The sign behind the desk in the National Park ranger station in Talkeetna, the gateway town for Denali, had some news which could be interpreted one of two ways depending on whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist. It said that of the 700 or so climbers who had returned from Denali this season 79% of them reached the summit. Given the mountain’s average success rate is only 51% and just 39% reached the top last year, the optimist could say it was a good year to come to Denali.
Prior to our arrival in Alaska to climb the highest mountain in North America, also known as Mount McKinley, there had been an unprecedented spell of good weather. Denali is notorious for its storms and cold temperatures, and it’s fairly normal for climbers to be stuck in camps for days on end waiting for a weather window. This year people were climbing straight up and reaching the summit without a hitch and coming back again days ahead of schedule.
But it would be another couple of weeks before we were in a position to launch an attack on the summit ourselves, and the good weather was certain to break eventually. Would it continue long enough for us?
“That statistic worries me,” said one on my team mates, Nick. “These things even out eventually, don’t they!” (In case you’re wondering, as far as I’m aware Nick isn’t available for motivational speaking).
I was climbing Denali on a commercially guided expedition to climb the standard West Buttress route with the American Alpine Institute (AAI), one of only a handful of operators with a license to run commercial expeditions to Denali, the others being Mountain Trip, Alpine Ascents, Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI) and the curiously named Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) who appear to be unaware that in mountaineering circles AMS more commonly stands for Acute Mountain Sickness. These include some of the most expensive operators worldwide, and with a regular source of income from international referrals, organised trips to Denali don’t come cheap. Although I booked my expedition through the British company Jagged Globe, they have to subcontract to one of these licensed American operators, and I found myself on a standard AAI trip.
After an inauspicious start (for me at least) which involved two missed connections on transit through the United States and my luggage arriving 24 hours late in Anchorage everything went as well as it could do for the first week of the expedition. Early expeditions to Denali involved long treks through mosquito-infested swamps and perilous river crossings in order to get to the foot of the mountain, but since the 1960s the principal means of access has been by air. There are several so-called bush pilots operating out of Talkeetna who provide glacier landings on Twin Otter aircraft equipped with skis, and half an hour out of the birch and spruce groves of Talkeetna you can be surrounded by the rock and ice of the Alaska Range.
This is precisely what happened, and although these glacier landings are susceptible to the vagaries of the weather, it was a good day when we arrived in Talkeetna, and we were able to fly out almost immediately. I took the first flight out with two of our guides, Aili and Braden, a nurse from New Zealand called Charmaine, a Canadian ex-professional cyclist called Paolo, and my tent mate Tim, another Jagged Globe client from the UK who now lives in Hong Kong. It was my first glacier landing, and I was surprised how smooth it was. The Kahiltna Glacier is renowned for giant crevasses and I wondered how it would feel juddering over them as we landed, but I hardly noticed. The glacier is fairly smooth with plenty of fresh snow cover – not one of those dry glaciers containing a jumbled mass of ice and moraine. Base Camp is right next to the airstrip at 2400m, right underneath the impressive 4442m Mount Hunter, the third highest peak in the Alaska Range, whose easier summit slopes appeared to be guarded by a 1500m wall of rock and ice. At the far end of the airstrip 5304m Mount Foraker, a massive triangular bulk of snow, rose above a junction of glaciers. 6194m Denali is more of a giant whaleback, and peered out between two smaller peaks to the north. Although it’s clearly much bigger than everything else around it, it appears less forbidding than its two neighbours and is a less technical climb.
Supervised by Aili and Braden we immediately set about digging out a camp and setting up our tents. It was Braden’s first time guiding Denali, and although it was his first big expedition he had a lot of experience guiding rock climbs. He told me about the last time he was here climbing the frightening face on Mount Hunter I had immediately dismissed as ridiculous. He made it to the top of the face and was too exhausted to continue to the summit, but the climb had a traumatic ending when he returned to his tent and fell asleep while using his pee bottle. He woke up in an unpleasant pool of water, but frankly he should count his lucky stars it didn’t freeze during night while he was still “tackle out”. Aili had more experience on Denali, and life in general. It was her ninth expedition there, and as well as being a mountain guide she has worked as a park ranger, a salmon fisherman, and a mud logger (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a mud logger, and in case you’re wondering what one is, it’s someone who works for an oil company keeping a record of different varieties of mud).
