Denali Reflection – Caleb

Post by blogger | July 7, 2010      

I am a strong believer in the 7 P’s; Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. This goes for most things in life, but it really applies to alpine climbing expeditions. The ‘P’s’ I observed during the months leading up to our departure for Denali filled me with confidence. All team members put forth exceptional effort to think through and plan every detail of things such as food, medical, logistics, climbing strategy, equipment, power, and of course blogging. But with a trip such as this so much more goes on; so many sub-texts; so many stories.

We finally made it back to Colorado late the other night. I’ve been unpacking, cleaning and repairing gear, editing photos, getting the household back in order, and of course reflecting. Lou asked me if I would share my perspective once I had some time to process things. So here it is.


During the flight in to the Kahlitna, reality starts to set in when the mass of Denali appears and stuns you like a taser shot.

Eight years ago I had the unique experience of organizing and leading my own expedition up the West Buttress, with a team composed of life long friends and my now wife, Jennie. I was 25 years old, with far more muscle than mountain wisdom. We hauled our greenhorn outfit all the way to 17,200ft and then sat in Denali’s fury for 6 days before retreating down the rescue gully in a very cold whiteout. I remember severe disappointment, the feeling of failure, and vowing that I would be back for another attempt.

Denali seemed less and less important as life passed and new priorities came into view. However when Jordan sent me an email last summer asking if I wanted to head back north, my lust was quickly rekindled. I talked it over with Jennie and her only concern was that she couldn’t go. She’s probably the only thing that would have made this trip any better for me.

Once I learned who my teammates would be, I remember being a little intimidated. Yeah I know my way around the mountains and yeah I am in pretty good shape, but I was going up there with a bunch of 20 somethings that think an 8,000 ft day at altitude is all in good fun. Oh yeah, and the other “old” guy was going to be Lou Dawson, a man that has forgotten more trips than I have been on. So what do climbers do when faced with fear and intimidation? Simple: ignore it. So I started packing.


Lou contemplating as usual.

Since my return I have been asked by a few people, was it easier this time? Absolutely! So many of the unknowns were known. I knew what worked and what didn’t. I knew nearly every step of the route, what clothing and gear work best, and what mistakes not to make again. I permanently swore off snowshoes after my last Denali trip. Plus gear has come a long way in the last 8 years in terms of both weight and versatility. Oh yeah, and I was up there with some pros.

Riding shotgun in that De Havilland Single Otter with the meat of the Alaska Range staring me straight in the eye, I knew weather and team dynamics were the only two things that could possibly prevent our success. One was controllable and one wasn’t. No sense in worrying about either one at that point though, just focus on the tasks at hand.

The runway on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier is one of those places where you see people hop out of a plane and just stand there with mouths open and heads rotating 360 degrees like an owl. I thought, having been there before, I was now immune to this rookie behavior. Nope. I’ve been to all of North America’s major ranges, the Andes, Alps, Atlas, Altai and mighty Himalaya, so I feel qualified to make the statement that this is truly one of the most amazing mountain locations in the world. If you never climb anything in the Alaska Range, do yourself a favor and pay Talkeetna Air Taxi whatever they want to fly you onto the Kahiltna for a look.


This photo doesn't do the experience any justice, but it helps.

If the views and scale of this place weren’t humbling enough, then staring at mountain faces that have pushed the climbers I have idolized for the last 20 years to their limits sure was. Names like Waterman, Kennedy, Lowe and Stump to name just a few. And then once I was just about totally psyched out, we end up camping next to Colin Haley, with his totally relaxed vibe. “Hey Colin, you guys going to hit the Cassin tomorrow?” “Yeah, man. Wanna see our rack?” “Sure.” At this point, Colin smiles and holds up a modified harness with one lonely ice screw hanging from the side. That pretty much was an end point for words. I nodded and said “Good luck, buddy.” For an alpine climber, this must be about as close to heaven as one can get. People work their whole lives to retire to a condo in Mexico or Vail. I’ll take a yurt on the Kahiltna.

So the first night at base camp we were still in that mental limbo area between the outside world and a major expedition. Then Lou sets heads straight with one 3am comment, “Well boys, are we gonna lay around base camp for a month or go climb a mountain?!!”. It was classic. There were seven guys fully packed and rigged for glacier travel in about an hour.

