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Denali Climb

By John Locke - Posted on 29 June 1994

It was summer in Talkeetna when Doug Geeting hustled us aboard his Cessna 185 on skis, the morning of Tuesday, May 17, 1994. It was winter when we landed, 7100' up the Kahiltna Glacier. The flight alone was exciting. The birch and spruce gave way to willow and alder as we flew towards the Alaska Range. Soon there was nothing but rock, snow, and ice below us, mighty cirques with hanging glaciers. Up and up we climbed, but the mountains climbed ever faster. From my right side window, the snowy face of a looming mountain grew closer and closer, until it looked like I could reach out and touch it. On the other side, another mountain was hurtling towards us. We were headed for an impossibly small gap between the two. Then there was a ridge of rock, and suddenly, we were in open air, a thousand feet above the Kahiltna Glacier. We had made it through One-Shot Pass.

Mt. Foraker, May 1994 We were now in the halls of the gods. Mt. Foraker, 17,600', loomed ahead of us, 14,000' Mt. Hunter towered above us to the right, and up the enormous Kahiltna Valley, in the distance, slightly to the right, was our destination: Denali, at 20,320'. In all directions was white and grey--there was no green in sight. We flew past Hunter, turned to the right, and saw a few specks in the snow, and a line coming down that fork, turning, and making its way up the main fork out into the distance. Soon the specks were tents, and the landing strip became apparent, and then we were on it, landing with power, going uphill. Doug gunned the engine until we were at the top of the strip, then cut power and turned the plane around. We still had some speed: skis don't have brakes, so he turned sideways again, and a few bystanders came and stopped the plane, keeping it from sliding back down the runway while we unloaded.

While we were packing up at base camp, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal came up to us, asking questions of first-time climbers of Denali. "What do you think of the proposed climbing/rescue fee?" he asked, referring to a park service decision to charge all climbers $200 to cover rescue expenses. "Have you ever done any other major climbing expeditions?" he asked Jeff.

"Well, we've all done some smaller climbs, but nothing on this scale," answered Jeff.

"What makes you think you're ready to climb Denali?" He kept asking somewhat aggressive questions, as if we were incompetent.

"Please don't step on our rope," I interjected. It was a verbal bop on the nose that caught him off guard. We finished packing and left.

Two hours later, we were at the lowest point of the ascent, 6,600' on the main fork of the Kahiltna, each of us with 70 pounds on our backs and another 70 on the sleds dragging behind us, attached to each other with the green rope that would be our umbilical cord for the next 18 days. Only 13,720' and 19 miles to the top! I was in front, Jeff took the middle, and Fred took up the rear. In no time we reached the bottom of the South East Fork, that we had landed on. We had no desire to stay at Base Camp, with the 60 or so people hanging out there. So that evening found us at 7,200' on the main fork of the Kahiltna, enjoying a Jello Cherry cheesecake.

What was it like up there? It is hard to describe the Kahiltna to someone who has never traveled on a glacier. When I tell people what it was like to grow up in Bush Alaska, describing life without flush toilets, electricity, television, and telephones, they look at me like I came from another planet. Yet it was natural and comfortable to me at the time, not a great hardship. Imagine trying to describe rush hour and car trouble to a bush African who had only seen a car once or twice. This is the challenge I'm confronted with, trying to describe what it was like. The lower mountain was so easy, yet so overwhelming. We were in a land where humans are alien, yet small songbirds and ravens frequented our camps, and staying alive seemed easy, automatic. Get up, melt snow, cook breakfast, melt more snow. By the time most of the water bottles were full, our camp was mostly packed up. Trudge uphill for a while, drink, ski more, take a break and munch, ski some more. After maybe 6 hours on the trail, find a dug out platform, pitch the tent, and start melting snow. I'm a snow melter. What do you do?

Our third day we were tent-bound, as a blizzard howled around us. Behind our snow walls we were protected from the brunt of the wind, but as the night progressed, the tent got smaller and smaller as drifting snow packed in the walls. Every couple of hours somebody had to go out and shovel, to keep us from getting buried. That was about the coldest I got the entire trip--because it was so warm. It was right around freezing, and the snow melted on everything it touched, so everything was wet. As we went up, it got colder and drier, so that even at 17,000', when it was twenty below, we were warmer than we were in that blizzard.

