Denali Gear: What Worked and What Didn’t — 2018

Post by blogger | October 22, 2018      

Leif Whittaker

(Post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.)

[Part One] —– [Part Two] —– [Part Three]

Don’t forget your nose guard!

Don’t forget your nose guard!

Discussions about Denali gear by Lou and his mates were very helpful as I was planning my 2018 expedition. It’s no surprise that his advice from 2010 still applies, but after my own experience on Denali, I thought I could add a few thoughts about the most important and hotly debated items on the list. (In addition to link above, check out more Denali gear ideas, and even more…)

Sleds – After much debate regarding rigid poles and high-end sleds, we ended up using the cheap plastic expedition sleds provided by K2 Aviation. In terms of packing and travel, it was much easier to not deal with sleds until we arrived in Talkeetna. Once on the mountain, we attached the sleds to our hip belts with 6mm cord and clove-hitched the rear tie-in point of the sleds to the climbing rope between us. For the last skier on the rope team, the sled was not attached to the climbing rope.

Packed and ready to fly at K2 Aviation.

Packed and ready to fly at K2 Aviation.

Most of the mountaineering groups were using this setup, or something similar, and it worked fine on the ascent. Some guides included a bungee system on the cord attachments to help absorb shock and reduce jerkiness when hauling. This may have improved comfort but wasn’t necessary for us.

Our initial plan was to follow Lou’s advice and do a double-carry to 14 Camp. Our backpacks were 85-90 liters, and on our first trip, we carried a large cache without sleds. The ski back to 11 Camp with light packs and no sleds was a highlight of the expedition.

On our next trip to 14 Camp, we used sleds to move the rest of our food and equipment. We figured we could always tie the empty sleds to the outsides of our packs if we didn’t need them on the final descent.

Nearing 14 Camp with full sleds.

Nearing 14 Camp with full sleds.

However, we definitely needed them. Even though we gave away all of our leftover food and fuel at 14 Camp after our summit, it wasn’t possible to fit everything else in our backpacks. We were a team of three and had to split the group gear. If we were a larger team or were more devoted to minimalism, we may have pulled it off.

We were able to reduce to two sleds so that our splitboarder, Mike, could travel without one. The section between 14 Camp and Windy Corner was heavily crevassed, and we needed to ski roped up, but it was incredibly difficult to manage the sleds, rope, and heavy backpacks while skiing through fresh snow over dozens of crevasses. We wasted a lot of time switching positions on the rope and couldn’t find a functional solution. We crashed and wallowed dozens of times until we finally made it around Windy Corner.

From there, we decided to ski unroped. This was much less awkward and was actually quite fun on the gradual slopes of the Polo Fields. Squirrel Hill is steeper and more exposed, however, and an out-of-control sled could have pulled us off a cliff or into a crevasse, so Brandon and I decided to carry them like briefcases by the handles of the duffle bags. This was obviously very difficult, and I would not recommend it. We made it down to 11 Camp just before our arms gave out completely.

Below 11 Camp, we continued to ski unroped. Our sleds had a strong tendency to barrel roll whenever they swung to the side. This was annoying and comical but didn’t slow us down too much. If you do go with the cheap plastic sled option, do not put fragile items in them (such as lightweight helmets). Everything in the sleds takes a beating during the descent.

Skiing unroped on the lower Kahiltna while dragging a Paris expedition sled.

Skiing unroped on the lower Kahiltna while dragging a Paris expedition sled.

The best sled setup we saw for skiing was the Siglin Pulk from Northern Sled Works, complete with rigid poles. The rounded edges on these sleds seemed to prevent barrel rolling. We witnessed several people whipping them back and forth on every turn, without any sign that the sleds were going to flip. They appeared to function very well, and I would try them next time.

If you’re planning to ski above 11 Camp, strongly consider using a pulk with rigid poles like the Siglin, or minimize your equipment so that you can ski without a sled. I believe the Siglin, or something like it, would have made our descent from 14 Camp easier and safer. However, if you’re only planning to ski below 11 Camp, you can probably get by with using the cheap plastic variety provided by flight services.

