Denali 2017 Trip Report
Route anotations image with permission from and thanks to Mark Thomas - http://www.markpthomas.com/
My friend Chris Guest with whom I had climbed the Standard West Buttress Route on Denali (6190m) with in 2008 (and Everest in 2009) hatched a plan back in 2015 to try to climb the more technical Cassin Ridge on Denali in the spring of 2016. Worries (well founded) about weather related to El Nino in 2016 resulted in us not going until 2017. Unfortunately Chris was unable to come due to a move abroad so my local buddy Jerry Evans and I set out on June 2nd 2017 to Anchorage to give it a go.
Me and Chris Guest on the Summit of Denali in 2008
We arrived in Anchorage with sunny weather in the early afternoon. We grabbed our bags and were picked up by our shuttle service who took us to REI to buy cannister fuel. After about a 2 hour drive we arrived in the cute town of Telkeetna and were dropped off at the air taxi service with our gear. We checked in to let them know we were in town and ready to fly in the morning and then set to repacking our bags (regular commercial airlines have standard bag weights of 50lbs while the air taxi allowed for 80lb bags). While organinzing our gear I could not find my boots and then realized that I had forgotten to pick them them up at the airport! For those of you reading this in the know, I "Franked" by boots. Because of the tight baggage rules since my last trip to Denali in 2008 we had taken pains to maximize our loads and I had taken advantage of an airline rule that allowed a ski boot bag not to count as a bag if travelling with skis. I had never travelled with a boot bag and simply forgot to wait for them. The logistical pain of trying to get the boots from Anchorage to Telkeetna by the morning was weighing heavily on me and the many scenarios possible dogged my mind. After spending quite a bit of time on the phone trying to contact the airport and airline without getting any actual person on the phone, it was clear that things were not going to be easy. It was truly embarrassing to call my wife Jen to ask her to help make calls when she herself (for those who know her) would absolutely never have failed to remember a bag. We were hungry and so we decided to walk into town to get some food and continue to work on it.
Takeetna's "downtown" is a US National Historic Site consisting of early 1900's buildings.
We decided to go to the Twister Creek restaurant attached to the Denali Brewing Company. Shortly after walking in I ran into a friend named Joe Kluberton who is the ex-boyfirend of Jen's cousin Sandy's friend Emma! Yes, a long connection but I had been rock climbing with him in Squamish last summer. Joe lives in Talkeetna in the summer and organizes logistics for the Alpine Ascents guiding operations on Denali. Joe invited us to join him and some friends at a table. After relaying my troubles to the table, a very affable guide named John Race said that he had some clients flying into Anchorage that evening and that he could send out an email to see if anyone could help. Wow - nice people! One of John's crew in Anchorage named Tom Lawrence drove to the airport that night and doggedly was able to get the airport police to find out who could help though they could not until the following day... Tom passed the torch to Tim Campbell who swooped in the following morning, got my boots and had them to Talkeetna by early afternoon. This experience reminded me that it is a small world filled mostly with fantastic friendly people. I can not wait to pay some of this kindness forward.
The DeHaviland Otter we flew into the glacier in.
The weather in Talkeetna was spectacular and we were able to fly into the glacier about 45min after my boots arrived. The seasonal "runway" on the Kalhiltna Glacier is often refered to as the "Kahiltna International Airport" and like most popular high-altitude mountains it is frequented by people from all over the world. It lies, give or take, at about 7200' in elevation. Not wanting to hang around long, we rigged our sleds with the 125lbs each of gear that we had and began to ski down the gentle "Heartbreak Hill" that receives its name from being the sting in the tail after decending so far on the return trip only to have to finish by going up. After decending Heartbreak Hill, the route up the glacier very gently rises until about 9700' just bellow the "Ski Hill" where, after a long ski we gladly unhooked our sleds and set up the tent.
