the West Buttress of Denali, as captured by Bradford Washburn, who is world famous for his incredible photos of the mountain
Standing 20,320' high, Denali (Mt. McKinley) is the tallest peak in North America. Sarah and I joined Aaron, Jason, Josh, and Sam on an expedition to attempt the West Buttress route. Though we wouldn't make the summit because of weather, we still had a great trip with some amazing scenery and awesome skiing.
Using an aerial photo of the upper portion of the West Buttress found on Wikipedia, I labeled the route and significant landmarks. Hopefully this will help orienting oneself when viewing the following photos.
topographic map of the entire route as found on SummitPost (Note: Our schedule and some of our camps do not align with the map's labels.)
After months of training, gear shopping, and packing, the preparation was finally over. We arrived safely in Anchorage with all of our gear. We were all stoked to finally get the ball rolling on this trip.
Worried about the infamous mosquitos of Alaska, Sam brought along a battery powered bug swatter with a built-in bug zapper.
After hanging out in Anchorage for an evening to take care of a few last minute items, we caught an early morning shuttle to Talkeetna. From Talkeetna, we would fly via ski plane to the Kahiltna Glacier at the base of Denali.
All climbers are required to pay a visit to the Talkeetna Ranger Station for a mandatory climber orientation and registration.
We spent several hours in the hangar getting our gear out of the duffel bags and into our backpacks. We had to be totally geared up (wearing ski boots and all) before getting onto the flight to Kahiltna.
While going through his stuff, Jason found a pair of insulated pants which, for several weeks prior to the trip, he thought he had lost.
With all of our gear ready to go, we headed to the West Rib for dinner. The weather conditions at the Kahiltna glacier weren't safe for flying, so we had to wait out the weather. At this point, we weren't even sure we would get a flight that evening.
Before half of our food arrived at our table, we received word from K2 Aviation that there was a brief weather window. We dropped everything and hurried back to the hangar to load our gear as quickly as possible. So much for one last domestic meal.
The two green canisters are CMCs (Clean Mountain Cans), which is the park's solution to human waste on the mountain. All #2 deposits were made into biodegradable bags within the cans, which sealed the contents inside until the bag could be tossed into a park-approved crevasse.
We flew in a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter, a single-engined, STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft.
The plane was equipped with retractable skis for the glacier landings.
our team, suited up and ready for action: Aaron, Sam, Jason, Josh, Sarah, and me (L to R)
getting ready for takeoff
Sam and Jason and a ton of gear bringing up the rear
flying just below the weather and just above a pass in the mountains
aerial view of two climbers making their way along the Kahiltna Glacier
In a bit of a blur, we hurriedly unloaded our gear from the plane. Snow began falling and the pilot was anxious to get back in the air.
We picked up fuel and sleds from the Kahiltna base camp. After a couple hours of rigging our sleds and getting roped up, we set off. Many teams spend a couple days acclimating to the 7,300' elevation of the base camp. Living at 7,000' in Los Alamos, we were fortunate to skip this phase and immediately start moving up the mountain.
The first part of the route descends for a couple miles down the 500' tall Heartbreak Hill. Climbers get a real appreciation for the name of this hill when returning to the Kahiltna base camp at the end of their expedition. Aaron, Josh, and Sam can be seen in the distance with Mt. Foraker towering 10,000' above them. The scale of this place is mind boggling.
Making full use of the 24-hour Alaskan sun, we pushed well into the night to arrive at our first camp (~7500') near the base of Ski Hill. The weather had deteriorated by that point, so we quickly put up the tents and headed to bed. Considering we were in Anchorage earlier that morning, it was quite a long day.
The following morning (Day 2), we awoke to clear skies and breathtaking scenery. Here, Jason and Sarah break down camp with the day's objective, Ski Hill, in the distance.
looking back down the Kahiltna Glacier with the Kahiltna Peaks on the left
the summit of Denali (far right), shrouded in a thin layer of clouds
pausing for a break at the base of Ski Hill
line of climbers heading up Ski Hill
Unfortunately, Sam learned via satellite phone that his son, Hans, was having some medical issues. He made the incredibly difficult yet admirable decision to head down and back to his family. The rest of us really, really missed him for the rest of the trip, especially after all the training and planning we had done together.
After what seemed an endless climb, we finally reached the top of Ski Hill and setup camp (~9,500'). Just two days of carrying heavy packs and pulling heavier sleds had already taken its toll on our shoulders.
