Mt Mckinley (Denali) Expedition

Mt Everest at 29,000 ft above sea level is the holy grail of mountain climbing.  Undertaking an Everest expedition is a very expensive, complicated and time consuming endeavor so I decided to try one of the closer 7 peaks first.  To get ready I summited Mt Rainier (14,400 ft) in Washington in June 2012 (story here) to see what mountaineering is all about.  I had a great experience and a McKinley 20,322 ft summit made the bucket list.   To get onto an expedition team I needed to complete a 4 day expeditions skills seminar first.  I completed that also on Rainier this past February and cemented my spot on the May 6th Denali expedition team. 

The experience is really hard to put into words but I’ll do my best. 

The team first met one another in Anchorage Alaska on Tuesday May 6th.  We loaded up a van with our personal gear and food and drove about 3 hours to a town called Telkeetna.   6 climbers and 3 guides made up the team. In no specific order it was myself 44, John 44 –  an Orthopedic Surgeon from Arizona, Bob – 57 a retired Oil Executive from Texas, Stephen 32 – a CT Scan Specialist from Colorado, Deepak 30 – an Apple Engineer from Silicon Valley and Yun – 29 a Cisco engineer from Boston.  Our guides were Mike from Colorado (11 Mckinley summits plus MANY others), Solveig from Washington  (75 Rainier summits and her husband lead the seminar mentioned above) and Steve from Boston (10 rainier summits and a great guy/guide). 

Most of Wednesday May 7th was spent in a hangar at K2 Aviation.  The guides went through a very thorough gear check to ensure everyone was properly equipped for the expedition.  

We then divided all the “group gear” into our packs and duffels so that we could share the burden of bringing it up the mountain.  This consisted of over 100 lbs of group food (mainly breakfasts and dinners), cooking supplies (pots, pans, 10 gallons of fuel, burners), shovels, saws and 5 tents (1 guide tent, 1 cook tent, and 3 tents for 6 climbers).  In addition to personal gear we each had about 20 lbs of lunch and snacks that we needed to bring to last us approximately 21 days on the mountain. 

Thursday morning our gear was weighed and we boarded 2 small planes and took took a 45 minute flight to base camp to begin our adventure.   We started at 7,200 ft each with approximately 40 pounds packs and 40 pound duffels on sleds attached with a rope to our packs.  

Traveling over a glacier is very dangerous due to visible and invisible crevasses everywhere.  We were divided into 3 rope teams, 1 guide and 2 climbers per team and set off on the Kahiltna Glacier glacier by about 2 PM. 

It didn’t take long for someone to step into a crevasse.  Invisible ones are covered by snow bridges. You can’t see a snow bridge, it looks like a normal safe path.  They defrost during the day and become hidden land mines. One wrong step and down you go which is why everyone is on a rope team about 20-30 feet appart.  Bob was 1st only a few hours into day 1.  I had my misstep around day 10. 

The goal of the expedition is to reach high camp (17,200 feet) and attempt a summit. I won’t bore you with day by day details but will try to recap and summarize the highlights.  It is impossible to get up to high camp fast.  Too much weight to carry and the body needs to acclimatize to higher altitudes slowly so the strategy is as follows:

Step 1:  Get to certain point and cache some gear & food (dig a huge hole in the snow and bury it).
Step 2:  Climb on to the next level and set up camp.
Step 3:  Next day come back down and retrieve the buried cache and bring it to camp.
Step 4:  Spend some days at camp to acclimatize to that altitude.
Step 5:  Bring a new cache load to a higher altitude.
Step 6:  Go to Step 2 and repeat.  

The distances seem small but keep in mind its all up hill, sometimes at 45* or steeper, with heavy loads and there is less oxygen to breath with every step.  This was NOT easy.

Setting up camp after a long climbing day was exhausting.  First a guide needs to use a 9 ft probe to check the snow to make sure we don’t set up on a snow bridge and potentially fall into a crevasse.  Once an area is deemed safe it needs to be leveled (shovels and snow shoes).  Then a cooking/dinning area needs to be dug out and a tent put up over it followed by unpacking and putting up our sleeping tents.  And after 3 hours of doing this it’s time to build snow walls to protect the tents from the wind and falling/drifting snow.  Snow walls are erected by sawing blocks of ice/snow from the ground.  It’s a very laborious process but you end up with a  camp site that looks something like this.  