Testosterone, over-confidence, and impatience led five of us to single carry our 150lbs loads to 11,000ft camp. Lou advised against it. I agreed, but proceeded anyway for some reason. We thus brutalized our gear and bodies during that particular pain session — and spent the night half way there. Lou and Louie chose to double carry to 11,000ft and we reluctantly had to admit that he was probably right once they arrived. Thankfully we adjusted and started doing things the right way to 14,000ft camp, so we split up some of the carries into humane proportions.


The '3 bearded fellas' march to 11,000ft camp. These guys are work horses.

By this point, I was getting a feel for how team dynamics were shaping up. There were certainly moments of disagreement, some voices raised, and a few bouts of resentment here and there. But two things that were not lost were mutual respect and tolerance. Once those go out the door it is usually over. I was both impressed and happy to see this, considering many of the team members didn’t really know each other that well prior to this trip. The stresses of an expedition of this nature can only be understood once you have been through one. But trust me they can be great. My suggestion is to keep things light whenever possible; pink frilly handcuffs help.


A sight that stops skiers in their tracks.


Lou and Louie cruising Squirrel Point.

Our time to 14,000ft camp was fast by normal standards. I felt like the team was in good health and spirits when we got there. Now the patience game began. Lou and I had convinced the team that 17,200ft camp was akin to living in hell, and we had the strength and speed to summit from 14,000 ft camp. Our plan was to acclimate by skiing the stuff around 14,000ft camp, take one trip up to the top of the headwall at 16,000ft, and preferably two day-trips up to 17,200 ft camp.


Acclimating isn't all bad.


The scale of the place is mind boggling.

We got some good and bad weather during our time at 14,000 ft camp. We accomplished our acclimation pilgrimages higher on the mountain, but as time passed and reports of successful summits trickled in the boys began to get antsy. The weather forecast wasn’t really inspiring confidence in our plan with only small and probably dangerously tempting weather windows opening in the evenings — probably not long enough for a bid from 14,000 ft camp. I fought pretty hard to stick to our guns, but internally I had some serious doubts whether we were going to get what we needed from the weather. My biggest fear, aside from climbing high in bad weather, was that the strategy I had so aggressively advocated would result in my teammates going home with the same feeling I had in 2002.


Evening weather window.

Getting good weather info while on Denali is difficult to say the least. The NPS reports are generally accurate on winds and temps, but not so much when it comes to precipitation, visibility, and timing. In other words, they don’t give you much of an idea when that unlikely summit day might happen anyway. So I reached out to my good friend Joel Gratz of Colorado Powder Forecast. Everyone in the world should have a good doctor, a good lawyer, and a good mechanic, however mountaineers should add a good meteorologist to that list. I understand that Joel was in North Dakota in the back of a van when I sent him the message, “Need more and better weather info asap.” So as he told me later he pulled out his IPhone and started looking at the maps with the pretty colors. He replied that Friday would have a small window, but Sunday was our best shot for the next ten days. “Are you sure Joel?” “Yes.”

The NPS weather forecast didn’t really concur; none of the guides seemed to know about said windows. Well it was the only positive news we had so we went with it. The Friday window materialized, we climbed to 17,200ft, and then just as Joel predicted it was short lived. So down to 14,000ft we skied. Mentally we put all of our eggs in the Sunday basket and carefully prepared ourselves all day Saturday under snowy skies. I knew if it didn’t happen we would probably have to switch strategies and move to 17,200ft camp and get pounded by Denali while we hoped to sneak to the summit during a small weather break. Deja vu?

I doubt anyone slept much on Saturday night, I certainly didn’t. Sunday morning came around and I peeked nervously out of the vestibule. Bluebird. Not sure what Joel saw that others didn’t, but he had the start of the window down to almost the exact hour. Impressive. A combination of tension and excitement accompanied us as we geared up that morning. When a few other heads poked out of neighboring tents and asked where we were headed, one word was uttered: “Summit.”

There were a lot of smiles as we broke trail up the headwall in the best weather we had seen, or should I say as Joe broke trail up the headwall. I tried to reign in the pace but it wasn’t happening this day. Three hours from 14,000ft camp to 17,200ft camp. Then up the Autobahn without a rest stop. Across the Football Field under still blue skies and very little wind. The slog up Pig Hill seemed longer than the previous 6,000 vertical feet of climbing. And finally, the summit. The skies were still clear, the views sweeter than I had dreamed, and Denali even hit us with an east wind that led to the fastest application of down garments I have ever witnessed. Smiles and hugs were shared, photos taken, and skis attached. Then we skied off the top of North America.