Jason had a huge, insulated mug with a screw top. With just a plastic mug of my own, I was jealous the entire trip. That lid would have saved my sleeping bag and clothes from many splashes of luke warm cocoa.
The following day (Day 3) we pushed on to the camp at the base of Motorcycle Hill. We spent nearly the entire day inside a thick, damp cloud. Navigation would have been quite challenging had the route not been wanded by previous parties. At one point, I had the feeling that we were hiking on a large, rounded ridge when we were actually right in the middle of the glacier. The mind can react in weird ways once the horizon disappears.
Once we arrived at 11,000' camp at the base of Motorcycle Hill (background) that afternoon, we had completed our final single carry of the trip. From here, we would double carry to 14,000' camp, meaning we could cache our pesky sleds.
After getting camp setup and resting for a couple hours, we decided to cache half of our gear just below Windy Corner (13,000'). Climbing Motorcycle Hill was hard work, but we were thankful to no longer have sleds in tow. As we climbed around Squirrel Point, we found ourselves escaping the grasp of the clouds. Blue skies awaited just above us.
Josh and Aaron pushed ahead to the cache site, arriving well before us. They got back down to us just as we rounded Squirrel Point, still on our way up. We were all psyched to see the sun and clear skies.
We finally reached the cache just below Windy Corner by 9:00 P.M. Once our food and gear were buried several feet beneath the snow (and, therefore, out of reach of the mischievous Denali ravens), we pealed the skins off our skis for the first time of the trip. We were quite tired at this point, but that didn't dampen our excitement for our maiden ski descent on Denali. We had 2,000' feet of powdery bliss between us and the sleeping bags.
It was 9:00 P.M, but the sun didn't seem to care.
Glancing around Windy Corner, we could see the upper reaches of the mountain, including the Orient Express couloir.
Jason scooting off the climbing track and into over a foot of white bliss
Back below the cloud level, descending Motorcycle Hill in a whiteout was a bit dizzying. The light, deep snow made it worth it, however.
Jason shredding at 10:00 P.M!
A very frosty Sarah is ready for bed after a hard day's work.
Feeling the effects of the previous day, we had a lazy morning the next day (Day 4). We made full use of the luxurious kitchen left behind by the camp site's previous residents.
Through a brief break in the clouds, we could see the trail of climbers heading up Motorcycle Hill.
Jason waging war with tired legs and cold, stiff boots.
Sarah breaking camp, eager to join the conga line on Motorcycle Hill
looking toward Squirrel Point (right) from the top of Motorcycle Hill
Jason and Sarah taking in the bottomless view of the Peters Glacier below them
skinning around squirrel point with heavy packs required some delicate footwork
Sarah and Jason willing their skins to stick in the deep snow
From the top of Squirrel Point, we were rewarded with an appearance by Mt. Foraker.
Not knowing the conditions of Windy Corner, which is notoriously icy and exposed, we opted to play it safe by swapping skins for crampons. Adding the weight of our skis and skins to our already obese packs was far from pleasant. Somehow, Jason managed a smile before the grunt fest began.
After a long, arduous climb around Windy Corner and beyond, we finally arrived at 14,000' camp at 8:00 P.M. We were thankful that Josh and Aaron, having arrived several hours ahead of us, had built a walled campsite. Tired and hungry, we setup the tent, forced down some dinner, and hit the sack.
The next morning (Day 5), we retrieved our cache from below Windy Corner. Once again, we were treated to fresh powder and great turns. Here, Sarah poses just above Windy Corner during our return to 14,000' camp.
Jason skinning beneath an immense wall of rock and ice
Sarah following the trail as it weaves around a crevasse
Sarah posing in front of a huge crack just below 14,000' camp.
arriving back at the tent city known as 14,000' camp
our tents with Mt. Foraker in the background
Aaron taking in the views above our cook tent
the summit ridge (right of center) and the funnel shaped Messner Couloir in the center of the face
This climbing track heads to the West Rib. We would later use this track for a ski tour as part of our acclimatization.
Josh was psyched to reach his 1,000th pot of snow melting for the trip. He refused to let Jason or Sarah have any of it.
alpenglow on Mt. Foraker (17,004') just before midnight
setting sun on the Messner Couloir
Day 6 was a rest day. The Lazy-Snow Recliner was the place to be.
Sarah, Josh, and I took a walk up to the park rangers' site to check out the weather forecast.
-20ºF at 17,000' camp! We were glad that we opted to skip this camp and try to get to the summit in one push from 14,000' camp.
celebrating Josh's 29th birthday with some chocolate mocha cheesecake (Thanks to Mandy for tipping us off before the trip that Josh is a cheesecake fan.)
