Mt. McKinley is a spectacular mountain rising 20,320ft above sea level. It is a mountain steeped in epic climbing tales and is absolutely gorgeous to see. I’ve been intrigued with the mountain for more than 20 years. We climbed this mountain via the West Buttress route and were blessed with fantastic weather and great luck. Only summit day proved to be a challenge with strong winds (70kmph) and colder than -40 temperatures under which only 3 of us out of 40 climbers attempting the summit that day continued passed Denali Pass. Pierre and I were two of those climbers. Our successful summit bid after only 10 days of climbing is very rare on a mountain known for its storms and terrible winds – so lets call this trip very lucky.
This story itself starts in a small town a couple of hours from Ancorage called Talkeetna, it’s know as a quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem. From this little town you fly 80 miles right into base camp at 7,200ft on the Kahiltna Glacier in a little tin can with wings and landing skiis. This is where you start the climb. The first couple of days are long travel days as its still 9km across a crevasse riddled glacier with 130 lbs of gear per person split between a backpack and sled to get to the point where you actually consider yourself to be climbing Mt. McKinley - camp 1 is still only at 7800 ft elevation.
Quick Anecdote: My first mistake of this trip happened shopping at MEC for a new pee bottle and I wisely chose a neoprene bottle with a blue lid the same as my drinking bottle. The rush to chug some water prior to refilling it on the morning of day 3 made this mistake a reality as I drank a huge swig of my own urine before I realized I had the wrong bottle despite having removed its stickers. Duly noted for future trips.
By day 4 the 24 hours/day of sunlight was starting to drive me crazy as despite very long climbing day insomnia was unbearable as I stayed awake until 4 or 5am and was up by 7am or 8am most days. It was actually start to stress me out as this climb was a bit more technical than I expected with huge exposure in spots and you don’t want to be that tired. My insomnia never really let up.
The mountain is actually very well maintained and tremendously clean as everyone hauls a Clean Mountain Container (CMC aka toilet) with them up and down the mountain to the various camps to keep it clean. The waste is tossed into crevasses below 14,000 feet. In addition, any cadavers left on the mountain for the less fortunately mountaineers have been rolled into crevasses also making the mountain seem a little more clean too. Over all I was very impressed!
On Day 4 Pierre and I found ourselves in a full sprint running across the crevasse ridden glacier to avoid being victims of rock fall near windy corner. Entire teams have been taken out by rockfall there before. It gets the old heart pumping when you see rocks come down at you the size of Volkswagens.
By Day 6 we were getting stressed listening to the weather forecast as the impending end to the beautiful weather was nigh. It seemed that we would be at high camp one day late for our summit bid and would be spending time weathering a storm. As it turns out the high pressure system kept stalling and the weather kept holding. Don’t get me wrong as you get up on Mt. McKinley when I say the weather is beautiful I mean the geography considered, its not exactly the Mayan Riviera but it is bearable with all the gear. Its colder as you get higher up with everything freezing including sunscreen, all food, boots, gloves, batteries, electronics. Fully clothed in my -40 Ghost Sleeping bag was the only way to keep warm at night. We experienced a few white out conditions climbing down from high camp on our first cache and then again on summit day. Otherwise the weather was outstanding.
Pierre and I acclimated well and had no nausea issues as we enjoyed O2 saturation in the low 70s for our first night at high camp.
Day 10- Summit day – Pierre and I planned to get up at 8:00am so it wasn’t so cold and then begin climbing by 10:00am. At 7:30am we both sat bolt upright in our sleeping bags looked at each other and said – lets go simultaneously. We filled our water bottles the night before, heated some water for instant oatmeal and were climbing by 9:20am. Melting 2L of water from snow at 17,000 ft at that latitude takes about an hour.
By the time we start out about 20-25 people are ahead of us heading to the base of Denali Pass, a steep 60 -70 degree pass knows as the autobahn for the number of serious falls and deaths that happen here that if you fall you will not stop for at least 2000 ft. We pass about 16 the climbers before reaching the technical climbing portion and now will patiently wait for the ones in front of us and progress at a slower pace. Passing is impossible for the next mile to the coulier. The wind is howling and making standing up more difficult and the spin drifts are crazy. We use the protection on the mountain where we can but often find our rope too short between pro and climb portions so for large parts just tied to each other. Don’t trip here and if you do and you are tied to someone at least you won’t die alone.
By the time we reach the coulier everyone has turned around except Pierre, myself and a solo climber from Seattle named Harrison. We all decide to continue above the coulier in high winds and low visibility as the overriding system was a high pressure system and we believed it would override this system and get better later in the day. We keep climbing and decide to turn back if visibility gets worse. Its cold I am wearing a long sleeve undershirt, sweater, fleece soft shell jacket, gortex, high altitude 800 down jacket , liner mitts, high alt mitts, while working hard and I was still cold with all the hoods up in addition to my 2 touques.
Pig hill was a grind as it’s the last of the big elevation gains before the summit ridge and the low visibility made it seem behemoth in size as you could only see a shadow and one couldn’t tell what was dark grey clouds or a continuation of mountain.
The summit ridge was awesome! very exposed especially in our high winds but not too technical; extremely enjoyable climbing. Harrison roped up with us here and we continued for the summit. People complain about how long the summit ridge is but for me it didn’t last long enough. We reached the summit as the winds died down but visibility was still poor. But it warmed up enough to take off my down jacket – it was about -30 probably.
We spent 45 minutes on the summit taking photos, eating lunch and just enjoying the moment. This was a great feeling to finally summit one of the most respectable mountains in the world and highest peak in North America. As we climbed down from the summit the sky turned blue and we had a brilliant climb down to camp 4. After spending the night we got as far as we could the next day (Camp 1) and then cruised into base camp by 10:00 one day later. We caught our flight out from base camp as the last flight out for a few days as the high pressure system finally ended and the storm came. The next day after that I was back in Calgary with a severe case of narcolepsy that finally abated a week later.