Those first few days alternated between sunny and stormy, changing every couple of hours. We were caught in a blizzard as we reached 10,000', just below Kahiltna pass, and floundered around a while looking for a trail. Eventually another group passed us and we followed them, and suddenly, at 10,500', we popped out into sunshine. That evening we camped at 11,000', and it was incredible to see the end of the West Buttress and all the high peaks around us in bright sunshine, while the Kahiltna below was filled in with clouds.

Eleven was our first taste of the crowds of Denali. Since leaving Base camp, we had seen other groups, and passed many camps, but had managed to camp alone, far from other groups, with at most only one other tent for company. But Eleven, at the base of Motorcycle Hill, was a small city of 30 to 40 tents. It was the end of the leisurely ski up the glacier. From here, most teams cache their skis or snowshoes, and switch to crampons and ice-axes. It was the beginning of the climb. But since we planned to go out a different way than we were going in, we had to carry everything with us, up and over Denali Pass. Up to Eleven, we had brought everything in a single trip. Now, with our skis on our backs, we started double-carrying. One day we would carry our skis and extra food most of the way to the next camp, and go back down. The next, we would pack up our camp and move it up. The day after that, we would go back down for our cache, making an easy day.

Up to Eleven, we could camp just about anywhere, making the solitude of our trip easy to find. Beyond eleven, there were only certain spots decent for camping--14,200', and 17,200', with exposed but possible campsites at 12,600' and 16,200. Everywhere else was too steep or too dangerous to camp. So from here on, we progressed from tent-city to tent-city.

Our trip was almost ended as we packed up camp at Eleven. We were melting snow for the last of our bottles, we had removed the stakes and fly from the tent. Jeff and Fred were stuffing things in their packs, and I was taking a leak. I looked up to see a whirlwind of snow headed right towards me. I clenched and stopped painfully midstream as the gust hit me. I turned to see it pick up the tent, lift it up over our 4 foot snow walls, and send it tumbling down the slope. Jeff and I took off after it, running as hard as we could through the soft snow, hoping there wasn't an undiscovered crevasse as we hadn't roped up.

Fortunately, about a hundred feet downhill, it tumbled right into somebody else's camp, hitting a climber on the head, but he had enough sense to grab hold before it could go any further.

As Eleven was a turning point from skiing to climbing, Fourteen was an even more distinct transition. Up to Fourteen, the trip was surprisingly easy. All it took was some basic winter camping skills, and knowing how to use the rope for crevasse rescues and the like. Only it was easier than most Alaskan winter camping trips; it was light out 24 hours a day, and warm. During our rest days, the inside of the tent reached at least 70 degrees, plenty warm enough to dry everything out and lounge in comfort. At fourteen, we could definitely feel the altitude in our shortness of breath, and mild headaches every now and then.

But now the serious, difficult part of the climb was about to begin. We had agreed at the start of the trip, that we would consider it a success if we made it as far as Fourteen; after that are too many factors beyond our control. Right behind the camp an enormous wall of snow rose up to the rocky ridge another 2,000' up. The top 600' was ice, ranging from 35 to 50 degrees steep, the infamous headwall of the West Buttress. 14,200' was in an enormous bowl, a prominent step half-way up the mountain. Above Fourteen, the climb became somewhat more technical, but far more strenuous. The altitude becomes dangerous to those who don't take the time to acclimate, and some people are physically unable to acclimate. And the weather becomes much more severe, with temperatures reaching 40 below, the massif pushing into the jet stream, and little shelter from the wind. Above fourteen, the climb turned hard-core.

This demarcation point was marked by over a hundred tents, over two hundred people camped in one section of the large bowl. The Park Service had a medical station at the far edge of camp, where volunteers lived in Weatherports. The day we arrived, they had located the second of two Koreans who had died in a storm while climbing an icewall next to the headwall--without proper clothing. The body was dangling from an ice axe, holding a radio in his free hand.

Fourteen was the most amazing place, a kaleidoscope of experiences, of people. It had the most magnificent throne, a plywood affair at the lower edge of camp. It was warm, the seat made from a blue-foam pad. The virgin white snow gradually dropped away in front of you, down a mile and a half to the Kahiltna glacier and valley, extending out in to the distance. Foraker still loomed on the other side of the valley, the only thing above the horizon, rugged ridges cloaked with snowy glaciers, the rays of the setting sun turning the north-facing slopes bright orange. Fire on the mountain. And to the left, you looked across the abyss at Hunter, at about the same height as the camp. Everything else was down.