The following day (Day 7), we did a ski tour from 14,000' camp to the West Rib (as seen in earlier photo). It snowed nearly the entire time, making for poor visibility but awesome skiing.
Sarah wading in snow up to her knees
Jason wisely feigned a headache and turned around so that he wouldn't have to help set the boot pack. Smart cookie.
We took a long break once we reached the West Rib, trying to boost our red blood cell count as much as possible. At ~16,200', this was the highest Sarah and I had ever been.
Sarah getting her skis ready for the down
Sarah getting after it as Josh and Aaron look on
Sarah crossing the ski area boundary
For the next day of acclimatization (Day 8), we climbed up the headwall toward the fixed lines. Here, Aaron, Josh, and Jason can be seen setting a skin track (center, left of 5- person team).
close-up view of the three of them
Unfortunately, Jason had another bad day with dizziness, so he turned around at the base of the fixed lines. Sarah and I headed up with Josh and Aaron a long way ahead of us. It took us a while to get the hang of passing the anchors on the fixed lines, as Sarah is demonstrating here. 14,000' camp can be seen in the background.
almost to the top
The headwall sees a ton of traffic, so the park service maintains two separate lines, one for ascending and one for descending.
Sarah unclipping from the top of the lines with Mt. Foraker shrouded in clouds in the distance
From the top of the fixed lines, the route follows an exposed, sometimes narrow ridge all the way to 17,000' camp, the highest camp typically used on the West Buttress.
By the time Sarah and I reached Washburn's Thumb (shown here), Josh and Aaron were already returning from 17,000' camp. Instead of pushing on for the remaining few hundred feet, we decided to turn around and head down with them. At ~16,700', this would end up being the highest Sarah would make it on this trip.
Josh leading the way as Aaron follows
Sarah descending along the ridge
We met back up with Jason at the bottom of the fixed lines. He had done a lap back to camp and returned. The five of us enjoyed really great skiing back to camp. Our tracks can be seen on the left in the photo.
sunrise on Mt. Hunter (14,570') the following morning (Day 9)
Sarah and I posing on a cold morning in front of Mt. Foraker
Jason heading out for a morning walk to get the blood flowing
After several days of stomping into frozen ski boots and then kicking steps into the ice on the fixed lines, Sarah developed a painful case of traumatic toe. The swelling and infection left her prone to frostbite, ending her hopes for a summit attempt.
She would later have her toe nail surgically removed in an urgent care facility in Anchorage.
Jason skinning in front of Mt. Foraker
Jason heroically agreed to fill in as my wife for the remainder of the trip. He even put on a pretty hat in order to add an extra element of realism.
Mt. Hunter towering over 14,000' camp
Mt. Hunter (left), Mt. Foraker (right), and 14,000' camp (foreground)
Jason pushing up the headwall
Josh and Aaron stashed a stove and some food at 17,000' camp for us to use on our summit attempt. They also climbed up to Denali Pass (18,000').
I was quite tired by the time Jason and I reached the bottom of the fixed lines. Rather than pushing higher, we simply hung out for a while on the ledge there. We caught a brief clearing in the clouds and had a really fun ski descent back to camp. Feeling much stronger than previous days, Jason decided to make the most of the great ski conditions by continuing all the way down to Squirrel Point. It turns out that the lower mountain had gotten hammered with over two feet of snow, so he got back to camp with lots of gloating power. We were jealous.
Day 10 was another rest day, with our summit attempt planned for the following day. We spent most of the day consuming calories and water while lounging around camp.
We also readied our gear for the following morning.
On our intended summit day (Day 11), the alarms went off at the frigid hour of 4:00 A.M. We hurriedly got dressed, made breakfast, and shouldered our packs. Sarah snapped this shot of Jason and me just before we set off at 5:15 A.M. Josh and Aaron, who got a bit of a head start on us because I'm dreadfully slow at getting ready, can be seen in the background.
Jason was clearly feeling good on this particular morning. He rocketed up the fixed lines, leaving me in the dust. I fought a hard battle with keeping pace yet with conserving energy at the same time. If we were to summit, this was going to be the longest, most demanding day I had endured.
Josh was just heading over the crest as Washburn's Thumb came into view.
At this point, the weather really turned against us. By the time we arrived at 17,000' camp (the highest I have ever reached), the fierce winds and bitter cold were too severe for us to safely continue. Short of my spare socks and underwear, I was wearing every single layer of clothing I had brought with me on the mountain, and I was STILL cold. As much as we all wanted to see the summit, we knew we had to head down.
