Editor’s note and updates:
Yesterday, May 27, the crew finished moving their operation to the 14,200-foot camp beneath the west facing wall of Denali. This puts them in position for a multitude of skiing options. They may pause for a moment to acclimate or wait out the weather. On the other hand, if they get a weather window today or tomorrow, they could end up completing their mission! We expect another report from them soon.
When doing the Washburn Route on Denali, key element is how you move your food and equipment up significant distance and vertical gain. The project is done in “carries.” For example, you might do only one carry to get your operation from Kahiltna Base to the 7,400-foot camp, but as the route steepens you might break the work into two or even three carries per camp.
Hauling your kit up the Washburn route eats up huge amounts of time and energy. If you’re fit and well organized, sometimes you can move everything in one carry per camp up to 11,000 feet. Once there, the route gets more serious and almost all groups begin taking multiple days to move camps, eventually ending up at the 14,000-foot “village” that functions as a sort of advanced base camp, replete with a ranger station and basic medical facility (established and supplied by helicopter).
One aspect of this we think is important is that Denali is one of the few larger peaks in the world where most groups do most of their own work. On many other mountains, particularly Everest, expeditions usually hire porters to carry their gear, cook for them, etc. This self-powered culture on Denali is thus special and we hope self sustaining. Yes, you can hire a porter on Denali, particularly if you work with a guide service, but doing so is the exception. Moreover, one section of fixed ropes is pre-established every spring, but fortunately is minimal and easily bypassed by any competent climber.
Today is Monday May 26th. After making it to 11k camp last night we decided to continue advancing our way to 14,000-foot camp today. By carrying the majority of our food and fuel around Windy Corner to cache them today. Our hopeful move to 14,200 feet tomorrow should be much more manageable.
We pulled into 11,000-foot camp late last night, which resulted in a slower start this morning. As most of the teams around us were packing up and heading out, we were just getting the stoves pumping to make breakfast. This schedule may seem a bit unorthodox to some of you, but remember, it’s Alaska and the sun doesn’t really go down here within the arctic circle this time of year. You can use this flexibility to travel during warmer times of the day when the weather is cold, or the opposite.
With packs loaded to the brim we get going around 1:00 and can tell that the wind was howling about 1,000 feet above at the crest of Motorcycle Hill (a steep grade just above camp, that’s famous as the first truly steep section of the Washburn route). We know we are in for some weather the farther we climb toward Windy Corner. After our time on Sultana Ridge, and without a soul-crushing sled in tow, it is incredible how easy it is getting to get our 70+ lb packs uphill. (Aaron thinks that we are slowly deteriorating with every minute we are here, but I’m going to have to disagree and say we must be getting stronger, or perhaps our sense of discomfort has diminished significantly).
Wind aside, we make it up Motorcycle Hill in no time with everyone feeling great.
As much as we wanted to make it to 14,200 in one push and carry, watching countless teams struggle coming up and down with sleds that seemed to act like hyperactive kids on leashes darting in every possible wrong direction made us happy we were taking the more manageable route of breaking our load into parts and days.
As we watched from camp, one poor guy in particular was hauling a sled up Motorcycle Hill that must have weighed as much as he did. He was struggling beyond belief. His situation was similar to a Bugs Bunny cartoon where good old Wile E.Coyote has created some ingenious contraption to finally defeat the pesky roadrunner, and is mid-flight closing in on him only to run out of fuel and plummet back to earth. This guy on Motorcycle looked like at any moment his legs might give out and he would slide all the way back to 11,000-foot camp.
We wanted to help, but knew that this test would not only wisen the sled hauler’s carrying strategy, but prepare him for the rigors of the upper mountain. Additionally, we had seen this man and two other teammates ascending from camp the previous day. Today his partners were nowhere to be found as he struggled up the hill solo. This is crevasse terrain. Breaking up your group is not usually wise.
As anyone who’s been up here can attest to, this route on Denali definitely attracts all sorts of people of varying abilities, egos and backgrounds. Some don’t seem to understand that climbing big mountains is only possible with a solid group dynamic, as well as a manageable plan of attack. We are of course not immune to negative group dynamics, but so far I feel very fortunate to be a part of an incredible team up here that is working together like a well-oiled machine. We of course have had our difficult moments as would any group of guys who has spent nearly every hour of the last 23 days together. But so far we seem to have an excellent grasp of how to work together to accomplish what we have come here to do — and have a good time in the process. I can only wish that for all other teams on the mountain.
After French-stepping with the wind at our backs up Squirrel Hill, and through the flats leading up to Windy Corner, we make it to our cache point just around Windy Corner and out of the wind (this is one of the windiest places on the route other than the summit area). The climb to here had taken about three hours. Shovels out, packs emptied, hole dug and wanded in no time — we are on our way back down lighter than any of us could remember.
With what feels like wings on our backs we make it back to Eleven Camp in under 40 minutes. Being a connoisseur of the light and fast methodology, I’ll tuck this memory away for the time being. We are all hoping and looking forward to good weather here on Denali tomorrow so we can make it to 14,000 feet and set up a tricked out base camp where we’ll catch up with some friends we know to have already made it up there.
(‘Ski The Big 3 is an Alaskan ski mountaineering expedition cooked up by four deprived (or perhaps depraved?) guys who never get enough ski and snowboard alpinism. Aaron Diamond, Evan Pletcher, Anton Sponar, Jordan White. The idea is to ski Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition. The crew had success on Mounts Hunter and Foraker, now they’re marching up Denali. They’ve got six weeks worth of food and enough camera gear to outfit a small army. Should be interesting. We wish them safe travels, we’re enjoying being their blog channel.)