Monday, July 11, 2011

Denali: Common Knowledge

Common Knowledge?

More rest days followed. More bad weather, too, though not as bad as forecast. Had our trip ended right now, we would not have been unhappy. However, we would not have completely satisfied, either. The Cassin gave us a great day out on a beautiful big-mountain route, it pushed us physically as few ascents ever had, but it did not push us as climbers. Now I love days like the one on the Cassin, when I get to run up miles of easy ground. But once in a while I also need to get on routes where my reality is reduced to the circle of vertical ice and rock within reach of my tools and crampons, routes that keep me oscillating between desperation and elation, all within the span of a single move.

We thought about having a go at the Denali Diamond, which after all had been our original objective. The lower, technical part of the route looked great; however, slogging up the upper Cassin for a second time did not appeal. Between that and simply wanting to see another aspect of the mountain, our thoughts turned to the Washburn Face. What face, you say? The Washburn Face, or more precisely the northwest face of the west buttress, suffers the indignity of being walked past and generally ignored by more people than just about any comparable feature on Denali. Each day of high season tens of people drag their sleds up Motorcycle Hill yet spare hardly a glance for the imposing wall rising in front of them out of the depths of the Peters Glacier. But myself, being an aficionado of all things obscure, I looked at it every time I walked up to 14k. This year I had an especially hard time tearing my eyes away from it, as a narrow but continuous ribbon of ice cascaded down a steep rock buttress on the left side of the wall.

I knew exactly what this line was, too. Not a new route, unfortunately, but something almost as good: a rarely (if ever) repeated testpiece. Ben Gilmore, Kevin Mahoney and Bruce Miller established it a decade earlier and called it Common Knowledge, as other teams had also been vying for it. On the lower half of the route they reported climbing pitch after pitch of water ice, with a WI6 crux thrown in for good measure. A couple of things were certain: as an ice climber I found the line absolutely irresistible; and having climbed ice with Kevin, I knew to take his ratings seriously. We had found our objective.

Spot the line (the arrow should help)! The Washburn Face (in the shade) from Motorcycle Hill.

Morning terrors

Big alpine routes are funny. They are about overcoming imagined difficulties as much as real ones. I find I both desire and dread them. I rarely sleep well the night before doing one. My mind and heart race along, spurred on by excitement and fear. The night before Common Knowledge was no exception. Strangely, what concerned me the most was not the climb itself but the descent to its base. Somehow, we had to find our way down to the Peters Glacier, a vertical mile below our tent at 14k where I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag. Descriptions of the descent were annoyingly vague, though one did helpfully refer to a “slope [that] felt like imminent death […] above a line of gnarly seracs.” In spite of it all, eventually I managed to drift off to sleep.

The alarm went off at four in the morning. I tried to get dressed as much as possible inside the warm confines of the sleeping bag, but once I had my inner boots and big parka on, there was nothing for it but to venture outside. Just as when we had set out for the Cassin a few days earlier, it was a cold, cloudless morning. But unlike that day, which had been beautifully still, a stiff breeze blew through camp. The previous couple of days had been unusually blustery, with snow streamers blowing from the ridges. We hoped climbing lower on the mountain would shelter us from the worst of the wind. Shouldering light packs we headed down, around Windy Corner and down Squirrel Hill. At the top of Motorcycle Hill we left the beaten West Buttress trail and began cutting down fresh snow on the lee side.

“How’s that slope?” I pleaded, hoping to open the door to retreat.

Josh would have none of it. “A bit of a wind slab right here, but it gets better lower down.”

Early in my climbing career I read an interview with George Lowe, one of my climbing heroes. At the end of it he was asked if he had any words of advice for aspiring alpinists. His answer stayed with me: “Try to separate your fears and hopes from a rational evaluation of what you should do.” And so on this bright, cloudless morning I forced my butterflies down and continued descending: downclimbing below some seracs, rappelling over others, and finally reaching the Peters Glacier.

Wake up! Raphael downclimbs below some small but nasty seracs. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

"I guess we're committed now." Josh makes the final rappel to the Peters Glacier.

