Virtual Expedition: Denali, North America’s Highest Peak
Embark on an incredible journey to Denali with Sports Basement Outdoor Guide Rachel Magnusson!
Have you ever wondered what it takes to stand on top of one of the world’s highest peaks? I never imagined I’d get anywhere near the tallest mountain in North America but that’s exactly where I found myself last summer: on a high-altitude mountaineering expedition on Denali.
Let’s relive it together, only this time, you’re joining me for that expedition. We don’t have the logistical resources or experience to launch this thing on our own, so we’re climbing with a respectable guide service. They take care of getting us to the mountain, feeding us, teaching us the ropes, and keeping everyone safe. On our end, we have a lot of training and packing to do to get started!
How does one train for this type of climb? We’ll be doing a lot of trudging up a glacier carrying a heavy pack and pulling a sled, so we need serious endurance. We also need to be super strong and agile in short bursts. We spend a lot of time being active. I’ll leave it at that.
Did you say you like gear? Then high altitude mountaineering is for you! Be prepared to make a big investment in everything from an ice axe that could save your life to the giant backpack you never knew you needed. You might actually have a lot of this stuff already, just make sure it’s all in tip top shape because you’re going to be stuck with it for a month. Here’s most of my spread before I stuffed it all into my pack and duffle bag.
It’s a sunny June day and we’ve just travelled to Anchorage, AK. We’re meeting the rest of the team at the airport. Excitement is high. All 8 clients and 3 guides are bubbling with enthusiasm and apprehension. You all get to know each other on the shuttle ride to Talkeetna, the jumping off point for expeditions in the Alaska range.
On the way, we stop at a grocery store to fill out our snack inventory. The guides will be fixing breakfast and dinner every day but you need to stock up on all your middle of the day calories. This is for a meal like lunch that starts shortly after breakfast and doesn’t end until right before dinner. We will be burning ridiculous amounts of calories hauling ourselves and our stuff up this mountain so now is not the time to skimp on the carbs. You already brought a supply of energy bars and TJ’s candy from home but you pick out a basket full of snacks that are simultaneously delicious and shelf stable, with a good balance between savory and sweet. This includes Snickers bars, cheese, summer sausage, pepperoni, peanut butter, and Pringles.
Talkeetna is a beautiful little town whose hustle and bustle revolves around the air services that shuttle climbers into the mountains, about a 45 minute flight away. The next 24 hours are a blur of checking, packing, and weighing gear in a hanger, enjoying some final restaurant meals and beers with our new best friends, and getting used to the fact that it never gets dark (that’s right, the one thing NOT in your pack is a headlamp). This far north, 1am and 1pm look about the same.
The mountain weather is cooperative and our group flies out in two modified De Havilland Otters at 9 am the next day. You find yourself thinking that the incredible views from the plane are worth this entire trip. We’re really doing this. There’s no going back!
We land on the Kahiltna glacier and hitch up our packs and expedition sleds to haul about 100lbs of gear per person, with most of that weight in our packs. The group breaks into 3 rope teams with a guide on each. Everyone is wearing climbing harnesses and is roped together at lengthy intervals for safe glacier travel. This is how you’ll spend most of the next 3 weeks.
What’s it like hauling 100lbs of gear and food across a glacier? The altitude is only a little over 7000ft on day 1, so you aren’t too affected by that yet. You are, however, absolutely roasting. The white expanse reflects so much light and heat that you feel like a slice of bacon in a skillet. Five minutes later the wind has picked up, wet snow is falling, and everyone is adding layers to stay warm. Oh, and your ice axe is buzzing on your pack because this is an electrical storm. This first day is one of the longest and heaviest hauls of the expedition and you are more than happy to crawl into your minus 40 degree sleeping bag at the end of it.
The next week or so follows a comforting rhythm of climbing, caching, and resting. From a new camp, your guides divvy up some rations and we select some of our own gear to load into our packs and sleds. The 3 rope teams ascend the glacier, stopping for a water, food, and sunscreen break every hour. Eventually, the guides dig several deep holes in the snow covering the glacier and we stuff them with garbage bags full of supplies. Then we walk back down the entire distance we just covered, back to camp. The next morning we break camp, taking everything except a cache of trash and waste, and climb past our previous day’s cache to the next camp. On the third day, we descend to the cache, retrieve it, and head back up to our new camp.
There is a considerable amount of resting to do after each day’s climb is complete. You brought along some ebooks and downloaded a few movies on your phone for this purpose. A compact solar panel provides all the charging you need for phone, kindle, and satellite messenger, which you use to track your progress and send brief messages to family. We hang out with our team, nap, eat, read, and stare at the scenery around you in an awe that never seems to fade.
There are also interesting people to meet in every camp. Climbers come from all over the world for North America’s contribution to the Seven Summits. One of the most prevalent pastimes is trading food, talking about food, and trying to decide whether you have too much or not enough food. Should you leave that can of Pringles in your cache at 11,000ft or will you want them at 14k? How many Snickers bars is too many? As a rule, people coming down are trying to get rid of food and people going up are possibly in the market for more. You are looking for savory options, as all the chocolate you brought is melting into one big glob and becoming unappetizing.
