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A climb of Denali by members of the Sierra Club's Wilderness Training Committee

By Nile Sorenson

Stuck in a tent for three days at 19,300 feet on Cerro Aconcagua in 1999, Matt Richardson and I started talking about climbing Mt. McKinley (hereafter in this write-up referred to with great respect as Denali "the Great One"). After several years of imagining and planning, everything started to materialize. The addition of Maria Roa and Joe White made our team complete.

The summer of 2001 was a banner year for climbers attempting Denali. It happened to be one of the best weather years in recent history. Our team reaped the benefits of the good fortune. National Park Service (NPS) statistics record that 1305 climbers attempted the climb with a 65 percent success rate. This was nearly a record.

Success rates usually average between 30 to 45 percent. Another record was equaled this year in that there had been no fatalities for three years in a row. However, these numbers do not reflect the casualties due to frostbite, falls, or altitude-related injuries.

We made most of the arrangements for services or shuttles over the Internet. We also referred to guidebooks by R.J. Secor and Colby Coombs for the West Buttress route. These books give details of much of the climb and needed gear.

Day 1. Our team took a red-eye flight to Anchorage where we met our prearranged shuttle, Denali Overland Transport. They were willing to pick us up at the airport at 2:30am. Riding with us were two Russian climbers who were at the airport when we arrived. Sitting in the front of the van was a climber with frostbitten fingertips. He had been at the hospital in Anchorage for treatment and was now returning to Talkeetna to join the other members of his group when they came down the mountain. Needless to say, meeting a climbing casualty face to face at the airport was a rather sobering way to start the trip-our first surprise.

Just short of three hours later we arrived in Talkeetna. From this quaint little town, climbers assemble to fly in small single-engine planes equipped with skis and land on a finger of the Kahiltna Glacier, 15 miles below the summit of Denali. Of course pilots only fly if the weather on the mountain is good, so often times climbers are stranded for days in Talkeetna.

We had arranged to fly up to the mountain with Doug Geeting Aviation. It was our impression that Geeting's service had a bunkhouse of sorts near the airport where we could get some sleep or even stay if the weather was bad. This was incorrect. Doug Geeting has no bunkhouse-our second surprise. 

There were several sleeping climbers crammed into the small, carpeted, space in his business office. This was the "bunkhouse." Several of the other flight services have a decent bunkhouse that accommodates waiting climbers due to bad weather. The-K-2 facility looked impressive. 

After sleeping a couple of hours in the van, we opened the Roadhouse restaurant at 6.3Oam for a great breakfast. The NPS ranger station is just down the road and opened at 8am. We greeted the ranger as she put the key in the door. In order to obtain a permit, climbers must register with the NPS and place a deposit three months in advance.

Our expedition name was CSF-Climbing Safely with, Friends. Besides, CSF was easy to write on all the wands that we would use up on the mountain to mark routes and caches. Each, climber must complete the registration process in person at the ranger station. The rangers collect the balance of the permit fees and actually look at pictures on your ID to verify you are who you claim to be. You then are treated to a two-hour slide presentation on climbing the mountain. 

When I first heard there would be an orientation, I rolled my eyes, expecting a waste of time. It turned out, however, to be informative and helpful. Our ranger, Karen, was not just an office person. She had spent substantial amounts of time on Denali and had summited several times. This was a much different experience than interfacing with the park service people we typically deal with in, Lone Pine or Bishop, who for the most part are office staff or just casual hikers, not climbers. Karen reviewed current route conditions, gave very specific instructions on human waste disposal and queried us on our gear.

We obtained permit #251 and started the walk to the airport. We finalized the finances with Geeting's air service and sorted gear to go up to the mountain. Shortly, all four of us and all our gear were flying with Doug Geeting himself. The flight is spectacular, including the glacier landing at the 7,200-feet base camp.

We checked in with the base camp manager, Lisa, just after noon and obtained our six gallons of white gas. This was way too much gas for the four of us. We ended up leaving a gallon at base camp and later tried to give away several liters up at 14 camp. We casually set up camp and started organizing gear.