Alpine fun

Once in the isolated basin of the Peters Glacier, the simplest way back to the comforts of our camp lay up the route. As soon as our bridges were burnt and we were committed, my butterflies flew off and I started having fun. The altimeter read well below 3000 metres. After a couple of weeks spent between 4000 and 6000 metres, the air felt rich and thick. It was like being back in the Rockies and we were able to push our pace to the base of the wall, as we threaded the needle between the runout of the giant serac spilling between the Washburn Face and the Fathers and Sons Wall on the left, and the debris of the serac bands below the crest of Motorcycle Hill on the right.

Josh threads the needle on the Peters Glacier to the base of the route.

We crossed an easy ‘schrund and headed up the couloir above. A ten-centimetre layer of hard snow covered black ice; in other words, perfect conditions. Between the good neve and the thick air, we fairly sprinted up the gully. We broke out the rope for a harder-than-it-looked step, where my feet sheared through the chandeliers as spindrift poured over my head, then put it away again and soloed on. We could now see the crux pitch, a beautiful column of water ice where the couloir reared up to vertical. A two-screw anchor, some food and drink, the rope, and then it was time to dance to a slower beat.

Josh enjoys good neve low on the route.

Spindrift pours over the first steep step.

Raphael approaches the crux pitch. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Ice climbing is a strange game. A friend of mine likes to poke fun at it, saying the moves even on a WI6 are trivial. And he is right: pulling up from one placement to another even on a “hard” ice pitch certainly is trivial. But ice does not come with pre-placed tools one can just grab and go. One of the hardest parts of hard, traditional ice climbing is getting good (or at least decent) tool placements – and protection. Once you have finally managed an OK stick in a mess of fragile chandeliers, and spent minutes fiddling a small wire behind a suspect flake off to the side because the ice is too aerated to take screws, pulling up is indeed easy.

The pitch had looked straightforward from below, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be anything but. I got in a couple of decent screws on the low-angled shield at the start, but higher up they twisted uselessly into air behind sun-baked chandeliers. For a while I could stem between the cascade and the rock beside it, thus avoiding putting my full weight on tools driven into snow and air-filled ice. But then the stems ran out, and I was forced to move around to the front of the pillar – and to fully load my tools. “I’m not sure I can climb this ” flashed through my mind, as my picks bounced uselessly off of the rock beneath a detached skin of ice. I forced the thought down and committed to the marginal placements. At long last a tool thunked into solid ice. I ran out the rest of the pitch on placements each one of which I could have belayed off of. Our seventy-metre rope came tight just as I reached lower-angled ice.

Raphael tries to avoid weighting the tools... Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

... and takes a breather on the crux pitch.

Covered in spindrift, Josh tops out on the crux pitch.

We continued on sixty-degree ice interrupted by vertical steps. By now the sun had swung around the mountain and beat down on us, and some rocks crashed down from sidewalls running with meltwater. Fortunately the mists that had been swirling around us condensed into clouds, and we found ourselves enveloped in a cool, grey murk. The couloir eventually ended on a snowy ridge. We waded up it and stopped at the first flattish spot. It was seven in the evening and we had been going for over twelve hours on under two litres each. It was time for a brew.

Fun in the sun (except for the flying rocks) in the upper couloir. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Josh guns for the top of the couloir.

Raphael takes the last few steps to the brew stop. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

The slog

We were near the top of the cloud layer, and every once in a while we would be afforded a view of the Fathers and Sons Wall to the north, and of the lower-angled upper slopes of our own Washburn Face above. We took our time, making litre after litre of water, eating, and changing into dry socks. After more than an hour, reenergized, we left our small perch and headed up. A mixed band had us rope up one last time, and then we were on easy ground – and in deep snow. The southeast winds of the previous couple of days had scoured the mountain and loaded its northwest aspects, which was unfortunately where we happened to be. There was nothing for it but to resort to the tried-and-true Rockies wallowing technique: carve a trench with your knee, step up into it, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

Josh pours another precious litre.

The top of the Fathers and Sons Wall emerges from the clouds.

"We should keep our distance here. That way if anything slides only one of us goes." Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

An icefield glowing in the rays of the midnight sun provided welcome relief from the soul-destroying trail breaking, but then it was back to snow. It felt spooky being in the middle of a lee-loaded snowfield suspended a vertical mile above the Peters Glacier, and we detoured onto some rocks. After altogether too many hours we reached the crest of the west buttress. A cold wind whipped across the ridge, threatening to freeze our very eyeballs. Slowly, exhaustedly, we traversed to the top of the fixed lines and stumbled down to 14k. We were now satisfied and could finally go home.

