Denali Trip Report

Dates: May 28th to June 13th
Route: West Buttress
Access: Fly into Anchorage, van ride to Talkeetna (two hours by Talkeetna Shuttle Service) and charter a ski plane to the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier

Climbing Summary:

Day 1 - Fly into Base Camp at 8:00 p.m.
Day 2 - Base Camp to Ski Hill (7.8K)
Day 3 - Ski Hill to 9.7K
Day 4 - 9.7K to 11K
Day 5 - No Movement
Day 6 - Carry to 13.7K
Day 7 - Carry to 14.3K
Day 8 - Move to 14.3K
Day 9 - Pick up cache at 13.7K
Day 10 - No Movement: dig in for storm
Day 11 - No Movement: dig out of storm
Day 12 - Carry to 17K
Day 13 - Move to 17.2K
Day 14 - Summit then back to 17.2K
Day 15 - Return to Base Camp
Day 16 - Wait due to poor weather
Day 17 - Fly out


I know many people call the West Buttress a walk-up. I would encourage them to give the route a try. The climbing is only slightly technical in nature (about on par with Mont Blanc in the Alps) but the huge amount of gear that is required makes the route a serious undertaking. A fair description of the route is a two to three week expedition with four days of moderate mountaineering.


After hearing about the nightmare logistics, we were pleasantly surprised when I managed to go from my desk in Hong Kong to Kahiltna Base in less than twenty four hours. On the way in we checked in with the rangers in Talkeetna who told us that only one person had made the summit so far in May. In a strange way that made me more confident that we would get a break in the weather.

After flying in on May 28th, the 29th was a beautiful day and several groups made the summit. Unfortunately, my partner (Nick) got the flu on Day 2. He hung in until 11K when we had to slow the pace down to allow him to recover. The carry that you see on Day 7 (above) was solo. Nick had done the carry on Day 6, and we decided it made more sense for him to rest. My Day 7 carry was a light one, and I made it to 14.3K in three hours and descended in one and a half hours. I hitchhiked on another team's rope from Windy Corner across the seriously scary snow bridges around 13.4K.

On Day 8 we moved camp. We had misheard the weather and thought that it was blowing 50 mph above us. Turns out that the forecast was for 15 mph. We found this out when I volunteered to climb to 12.2K and check out the weather. It was perfectly calm and we decided to break camp. A number of other people followed our lead, and it was a big movement to 14.3K

In order to keep Nick in good shape, we used a heart rate monitor with the alarm set at 145 bpm. Nick tried to keep the rate below 140 bpm. This worked well, but the 6.5 hours to get to 14.3K combined with a very heavy pack completely wiped me out. It took us a further 1.5 hours to set up camp, eat dinner and turn in. This was one of the toughest days of the trip.

However, Nick's diet of rest, antibiotics and diamox started to pay off and he recovered steadily. We were back on track and he was regaining his strength. The day after we checked in to 14.3K, I check my o-sats with the doctor. I was 83 (normal). Nick was in the mid-70s, a bit below normal.

We had a big storm while we were at 14K. Fortunately, we had time to prepare our site. We built the walls up to seven feet and dug a 3-4 foot trench right around the site (we were told that it reduces spindrift).

Unfortunately, an RMI guide was blown from 17K while attempting to help a client. He untied from the rope and was literally blown away. His death was the third fatality from the buttress this season. A real tragedy.

Despite our precautions, the morning after the storm saw our tent nearly completely buried. 3.5 hours of digging cleaned up the situation. I put in another three hours of digging that afternoon to make sure that we didn't have a repeat of the previous night's problems.

The West Rib cut-off looked like six thousand feet of postholing so we blew it off. I was keen but we decided that hauling all our gear over the top was beyond us. In hindsight this was 100% the right decision. There was lots of new snow all the way from 14K to the top.

We waited for our weather window, which came after two stormy days. Although it was a marginal day, we decided to make a carry to 17.3K. At about 17K the weather crapped out and we cached our gear under some ropes and headed back. We were caught in a small, local white out at about 16.7K. It was more scary than dangerous.

