There’s no way around it: Denali is a big, cold mountain! The 2014 climbing season was made particularly challenging by high winds and lots of snowfall, resulting in a summit success rate of just 36 percent (the long-term average is about 50 percent). Despite the challenging conditions, the Highpoint Geology 2014 Denali Expedition succeeded in getting two of its four team members to the top via the West Buttress route. The team—consisting of Susanna Girolamo (Missoula, Montana), Joshua Phillips (Missoula, Montana), Alex Leone (Seattle, Washington) and me—spent 28 days on the mountain, with Alex and me reaching the summit on day 26.
On May 23, we were met in Anchorage by Elliot of Talkeetna Taxi, who shuttled us and our 600 pounds of food and equipment 110 miles north to the town of Talkeetna. After checking in with our air taxi service (K2 Aviation), going through the mandatory National Park Service ranger orientation, and spending a comfortable night in the K2 climber’s bunkhouse, we were able to get flown in the next day to Kahiltna Base Camp (7,200 ft). The 30-minute flight between Talkeetna and Denali takes you over rivers, forest, glaciers, and jagged peaks of the Alaska Range, and has to be one of the world’s most spectacular flights.
Preparing to unload gear from the plane at Kahiltna Base Camp.
We spent the next 10 days working our way up to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 14,200 feet: 3 days carrying and retrieving cache loads of food and stove fuel, 3 days moving to higher camps, and 4 days waiting out stormy weather.
Digging out the tent at Camp 2 (photo by Susanna Girolamo).
On the days when the weather allowed travel, snow conditions were generally good for skiing, and we were able to move efficiently on our alpine touring gear. We also benefitted from having rigid trace set-ups on our sleds, which we’d practiced skiing with a few months earlier on a winter climb of Kings Peak (13,528 ft), Utah’s highpoint.
Despite the challenging conditions, the Highpoint Geology 2014 Expedition succeeded in getting two of its four team members to the top via the West Buttress route.
We then settled in for 11(!) nights at ABC. Thankfully, the weather on this part of the mountain was relatively mild, with generally light winds (as opposed to high winds on the upper mountain) and only moderate amounts of snowfall (as opposed to heavy snow on the lower mountain). The summit saw very few successful ascents during this time.
At Advanced Base Camp, keeping an eye on the summit cloud cap (photo by Susanna Girolamo).
We kept ourselves occupied by eating, skiing out to the Edge of the World, reading, eating, skiing the lower part of the West Rib Cut-off route, ice climbing, ascending the headwall fixed lines to the col at 16,200 feet, skiing the Rescue Gully below High Camp, eating, building a putting “green” near our tents that we used for putt-putt golf and hacky sack, eating, caching food at High Camp, and building a sweet jump near our tents that several ABC skiers were able to catch some air off of (including Spanish ski mountaineer Kilian Jornet, shortly after setting a new Denali round-trip record time—via the Rescue Gulley—of 11 hours 48 minutes; see http://blog.summitsofmylife.com/2014/06/18/eng_mckinley-record/). Did I mention eating? A huge thank you to my teammates, and to our friends Wojciech and Andrzej (Poland) and Eric and Galina (Berkley, California), for many enjoyable and entertaining hours in the cook tent!
Passing time in the cook tent—the Highpoint Geology 2014 Expedition team (L to R): Joshua Phillips, Susanna Girolamo, Mike Hylland, Alex Leone.
Finally, on June 14, the 3-day forecast for the upper mountain sounded somewhat encouraging, and so we moved up to High Camp at 17,200 feet. The West Buttress route is not known for its technical difficulty, but the route between ABC and High Camp offers up plenty of alpine climbing challenge in a spectacular setting. Approaching the col at the top of the 45–55° headwall, you can’t help but notice the air between your heels and ABC, 2,000 feet below. Then, walking the spine of the West Buttress ridge above the col makes for an exhilarating approach to High Camp.
Alex on the headwall above Advanced Base Camp.
Descending the ridge near Washburns Thumb after caching food and fuel at High Camp (photo by Joshua Phillips).
The only illness experienced by the Highpoint Geology 2014 Expedition came at High Camp, where Susanna suffered from a headache, nausea, and loss of appetite—classic symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). The symptoms persisted through two nights, so on the morning of June 16, after weighing our options and coming to group consensus, Susanna and Joshua (Susanna’s fiancé) packed up and descended to ABC, where her symptoms completely vanished. Alex and I remained at High Camp for two more nights, and on June 18 were given our opportunity for a shot at the summit.
After so many days of stormy weather, June 18 was truly a gift. Thin clouds in the upper atmosphere dissipated by mid-day, leaving clear skies above a solid cloud deck around 12,000 feet, and winds were mild to non-existent. Alex and I crossed the Autobahn (between High Camp and Denali Pass) with no trouble, and worked our way up the steep snow-and-ice steps of the Harper Glacier next to the distinctively striped outcrops of Zebra Rocks (nearly black argillite intruded by dikes of nearly white McKinley Granite).
Alex at Denali Pass.
Climbing next to Zebra Rocks, above Denali Pass (photo by Alex Leone).
Across the Football Field, up Pig Hill, and then the spectacularly airy summit ridge brought us to the top of North America at 4:45 p.m. The relatively mild temperature (around 0 to -5°F) and near absence of wind allowed us to enjoy the summit for over an hour, taking photos and celebrating with about 10 other climbers. At 6 p.m. we began our descent, arriving back at High Camp at 8:45 p.m.
Starting up the summit ridge (photo by Alex Leone).
Denali’s summit, June 18, 2014.
After one last night at High Camp, Alex and I descended to ABC, retrieved our skis and a bit of other gear, and then made our way down the mountain to Kahiltna Base Camp in a single push, arriving a little before midnight. We were able to get flown back to Talkeetna the following morning, where we reunited with Susanna and Joshua for a couple days of restaurant hopping before our return flights home.
In the end, we traveled approximately 55 miles on the mountain and accumulated 29,000 feet of elevation gain. We ate very well (we kept our freeze-dried rations to a minimum), but each of us experienced close to 10 pounds of weight loss. But, other than Susanna’s bout with AMS at high camp, we stayed healthy, fit, and in good spirits in spite of all the uncertainty associated with the weather. I’m extremely proud of the way the team exercised patience and good judgment, flexibility and commitment to team goals, and indefatigable humor. It was an honor and pleasure spending a month on “The Great One” with such an outstanding group of people.
A Shout-out To Our Sponsors!
Dirty Bird Skis—Dirty Bird, based in Park City, Utah, developed a great ski to ride on Denali. Dimensions are mid-fat (131-96-115 mm), 180 cm long, with 35 cm of rocker tip. Paired with Dynafit Speed Radical bindings, the entire set-up weighed in at just under 9.5 lbs (4,300 g). A fantastic ski for soft snow, and they handled the variable conditions on Denali well. Can’t wait to ride them in some Wasatch powder!
At Advanced Base Camp, scoping out the next line to ride on the Dirty Birds.
Power Practical—Salt Lake City-based Power Practical provided a PowerPot, a cooking pot that doubles as a charging device. Paired with a Lithium 4400 rechargeable battery pack, the PowerPot helped me keep my electronics (including digital video camera, smartphone, and batteries for avalanche beacon) fully charged on the mountain. An ingenious device!
Cooking with the PowerPot on Denali.
Using the PowerPot with the Practical Meter and Lithium 4400 rechargeable battery pack.