A midnight sunset from high on the Washburn Face.

As the sun dips toward the horizon, the temperature drops. Time to start wiggling those toes.

New picks after being dragged over two vertical kilometres of snow, ice - and granite.

Over and out

After a day’s rest, when getting up to make a cup of tea required a major effort, we packed up our home for the past two weeks and headed down. Ever the optimist, I confidently predicted it would take us no more than three hours back to the airstrip; in the end it took us twice as long. The lower Kahiltna Glacier was a mess. Its surface had melted down to a three-year-old layer of volcanic ash, and as a result it was pitted with metre-deep suncups. After our sleds had overturned for the tenth time we even stopped swearing. Minefields of barely bridged crevasses had us guide the sleds on a short leash to avoid being pulled into a hole by them. At least the rain held off until we had reached the airstrip, but then the skies opened up and it poured. We spent the day sleeping, eating and hanging out with the rangers (many thanks for the hot chocolate!). Just when it looked like we would have to crawl back into our wet sleeping bags for another night on the glacier, a couple of TAT Otters swooped in under low-lying clouds. Carving deep tracks into the mushy landing strip, they roared with effort on takeoff. But take off they did, whisking us back to green grass and hot showers. The adventure was over.

High winds over the summit from the 14 camp.

Josh takes a break on the lower Kahiltna Glacier as Denali and the Kahiltna Peaks glow in the setting sun.

Basecamp leftovers.

A messed up Kahiltna Glacier. Time to get off this mountain!


Summary: The second (?) ascent of Common Knowledge by Joshua Lavigne and Raphael Slawinski, June 22, 2011. Round-trip from 14k: 25 hours.

Peters Glacier cutoff descent beta

We found it hard to find reliable information about how to get down to the Peters Glacier and the base of the Washburn Face. Hopefully the following description will encourage more people to enjoy the fantastic climbing to be had on it.

From the 14k camp, walk down Windy Corner and Squirrel Hill to where the trail from 11k comes up Motorcycle Hill. Contour onto low-angled snow slopes on the north side of the ridge, trending to skier’s left. Eventually easy progress is interrupted by snow-covered rock slabs. Contour back to skier’s right and downclimb a 45-degree ice gully under a small but threatening serac. Leave the gully as soon as possible and trend again to skier’s left down 45-degree icefields. Face-in downclimbing or a couple of rappels reach more low-angled snow slopes. These can be traversed to skier’s left all the way to where easy slopes lead down to the Peters Glacier. We got impatient and took a shortcut by making a rappel over a serac/bergschrund, which also got us down to easy slopes and the glacier. 3 hours from the 14k camp.

The approximate line of our descent to the Peters Glacier.

We would like to thank the Mountain Equipment Coop for its generous support of our trip. Both Josh and I are long-time MEC members, which made its backing all the more meaningful.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Denali: The Cassin

Rest days

Our acclimatization complete, we hung out at 14k and rested. A snowstorm blew though, dropping enough snow to set off numerous sloughs out of steeper terrain, and to build up windslabs on lower-angled slopes. While we were not thrilled with that particular turn of events, the storm did provide a perfect excuse for guilt-free eating, reading and sleeping. When we could stand festering in camp no longer, we stepped into our skis and skinned up to the crest of the West Rib. It felt good to stretch our legs, plus we wanted to check out the West-Rib cutoff descent into the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, rather melodramatically dubbed the “Valley of Death.” We had originally planned to attempt the Denali Diamond on the southwest face, but between a forecast that could not quite commit to more than one clear day, and me having just started a course of antibiotics, we decided to do something easier instead. The ultra-classic Cassin Ridge it would be.

Denali seen from Talkeetna. The Cassin Ridge is the left-hand skyline.

The evolution of style

The first ascent of the Cassin Ridge was made in 1961 by an Italian team led by, predictably, Riccardo Cassin. While early ascents of the route were made in siege style, with fixed ropes, stocked camps and large teams, gradually alpine style became the norm (including on the first winter ascent of the route in 1982). The first hint at an even purer form of ascent came in 1976, when Charlie Porter soloed the route in a 36-hour push (from the top of the Japanese Couloir). But it was Mugs Stump in 1991 that truly blew away preconceptions about how one could go about climbing the Cassin (and ultimately just about any route in the Alaska Range). Starting from the 14k camp, he descended the lower West Rib into the Northeast Fork, blitzed the route in 15 hours, and returned to camp 27.5 hours after setting out. This was the style we would aspire to: treating the route as a day climb, carrying little more than the clothes on our backs, and keeping going until we were done.