I set up the Jetboil Joule hanging stove and got ready to melt some snow. I lit the stove, opened the valve a little and watched in horror as the valve control stem started leaking out fuel, I quickly turned it off but too late, the spitting fuel from the leaking valve caught fire and we had a fire hanging from the ceiling of our tent. I detached the stove and jettisoned the stove out the open door where it gratefully went out. I have since reviewed the Jetboil Joule system and although the many design ideas of this inverted, liquid feed canister stove are great, the actual finished design is riddled with flaws starting with the ridiculously long valve stem that it just begging to leak - do not buy one. Gratefully we had brought not one but two light weight backup stoves. The GSI 4-season stove worked great though we no longer had a hanging stove to use. After the long day and the stove saga we were ready to sleep.
Looking up toward the "Ski Hill"
We spent the following day sleeping late, eating and generally talking about our strategy. We decided to spend another night at the Ski Hill camp but to leave no later than 5am the following day to avoid being out in the blasting sun that was gracing us. Unlike most mountain trips, a summer expedition to Denali does not require the use of a headlamp. Because of the high latitude it is never dark out and instead one needs to employ the use of eye covers to keep the light out while sleeping. I pulled mine on and went to sleep about 10pm.
We were woken at about 4am by the sound of a helicopter landing at the lower end of the camp. We got out of the tent about an hour thereafter, cached some food and fuel (should we need them on an aborted trip from the Cassin where we might need to descend the NE fork of the glacier) and I set off on my skis to dump our "dog bags" in a crevasse near the camp designated for that purpose. About another 200m down the glacier from the crevasse I could see about 10 people standing around. I did not see a helicopter and no one was waving so I dumped our "bio bags" into the crevasse and skied back to the tent.
The individual use bags we lined our "Clean Mountain Can" or "CMC" (portable outhouse) with - essential equipment.
We skinned up to the 9500' camp and arrived early in the day. We spent the day lounging in the tent waiting for things to cool down. In the mid afternoon the owner of and guide for Mountain Trip, Bill Allen (great guy) who we had met on our flight in was skiing up with some clients to make a cache. I said hello and he said "you missed all the action this morning". I asked what happened and he explained that a climber had fallen into a crevasse and the several Rangers with chainsaws had been flown in to get him out as he was too stuck to be simply hauled out! You can read the Park Services report here and news articles here and here. It was a note to self to make sure we traveled at night on our way down the mountain on our return when the lower glacier would be even warmer. Also one of many reasons to be on skis rather then much less weight distributing snowshoes.
Early the next morning we packed up and began the ascent up to the 11'000' camp. We were pleased when we finally arrived and set up camp right below the steepest hill yet - Motorcycle Hill, its moniker a tribute to steep hill climb motor cycle racing. It is not as steep as that but with a heavy sled, it felt like it. We decided to leave early again the next day to ferry a load of about half our gear up to the 14,000' camp where we would cache it. Jerry left his skis at 11k and I packed mine on my sled. The route between 11k and 14k consists of several steep steps with longer sections of easier terrain in between. Motorcycle Hill is followed immediately by Squirrel Hill after which there is the much gentler grade of the "Polo Field" followed by another steep hill up to "Windy Corner". From Windy Corner, there is a traverse across a side slope and then easier terrain up to the camp. The sleds were heavy enough going up Motorcycle Hill that Jerry expressed his concern about slipping as the weight of the sleds conspired to pull us down.
The 11,000' camp looking up at Motorcycle Hill - that doesn't look so bad in the photo!
We slogged up the hills and stopped to eat at a location several teams had cached gear between Windy Corner and the 14k Camp. We ate some food sitting in the sunny but cool weather compared to the 11k camp. After a little food, we carried on up to 14k and sat for a rest on our sleds. Once recovered we found a hole where someone else had dug up a cache and pushed our gear into it and buried it with snow. Three bamboo wands taped together with a red "Tuck" tape flag marked our cache. We discussed how to get down, I had my skis but Jerry did not. I figured I would take the sleds down but Jerry would hear none of it and volunteered to take them down so I could enjoy the ski down - thanks Jerry! We descended together with crampons until we crossed several significant crevasses below the camp and then seperated. I locked my Procline touring boots into ski mode and set off. Wow, it was an amazing ski back down to the 11k camp. After hours of dragging the sled up, it took only about 15 minutes to ski down. Once in camp I set to melting snow for water while feeling bad that Jerry had to trudge down without skis. Jerry arrived in good spirits saying that the sleds had been no bother at all and that the walk down had been great scenery, something I had noticed less in my more hurried mode of transportation.