As a bit of consolation, we were at least treated to yet another incredible ski descent from he bottom of the fixed lines.
Jason and Mt. Foraker
Jason getting some style points
letting her rip in the deep powder at 15,000'
Carrying enough speed to coast all the way back to camp was no problem for Jason.
Our no-summit celebration was so spectacular that I had to wear goggles.
The extended forecast called for several days of fowl weather, meaning that we wouldn't have time for a second summit attempt. Fearing that the incoming storm could ground the ski planes for several days, we decided to head down the next morning. Luckily, we caught the last flight for several days.
The storm also thwarted nearly everyone on the mountain from reaching the summit for over a week straight. In the end, missing the summit just came down to poor timing. We were fortunate to avoid the dangerous avalanche conditions caused by all the high winds. There was a slide below the fixed lines that caused injuries and, tragically, a slide on Motorcycle Hill claimed the lives of four Japanese climbers.
In order to shed as much weight as possible for the descent, we gave away most of our food. A party of four guys from Taiwan were crazy excited to take all of our unused Mountain House freeze dried meals. They had come to the mountain with just three days worth of food, planning to scavenge plenty of food from descending climbers. Ballsy, but it worked.
parting shots of the surrounding peaks from our final day on the mountain (Day 12)…
Mt. Hunter (L) and the Chugach range (R, in the distance)
close-up of Mt. Hunter
close-up of Mt. Foraker
"Welcome to Burger King. May I take your order?"
With our sleds cached down at 11,000' camp, we had to fit everything at 14,000' camp into our packs. We had double carried on the way up, but we really wanted to avoid double carrying on the way down. With tons of gear lashed to the outsides of our packs, we looked like the Clampetts. Skiing with such heavy packs was brutal, especially when we hit some horrendous, breakable crust on Motorcycle Hill (from all the heavy winds). Getting up after a fall required removing one's pack. We were like turtles on their backs.
Once we retrieved our sleds, we could shed much of the weight on our backs. Still, skiing while being chased by a 50-lb sled wasn't trivial, either. After one particular fall, I got hammered in the head by my 80-mph sled. I totally lost my cool. I'm not proud of the fact that I physically abused an inanimate object with my ski poles.
Being the incredible gentleman that I am, I hid most of Sarah's stuff in Jason's sled so that she wouldn't have to deal with one. Accordingly, Sarah's job was to chase down the CMCs whenever a crash catapulted them from the sled's grasp.
Not far below Ski Hill, the grade was no longer steep enough to continue skiing. We donned skins one final time and began the long slog back to the Kahiltna base camp.
parting shot of Denali, which was getting pounded by winds at the time
Sarah soaking in the views from the Kahiltna Glacier
the Kahiltna Peaks (12,835' and 13,440')
Mt. Frances (10,450')
We were back at the Kahiltna base camp just 5-hours after leaving 14,000' camp. The speed gain on the descent alone made the added weight of carrying skis up the mountain worth every ounce.
When we first arrived, everything was totally socked in and it was snowing heavily. We thought for sure that we were going to be stranded there for the next few days. The base camp manager told us that there was a potential weather window in a few hours, however. Much to our disbelief, she was correct, and we got psyched when she told us that our plane was on its way.
Mt. Hunter (far R)
Sarah and I posing by the NPS sign
the first of three planes sent for us and a couple other parties
Mt. Hunter and a K2 ski plane
For the return flight, we rode in a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver. It was much smaller than the Otter from our previous flight, meaning that we had a much more intimate conversation with the pilot. The inclement weather made for a bumpy ride during the initial climb.
looking down the Kahiltna Glacier
flying through a tight notch in the mountains (Second Chance Pass, if I recall correctly)
looking toward the terminus of a glacier
Rock and ice gives way to streams and foliage.
looking back at Denali, our first profile view of the peak from the entire trip
coming in for landing
Twelve days on the mountain meant that Jason's hormones were a bit out of control by the time we got back to Talkeetna. He wasted no time getting down to business with the locals.
Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter, and Denali (L to R), as seen from 130-miles away in Anchorage
midnight sun on Mt. Foraker and Denali (Mt. Hunter is blocked by the clouds)
For two weeks after our return from the mountain, the peaks were trapped in the clouds (likely related to the storm that prevented us from reaching the summit). We were extremely lucky to catch this glimpse of them on our last night in Alaska before flying home the following day.