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.
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.
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.