The remainder of our group arrived on the second flight a couple of hours after, and helped us to finish setting up camp. The rest were all American, three friends from Atlanta, Nick, Neil and Ian, the youngsters in the group who appeared to have more drinking stories than Oliver Reed, and a couple from Buffalo called Eric and Courtney. Our expedition leader was Mark Cionek, who heads up the Denali programme for AAI and has a lot of experience on the Seven Summits, a good man to lead an expedition like Denali, as it turned out. Big expeditions require different qualities to smaller guided climbs. A lot of time is spent waiting and watching as hopes and plans ebb and flow with the circumstances. Patience and a sense of humour are often as valuable as technical climbing skills, and Mark is an endlessly cheerful character who is able to keep people motivated and entertained when things aren’t going to plan.
To begin with everything went well, and the weather could not have been better. One piece of essential mountaineering equipment which isn’t needed somewhere as far north as Alaska in June is a headlamp. On our first day out of Base Camp we took advantage of the 24 hour daylight which occurs there by switching over to a night schedule. We woke up at 11pm and started walking at 2am. Although the sun had dropped behind the mountains it was easily light enough to see, and the absence of direct sunlight meant the glacier was cooling. There was less chance of snow bridges melting in the sun and consequently less danger of falling into a crevasse. Walking on a glacier in direct sun can often be unpleasantly hot in the reflected heat of a white landscape, and by walking at night we would be able to avoid this for a few hours. I was surprised by how mild it was. Denali has a reputation for being one of the coldest big mountains on Earth, but I had chosen to climb in June because it was towards the end of the season and a little warmer. It turned out to be a good move, and I never did experience the extreme temperatures Denali is renowned for. Although it was well below zero on many occasions, I’ve been much colder on other mountains.
As well as the new experience of perpetual daylight, that first day out of Base Camp was my first experience of towing a sledge. With 20kg on my back and 30kg in the sledge behind me I had some concerns about how I would cope with the physical exertions I would be putting through muscles I don’t usually use. In the end I didn’t find it at all bad. Towing a 30kg sledge is an order of magnitude easier than carrying a 30kg pack, and although I sometimes arrived in camp with aching buttocks, I never did tire of hearing some of the American members of the team complain of having a “sore fanny” (This wasn’t the only time the nuances of British and US English caused entertainment. I remember the ski tourers in the group being puzzled by my expression during a conversation they were having about “skinning up”. I had to explain that skinning up can also mean rolling a joint, an activity more closely associated with snow-boarding than skiing).
The position of Denali’s airstrip on an elevated section of the Kahiltna Glacier, means you have to start climbing the mountain by walking downwards on a section of glacier called Heartbreak Hill, a name whose significance only becomes obvious on the return journey at the end of a tiring expedition. Walking downhill with a sledge has its own difficulties, but we walked roped together, with the rope passing through carabiners attached to the sledges. This means it’s possible for the person behind you to keep the sledge from crashing into the back of you by keeping the rope tight. Paolo did this quite effectively, and for much of the day I barely noticed the sledge. The first day from Base Camp to Camp 1 is mostly along the flat, and is good terrain for a newbie to sledging to learn and become accustomed to their burden.
