Denali (Mt McKinley), Alaska 2016

aka “6 toes and 3 fingers later”

Party: Tony, Jack, Leo, Felix, Volodymyr
Leader: Tony & Jack
Written by: Tony
Date: about 1-31/5/2016

Putting a team together was a long time in the making. At one point, it looked like we need to split into 2 groups, couple months later – just me and Jack. For training and preparation, I thought – more the merrier. We spread the word towards the end of ski season. Leo and Felix came on board and officially it became a SUBW trip. I knew both of them from weekend canyoning trips. Strong guys, decent rock climbers, eager to get into High Alpine. We managed to squeeze couple trips to the snow to practise on steeps, safe “glacier” travel and rescue techniques. We still had 7 months to bond as a team, fine tune all gear, and kick ourselves into shape. Canyoning, bushwalks or trail runs filled the weekends. Also regular pub meet ups after work proved to be helpful, catching up on research and organisational homework. We aimed for The West Buttress – the most common route on Denali. Summit success rate in early season is much lower. It means colder conditions, lots of new snow, but weather tends to be more stable. Also, we were after more serene experience, hoping to avoid 7 Summits crowds later on in the season.

It all started last year – the first week in May. Catching up in a cheap motel room in Anchorage. Arriving on few different flights from different destinations, the team of 5 shook hands for the first time. The wild card was Volodymyr, Ukrainian guy living in Ontario, CANADA. We hooked up through Terry Cole, who originally sparked the Denali 2016 idea within Australian section of NZAC. Couple days of shopping, repacking food, and we were ready to roll towards Talkeetna. The big help was pre-arranged meeting with friends of the friends, who drove us around and contributed local knowledge. (Can’t even imagine how we would manage without them on our way back!)

Talkeetna is a base with handful of Flight Services that get you closer to any climbing or skiing objectives in Denali NP. On our arrival, the weather wasn’t flyable, which is nothing unusual. We spent 2 nights in Sheldon Air Hangar, being on standby, ready to jump into plane at first weather break. Having the extra time to repack and organise our sleds (provided free of charge by Sheldon as a part of the fly in/out package) saved us some frustration higher up on the glacier.

After arrival in Base Camp we were in for a good spell of weather for next few days. Caching emergency food for our way back, we roped up without any delays, and where on our way down the Heart Break Hill and up Kahiltna Glacier.

Next few days the weather continued to be in our favour. Our progress on the mountain followed the best case scenario itinerary. In 9 days, our camp in 14,000 ft (Camp 4, or Basin Camp) has been fully stocked up. By this time, we also had one carry each to the top of the Head Wall via fixed ropes, and cached 4 days worth of food + extra gear. There was even time for couple extra ski runs in semi decent snow on the bottom half of the Head Wall and down below 14K Camp towards Windy Corner.

The weather forecast from the beginning was all over the place. The weather mostly turning out better than forecasted. At least before the late afternoons. It looked like we might have a window. We were all pumped to set up the High Camp at 17,500 ft (17K Camp). Felix had occasional headache when going up and decided to stay couple more days in 14K camp and catch up with rest of the team later. This was absolutely fine, because we planned on having and extra tent – both in Basin and High Camps set up for duration of climbing and skiing higher up on the mountain.

It looked like a beautiful day. I took my time in the morning, thinking I’ll be faster skinning up all the way to the bottom of fixed ropes. Caught up with Felix and Volodymir on the ridge just below Washburn’s Thumb. Felix helped to carry our tent all the way here, before returning back to Basin Camp. We continued up the ridge with Volodymir. Heavy packs and more technical terrain slowed our pace. Also the wind picked up significantly and before we knew, we were in a whiteout. My skis strapped to the outside of my pack gave me a hard time in ever stronger wind. Couple sections of the ridge are pretty narrow, you want to be sure about your foot placement and balance. By now, we were crawling on our knees, trying to stay low. The wind would throw us around quite a bit. Some regrets creeped in for not leaving earlier, or kicking ourselves into faster pace. Jack and Leo were likely off the ridge already, setting up the camp, or even sipping hot tea in their sleeping bags. Yep, in Spring & Summer, the days are long in Alaska, but that should be no excuse to start late in the morning. Now we were paying the price.

At one point, I thought I hear Volodymir’s whistle, perhaps over and over again. Couldn’t really work out if I’m imagining it, or if it’s for real. He should be pretty close behind me. There are definitely couple sections where the ridge gets pretty sharp with steeps on both sides. It’s possible he could have slipped, self-arrested and needs help. Our rope got stashed lower down on the ridge together with my skis to safe weight. We needed to move faster while climbing into what looked like fully blown storm. Still climbing on my knees, I was already grabbing black rocks around me that mark the end of the West Buttress. I knew, I must be really close to the camp. A cloud blew over and couple hundred meters visibility opened up.