The day after we arrived at Fourteen was the first day of good weather for a week. As we went down to our cache, our neighbors, taking a rest day, counted over a hundred people on the headwall and the snowfield leading up to it--at one time. There were Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Canadians, Swiss, French, Britons, Australians. The Americans almost seemed a minority. There were groups from Colorado, Montana, Minnesota. People in guided groups of 10 or 12, and people climbing by themselves. One solo German thought it was warm at fourteen, wandering around camp in his shorts as he washed his long underwear. The Womanclimb expedition, raising money for breast-cancer research (aka the Babes for Boobs) was there, waiting for good weather to continue. Adrian the crazy Romanian was trying to ski the Wickersham Wall, a 12,000' wall on the North side of the mountain, dropping from the top of the north peak to the Peters Glacier. but got weathered out, but Tyson and John managed to do it anyway, the first time it had ever been skied. And after two days rest at Fourteen, Tyson decided he still had energy, so he climbed up the Messner Couloir and skied back down in a single day--another 5,000' of vertical.

People moving up the headwall were ants in the distance, tiny specks. Every now and then somebody would turn off the sun. The clouds rushing by overhead covered and uncovered the sun faster than your eyes could adjust; it was just like throwing a light-switch.

But the most incredible thing about fourteen was, like the rest of the mountain, the sheer thrill of just being there. Here we were, perched on the side of the largest mountain on the continent, in an environment totally hostile to man, yet we were able to meet all our requirements for living with the contents of our backpacks. We were 7,000' higher than where we started, more than a mile and a quarter of vertical climbing, and we were in the midst of a crowd. Yet everyone in the crowd had gotten there under their own power, had overcome the same challenges, endured the same weather. It was easy to make friends, a friendly place to be. After 5 days of carrying loads, resting, and acclimating, I was still reluctant to leave, knowing the hard part was yet to come.

My most difficult moment of the trip was trying to climb the headwall, sled attached to the back of the pack, skis towering over my head, impatient Germans passing us on the fixed line. It took us three hours just to reach the fixed lines at the bottom of the ice, some 1400' above the camp. There, two ropes were anchored to the ice, supposedly one for going up, and the other for coming down. Climbers attach themselves to the lines using an ascender, a mechanical device that slides one way on the rope, and locks up in the other direction. So as you make your way up, you keep sliding the ascender along, and then if you fall, it keeps you from going anywhere.

The problem is, you're not supposed to trust the fixed line--hundreds of people have used them, and there's no telling how many people have stepped on them with the sharp points of their crampons, or stressed the rope by falling on it already. So, essentially, you have to do the steepest part of the whole climb without being able to use one hand (the one holding the ascender). And, it being the most difficult stretch, above the most crowded camp, it forms a bottleneck through which nearly everyone climbs, so you end up waiting for people to negotiate tricky parts ahead of you, while people behind glare impatiently at you. A large group of Europeans couldn't wait, so they started passing us, unclipping and scrambling around us, then clipping in again just ahead of us, forcing us to wait for them. My hands, in my light gloves, were cold. I needed to add another layer. I was starving. I had everything I needed to solve these problems on my back, but there was no way to remove my pack on the 45 degree slope. My Walkman, clipped to my shoulder strap, decided it had had enough, so it decided to leave. It hopped off my pack, hit the ice about 10 feet below me, bounced into the air, hit the ice again, flew open ejecting the tape and batteries, and tumbled down, down, down, as the warning sounds of an oriental team below us drifted back up: "Walkaman! Walkaman! Walkaman!" I was ready to quit right there.

But it was easier to just keep on going, than to try to figure out how to inch back down with our loads. I gritted my teeth, bowed down, and grunted on, trying to ignore the tingles in my fingers and the pit in my stomach.

16,200 feet on the West Buttress, May 1994 Finally, we reached the top of the headwall, at 16,200'. We were finally on the actual West Buttress, a ridge coming down from the summit. Fourteen was straight below us, while the other side dropped off just as steeply to the Peters Glacier. Right at the crest was a series of snow-walls where people had dug themselves in, one of the prettiest--and most exposed--camps on the mountain. Stuck in the top of one of the blocks of snow was the tape from my suicidal Walkman!
From here we would walk up the rocky ridge to the Crow's Nest, at 17,200'. That ridge was my favorite part of the ascent. It was easy, but exposed on both sides. I felt giddy walking it, like walking up the neck of a brontosaurus. After the headwall, I was totally excited, and beginning to think we might make it. By that point, I would sooner carry all our stuff over Denali pass and out the Muldrow, than take our skis back down that miserable headwall.