The next day was perfect so we moved up to 17.2K. Some people tried for the summit, found huge amounts of powder and had to posthole for hours at 20K. Some of these guys didn't get back to 17.2K until 3:00 a.m.! We had them to thank for our success the next day.

In the morning there was a light wind and we decided to go for it. Left 17.2K at 11:00 a.m. and were on top at 6:00 p.m. We had moderate winds from 18.3K to 19.3K and a high of about minus twenty-five. Even in the sunshine, the moderate winds made it very tough to keep my hands warm. I was wearing polypro liners, Black Diamond fleece windstopper gloves and North Face Himalayan Mittens. My feet were in good shape with One Sport Everest Boots.

I know it sounds weird, but I felt like 17K was haunted from the three deaths that had happened nearby. I didn't feel better until I was at 18.5K above Denali Pass. Then we got into the swing of the climb and started to enjoy ourselves. From 18.3K up, I began to do forced hyperventilation and this helped keep my heart rate to a reasonable level. Without the very rapid breathing my heart rate quickly shot sky high, and I had to cut my pace. I was probably at five breaths per step for the climb up Pig Hill.

The summit was completely calm and occasionally bathed in a light cloud. The cloud created a bit of greenhouse effect and must have warmed us up. We didn't linger for long on the summit out of respect for (fear of?) the weather. The view was only "fair," and I shot a lot of slide film.

The way down was straightforward but we were very tired. Fortunately, we both realised that a slip could quickly become serious and concentrated very hard. It is very easy to see how people kill themselves on the downward traverse from Denali Pass (18.3K to 17K). However, we hit the traverse at 8:00 p.m., it had been "sun softened" and didn't present a problem.

I fell asleep three times before Nick had dinner ready. He really came through on the summit day!

In the morning we headed down and felt so good that we made it back to Kahiltna base that night (11:45 p.m.).

We had to wait two days before being able to fly out and were really shocked at how bad everything smelt once we got back down to 7K. I really stank!

When we returned to Talkeetna, we had a few beers, ate a massive steak dinner and nearly got sick because our stomachs weren't used to the volume of food.The luck with the weather enabled me to return to Hong Kong a week earlier than expected. As at June 13th there were about 150 confirmed summits and a success rate of about 25%. We feel lucky to have made it.

Gear Thoughts:

We started with 120 lbs of gear each (excluding fuel and what we were wearing). None of these additional items were essential but some would have been useful.

  • A wind-proof lightweight poncho. I went with a Gortex Down Jacket combined with fleece tops and Gortex shell trousers. I think that a down jacket and Gortex jacket is a waste of weight. A useful alternative might be a windproof sleeveless vest.
  • Long bungey cords make the sleds a real pleasure. Otherwise you get a lot of "jerk" in the system. I was lucky to find my sled "pre-rigged" with a long bungey.Go with a wide, full length foamy. I went with a 34 Thermarest and a thick foam pad. My foam pad was not long enough to cover my head and feet at the same time. I ended up using clothes to insulate my feet. Not a big problem but the additional weight would not have been an issue. This could matter early in the season.
  • I did not have gortex shells for use with my fleece windstopper gloves. This could have been an issue except for the fact that we were able to use parachute cord to rig a drying line inside our tent.
  • Nick's MSR XGKII stove was excellent and worked much better than my XGK stove.
  • A number of simple crossword puzzles helped pass the time in the tent. I would bring a book of them next time.
  • Our "pack towel" was extremely useful for soaking up melted frost inside the tent and taking surplus water from gloves and hats.
  • Vitamin E lotion helped keep our faces and noses from falling off.
  • Powdered eggs are luxury food up high. We had them with fried bagels and it was great for morale.
  • A small radio will let you listen to tunes in the storms and get additional weather.
  • Although I didn't bring one, cell phones work at the 14K camp.
Hope this helps someone.


Back to Climbing