Skiing from 14k down to 11k
We spent the next day in the 11k camp to rest. I went for a short skin-up and ski down the slope connected to Motorcyle Hill for fun. The snow was great but the visibility was so so.
The next day we set out early again to carry our remaining geat up to 14k to stay. The weather that day started out crisp and clear like all our previous ones but by the time we got to the top of Squirrel Hill snow had started to fall and the wind had begun to blow. By the time we reached the bottom of Windy Corner the wind was howling and visibility was extremely limited. We persevered through the gale. It definitely lived up to its name, upon rounding Windy Corner the wind died considerably and snow stopped blowing. I had not been wearing goggles and had my head down following Jerry the whole way - thanks again to Jerry!!
Getting close to 14k camp
We were grateful and tired when we arrived in the 14,000' camp. We stomped out a tent platform with the help of some friendly folks from Seattle in an adjacent tent site then rested, set up the tent, rested, threw our gear in the tent, rested, blew up our air mattresses, got in the tent, rested, melted snow while resting, cooked dinner, ate and went to sleep.
The views at 14'000 were so so
The plan at 14,000' was to stay put a day or two and settle into the altitude a bit. The next day I skinned up and skied down the slope heading up to the West Buttress ridge a few times from just shy of 15,000'. We met a few other teams including some others planning to climb the Cassin Ridge. In talking with the Rangers and other teams we came to know of two groups that had been 3 days overdue from the Cassin who had been "worked" on the route. One team had lost their tent poles and after wading through waist deep snow to the summit ridge had spent a night out in a snow cave below the summit near the "Football Field". They had been out high on the mountain in the weather we experienced at Windy Corner on our final push to 14k. Up high the temperatures would have been close to -40 and winds gusting up to 45mph that day. Hearing these tales solidified our resolve that we would only head onto the Cassin if a weather forecast of at least 4 days of high pressure came. We still needed to acclimatize and so the next day we made a foray up to 16,200' at the top of the fixed lines heading 17,000' camp.
Ascending the fixed lines up to the West Buttress
The day after we rested in 14,000' and met Tashi, Tashi and Sanjay of Nepal. It turns out the each of the Tashis knew a different Nepalese friend of mine. It was neat to have another small world moment and we compared notes on who else we might know. Sanjay was mostly in the tent with a cough, bad enough that Jerry thought might be a lung infection.
On June 15th, we decided to head up and spend a night at the 17,000' camp and weather permitting to take a walk out towards the summit to help with our acclimatization for the Cassin. Once at the top of the fixed lines, the traverse across the ridge up to the 17k "Crow's Nest" camp is quite aesthetic.
Ridge heading to the Crow's Nest camp
We were quite tired on arrival to 17k but the weather was sunny (though cold) and we were able to set up our ultralight tent (we left our larger tent at 14k) without much trouble. We could see that the upper mountain was quite windy from all the blowing snow off it. The Nepalese guys showed up about a half hour after us and set up next door again.
The Tashi's setting up their tent (left); me setting up ours (centre). The "Autobahn" is the snowy slope above our tent.
The next morning the tent was frosted in like a freezer from all our breathing. It was another beautiful but still very cold day. Although the wind was quite high again on the upper mountain it was fairly sheltered up the "Autobahn" to Denali Pass so we decided to head up for a walk and turn around when we got too cold or tired.
Always a joy to wake with frost falling from the ceiling
The diagonal slog up the Autobahn to Denali pass was slow but fine and when we reached the pass we decided to continue on. It was cold - very cold and windy. I pulled out my down mittens with additional fleece liners which is kind of a big deal as I have litterraly never used but only carried them as backup on summit bids before (including Everest), preferring gloves. With my Goretex suit, two down jackets, puffy pants, goggles, cashmere balaclava, boots, over-boots and double mittens, I actually felt pretty cozy. The forecast had been calling for temperatures as low as -40c and wind of 30mph that day, I am not sure what the temperture was nor the wind but it was cold. We trudged on.