Camp 1 is located at the very foot of Denali, at the point where the glacier steepens and the true ascent begins. Beyond it the slope climbs steeply to the Kahiltna Pass, a col between Denali and the ridge linking it to Mount Foraker. Our plan was to spend two nights there and do a carry of equipment on the first day and cache it in a snow hole at the pass before coming back down again. This follows the standard high altitude mountaineering dictum of climbing high and sleeping low which assists with acclimatisation as the body gradually becomes accustomed to the altitude. The following morning we had an immediate setback when Braden woke up ill and threw up several times before breakfast. Denali National Park rules dictate that no guide can lead more than four clients on a rope. With nine clients this meant that if Braden was to spend a rest day at Camp 1 recovering then one of us would not be able to climb. Everyone was in good shape and keen to go up the Kahiltna Pass and get the additional acclimatisation that came with it. As we were only at 2300m and still had plenty of days in our schedule, I wasn’t remotely concerned about being able to acclimatise, so I gallantly volunteered to stay in camp that day lying down in my tent while the rest of the team carried my equipment up to the pass for me. The next day Braden was feeling better and we all repeated the climb with the rest of our gear.
At the Kahiltna Pass the route turns west and begins climbing the West Buttress on a relatively gentle snow ramp which leads between shoulders of mountain all the way up to Camp 3 at 4300m. Camp 2 lies in a flattish area of the ramp a couple of hundred metres above the Kahiltna Pass at 3300m (Americans still measure mountains in feet rather than metres, and Camps 2 and 3 are often referred to by their altitudes as 11,000 ft camp and 14,000 ft camp, respectively). We ended up spending four nights there while an inexplicable drama unfolded around us. We switched over from a night schedule to a day schedule to complete a carry of equipment to a cache site just below Camp 3. The route involved ascending two steeper sections known as Motorcycle Hill and Squirrel Hill, crossing a high plateau beneath the rocky flanks of the West Buttress and rounding the buttress at a point known as Windy Corner. The colder temperatures we expected to experience meant a daytime ascent would be preferable, and the carry went without a hitch, although Windy Corner certainly lived up to its name. Expecting to complete our climb up to Camp 3 the following day with the rest of our equipment, we awoke to news that two teams were abandoning the mountain and others were thinking of following. The park rangers were said to be advising teams not to advance to Camp 3 until conditions improved. The incident which sparked this panic was a large rock falling from the West Buttress at Windy Corner and landing between two climbers attached on the same rope. News was spreading around camp that the unprecedented warm temperatures were causing the ice to melt and produce unacceptable rockfall danger. But we had been round Windy Corner the previous day during the heat of the afternoon sun, and while we could see some rocks had fallen, far from being unacceptable we could see clearly enough the level of risk was relatively small. Mountaineering is not without risk, but neither is driving. To abandon the mountain purely because of a reported near miss seemed akin to avoiding a particular road just because the last time you drove down there you passed an accident site. But hearsay was proving more powerful than hard evidence. While Mark was keen to push on and mountaineering instinct told him it was safe to do so, we could see that he was feeling under stress that day. Phone calls were bouncing backwards and forwards between rangers, guides and their offices, and some team leaders were being advised by their bosses in Washington to exercise caution. In this context Mark’s desire to push on appeared bullish; other guides were looking at him with horror, and it’s not good for a mountain guide to acquire a reputation for being reckless. We stayed put while other guides made tentative forays around Windy Corner to see for themselves. By the time common sense prevailed and normal service resumed, we had lost a day and a half.
Even so, we were still making good time. We established ourselves in Camp 3 on the 11th day, and were only just halfway through our three week schedule. Many people say Camp 3 is the most beautiful camp on Denali, and it’s not hard to see how it acquired this reputation. It rests on a huge plateau directly underneath the steep walls of the West Buttress. It’s the highest point you can drag a sledge, and behind camp the climbing proper begins as a wide snow gully leads up to a notch on the crest of the buttress. Looking the other way you appear to be on a balcony overlooking a giant cloud theatre. The crinkled summit of Mount Hunter peeps just a few hundred metres above, while Mount Foraker is still quite imposing. Between them the Kahiltna Glacier provides an alleyway to the far horizon, viewed across miles of green swamp. Arriving at camp is a memorable experience in itself. It’s Denali’s last hospitable location, and people often spend days there waiting for a weather window. To guard against the high winds tent platforms are sunk into deep pits, and walls of snow are built around them. We arrived late in the season when many of these sites had been abandoned, and I felt like I was approaching some lost city in the desert.