Summit/ski pack – In addition to our expedition packs, Brandon brought a lightweight summit pack from Hyperlite. Mike and I were jealous of this when we skied on the lower Orient Express. Most large expedition packs do not compress well, or they leave long straps dangling all over the place, which can whip you in the face when the wind is at your back. A smaller pack would be especially useful if you’re planning to push to the summit directly from 14 Camp, without having to carry loads up and down the West Buttress, but otherwise it is a luxury item.

Brandon loved his Hyperlite pack for skiing without a sled or heavy load.

Brandon loved his Hyperlite pack for skiing without a sled or heavy load.

Cook tent – I completely agree with Lou that a cook tent is essential, even for a small team like ours. We used the Black Diamond Megamid and loved it, although we saw a lot of the Shangri La tents from GoLite. Rather than using the included center pole, some guides carried an extendable painter’s pole with a tennis ball duct-taped to the end. This gave them extra length if needed and was more durable.

Inside our Megamid with a pot of lasagna on the stove.

Inside our Megamid with a pot of lasagna on the stove.

Food – At altitude, where your appetite is suppressed, variety is essential. We brought a combination of quick-and-easy meals—oatmeal, mac and cheese, pesto pasta, dehydrated lasagna, freeze dried—and more involved, gourmet options—pancakes, pad thai, Philly cheesesteaks, bagels with cream cheese and lox, and quesadillas.

We planned for 25 dinners and breakfasts, and cached three days of these at base camp in case we were stuck there in bad weather on our exit. Snack food and lunches were purchased on an individual basis, except for about ten group lunches. Added to this were at least three hot drinks per person, per day. Do not skimp on hot drinks; they are small and lightweight, and hydration is key to expedition health (though in contrast to common wisdom research has been indicating for some time that excessive hydration is not necessary, and can even be detrimental.)

Pringles, Jolly Ranchers, Circus Animal Cookies, and Snickers are essential on any long expedition

Pringles, Jolly Ranchers, Circus Animal Cookies, and Snickers are essential on any long expedition.

We purchased 90% of our food during a four-hour shopping session at a Fred Meyer in Anchorage. Everything on our list was easy to find, except for powdered miso soup, one of my favorite evening hot drinks.

I cannot overstate how important it is to have a detailed shopping list, including exact amounts of bulk items. This will reduce your level of stress and prevent you from buying too much when you inevitably worry about food scarcity.

Brandon made Philly cheesesteaks for our first and only night at base camp.

Brandon made Philly cheesesteaks for our first and only night at base camp.

Lou mentioned needing one more option for breakfast. My longtime favorite is instant mashed potatoes with bacon and cheddar cheese. I’ve eaten so much instant oatmeal over the years that the mere sight of it nauseates me, and a savory breakfast provides good variety. Pancakes with maple syrup and butter were also delicious on slow mornings.

A few other food ideas:

  • Cubetti (cubed prosciutto) – Great protein to add to mac and cheese or other pastas. Keeps well because it is cured.
  • Summer sausage – Stays softer than a log of salami when partially frozen.
  • Trader Joe’s instant coffee with cream and sugar – Mix with one packet of Starbucks VIA and you have a double-shot americano with a splash of cream and sugar.
  • Instant chai latte – Made by Oregon Chai. Good midday hot drink for the thermos. Sweet with a hit of caffeine.
  • Pringles – For you chip fiends, the rigid tube keeps them whole and fresh. Sour cream and onion at 14,000 feet! Mmm.
  • Gloves – Lightweight liner or softshell gloves were necessary for the lower glacier. Outdoor Research Lodestar gloves were awesome for moving, skiing, and working at camp. The North Face Vengeance Gloves were my go-to on summit day. They were well insulated and absolutely bombproof, with enough dexterity to clip fixed protection.

    The OR Lodestar gloves were great for skiing, climbing, and working at camp.

    The OR Lodestar gloves were great for skiing, climbing, and working at camp.

    The OR Alti Mitts remain the industry standard for extreme cold. We each brought a pair and never used them, but I believe they are a necessary item in case of emergencies. A trick I learned on Everest is to leave an unopened package of chemical hand warmers in the mitts at all times. If you ever need to use the mitts, you’re probably on the verge of frostbite and will want to add a source of heat to your frozen digits.