Day 2. We spent the day acclimatizing and doing some rope work with crevasse rescue practice on the big crevasses just north of the base camp. We also hooked up our sleds and practiced towing some gear. This is a must. It is surprising how unruly the sled can be with 50 to 70 pounds of gear loaded, particularly going downhill or traversing.

Day 3. The plan was to get up during the night and travel in colder temperatures to 7,600 feet or more, commonly called 8,000 or 8 camp. Climbing up a glacier with hidden crevasses is safer when it is colder and the snow is more solid. 

We awoke a little after midnight to a snowstorm and were a little concerned about traveling in a light snowstorm and whiteout so we slept in. Finally around 6am Maria and I were so antsy that we convinced everyone to get going.

We started down the glacier on Heartbreak Hill. You lose 500 feet of elevation in a mile from -base camp before you get down on the Kahiltna Glacier to move up the mountain. This is especially bad on your way down the mountain-after the work of reaching the summit, or even worse, trying and failing to reach the summit, knowing you are a few hours from a hot shower and a hamburger and having to make it up that 500 feet is, as the moniker says, heartbreaking.

Joe was the trailer on the rope and consequently had the hardest job with managing the sled since it was not connected to the climbing rope.

The weather cleared in a couple of hours to spectacular views. We moved into 8 camp at about 3:15pm, set up tents, and started the everyday task of melting snow for hours to get enough water.

The snow was especially cold, and at this altitude the stove was not at its most efficient: To give the snow a head start we would gather it in a black plastic trash bag and let it sit in the sun. We had to have some water in the pot to start the melting otherwise the snow would scorch. It seemed like a never-ending process.

Day 4. We were up at 4:30am and soon moved up Ski Hill. About halfway up I tossed the biodegradable poop bag into a huge crevasse. It made me a little uneasy to dispose our waste like this, but that was the instruction we were given.

We spent the day moving to 10,000 feet. We had hoped to move clear to 11 camp, but it was too much and our heavy loads were taking a toll. We made camp at about 10,000 feet, just below Kahiltna pass amid snow flurries. This had been a hard day and we were exhausted.

Joe's hips were raw where' the pack belt was rubbing due to heavy loads and constant tugging of the sled. But basically our team was doing well-just a few headaches, and hot chocolate and good food at dinner had a way of eliminating those.

In general we each ate what we liked: Matt favored freeze-dried, REI-type meals, Joe and Maria got creative with rice dishes, and I tended toward ramen noodles. An advantage to mountain climbing is that nothing spoils. You have the largest refrigerator in the world at your disposal. We brought butter pats, which I put on tortillas then set on the lid of our water-boiling pot for a warm, high-carb treat. We brought Twix-candy bars because they didn't freeze. Hot Tamales candy, bagels, and tuna- fish in a pouch were some of the other items that worked well.

Day 5. started out cold but warmed up nicely. We moved quickly-up to 11,000 feet where there is a large camp with lots of climbers and tents. Eleven camp sits in a rather large bowl below Motorcycle Hill and then Squirrel Hill. 

We pulled in after two hours and set up in a nicely established area that had just been vacated. by another team. This would be a comfortable place. It had large walls of snow blocks enclosing our tents. Our plan was to stay at 11 camp for two days to acclimatize.

I was feeling great and talked Matt into carrying some food up higher to cache. We started up the two previously mentioned hills. These are rather formidable climbs-we were at about 12,300 feet in a short distance.

The day was gorgeous and the view spectacular. We buried some food as deep as we could to keep it away from the ravens, marked it well with wands, and headed back to 11 camp. Within just a few hours, a storm came in and dumped a bunch of snow on us. Below 14,000 feet it was typical on the mountain to experience sudden whiteouts and snowstorms.

Day 6. We loaded 15 days' worth of food per person and several containers of fuel in our packs and moved up the mountain to cache the load. I had to break trail in the new snow but all went well. We made Motorcycle Hill then Squirrel Hill, and started to traverse to Windy Corner.

