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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WildSnow guest blogger Caleb Wray is a photographer and outdoor adventurer who lives in Colorado and travels worldwide. He enjoys everything from backcountry skiing to surfing.