Team: Josh, Kyle, and Wes, 3 friends from childhood who grew up picking fish (“stringers”) and me, who grew up in New York making perfectly straight lines with the lawnmower.
We flew into the Kahiltna Glacier in early May and started up the standard route with our skis and sleds. We cached gear in a deep hole dug in the snow where the west fork of the Kahiltna takes off. It was early in the season and the mountain was still quiet. The rangers had not even gotten set up at 14,000’ yet. As we shuffled our gear atop the headwall, the “Father and Sons Wall” loomed behind. Two older men with southern accents stopped beside us. We chatted a bit and they threw each of us a fun-sized candy bar like Halloween. They told us that next they would tackle Everest. We carried on past Windy Corner to 14,000’ where Kyle demonstrated his prowess as a builder and organized a work party to build an igloo. I definitely felt the altitude as I worked the snow saw. We spent a few days at 14,000’, climbing on one day to a high camp, which can be accessed from both the West Rib and the West Buttress routes. We stashed some food and fuel and began to head down. From this upper camp it is one long day’s push to the summit. I will admit that it felt a bit crazy to be one day from the top of Denali and then descend all the way down to base camp but for our route it made the most sense. It is necessary to acclimatize on a climb this high and it is far safer to do so on less technical terrain. This is why we essentially climbed the mountain twice.
At the fork of the Kahiltna we dug up our cache and I retrieved some of the cookies that my mother-in-law (Rose) sent along for us. The west fork of the Kahiltna is commonly referred to as the “valley of death” because it is prone to avalanches from massive hanging glaciers above. Nervously we pushed our way up the broken glacier, then switch-backed up the jumble of snow and ice over a steep step with heavy loads. When I look back on this climb, more than anything, it just strikes me as a whole lot of hard work.
The next morning we started up our route as two rope teams. We had barely begun when the first small rocks went whizzing past. We had only a few screws per party and there we were, fumbling around side by side in the center of the couloir as more rocks shot by. We regrouped along the rock’s edge and I suggested that one of us quickly lead with all the screws and then bring up the rest of the group. Tying into both ropes, I headed up in the lead. I had done quite a lot of ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies and it felt good to finally contribute to the team. A few pitches up we all hung from two ice screws as we swapped over the belay. I heard “rock, rock!” and we swung against the wall on our right, trying to be as small as possible. Missiles went screaming by, then “crack!” a rock struck Wes in the head. When the bashing stopped we looked at Wes as blood from under his broken helmet covered his eyebrow and ran down his face, his blond hair stained red. From the sound of the rock colliding with his helmet, we all thought it would be a lot worse, but fortunately he was OK. We discussed going down but decided to push on. I traded my mountain axe for a second technical tool from Wes and was able to move more quickly. We worked our way up the rest of the couloir—not technically difficult climbing, but 60 degree calf-burning ice that was awkward with big loads and skis on our backs. Another small rock hit Josh’s pack as I yarded in the rope, trying to keep a tight belay. Josh cooked dinner that night even though it was my turn. In hindsight, I realize that we should have waited and climbed the couloir at night when the temperatures were cooler.
The rest of the route up the Rib was fantastic. There are a few ice domes that we pitched out but mostly simul-climbed up firm snow, taking turns kicking steps. We dug out a camp on the side of a crevasse and the weather continued to hold. On the third day of the route we encountered more interesting climbing terrain with some mixed rock and ice. Eventually we made it to our high camp and the food that we cached a week prior. We brewed up and watched a helicopter come from behind the headwall on the West Buttress, land at 14,000’ camp, and depart. We later learned that it was the carrying the bodies of the two southern men we had met—they fell more than 2,000’ to their deaths.
We took a rest day and the weather closed in on us. Several times we got up in the wee hours of the morning, dug out our camp, melted a gallon of water, and climbed up to the ridge only to be turned around by wind and snow. After 5 days Wes and Kyle decided that they had had enough and went down the West Buttress route. Josh and I figured we would wait a bit longer. On the seventh day we made a push for the summit. The wind howled and I found myself struggling to keep up in the steps that Josh was kicking. I should have put on my down pants and over boots when I was still warm—there was no way I could fumble with those now. Eventually we stood atop the “football field” at 20,000’. It was 20 below and we looked at each other. Josh reached out and grabbed my nose with his mitten, saying, “Your nose is frozen.” We didn’t walk over to the summit—maybe some other day. We were the only ones up there. Clouds covered the glacier below and the setting sun made the ridge glow. In the dark we ran down the fixed lines and found our igloo. It had shrunk considerably in the past two weeks but still offered some shelter.
I woke up in the morning to hear my name called. I peeked out from my sleeping bag to see my friend Matt slide like a seal into the snow shelter. He was up from Washington guiding on the mountain and they had watched us climbing from their camp. “We all wondered how long you would hold out up there,” he said, then invited us over to their cook tent. We hobbled over to the rangers and showed a doctor our frostbite. I would eventually lose a fingernail and develop a blister on my nose that looked a bit funny for a while but nothing serious. Matt fried up bagels and brewed hot drinks for us and we sat in the corner of the tent as clients shuffled about. There was a debate between clients and guides about rationing the two remaining rolls of toilet paper. Then all eyes shifted to us as Matt said, “Let’s see how much toilet paper these guys carry.” We sat there like deer in the headlights, our lips swollen from the salty bagel. I just shook my head from side to side.