What we mean when we say we’re going to climb Denali

Brrrr. Snow shelters.

Brrrr. Snow shelters. Don’t worry mom, just practicing!

A recent conversation with my parents helped illuminate the extent to which we’d jumped right into the deep end in getting this blog off the ground. My parents live on the east coast, and are still wrapping their heads around this big northwestern adventure we’re working our way into, and my dad wanted to know just one thing – was I worried about the wolves and grizzly bears that would be out there with us?

In that moment I realized for the first time that in our enthusiasm, we dove right into the part about where we are at right now (training and buying gear) and neglected to explain, especially to our non-climbing friends and family, how a Denali climb actually shapes up.

So without further ado, here’s how this whole thing works:

First. Denali is the same mountain as Mt McKinley, and is the tallest mountain in North America, and therefore one of the “7 Summits,”  the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Denali or the “High One” is the original Koyukon Athabaskan (Native American) name for the mountain, and is now used both formally, for the park that surrounds it (Denali National Park & Preserve), and informally, in lieu of the name of an underwhelming president from Ohio whose name is preserved by a small and stubborn group of Ohioans who are resisting the restoration of Denali’s proper and long-standing name on official maps of the region. For more interesting history on the mountain’s name, Summitpost will fill you in here or Wikipedia will happily expand your mountain nerdiness if you click here.

There are many routes you can climb on Denali, but we’re doing one called the West Buttress, widely considered the “easiest” way to climb Denali. Interestingly, the West Buttress route was not the “first ascent” route – that early climb was made via the Muldrow Glacier Route, which has a much longer approach. (A climb’s approach is just what it sounds like – the part where you’re walking or otherwise traveling to the base of the route. The route is generally considered to begin in mountaineering when it becomes more technical than a hike, although where that occurs can be massively subjective).

Modern convention is for us low-landers to a) fly up to Anchorage, Alaska, b) pick up any last minute items; c) take a shuttle (bus or van) to Talkeetna, Alaska, d) get a pep-talk-meets-orientation from the Park Service; and then e) hop on a very expensive but very short small plane flight to get up to the West Buttress Basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, at 7200 feet.

Once we’re on the glacier we’ll be there for 3-4 weeks, depending on our speed and the weather, and we’ll go up, and up, and up for most of the time – the walk out to Basecamp often takes only a quick two days.

Denali’s summit is some 20,237 feet, so being dropped off at 7200 provides quite an assist, leaving us “only” 13,037 feet to climb to the summit. As a point of comparison, Washington’s iconic Mt Rainier is some 14,410 feet tall – so the actual climbing portion of our trip is in the ballpark to what it would take for us to climb from sea level (the actual level of the sea – not some parking area on the flank of Mt Rainier) to the top of Mt Rainier (give or take that last 1,250ish feet). Maybe that’s a weak point of comparison, given that last 1,250 feet, but hey, where’s Jim Nelson when you need him to just up and give you a 13,037 ft peak to which you can compare Denali?

When I first started climbing I found it annoying – almost infuriating – that we don’t start at zero and climb to the summit, before we claim that we’ve “climbed a X,000 foot peak.” How can we say we’ve climbed 14,410 foot Mt Rainier if we started at a parking area on the side of the mountain, at about 5,500 feet??

What you quickly realize, however, is that you often have to travel a long, long distance over land to climb a mountain from its base – and where that base lies is, again, somewhat subjective. The Muldrow isn’t the most popular route, despite being the first, because you have to hike a much longer distance overland (carrying all your food and gear) from Denali National Park’s Wonder Lake to even GET to the mountain (although some would say, and I would agree, that it is MUCH cooler to walk your way in and up from a low-lying lake, through the boreal forest, and up onto the glacier). Someday…when we don’t have jobs to get back to, and have copious amounts of time to explore – walking that far with all that gear is no quick trip.

Now about that glacier. Climbers pick up a lot of new knowledge in pursuit of their hobby: exercise physiology, first aid, geography, navigation, avalanche study, botany, geology, and glaciology all come quickly to mind, and there are surely other fields. Climbers are, if I do say it myself, pretty knowledgeable, well-educated people when it comes to the country they’re moving through – they have to be, because knowledge lays the foundation for safe travel in the outdoors.