Our team successfully reaches 14k camp, the busiest camp on the mountain. This is the ideal spot for acclimatizing and being ready to make a beeline for the summit when the weather is right. After reaching 14k camp and retrieving our cache, we get our first complete rest day of the climb. It is glorious. Each successive camp has provided more and more spectacular scenery and at 14k we have a breathtaking view of Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter, and the route to 17k camp. That route takes us up one of the steepest parts of the climb, the fixed ropes leading to a saddle on Denali’s West Buttress.
This is where things get a bit dicey for our group. We climb the fixed lines one morning, a relentless ascent that makes previous days’ look like walks in the park. Our guides dig a cache just where we gain the buttress, and we descend back to camp. Hello sore downhill muscles! We break camp the next day, intending to climb all the way to 17k camp, the final stop before the summit. The Great One has other plans, though. Dense clouds move in, reducing the visibility on the Buttress to near zero and bringing snow. Our guides decide we’ll turn back before we even get to the fixed lines. That makes for a disappointing day of rebuilding camp and going nowhere. At least the sky clears and our goofy group decide to build a snow-couch and TV for some quality relaxation.
Two days later, our move is again thwarted by circumstances beyond our control. One of our team wakes up with symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and has to move to the National Park Service tents where rangers and volunteers stabilize him. We wait another day, worrying about our friend.
Third time must be the charm. We break camp again the following day, leaving one guide behind with our teammate, who is stable but will be evacuated by helicopter. Halfway to the fixed lines another member of our group turns around in defeat, joining the guide we left at 14k camp. The eight of us press on and spend a spectacular day ascending the rocky Buttress. You are completely hosed when you get to camp at 17,000ft. Your legs are quivering. The air here is noticeably thinner than any altitude you’ve ever experienced. It takes a seemingly unreasonable effort to set up the three tents that make up your final camp. A backpacking meal has never tasted so good. It’s too bad you sleep terribly, your system thrown off by the increase in elevation.
Just above 17k camp is one of the most infamous sections of the West Buttress route - the Autobahn. The name is somewhat bizarre, since we move very, very slowly across this treacherous traverse. A fall here that is not arrested would likely be deadly. This part of the route is also in the shade, making it dangerously chilly as well. When cold winds scour the route, this is where people lose fingers and toes to frostbite. Today is a warm one by Denali standards: It’s around -10 degrees fahrenheit. Still, because we’re moving so slowly, you are wearing quite a few layers (long underwear top and bottom, softshell pants, puffy pants, fleece, softshell jacket, and down parka). You have on your warmest mittens with chemical hand warmers and liner gloves so your hands won’t freeze if you need to take them out of the mittens.
Our group negotiates the running belay across the Autobahn with grace. At the end of this ascent, we reach Denali Pass. From here we follow a ridgeline past Zebra Rocks to the Football Field. Somewhere just past Denali Pass you start to feel like complete crap. The wind has picked up. You feel somewhat unstable and start to have doubts about your ability to make it to the summit. You are roped to the lead guide, so you tell him how you’re feeling. He squashes your doubts and has you eat, drink, and get out one trekking pole to use for stability in conjunction with your ice axe. This helps a little, although you are not hungry at all and the Shot Bloks you saved for summit day are not tasting good.
The wind abates, rather than increasing. Somehow you keep going even though each step requires so much mental and physical effort that it feels like you could not possibly take another. You take step after step and before you know it you have crossed the flat expanse of the Football Field and are staring at the last bit of climbing before the summit. The snow here is deep and soft, making the going even more difficult, even with a path from prior climbers. You are dimly aware that you are surrounded by sky and clouds, much like when you’re in an airplane. You’re not, though, you’ve made it to the summit of the highest mountain in North America!
You cry and hug all your teammates. Most of them are crying too. It’s cold on the summit but not nearly as cold as it could be. We stay there long enough to snap a few pictures, eat, drink, and stare out at the horizon full of mountains and Alaskan wilderness.
The journey back down is not easy. We walk a fine line between stumbling down like zombies and continuing to be attentive to our footwork and ropes. When our group reaches 17k camp we’ve been gone for 10 hours, a very respectable summit day.
After that it’s all downhill, literally. Our group reunites with the climbers we left at 14k camp and picks up cached trash and waste. Controlling the descent of heavy sleds is actually much harder than dragging them uphill. You take a sled to the shin a few times. Our group sleeps for a while at 11k camp, then sets out in the twilight hours for one long push to the airstrip. There is more cached trash and waste to pick up on the way down. Our sleds get heavier and heavier. The lower Kahiltna glacier has changed quite a bit since we were there last. The texture of the snow is mushy and granulated, making snowshoes necessary again. Narrow crevasses are exposed in places we walked over 18 days ago. Snowmelt is evident on the surrounding peaks. The climbing season is almost over.
Shortly after sunrise, we reach the airstrip and collapse into a heap of gear and the cached beer your guides left in the glacier. You cannot remember a more blissful state of exhaustion and accomplishment. Bright red planes carry our group back to Talkeetna. We say goodbye to the mountains and glaciers for now. Breakfast in town awaits. This will be the best breakfast you’ve ever eaten in the worst smelling clothes you’ve ever worn. Yes, going back to civilization after 18 days on the mountain is weird.