Friday, April 25, 2008

About Climbing Denali

Mt. Denali (Mt. McKinley), at 20,320 ft., is the high point in North America. That makes it one of the seven summits - the high points on each continent. The others are: Kilimanjaro (Africa, 19,340 ft.), Elbrus (Europe, 18,510 ft.), Carstensz Pyramid (Oceania, 16,023 ft.), Everest (Asia, 29,035 ft.), Aconcagua (South America, 22,841 ft.), and Vinson Massif (Antarctica, 16,067 ft.).

Denali is the mountain's Native (Athabascan) American name, meaning the "high one." It was renamed Mt. McKinley in 1896 (after President William McKinley) by a gold prospector as a protest against the silver dollar standard. In 1980, the State of Alaska officially changed the name of the mountain to Denali, but the federal government has not followed suite and still retains the name McKinley. Here is a link to more information about the mountain:

Mt. Denali is part of the Alaska range, which runs about 600 miles east-west across south central Alaska. It is located in Denali National Park. At 6 million acres, Denali National Park is one of the largest national parks in the United States. The Park has more than 650 species of flowering plants as well as many species of mosses, lichens, fungi, algae. There are 39 species of mammals, 167 species of birds, 10 species of fish, and one species of amphibian known in the Park.

Denali's northern location and height gives it the coldest average summit temperature of any mountain on earth with the exception of Antarctic peaks. Its northern lattitude (63°, as compared to Everest at 27°) also makes the air thinner at any given elevation. Because the troposphere is thinner at the poles, the barometric pressure is lower in the northern lattitudes so that the air on the summit of Denali (20,320 ft.) in May is equivalent to the air at 22,000 feet in the Himalayas.

Snow and weather conditions for climbing are usually best from May through July, with the highest success rate for summitting in June. Colder minimum temperatures (-50F at the 17,200 ft. camp) and strong northwest winds commonly occur in May. Late June and July are warmer but more unsettled. By late July, travel on the lower glaciers is made difficult by melting snow bridges over crevasses and by stormy weather with heavier snowfall and increased avalanche danger. The coldest weather on Denali occurs from November through April with average temperatures ranging from -30F to -70F at the 19,000 ft. level.

There are more than 30 routes up Denali - some extremely technical. Denali's most used route - and the one that our team will follow - is the West Buttress (80% of all climbs). More than 20,000 climbers have attempted the West Buttress, of which about half reached the summit. In 1997, there were 257 teams on the West Buttress, with 1,099 climbers. Of these, 150 teams and 513 climbers reached the summit.

While the West Buttress is not as technical as some of the other routes, it is dangerous due to crevasses, falls, avalanche risk, extreme cold and wind, and altitude. Through 1997, about 400 accidents have been reported on the West Buttress route, including 34 fatalities, most while descending. Many of the accidents resulted from poor preparation, poor judgement and poor teamwork. A tight team is one of the most important things on the mountain.

We will be leaving for Alaska on May 15th, 2008, and we've planned about a month for the trip. The following is our approximate climbing schedule, which will vary depending on weather and how we feel.

Day -1: Meet in Anchorage. Final shopping and packing.

Day 0: Travel to Talkeetna and fly to the glacier. We'll travel overland to Talkeetna and register with the National Park service.

Day 1: Fly to the glacier and move to camp 1 (7,770 ft.). If the weather permits, we will fly into the Kahiltna Glacier (base camp) with the Air Taxi and travel to camp 1 near the junction with the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, about 5 miles. We plan to move all of our gear in one carry, with heavy packs and pulling sleds.

Day 2: Carry loads up to Kahiltna Pass. We’ll carry half of our gear up and cache it between 9,500 ft. and 11,000 ft., and then return to camp 1 for the night. This is carry is 7-9 miles round-trip, with 2-3,000 feet of elevation gain.

Day 3: Move to camp 2 near Kahiltna Pass (about 11,200 ft.). Break camp 1 and haul the remaining gear to camp 2.

Day 4: Back-carry day. This is mostly a rest day, although we will need to go back down and pick up the cache.

Day 5: Carry loads around Windy Corner (13,300 Ft), which can be impassable in high winds. This day involves steep snow climbing up Motorcycle Hill. This distance is about 4 miles round trip. Return to camp 2 for the night.

Day 6: Move to camp 3 at 14,300 feet. This is a long, hard day, involving climbing with crampons and ice axe around Windy Corner where the upper Mountain comes into view.

Day 7: Back-carry day. Descend from 14,300 ft. to the Windy Corner cache and bring everything up to 14,300 feet. Up to this point, we have 6 extra days of food in case weather or acclimatization causes delays (so this could be as late as day 13).

Day 8: Climb up the headwall to the ridge. We leave the sleds at 14, 300 ft., and climb up the Headwall with heavy packs. There is a fixed line from 15,500 to 16,100 feet because of the steep, icy terrain. Cache the gear and return to 14,300 ft. for the night.

Day 9: Rest day.

Day 10: Move to high camp. While there is a campsite at 16,100 ft., it is very exposed, so the goal is to get to the 17,200 ft. site, which is more secure. We will leave a lot of gear at 14,300 ft., including the cook tent and one of the two sleeping tents, meaning that we will sleep like sardines for the next several days. We plan to take enough food and fuel to stay at high camp for a week, hoping for good weather for a summit attempt. If the weather is really bad, we can retreat to camp 3 and wait out the storm.

Day 11: Rest day. Well, mostly rest as we’ll have to back-carry our cache.

Day 12-16: Summit day: When the weather is favorable, we'll push for the summit. The round trip climb will take eight to twelve hours or more. We'll leave camp early, climb up to Denali Pass (18,000') and follow the route past Arch Deacon's Tower and the Football Field to the slopes leading to the Summit Ridge. The good news is that we'll have nearly 24 hours of sunlight since we will be so far north.

Descent: The descent from High Camp will probably take two days, although we could make it in one day if we are out of time. Weather will determine when we will fly out to Talkeetna, so we will have a few days of food stashed at base camp. After that, it is overland to Anchorage and flying home.

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