Hailed as more difficult to summit than Everest, Denali is widely regarded as the most underestimated mountain in the world. Being in North American and therefore there being an absence of minimum wage Nepalese Sherpa’s to carry equipment and gear, the true challenge of Denali lays in the endurance required to even reach the point on the mountain where you can start to think about a summit attempt. This is before you consider the fact that the mountain sits alarming close to the Arctic Circle. Due to its proximity to the North Pole and subsequently thinner atmosphere than over the Himalayas, the mountaineering community generally agree that if Everest was located where Denali is, then it would be unclimbable. With a narrow climbing season than spans from May to July, just over 1000 climbers had registered to try their luck in 2017 however as of the midpoint in the season (and our expeditions start date) the success rate was sitting at 22%, leaving a vast number of climbers defeated. Reports had come down from the upper mountain that 100% of those that had pushed to camp 4 at 17,000ft in May had suffered permanent injuries from frost bite. However, we were the ‘Awesome 6’ and we would be different. Right?
After meeting the group and preparing our gear we took our seats in a DeHavilland Otter aircraft operated by the Talkeetna Air Taxi service; a company name so casual that it would indicate its flights are rudimentary and perhaps boring. As the plane reached the Alaskan Range and dived down on to the snow for a bumpy glacier landing, it was clear we were in for an experience that was about as far from rudimentary or boring as you could get. Within 45 mins we had been transported from the picturesque touristy town of Talkeetna with all its civilized luxuries to an isolated alpine glacier surrounded by enormous mountains towering above us intimidatingly.
Although warned before the flight, none of us could truly appreciate the greeting we were about to receive from the enormously powerful sun and its reflection off the glacier. Due to the exceptionally clean air and atmosphere above, the extreme UV rays are immediately apparent. So strong in fact that sun cream must be applied every 1-2 hours and your entire body must be covered (including your face and hands) whenever the sun is up. An arduous task given that during the summer months in Alaska, the sun is up for 18 hours and even when it sets it only dips just below the horizon and never gets dark. Anyone who knows me would know that I can be sunburned by the moon, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when my nostrils, tongue and even the roof of my mouth became sunburned after a few days. We all donned our classy nose guards which are something of a fashion accessory on Denali however often promptly removed them prior to any photos being taken.
We all energetically set about packing down a site for our tents in the snow, digging out an area for a kitchen tent and learning Denali’s strict SOP for the toilet. In an attempt to keep Denali the world’s cleanest big mountain, all #1’s must be made at a designated location at each of the five camp sites on the mountain and all #2’s must be conducted into a small can owned by each team and disposed of in designated cavasses. The Denali Park Service offer a special gift to any team that elects to bring their entire supply of #2’s off the mountain and back to Talkeetna however to date no team has achieved the prestigious award.
After a few hours of sleep we packed up and started moving towards camp 1 with our entire loads in the night while the glacier was well frozen and hard. My load was roughly 55 kg which was distributed between a large back pack and a duffle bag loaded on a sledge. Instinct would be to load up your sledge with most of the weight however in fresh snow conditions a heavy sledge is a nightmare to control and puts enormous strain on your hips including muscles that none of us had thought to train. As the terrain for the next several days would be glacial, the hazard of continuously crossing hidden crevasses would exist as a risk that we could only mitigate rather than avoid all together. So each of us would rope up to two other people and travel in a line separated by 7-8 meters. The theory being that if one person falls through a snow bridge and into a crevasse then the other two would heroically arrest in the snow and prevent the now terrified climber from falling into the eternally hungry depths of the glacier. Travelling roped up for glacier travel is far from enjoyable. Firstly, everyone is separated by 7-8 meters, and so conversation is impossible. Secondly, regulating your own pace so that you are not too slow and thus jerking on the climber ahead and not too fast and slacking the rope which will increase the fall awaiting your colleague should he/she place a foot wrong, is exhausting. After hours of moving together roped up (and we did this exclusively for the entire 17 days while on the mountain) it is not uncommon to lose focus and step on the rope in front of you. A seemly innocent mistake can have dire consequences as a sharp point of your crampons can easily pierce the load bearing core of the rope and render it incapable of supporting a fall while the outer layer of the rope appears unaffected. Many climbers overcome the headache of travelling roped together by ‘cleverly’ simply not travelling roped together. This gained shocking relevance during the night as an un-roped Czech climber fell into a crevasse 50m from where we were sleeping at camp 1. He free fell 20 meters until his luck changed and the crevasse narrowed thoroughly wedging him in blue ice in a right state. Our guides initiated the rescue and were joined by the Park Service after 4 hours who came with chain saws, blow torches and a pneumatic chisel from the Talkeetna Fire brigade to attempt to dig out >1000 year old ice around the climber and recovering him alive after 17 hours. Perhaps unfortunately for him, he was 110 hours short of a movie deal.