It's mostly the puffy jacket and pants. Raphael carries a light pack on the Cassin. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

The climb

We were up early, while Hunter and Foraker still lay silent and blue under a clear sky. It was cold, below -20 C, and we were glad to warm up with the 400-metre uphill to the crest of the West Rib. From there we descended the 1972 Ramp: hiking down snow, facing in on 45-degree glacier ice, front-pointing down over bergschrunds. We had brought an 8-mm rope and tied in for some crevassed stretches (and we were glad we did when Josh, who was out in front, stepped into a couple of slots). A quick jaunt below the seracs of the southwest face brought us to the base of the Japanese Couloir less than three hours after leaving camp.

The moon sets over Hunter as we leave 14k.

Josh descends the 1972 Ramp toward the base of the Cassin, with the Japanese Couloir, the Knife-Edge Ridge and the Hanging Glacier behind him.

Having run the gauntlet of the southwest-face seracs, Josh traverses to the base of the Japanese Couloir.

We downed some bars and gels, grabbed a swig from the water bottle, and crossed the ‘schrund below the couloir. Strangely enough today we were not alone in what is usually a lonely place. Taking advantage of the favourable forecast, two other teams had set out from 14k the evening before. One of these, Jasmin Fauteux and Paul Taylor, was in fact just finishing the couloir. In deference to the steady stream of small ice chunks rattling down the gully, we tied in and moved together with the occasional screw or cam between us. We said hello to our friends at Cassin Ledge and continued, past the rock crux and onto the Knife-Edge Ridge (knife-edged in name if less so in actual fact) leading to the Hanging Glacier.

Josh tops out on the Japanese Couloir.

Jasmin and Paul (from the left) enjoy the comforts of Cassin Ledge.

Josh hikes up the Knife-Edge Ridge, with the Kahiltna Peaks below him separating the East and Northeast Forks of the Kahiltna Glacier. A complete traverse linking the Kahiltna Peaks with the Cassin Ridge has been attempted but remains uncompleted.

A broad scoop at the base of the glacier made for an excellent food and drink stop. Then, unroping, we were off again. The slog up the glacier went quickly and soon we were scrambling through the First Rockband. Snow gullies, rock steps, ice chutes: at first it was all quite entertaining, but as the rockband went on, we grew impatient. The mists swirling around us had thickened into clouds, and we found ourselves climbing through a snowy murk. Eventually we exited the First Rockband and slogged up an ill-defined snow ridge toward the Second. Fortunately the Second Rockband did not drag on like the First, and before long we were emerging from the clouds at its top.

Raphael enjoys morning sunshine on the Hanging Glacier. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.

Josh nears the top of the bigger-than-it-looks First Rockband. As Barry Blanchard said, "if it wasn't for foreshortening, nobody would get up anything."

Josh emerges from the clouds at the top of the Second Rockband.

The top of the Second Rockband marked the end of the technical climbing (it never was terribly technical, but it did require one to use all four appendages). From here on we would be hiking. In preparation for the upcoming slog, and taking advantage of the mid-afternoon heat, we fired up the stove and made litre after litre of water. Eventually the wind kicked up, reminding us it was time to get moving again.

The brew stop at the top of the Second Rockband, with Foraker in the distance.

We traversed out onto the upper slopes of Big Bertha, the hanging glacier dominating the south face, to bypass the Third Rockband. When we returned to the ridge crest above it, we were in for an unpleasant surprise. Up to this point we had been following in the tracks of the other party on the Cassin this day. Unfortunately Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen, having broken trail all the way to above the Third Rockband, had finally had enough. With the summit still some thousand metres higher, they traversed off across the endless avalanche slopes of the southwest face all the way to the West Rib. We had gotten off easy thus far, but from here on we would have to work.

Josh traverses out onto the snow slopes of Big Bertha.

Back on the ridge above the Third Rockband, we are forced to break our own trail.

