Denali Expedition

On 1 January 2016 I made a promise to myself: I’m going to do a Denali Expedition and summit the highest peak of North America and one  of the 7-Summits. Denali would be my first climb over 6000m and my first real expedition. Since that promise, a lot of things happened. The summer season on 2016 was a total failure for me. But, to compensate, I successfully climbed Mount Elbrus in October 2016. After Mount Elbrus, my preparation for Denali began. I was really looking forward to the expedition, and wanted to rule out as much as possible that could prevented me from summiting. I carefully bought all necessary gear and trained 6 days per week from October till May to get in a great shape. Upon my departure I felt stronger than ever and was ready to rock ‘n roll on Denali!

On May 20th 2017, the start of the Denali expedition finally was there.

The Denali expedition begins!

The plane that brought me to the glacier
The plane that brought me to the glacier

In Talkeetna, Alaska I met the group; 9 mountaineers and 3 guides. The first day was a day of meetings and checks. That day we had a final gear check, bought the last stuff, had a meeting with the Denali National Park Service and had a pizza for lunch. After this, it was finally time to head to the Basecamp on the Kahiltna glacier by plane. The day before I felt I had a cold. As a result I was short on breath and had a headache. This first day was hard for me, and I knew the first couple of days were going to be hard for me. I needed to get healthy as soon as possible.

Hauling and caching

The start of the expedition meant we had a reoccurring 3-day daily cycle. On the first day we headed towards to following camp and cache some of our gear just before we reached the camp. After caching, we returned to our current camp and recover/sleep. By climbing higher during the day, our body started acclimatizing to the altitude.

Digging a cache
Digging a cache

Because we slept at a lower altitude, we still fully recovered from the climb to the cache. On the second day we moved to the next camp and stay there. Because the acclimatization started on our previous day, while bringing up the cache, our body got used to this new altitude. On the third day we descended to pick up the gear we cached at the first day. With this third step all our necessary gear was in the new camp.

On the second day of the Denali expedition, I felt a little better. Our first real day on the glacier wasn’t that hard. We did a 3 hour hike with all our gear to the first cache. After caching a part of the gear, we hiked for another 30 minutes and made camp. I felt tired after that day, but knew things would get better if I would recover from my cold. And so I did! I made sure I had some good nights’ sleep , and from the next day on the cold got away and my strength returned.

Expect the unexpected

On the third day of the Denali expedition, I learned there’s always something unexpected happening on Denali. That day the first climber decided to exit the expedition. He simply wasn’t prepared for the cold. Because two guides had to bring this climber back to Basecamp, the rest of the team lost a day of moving.

Two days later, another climber didn’t feel good and also had to go down. This caused another 2 day delay. At that time I didn’t think too much. As soon as the Denali expedition started, I decided not to worry about the days and progress. I wanted to focus on recovering from my cold, climbing and taking care of myself. We had 3 experienced guides and I trusted them to deal with planning issues.

Moving up… yes!

Then we finally made some progress. We cached some of our gear just above Skihill and now were ready to move to the next camp. The weather wasn’t great, but I felt strong. I knew I was carrying one of the heaviest packs, but it didn’t really bother me. Just going up, and feeling the strength in my body was great! But, as I said before; there’s always something unexpected happening on Denali. During our climb of Skihill, a Korean solo skier (unroped) fell into a crevasse. Our guides decided to help him and we were able to assist in getting the climber out. Luckily his injuries weren’t that bad and he will recover.

But, this caused a delay of some hours. We continued up, but the weather got worse and we were forced to join the camp of another group. Once at our new camp, we still had to make a flat snow platform for out tents. Despite the bad weather, I loved setting up the tents and building camps. I love it when conditions are sub-optimal and you just need to do the things necessary. It feels like some basic instinct is awakened in me and makes me focus strongly!

Bad weather

Ice on my nose while climbing!
Ice on my nose while climbing!