The Crow's Nest was the high camp for the climb, and reaching it made us feel truly privileged. It was quiet compared to Fourteen--instead of hundreds of people, there were 15-20 tents in all. The headwall turned out to be a filter that only allowed the determined through; many people never made it any further. The mood at seventeen was a mellow euphoria--it was amazing to think that we only had another 3,000' to the top. We looked across at Foraker, at about the same altitude, and down on Hunter and everything else. It was totally unbelievable, just to be there. But it was also very taxing. It was cold, it was very hard to move anywhere without becoming breathless. My head throbbed the whole first day up there, our pulses were racing. It was a workout just to climb in and out of the sleeping bag.

The day after we arrived at seventeen was beautiful: clear, calm, and cold. Knowing we may not get a better day to summit, we decided to go for it, even though we hadn't retrieved our cache at 16,200'. But as we started climbing to Denali Pass, we started seeing snow blowing through the pass, and clouds moving up from below. Other groups were coming down, saying it wasn't worth the frostbite they were sure to incur if they continued. Both Jeff and I had splitting headaches, and had to stop every fifty feet or so to gather strength. So before we even made it halfway to the pass, we turned around and went back down, collected our cache, and rested the rest of the day. The next day, the weather had moved in. It was foggy, blowing about 30 miles an hour, and snowing. The weather report called for another 3 or 4 days of the same, so half of the people up there decided to retreat back to fourteen, or quit altogether, figuring there wouldn't be another summit day that week. We had everything with us, though, and I was determined to not go back down that damned headwall, so we decided to wait.

Unexpectedly, that very night the wind died and everything cleared up. At midnight it was incredibly beautiful out--we almost left for the summit then. But we slept fitfully, deciding we would wait for daylight, and left around 10 in the morning, the earliest start of our whole trip.

It was a magical day. Foraker and Hunter were islands in a sea of clouds that stretched as far as we could see. The air was crisp, the sky bright. We packed up our skis and five days of food, and climbed the 1,000' to Denali Pass, the highest point we had to go with all our gear. At 18,200', Denali Pass is a narrow gap between the North Summit, at 19,600', and the South Summit, at 20,320'. It is the top of the Harper Glacier, which flows out to the north, down which we would descend. As we cached our stuff, we were so excited: it would now be easier to continue down the North side than to go back the way we came. At least one of our two goals was pretty much assured. Now, to make it to the top! With nearly empty packs, we started climbing the ridge to our right. It was here that Jeff had his weakest moment of the trip. Fred was strong, determined to make it to the top no matter what. I had a raging headache from the altitude, felt slightly dizzy, and almost a little nauseous. But my legs were still moving, and I wasn't about to quit this close to the top so long as I could still put one foot in front of the other. But Jeff I think was feeling so overwhelmed and amazed at just making it that far, that he felt ready to turn around. A pair of climbers passed us descending, retreating because one was practically delirious. Jeff asked to rope in with them, and at first the guide agreed, but then he changed his mind, saying he had his hands full. So we took a break, ate and drank all we could, and rested. Soon we were ready to go, and Jeff felt a lot better.

At 19,600', we crested a small rise, and arrived at the football field. It surprised all of us--here, so high on the mountain, was a huge flat plain, a quarter mile across and probably close to a mile long. And just across from us was the summit ridge, rising straight off the bottom, the final 700 feet. By this point, we were nearly screaming. We took off our packs, put on every single piece of clothing we had, and started climbing up to the ridge. Here the snow was deep and loose--it was incredibly hard work to move. I had to stop to catch my breath every other step, but with the summit in sight I knew I was going to make it eventually.

And then we were on the ridge. Temples pounding, eyeballs bursting, world lurching, I felt like I was in the middle of the world's worst hangover. Every tug on the rope sent a lance of pain through my forehead. We strolled gingerly up the ridge, the final quarter mile and 200 feet to the top. I was screaming, jumping up and down, totally excited no matter how much it made my head hurt. And at 7:00 pm, Tuesday, May 31, 1994, on the fifteenth day of our trip, we were standing on the highest point on the continent.

