Waking up was hard this June 3 morning. I’d had less than six hours of sleep combined in the past three nights. Groggy is an understatement. Nerves had played a part in my lack of shuteye. I’d lost count of the days we’d been camped at 14,200 feet on Denali waiting for a weather window — blue sky that seemed to always be coming the next day. Of course when we woke up the next day and unzipped the tent door, clouds or winds would say “not today boys.”
Yes, the mountain speaks, you don’t have to like what it says — but you’d better listen!
Today was no different. At 6 am, Evan (our morning person) woke up to clear skies and huge plumes of snow blowing off everything above camp. About an hour later the rest of the team was awake looking at the same thing.
Our forecaster Joel Gratz (Joel is a huge part of the success of the trip. While the NPS has been botching the forecast Joel has been spot on. If you’re looking for great weather info check out www.opensnow.com)
Joel had told us that today, Wednesday, and Thursday looked like good summit days. We decided to wait it out for an hour before heading up the fixed lines. Worst case scenario: Joel’s wrong and it’s another acclimatization day.
We skinned up the ski hill toward the fixed lines, passing a few guided groups making the move to 17k, and found ourselves behind three unguided climbers trying to figure out their ascenders (a situation our group is not immune from, see previous post). To make the pass we switched to the downclimbing rope for a short bit, then crossed back to the upclimb rope. You can do that when the crowds have dissipated.
We reached the top of the lines and continued up the ridge around the massive rock that is Washburn’s Thumb and towards the high camp at 17,000ft. The climbing on the ridge is similar to the ridge between Crosson and Foraker except without the glaciation and with more knife edge. Like prodding lions at the zoo, the fun factor is high while the chance of major issue is low.
Arriving at the windswept plateau that is 17k camp around 2:00 we found our timing was working perfectly. An hour before, nobody could leave their tents because of high winds.
We ran into our friends Matt, Bean, and Marc, otherwise known as the “Coloradbros.” We had made plans to avoid a long sloping traverse to Denali Pass known as the Autobahn to allow more fall line skiing was well as spare me a long, icy, heel-side traverse on my snowboard. Instead we would climb the face above the Autobahn and eventually rejoin the West Buttress route by gaining the climbers left ridge and traversing over it. The Coloradbros joined us in the plan and were nice enough to put in the staircase booter to about 18,600 feet, where we finally caught up with them.
After a short food and water break we crossed over the ridge and quickly regained the wanded highway formally known as the West Buttress. I set a slow pace as we gained elevation crossing over the top of classic ski routes such as the Messner Couloir and Orient Express (unfortunately those lines were not in condition today). Breezy winds combined with sub-zero temps forced the entire team into their down jackets as we 3-count rest stepped around Arch Deacons tower and onto the Football Field at 19,500ft.
At 19,500ft I fell apart while Anton and the rest of the team seemingly found the second (third, fourth?) wind. They raced up the 600 foot Pig Hill while I struggled with a headache and shortness of breath whenever I sped up my 3 count rest step. This was a new altitude high for me and clearly I had not done my acclimatization homework.
At the top of Pig Hill (see our detail map below)I rejoined the group and we stared down our final obstacle between us and the summit of Denali, a heavily corniced ridge with the added difficulty of being at 20,000 ft. Luckily, this is the most popular summit in the Alaska Range and old tracks, wands, fixed pickets, and other climbers everywhere make the ridge a straightforward route to the 20,320 summit. We embraced each other on the summit. Half in shock at our success, half in pure happiness we took in the sights of the entire Alaska Range, the Talkeetna area and the North Slope.
Slowly, but as quickly as possible, we transitioned from crampons to skis and snowboards and made our way down the classic ski route from the summit block to the Football Field. Right before we skied off, the Coloradbros joined us on the summit. Matt snapped us a summit photo (thanks!) and we were off. Conditions ranged from white ice to cold, sticky, breakable sastrugi. Our wasted condition paired with the extremely difficult snow made for a poor downhill showing for the couple of climbers making their way across the Football Field.
A short sidestep brought us to a rolling pitch with similar snow conditions as the summit pyramid. Quickly we found ourselves at the top of the Autobahn Face. Conditions were still variable but much improved over the West Buttress proper. Two thousand feet of fall line skiing brought us to the low spot below 17 Camp. We cramponed back through a much more crowded camp than when we left, and headed back down Washburn Ridge.
We descended the fixed lines and transitioned back to skis as the sun passed below the horizon, illuminating Hunter and Foraker in bright red alpenglow. Midnight boot deep powder skiing ushered us back to the tents, and warm sleeping bags.
(Editor’s note: Due to time constraints the crew is planning on providing photos once they’re back in civilization. Autobahn Face is the area above what’s labeled as “Autobahn” on the map below. It’s a nice ski line that’s much more direct than circling around on the standard climbing route.)
(‘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.)