Moving between each of the successive camps would be a 3-4 day process. On the first day, we would take a number of items such as summit gear and food to cache/bury in the snow roughly 75% of the way towards the next camp, on the second day we would pack up tents etc. and move all remaining gear to the next camp and then on the third day we would descend and retrieve our cache. A staggeringly drawn out process to move my 55kg of gear such short distances. We often then had a rest day depending on the frequency of grumbles and moans from team members during the previous few days.
Regulating body temperature while on the mountain is a highly underestimated skill that is often overlooked until it is too late and discomfort turns to something more serious. Standing still in the camp, especially in the mornings, can be freezing cold and warrant 5-6 layers, however once the sun hits the camp and particularly once we started moving with packs on, 1-2 layers is usually ideal. Anything more and sweat pours off your face onto the inside of your glasses and soaks your precious base layers. Soaked base layers are a precursor to a chill once you stop and the cold air cools your sweat. Removing layers once the team has started moving is highly discouraged as due to being roped together this involves the entire team of nine stopping while you remove a jacket. The trick is to start the days climbing a little cold and then to have multiple items that can be taken on and off when wearing a harness and pack while on the move such as a beanie, a buff and for the more advanced user, a jacket. Additionally to the suns credit it could really bake the contents of a tent to the point where I would often be overheating while laying down inside wearing only boxer shorts while it snowed and blizzard outside.
On day 8 we moved around the infamous Windy Corner, which is the final stretch before reaching camp 3 at 14,000ft. Living up to its reputation, we were blasted with frigid artic wind as we rounded a bluff and became exposed to a high speed stream of air that is the result of a convergence at the top of a bowl. With wind chill temperatures plummeted to -40°C. Faces are often frost bitten around Windy Corner as climbers are taken by surprise by Denali offering its first introduction as the notoriously cold mountain.
We rolled into Camp 3 and were greeted by dozens of teams that were preparing to descend sighting a poor weather forecast, inevitably reducing our comfort levels with regards to the prospect of going higher in the coming days. With news that no one had summited Denali in the last 8 days and a bleak outlook, my arrogant confidence that we would surely be in the 22% (current success rate) started to falter.
Some team members were starting to show kinks in their armor and the guides allocated a rest day, a frustrating proposition when I was feeling strong as ever. The sport of mountaineering may appear to be an extreme, adrenaline loaded and often exhausting escapade and I wouldn’t argue with that however it also involves a great deal of rest, restraint and patience. Athletes are often the most venerable to altitude related illnesses as they are psychologically conditioned to train and perform under a level of fatigue and at times push themselves to exhaustion and beyond. In the mountains (as I will detail in the next blog) this can be a deadly recipe and a considerable portion of accidents can be attributed to a climber ignoring their body’s subtle indications of fatigue. However allocating rests while en route conflicts aggressively with aspirations to go after the extreme experience a climber has mentally expected and prepared for, so far easier said than done. So, respecting the acclimatization process as well as the need to rest and restore strength, we spent a total of 5 nights at Camp 3 waiting on a weather window that justified moving up to the high camp at 17,000ft and on to the serious business.