After a rest day at Camp 3 our progress continued when we climbed up the snow gully to the crest of the West Buttress. Just below the ridge line the snow slope steepens to an angle of nearly 50 degrees and a series of fixed ropes have been installed. Eschewing elegant climbing I hauled myself up these Himalayan-style using a jumar. It’s almost the most technical part of the entire West Buttress route and purists would wince, but most of us are here for different reasons. Behind me the view was breathtaking, and far beyond the Kahiltna Glacier I could see another distant line of mountains which was so far away it appeared to hang in the clouds. When we reached the ridge it was in and out of mist and gusting strong winds every few seconds. We cached our equipment a short way above in snow that was as hard as stone and tiring to dig. As we descended back to Camp 3 the first cracks were appearing in the resolve of our three young friends from Atlanta. Until then they had climbed effortlessly and been relaxed and carefree in camp as they entertained us with their drinking tales. How could people who drank so much alcohol be as fit as these three, we all wondered? Now the climbing was becoming more difficult, Neil and Nick were beginning to tire while Ian, the strongest of the three, was keen to ensure their rope team wasn’t left behind by oldies like Paolo, Tim and me. He tried to drag them down the hill, and back at Camp 3 they had a big row. When we suggested they resolve their argument with a “butt chugging” contest they appeared ready to use their ice axes in a manner they weren’t designed for (butt chugging is a term I was unfamiliar with a couple of weeks earlier, but it’s only fair I improve my US English at the same time as introducing my new friends to some British slang).
More serious than this were signs the weather was also changing. Until then it had been almost too good: clear skies and mild temperatures. It was so warm it had induced an unnecessary panic at Camp 2. There was a lot of snow at Camp 3 the following day and we listened to the sound of thunder. Up at Camp 4 climbers were a bit more frightened. They were experiencing a lightning storm, and hurriedly depositing ice axes, shovels and anything else that might conduct as far away from their tents as possible before huddling inside and trying their best to sleep through it all. We were ready to move up there ourselves and listened to the weather forecast being broadcast from Base Camp. It wasn’t encouraging:
- Saturday 29th June: Cloudy with snow later. Summit winds 25 mph.
- Sunday 30th June: Overcast. Heavy snow. Summit winds 35 mph.
- Monday 1st July: Cloudy. Snow. Summit winds 45 mph.
- Tuesday 2nd July: Clear and bright. Summit winds 45 mph.
We had to consider the wind chill, and with wind speeds in excess of 25 mph frostbite became a genuine risk. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: a summit is never worth losing digits for (while relieving himself at Windy Corner a few days earlier Ian had asked me if I took my gloves off to pee during summit day on Everest. I replied by saying there are several parts of your anatomy you don’t want to expose up there if you don’t have to). It was Friday, and Wednesday was about the latest we could stay if we hoped to get off the mountain and catch our flights from Anchorage the following Monday.
We really had just two options:
- We could wait at Camp 3 and ascend to Camp 4 on the 2nd, hoping there would be a suitable summit opportunity on 3rd.
- We could ascend to Camp 4 tomorrow, 29th, hope the forecast was wrong and hold out for a possible summit opportunity on any of the four subsequent days.
If we were in the Himalayas climbing an 8000m peak with plenty of days left to wait for our opportunity, then there was no doubt no.1 would be the favoured option. It was comfortable at Camp 3. We had two to a tent, plenty of good food available, and it was reasonably sheltered. All we needed to do was rest, eat well, bide our time, then strike for the summit on the next favourable weather window. At Camp 4 we would be three to a tent at the end of an exposed ridge, and surviving on a diet of dehydrated food. Lying in a storm up there for four days would grind us down physically and mentally.
