Thursday, July 5, 2012

14 days on Denali, the Great One

So happy be back home by the lake, basking in the sun and resting the legs after an awesome couple of weeks in the Alaska range.  The mountains surrounding Denali are so spectacular, it was impossible to pull the camera out and not end up with a couple of keepers.  Below are the highlights, some because of the dramatic scenery and others because of the fun stories that they come with.  Thanks Zeb, Jeb and Matt for a super fun trip and helping to make a longtime goal a reality.

Matt walking across the tarmac at Talkeetna airport, excited to be flying after a day waiting for the weather!

The flight into the airstrip on the Kahiltna glacier almost overshadowed the climbing experience.  A lifetime of climbing and skiing played out just a few hundred feet outside the windows of our DeHavilland Otter skiplane.  We all felt the way Zeb looks, tough to wipe the smiles off our faces.  The airstrip was in some ways high-tech (a permanent basecamp manager with a satphone and aviation radio gave weather reports, scheduled flights, and played air traffic controller) and then felt awesomely informal (the airstrip was marked by half-buried kiddie sleds, the same ones we dragged food in!).

Our basecamp experience was brief, and within an hour of landing on the glacier we had saddled up our loads (~125lbs apiece of food, goose down and climbing gear).  The weather perfectly embodied the saying "if you don't like the weather, wait an hour".  During our first day of trekking across the glacier, we experienced 3 separate snowstorms along with wind and perfect bluebird clear skies.

The higher we got on glacier, the more dramatic our surrounding became.  This icefall just below Kahiltna Pass was like many we saw, glacier ice seems to stick to any face shallower than vertical up there.

The only way to get water on the glacier is to melt snow . . . lots of snow.  Thanks to GSI for hooking us up with an awesome cook system, the 5L pot was clutch for making the kind of water we needed,  light for its size, and the rest of the cook kit was nicely designed and built.

One of the coolest features of being as far north as we were was that the sun never went down.  Light all the time was awesome for climbing and a bit weird for sleeping, but the bonus was that the "magic hour" of alpenglow lasted for like 4 hours in the middle of the night!  This sunset (sunrise?) is really just the sun going behind the mountain.

The second day of the approach was one of the hardest of the trip.  Motorcycle and Squirrel hills block the way from from 11,200' camp to Windy Corner at around 13,000'.  Back home these two climbs wouldn't seem so daunting, but with thin air in our lungs and heavy sleds pulling back with every step, we all found ourselves doubled over and sucking wind.

After two days of slogging with heavy packs, it felt great to rest our legs and build a snow fort!  Jeb installing snow bricks to protect our cook tent from wind and snow.
Camp built, we raised the pirate flag and enjoyed balmy 14k camp weather and views of Mt. Foraker.  When the weather or schedule doesn't call for climbing, 14 camp is a great place to hang out.  Tons of like-minded climbers milling about and big mountain features in every direction meant there was rarely a dull moment.

We spent several days climbing to lower elevation landmarks to acclimate and have some killer pow skiing after the multiple 12-24" dumps that discouraged climbing on the upper mountain.  Here, Zeb makes pretty turns on the lower Orient Express, 14 camp is visible on the right and Windy Corner is the pass at the top center of the photo.

When the weather wasn't so nice for sunbathing, our cook tent was the hangout of choice.  We were lucky enough to have Mark and Janelle Smiley as neighbors.  These guys cook some mean blueberry pancakes, and are also total cardsharks.  They were in Alaska working on their project to climb every one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.  Check out more at

Fed, acclimated, and rested, we were ready for a summit push!  Packing summit packs was exciting for everyone, and along with crampons, axes, rope gear and warm clothes, our packs all carried a hefty supply of Clif food.  Clif styled us out with a healthy collection of bars, gels and shot bloks and they were great for keeping the energy up and being quick to get calories in on the go.  Thanks Clif guys!

After a couple of false starts, the weather finally cooperated and we were off on our summit push!  The most beautiful and exciting part of the route is the ridge traverse (the actual West Buttress that the route is named for) from 16'000' to the camp at 17k.  Conditions were perfect for moving fast, and we made good time.

Jeb cruising on the buttress with the Peters glacier behind.

