With its sheer granite walls, snowy cornices, and alpine glaciers, Denali is a far cry from my first 7 Summits climb. When we set out to summit Aconcagua, we first had to slog through temps in the low 90s through the Vacas Valley. Here, we’ll fly over the vast Alaskan wilderness and shuttle three hours into Talkeetna. We’ll take two nights in Talkeetna (a place that has earned its reputation as Alaska’s quirkiest city) to organize our food and equipment, and review our climbing plan. At this time of year, we’re expecting crisp mornings and warm, sunny days while we prepare to fly onto the mountain.
Flying over Alaska’s wilderness
On the third morning, we’ll fly into the Alaska Range and get our first up-close look at the terrain. Our bush plane (retrofitted with skis) will drop us on the glacier at the Kahiltna Base Camp. This Base Camp is about 20 miles from (and 13,000’ below) Denali’s South Peak. We’ll cache emergency rations there, just in case inclement weather keeps us from flying off the mountain.
For our summit, we’re taking the West Buttress route. Because there’s no vertical rock or ice climbing along this route, the West Buttress is not considered a highly technical climb. Note: “not highly technical” is not the same as easy! Many claim the mountain is more difficult than Everest. On Denali, you contend with extreme cold, unpredictable weather and lack of logistical support. We won’t have the help of Everest’s sherpas, or a proper base camp.
“Last year, 46% of those that attempted the summit reached the highest peak.”
Plus, this mountain infamously requires heavy loads. Each of us will carry four weeks of supplies, gear, and food. We’ll split these supplies (roughly 120 lbs. per person) between our backs and a sled we tow. Hauling this gear, we’ll snowshoe several days towards the mountain. Only to track back out in the same fashion, whether or not we reach the summit. Last year, 46% of those that attempted the summit reached the highest peak. Though much of the ascent is steady and gradual, we’ll cover miles of heavily glaciated terrain and face extreme temperatures and weather, all while climbing and living at altitude.
Denali is a smaller mountain with big attitude
The truth is, Denali acts like a much taller mountain than it is. Though it’s smaller than both Aconcagua and Everest, it rises higher above its surrounding plain than either of those mountains. It’s large enough that it creates its own weather patterns, and is shrouded in clouds ⅓ of the time. Many describe the landscape as both “remote” and “inhospitable.”
As with any climb over 8,000 feet, we’ll have to take our time and acclimatize to prevent altitude sickness. While we’re planning for 21 days (18 from Base Camp to Base Camp), the actual length of the climb depends on route conditions, how well we can acclimatize, and of course, what the weather permits. In fact, we actually hike the mountain more than one time. When we get to the point that the mountain is too steep to pull a sled, we’ll have to get creative to get our 120 lbs. of gear up the mountain. We do this by planning “Carry” days to “Cache” gear.
Carry & Cache
Example: we arrive at Camp I and remove non-essential gear (food, clothing, etc.). Gear is considered non-essential if we don’t need it for our time spent in that camp or the days immediately following. We carry that gear up to a specific point further up the mountain, bury it, then return to Camp I. Now up to 25-50% of the weight is cached higher up, allowing us to move the following day with the remainder of our gear. This logistical challenge is common in mountaineering, and is a lot of work!
As we gear up, I’m looking forward to this opportunity to test the limits of my experience and training. Denali is a 20,000+ foot challenge that I’ve been waiting half a lifetime to take on!