After caching on Day 11, Jason and Brent took another rest day. If you read Jasons analysis of reasons he thinks they were not successful in 2018, not taking enough rest/acclimation days was high on that list. They used their rest day to organize gear and decide what they would take with them to the next camp. They whittled down their loads by leaving all the “luxury” items behind, such as the solar charges, extra batteries, their cooking pan, cleaning wipes, and more. This will make their ascent up to the next camp a little bit easier, and at the high elevation every little bit helps.
Today, Day 12, the made the climb up to 17,200 foot camp, also known as High Camp! This is the last stop before the summit. After waking up to negative 6 degree temps, they packed their gear and were on their way.
On the way, the stopped and grabbed the items they had cached on Day 10 at around 16,000 feet. They did this so they do not have to use an extra day to go back down and get the items. This allows them to have a full rest day if they want before making a summit attempt.
High Camp is know for its windy conditions and subzero temperatures. Temps are predicted to be 15 below zero (or colder) over the next few days. Generally, you want to limit the time spent here as everything you do puts you at risk for cold exposure injuries (like frostbite), and because its much harder for the body to function so high up.
That being said, it looks like the next few days should have decent weather. It will be cold but the winds should not be super strong and there should not be any storms. That means unless something unexpected comes up (bad weather or illness) we can expect the guys to make a summit bid sometime in the next 2-3 days!
Summit Day is generally a grueling 12-15 hour day, so teams making a summit attempt need to have good weather and feel fit and ready to go. Last time they were turned around due to potential cold injuries combined with worsening winds.
Keep your eyes open for updates about a potential summit bid!
Today started our a little rocky. Jay woke up feeling better, so the decided to head out early to cache gear a at around 16,200ft. Unfortunately, they had a false start. They left fairly early, and it was extremely cold. They turned back to the tent feeling defeated.
Thankfully, the rallied! After some rest, some food, and warming up a bit (as much as you can warm up in negative temperatures) they set out to cache gear in the warmer afternoon weather.
To do this, they had to travel up the steep and dangerous Headwall, gaining about 2,000 feet over 1 mile. This area is so steep that the park services puts in “fixed lines” for climbers to use as the go up. These are ropes that are attached to the wall with ice and snow screws. Climbers then attach themselves to the rope for protection using gear they brought with them. The park regularly has to go adjust these as the season goes on, because the screws will start to pull out as layers of snow/ice melt.
After caching gear, they then descended back to 14,200 foot camp. They will likely take another rest day before moving to High Camp at 17,200 feet. Once you reach High Camp, ideally you summit and then descend as quickly as possible. This is because the stress on your body is much higher, and the weather at the high levels can be much colder and more unpredictable.
After our near success in 2018, it took a few years to decide to go back for another attempt on Denali. In the winter of 2021-2022 my friend Brent and I committed to going back in the coming spring.
Have you heard of type two fun? Look it up.
How to Prepare for 3 Weeks on a Mountain
The main difficulties on the West Buttress route of Denali include: 1) Weather – cold and frequent storms. 2) Challenging winter camping conditions (see 1#). 3) Long physically tiring days. 4) The ever-present risk of falling into one of the Alaska Range’s monster crevasses.
Weather To mitigate the risk of cold, we needed to very carefully consider what we would bring for clothing and shelter. Luckily we figured this out in 2018. The only change would be we could swap out our four-person Mountain Hardwear Trango 4 tent for a (slightly) lighter North Face VE 25 three-person tent since we decided to go as a team of two this time.
Our clothing for 2022 will consist of many layers which can all be worn together if the temperatures really plummet (-20F is common at high camp and above). For the legs I’ll have: light weight long underwear, heavy long underwear, soft shell pants, hard shell pants, and puffy down pants. Up top I’ll be wearing a combination of: moisture wicking base layer, heavy weight base layer, zip up fleece, mid-weight fleece-lined soft shell, a light hard shell jacket, and an expedition-weight down parka. On the hands I’ve got: expedition-weight mittens, light weight soft shell gloves, heavy soft shell gloves, and warm (but dexterous) climbing gloves – I LOVE the Luminary glove from OR. For the head I’ll have: a Windstopper hat, a Buff, a thick neck gaiter, face mask, glacier glasses, ski goggles, and a nose guard (for both sun and wind protection). My boots are a plastic double boot with upgraded warm liners from Intuition and Superfeet Red Hot insoles. I also have 40-below overboots for really cold days up high.
Winter Camping Denali is known for its spring storms which can last days and have winds in excess of 80mph on the upper mountain. Because of this, it’s necessary to build walls around your tent using blocks of snow carved from the glacier. The cold temperatures also lead to a great deal of condensation forming inside the tent each night as you sleep, which then freezes and does its best to become a snow storm inside the tent each morning. This year we’ll be experimenting with some ways to make this less miserable, including putting a tent footprint over our sleeping bags to catch the water/ice as it fall, or maybe even hang that footprint to trap the moisture on one side of the tent. We’ll see how it works.
As preparation, we spent a total of only 4 nights in our tent during particularly cold (for Tahoe) nights. We felt pretty confident in our sleep systems from last time and were excited to learn that we could fit our backpacks in the tent with us!
The other biggest challenge presented by spending nearly 3 weeks on a glacier is access to water. All of your water must come from melting snow. This leads to two fundamental truths of climbing the West Buttress: 1) You have to carry A LOT of fuel (at least a gallon per person). and 2) You WILL spend at least an hour melting snow every day, possibly more.
