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Here is a brief report of an attempt on Denali made during May 1995. Our expedition consisted of 2 members - myself and a friend from Cambridge, England.
Denali (alias Mt. McKinley) is located in Alaska about 200 miles inland (roughly north) from Anchorage. It is a little over 20 kft tall and has a reputation for some rather nasty weather.
Most climbers attempt the West Buttress route. The most popular "technical" routes are the West Rib and the Cassin which are both on the South Face and not far away from the standard route. They incur significant additional avalanche and cravasse danger however because of the need to traverse the full length of the dangerous Kahiltna NE fork.
Few mountains have as many books written to aid the climber as Denali. These books contain just about everything you could wish for short of very detailed technical route descriptions.
We spent a total of 6 days climbing to 14k ("medical") camp. This included 2 rest days at 10k - one of which was forced by whiteout bad weather. 2 of the 6 days were stormy. We made one cache of excess gear (i.e. clothes) at 10kft to be retrieved on the way down.
Our policy was to carry everything in single carries. This implied carrying packs of around 70 lbs and dragging sleds of around 40lbs at the same time. This was very arduous but not seriously problematic except on the last day of cravasse fields between Windy Corner and 14k camp. Our camps were at 8k (NE fork junction), 10k (Kahiltna Pass), 12.5k (just below Windy Corner) and 14k (medical camp).
Doing single carries but with rest days took about the same time as doing double carries with no rest days but did save on the tedium of doing each day twice.
We found ourselves to be very tired and not well acclimatized on arrival at 14k and therefore spent 2 days in poor weather recuperating and acclimatizing. It is common for climbers to spend 2-7 days here.
On the 9th day of the trip we made a carry past the fixed ropes to just short of the 17k camp. The weather below 18k was quite reasonable. We had intended to make our push to 17k the next day but due to exhaustion and altitude related nausea and headaches, we postponed this to the following day (day 11).
On day 11, what started as a promising day deteriorated so rapidly that we were unable to retrieve our cache (with the exception of a few essential items) because of our great haste to get to the shelter of 17k camp. Our cache remains were retrieved the next day (12) in total whiteout conditions. Anywhere else except on this ridge from 16-17k this would have been impossible.
Day 13 developed into a stormy whiteout as per day 12. Some made an attempt on the summit since they had just about run out of food and to everyone's surprise, were successful; finding the summit plateau to be above the weather zone. This day was our one and only chance and we were later to severely regret allowing ourselves to be talked out of a summit attempt by the other climbers present.
Day 14 presented about 3ft of new snow but the evening was beautiful and filled everyone with awe at the views and optimism at the weather prospects. Tomorrow was going to be the summit day!
Day 15 - Denali struck. The most hellish storm anyone had ever witnessed. Winds, already close to 100 mph in the early morning, accelerated seemingly without end throughout the day with the result that by that evening, 4 of the 8 or so tents at 17k were irrepairably destroyed. Eyewitness accounts stated that one of the tents (a VE25 belonging to a Korean group) simply spontaneously exploded under the stresses with pieces of aluminum flying outwards in all directions. All the tents were originally dug into deep pits and surrounded by what we thought were totally solid ice walls. 3 days later there was virtually nothing left of either the walls or the pits we had all so painstakingly constructed. 2ft x 2ft ice blocks were destroyed or else blown many feet from their original location.
The Koreans sought shelter in the remaining tents when their tent was lost. One (French) expedition somehow managed to dig snow holes when both their tents were lost while another (Canada) just lay under the flapping shreds of nylon deep in their sleeping and bivvy bags until relative calm reappeared.
Day 16 - more of the same.
Day 17 - the winds appeared to be much abated and everyone at 17k decided to abandon camp. Our group and one other (Colorado) were a little behind the others and perhaps unsure of the wisdom of such a risky escape attempt. By the time I had finished struggling with my boots (a daily 10-15 minute chore), figures had begun looming out of the whiteout. Hanging over each others arms they looked for all the world like returning wounded in a war movie.
There were shouts for help and the most badly wounded (frostbitten) were moved and carried into the Colorado guys' tent which was still standing. A female climber received obvious frost bite to the nose cheek, fingers and toes - all resulting from less than 60 minutes exposure. Ironically, earlier the same morning she had been very vocally pleading with employees of the guide company leading her expedition to take her to the summit. Later climbers recounted how they had laid on their stomachs and squirmed; dragging on their ice axes in order to make progress against the wind.
