After Aconcagua I had my sights set on climbing Mount Denali. I started doing my research about a week after getting home from Aconcagua. I watched You Tube video after You Tube video, red books and any other material I could get on Denali. I researched guiding companies and made calls to each one asking specific questions. Like every mountain I climb I obsess over it and thoroughly gain as much knowledge about it as possible.
Each guide group required taking a Denali specific intro class to familiarize you on the skills needed for a Denali expedition. I took a five day course on Mt Rainer with Mountain Madness. We learned how to rig our sleds for glacier travel, setting up camp, crevasse rescue, among other skills over the course of four days on Mount Ranier.
I established a strict training regiment. I Included in my cardio workouts a tire drag in the deep sand on the beach. On Denali you carry 120 lbs of gear between your backpack and a sled you drag behind you. The deep sand imitated walking on snow and the tire imitated the sled I would be pulling. I would drag the tire in a slow jog 3 miles from the Hermosa Beach Pier to the Manhattan Beach Pier and back. The sessions not only built my legs but also my mental strength. By the time I reached half way I’d be drained, my legs were shaking and I could barely stand. But I still was only half way and had to go back. I didn’t have a choice so I’d push deep and push past my mental threshold.
I decided to climb with Seven Summit Treks International. They were one of 5 companies allowed to guide on Denali. After flying into Anchorage Alaska I was picked up at the airport and made the 3 hour drive to Talkeetna where our expedition began. We stayed in a beautiful log cabin home/ bed and breakfast. There we met with all the other members of the team, one being Dave Hill who was on his 4th attempt on Denali at this point. With a full day there we decide to go into town to have a look around. Talkeetna is a small Alaskan town. The Main Street had a few shops and restaurants along its Main Street. It was once voted the best town in America and is the gateway to Denali National Park. From there you can take a train through the park and on a good day catch amazing views of the Alaskan Range. There is a small airport where bush planes take climbers and tourists into the park. They land on the glacier giving access to climbers.
The next day we did an entire gear check with the team to ensure we had all the correct equipment for the expedition. Due to weather our expedition was delayed by two days in which we got to know Talkeetna very well. Conditions have to be good in order for bush pilots to land on the glacier. Poor visibility is a matter of life and death to bush pilots. Its a dangerous but noble profession up in Alaska and the truth can be seen walking through the small grave yard across from the airport where many of their graves are market with a plane propeller as a headstone.
The flight into the park was breathtaking. The plane dove down between peaks and far below you could see climbers making the long journey up the Kalhiltna Glacier. After landing on the glacier we rigged our sleds and were off to camp one. Having never trekked with so much gear, dragging a sled, and being roped up it took much adjusting little things to get my system comfortable and just right. The hike from the airstrip to camp one was roughly 6 miles up the Kalhiltna Glacier. We actually started off going down hill which I thought was nice until I came to the realization I will have to go back up this on the way back. The rest of the way was flat. I didn’t mind the hike at all. Glaciated mountains surrounded us. The sun made the temperatures warm and avalanches could be heard on the peaks surrounding us. I fell in love with the Alaskan Range immediately and understood then the allure of the region.
The first day we made it half way to camp one before setting up camp quickly. The sun was going behind the mountains and the temperatures were dropping fast. The next days hike to camp one took no time at all. Our guides established a proper camp with a huge dining tent. They would place the fly of a Hillenburg tent over a dug out hole with benches and a cooking area where we would all sit and eat together. On the third day in snowy and windy conditions we set out to cache our gear higher up the mountain. We didn’t make it as far as we intended to but still cached. This is done to make the trip easier by carrying less gear at a time. The disadvantage is that it adds extra days onto an expedition. The following day we set out to 11 K camp. This was a long day and our 1st time experiencing a substantial uphill climb. The snow shoes I had did not have heel risers on them which made going uphill much more uncomfortable. By the end of the day I thought I had blisters on my heels.
Over the duration of four days at 11K camp we had one rest day, retrieved our cache from down below, and placed a cache at 14k. We cached our snow shoes and put on our crampons then moved up to 14 K camp. 14 K camp had many mountaineers camped out waiting for a window of good weather to attempt a summit push. The camp is an advanced base camp. There is a rangers tent where the US forest service has rangers on staff from May to July during the peak climbing season. You can look up from the camp and see the fixed lines, the west ridge, and the location of high camp at 17,200 ft. My stay in 14k camp was too long waiting on a good weather window that never came. It could be calm and sunny down in camp but you would look up at the ridge and see spindrift and high winds. Time in camp was spent walking around and talking to other climbers, building snow walls to keep the high winds from blazing the tents, and staring up toward the summit hoping for a good forecast. The highest we made it above 14 K camp was to the top of the fixed lines to cache gear on the one good weather day we had.
Unfortunately our time on the mountain ran out and our window of good weather never came. Some of us were willing to stay extra days to see if a window was to come but the guides had to get back. They had other expeditions they had to go on. This lack of flexibility with using a guide on Denali made me swear them off for good when I return to the mountain.
I learned a lot on my first Denali expedition from the guides, from the mountain, and from my fellow mountaineers. I was not discouraged but more motivated to come back and try again. Before even stepping off the mountain I was already making plans to come back.