Friday, 1 January 2016

Denali - May / June 2015

Well, they say that late is better than never, so here it is that I sit putting the finishing touches to this report on New Years Day, six months after our return from Alaska. As is my usual style online, this is an image-driven report; for those interested in more of the details a full written report will hopefully appear in the journal of the Harvard Mountaineering Club later in the year. 

This trip had a number of overlapping objectives, resulting from and reflected in the team make up. While there were no strangers in the team, all four of us met together for the first time, in Talkeetna, in mid May. Hollie and I had flown in from Boston, for me via a conference in Seattle, where I raised a few eyebrows checking into the conference hotel with skis, duffle bag and dyneema pack in addition to the more usual suit carrier and laptop bag. Ian Bolliger had flown up from California, and met us in Anchorage. Peter McCarthy meanwhile, had been climbing on Begguya with Dave Reynolds and flew out for a few days R&R in Talkeetna just before we arrived. 

So what were our objectives? Well, summiting Denali is not an objective to be taken lightly, but pushing that a little further, Ian and Peter, who were at college together,  and have skied a lot with one another in recent years, had designs on a ski descent via some of the classic couloir lines. This would be a first big mountain expedition for Hollie, though skiing above 14k on acclimating days would be a sought after bonus. Peter and I summited Denali together in 2012, and we were looking forward to climbing together again, hopefully with an opportunity to get on the Cassin Ridge once well acclimated. Oh yeh, and this was effectively a honeymoon for Hollie and I after our wedding back in January, so summiting together and some fun ski turns along the way would be nice!

Hollie - pretending my DSLR and I aren't there.

Peter - taking a more proactive approach to my photography

Ian - we've just met and sat down for a beer and already his relentless enthusiasm is showing and he's engrossed in the guidebook!

The plan was that we'd all fly in to the Kahiltna glacier as soon as we'd rendezvoused in Talkeetna, however my ongoing attempts to combine a life committed to alpinism and backcountry adventures with the much less flexible pursuit of academic surgery threw a last minute spanner in the works, as a great job opportunity, which I couldn't really afford to pass up became available and I needed a couple of days to complete the application process before switching off for a month. my frustration, we agreed Peter and Ian should fly in for a couple of days skiing around basecamp, while I finished up my application. Hollie was offered free choice - ski with the guys or hang in Talkeetna with me, and to my considerable surprise she decided to stick around and check out the bright lights of Talkeetna!

Peter and Ian loaded up and ready for the off from TKA to KIA in one of the Talkeetna Air Taxi DeHavilland Beavers

A green and leafy Talkeetna Airport in early summer

A couple of days later, application duly submitted, email autoreply set and phone switched off, Hollie and I followed the guys into the range. 

View of the Petersville Hills from the air

The Lower Kahiltna Glacier

We had a rather sporting flight in, piloted by non other than Paul Roderick, TAT Director of Ops himself. Paul is a living legend, walking encyclopedia of the Alaska Range, and a real character. There was a weather system on its way in, and we certainly felt some of the effects as we came through One Shot Pass, and then dropped low to the glacier to get some smooth air. Paul actually made the call in the air that his was to be the last flight of the day, and after our drop off made a quick turn around for home. Sure enough the next few hours were overcast, windy and brought a few inches of snow, so we got the tent up, bags out, and then hung out in the rather palatial snow cave Peter and Ian had established. After a bit of a rough night, and a slow start the following morning, conditions cleared in the afternoon and we got packed up and underway for Camp I, 7800ft. At this stage our primary objective was the West Buttress route, to acclimate, hopefully summit, and then consider additional ski and technical climbing objectives.

Hollie and Peter load up and contemplate the haul ahead.

We set off late afternoon, and took our time, reaching camping in a fairly leisurely 4 hours. Much of the trip was completed in fog, which made for pleasantly cool conditions for travel, but was quite eery in the flat and relatively featureless terrain of the glacier. Camp established, and well fed on burritos, we settled in for the night as another weather system moved in. Somewhat to my surprise given relatively modest altitude, I woke feeling the worse for wear, and was quite glad when the consensus was that the weather was bad enough to keep us where we were. I spent the day hydrating and avoiding anything more strenuous than lighting the stove, and by evening felt much improved.

