Denali - Trip Report - Part 19Click here to go to the Peak Page for Denali
Monday, May 26:
Mike, in the tent with Bruno and me, woke up early by himself without an
alarm, got dressed, and went out to wake everyone else up and start breakfast.
I got myself together as soon as he was gone, and when I got out I could see
it was a beautiful day. It was quite cold with the sun not yet shining on us,
but the sky was clear and there was no wind at our camp and only minor wisps
blowing off the West Buttress ridge 2,000' above us. I was very happy that
for the first time in six nights at the 14,300' camp the tent Bruno and I
shared was not drifted in. Bruno gave me a "told you so" because of my
agitation to move the tent the past few days, and although it wouldn't have
helped last night, it might have saved us a lot of shoveling if we had done it
a few days earlier.
It was clear that we were finally moving today from 14,300', a prospect that
made us happy--we had begun to feel trapped. We hurriedly ate some cereal and
energy bars for breakfast and started breaking down our tents. Since I had
volunteered for the "A" team yesterday, I felt pressure to get ready quickly--
the group was depending on Steve, Andy, Bill, and me to get up to the 17,150'
camp quickly to nab a pre-built campsite, saving us hours of digging. Bruno
and I had a hard time taking down our tent, though, since the previous five
nights of drifting had buried many stakes and especially the rear vestibule.
We had to shovel and hack with an ice axe quite a bit to extract it from all
Out tent was getting cached, too, so once it was packed up I had to carry
it and other stuff over to the cache hole I had helped dig yesterday, and then
get a set of tent poles from someone else to carry. Then I had to get my
boots on--I had been doing my chores in booties and overboots to keep my feet
loose and warm--and the whole boot/overboot/crampon thing took a while. I was
the last person on the "A" team to get ready, a few minutes behind Bill and
Andy, and I apologized for the delay as I carried my pack over to where we had
flaked out the rope. Steve supervised our final packing, giving us some
pickets and group gear and telling us where to tie in. I was second on the
team, behind Steve, so I was to use a jumar on the fixed lines.
We set off at about 7:30 or 8 AM, I think, leaving behind Mike, Luis, Greg
W, and Bruno to take down the cook tent, bury the cached stuff in the cache
hole, and do other chores. They would then hopefully follow us. I was a
little worried about being too slow for the "A" team, but my fears were
totally unfounded, as I had no trouble keeping up with Steve's pace all day.
We were in the shade as we climbed steeply uphill from the 14,300' camp and
then started a long uphill traverse to the fixed lines, but the exertion got
me nice and warmed up quickly. My toes were toasty, and waiting until the
last minute to put on my boots was a big help with this, I think.
Near the bottom of the fixed lines we came out into the sun, and after a
rest we started up the 45 degree ice slopes. The footing was a little softer
than our previous trip up the 800 vertical-foot slope, but still not soft
enough to kick steps, so more awkward duck-footed French technique was the
order of the day. I really enjoyed having a jumar this time, too, since it
gave me a good, solid thing to hold on to as I ratcheted it up the fixed line.
Our early start was paying off, too, since there was no one ahead of us on the
fixed line, but a long line of climbers below us snaking up the path, one of
the groups presumably Mike's team.
The fixed lines were not really that hard, but at the top I was tired,
thirsty, and mentally exhausted from the concentration the slope had required.
We took a short rest here, happy that the wind atop the West Buttress ridge
wasn't too bad at all, and then did the short, steep, icy hike up to the
campsite/cache area at 16,300'. Here Steve, Andy, Bill, and I took a long
rest and went through all the stuff in the two AAI tents that Vince's party
had left here for us. Since the four of us already had two complete tents in
our packs, we were only to take whatever food, fuel, shovels, and other stuff
we could take, and let Mike's team take the tents and what we couldn't
Steve sorted through the mess of stuff there and gave us all way too much
stuff to carry, but we had no choice but to cram it all in our packs or tie it
on the back. The result was comically huge and heavy packs, probably well
over 70 pounds each. After eating a quick and early lunch, shouldering up the
loads, and taking some pictures of ourselves, we set off up the West Buttress
into terrain we had not yet been up.