This day was the start of a period of bad weather. The next days we successfully moved to camp 11.000 feet, and also picked up our previously cached gear. But, the snow kept falling for most of the day and the moves we made were usually in complete white-outs and pretty strong winds. The bad weather made us stay at camp 11.000 feet for 3 more days. We spend our days with eating, sleeping and hanging around in the cooking tent. But to my surprise, the days went by pretty fast. I always like to hear the stories and background of different climbers. We had more than enough to talk about. And, having some extra rest days is a great opportunity for recovery. And so I did. I fully recovered from my cold, and felt ready to climb that mountain.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t count for the whole group. One more climber could no longer endure the cold and decided to leave the expedition. Luckily, he was able to join another group to bring him down.

The second part

Finally, after some days the weather got better, and we could start moving to the next camp; camp 14.000 feet. This was kind of the start of the second part of the expedition. The weather was great and the views where even better! I was happy to be moving again and loved great weather; lots of sun and almost no wind. During our hikes, it actually was hot! I was just wearing my base layer and still got soaked from sweat.

Relaxing at the camp
Relaxing at the camp

Camp 14.000 feet is often referred to as the real basecamp. It is sort of a small village on the mountain where most teams take their time to acclimatize, recover and prepare for the last part of the climb. Because of this, I just enjoyed hanging around and watch other teams doing their thing. The weather still was great, the team was happy and everything looked great at this time. I still felt great. The altitude didn’t affect me and in my mind I was at peace; not worried about the days to come, a little eager to go on but most of all just confident on myself.

Things start to get real

And then the day to start our move to camp 17.000 feet came. As usual, the plan was to first bring some of our gear to a cache just before the next camp, sleep at camp 14.000 and then really move to camp 17.000 feet. To get to camp 17.000, you need to climb the crux of Denali; the Headwall. This is a 400 meter, 45 to 50 degree icewall with fixed lines. But, before getting to the Headwall another moderate climb has to be done. During this climb, one of our climbers felt some pain in his chest and could not continue. He and another climber, who was previously told she was to slow to be able to successfully summit, went back to camp 14.000 feet with one of the guides.

The rest of the group cached gear just above the Headwall, which is the actual start of the West Buttress. The situation above the Headwall was unique; just clear skies and no wind. We sat there for a while and I just enjoyed the view. And of course I had a peek on the way for tomorrow. The West Buttress looked like a nice and beautiful hike and I was just looking forward on doing it.

The next day we took our time to recover and prepare for our final move to camp 17.000. The two climbers who failed to climb the Headwall went down with one of our guides. We would continue with the two remaining guides. The weather was still great, so nothing could stop us.

Again I was fully recovered and just ready to go up to the next camp. For our final move to camp 17.000 our packs were a little heavier than the day before, but I couldn’t care too much. I just wanted to go up!

Just two of us left?

But, that day something happened that I did think of, but never expected to really happen. We were left with 2 guides and 4 climbers, including myself. On our way to the Headwall two climbers decided it was all just a little too much and another climber got send down by our guide. As this was happening, I couldn’t believe the current situation. Everybody is going down, but I just want to go up!

The remaining guide told me to start walking down. I had no other option to do so. During the descent I started to get angry and frustrated. I’m the only climber left of the group. I haven’t had a really hard day so far and I feel ready to summit. But instead I’m going back to camp 14.000 feet. This is the wrong way!

The grand finale

Back at camp 14.000 feet, I just wanted to be alone. I’m done with everybody and wanted to throw all my gear at the ground. Just at this moment the guide came to me and asked if I’m ready to go up again. Without thinking my answer is YES!

We had to repack our backpacks. They would be a lot heavier, I knew this was going to be a long and hard day and I knew I was going to suffer. But I felt that, after waiting for 14 days and seeing every climber leave, this finally was my chance to climb Denali! Nothing could hold me back now: I was sure I was going to do it!

Again the guide and I went up the Headwall. Just above the Headwall we picked up all necessary food from the cache. My backpack was really heavy, probable over 30kg’s. All we had to do was go across the ridge of the West Buttress to high camp. I expected us to do this within 3 hours.

