An Average Ascent of Denali’s West Buttress: Part 2

Post by blogger | October 17, 2018      

Leif Whittaker

(This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.

[Part 1 of this Denali story] —– [Part 3])

View from the "edge of the world," a short walk from 14 Camp.

View from the “edge of the world,” a short walk from 14 Camp.

Now in position to make a Denali summit attempt, we closely monitored the forecast. According to the nightly radio broadcast from the park service, a window of clear weather would arrive on June 5. This gave us only one more day at 14 Camp to rest, acclimatize, and prepare. But good weather is notoriously rare on Denali. Would there be a second opportunity?

On June 4, we hemmed and hawed until noon, at which point it was too late to depart and the decision was made by indecision. The consolation prize was a ski on the lower section of the Orient Express, where a foot of playful snow covered blue ice. It was so fun that we repeated it twice the next day while dozens of climbers reached the summit in the window we had let pass.

Part of me felt like we had made a mistake. The forecast all but confirmed this. Pockets of high and low pressure swirled unpredictably around the mountain. June 8 was the only feasible window before a powerful storm arrived, bringing 60 to 80 m.p.h. winds. We would have to pull off a precision strike and descend before the storm hit. The margin for error was tiny.

To distract ourselves from the what-ifs, we watched an episode of “Man vs. Wild,” in which Bear Grylls demonstrated how to survive on a glacier by descending into a crevasse, crawling through the bottom, and popping out the other side into a lush forest. Laughter was a good antidote for stress.

Our movie-watching contraption. "Spaceballs" was one of our favorites.

Our movie-watching contraption. “Spaceballs” was one of our favorites.

At 10 a.m. on June 7, heavy snow was falling at 14 Camp and visibility was nil. We considered bailing, but the next day looked like the best window the mountain would give us. We decided to go for it.

Again the last team out of camp, our pace was erratic. We would stop to listen for the rush of an avalanche ripping down one of the walls above us, and then, when the slopes remained silent, we would climb as fast as our lungs could carry us. Just below the fixed lines, we passed the Swedish Vikings. They were a few minutes behind us as we clambered over the bergschrund.

Dozens of climbers had gone through there earlier in the day, but more than a foot of fresh snow had already covered their footprints. When we reached 17 Camp in the late afternoon, the clouds had dispersed and we saw the bootpack cutting across the Autobahn. We constructed our tent and began the endless process of melting snow for hot drinks, dinner, more hot drinks, and finally warm water bottles to cuddle with.

Looking down Rescue Gulley toward 14 Camp.

Looking down Rescue Gulley toward 14 Camp.

We were beginning to wonder where the Swedish Vikings were when Stefan called us on the radio and said they had been hit by an avalanche on the fixed lines. They were cold and bruised, but otherwise okay. We greeted them with hot water when they arrived. Their beards and eyebrows were caked with ice, their eyes wide with shock. They described the wave of snow that had swept over them, how it smashed and spun them as they clung to the lines, fighting to stay afloat. We had avoided a similar experience by less than an hour.

That evening, we walked to the edge of the West Buttress and watched the sun creep toward the horizon. Golden light painted Foraker and burned into the tops of the wispy clouds. It was one of the most beautiful views we had seen and, hopefully, a sign of more incredible sights to come.

Sunset at 17 Camp.

Sunset at 17 Camp.

Thunderheads were building on the horizon the next morning, but an ominous calm hung over Denali. A few inches of featherlight snow topped the sastrugi base. For a moment, I lamented our decision to leave the skis at 14 Camp. Skiing would have been a contrivance given the conditions and circumstances, but part of me still ached to glide down from the top of such a grand mountain. Next time, skis.

Climbing across the Autobahn on summit day.

Climbing across the Autobahn on summit day.

The final exposed ridge that leads to the summit.

The final exposed ridge that leads to the summit.

We set a methodical pace across the Autobahn, through Denali Pass, and around Zebra Rocks. More than fifty people were on route and we tried to ignore the urge to race. Most were guided parties that we had been paralleling since we first met them in the hanger of K2 Aviation.

On the one-lane summit ridge, we waited while Jeremy and Steve, guides for American Alpine Institute, led their rope teams down, passing over a cornice bigger than a two-car garage. We congratulated their group as they went by, and then, with the route clear ahead, took our final deliberate steps. At 8 pm on June 8, the 16th day of our expedition, Mike, Brandon, and I stood together on top of North America.

I tend to get sentimental on summits and Denali was no exception. I shed some tears as we embraced. We had each realized a long-standing dream to climb this legendary mountain, but most importantly, we had done it together. I have great respect for those who climb alone, but that moment on the summit would have felt empty without such friends.

Summit glory for the Baker Ice Worms.

Summit glory for the Baker Ice Worms.

We gazed across the Alaska Range for 45 minutes, until I noticed a black castle of clouds looming in the distance. Time to get down.

(Born into a family of tall and loud mountaineers among the glaciated spires of the Olympic Mountains, guest blogger Leif Whittaker blames his lack of skiing talent on his high center of gravity. He has twice climbed to the summit of Mount Everest and he currently works as a climbing ranger for the USFS on Mount Baker. His first book, My Old Man and the Mountain, was published in October 2016 by Mountaineers Books. My Old Man and the Mountain: A Memoir)


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2 Responses to “An Average Ascent of Denali’s West Buttress: Part 2”

  1. Rudi October 17th, 2018 6:55 am

    Excellent write up thanks!

  2. David Field October 17th, 2018 12:08 pm

    Excellent write-up and thanks for sharing. It would be interesting to hear your take on some lessons learned and what you would have done differently, although it appears that you nailed it.

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