    Solar panel – On the recommendation of several guides, we purchased an Anker PowerPort Solar Lite 2. It was slightly lighter and less expensive than the Goal Zero version with equivalent power output, and it performed very well for us. Our three-person team charged our camera batteries, phones, radios, and GPS without any issues, though we had fewer electronics than some teams.

    Skis/Bindings/Skins – I used the Black Crows Navis Freebird (185cm) mounted with a pair of G3 ION 12 bindings and the new G3 Alpinist skins. These items deserve a longer discussion, but I will say that I loved all three.

    The 102mm waist of the Navis is wider than many ski mountaineering boards, but they didn’t sacrifice a shred of hard snow performance and floated magically on deep pow. Traditional camber underfoot is combined with significant rocker in the tip and a bit of early rise in the tail. It’s the type of ski that makes you a better skier, even with loose-fitting boots. Highly recommended.

    I loved my Black Crows Navis Freebird skis with G3 ION 12 bindings. Don’t forget to bring leashes!

    I loved my Black Crows Navis Freebird skis with G3 ION 12 bindings. Don’t forget to bring leashes!

    Staying true to their reputation, the G3 ION 12 bindings were simply bomber. They’re not the lightest or highest tech bindings on the market, but they make up for that with simplicity and reliability.

    Clothing layers – Next to the skin, I switched between a merino wool ¼-zip top from The North Face and a synthetic sun hoody from Arcteryx. On the bottom, I wore a pair of mid-weight Icebreaker merino wool long johns for the entire trip. I wouldn’t change a thing. Wool minimized the stench and remained warm even when damp with sweat. Sun hoodies have become ubiquitous in the mountains in recent years and this is an essential piece for protecting your neck, ears, and face on nuclear days at high altitude. Every guide on Denali wears one.

    Sun hoodies are a very useful layer, especially for the lower mountain. Bring some pants too.

    Sun hoodies are a very useful layer, especially for the lower mountain. Bring some pants too.

    Additional upper-body layers included a mid-weight fleece hoody from Outdoor Research, a minimalist windshirt, a Patagonia Nano Air Hoody, and an OR Transcendent Down Hoody. As you can see, I love hoods and believe every layer should have one. I liked all four of these pieces. They provided several different combinations to use depending on conditions.

    The last two upper-body layers I brought were the Strafe Cham Jacket and a beefy expedition parka from First Ascent. The Cham Jacket isn’t the most waterproof shell in the world, but it was perfect for Denali, where protection from wind is the most important thing.

    Adding to Lou’s advice about expedition parkas, I wouldn’t leave it at home unless you’re very experienced in cold temperatures and know your body can stand up to it. You will mostly use the parka at camp, when you’re sitting around and your body isn’t producing much heat. The parka will save countless calories that would otherwise be burned trying to stay warm. Without one, you will want to be in your sleeping bag whenever your camp is not bathed in sun. This will inhibit your ability to socialize with other climbers and might even impact your attitude.

    Expedition parkas kept us warm on our two nights at 17 Camp.

    Expedition parkas kept us warm on our two nights at 17 Camp.

    On the legs, I used softshell pants with light insulation and the Strafe Cham Pant. Like the jacket, the Cham Pant was perfect for Denali—lightweight, windproof, and a little stretchy. On the hot lower glacier, I wore them without long johns. They were comfortable against my skin and breathed well. On summit day, I wore them over the long johns and softshells, and they performed beautifully.

    The final layer on the bottom was a pair of thick down pants from Feathered Friends. Like the expedition parka, this is a layer that some climbers may be able to eliminate, or at least reduce to synthetic puffy pants. However, I wouldn’t imagine going back to Denali without them. They were essential on the two nights we spent at 17 Camp, and even at 14 Camp, I wore them every evening when the sun dipped behind the mountain. The benefits are countless and the added weight/bulk is well worth it.