But we didn’t have much time and would be taking a great risk if we stayed at Camp 3. We needed a two day window at least in order to reach the summit from there, and we didn’t know if there was going to be a single day. We would be wagering everything on good weather on Wednesday.
On Saturday 29th the weather was glorious, and Mark made the decision to climb to Camp 4. I knew I would struggle to eat up there. I rarely get far through a dehydrated meal without coming to the realisation I’m staring at a packet of lukewarm sick long before I’ve reached the bottom. The minute I start ascending to the high camps I’m living on a starvation diet and gradually weakening. But I thought it was the right decision. We were taking a risk either way, but by spending up to four days at Camp 4 I felt we were giving ourselves the greater opportunity.
It was a day to cast summit dreams aside and enjoy the moment as we climbed along a knife edge ridge above the clouds with the whole of Alaska beneath us. We picked up our cache on the way and carried double loads for much of the climb, every buckle and strap loaded down with pendulums of loose kit. It didn’t matter to me, though. Rarely have I felt such a combination of exhilaration and exhaustion. On the latter part Denali Pass appeared in the distance, the col between Denali’s two main summits. A snowy trail known as the Autobahn led to it from Camp 4 hidden behind a rocky promontory in front of us. To Denali Pass is much of the climb on summit day and it seemed within touching distance. The weather was as good as it gets with clear skies and barely a breath of wind, and we dared to hope the weather forecast was wrong and we could ascend tomorrow.
I was exhausted when I staggered into camp at 5250m in a broad snow basin at the end of the ridge with the main summit rising gently above. It was 8pm and we still had to carve out a tent platform, pitch the tent with extra pegs and pickets and build a wall around us. It was another three hours before I could crawl into my sleeping bag. Consequently I wasn’t too upset when I woke up to wind and snow the following day, Sunday, and knew I had a rest day ahead of me. We gathered in a gloomy mist that afternoon and spent a few hours mining blocks of snow with saws and shovels to strengthen the walls around us. We were expecting worse weather, and that night Denali struck us with its worst. Tim had to get up during the night to secure the outside of the vestibule, which had torn open and was spewing an avalanche of snow over our door. We played tag with our zippers (the ones on the tent, that is). I kept waking up to find a crust of icy condensation on the ceiling, and seeing all our zips were closed up I unzipped the windows and exposed the meshwork ventilation. But the wind was so strong it was blowing spindrift through the mesh. Waking up and finding a layer of snow on our sleeping bags, Tim closed the ventilation up again and we repeated the process throughout the night. By morning the inside of our tent was beginning to resemble Narnia. I’ve never seen so much snow inside before. We were lucky though. The Atlanta boys woke up to find themselves suffocating, and had to go outside and rebuild a wall that had collapsed on top of them.
The storm continued throughout Monday, and there were climbers stranded at Camp 4 who had reached the summit days ago, unable to descend along the knife edge ridge in the strong winds. I was becoming tired of our overcrowded tent. Sleeping is difficult when you have your team mate’s bits sticking into you throughout the night (though thankfully not that bit). I was living off snack foods and had no appetite to open up my unpalatable dehydrated meals. I had loved Denali until Saturday, but I was rapidly tiring of it. The summit was losing its appeal if it meant spending another week here waiting for an opportunity to climb down. I resolved to wait until Wednesday, and if no window appeared then I was ready to descend.
Monday was clear, but there were occasional gusts, and we could see spindrift blowing off the summit. It was windy up there, and there were more teams returning to Camp 4 after trying and failing to get down the ridge. At midday a team of army parajumpers plucked up the courage to leave camp for an attempt on the summit. We left two hours later, but it was cold and we knew we would be climbing into the night. It was only going to get colder. We walked down a dip and started ascending the Autobahn, but before we got far our guides stopped for a discussion. Mark didn’t like the clouds he could see welling up from the unseen spaces above Camp 3. We could continue, he explained, but it was likely we would have to turn around before we reached the summit. Or we could call it a day and hope for better weather tomorrow. We returned to camp. It proved to be the right decision. The parajumpers were made of sterner stuff than we were, and they returned to camp at 1am after a battle which ended in high winds and altitude sickness at a place called the Football Field just below the summit.