Perfect. It’s a large opened area. There are 3 tents here, or more like 2 and remnants of the 3rd one. They are in a triangle about 50-100m apart. It’s really easy to pinpoint Jack’s and Leo’s Trango, right next to a snowdrift, closest to me. Great. Think straight. We need to be as quick as possible. I’m trying to unzip the tent fly, when someone helps from the other side. We are face to face, about 30cm from each other yelling. I can’t even open my eyes enough to see who it is. This is the one moment of the whole expedition when I felt the things are getting out of hands. Quick. The first thing first. Goggles on, they are at the top of your pack. Heavy down pants, big 8,000m jacket, put it on zip it up. Wind is blowing, it’s hard to see even with goggles on. I’m looking around for the rope. It must be clipped somewhere? Guys wouldn’t take it inside the tent, would they? OK, slow down. Let’s talk it through with Jack and Leo, let’s make a plan. Even if I just imagined the whistle, Vova (Volodymir) is still on the ridge. I wouldn’t want to be there by myself, not in this weather, not for a minute longer. Need rope, need help. Still searching around, looking where to clip my pack. I focus back up towards the top of black rocks. Clouds open up again. Shaft of light hits the horizon. A second later something pops up. Here comes the most vivid moment of the whole expedition for me …. It looks something like a wounded Mammoth! Vova with his huge backpack, turning left and right, banding over into the wind. It must have looked ridiculous, but I felt blessed. Thanks mountains, problem solved! It took us about 5 minutes to walk towards each other. I felt like we both needed a hug, but let’s get safe first. Yelling at each other in the wind, I’m trying to take his pack off. He yells back “I can’t see”, fighting for his bagpack. About a minute later Vova screams out my name. That moment, I realised he is not confused, he just didn’t recognise me. This was the first time I had my summit layer on, and goggles didn’t help either.

Jack and Leo helped us set up our tents. Vova’s tent looked the least stable, so we tried to tack it in behind the other 2. About an hour later we looked at each other. This is it, let’s dive in. I’m sure on everybody’s mind were passages from books and trip reports warning “doesn’t matter how tired you are, when setting up the High Camp, you have to build the walls straightaway!” This was out of the question, everybody knew it. Let’s get some sleep first. Next few hours were full on. Wind picked up again. I couldn’t believe we were so slack. Till now, every camp we set up was absolutely solid. Half way in the ground, snow walls high up. Anyway, my Bibler was tied properly, if anything Vova’s tent is gonna go first. Then he climbs into my tent and we can brainstorm from there what’s next:) After I woke up, the first break in the wind, I pulled out my snow saw and started chipping away some ice blocks.

The next 3 days were one of the lowest points in the mountains I ever had (despite the altitude, or perhaps due to). Absolutely nothing to do than wait. According to weather report, we had 100mph storm outside. I couldn’t bother getting out of the sleeping bag. Anything you pulled out of the zipper froze almost instantly. I left my book in 14K Camp to save the weight. The only thing to do was to write my miserable thoughts in my diary. Luckily, my pen, when I pulled it out of my mouth, wouldn’t give me more than 3 letters at the time. When the radio started to work again, I’m pretty sure I asked Felix to bring me a pair of clean undies. Don’t ask why.

I woke up couple of times throughout the night, trying to wrap my head around how strong the winds are. Not too bad, today could be it! This might be the only summit day when you get to sleep in:) Broad daylight in May takes up 22 hours a day this close to The Arctic Circle. No reason to start early, or is there? Well, let’s wait for wind to subside first. It’s looking good, bluebird sky everywhere. I had to boil some extra water after giving a litre away the night before. John, an English climber, had a solo attempt in the marginal weather the day before us. He walked past our tents at 10pm from his summit attempt, returning all the way to Camp 14K. Solid effort! There was a pretty decent track up Denali Pass. Jack with Leo had a go at it the day earlier, while I went back half way down the West Buttress to recover my stashed skis and the extra rope. This morning, all 3 guys were half way up the Autobahn, perhaps and hour ahead of me. I was still playing with my stove and warming up my neoprene socks under 5 layers on my belly. I didn’t plan to leave this far behind the rest. Learnt my lesson from earlier. Anyway, the day looks great, I’ll catch up sooner or later. Beautiful bluebird, but pretty chilly & in shadow all the way to the Denali Pass. Just before leaving the tent my thermometer said -32 Celsius. We were heading up almost 1,000m higher. Fair to assume there will be infamous -40 on the summit. Let’s hope the wind won’t pick up.

