Articles - Expedition Climber: Denali.
Kahiltna International Airport. Photo: Tom Briggs
Tom Briggs - Posted on 03 Mar 2009
However, it is wise not to underestimate the undertaking, as Denali is a very big mountain, offering an experience more akin to the larger Himalayan giants. Dealing with the commitment, physical endurance, altitude and Arctic cold and storms, provides an incredible challenge.
The West Buttress Route
First climbed in 1951 by Bradford Washburn and seven others, the West Buttress is the most popular route on Denali. Expeditions begin with a dramatic 45-minute flight from Talkeetna in a ski-equipped aircraft onto the Kahiltna Glacier. From here most teams plan on three weeks to climb from base camp at 2200m to the summit at 6194m, a height gain of 4000m – more than on Everest! The main obstacles, apart from the weather, are crevasses. These are well bridged early in the season (April/May), but later (June onwards) they open up considerably and large detours are necessary to avoid them. It is not uncommon for roped teams to have to extricate their members from holes. There is no technical difficulty on the route until the headwall at 4650m. This 250m, 40-degree ice slope is fixed with two ropes (one up, one down). Above the headwall a fine ridge crest provides the best climbing on the route – not difficult, but exposed and giving great views. It is protected with fixed pickets (snow stakes), that ropes teams can clip in and out of. The summit day is long and varied. From high camp, the route takes a rising traverse to reach Denali Pass, then follows easy angled snow slopes to reach the ‘Football field’ at 5945m. From here, the narrow summit ridge is gained and followed to the top of North America.
Most climbers plan for three weeks on the mountain and take 21 days’ worth of food and fuel. Expect to carry approximately 50Kg out of base camp.
|Day 1||Fly to Anchorage|
|Day 3||Drive to Talkeetna, fly onto glacier|
|Day 4||Organisation at base camp|
|Day 5||Climb to Camp 1|
|Day 6-7||Load carry and move to Camp 2|
|Day 8||Rest and acclimatisation|
|Day 9-11||Load carry and move to Camp 3|
|Day 12-15||Acclimatisation, load carry to 5000m|
|Day 16||Move to Camp 4 (High Camp) at 5245m|
|Day 17||Rest day|
|Day 18||Summit day|
|Day 19-20||Spare days|
|Day 21-23||Descend to base camp|
|Day 24||Return flight to Talkeetna|
|Day 25||Return to Anchorage|
|Day 26||Fly home|
|Day 27||Arrive home|
Tech tips for Denali
Climbing Denali via the West Buttress route is less about the technical climbing demands and more about being well-organised and prepared for living in an extreme environment. From arriving on the glacier, you must melt every drop of water for drinking, build tent platforms and snow walls to protect your tent, be wary of huge crevasses, deal with extremes of temperature from +30°C on the lower glaciers, to –30°C high on the mountain and carry everything you need, as unlike the Himalayas, no porterage is available.
The climbingLow down, ski poles are essential, and you will need snow shoes (or skis). Snowshoes are normally cached at Camp 2 (3350m), where crampons are donned and the real ‘climbing’ begins. It is rare that you have less than twelve points of your crampons biting into the snow. Climbing slowly, methodically and efficiently is the name of the game, when you have 25Kg on your back and are pulling a sled. A 70cm Alpine Axe is appropriate for the low angled terrain.
Acclimatisation and the cache and carry system
Most teams attempting Denali in traditional ‘expedition style’ move up the mountain using the ‘cache and carry’ system. Not only does this enable you to get your stores higher bit by bit, but it also gives you time to acclimatise. Typically, you might carry half of your food and fuel to the next camp, bury it, not forgetting to mark it with a wand before returning to your camp and moving up the next day. It’s important to always have enough food and fuel with you to last out a week-long storm.
Packs and sledsYou need about 100L of load carrying capacity on your back. Consider boosting the volume of your pack by attaching a tubular, waterproof dry bag. Distribute the weight between your pack and sled evenly. Sleds are provided on Denali by the air service flying you onto the glacier. You need at least 15m of 5mm cord to rig your sled. When roping up, remember that the crevasses can easily be 10m wide and make sure your sled is rigged into the rope system, so it doesn’t land on your head if you fall down a crevasse!