The boys, the 20,000ft summit ridge, and great light.


Skiing off the summit ridge as Lou appeared like an apparition on the ridge (upper left). Not too many 58 year olds that can keep pace with these guys, this I guarantee.

Seeing that old dog Lou Dawson leading his son up the summit ridge as we skied down honestly brought me to a halt and a tear to my eye. Perhaps it was exhaustion or lack of oxygen, but for some reason the moment struck me as one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in the mountains.

In a very uncharacteristic display, Denali continued to reward us this day with views and light quality that were near perfection as we descended back to 14,000ft camp. Simply more than anyone should ever wish for up there. Spiritual. Jordan and I certainly took our sweet time getting back down. I could probably have stayed up there all night.


No caption needed.


These are the days we dream about.

With a terrible forecast for the coming days, our thoughts quickly turned from Denali to beer, fried food, and loved ones. We began our descent hoping to beat an incoming storm. Well we didn’t beat it, so it decided to beat us for a while. We endured some of the worst weather I’ve seen in my 45 days of Alaska Range climbing. Lou considered building a snow cave as he and Louie were traversing around Squirrel Point, Jordan and I were blown off of our skis, and visibility forced us to come to a complete stand still several times. Eventually Jordan and I made it into 11,000ft camp, with Lou and Louie still above us. A few hours later when they rolled in, I was expecting attitudes and physical conditions to be as bad as the weather, but Lou just smiled and calmly said “Wow, that was some really bad weather.” I had to laugh and make a few wise comments.

We made it back to base camp the next day after a long low visibility slog down the Kahiltna, only to wait four long days for weather conditions to improve. We passed the time with midnight peak bagging, kicker building, and a lot of bantering. The weather finally improved and we were at the West Rib restaurant in Talkeetna before we knew it.


This was the only helicopter in basecamp this day.

In closing, I want to point out that we were lucky with generally warm, though wet, weather most of the trip, and of course that summit window (warm for Denali, anyway, as it still dropped to around negative 20 F a few nights). But it has been said that luck favors the prepared. I also want to say that it was an honor and privileged to climb with this group of guys, real pros. Lou’s wisdom, Louie’s ability to fix everything, Tyler and Colby’s work ethic and relentless manning of the stoves, Joe’s fortitude, and Jordan bringing it all together in more ways than one, were just a few of the reason’s we had success and the trip seemed so easy, from my view point anyway. Keep my number handy fellas.


The 2010 Wildsnow Denali Boys. Right to left: Jordan White, Lou Dawson, Louie Dawson, Caleb Wray, Colby Christoff, Tyler Christoff, and Joe Brannan.


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42 Responses to “Denali Reflection – Caleb”

  1. TimZ July 7th, 2010 9:00 am

    That’s a great post Caleb, thanks! What did you use for a camera? Any issues with battery life or operation in the cold?

  2. Pierce July 7th, 2010 9:06 am

    Great report and epic photos!

  3. Porter July 7th, 2010 9:44 am

    That is some kind of write up. As much as I love the iconic summit shots, and the pictures of the glacier. The old double fisting whippet powder skiing really made it for me.

  4. Tyler July 7th, 2010 9:45 am

    Thanks Caleb, for capturing it in words as well as you did with your pictures. I’d climb with you guys anywhere, anytime. It’s not easy to find partners like you guys.

  5. WEF July 7th, 2010 10:26 am

    Nice photos! What lens did you haul to the summit? The wide angle shots are impressive.

  6. MmaskA July 7th, 2010 11:35 am

    Wow! Beautiful report an amazing shots! The hip-deep-powder-shot blows my mind. You should make some wallpapers from the pics! 😉
    greets from austria

  7. CDawson July 7th, 2010 11:36 am

    This is a wonderful wrap up to a great trip. Fantastic photos, too!!
    I’m glad to see the emotional side coming out now that you guys are at home and contemplating the trip.

  8. martha July 7th, 2010 11:45 am

    Absorbing and inspiring report. Thanks!

  9. Nick July 7th, 2010 11:55 am

    That was awesome! Great writing and photos.

  10. Lou July 7th, 2010 12:08 pm

    Everyone, remember you can click on the photos for the mind blowing enlarged version… thanks to Caleb’s hard work!

  11. Jim July 7th, 2010 12:08 pm

    Well written on the sensitive subject of team dynamics. Hawaiian’s say it is the the wave from within that swamp the canoe.