Luckily for Brent and I, endurance sports seem to be where we shine. In 2018 we were often one of the last teams to leave a given camp (we’ll be working on our efficiency!) but were often on of the first groups to the next camp. We’re hoping to be in even better shape for 2022.
Training mostly takes the shape of putting on a heavy backpack and walking. This started off as relatively short walks with around 50lbs on our backs. However, with exactly a week until we leave as I write this, I just put in about an hour climbing up and down stairs at my local climbing gym wearing an 80lb pack. On the mountain we’re hoping to never get our packs above 60lbs. However, we will also be pulling a heavy sled so better to train with a very heavy pack.
Running is also a great way to keep fit for Denali. Brent especially has been getting in his running training, with at least one 10 mile run per week. I, however, have only gotten in a handful of shorter (4-5mi) runs after a particularly grueling running season last year with two 50k races I just didn’t find the motivation to run a lot. However I’ve noticed that I have carried over a decent amount of fitness from my fall races.
A typical pattern on Denali consists of 6-10 hours of hiking on the Kahiltna glacier to either cache gear between camps, or to move to your next camp. Most days you can expect an elevation gain of about 2-3 thousand feet. Summit day is the longest days, with roundtrip time expected to be close to 18 hours with about 3,000ft of elevation gain. For reference, if we were at lower elevation and on dry ground I’m pretty sure I could run summit day in about two hours. Being above 17,000ft is HARD. I wonder what it feels like to be above 20,000ft… I hope I find out soon!
Last but not least, we need to talk about crevasses. The West Buttress route on Denali follows the Kahiltna Glacier for many miles. As with any glacier, there is an ever-present risk of falling into a hidden crevasse. We chose our dates for this climb primarily to mitigate crevasse risk. By traveling to the mountain in late May, we’re arriving while nearly all the crevasses are covered with snow. In May, these snow bridges are typically strong enough to walk over without consequence. However as you get closer to the end of June, these bridges can become weak and collapse; this is why we are planning to be off the mountain by the second week in June.
Falling in a crevasse may sound scary, but most of the time it simply entails “punching through”, meaning a leg or maybe just your lower body breaking through a snow bridge. In this case it’s a fairly simple process for your partner to assist you out of your predicament since you always tied into a rope together.
For more serious (and unlikely) scenarios, we are prepared to haul our partner out of a crevasse using any of various hauling systems that provide as much as a 6-to-1 mechanical advantage. Brent and I have spent many hour memorizing and perfecting these scenarios. The idea being that you may need to deploy a combination of techniques for any given incident.
I’ve been looking at Echo Peak with a longing to ski it since I first moved to Tahoe. Every winter I see it staring at me as soon as I leave my home. For the last couple winters I had assumed Echo was too much for me, but this morning I got the chance to find out first hand.
This was my first time skiing with Michael and Scott, both of whom I met through a mutual friend, they are all on the local Search and Rescue team. We decided to do a weekday morning ascent since this was the time Michael and Scott had available and the conditions looked good. I wasn’t going to pass this up just because I didn’t want to take a half day of work!
We got started skinning up the standard approach from the end of Wintoon Drive at about 10am in beautiful sunny weather with great snow conditions.
The climb was straightforward with only a few steep sections. By 11:45 we were already traversing the upper part of the mountain to gain the summit ridge.
With the steepest part of the climb finished, we soon reached the summit (11:53 AM – less than 2 hours after we’d started out!)
We hung out on top for about 20 minutes, the weather and views were top-notch!
As we took our skins off at the summit I was a little nervous about how steep the upper part of the descent would be. I still consider myself a relative beginner when it comes to backcountry skiing, but I’m definitely gaining confidence with every trip out.
We followed the ridge back the way we had come and continued on a little farther until we found what looked like the descent we had been aiming for on the east face just south of the ascent ridge. Both Micheal and Scott commented about how steep the entrance looked but once I saw it I knew it was well within my abilities.
The snow up top was amazing! The powder was perfect and the snow was still basically untracked. This was hands dow the best descent of my life! After skiing the upper part of the mountain, we traversed skier’s left to drop into the lower pitch before the long (barely downhill) runout back to Scott’s truck.
Distance: 4.2 miles Duration: 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 21 seconds Average Speed: 1.5 mph Minimum Elevation: 6604 feet Maximum Elevation: 8893 feet Total climb: 2304 feet Total descent: 2336 feet
Well, it finally happened. I finally got a good day of powder skiing this year! After months of mediocre snow conditions the stars finally aligned such that Ondine, Brian, and I were able to get out to Powderhouse Peak just after a good late-season snowstorm. Continue reading “Powderhouse Pow Day”
Welcome to the next installment of Denali training for our spring 2018 trip! Since my last post, I’m sad to sad that Maura won’t be joining us on our trip to Alaska. However, I’m super happy for her being able to get a job that she’s super stoked about and the flexibility to do a bunch of traveling before she starts full-time.
Last week, Patrick, Brent, and I headed back up to Mt. Shasta for some winter camping experience for Denali – this time we decided to head for the easily accessible Avalanche Gulch route on the south side of the mountain. As we watched the weather for the week leading up to the trip we got more and more excited: very cold with lots of wind and snow. Perfect! Continue reading “Shasta Winter – Denali Training”