The next hour or so was the most picturesque and exciting part of the whole
trip, as we stayed on the very crest of the sharp, almost knife-edged West
Buttress, crenellated with rocky gendarmes and offering truly sweeping views
of the central Alaskan terrain below. All the glaciers and peaks seemed
incredibly far away below us, and even Mt. Foraker now was at our level. The
climbing was initially on steep, icy slopes with vestigial footsteps in them,
then on a short section of crummy fixed lines that led up the steep snow
slopes to the left of a huge rock gendarme called Washburn's Thumb, then along
a very narrow and exposed ridgecrest that was largely flat and easy. This
last section was my favorite of the whole trip--awesome views, a true feeling
of being on top of the world, a well defined ridge with exhilarating exposure,
but easy, practically level hiking with easy footing. We had it to ourselves,
too, due to our early start, and only a couple parties headed downhill passed
|Photo: Washburn's Thumb on the West Buttress.|
After a few short uphills the ridge seemed to be leading directly towards
Denali Pass, the prominent notch between the dark black rock of the North Peak
and the snowy, lighter-colored South Peak. Steve told us during a short photo
break that it was all level from here to the camp, and we were glad, since the
easy uphills were still exhausting us at 17,000'. Shortly, the ridge
disappeared into a big hump, and once over that we were at the 17,150' camp
area, a wide, rolling plateau of widely dispersed campsites, not at all like
the concentrated cities at 11,000' and 14,300'. Steve led us down a short
hill to a broad gully where several camps had been made, but, not seeing
anything, he continued up a broad slope and along it a bit. I had never been
here, and the dispersed nature of the campsites was confusing, and the
altitude had gotten to me a little bit, so I just followed him blindly.
At an isolated spot on this far slope Steve suddenly saw an unoccupied
campsite, and we made a quick beeline for it. We all knew immediately that
we had made a big score--it was a large area with good, solid snow block walls
around it, big enough for all of our tents and needing little modification.
Up here the snow was icy hard and windblasted, making digging a deep pit very
difficult, so snow block walls were the only way to protect tents. After my
first-hand experience with quarrying snow blocks down at 14,300', I was very
happy to see the three or four foot high snow block walls already in
We all dumped our packs and started doing a little leveling and
modification. There was a hole in the middle of the enclosure that needed
filling, a few bumps here and there, some snow that had drifted in to the
north end of the compound, and some weird "rooms" in front that we had no use
for. Andy re-arranged snow blocks from these extra rooms to shore up the main
wall and make it higher, Steve undid the drifted snow by quarrying it into
more blocks, and Bill and I, more tired and altitude-affected, leveled the
inside and filled the holes. This was trivial work, especially compared to
having to make the whole site from scratch, but I was still beat from the
minor exertion. At 17,150', I was exactly as high up as my previous record
high point, on Popocatepetl in Mexico in 1993.
Once Bill and I had the area level we set about pitching tents, but we were
so out of it that it took us almost half an hour to pitch one tent instead of
the usual five minutes. Steve, quarrying blocks next to us, got so frustrated
watching us stupidly attempt to thread poles through sleeves in the wind that
he came over to help. Still, I wasn't too bad--in 1993 I was really sick at
this altitude, and I actually felt strong and OK for the most part. It was
very windy and cold, too, and I was very fumble-fisted in my heavy
Steve, Andy, Bill, and I had our two tents up, the walls almost complete,
and were starting to get the stoves out when Mike, Luis, Greg W, and Bruno
appeared, about an hour and a half behind us. They approved of the campsite
the "A" team had snagged, which became more bustling as they unpacked and we
set up their two tents. I still had Bruno as a tentmate, and we got stuck in
the last tent, closest to the "door" of the snow-block enclosure. Having
already set up tents, I was half-hearted while helping Bruno set up ours, and
tired when I was finally able to throw my stuff inside.
The 17,150' camp area was bleak and desolate. The thin air, the cold, the
intense wind, and the wind-blasted rocks and snow gave it a lifeless,
depressing look, and there were no other campsites right near ours,
accentuating the feeling of loneliness. We didn't bring our cook tent, so the
guides fired up the stoves in the lee of the wall and made water, soup, and
pasta for us. We ate in our tents to stay out of the wind, and the guides
brought the food around to us.
Before and after this I was out and about, though, organizing gear, getting
snow for melting for the guides (using one of my trash bags for a snow bag),
and constructing a latrine, because I was the first one who had to go. The
park service did set up a latrine down in the hollow towards the other
campsites, but we had passed it and it was, literally, full of crap and very
gross. So I dug a hole just outside our wall, put a bag in it, and we had a
squat toilet--this was the final devolution and nadir of the toilet situation.
It was very unpleasant. At least the weather looked nice and stable, with not
a cloud in the dark-blue high-altitude sky and the high winds the only
After the inevitable chores--filling water bottles, going to the bathroom,
getting my outside gear as organized as possible, getting in to the tent,
organizing the gear there, taking off my clothes, setting up a pillow, and
crawling into my sleeping bag--I tried to go to sleep. However, this was
difficult. Bruno and I had been careless in setting up and staking down our
tent, and it flapped in the wind badly, especially since it was right in front
of the open door to our enclosure. I was scared that the tent would blow
away, or that it would be too windy tomorrow to go for the summit, or that the
weather would deteriorate. Also, it was very cold, probably the coldest night
we spent on the mountain.
Today had been Memorial Day, but no one had mentioned this or thought of
this fact in any way, since we had all pretty much lost track of days of the
week, dates, holidays, and other mundane matters.
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