And get worked we did, as the sun swung lower in the sky before eventually disappearing behind the West Rib. It grew colder, while as we got higher the air thinned noticeably. Lower down we had been able to move at something resembling a pace we would keep back home in the Rockies, but now we slowed to the point we were taking one, and then two breaths per step. As a result, even wearing all our layers, the movement was barely enough to keep us warm. Stopping to rest was not an option. I evolved a system whereby I would take a step, take a breath while I wiggled my toes three times, take another step… Every time I tried to cheat my hurting body and rush a few steps, I would end up slumped over my ice tools, coughing my lungs out. The summit ridge was not far above now, but it seemed to take an eternity before we left the crappy snow of the final gully behind and reached firm neve.

Evening sun the on the upper ridge, with Foraker poking up out of the clouds.

The sun prepares to disappear behind the West Rib.

Josh enters the shade on the upper reaches of the Cassin.

We crested the ridge just where the normal route comes up from the other side. One moment we were on our own on the southwest face, the next we stood on a well-trodden trail with wands every few metres. The summit was a bit higher still, but I did not think I would find anything there I did not already find on the ridge. We plunge-stepped down Pig Hill, across the Football Field, up the cruel rise on its far side and down again. The last thousand metres to the ridge had taken their toll on us, and even walking downhill we had to stop and rest occasionally. For the second time since we had gotten up the sun painted the summit of Foraker red, as we headed down the ridge below 17k toward the top of the fixed lines. Reaching our tent at 14k, we dropped our packs, pulled off our boots and crawled into our sleeping bags. We did not emerge again until many hours later, long after the sun had turned the inside of the tent into a brightly lit sauna.

Sunset over the North Summit of Denali from the top of the Cassin.

Raphael and Josh (from the left) look somewhat less than exuberant at the top of the route. Photo: Joshua Lavigne.


Summary: An ascent of the Cassin Ridge by Joshua Lavigne and Raphael Slawinski, June 18, 2011. 14k to base: 3 hours. Base to summit ridge: 16.5 hours. Summit ridge back to 14k: 4 hours. Round-trip from 14k: 23.5 hours.

Some thoughts on alpine speed records

One of the sure signs a climb is becoming a trade route is that people start keeping track of the times achieved on it. Just think of the Nose or the 1938 Route on the Eiger. But while chances are successive speed records on the Nose were set under similar conditions, sunny granite being what it is, things are not nearly as clear cut on the Eiger – or the Cassin.

On the Cassin we followed in Colin’s and Nils’ tracks to above the Third Rockband, saving time and energy. What if we could have stayed in their tracks all the way to the top, and as a result beaten the current record of 14:40 (‘schrund to summit ridge)? Would that have made us the strongest alpinists around? I hardly think so. So does establishing a valid speed record require that one break one’s own trail? And how much fresh snow should there be on the route to ensure “typical” conditions? Reproducible “laboratory” conditions are pretty hard to achieve in the alpine, and as a result alpine speed records should be taken with a grain of salt.

Do not get me wrong, I am not against reporting times on alpine routes. I find hearing about fast times inspiring (if also a bit discouraging at times). Putting in a respectable time on a big alpine route requires exceptional fitness, skill, and a willingness to stick one’s neck out just that little bit further (all that in addition to good conditions!). And knowing that, 20 years after Mugs Stump’s standard-setting ascent of the Cassin, today's alpinists have improved on his time by a mere 2 percent makes us realize just how far ahead of his time he was.

(to be continued)

We would like to thank the Mountain Equipment Coop for its generous support of our trip. Both Josh and I are long-time MEC members, which made its backing all the more meaningful.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Denali: On The Butt

Alaska?

Every spring robins, ducks and geese, driven by an evolutionary imperative, fly north to mate, nest and breed. Alpinists might not be subject to the same reproductive urge. All the same, as days get longer and ice climbs in their home mountain ranges once again become waterfalls, they too feel the pull of the vast boreal tundra, and of the great white peaks rising above it. I seem to go up north every other year or so: I have made trips to the Alaska Range in 2005, 2007, 2010, and again this year. What is it about the place that keeps drawing me back? Is it the huge faces of perfect granite laced with ice, rising above immense glaciers? Is it the 24-hour daylight that throws off your internal clock and lets you – if you are masochistically inclined – to climb for as long as your body and mind will let you? Is it the thin, cold air high on Denali that forces you to tread a fine line, too cold to stop and rest, too exhausted to warm up through movement? I expect it is probably all of that, and something else besides I cannot quite put my finger on. But I intend to keep going back to try to find out.