  12. peter July 7th, 2010 1:07 pm

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Absolutely unbelievable photos. Inspiring.

  13. Brandon Chalk July 7th, 2010 1:54 pm


    Awesome post man! Very inspiring and congrats to all you boys! You guys rocked the Big D!


  14. El Jefe July 7th, 2010 2:15 pm

    no disrespect to the other writers on the site, but could of been the best article i have read on wildsnow. truely excellent and that doesn’t even count the photography, which was in the professional class.

  15. CDawson July 7th, 2010 2:36 pm

    Perhaps this could be awarded “guest post of the year”.

  16. Lou July 7th, 2010 3:17 pm

    I was pretty excited when Caleb delivered this, and couldn’t wait to post it this morning! I’m glad you guys all feel the same way I do about it. Really good stuff. Thanks Caleb!

  17. Lou July 7th, 2010 3:25 pm

    Oh, and we need an award for Guest Post of the Century. Caleb, stop on by, I have a couple sacks of pre-cooked bacon that were left in the trailer (grin).

  18. El Jefe July 7th, 2010 4:54 pm

    write a book reguarding the trip……

  19. Kathy Baker July 7th, 2010 5:00 pm

    Gorgeous pictures and interesting read. I followed your team the whole way as Joe Brannan is my future son-in-law. I’m so proud of him and the rest of you guys.

  20. Peter July 7th, 2010 5:21 pm

    Great post – absolutely inspiring. I’d love a few of those images big (2560×1400 big) for a desktop background.

    Thanks for letting us follow along.

  21. Lou July 7th, 2010 5:36 pm

    El Jefe, books are so 1980s…

  22. Dostie July 7th, 2010 6:42 pm

    Awesome report! Worth a second read and the photos are worth the time to expand.

    PS: Can you make the pics expand big enough to fill my 1680px wide screen senior Lou?

    PPS: The answer to your spam Q is wrong for this post. It’s warmer in Truckee in the Winter than Summer on Denial.

  23. Kelly July 7th, 2010 7:14 pm

    Caleb – these are pro level photos! You could publish these, and the writing is stellar too. Thanks for giving it your all – very inspiring and all of us really appreciate it!

  24. Lou July 7th, 2010 7:20 pm

    Dostie, the idea with those expandos is they don’t over-run the average screen and still load pretty fast. They’re actually exactly two times the compressed version, so that the automatically compressed version (the regular sized ones) have slightly better quality…

    That being said, as folks use larger screens with tighter resolution, I’ll gradually publish larger and larger photos in terms of pixel dimensions. That process has been going on for years now. Funny to remember the days that a 250 pixel wide photo was a reach for some folks to download!

    Also, I’m planning on publishing some photo albums, and those will be done in larger sizes for sure.


  25. john dough July 7th, 2010 11:35 pm

    Thumbs up Gents! Nice write up Caleb

  26. stephen July 8th, 2010 3:56 am

    Great photos and great reports from a great trip! Have been super impressed with all the coverage and the info contained therein.

    Waiting for the photo albums. 🙂

    Denali is going to be hard to top guys…

  27. Michael Kennedy July 8th, 2010 7:48 am

    Great write-up and photos – thanks for sharing! Brings back wonderful memories of the Great One.

  28. Caleb Wray July 8th, 2010 10:24 am

    Thanks for all of the kind words folks! It’s kind of difficult to capture anything but good images in such a stunning place.

    As for my camera gear, I carried a mid range Olympus DSLR body (e-510) because it is a nice balance between weight and performance. Plus if I broke it I wouldn’t be out that much money. I also carried Olympus kit lenses 14-42mm and 50-140mm, because they are fairly cheap and light while still taking pretty good images. Finally I carried an 8mm Olympus fisheye. Heavy and not cheap, but well worth it in the mountains.

    My Olympus BLM-1 lithium ion batteries did really well. I only used one and a half battery packs the whole trip, including the drive. Impressive I thought. All in everything weighs about 5.5 lbs. I have a higher quality setup that I carry on short trips and is fairly comparable, but weighs 12 lbs.

  29. brett July 8th, 2010 12:23 pm


    Nice work on all fronts. Is that you sporting the Super Tour? Any comments on functionality?