HMC Enclave at Camp I, 7800ft

We decided to stage loads up to camp at 11,200ft, both to give us all an acclimating run, and the opportunity for a sled-free ski descent of the absolutely beautiful, rolling terrain between these two camps. Great in principle, and without laboring the details too much, I think I would approach this differently in future, as Peter and Ian ended up having a hard day followed by a moderate/hard day when we moved up, while Hollie and I had a moderate day followed by a hard day...I think moderate days all round with the small price of sleds stuffed in/strapped to empty packs for the descent on load carrying day might be more efficient all around, but regardless, the ski descent from 11,200ft to 7,800ft was absolutely stunning, and a highlight of the trip. 

Peter and Ian putting in the hard miles with the sleds above Ski Hill, on the carry up to cache at 11,200ft

Rolling, glaciated terrain around 9,000ft
Having moved up to Camp II at 11, 200ft Hollie and I settled in for a little more acclimating where we were, but for Peter and Ian, being a few days ahead of us in terms of altitude exposure, this meant ski laps on Motorcycle Hill. 

Just back from a lap on Motorcycle Hill...conditions were more than a little scratchy until late afternoon

Hollie in camp at 11,200ft

Alpenglow on Sultana (Mt Foraker) from our camp at 11,200ft

We spent May 29th resting at Camp II, and then carried a cache to 13,500ft the next day. This was a heavy pack day, as we all left our sleds in camp for a our move to Camp III, and carried substantial loads to our cache site beyond Windy Corner. Hollie was feeling the altitude for the first time, but toughed it out and continued to move well, reaching 13,500 ft in 4 hours. Peter and Ian, unlike Hollie and I being armed with ski crampons, had gone on ski while we booted up in crampons, so were at the site ahead of us, and by the time we arrived had the cache digging complete - a real luxury, thanks guys! The views up here were really spectacular, with a patch-work of low clouds off to the north giving glimpses of the foothills and tundra. The lack of snow cover in comparison to 2012 was evident - though not surprising as 2012 remains on record as a particularly snowy season.

Hollie descending around Windy Corner after dropping a cache at 13,500ft

Looking North from Windy Corner
Our intent at this point was to move up to Camp III at 14,200ft the next day, however, while Hollie and I had a fairly pleasant  hike back down from our cache, we entered camp to find Ian and Peter deep in concentration, bent over one of Ian's skis, clearly having had a less than trouble-free descent. The story soon became clear; near the top of Squirrel Hill, Ian noticed unusual flex in one heal entering a turn. Coming to a stop, he stepped clean out of his binding as the heel piece gave way. Clearly he was fortunate to avoid a spill, and given the scant snow cover the consequences of a fall here could well have been serious. Never one for dramatics however, Ian pocketed the parts, strapped his heel down with a ski strap and made his way back into camp. 

It soon became clear than this heel piece was beyond salvage, but by good fortune, one of Ian's friends from youth ski racing days, Sam Goldman, was also on the mountain and had a spare Dynafit heel piece...but whether it was cached at basecamp, or in a bag at Talkeetna Air Taxi was unclear. A quick call on the sat phone to the ever helpful folk at TAT soon answered that, and, ski-strap binding back in place, Ian and Peter set off for a quick overnight dash to basecamp to recover the spare piece. This afforded Hollie and I another rest day, which to be honest, I was quite glad of given my slower than expected acclimatization, and the fatigue Hollie had experienced on our carry up to 13,500ft.

The guys returned in good time the next morning, and repairs having been completed, we turned in ahead of our move to Camp III the following day.

Hollie, and our sleds, on the plateau above Squirrel Hill. In contrast to 2012 this area was largely bare glacial ice, and coverage on Squirrel Hill was also thin, so in the absence of ski crampons we loaded up the skis and moved in Spantiks and crampons. We'll both bring ski crampons on future trips.

The unscheduled rest day at 11,200ft seemed to have done Hollie the world of good, and she showed no signs of residual fatigue as she set a strong pace on our move day. The same could not be said of me, and it was largely her encouragement and pace setting that got us back up to the cache in good time. We waited here for the others, who were, I think, feeling the effects of their exertions on the way to and from basecamp the previous day, but nonetheless decided to rest a while, then dig out their portion of the cache to save them a retrieval trip from camp the following day.  We felt our loads were quite heavy enough for the time being, and left the rest of the cache where it was, but set off with both tents to establish camp at 14,200ft while the guys dug out and repacked their loads. The last 700 ft up to Camp III was, as I recalled, a bit of an interminable slog, but we crested the final rise soon enough, and after a brief recce found a good set of snow walls on the southern edge of camp, away from most of the masses. 

Our camp at 14,200ft. The Hilleberg Saivo's once again served us well, and the pyramid tarp provided a comfortable kitchen space, which was a great moral booster.