So we know a bit about those glaciers. To keep this post manageable I won’t go too far into it, but suffice to say that when I say we’re going to land (or at least, the pilot will land) on a glacier, understand that there will be snow ALL AROUND. Snow on top of ice on top of rock, the latter of which we’ll almost never see. These aren’t those cute little glacial tongues you see lapping at the water’s edge on big corporate Alaskan cruiseline tours, but in this case, glacier = the ground, for all intensive purposes. The only ground for the weeks we’ll be on the glacier will be snow or ice. No trees in sight, no dirt, a minimal amount of rock. Just snow on top of ice, and us on top of snow.

The environment being so, well, alpine, means that we will have very little wildlife around us – we many not see any at all. There are no bears or wolves because there’s nowhere for the bears or wolves to rest, nothing for them to eat. The animal we’re most likely to see on the mountain is migratory birds that have been blown off course while traversing the high mountain ranges – and most of those won’t survive the experience (no worms of the kind birds eat, no seeds, no trees). So to my dad’s question – yes – I am entirely unconcerned about the bears!

But I am concerned about getting us and all our gear up the mountain.

To get up those great big glaciers with enough equipment and food for all those weeks on snow, we’ll climb it expedition style – which is to say, we’ll effectively climb the mountain twice(!)

Here’s how we get started:

We land at basecamp, unpack our gear to put it into its proper order in our backpacks and on the sleds we tow, and take a moment to dig a great big hole and leave some food well-buried in it, for when we get back to basecamp. We mark that hole with a long bamboo stick with some brightly colored tape on the end (these are called wands, and there will be a vocab quiz at the end of this blog post), and it becomes our first food cache. Then we get the hell out of dodge.

Our first trip is in some ways the longest, because we are wearing full backpacks, and pulling sleds laden with every single bit of our food and equipment except that which we’ve left in that first cache. We will hike over to Camp I (of six), and we’ll do two things there – set up our campsite, and then carry a load of our nonessential gear (at the first camp this might include our non-camping clothing that is for very high up on the mountain, and a lot of extra food and other more technical gear), and stash it (another cache) at Camp II. We can spread these activities out in many different ways, but the core principle is that of leapfrogging your gear up so you’re not carrying over 100 lbs of equipment and food on every leg of the climb. The critical step that makes this expedition-style is that as soon as we safely stow our stuff at Camp II, we turn around and walk back down to Camp I, to sleep.

Doing so helps us acclimatize – get used to the higher pressure and thinner air at elevation, and avoid worst-case-scenario medical complications that come with climbing too high, too fast. Climb high, sleep low, is the high elevation climber’s mantra.

The morning after we’ve gone back down to Camp I we’ll get up, pack up everything left at our camp, and carry our remaining equipment up to Camp II – and then the whole process repeats again. Carry nonessential load up, stash it, turn around and go back down to sleep. Pack up Camp II, carry it up to Camp III, set it all up again.

There can be variations in how this gets done (if we’re feeling strong and the weather is good we might skip a camp, for example, since Alaska has almost 24 hours of sunlight to work with by May), but the idea is everything gets moved over two loads, and you effectively climb the mountain twice. Here’s a terrific link to a photo of the mountain, with each camp numbered.

Sounds like a lot of hard work, but pretty straightforward, right?

We leapfrog our way up the mountain over the days we’re there, building elaborate campsites along the way – our tents will be on snow platform – flat areas of snow that we’ve flattened down and dug out, and surrounded with igloo style snow blocks built up into a wall to block the wind – and we do this over and over again, while intermittently caching food for the way down as we head up the mountain.

When climbers think about the kinds of obstacles that could get in their way while on a climb, they think of two things: objective hazards, and subjective hazards. Objective hazards are what I think of as neutral hazards – they don’t mean you any harm, but they’re out there – an overhanging snow cornice is a classic objective hazard -something that could fall down and hit you and it would just be bad luck. Avalanches are, in a vacuum, objective hazards (your decision to go out in avalanche prone terrain would be considered a subjective hazard).