The great white peaks of the north (Mts Saint Elias and Logan?) from the Vancouver-Anchorage flight.

Plans and strategies

Joshua Lavigne and I planned to spend most of June on Denali, taking advantage of the warmer temperatures that month brings to the upper reaches of the mountain – while also escaping the monsoon that usually deluges the Bow Valley at this time of the year. We had researched several different routes to give ourselves a choice of objectives to suit psych, weather and conditions. It is good to have specific goals in mind to keep one from wasting time and energy. But it is also important to be flexible and to allow the mountain, rather than plans made in one’s living room months beforehand, to determine what to climb. What we were clear on was the style in which we would climb. With its 24-hour daylight, the Alaska Range is uniquely suited to single-push climbing. Over the years people like Mugs Stump, Steve House, Marko Prezelj and many others have shown that any route in the range, no matter how big, can be done with a daypack, a stove, and a willingness to push one’s body and mind beyond preconceived limits.

A midnight sunset over Denali.

Acclimatizing

At 6194 m, Denali is small compared to, say, the mountains of the Karakoram, where 6000-metre peaks are a dime a dozen. But its location just south of the Arctic Circle, due to the flattening of the atmosphere at the poles, means that the air on its summit is quite a bit thinner than it would be at more moderate latitudes. How much thinner? A casual comparison of the air pressure in Alaska and Pakistan indicates that, owing to its northerly latitude, the summit of Denali feels up to 500 metres higher.

Now all of this is a roundabout way of saying that, before launching on single-push missions, one has to acclimatize. Fortunately the normal route on Denali, the popular West Buttress, is perfect for this purpose. Over a number of trips to Alaska and Pakistan (along the way nicely illustrating the saying that “good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment”) I have developed some acclimatization strategies that work well. One strategy is to follow the well-known advice of going high but sleeping low. From painful experience, camping high while not acclimatized absolutely sucks. Another strategy is less obvious but just as important, and it is not to fuck around while acclimatizing. I remind myself that for the first bit of a trip, the aim is to acclimatize, not to climb anything interesting; that will come later. Interesting climbing is usually slow and tiring, and as such is not conducive to getting high as efficiently as possible. I wasted a lot of time on my trips to Pakistan trying to make acclimatization interesting before I learned this particular lesson. What all of this means on Denali is taking two or three days getting up to 14k on the West Buttress, setting up a comfortable camp, and then going on daytrips higher up, first to 17k and then to the summit. If all goes well, within a week or so of landing on the glacier one should be ready to “get off The Butt and go climbing,” as Scott Backes once memorably put it.

Josh, still not quite acclimatized, takes the last few steps to the summit of Denali. Mt. Foraker rises over his right shoulder.

Talkeetna

We left Calgary on the morning on June 4th, and by late afternoon arrived in quaint Talkeetna, the jump-off point for most trips to the Alaska Range. This small Alaskan town has a lot of climbing tradition, from the historic Fairview Inn that saw the likes of Dougal Haston and Doug Scott pass through its doors, to the sobering sight of the climbers’ cemetery, with its grave markers made of rusted ice tools. That evening we caught up with some friends over what would be our last beers in a while. The following morning we received our Clean Mountain Can, that Denali climber’s essential (though seriously now, the rangers have done an amazing job of ensuring the mountain does stay clean). After waiting for a few hours for the weather to clear, we piled into one of TAT’s Beavers and headed for the hills.

Talkeetna spring.

A motley crew gathers at the West Rib pub. Photo: Eric Landmann.

A grave marker at the Talkeetna climbers' cemetery.

The TAT cat prowls the airstrip.

Under a ceiling of low cloud we followed the frozen river of the Kahiltna Glacier upstream. The giant bulk of Mt. Foraker loomed to our left, and then we were banking sharply right and coming in to land below the north face of Mt. Hunter, guessed at more than seen though the clouds. The usual choreographed pandemonium greeted us on the landing strip: the dazed new arrivals dragging their duffels up the hill, while others, eager to be off of the mountain, dragging theirs down.