Home at 14,200ft in more typical, overcast, conditions.
We had by no means rushed up to this point, in part prompted by experience from 2012, when in hindsight, I felt we probably moved a bit too fast on the lower part of the mountain, and might have benefited from conserving a little energy at the stage. Equally, this year breakages and weather had dictated our schedule to some extent, but after 8 days I was glad to be established at 14,200ft where I felt acclimating for our various objectives could begin in earnest. Our first full day in Camp III was largely filled with snow works, strengthening our snow walls, and digging in the kitchen tent. The following day Hollie and I made a quick round trip on skis to retrieve the remaining supplies from our cache, returning to camp for a well timed, and greatly enjoyed, breakfast of hash browns, and scrambled eggs acquired from a descending AAI group. We soon settled in to the familiar 14k routine of acclimating runs, tea drinking, and attempting to second guess the weather....This year high winds, rather than the spectacular snow falls of 2012, would be the major limiting factor. 

Park Service helicopter operations above 14 camp on a rare low-wind day.
Hollie descending from the top of the fixed lines after an acclimating run up to the ridge camp at 16,200ft. High winds and cold conditions precluded progressing any higher on the ridge that day.
Amongst the minor challenges encountered in camp was the persistent underperformance of Peter's Dragonfly stove - something which might not have been evident had I not had an identical stove against which to benchmark. Suffice to say, one rest day saw us attempt a collective many members of Harvard Mountaineering Club does it take to change an O-Ring? Three apparently (Hollie was on photo duty), sadly without any appreciable improvement in performance.

Where's an engineering student when you need one?!
At some point in any expedition, the focus inevitably begins to sharpen as the number of available days remaining begins to approach, and then reduce below, the number of days elapsed. This is particularly the case when conditions begin to frustrate progress; I now associate this phenomenon strongly with life at 14-camp on Denali. An eastern-flow weather pattern had established itself, and while the forecast rarely foretold a major storm, conditions were never clear for long, and were frequently closed in an windy early in the day, with encouraging, but unpredictable clearing later. We took full advantage of our opportunities for runs up along the West Buttress, or evening ski laps on the slope above camp leading up to the headwall, but nonetheless enforced rest days due to weather soon made our hopes of a quick ascent as part of an acclimating program for sterner objectives seem unrealistic.

Lunch in the tent during bad weather...Hollie seemed to see significance in capturing my feet and part of our cheese supply in one image...

Being at the top of our expedition beard growth leader board was little consolation for another day stuck in camp!
While we were all keen to see more progress upward, the pressure was undoubtedly being felt most keenly by Ian, who with academic commitments pressing, had to leave the mountain a week earlier than the rest of us. Conditions in the Messner Couloir and Orient Express where not looking favorable for a descent, but despite this, and a rapidly ticking clock, his enthusiasm showed no signs of wavering, and on his last possible day he and Peter set off up the West Buttress early, skis on packs, hoping for a summit run and ski descent of the Buttress. Sadly it was not to be, and as Hollie and I moved up later in the day continuing with our own acclimating schedule, we passed them on their descent. Ian, enthusiastic to the last, shredding back to camp to pack for his descent.

Ian Bolliger, shredder and pot-scrapper extraordinaire!

The best way to descend a snowy mountain!
Ian's departure prompted a review of our objectives as a whole; clearly hopes of a ski descent were now done with, but the issue of whether Peter and I would have the opportunity to get on the Cassin remained to be resolved. Time was certainly getting tight, but for the time being we felt the door remained open; however, this would not remain the case for long, as we had agreed ahead of time and properly acclimating for this should include a summit via the West Buttress - and it soon became clear that conditions and time would not combine to allow both. In the meantime though, spirits in camp remained high, assisted no end by some really fantastic mountain food!

Hollie enjoys the last of our smoked salmon and cream cheese - thank you Dave Ford for suggesting/insisting this be included in our provisions!
During one of our evening clearings we made the obligatory visit to Edge of the World Rock, to enjoy the stunning views down into the North East Fork, and out toward Sultana and the lower Kahiltna glacier. Shortly after this it became clear that Peter and I would be shelving our dreams of an ascent of the Cassin for another year - time had run too short for us, and the three of us would move up to camp at 17,200ft before a summit attempt from there. The forecast gave us some reason to be hopeful, but it was clear we would get one shot, and then be heading for home regardless of outcome. We would take one tent, and a couple of days of light food, and move up, leaving the rest of our camp at 14,200ft intact for our descent.