We repeated all the above up until camp 4 at 14,200 ft.  After a few days at 14 we attempted to move a cache up to 16,000 in preparation for a move to high camp.  We were turned back after an hour of climbing by sub zero temperatures and very high winds.  We got our cache up to 16,000 the next day then started waiting for a good weather window to move to high camp and attempt a summit but the weather gods were not on our side.   This is a view from 16,000 after climbing a 55* ice wall for 800 vertical ft. 

Also during our stay at 14 we took a 30 minute hike over to a spot called The Edge of the World.  Spectacular view with a 5,000 ft drop on the other side of that rock.

Days of waiting for a weather break did get a little tedious. After living at camp 4 for 9 days and 18 days into the trip I had no choice but to call it quits. The team had enough food and was willing to wait another week for better weather.  With no guarantee that waiting another week would result in a summit Bob and I found out that a 3 person rope team was going back down to base camp so we joined them.  

Going down was SO much easier.  With every 1,000 ft descent you’re getting more and more oxygen back into your system and you feel like superman.  From 14,000 we got to 7,800 in 6 hours, set up camp, spent the night and got back to base camp in 4 hours the next morning.

Miscellaneous info….

OMG is it bright on McKinley. It is almost impossible to see without wearing dark glacier sun glasses.  Over exposure without glacier glasses can burn your retinas.  Snow and ice is everywhere reflecting the sun. The inside of my nose was sunburnt and pealing.  I wish I was kidding.   The sun doesn’t set in the spring and summer so we had white nights throughout the trip.  Nor does the sun move east to west.  Denali is so far north the sun moved in this weird arc like motion. Wild to experience.  

OMG is it cold!  Air temperatures ranged from 30* F at base camp to sub zero as we moved higher.  Add wind chill to that it was brutal when the wind was blowing.  Even at 20 MPH when you’re in a tent it feels like you will be blown off the mountain. A huge pack turns into a sail and walking becomes very difficult in the wind.  The day before Bob and I went back down there were 70 MPH gusts reported at high camp and a team lost a tent during the night and were forced to move into someone else’s to survive the night.  

EVERYTHING in your pack and tent freezes rock solid.  You need to be very proactive about what you need today and the next day and either keep it in a base layer pocket so your body heat keeps it warm or throw it in your sleeping bag so it defrosts during the night.  If I wanted a PB&J sandwich for lunch I needed to sleep with the jar and the bagel in my bag so I can make a sandwich for lunch in the morning.  

On rest days when the sun was out (which was most rest days) it was actually very comfortable outside.  About 40*, no wind and the tents warmed up to about 70* with direct sunlight. 

OMG is it gorgeous.  Everywhere you look is more spectacular than the last place.  Seeing clouds roll in below and above and how they snake their way over ridges and peaks is just incredible.  Even with the super long 9 day stay at camp 4 every day brought new sights.  

OMG was this hard!  Even though I summited Rainier and did the training seminar there I was not fully prepared for the physical aspect of this trip.  Cocky me thought that Ironman training would get me through this.  Boy was I wrong.  The rest of the group spent months wearing 70 pound packs on real hikes or the stair master.  I did get through each stretch (sometimes barely) but I was hurting more than most after each one.  Major lessoned learned. 

OMG was I hungry.  With the cold and physical exertion of climbing with a heavy load it just seamed impossible to take in enough calories to keep up with the burn.  I lost 10 pounds on the trip and have been pigging out from the minute we landed back from base camp.

OK I’ll stop with the OMG’s…. Breakfasts and dinners were interesting.  Melting snow seamed like it was a never ending job for the guides.  They would fill up a 20 gallon bag with snow and bring it into the cook tent.  From there they would scoop the snow into a large pot over a flame and melt it.  

Breakfast and dinner started with hot drinks first.  After the water would boil they would fill up our cups for hot chocolate, tea, apple cider, coffee etc…   Then the pot (or pan) would be used to cook the meal and afterwards more snow was melted to fill our water bottles.

To conclude….the answer to the question everyone asks is…. CMC – Clean Mountain Container.  You figure out the question.   When the bag is full it gets tossed into a crevasse.  That is definitely the shittiest part of the guide’s job. Pun intended 🙂

And with that I think I’m finally done trying to describe this adventure.  A few days after returning home I learned that the team needed to turn back as well after spending an epic 13 days waiting at 14,000 for a summit bid.  Major kudos for their tenacity and fortitude!