The Susitna River near Talkeetna.

The terminus of the mighty Kahiltna Glacier.

Glacier textures.

The West Butt

The following morning we were away early to take advantage of the cold for easier travel. The skies had cleared overnight, and while we skied along in the blue shadows on the valley bottom, the summits glowed yellow in the morning sun. The sun did eventually catch us at the bottom of Ski Hill, where the West Buttress route, after a long stretch of almost horizontal glacier travel, begins its circuitous ascent. For some perverse reason we were determined to make it all the way to the 11k camp, so we sweated our way uphill, with our heavily loaded sleds as our ball and chain.

Josh, sled in tow, makes his way up Ski Hill, with the West Kahiltna Peak rising behind him.

Weird scenes inside a goldmine (or on a glacier, in this case), as a soloist protects himself creatively against a crevasse fall.

The Big One. The West Buttress follows the left skyline while the Cassin Ridge climbs the right. The West Rib is in the centre; note the serac avalanche in the cirque left of the West Rib. 

We spent an unexpected two days at 11k, while I recovered from a nasty cold, before moving up to 14k. The 14k camp, situated in a sheltered basin nearly two vertical kilometers below the summit of Denali, would be our home for the next two weeks. We gratefully parked our sleds and set up camp, designer kitchen and all, knowing that from here on we would not have to carry anything bigger than daypacks.

The 14k camp is not threatened by serac fall. Really!

Josh whips up a high-altitude cappuccino.

The twin-summitted Mt. Hunter from the 14k camp.

After a day’s rest we hiked up to the 17k camp to breathe some thin air. From 14k the normal route climbs a forty-degree headwall adorned with fat fixed ropes, before turning right and following the easy but spectacular crest of the West Buttress. During the daily rush the fixed ropes can be a surreal experience, with traffic jams and flaring tempers worthy of Calgary or Chicago. Just as on a divided freeway, here too there are designated up and down-lines. Most people climbing Denali box themselves into fixed ways of doing things: they carry huge loads, they cache them, they go back down and bring up more stuff, they jumar up what would be a black ski run back home. It does not occur to them to experience the joy of unencumbered movement for a change: to ditch the big back, to simply walk up beside the fixed lines, to bypass the entire circus. I hope they are having fun, though I am not sure how much fun walking crushed under a monstrous pack, all the while staring at the heels of the person in front of you, can be.

Josh carrying his skis up the headwall above the 14k camp. He skied down the icy Rescue Gully from the 17k camp in his soft climbing boots, a "terrifying descent."

The crest of the West Buttress at around 5000 m.

A busy day on the fixed ropes. Note the up-line on the right and the down-line on the left.

But the West Buttress experience is not all about grumpy peak baggers. One of the great joys of travelling Denali’s normal route is meeting wonderful people who make the whole thing about so much more than just climbing. And let us face it, on an expedition most of the time is spent not climbing but hanging out in camp. Martin Boiteau and Yan Mongrain from Montreal had a program similar to ours: acclimatize then climb. We spent many happy days at 14k, sitting around the (almost literal) kitchen table, drinking tea, eating pancakes and shooting the shit. Our trip was made better by their friendship.

A snowy day at 14k.

"More strawberry syrup on your pancake?"

From the left: Martin, Josh and Yann tackling the world's problems. 

After another day’s rest we hiked up to the summit. My cold had turned into a sinus infection (many thanks to our 14k-camp neighbour and fellow Calgary alpinist, Dr. Jasmin Fauteux, for salvaging our trip with his antibiotics!), and for the first couple of hours out of camp I felt like shit. My heart was pounding, I was pouring sweat and I moved at half the pace I should have. But strangely, the higher we went the stronger I felt, and in the end I was able to push my burning lungs and aching legs up the final ridge to the top. A week and a day had passed since we landed on the glacier, and we could finally go climbing.

Josh on the Autobahn, the thirty-degree traverse to Denali Pass above the 17k camp.

A tiny figure emerges onto Denali's summit ridge.

The air pressure on the summit is well below half of that at sea level. And no, though it was relatively warm that evening, it was certainly not +22 C.

Breathless but happy on top.

(to be continued)

We would like to thank the Mountain Equipment Coop for its generous support of our trip. Both Josh and I are long-time MEC members, which made its backing all the more meaningful.