  30. Kelly July 8th, 2010 1:01 pm

    Caleb, Lou – still enjoying the amazing photos!
    I apologize if this topic has already been addressed, but am curious how you worked out your hydration system? Did you carry water bottles or have some kind of bladder arrangement in your packs? If bottles, what worked best for storage/accessibility without pack removal? Lastly, did you add any kind of electrolyte to your water – how many liters did you need to carry with you for your various climbs (on average)?

  31. Joe July 8th, 2010 1:44 pm

    I have to agree Caleb, seeing Lou and Louie on the summit ridge was the best moment of the trip for me. All of us together up there… so cool. Thanks Joel, you came through big time.

  32. Lou July 8th, 2010 2:10 pm

    You guys, its very special to hear that from you. Sure was an amazing moment for me and I’m sure for Louie. I’m still feeling like it was a dream. I think I said something to you like “this might be the best day of my whole career as an alpinist.” I still feel that way. Just amazing and you guys made it happen.

  33. graham July 8th, 2010 5:33 pm

    Lou, when you guys visited the shop here in portland, you said that Caleb and ‘the boys’ had been taking pretty good pictures…

    you need to get better at exaggerating.

    Well written, amazing pictures and a very nice narrative arc.

    Put me down for an on demand printed coffee table book!

  34. SCott July 8th, 2010 6:32 pm

    Excellent write-up Caleb, and strong work by all. Way to represent CO ski mountaineers!

  35. Lou July 8th, 2010 7:37 pm

    Kelly, a bladder system freezing could be a matter of life and death at altitude, so they tend to not get used. Instead, guys carry bottles in insulated holsters or inside their parkas, and many people carry a thermos. Another option are the _bottles_ that have a sip tube. If you carry a spare lid for such bottles, when the tube freezes you can just swap on your spare lid and use it as a regular bottle. But all that stuff is more weight and junk to carry and it does add up.

    My system worked this way for the summit day:
    – One liter uninsulated bottle I drank within the first couple of hours.
    – One and a half liter Nalgene I wrapped in my parka and drank out of for quite a while.
    – One liter thermos in reserve, used near summit and during trip down.

    I tend to be okay with taking a short break and removing pack to get a drink, but other folks don’t do well with that and instead always carry some water in a holster or inside parka.

    As for drink mix, I used Cytomax in my Nalgenes and caffeinated sweet black tea in my thermos. I don’t normally use much caffeine, but I do while traveling and sometimes find it helps with big hard cardio days. It’s a vaso-constrictor so one has to be careful with the stuff.

    3 1/2 liters is a lot of weight, but I think in my case it was better to stay super hydrated then to compromise between weight and hydration.

    Hydrating the day before and in the morning makes a huge difference as well.

  36. Kelly July 8th, 2010 8:09 pm

    – Thanks Lou – great information and really appreciate it. You guys ROCK!

  37. Mark W July 8th, 2010 10:52 pm

    I’ll second hydrating the day before and the morning of a big physical effort. I did a climb recently during which I drank plenty of water, but was slowed by not having had enough liquid prior.

  38. Peter July 9th, 2010 3:19 am

    Thank you so very much for that nice report!
    Been following your trip all the time. Caleb’s writing actually made me feel I was there watching you guys summit the Great One.

    Lou, special thanks for opening up the hydration part. I’m always having trouble with the bladder systems when it gets really cold here in Scandinavia.

    *long time fan*

  39. carl Pelletier July 9th, 2010 7:12 am

    Caleb, thanks for the taking us there. I’ve been following the trip from the get-go, but this post seemed to bring it all together. As I get older I seem to find myself falling into route…not that routine is bad, ruts are bad, but this post made me think back to Mary Oliver’s words: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?” Nice job Caleb. Thanks for sharing.

  40. Mom July 9th, 2010 10:24 am

    Lou, Thanks for the memories of Rich Jack…. Mom

  41. Steve July 10th, 2010 10:35 pm

    Wow, thanks for the great write-up! I climbed Denali in May, and had a fantastic trip. Reading your story, and enjoying the great photos, let me re-live it again. Except that tonight I’ll sleep in a bed, without any snow in it. Loved the waist-deep powder shot. Next time I’ll take my skiis.

  42. Joel Gratz July 13th, 2010 10:47 am

    Caleb – this is the best combination of writing, photos, and captions I’ve ever experienced. Great work to everyone for executing the trip (which is just as important as proper planning).

    From your humble meteorologist, who is thankful for satellite phones, iPhones, slow cellular internet connections in the Dakotas, and the incredible computer weather models that accurately predicted a green-light forecast for summit day. Well done, boys!


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