Snow walls seemed to be mandatory at High Camp
Snow walls seemed to be mandatory at High Camp

The West Buttress was beautiful but never really technical. Our pace was slow as I was having a hard time keeping my breath. We were well over 5000m, we had heavy backpacks and our day was long. But we reached high camp! I had a hard day, by far the hardest day so far. But the weather was great and I felt we had a very good chance of summiting the next day. In my head I had it all figured out; have a good night rest, summit tomorrow and go down the day after. Since we have plenty of time I started to think if I wanted to go down in one push or take it easier and descent in two days.

Rethink your schedule..

The next morning I woke up from the beating of the tent. Winds where strong, and I knew this will make a summit attempt impossible. I’m stayed in my sleeping bag and continued to sleep until late in the morning. No worries, I thought, just another day to recover. We had so much time, so a one day delay, is really no problem. After a late brunch, I got out of the tent and enjoyed the views. I felt fully recovered from yesterday and was still ready to summit.

The next day I again woke up by the beating of the tent from the windgusts. The next day this would repeat. After 3 days of waiting, I was done sleeping and slowly began to realize I might not summit at all. The weather was stable, but not good. The only option seemed to start summiting during the afternoon. The wind usually went down for a couple of hours, giving a small opportunity to summit. Maybe we should take our chances during this window.

To the summit!

At June 7th in the afternoon, we noticed several other groups were going up, so we might try as well. The trail to the summit starts with a traverse to Denali pass, the Autobahn. During the Autobahn the wind already

got up again, much earlier than expected. Most other groups turned around, but we continued. At Denali Pass we hoped we would be able to climb in the lee. But conditions continued to get worse. We ended up front-pointing on our crampons. The trail had completely disappeared, we were hardly able to communicate as winds only seemed to get stronger. We decided to turn around just before Denali Pass. Wind gusts got incredible, up to 50 miles per hour, and there was a complete white-out.

Just back from our summit attempt
Just back from our summit attempt

Once back at high camp I realized this was my only chance. I felt tired and confused. This weather simply wasn’t good enough and I was running out of time. How could this have happened? I was in such an excellent shape, I was so ready to summit!

Back to Basecamp

The next day weather was even worse. The weather was so bad, I was afraid I couldn’t even go down that day. In the afternoon, the wind layed down a bit and everybody in high camp went down. Forecasts for the next days where bad. Summiting was no option and I had no time left. So, there was only one option left for me. Go down as well and forget about summiting this year.

Back to Basecamp
Back to Basecamp

This was the start of a 16 hour walk (40km) back to Basecamp. On our way down, we picked up several other climbers. We continued to walk through the night and arrived at Basecamp around 6 o’clock in the morning. At 9:30 the plane fled us out of the glacier and back into the civilized world.

Afterthoughts

At the moment of writing this report, I am back home from the Denali expedition for 14 days and got off the glacier 3 weeks ago. While preparing for Denali I did as much as possible to be well prepared and ruled out as much factors that would prevent me from summiting. But I never expected to happen what happened; that I would be the only one strong enough to get to Denali High Camp. It took a while for me to accept what happened, and I still need to do some work on this.

While in the end it was the weather that prevented me from summiting, I do feel the delay I had because of climbers going down earlier, played a huge role in the whole story. If the first 2 climbers wouldn’t have  caused any delay, I would have summited the day I got to High Camp.

Am I content?

While I did have a great time on Denali, learned a lot and got to meet some great people, I cannot be content about the trip. I was there to summit and this just didn’t happen. In the end I think most climbers who are going down break mentally. I have seen this happen both in and outside our group.

We sure had some wonderful days!
We sure had some wonderful days!

Climbing Denali requires a lot of hauling with a sled, being patient because weather is bad, withstanding the cold and many things more. You have to be able to endure this for 3 weeks and keep spirits up. It’s true that the real climb just starts after camp 14.000, and after 14 days of moving up.

So what now?

For myself I can only be very satisfied about my own performance. My mental and physical condition where great and I got some great compliments about this from both the guides and my fellow climbers. Right now I slowly start to make some plans for my second attempt on Denali. I know I can climb Denali, and thus I will do so. But I don’t think it will be with another guided Denali expedition, and I do not yet know when I will have another attempt.

To be continued…

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