After a couple more hours of slow moving we were passing up a gentle incline just before the "Football Field". There I saw some really amazing snow/ice formations that looked like stemless wine glasses formed by the wind and sun. One of these formations looked almost exactly like a skull shaped Ghostface mask though the "eyes" where more rounded. It was a little disconcerting and I got a feeling that something bad might happen or that someone might die. I wanted to take a photo but my "camera" was my iphone and I was not taking off my mitts to put my exposed finger on the screen to take it. Unfortunately neither of us have any photos of that day out due to the cold. In spite of the bad omen, I did not get the kind of "red stoplight" intuition experience that would make me feel I was in any real danger so we carried on.
After crossing the Football Field we arrived at the base of "Pig Hill" - the steep hill leading up to the summit ridge. At its base, we met Tashi, Tashi and Sanjay! We had not known that they had left earlier in the day and they were on they way home from an apparent successful summit. The two Tashis were on either side of Sanjay holding his hands and at first it looked just like classic Nepalese friendship. As we got closer it was clear that Sanjay was struggling but moving. They told us we were about 45min from the summit. I looked up and remembering 2008 and feeling as I did, guessed that it was more like 2hrs. I asked them how they were and they said "tired" and quickly continued down. Two other climbers, Jeff and Priti, were above us climbing Pig Hill. They had been on the mountain for a week longer than us and were clearly better acclimatized and moving significantly faster. Resigned to carry on we began to grind up the hill. About two thirds of the way up the hill I watched as Jerry kind of laid out sideways stretching his arm. It looked a little odd and was followed up by Jerry yelling "Do you want to head down?". By this time most of me was warm but my left foot was really cold. I yelled up an emphatic "Yes!" and we began our descent.
At the base of the hill I clipped my ice tool onto my harness, pulled out my ski pole and we sauntered back across the Football Field and down. When we arrived above the step section descending to Denali Pass I reached onto my harness to grab my ice tool to find that it was not there... A little shocked I realized that it must have somehow worked its way off the carabiner (note to self - use a locking 'biner next time). I decided to wait for Jeff and Priti who were returning about 10 minutes behind us (having made the summit) to see if they had picked it up. "Did you guys by chance see a Black Prophet ice tool?" I asked. "Yes, right at the bottom of the Football Field; I swung it into the snow securely for you" Jeff replied. OMG, I don't know what he thought I might want to leave an ice tool high on the mountain for but it was hard to get angry when it is me who had lost it.
I was not excited about descending without a tool which is the safety margin that allows a climber to self-arrest if they fall but what could I do? We reduced our rope length to about 12' and we began slowly descending after Jeff and Priti, I carefully placing my feet and using my ski pole for additional support. As we neared the end of the Autobahn I could see ahead the Nepalese party and it was clear that one of the climbers was not on his feet and the other two were attempting to lower him. When we got close enough to talk I could see that Sanjay had a rope tied around his chest and Tashi was attempting to lower him on an axe belay (rope wrapped around the shaft of ice tool that was driven vertically into the snow). The other Tashi was beside Sanjay trying to shift him sideways as the route curved around the base of a rock rib and the was a crevasse below them that they were avoiding. The situation looked desperate and what was a 10 minute walk downhill was going to take them a couple of hours at the rate of progress they were making. I pulled out my whistle and blew it three times, paused and repeated. We could see camp and we saw a Ranger emerge from a tent below. I waved my arm and sent three more blasts. I then asked "Is it his head or lungs?" Tashi said it was his lungs. I pulled out my mini medicine kit in which I had drugs for both cerebral and pulmonary edema. I tossed the bottle to Tashi (beside Sanjay) who caught it and I said "give him two of the YELLOW pills" (it was nifedepine for pulmonary edema). I could hear Jerry telling tashi (above) that we would decend and get the Rangers, which we proceeded to do.