On the way up the Autobahn, I’m passing a French climber. He is sitting next to the track while clipped to his ice axe. His boots are off and he crazily massages his toes. I give him a smile, band over and make a joke about helping him out. He smiles back. How little did I know. A bit later I pop up at the top of the Pass. Full sunlight, beautiful day, feeling awesome! I’m overtaking another climbing pair in front of me. They move really slow, making me feel even stronger. It’s solid ice in this section, but it feels secure. Not much visible exposure, which might give a false sense of security. Here and there I turn around to see how the slope feels looking down. My skis are strapped on the pack, but the plan is to ski all the way. I have mixed thoughts. It will be in the sun here all day, but how much softer it can get before the afternoon? Air temperature is crazy low. Couple hours later I’m on the other side of Football Field, just before the climb steepens up to the final summit ridge. There is hardly any wind. I drop my pack, and pull out my lunch. Half a bagel, cheese and salami. Everything frozen solid of course. Slices of cheese and salami shatter like glass when I try to bite it. 2 water bottles under my jacket, still half full and unfrozen. Great, I drink as much as I can. No sign of other guys anywhere. Their pace must be pretty good, they will be somewhere on the ridge above me. The other 2 climbers catch up and sit down about 20 meters from me. I don’t feel like talking anyway. Once on the ridge, the views are incredible. The South Face drops down below your feet. It looks crazy! Andreas Fransson skied this couple years ago, in his solo 1.5 day attempt, while abseiling a few impassable sections. You got my utmost respect. Incredible feat!

I’m taking a few pictures with my phone and GoPro. The other camera battery is long time gone. Couple people in front of me. I can’t tell if it’s Jack, Leo and Vova, and which way they are heading. No cloud in the sky, but gusts of wind bring drifting snow, it’s hard to see. Felix will have a hard time with his eyes here a few days later on his summit bid. Finally, I see the guys in front of me. We are passing each other on the most narrow part of the ridge, just a few meters below the summit. Jack goes first. He fists my hand in return, but not much is spoken. Everyone got smile on their faces, and urgency to head down. Couple minutes later it’s me – standing on the summit. Beautiful views, snow drifts stops, even time freezes. Pretty special moment. I take a few pictures and a short video, before all batteries give up. I’m getting my skis ready, making sure the tips of the bindings are not iced up. I made up my mind on the way up. I’m gonna take a side slip from the summit and put climbing crampons back on for the narrow section of the ridge. It’s just not worth it, it doesn’t feel right. In the meantime, another climber reaches the summit. He gives me his camera and phone to take a couple pics for him. I’ve been on the summit for quite a while now, and would rather put my mindset towards skiing. But his smile is infectious. Before I know, I’m not just taking pic for him, but posing myself again in front of his camera too. Anyway, time to leave. I symbolically clip into skis. A few meters lower, they are back on my pack. Not the way I imagined, but I feel good about chicken out. It looks too exposed, harder than I thought. I’m back on skis when the ridge opens up. On the slope towards Football Field finally linking a few turns. Snow is terrible. Styrofoam with frozen chicken heads. Survival skiing at its best. Skating through Football Field, my knees are shaking. OK, I think I’m pretty tired. The steeper section towards the pass is just as solid as it was in the morning. I side-slip the top, but there is no point. Skis off, it‘ll be so much easier, safer and less energy consuming to down climb. The same for Autobahn, I just couldn’t be bothered, easier to down climb. Towards bottom of the traverse, no more than 200m from our tents I see Leo. He is half sitting, half lying in the snow. Firstly, I got a bit concerned. But then I see him laughing. I sit down next to Leo and we talk rubbish. Laughing at each other, he gives me all reasons why he can’t be bothered to go any further. “Look, the tents are right there. If I want, I can just bum slide from here. Just leave me here. It’s all good.” I smile back, “Doesn’t work like that mate. Fix your crampon and let’s keep rolling”. Leo smiles and says something like “I’ll be behind you”. Half an hour later I walk into the camp. Felix is here, he used today’s good weather to come up to High Camp. Nice to see him! I look up back towards traverse and Leo is still lying in his spot. I ask, if anyone got some tea boiled. Jack answered something along the lines: “You don’t want to drink from that, I just defrosted my hands in this pot.” What? I thought of it more like a joke. Let’s get Leo first. Vova gives me his thermos with tea and Felix volunteers to help. We get back to Leo, and all 3 of us – drunk with happiness and exhaustion stumble back to camp. This is it, this is what we came for. Summit is in the bag! Any more climbing or skiing it’s just a bonus from now on. I’m feeling really happy and relieved.

Don’t call it a day just yet. Jack looks pretty grim, holding both hands up without gloves. Leo has a closer peek, “looks pretty bad mate”. It’s hard to read Jack’s face. He is smiling but looks concerned at the same time. “It looks better now, but I had to cut the blisters.” What? I’m not really sure, I’m ready to admit the seriousness of the situation. Let’s get some rest first. I take crampons off and climb into my tent. Feeling my fluffy sleeping bag around me feels so good. All I have to do, is to zip up the tent, take off the boots and climb inside the sleeping bag. Taking off boots one by one, it feels great. I slide the sock off, and get a nasty surprise. Gee, my toes look quite purple. I wonder how long, before they get back to normal. I got a trip lined up in NZ in mid July. What am I talking about? We still got 2 weeks to get off this mountain!

…… the story is far from finished. Frostbite heal slowly, if at all. It cost me 6 toes, learning to walk again. Jack lost couple fingers, still having his dressings changed when I was writting this report for NZAC. I wish, I could say we leant our lesson. Not sure, …. I still wonder when things went wrong.


Note: This trip was also covered in a Newsletter of the New Zealand Alpine Club.