A couple of teams had been pinned at 17k camp due to weather.  When we rolled in, we could see that they had made the most of their free time by building impressive walls and snow sculptures.  We stopped and were grateful to an RMI team for lending us their tent to warm our toes before pressing on.

At 17 camp, the Smileys caught us up and brought some welcome energy and vibes before they took off at a pace that we couldn't hold.  Nice work guys!

The next pitch was the infamous Autobahn, although instead of scary ice we were lucky enough to encounter powder snow with a great bootpack.  Here, the team making headway towards Denali pass.

After Denali pass, the cold and altitude hit our team pretty hard.  We put our heads down and "suffered well" for a few hours, and were finally rewarded with the view up the heavily corniced summit ridge to the summit.

The summit ridge seemed to roll into one false summit after another, but we huffed and puffed and rambled on.  I promise Zeb, this false summit is the real one!

Here we are, the roof of North America!  After hearing report after report of high winds and brutal cold, we enjoyed perfect calm weather and the Alaska Range laid out in every direction.  Nice work fellas!

The first couple of thousand feet were tricky windboard and crust, but we carefully navigated down, happy to have been able to ski off the summit.  Here we are traversing below Archdeacon's Tower towards the reward we know is waiting, powder on the Autobahn face (Fantasy face, maybe?)

And after all the hard work, high altitude powder skiing!  

Mirczak, making it look good for all the ladies down at 17 camp.

At 17 camp, we switched back to crampons as the evening alpenglow swept over the peaks around us. Zeb gives a triumphant salute with his axe before walking down towards food and celebratory whiskey.

Beautiful, glowing peaks provided distraction from the descent.  We couldn't have had better summit conditions, so fortunate that the waiting paid off.

After our long summit day, what better way to recharge than burritos!  The Smiley's brought over their Thanksgiving dinner, and we gorged on stuffing-mashed-potato-gravy-bean-rice-guacamole burritos that would have made any fusion cuisine chef proud.

Well-fed and rested, our team was itching for more skiing.  With just a few days left before our flight out, we once again started climbing, pointing our skis towards the Orient Express couloir near the West Rib.  As we passed under the Messner couloir, Zeb and I liked the look of conditions above us so we split the team, two teams of two, each heading for one of the classic ski lines on Denali.

The setting of the Messner is amazing, sustained and steep enough to keep us on our toes, but great climbing snow conditions kept it manageable at the same time.  As the day progressed, clouds started to build below and billow around us.  The prospect of descending such a big line in a whiteout was enough to convince Zeb and I that it was time to turn the skis downhill, but we had a great time skiing from just above the hourglass rock choke of the couloir.

The snow in the Messner was firm but chalky enough for confident turns, as Zeb shows off just below the crux constriction.

Zeb making turns on the lower apron of the Messner, with unsettled Alaska Range weather looming below.

Matt Paul fired up after his and Jeb's ski of the lower Orient Express.  An awesome cap to a great trip, we were all grinning and ready to ski towards home.

After a packing up and starting the descent, we ended up caught in a storm for almost 24 hours at Windy Corner.  As one might guess from the name, this is one of the prime camping locations in the Denali area.  After catching up on some reading in our tents, the storm finally broke and the fresh snow was a blessing in disguise!  The lower glacier was frozen solid for safe travel, and had a dusting of snow that made for a serene, almost silent glide down the glacier, surrounded by beautiful peaks and lit by midnight sun.  We pulled into base camp in awe, just in time to brew a cup of coffee and catch the first flight back to Talkeetna.

From our vantage in the airplane, we could follow the whole lifecycle of the glacier in fast-motion.  The lower sections with less snowfall became dramatically crevassed, eventually giving way to dirty, dry glacier and then forested river valley.

As the ground elevation fell away below us, we saw where all that glacier meltwater was going.  The lush green drainages of the Susitna river valley, where Talkeetna is nestled at the confluence of the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna rivers.

We were four happy climbers just off the airplane, enjoying the simple pleasure of t-shirt and flippy-floppy weather.  And headed for a BIG breakfast.

The famous FULL standard breakfast served at the Roadhouse cafe.  The most satisfying gut bomb that money can buy in Talkeetna, AK.


  1. Awesome story!

  2. Tucker, glad to hear you nailed The Big Mac (and in good style too!). Keep on climbing! Hangdog Ted