In the 10-15 minutes it took us to descend to the camp I used the SOS function on my Delorme InReach satellite communicator. We got to the Ranger encampment and several of the Rangers were getting gear on. We were ushered into their tent where we explained what was happening above. They thought that Sanjay might be able to be "short-roped" where he would be tethered to a climber and supported while he walked down. I made it clear that he was not going to be able to walk. I said "no way, he is fucked, he will need to be taken out on a sled". During the last hour, we had not had anything to drink as our water bottles were frozen shut. I, only half jokingly, said "we need to go get some water or we are going to have a couple additional casualties" to which the Ranger replied "thank for your help guys, go and take care of yourselves". Walking across back to were our tents were we ran into one of the Tashis. I was surprised to see him as I would have expected that they would need to stay with their friend. We told Tashi that the Rangers were mobilizing for the rescue. He asked where they were and we pointed to several figures putting on packs.
Back in the tent at 17,000' after alerting the Rangers - worn and worried.
Once back in the tent we warmed our water bottles and got something to drink. I looked at Jerry and said "he is probably going to die". I opened up the InReach and responded to the replies from the SOS service and explained that the Rangers were now alerted and effecting a rescue. It was about 1:30am and I was exhausted. Knowing that the Rangers would do all they could we went to bed. In the morning I woke up and Jerry said "bad news; Sanjay died". The Rangers had returned to the Nepalese tent about an hour after going to sleep. Jerry had still been awake and overhead the Ranger explain to the Tashis that when they (the Rangers) arrived to Sanjay that he was unresponsive and had pulled off his coat (common symptom of altitude related edemas and hypothermia). They attended him but he ultimately died. I was a little shocked to hear that both Tashis had descended to the camp and left Sanjay alone but who knows what condition they might have been in themselves. I only know that I felt bad going to bed myself and would certainly not have done so if Jerry had been the casualty. Looking back at what we could have done differently it starts with when we first saw them at the bottom of Pig Hill. In retrospect, I wish that I had inquired more deeply into Sanjay's condition and offered them my medicine stash while he was still ambulatory - just in case. Maybe we should have made friendly inquiries at the 14k camp and gently remined them that going up would be a bad idea for Sanjay. I also wish that I had administered the medicine to Sanjay myself. In speaking with Tashi later I learned that they never gave it to him. I would also have given him both dexamethasone (for cerebral edema) and nifedepine (for pulmonary edema). Once incapacitated it is difficult to know for certain which ailment one has subcomed to and with death being the likely outcome if they can't decend quickly, there is little risk in giving the "wrong" medication. I still really feel like we could have done more and that chaffs because I feel like I have learned the lesson of earlier intervention more than once. I hope there is no "next time" but if there is I pray I can be of better service. That morning we along with almost everyone else pulled out of the 17,000' camp to descend to 14'000' as the forecast was calling for more wind.
Above the 14,000' camp
We carefully descended the ridge and the slope above the 14k camp. I still had no tool (2nd tool was at the 14k camp) so it was a little slow as I took extra care. Life was much better at 14,000'. It was warmer and the camp was far better protected from the wind that was hammering the upper mountain. We lounged around until I saw Jerry looking at his nose in a mirror he looked up and I could see that his left nostril was black - frostbite. It did not look too bad but I told Jerry to go see the med tent and see what they thought. I said I was happy to stay and wait for it to heal or to depart, that it was up to him. About an hour later he was back and with a heartfelt pat on my back he said he was sorry but he needed to go home. It was a good call and exactly what I would have done. No point in risking making it worse and losing some nose over a couple of week mountain trip! I knew that my wife Jennifer would be overjoyed to hear that I was returning early as she was suffering from a flare of her autoimmune condition. This is the way it goes in the world of high altitude climbing - sometimes you don't even get on the route you intend to climb. The Cassin will have to wait and maybe a long time.
Jerry looking pretty weathered - nostril now red rather than black
Waiting for the plane to take us back to Talkeetna
The smiles of people who know that food and beer await!
Almost all the photo credits to Jerry Evans!