The slopes above us on the traverse were potential avalanche areas, and we cautiously went by. Most of the chutes were rather shallow and small, not permitting much mass accumulation.

However, in order to avoid a large crevasse field we needed to stay fairly close to the base of the ridge, putting us close to the run-out zone - the area of the slope the avalanche would most likely move down before stopping.

Windy Corner lived up to it's name - the wind was blowing fiercely. We rounded the corner to find many crevasses with some bridges. We moved up to about 13,300 feet where we dug a deep cache and marked it well. It started snowing hard and we hustled to get back to camp again, somewhat concerned about avalanches along the traverse. By the time we reached the top of Squirrel Hill, it was a total whiteout and snowing.

I was quite surprised to find a lot of climbers moving up the mountain in these conditions. With the new snow, the chutes, Windy Corner had, to be dangerous. Maybe they all knew something we didn’t, or maybe they were just stupid

We made it down the hillside and back to camp. It snowed for about eight hours with 4 to 6 inches accumulating. Four NPS rangers had moved into camp next to us, sharing one of our snow walls. We struck up a friendship with one of them, Kevin, that would last for the next week and a half.

Later that evening, after dinner, we found out from Kevin that two teams had been caught in an avalanche near Windy Corner. There were no fatalities as they were able to dig themselves out. As we had expected, the slopes did slide, but not with enough mass to bury the groups or sweep them into the crevasse field.

It was at once sobering and bolstering to know that we had made the right decision by staying put. Denali was no place for mistakes, and we intended to avoid making them if we could.

Day 7. Our original plan was to move our camp to 14,000 feet, but after the previous days' snowfall we were leery about moving past the traverse with the new snow. We slept in. We shouldn't have. Lots of people were moving up and down the mountain.

The day started out to be rather nice, then turned cold. We decided to pack up and move. We started at 2pm, hauling our sleds and all our gear up the hills. We moved past our cache at 13,300 feet and headed 'into 14 camp located at 14,200 feet. It was very cold and blustery. We set up quickly, heated some water, had dinner and went to bed. This was another hard, day, but we were now at 14 camp and, for the most part, on schedule.

Day 8. Our plan was to go-back to 13,300 feet and pick up our cache, which we did. Matt's thermometer read 16 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. It was cold. After picking up the cache, we now had all our .gear and food situated at 14 camp.

Day 9. We loaded packs with food and fuel, intending to carry a load to the top of the head wall at 16,200 feet. The winds were very bad, but we made the climb and buried the cache.

The top of the head wall consists of 800 feet of fixed lines. These were straightforward but quite icy, and in some places as steep as 55 degrees-a pretty good grunt with a full pack at 16,000 feet.

Upon returning to camp, the weather forecast posted at the NPS tents called for a big storm. Everyone set to work fortifying walls and tents.

Days 10 to 14. The storm stayed out in the Bering Sea. We could see the thunderheads out there. There was a little snowfall almost everyday with strong winds up high on the mountain much of the time. Many climbers returned from 17 camp without summiting, and many of them looked pretty battered up from the sustained cold and winds.

This threatening storm would stymie us for the next four days. We had hoped to move up to 17,200 feet or 17 camp, but the bad forecasts and constant threat of the storm kept us locked in at 14 camp.

We had now spent a week at 14 camp and were down to one more day of food and fuel. This was a drag, but turned out to be a blessing in that all of us were extremely well acclimatized. Nearly every day some of our team
climbed up to 16,000 feet and one day close to 17,000 feet. Each of us paid attention to what his or her own body could handle. These climb high-sleep low scenarios made our team very strong.

Day 14. Finally we moved our camp. We packed everything and started up the head wall. We passed our cache at 16,200 feet,
picking up three or four days of food, and continued to 17 camp. This. was a very hard move bringing all the gear, food, and fuel up the head wall and the ridge crest up to 17,200 Feet. We camped in a broken-down, walled area that we would need to improve -the next day.