    Ski Boots – Brandon and I both wore the Atomic Backland and were very impressed, with one caveat—the stock liner is not warm enough for Denali. We swapped ours for thicker Intuition liners (be aware that a thicker liner requires more room in the boot shell, you thus may need to upsize the shell), added Superfeet REDhot insoles, and covered them on summit day with the Forty Below Fresh Tracks overboots. Per Lou’s advice, I had my shell and liner heat molded before the trip to create extra space. This reduced ski performance slightly (especially when carrying a 50-pound sled/briefcase!) but was definitely the right call in the extreme cold. My feet were cold only once, when we were flailing through deep snow on our descent from 14 Camp to Windy Corner.

    Brandon and I both loved our Atomic Backland ski boots, particularly for climbing.

    Brandon and I both loved our Atomic Backland ski boots, particularly for climbing.

    The biggest surprise for me was how well these boots performed when skinning and climbing. With the tongues removed, they offered an amazing amount of articulation, which was crucial for the low-angle glide up the lower Kahiltna. As climbing boots, they were more precise and supportive than any ski boot I’ve owned. Brandon even thought they were better for cramponing than most of his mountaineering boots and I would have to agree.

    Nose guard – I know they look stupid, but just bring one! I made the mistake of not wearing mine on a climb to 17 Camp and my nose was damaged for the rest of the trip.

    (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.)


    Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


    18 Responses to “Denali Gear: What Worked and What Didn’t — 2018”

    1. Lou Dawson 2 October 22nd, 2018 7:49 am

      I’ll be the first to chime in. Thanks Leif for helping us reach the vision for being a quality, long-form source for this sort of ski and mountaineering content!

      Regarding the cargo sleds. If I went up there again… I’d spend a winter figuring out a gear kit that allowed one to carry a backpack and no sled down from the mountain after the climb. Much safer, and more fun. For the ascent, I’d just do double or triple carries between each camp, again, no sled.

      Gear gets lighter all the time. I think it’s gotten to the point where a “sled-less” trip could be done without too much sacrifice. The worst of it is probably the fuel cans, I wonder if the fuel could be transferred to collapsible bladders at base camp?

      We actually did this on the Muldrow in 1973. Up with no sleds and two to three carries between camps, and down with one backpack load of perhaps 70 pounds (it helped to run out of food for two days, and we dumped our empty fuel cans in a crevasse, now a no-no of course). We improvised sleds a few times by just dragging gear in stuff sacks. Something tricky like that could be an option for the first Kahiltna leg, where nearly everyone just loads up their entire kit for one push up the flat glacier. Two carries there would be brutally boring… Or, do bring a sled for the flat Kahiltna slog, but force yourself to leave it the lower camp and do two carries.

      The best would be to get to know the climbing rangers, and have your food and fuel dropped in by helicopter to 14 camp. Can I dream? (smile)


    2. Michael October 22nd, 2018 9:21 am

      These are great articles. If I ever ski Denali this will be a must-read.

    3. Mike October 22nd, 2018 11:47 am

      My group of 3 a few years ago was able to get things down to a single sled for 11-14-11, handled by a remarkably-skilled sled wrangler. I skied with our tent strapped to my front-side from 14-11, which worked well, and was miserable from 11-base once I picked up my sled. If/when I go back, I’ll figure out a way to securely wear a duffel on my front and strap the sled to my pack for getting down to base from 14.

    4. Parker October 22nd, 2018 3:21 pm

      Looks like someone in your group was using the Salomon QSTs—any word on how well those did?

    5. Leif October 23rd, 2018 9:22 am

      @Parker Yes, Brandon had the QST 106 with G3 ION 12 bindings and he absolutely loved them. A little heavier than my Black Crows, but they were solid boards. He used them during out climbing ranger season as well and continued to be impressed.

    6. Leif October 23rd, 2018 9:49 am

      I agree with Lou; befriending a climbing ranger would be the best option. 🙂 I was jealous watching a team of them ski away from 14 camp with tiny packs.

      In all seriousness, if you can minimize your kit so you don’t need sleds above 11, that would be ideal, but yes, it will take a lot of practice and planning to get this dialed. From 11 and below, you’ll be collecting your full Clean Mountain Cans on the way out, so at least one sled for the group might be necessary, unless you don’t mind strapping your team’s smelly waste to your pack. Having a sled on the lower Kahiltna, from the 7800-foot camp to base, wasn’t a problem at all because the terrain is essentially flat and you’re really just gliding rather than skiing. I would at least use sleds to/from that point.