Nothing obstructed our view in any direction. To the south, everything was clear, but it was somewhat hazy. We could make out the Chulitna river, and the Susitna, but beyond about sixty miles we could not make out any detail. To the north, all the ridges stuck out, but every valley was filled with cloud. It was around twenty below, with a very slight breeze of less than 10 miles an hour. About as perfect a summit day as anyone could hope for.

The next day, we packed up our camp, climbed back over Denali Pass, leaving the crowds of the West Buttress for the solitude of the Muldrow route. The whole descent we saw only four other parties, spread out across 35 miles, a total of 13 people, compared to probably 600 people we had seen on the climb. From here on, the trip took on a totally different character--it was now a leisurely hike with incredibly heavy packs, our minds focused on two things: pizza and beer. We started each day between noon and 2 pm, and hiked until after midnight. The first day, we travelled the length of the Harper, down its two stairsteps, the steps of the gods, eventually reaching Brown's Tower, at the top of Karsten's Ridge. From there we caught our first glimpse of our destination, Wonder Lake, still over 30 miles away, and 12,000' below. At that point, the entire Harper glacier tumbles over a cliff, down 4,000 feet to the Muldrow glacier. To get around this icefall, we descended Karsten's ridge, a narrow spur that drops out of the sky--we descended the 4,000 feet in two miles. To our left, the ridge dropped straight down to the Muldrow, to our right, it dropped even steeper and further to the Traleika glacier. The soft, unbroken snow made it easy to descend, but going around some of the cornices was pretty frightening. On one we had to back down, and when I looked between my feet I could see rocks and ice some 6 or 7,000' below. Don't slip now!

For a while on the ridge, the fog moved in and we could see nothing but the ridge directly in front of us. We were going down a strip of marshmallow in a giant bowl of cotton.

On the Muldrow came Fred's worst moment of the trip. We were back on our skis, finally, and cruising down the glacier. We came to the Great Icefall, the first of two icefalls on the Muldrow, and as we weaved our way through giant blocks of ice, over narrow bridges crossing enormous crevasses, Fred's skis kept falling off. I thought the fury in Fred's cussing would melt the snowbridges we were standing on. But there was nothing to be done about his ancient, defective bindings but keep on moving, keep on putting the things back on.

We reached McGonagall Pass on our 18th day, leaving behind the alien environment of ice and rock, and re-entering the land of life, plants, animals, and spring. Finally, we could safely travel without being roped together. For the final 19 miles across the tundra, instead of all being within 150 feet of each other, we spread out for miles. We would go for hours without seeing each other; after 18 days of absolutely no privacy, each of us relished being alone. Upper Cache creek was incredibly beautiful, especially after the barrens we had just left. Green, everywhere. A few wildflowers were starting to emerge. The sound of water running down the creek. Warm, dry ground. The smells of the tundra, so strong we could taste it.

But our packs were the packs from hell. Loaded with skis, sleds, ropes, crampons, ice axes, tents, bags, and all our winter camping gear, each must have weighed over a hundred pounds, towering over our heads, bigger than we were. I couldn't even put mine on without the assistance of another person, or a ledge or tree branch. Our hips and shoulders became extremely tender and bruised. Jeff developed huge blisters on the bottoms of his feet, due to the plastic climbing boots that do not flex as you walk. We were walking through paradise while moving in agony.

The McKinley river was our final obstacle, but proved to be an easy crossing, not getting much deeper than our knees. The glacier-cold water felt great when it seeped into our hot, pain-inflicting boots. Once across the half-dozen or so channels, we only had a two mile hike up to Wonder Lake.

That last two miles was the worst two miles of the trip. It was hot, and extremely buggy. Halfway through, I lost the trail, and started bush-whacking through the alder and willow, getting eaten alive, my skis catching on every tree. Jeff, a quarter mile behind, saw me and followed, the wrong way. And Fred was so far behind he didn't know which way to go.

Finally, after a half-hour of straining, sweating, and cursing, I stumbled out to the road--not 50 feet from the trailhead. I dropped the pack from hell, ran back along the trail, and collected everybody. Whew! We had done it!

Our twenty day trip was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but also perhaps the most rewarding. When I look up at Denali now, I still can barely believe that I stood up there, right on the very top. I feel very fortunate to have made it, when so many others do not, just because the weather didn't cooperate. Our trip was charmed from the start. No frostbite, no injuries, not even any really close calls. Just bruises, blisters, and a new sense of confidence, of determination.

After the trip, I didn't wear shoes or socks for a whole week.

-- John Locke