Camp lifeLook out for compression zones with few crevasses, rather than camping where everyone else does! Make sure you carefully probe your camping area for crevasses before pitching your tent.
In the lower camps, which are less exposed to high winds, it’s not worth building high walls as snowfall quickly accumulates, potentially burying you. At high camp, walls need to be built as high as your tent.
Make sure you have a lightweight plywood board for putting your stoves on. Multifuel (MSR style) stoves work much more efficiently in cold temperatures than gas. White gas (Coleman fuel) can be purchased in base camp.
Each morning you will wake to find the inside of your tent frosted. As this melts it soaks your sleeping bag and gear. Assuming the sun is out, by zipping your tent up completely, you can generate enough heat to force all the moisture out of the tent.
Stop your water bottles and inner boots from freezing by placing them between you and your tent partner, not the sidewalls.
Do not underestimate how much food you will need! The extreme cold on Denali means your body will crave fat. If you opt to go for lightweight, noodle-based meals, expect to feel cold and lose a lot of body weight!
Training and preparation
Climbing Denali is hard work and tough on the body. Expect to get blisters and to have very sore hips from moving big loads. There is a lot of digging and moving snow involved. There are no Sherpas to help you! Train by running, cycling and doing walking with a heavy pack. Go winter climbing in Scotland or the Alps, focussing on grade II ground and doing a lot of it! You want to be fit, strong and ready to move efficiently on 30 degree snow.
From the horses mouth
“Looking after your body is incredibly important. Take a big blister kit, as wearing boots rated to –40°C on the lower glacier equals very hot feet! Make sure that you have trained with and know the pack that you are going to carry is comfortable. This is not an expedition for a ‘lightweight’ pack. A big, comfy hip belt is more important. Sit you hip belt above your climbing belt. In terms of the rest of your gear, go for the lightest that you can buy, but do not compromise warmth. Get the warmest sleeping bag you can find. Take hand warmers and the best gloves that money can buy. You need sunglasses with side pieces to completely block out glare – it can be so bright that you need to wear them inside the tent!”
• Rab Expedition Polar bag 1100 (rated to –40°C), (Code: 450072) or PHD Xero 1300 sleeping bag (rated to –50°C)
• Therm-a-rest Prolite 4 sleeping pad (Code: 470144), coupled with a closed cell foam ‘carry mat’.
• Grivel Munroe 70cm axe (Code: 510210) or DMM Cirque Alpine Axe 65 cm
• Grivel G12 Newmatic Crampon (Code: 510934)
• Petzl Elios helmet (Code: 510739)
• La Sportiva Olympus Mons Boots (Code: 310045) or Scarpa Phantom 8000 (Code: 310172)
• 85 – 100 litre rucksack eg. POD Xpod
• Outdoor Research Alti Gloves (Code: 270608) or Black Diamond Guide Gloves (Code: 270708)
• Black Diamond Absolute Mitt (Code: 271085)
• Hand Warmers
• Polar Buff (Code: 270612) or Cyclone Buff (Code: 270788)
• Julbo Explorer Alti Arc category 4 sunglasses (Code: 680111)
• Blister Kit (Code: 340017)
• Schoeller alpine trousers
• L/weight shell jacket and trousers
• Lightweight synthetic jacket e.g. North Face Redpoint (Code: 150043)
• Expedition Weight Down jacket e.g. Mountain Equipment Annapurna (Code: 150206)
• Insulated trousers e.g. Mountain Hardwear Chugach Pants
• Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1 tent (Code: 540181)
• MSR XKG Stove
• Black Diamond Deploy Shovel (Code: 511313)
• Exped waterproof sack liner for caching gear (Code: 410055)
*Cotswold Outdoor product codes are shown in brackets for stocked items. Got to cotswoldoutdoor.com
Part 4 in the Expedition series: Ama Dablam