Denali - Trip Report - Part 1

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Ever since I was a young child I had been interested in mountains. My father took me hiking in New Hampshire's White Mountains when I was only 5 years old, and when I was in kindergarten I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I replied that I wanted to climb Mt. Everest. As a teenager I started actively trying to climb all 4000 foot peaks in New Hampshire during family vacations, and I became an avid reader of mountaineering literature. However, growing up in the northeastern United States provided no opportunity for me to even get near any big mountains.

In the summer of 1984, between my sophomore and junior years in college at the University of Pennsylvania, I started a strange quest that was half mountain climbing and half bizarre scavenger hunt: I decided to try to attain the highest point in all 50 states. I did about 20 that summer, all easy ones on the east coast, and I knew that harder ones awaited me out west. Then, in the fall of 1984, my college's outing/outdoors club sponsored a slide show by a guy about his recent climb of Alaska's Mt. McKinley. This was probably the first time I learned of the route and what was involved in climbing that peak, but it still seemed very remote. Even after I climbed my first real (i.e. non-Appalachian) mountains in the Pyrenees and Alps in the summer of 1985, McKinley seemed as likely an ascent for me as Everest.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s I hiked and climbed more and more, scaling more difficult peaks as time went on and gradually progressing from a hiker to a real climber. In 1994 I climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington and Gannett Peak in Wyoming, completing 49 of the 50 state high points and leaving a obvious and glaring hole in my climbing resume: McKinley, apex of Alaska and the country as a whole. I moved to Seattle in 1995 and joined the Mountaineers club, where I learned more serious mountaineering skills, and after a while I began to seriously consider an attempt on the mountain.

In May, 1996 I attended a McKinley climb slide show at the Mountaineers clubhouse given by Mike Burns, one of my intermediate climbing course instructors, and I began to think about going to the mountain in the spring of 1997 or 1998. The Mountaineers offered a four-session course and field trip in early 1997 to help people prepare, and I signed up for that, although still not certain I wanted to go that year. Broadly speaking, it is reasonable to attempt Mt. McKinley only in May and June, and, given the preparation needed, one's mind had to be made up by March at the latest.

The main thing I needed was a group to go with. I had hoped to find other people in the Mountaineers who might be interested, but two years of their courses, programs, and climbs had not put me in touch with more that about two half-hearted people with the time, money, and experience necessary for a McKinley expedition. My other option was to go with a professional guide service, but I had heard the cost of that was in the neighborhood of $3000, which seemed to be a lot of money.

So I attended the Mountaineers' "Preparing an Expedition to Denali" course in January and February, 1997. It was composed of three classroom sessions going over gear, routes, logistics, and other topics, plus an overnight field trip where one could practice hauling sleds, moving up and down fixed lines, and other mountaincraft. About 20 people were in the course, and we all networked to see if we could maybe join up into expeditions. I was involved in this, and I went to several meetings of prospective climbers, and I even hosted one at my apartment. One group, eventually called "Work Sucks", had Courtland Shaffer, Bruce Kittridge, Eric Whilhyte, and another guy in it, but no one in their group had been to Alaska before. Another group was put together by Julie Smith and Ron Raff, veterans of Canada's Mt. Logan, and my new backcountry skiing buddy Glenn Morrison joined. I went to Mt. Rainier with Glenn and a guy named Shawn Parry, and later Shawn joined Julie, Ron, and Glenn, their team calling itself "Fire on the Mountain".

However, before these groups even got together I decided to go with a professional guide service. Originally Julie had told me they were going to do the long Muldrow route on McKinley, so I was not interested in joining her effort. Also, I was very wary of joining a group with no Alaska experience, and I wanted to know the people I would be climbing with a little better, too. For my first big mountain, my first mountain in Alaska, and my first expedition, I wanted real pros to be in charge. Also, the $3000 guide fee included tents, ropes, stoves, food, fuel, sleds, and the airplane flight on to the mountain, all expensive items and logistical nightmares, making the fee much more reasonable than it sounded at first. When Julie (with solid Mt. Logan experience) switched to doing the West Buttress route and Glenn (who I had climbed with at this point) joined her group, I had some minor regrets about having committed to a guide, but I was still glad to be playing it safe and putting myself in the hands of experts.

All I had to do was select a guide company. Only six are licensed by the National Park Service to guide, and I immediately discarded two: RMI, because of the many horror stories I had heard about them on Mt. Rainier, and NOLS, which was only offering a Muldrow traverse. Fantasy Ridge never returned my phone messages, and I didn't really know much about Mountain Trip. That left two others, the American Alpine Institute (AAI) and Alaska-Denali Guiding (ADG). I talked to a friend in the Mountaineers who said those two were the best, and that was the general impression I got from the literature I sent away for and from surfing the web. I finally decided on AAI--their dates seemed to work out the best, and they seemed to be a bigger, more established concern, and I had a bias for outfits based in my home state--AAI was run out of Bellingham, Washington. Somehow, AAI just felt right, and events later proved my gut instinct was exactly correct.

So by late February I had signed myself up for the May 10-31 AAI Mt. McKinley West Buttress expedition, forking over $3200 for the guide service. During March and April, 1997 I was very busy, spending at least another $3200 on new gear such as super cold-weather boots, clothing, and a sleeping bag, plus getting it all organized and tested. Also, I was trying to get outdoors to hike and ski as much as possible to get myself in shape, often going on backcountry ski outings. I also arranged to get five and a half weeks off from work, and made plans to drive my car to Alaska and then take a ferry part of the way back--I wanted to see a little of the north country, instead of simply flying to Anchorage. So by late April I had my stuff pretty much together, and I was ready to leave.

I drove to Alaska from May 1 to May 8, an long and uneventful drive on the Alaska Highway. I did some hikes to stay in shape and saw what sights there were to see, but in general it was a pretty boring trip. By May 8 my gear and I were in my hotel room at the Best Western Barratt Inn in Anchorage, where I was to meet up with my AAI expedition.

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