The author contemplating Sultana and the Kahiltna Peaks from Edge of the World Rock (photo: Hollie Leonard)

Peter on our move up to Camp IV, just above Washburn's Thumb on the West Buttress, in cold conditions.
We moved up to camp at 17,200ft on a cold, blustery, but beautifully clear day, with stunning views the whole way along the crest of the Buttress-proper. This is by no means highly technical terrain, but the positions are superb, and on a clear day, the views truly breathtaking. Camp in the crows nest is also striking, but in a rather desolate and forbidding way - this is not somewhere to linger long.

Camp IV at 17,200ft
Building snow walls at this altitude in cold, windy conditions, is no mean feat, but fortunately the enormously strong Hilleberg tents require less protection than some, and we were soon secure and warming up inside. We were 21 days into our expedition, and has spent 13 nights based in our camp at 14,200ft.

Peter took on the role of cook for the night, and in the course of preparing water for the Mountain House meals, experienced one of the more genuinely frightening and potentially dangerous moments of the entire trip. For some not entirely obvious reason the Reactor stove flared spectacularly during the process of lighting it, and the tent quickly filled with a strange smokey odor. Peter rapidly doused the stove, and it was clear that the tent fly was not alight, but when he turned back toward us from the vestibule, the source of the burning smell became clear...Peter's hard-won whiskers, and the tip of his fringe, were no-more! Fortunately no significant injury was sustained, and the stove was re-lit and dinner prepared without further excitement, but this certainly felt like a close call.

Peter, sans whiskers, immediately after the stove incident.
None of us spent a particularly sound nights sleep, likely due to a combination of new exposure to altitude, and the wind which kept up a serious din all night and showed no signs of abating during the morning. It was clear that no one would be venturing far from camp today.

Hollie taking in the views form a very cold and blustery 17-Camp.

Lenticular cloud over the North Summit.

Looking toward the tundra north of the Alaska Range, from 17,200ft. The camp in the foreground is Veteran's Expeditions, who had been on a similar schedule to us throughout, and would go on to summit successfully a few hours after us.

The following day, Monday June 15th, our 23rd day on the mountain, dawned clear, sunny and fairly still. We got underway in reasonable time, as did a number of sizable guided groups, which would limit our pace and give us some congestion to deal with at various points during the day. However, we couldn't have asked for better conditions, and while our relatively slow pace meant I spent portions of the day moving with my belay jacket on, I climbed all day in guide gloves, not mitts, with no concerns over cold digits. 

Moving up past Zebra Rocks, just above Denali Pass at around 18,200 ft.

We reached the Kahiltna Horn in the company of another two groups, with another ahead of us on the summit ridge, so given the beautiful conditions and stunning views, we decided to drop our packs, relax and take some time to get the stove out and refill water bottles in the hopes of gaining a little solitude for the summit. The contrast to 2012 for Peter and I could not have been more obvious, and we both relished the opportunity to relax quite comfortably at this stunning vantage point and check out the view down the upper part of the Cassin Ridge, which tops out at this feature. 

Hollie and Peter looking out from the Kahiltna Horn, at the start of the summit ridge, at around 20,000ft.

Hollie catching her breath on the Kahiltna Horn.

The Summit Ridge
Our strategy worked out well, and the summit ridge soon cleared, and we quickly covered the last few hundred feet to the summit - which was deserted with the exception of two Japanese ski mountaineers just clicking in for their descent. I was leading our rope at this point, which gave me the opportunity to capture this shot of Hollie and Peter following me onto the summit. This was a great moment, and I love the loss of perspective in the background - the river snaking away across the tundra to the north must be close to 20,000ft below us at this point, but looks almost within throwing distance. 

Hollie and Peter follow me onto the summit of Denali, late afternoon, Monday June 15th.

Summit Marker from the 1989 "Mt McKinley" USGS Expedition.
This felt like a really special moment for me - Hollie and I had talked about this expedition together for a couple of years, and alongside the various mountaineering and skiing objectives, this was our honeymoon! To summit together, in such beautiful conditions, was very, very special, and gave us both memories that I have no doubt will last a life time. It was also a real pleasure to summit again with Peter, who had been there with Dave Ford and I, in rather less forgiving conditions, in 2012. 

Not a bad spot for a honeymoon photo! Hollie and I on the summit of Denali, 20,320ft. (Photo: Peter McCarthy)
We spent about 20 minutes enjoying the views, and our solitude, on the summit, before retracing our steps along the ridge and making a quick descent back to camp, stopping only briefly at the Football Field to remove some layers, and at Denali Pass, to allow another group to move ahead a little way rather than descend on their heels. After a short rest in camp, to refuel and rest our legs, we broke camp and headed down for 14-camp. I always enjoy this stretch of the route, which by no means technically challenging, offers enough interest to hold the focus and enough exposure to emphasize the views - which were particularly striking under the light of the midnight sun. 