We helped as much as our limited strength would allow with the re-excavation of sites and re-erection of the tents whilst fighting off some almost overwhelming emotions which seemed at times to threaten one's very will to survive. The whole experience was extremely surreal.
That evening we ate the last of the meals we had brought up.
Day 18 - the storm cleared. Almost everyone wanted to descend immediately but a small number of us (perhaps 20%) made an attempt on the summit. As we ascended Denali pass the weather descended to meet us. Having the wind behind us gave a false sense of security but by the time we got to Denali Pass (18.2k) there was no mistaking what we were getting ourselves into. For a few moments while I fumbled for my neoprene face mask I wondered weather I had the strength to survive and whether we would make it back. In the total whiteout we made very slow progress. On several occasions we had to crouch down at wands (cane way markers) and wait for the cloud to clear slightly to find the next one. We secured each other with ice axe belays on every section until the final, almost level walk.
That night I examined my toes since they seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time to warm up. This showed that all 10 were white and appeared frost bitten. Actually I am now only nursing 6 toes, 2 on the left and 4 on the right and I think I have actually been very fortunate in that I am likely to keep them all in the end.
At the time I was frostbitten I was wearing a double layer of socks with VBL, plastic double boots with insulated inner and "40 below" full length neoprene overboots.
Day 19 - descend 17k->11k.
Exhausted from the previous day, weakened by 6 days of tent confinement at very high altitude, nerves in tatters, nursing frostbite and hungry through lack of food, we retreated.
Day 20 - descend 11k->7.7k and fly out at about 11:00pm.
On the last afternoon I stupidly exposed my eyes to the UV and received snow blindness which lasted the next 36 hours. This is very painful and not recommended!
I believe all the integral West Rib expeditions were abandoned (a small number did succeed on the Upper WR) and all but 2 pairs abandoned their ambitions for the Cassin.
Typically about 50% of climbers are supposed to reach the summit.
It is clear that we ran into some very bad luck as far as weather goes. It is frustrating to know that we did everything right technically and despite having what we considered adequate patience, time and fuel/food reserves we were simply unable to wait out the bad weather.
Temperatures on our trip seemed fairly typical. Night time minimums above 12kft ranged from about -10 to -35 F.
When we were on the mountain the weather "forecasts" were extremely unreliable and we stopped paying any attention to them very quickly. There were no more than 2 or 3 days during the 20 days we were on the mountain when a safe summit attempt could have been contemplated.
When we climbed Aconcagua (23kft) a few years back we reached the summit from the road (10k) in 6 days and descended in just 2. Denali is different!!
Whatever the reason, the difference between thinsulate and neoprene insulation was obvious to me as soon as you put the overboots on. My climbing partner had thinsulate and gortex overboots and these I wore on the descent in order to be sure to avoid refreezing my feet.
Rather than all that hassle with VB sleeping bags I would take a single synthetic bag and gortex outer on any future trip. In order to avoid huge expense I took a cheap down AND a cheap quallofil bag on this trip. This was overkill. Better to wear all your clothes to bed and save weight!
Camel back water carriers are a total waste of time because of the immense difficulty of keeping the pipe clear of ice and stopping the mouth piece falling off (assuming you manage to avoid the disasterous consequences of freezing the entire 2L contents). Plastic bottles other than "Nalgene" bottles may very likely become brittle and crack up. This happened to us. The same is also true of map cases and just about anything else made of plastic.
In my experience no stove appears to function at much above 50% of its sea level performance once you get above about 15kft. Stoves do not seem to provide for easy adjustment of the fuel/air ratio which seems necessary at such altitudes. To light white gas in severe cold requires an actual flame. A butane lighter will only stay warm enough for a few seconds once held out in the open. (Some) matches that supposedly cannot be extinguished usually never even manage to light up above 12kft but instead generate large quantities of noxious smoke.
We carried one US gallon of fuel per person (7L total) basing our requirements on an estimate of 1L per person per week. We used about 2/3 rds of what we took which meant that our reserves were slightly more than they needed to be. 5L total would have been adequate. Almost everbody takes way too much fuel probably because of the fear of potentially running out and not being able to melt snow for water.
Our tent was a Wild Country Mountain Quasar and for sure I wouldn't prefer to be in any other tent in a 100+ mph wind! We found that there was only just enough room in there for two however.
1 person died in a climbing fall on Denali pass. People die here almost every year usually by descending in marginal conditions without belays. His climbing partner had bruised and or broken ribs and was rescued by helicopter a week later when the weather improved.
The other 3 fatalities were caused by a bivvy in a bergshrund to shelter from the storm when the roof fell in on top of them.
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