    7. Andy October 23rd, 2018 10:19 am

      Really pedestrian question: Any insight on using contact lenses on trips like this? I need them, and sun/wind WORKS my eyes. Yeah, can wear goggles as much as possible and glacier glasses when not, but it still seems like a lot of beating on one’s eyes (among other things) for contact people. Is it horrid and better to get prescription goggles/sun glasses, or no biggie?

    8. Dan October 23rd, 2018 10:56 am

      Of course the Mt Baker beanie is essential for all Denali ascents…
      Yeah Brandon!

    9. Paul Simon October 27th, 2018 4:41 pm

      @Lou: “and we dumped our empty fuel cans in a crevasse”
      WTF? You can’t imagine how much it angers me reading this. You are a piece of *** for acting like this and an even bigger one for writing it here and possibly encouraging others to do the same.

    10. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2018 5:27 pm

      Just being honest, that’s what we did in those days — “we” being most climbers as I understood it at the time (you should see the junkyard at McGonagle Pass, for example). I wouldn’t do it now and anyone up there is very clear you’re not supposed to dump non-biodegradable stuff in crevasses. Please refrain from the vulgar insults. I had to edit your comment. That said, if you really think my sharing what I did nearly 50 years ago is going to “encourage” people, that’s ridiculous. History is history, a bit of honesty about it is a good thing. If you like, I can add a caveat…

    11. brian burke October 29th, 2018 9:36 am

      well said lou. ignoring stylistic compromises in the past is sure to cause them to reoccur.

    12. Lou Dawson 2 October 29th, 2018 11:00 am

      Thanks for understanding, Brian.

      Interestingly, they’re now considering everyone carrying out their poop as well, due to concerns about what’s really going to happen to those thousands of pounds of “stuff.” I’m of the opinion that it’s not a problem, that the scale is so immense the poop can just dissipate after being carried by the glacier, but that’s just opinion. Hopefully they can do some science.

      Ironically, the non-biodegradable stuff like tin cans could have less environmental impact than poo? Crazy old world…

    13. XXX_er October 29th, 2018 11:58 am

      yeah 60 yrs ago dad used to change the oil in the 53 chev by running it over the ditch and pulling the plug which sounds nasty but so was the oil they sprayed on the gravel road for dust control but it was only bad if mom caught you tracking the stuff in doors … needless to say nobody does that anymore

    14. Jim Milstein October 29th, 2018 6:42 pm

      Agree, Lou, with your discussion of changing environmental standards, but I am dismayed by the use of children’s bathroom vocabulary to avoid words “not fit for polite company”, as they say. I offer several alternatives: fæces, fæcal matter, scat, droppings. All are guaranteed not to raise a blush on the most delicate and innocent readers.

      As to the question of what tons of human droppings do on or in a glacier, I do not know, and I have lost touch with all the glaciologists I knew. Surely there is a glaciologist among WildSnow’s readers, yes? Maybe there is a “curse of the turd” [from Latin “turda”, so it’s okay].

    15. swissiphic October 30th, 2018 12:32 pm

      Found an article on the issue of using glacier crevasses as outhouses.

      Don’t think Lou like links so; google: outside online, there’s human poop in glacial water, march 15, 2018

    16. Lou Dawson 2 October 30th, 2018 6:08 pm

      Thanks for thinking of us here Swiss, links ok if they’re not “spammy.”

      I’ll find the article.

      Interesting issue…. I think it’s probably a matter of scale. Anyone who has stood on the immense Kahiltna glacier, and studied the terminus and rivers, will probably wonder if this would be an issue in that case. We’re talking cosmic scales of ice and water. Though like I said above, eventually some science will probably tell the tale.

    17. Jim Milstein October 30th, 2018 6:42 pm

      Imagine 70 yrs from now giardia has been eliminated like smallpox. Suddenly and mysteriously giardia outbreaks develop at the feet of once great but now tiny glaciers. However, that may be among the least of our descendants’ woes.

    18. Michael Browder November 2nd, 2018 12:33 pm

      i’ve ben going to this area for nearly 40 years. Fecal matter is an issue, and bringing it out is the thing to do.

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