Day 15. We thought about trying the summit, but it was a little windy in the morning. Besides, we were gassed from the previous day. We resolved that tomorrow would be our day. All night long the wind blew pretty steady with occasional gusts. I didn't sleep much thinking that we had missed our chance by not attempting the summit during the previous day. The winds kept up till about 5 am, then started to settle down.

Day 16. Father's Day. We prepared for our summit attempt and left at 9am, a typical time for groups to pull out of 17 camp. Earlier, it was just too windy and cold.

On the traverse to Denali Pass, I placed several pickets for protection of our team. (Pickets are long, T shaped pieces of aluminum that can be pounded in the snow' and used as anchors for ropes.) The winds plagued us for the next two hours up to the pass, then for another hour on our way toward Arch Deacon's Tower.

Suddenly they stopped. By the time we were on the Football Field just below 20,000 feet, there was hardly a breeze. The Football Field looks like it sounds: a flat area big enough for a stadium. It's easy to maneuver because it's flat; but it can be perilous in bad weather-with no features, it's easy to lose your orientation in a whiteout.

We dumped our packs there and made the final push to the summit ridge carrying water and food stuffed - inside our jackets. We left the rope with the packs. This was a-mistake, since the summit ridge was a knife-edge snow cornice with substantial exposure.

We carefully maneuvered through the quarter-mile ridge and made the summit on a picture perfect day at about 5pm. There was barely a gentle wind: We had been lucky enough to summit on probably the best day of the year. What a view and what a thrill. We were the highest people in North America for that moment.. Denali had allowed us to reach its summit.

It took us about two and one half hours to make it back to 17 camp.

Day 17. We packed up and moved clear down to 11 camp, picking up remaining caches at 16,200 feet and 14 camp. Each of us now had a monster load. Going downhill with a sled was extremely awkward, particularly for Joe, the back climber on the rope team.

Day 18. We made it all the way to base camp and were ready for a pickup by the airplane. It took several flights before we all made it back to Talkeetna due to the number of tourists flying on the planes that day. Pilots would sometimes only pick- up one climber at a time. This was frustrating to say the least being within minutes of pizza and soda and yet unable to get in a plane.

I waited for nearly six hours before I got picked up. Our gear didn't make it back till the following day.

We had a wonderful shower and a large hamburger with fries that evening. Our lips were so chapped; and blistered we could hardly open wide enough to get the hamburger in. The catsup and salty fries burned, but it was great. We were satisfied.

Day 19. We picked up a shuttle to Anchorage, boarded a standby flight to LA, and arrived home jubilant. Each of us had done a spectacular job of managing the rope, climbing hardware, and gear necessary to make the summit. Each of us had also met our own individual physical challenges. None of us could have done it alone. Denali is a goal accomplished and a wonderful memory.

Nile Sorenson (an E rated leader) is currently the Technical Snow Chair for the Leadership Training Committee, an assistant group leader in Orange County WTC, and also the Angeles Chapter WTC training coordinator.

Maria Roa (an M-rated leader) is a group leader, in Wilderness Training Committee San Gabriel Valley and has served as the San Gabriel Valley WTC chair.

Joe White is a very vocal Sierra club advocate in the San Diego area.

Matt Richardson (an M-rated leader) was an assistant leader for several years in WTC San Gabriel Valley. He was killed last July in an avalanche on Huscuran-a peak in Peru.
Copyright© 2003 by Nile Sorenson. All Rights Reserved.


Essays, climber/leader documents and website information

  About Alpine Mountaineering:
  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essential Systems       Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

  Suggested Leader's Guidelines and Needed Information:
  Suggested Leader Guidelines    Suggested information you should receive from your organized Leaders
  Group Roster, Informed Consent, Liability Release and Sign-In Agreements.  This pdf form will need to be signed by you at the trail head
Sample Prospectus    Make sure every leader tells you what the group is going to do; print a copy for your "responsible person"
Participant Information Form   This pdf form can be printed and mailed or handed to the Leader if requested or required
Emergency and Incident Report Form    Copy and print this form. Carry two copies with your Essentials 
Participant and Group First Aid Kit   
Print this form. Make up your own first aid essentials (kits)