Looking along the crest of the West Buttress just before midnight during our descent, with 14-Camp in shadow below, and the low, arctic sun illuminating the north side of Sultana.

Peter and Hollie approaching Washburn's Thumb during our descent from 17-Camp.
We got back into Camp III at 1.30am, glad to find our other Saivo and the kitchen tent waiting for us, and after a quick, but rather unappetizing meal, fell soundly asleep around 3am. It had been a long but thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying day.

The story of the remainder of our descent is largely unremarkable, but it was nonetheless memorable, with some really stunning light during the arctic night. Having the chance to capture some photos of the shadow of Denali itself, cast on the lowlands and thin clouds to the south was fantastic. Obviously we had all hoped to descend on ski, and Peter did so with his usual aplomb, but the combination of refrozen crust and unwieldy sleds proved a bit of a handful for Hollie and I, and we resorted to boots and crampons just before Windy Corner. A few more years ski experience are required before we can make a full ski descent I think!

Looking south toward Begguya from 14,200ft just before departing camp, the shadow of Denali visible in the left of the shot.

Warm tones illuminate the northern aspect of Sultana in the cold of the arctic night.

Peter, being by far the strongest skier amongst us, waits for Hollie and I to catch up at 11,200ft.

Hollie, and our catamaraned sleds, at around 9,600ft during our descent. This technique, which we used the whole way from Windy Corner to the camp at 7800ft, allowed us to move quickly, with me braking the sleds from behind and Hollie giving a tow from ahead when necessary during the occasional flat spot, without the hassle of sled-brakes, repeated re-rigging or the second on the rope getting skittled by their sled. It is rather strenuous on the brakeman however. 

Once back at 7800ft Hollie and I coiled the rope, and we all freed our heels for the skate back across the glacier to basecamp and the airstrip. At this point I'm sorry to admit that my legs gave up on me, and the last few miles were a real slog, as Hollie and Peter disappeared over the horizon. Suffice to say I appreciated the name "Heartbreak Hill" more fully than I had in 2012, but I eventually made it make to the airstrip with my thirst well developed for the Denali Brewing Company cans that Peter was just pulling out of our emergency cache! 

Peter in reflective mood back at KIA.

Looking north, toward Denali, from the waiting area at the airstrip. The south face is framed by Mt Frances and Radio Control Tower (just out of shot to right).

The South Face of Denali, viewed from Base Camp. The Cassin Ridge is the prominent line right of center. 

Unpleasant as the final slog back into camp was, it did give me the opportunity to contemplate the unfolding view of Denali's south face, and reflect on our trip; both it's successes and pleasures, and objectives remaining for another time. This had been a hugely enjoyable expedition, with good friends (both old, and new),  and some unique and very memorable moments. Three of us had summited together in stunning conditions, and to complete a trip like this for the first time with Hollie was fantastic. I took real pleasure in her strength and competence, and in seeing her enjoyment of this incredible environment. I definitely felt for Ian, who was clearly strong enough to have summited, but just ran out of time in the face of the prevailing conditions. The mountain, and it's epic ski lines, will be there for him again should he decide to return. Thoughts of what might have been also applied to Peter and I and our thoughts of an attempt on the Cassin; we had both now summited twice via the West Buttress, and I think, both felt fit, strong and ready for the challenge. Once again, time just ran out. That said, my overwhelming feeling during these few moments of contemplation, was that the mountain was, in some way, sending me a message - I was fitter, stronger, and much more experienced than in 2012, and Peter and I may well have been ready for the Cassin, but it wasn't meant to be this time. Coming back to attempt this route fitter and stronger in the future will allow me to move more smoothly, in better style - a fine motivator to take forward. I reached the airstrip tired but content, and resolved to continue expanding my physical capability and judgement in the Alpine.

Talkeetna Air Taxi Otter ready to depart from KIA.

The bench in the memorial to lost climbers in the cemetery in Talkeetna, a quiet and contemplative place.

A short, and very scenic, flight brought us back to Talkeetna - where summer was now in full bloom. It may be, as the bumper sticker says, "a quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem" but it's a great place to decompress before returning to the modern reality of Anchorage, commercial air travel and day to day life. Finally, a huge thanks to Hollie, Peter and Ian for sharing this trip with me. It was a real pleasure to climb and share this adventure with each of you. 'Till next time! 

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