteries. For storage I brought a combination of SD/CF cards totaling over 500GB in storage.

 

I ended up using 2 batteries for the entire trip, and never changed out a card. Reasons? When the weather was good, we were moving. When the weather was bad, there wasn't anything to capture. My idea of 1-2 time-lapses every day? Didn't come close. So I carried a lot of extra weight, but you never know, the weather could've been great 7 days in a row in which case I may have taken much more video/time-lapse footage. Also there is never really any darkness during Alaskan summers, so you aren't doing battery-draining long exposures.

 

I brought my heavy Canon 5D MKIII and my trusty 16-35 f2.8 and 70-200 f4 (no IS) lenses. I should've brought an extra lens cap, however. Mine fell hundreds of feet down on the fixed lines. I missed some great shots later as my front element froze. If someone finds the lens cap somewhere in a crevasse below the headwall, please return it.

 

Camera-geek talk sidebar: I'm looking forward to the lighter weight, full-frame mirror-less systems to offer more ultra-wide zooms and work out their kinks. The Sony A7R looks like a huge step forward, but it was too new/un-tested to rent and bring on a 3-week expedition. Plus there isn't a smaller, lighter ultra-wide zoom lens which I require. Weight + bulk savings would've been nice though.

 

PREPARATION: LITERATURE

 

It looks like the CascadeClimbers post max-length ends here. For the rest of the story and pictures see my blog.

 

To just look at all of the pictures (80 total)/captions, go here.

Edited by lukeh

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wow, what a bible :)

 

but you left out the most important item in your drug section! :toad::)

 

no pictures of the tremendous piss-flowers at 17k after storms? my favorite memory :)

IMG068_gallery.jpg

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I was going to read a novel this afternoon but replaced it with this TR. And it has pictures. I am glad I switched. Bad weather in tents stimulates the thought process, eh? And geographically Denali is higher than it looks because the earth is an oblate spheroid. Plus its relief is greater than many higher mountains from the start. These are facts that will not attract a date at your next party most likely.

 

Anyway, great TR and thanks.

Edited by matt_warfield

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"I also played scrabble with specially-weighted letters that were harder to pick up and move onto the board."

 

 

I think this is the critical component to the success of your trip. Thanks for the report and photos!

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I think this may be one of the most well written and photographed TRs on the site! Thanks Luke, a fantastic report and climb.

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Thanks all

Ivan - yes the piss flowers are a fond memory - a video montage of various shots of them with Barbra Streisand singing "Memories" would be pretty cool.

Matt - i know huh - the text alone was over 30 pages in my Word doc. sharing those facts at a party could be a good vetting process for attracting the right kind of date, maybe.

Jason - thanks a lot - That's a great compliment.

 

 

 

Edited by lukeh

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Awesome TR Luke, thanks! Great pictures...gotta love the Mark III, I have abused the hell out of mine and it is still cranking. I haven't frozen it yet though!

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Could you say a bit about carrying your camera gear? I've used a LowePro holster with a hand warmer in it clipped onto my shoulder strap because I can't stand carrying it around my neck. I guess Luc Mehl (thingstolucat.com) uses a dry bag style holster clipped across his chest. What did you use? I was curious about blowing snow being forced through the zipper, or fogging, or other issues you encountered over the long trip.

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Could you say a bit about carrying your camera gear? I've used a LowePro holster with a hand warmer in it clipped onto my shoulder strap because I can't stand carrying it around my neck. I guess Luc Mehl (thingstolucat.com) uses a dry bag style holster clipped across his chest. What did you use? I was curious about blowing snow being forced through the zipper, or fogging, or other issues you encountered over the long trip.

 

I can say a bit about that. This applies to Cannon and Nikon cameras I don't know about the rest. Point and shoot batteries are a disaster on cold mountains and usually fail after about 2 shots on cold days. First off you don't need to keep an SLR warm. It does not get cold enough on Denali for cameras to fail mechanically. If you are using Cannon or Nikon you really don't need to worry too much about keeping batteries warm. I have not had any issues. You loose a little bit of battery power, but its not a great deal. You don't need dry bags or waterproof bags on Denali. Its too cold. If you get snow on your camera leave it in the sun for a bit and it will sublimate. I use a lowe pro bag clipped on the waste belt of my pack and it works fine. If you get a little fogging in your lens take it off and leave it in the sun. It will dry out.

 

To put it simply shooting on mount baker in the summer is much more difficult than shooting on Denali.

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It does not get cold enough on Denali for cameras to fail mechanically. If you are using Cannon or Nikon you really don't need to worry too much about keeping batteries warm.

 

Never would have guessed that though it makes total sense from the environments I've shot in.

 

And for the original post, this is an amazing TR that truly has me thinking about some of those long term goals and realities. Thank you for sharing, even if I'm 6 months late to reply!

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