In our case, the major objective hazard is probably the weather. Denali is famous for its epic storms – the mountain is said to “have its own weather system,” and although we can predict when they’re coming in, we may not have a ton of advanced warning on when they’ll arrive, or how severe they’ll be. The Kahiltna Basecamp crew radios out a forecast to everyone on the mountain before bed each evening, but it’s fairly likely that at some point during our trip we’ll end up snowed into our tents, getting out only long enough to shovel off the tent itself (so the snow doesn’t get too heavy!) or pee, and just waiting out a storm. So that’s part of why we need all those extra days (for those who were doing the math…)

We’re going to the mountain a little bit earlier than most groups do – the climbing season runs from April or May through late June or July, depending on the snowpack, and we’re going early in that window, which means it will likely be colder and clearer than it might otherwise be if we waited until later in the season. We didn’t do this because we like to suffer (ok ok – Leigh Ann does!) but because there are fewer other parties on the mountain, we feel good about our training and fitness (so don’t mind being a little bit ahead of the pack) and because we committed to each other that we’d make sure to have -40 gear (yes, clothing, sleeping bag, and mittens all ready for -40F!) so that the cold won’t become a problem. The advantage to going early, besides clearer days (and therefore what will hopefully be a nicer summit day on top of North America!) is that we avoid the crowds. Denali doesn’t have the kinds of epic crowds that other mountains ::cough:: Everest ::cough:: has had in recent years, but there are lots of guiding companies that lead paid trips (we call these climbs guided, for short), and may have bigger groups, and while we’re looking forward to seeing them – we wouldn’t entirely mind if it turned out we were slightly ahead of them on our way up the mountain.

The only particularly technical climbing we’ll do is ascend fixed lines. Once we leave the 14,200 ft camp, we’ll need to walk up a section that’s pretty steep, to get to the last camp, known as High Camp (you can see this in the image I linked to earlier, with all the camps labeled). Fixed lines are climbing ropes that are “permanently” attached to the mountain – they are anchored at each end by burying something in the snow, and you ascend the lines by placing a device called an ascender on the lines. An ascender is a small metal device that fits in your hand, and clasps the rope between metal teeth. Those teeth will slide up the rope smoothly if moved in one direction, but will catch and hold at their place on the rope if there is sudden movement in the opposite direction. The ascendar is attached to your harness, and you slide it up the fixed line (rope) as you climb up the steep part of the hill, with the ascender as a back-up, to catch you in case you slip. There are some great images of this part of the climb here – I recommend a scroll!

So we go all the way up to 17,200 ft Camp 5, storms and leap-frogging and caching behind us – and then we go for the summit! The summit day is a single day push – we get up early, take only what we need for the day and an emergency overnight (plus our 10 Essentials, which includes a med kit), and hustle up that mountain! Once on the summit we’ll take some pictures, high five, have a sip of something to drink, maybe stick some kind of an energy block in our mouths, and head on down, back to Camp 5 to rest up before the remainder of the descent. It’s kind of a quick affair, for all the work it took to get up there.

Another point of note for the folks who haven’t done much climbing – at altitude climbers move very…very…slowly. So slowly that if you walked past us on the street and we were going at our high elevation pace, you’d probably mock us, or stop to ask if we’re ok. The effect of elevation is that it makes it harder to breath, and therefore, to exercise. Not impossible, but hard enough that you take it slow, plant your feet deliberately, and look a bit like an old VHS tape on slo-mo.

This is partially why we are doing so much cardio in our day-to-day lives now – so that we’ll be as fit as possible for the elevation, which will help us cope, and help maximize our (relative) speed of movement up the mountain.

The good news is, it only gets easier as you get down. Most groups take only one or two days to get down from Camp 5, once they’re in motion – you have all your gear packed and with you, you’ve been on the mountain for weeks so you’re well acclimated to the elevation, each step is bringing you to a lower elevation, and, perhaps more motivating, closer to a shower/your dog/more breathing room/dirt/a change of clothes/your boyfriend. Most climbers we know who have already done Denali descended the mountain VERY quickly, motivated by a pizza, a beer, and that shower!

Once we get back to Basecamp the airline we’re flying will radio their pilot for a flight out, and as soon as they’re able to land (depending on the weather again) we’ll be on our way back to Talkeetna, and some serious hot shower and pizza time!

And that’s what we mean when we say we’re “going to climb Denali.” 🙂