At long last, the time has come. After months of preparation, training, and planning, the waiting period is over and Denali expedition is about to start. Heading to the areas of which I have dreamed long, and of which I have not much information beforehand.
We are team of 2 guides and 5 climbers – beside me there’s no other woman, two guys are from UK and two from Australia. For one of them this is a second summit attempt.
We have a gear check at Anchorage day before we head to the mountains. We drive to the small village called Talkeetna. From there you need to take an air taxi and fly to the Base Camp, there’s no other way to do it.
Before entering to the Mt Kinley national park, we check in at the ranger station and have an orientation and slide show from the National Park Service (NPS). There are exact rules how to behave at the national park to minimize risks and to protect nature. Rangers guard the area frequently and they do have office also in high base camp.
The weather plays a huge role on this trip. At the time we should move on, visibility is not good enough to fly and we wait couple of hours. Luckily the weather got better and we were able to take off.
Landing to the sunny Base Camp (2377 meters). No rush at the camp, just couple of teams. We sort our stuff and share them equally for each and everyone. We rig our sleds and dig our Base Camp cache, to save some goodies when coming back again.
We head to Camp 1 at 2378m below Ski Hill when the sun gets down, to avoid walking on a warm weather and to get good solid ground to walk. Coldness hits to my the legs first and I need to put more clothes quite soon. It is amazing, just a couple of minutes ago, it was sunny and warm and suddenly it is freezing cold!
After 7-8 hours and almost 9km walk we arrived to the Camp 1 (300m of elevation gained, we lost 150m down Heart Break Hill below Base Camp). We just set the tents up and went to sleep. “Breakfast” is next day around noon.
During the breakfast I found out that the guides have wrong instructions of my allergies and they offered me food that I could not eat. They said, that I should be able to eat what they have and explain that the food is proper for people who has celiac. But unfortunately, I don’t have celiac, only the person who had collected my food has one and she for some reason assumed that I have that one too. This hit me very strongly. My mood dropped and I knew this might not look good for me.
Despite of that I continued to work with the team and we carried loads to cache at 3048m near Kahiltna Pass below Camp 2 (C2) and returned to C1, total 11km and around 700m of elevation gained and lost.
Following day we continued to the Camp 2 (3413m), in a nice weather (6.5km and 1100m of elevation gained and lost). Everyone was feeling good, but for some reason, our guide wanted our rope team to hurry all the time, even there was no reason for that, no time pressure or bad weather. Another rope team was a bit faster and probably our guide just wanted us to follow their pace.
Arrived to the Camp 2 weather was warm and sunny, found good tent spots and we were ready to rest and have a lunch.
Next two days we retrieved our cache (backcarry) from the lower cache and carried loads to cache around Windy Corner at 4145m and return to Camp 2 (7,5km roundtrip, 750m of elevation gained and lost).
We were supposed to stay on Camp 2 couple of days, but on third morning weather got bad. Climbing is not always just trekking in a sunny weather. Camp 2 sits just at the base of Motorcyle Hill in a small glacial base below ice slopes and some very large serac’s. The corridor between Camp 1 and Camp 2 near Kahiltna Pass is very prone to foul weather and it is not uncommon for climbers to pass through clouds and snow, only to emerge from the top of the clouds to blue skies as they near Camp 2.
Couple of days later we were able to continue our climb to the High Base Camp/ Camp 3. Weather got very nice again and we have had proper rest days so that we were in good shape to start climbing again.
Long day behind (4,5km and 900m of elevation gained) and we arrived to the Camp 3 (4328m) in good shape. The views of Mount Hunter, Mount Foraker, and the sunset over the Alaska Range are incredible from this camp. This is the camp from where the summit attempts start.
After a long day climbing it was still a lot of work to do to get tents up and to build a proper wind wall (which definitely was needed). This is a big camp but peacefull and clean even there is a lot of people camping at the same time.
I knew I have a hard decision to be done, which I have thought constantly since Camp 1. Considering the risks if going further I came to the decision to turn back at this stage. Next two camps are behind a very challenging ascending (and decending) and if I don’t have proper food with me, I have no chance to make it. This meant of course tears and sadness, since I was feeling great, oxygen saturation was even over 90 every time checked. So the team continued without me…
Another AAI’s team came down and I joined them. Wish I would have been with this team from the beginning, something was totally different with the guides and the spirit they created.
After the couple of hours climb one of my original rope members came down, he got HACE while heading up, light symptoms but definitely time to turn back. He decided to walk down with us next day.
Next day we started our night descend straight back to the Base Camp. That was a long walk, around 9 hours but again, once the weather was on our side we were fine. We arrived to the Base Camp at 6am in the morning, first plane could arrive at 8am so we ordered one for us and meanwhile took beauty sleeps under the bright sky.
But then, when the time was almost 8 am, we lost the visibility – totally. We could not see anything, but worse part was, the planes were not able to land either. Base Camp approach was blocked. They said that this will vanish in couple of hours but that did not happen. Around noon we decided to set up tents and start to make a lunch for us.
During the afternoon it was clear that we are not able to board that day, perhaps next day would be better weather. It felt like really bad joke, some people had to change event the flights but that is what can happen, and seems that this can happen here very often.
Next morning the weather was a bit better, and around 10am first plane landed but that was more or less like a test flight. They informed others and after an hour our plane landed as well. We were happy! But also we needed to hurry with packing the plane since there was a risk that we don’t manage out from glasier. The route goes between the mountains and is challenging to fly even in a good weather.
Dream of Alaska still lives and definitely will go back one day.
Summit date: Summit attempt cancelled on 25th of June 2016
Route: West Buttress
Denali, 6144 meters
Operator and guide: American Alpine Institute (AAI), Andy Stephen
Enjoy also the picture collection from Mt Denali:
By Teija Sirko