The following day, Wednesday, was our last realistic opportunity if we hoped to catch our flights home in time to return to work when we promised we would. We left at 9.30am, reasoning that this time we would be climbing into the warmth of the afternoon sun. A couple of hundred metres after setting off we realised we were struggling into a howling blizzard. My snow goggles had iced up already, and it was insanity to go on. We were back in camp within 10 minutes of starting out.
“We can try again in a couple of hours,” Aili said as we returned to camp.
“I’m done,” I replied.
We could try again, for sure, but we had tried enough times, and today looked no more promising than yesterday. Sometimes it’s just not going to happen however many times you try, and I felt this was one of those occasions. We discussed our options as a group. Tim and I were the only ones who wanted to descend that day. Most of the team were prepared to stay another day, but that would mean missing their flights for sure. Only Ian was prepared to stay for a good window, but that might not be for a week. We discussed it for about half an hour, and eventually everyone agreed to descend.
Another AAI group had arrived at Camp 4 the previous day and were readying themselves to climb to Denali Pass. The weather was slowly improving, but it still looked worse than yesterday, and I didn’t expect them to get much higher. We left Camp 4 at 5pm, intending to reach Camp 2 that night, but after some difficulty on the fixed lines and another whiteout we were still at Camp 3 at midnight and ended up spending the night there. We left at 7pm the following evening for an epic 16 hour struggle all the way back to Base Camp. Those 16 hours were some of the most surreal I have ever spent on a mountain and warrant a post of their own, but I’ve rambled on for long enough.
I will end with a postscript. On the way down we learned that seven members of the other AAI group had reached the summit while we were struggling back to Camp 3. How had another commercial group managed to reach the top only a few hours after we decided it was good weather for descending? Were they stronger than us, more determined and courageous, or just wiser decision makers? Perhaps they were all of those things, but they also had one other quality we were lacking: luck. Comparing a team who have just arrived at Camp 4 with one that has spent four days there trapped in a storm is not comparing like with like. True, they would have been tired from their climb along the ridge the previous day, but they were also well fed and rested from their wait at Camp 3. They had arrived full of hope, and still had more spare days if they needed. We were drinking in the last chance saloon. We had not slept well and had very little to eat. Mentally we were in a different place, with a nagging feeling the odds were stacked against us. Some of us were done with Denali, at least for now. True, we might have stayed and summited, but we would have been rushing to get home and would miss those days in Talkeetna and Anchorage which are part of the Denali experience.
I felt for Mark, who was as keen to summit as we were but had some difficult decisions to make. He could have made others in hindsight, but hindsight isn’t much use in the context of the weather. He made some good decisions but had no luck. More than anything it’s a question of timing. Denali is notorious for bad weather, but most people only spend 3 to 4 weeks there, and even in a bad year 39% of them still make it to the summit. On an 8000m peak in the Himalayas you can easily spend weeks on the mountain and not have a summit opportunity at all. People summited Denali on the day we arrived at Camp 4, and people summited a few hours after we left. It’s just conceivable our visit to Camp 4 coincided with the only four day period when nobody reached the summit.
Even so, some people might say we missed our chance, but there will always be another chance if you want there to be. Another thought was playing on my mind while we discussed our options at Camp 4. I really enjoyed the whole experience of Denali and was looking for an excuse to return. I would love to climb the Muldrow Glacier one day.
You might also like:
The Footsteps on the Mountain travel diaries
If you're a keen reader and lover of adventure and have enjoyed this blog, you may be interested in my notes from the trail. My trekking and mountaineering travel diaries are available on Kindle.