Bad Luck On Denali

Hello again! After 16 days on the mountain we flew out from Kahiltna glacier to Talkeetna airport on Monday, June 22. It was a great trip! However, unfortunately I didn’t reach the summit of Denali (6194m). My highest point was the high camp at 17.000 feet (5300m). A combination of slow expedition team travel, sickness of a guide and finally bad weather prevented me from summitting within the originally alloted timeframe. Ironically, we had perfectly clear weather for the first 10 days, with dozens of climbers coming down and marveling about their summit experience in clear weather…

At Cache Above Fixed Ropes (4950m)

At Cache Above Fixed Ropes (4950m)

In the high mountains, that’s how it goes sometimes, and when the weather turns on you once you are up high in position for a summit bid, there is often nothing you can do but wait (if you have enough resources and time) and ultimately descend. The overall success rate this summer was around 55%, so about half of the climbers setting out don’t reach the summit. Reasons include altitude mountain sickness (when you ascend too fast), bad weather (when you ascend too slow :-), burn-out from hard work and relentless cold, or simply people realizing that they are physically and/or mentally not up to the task.

Here are a few pictures of the Denali expedition and the time spent in the various camps. The views to the two adjacent high peaks Mount Hunter (4300m) and Mount Foraker (5300m) were often spectacular.

I must also say that I am a bit burnt out at the moment from living and camping on the glacier at high altitude and low temperatures for a total of 32 days in the last 5-6 weeks with only 4 rest days in between. After 1 month up high I have lost many pounds of body weight – despite the fact that I ate much more than usual, earning me the nickname “hungry man”. It was almost scary looking in the mirror when taking my first shower after 2+ weeks on Denali and feeling the slack of my jeans around my waist! When you come down off the mountain you take in the oxygen-rich air and feel strong, but at the same time you are very hungry and sleepy. You eat three or four big meals a day and still feel hungry. Yesterday in Talkeetna I ate a huge breakfast, lunch salad and then a famously big Calzone pizza they claim feeds 2-3 people, followed by a chocolate cake and still felt like I could eat more… A few rest days and trips to all-you-can-buffets should help with that problem…

Afterthought: For me personally it turned out to be a BIG mistake to have signed on with a commercial expedition on Denali. After the successful Mount Logan expedition I should have attempted Denali using a solo permit and climbing on the mountain with one of several small, private groups. That way I could have ascended much faster (since I was already very well acclimatized) and thus used the perfect weather of the first 10 days. (As an aside, it would also have saved around $5000 and 1 week of my time.) Instead, since I had signed up with the American Alpine Institute (AAI) expedition, I was literally stuck with the team. There were 3 guides and 9 clients. As you can imagine, a team of 12 people with very mixed mountaineering and winter camping experience travels much slower than a small group. There were many days when a departure time was given and I was ready 5-10 mins prior, only to stand up to 1 hour in chillingly cold morning air waiting for others to get ready and freezing bitterly in the process. Then every rope team only travels as fast as it’s slowest team member; to make things worse, our 3 rope teams were mostly staying together, forcing everyone to walk at the slowest pace. It felt like an endless backup up the glacier; walking slower than your natural pace is actually more tiring due to the permanent stop-&-go and attention not to step on the rope; most of all, it is frustrating and tough to deal with mentally if you’re not used to it. Then we were not allowed to go anywhere of interest at or near camp without a guide and being roped up due to the omnipresent risk of crevasses on glaciers or steep terrain. Once we reached a cache site up high (4950m) on a beautiful ridge with magnificent views all around and near perfect weather. While the two guides dug a small hole in the snow to bury our cached food and fuel we clients had to sit in one spot roped up and secured by a picket in the snow. When I stood up to take a few pictures looking around and untied from the rope I was immediately told by the guide that I couldn’t untie here due to the steep terrain! It was literally painful to have to sit there and not being able to walk around and enjoy the freedom of the mountains – so much so that it made me weep when writing these lines! I felt like a dog on a leash the whole time. I wanted to run around and go up much faster since I was acclimatized. I wanted a physical mountaineering challenge, not a team or mental dog-on-a-leash challenge. Early on in the trip the guide sensed and understood my pain; he told me to just be patient and stick with the team. I tried and managed for 13 days…

Then on Friday, June 19 the weather report clearly indicated that after another 2 reasonably good days a low pressure system would approach from the Bering Sea and finally bring bad weather to the mountain for several days. This happened at the second to last camps at 14.000 ft (4300m) when we were about to move up to the last camp. And just at this critical time one of our guides fell sick (altitude and respiratory infection)! He had to go down and another guide had to come up, followed by a rest day after the long marathon climb. In the meantime our team had to wait three days in perfectly good weather, while the weather window was closing. Many other teams which had arrived the same day as us initially made their successful summit bid during those three days (June 18-20). It was again painful to watch our chances for Denali slipping away, doing nothing but hanging around at camp watching others climb in good conditions…

Finally, I couldn’t take this any longer: I decided to make a 2 day dash for the summit by myself! So I silently packed my stuff and then left the group while the one guide remaining at altitude was distracted for a half hour or so. My plan was to stay at high camp (5300m) one night, then summit and come down to our camp (4300m) the next day. Unfortunately, I was both pretty tired and cold after the climb to high camp and the resident rangers there sort of “intercepted” me on the way up. The guide had radioed up that I had left the team and they were looking for me. They explained to me that I had waived my expedition permit by leaving the team and it would essentially be illegal for me to continue to climb solo! They threatened me with an “astronomical” fine and legal action if I were to continue to go up! Imagine that: I had paid all my park service entrance and climbing permit fees, invested a ton of time and money, then decided to use the weather window before it closes and do a big summit push … and here I find myself being treated like a criminal or fugitive being chased down! I admit that I was tired and it would have been hard to go to the summit the next day (June 20), but I would have tried and possibly succeeded were it not for the “illegal” aspect of it. What a nightmare! I never imagined this scenario to play out the way it did. As I write these lines, the rest of the team is still sitting at camp 14.000 waiting for the bad weather to clear and the high summit winds to abate… I wish them luck – more luck than I had up high.

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