Hey Wildsnow, Denali 7,
I have been an avid follower of The Blog for the past few years and I was very excited to hear about your successful expedition on Denali. I am currently planning an expedition to climb the West Buttress of Denali during May/June of 2012 and we are also looking into skiing. I had some questions about this that hopefully you guys can help me with:
Sure, I’ll create some answers and perhaps the other Denali guys can chime in. Apologies to other guys for anything I got wrong, please clarify if possible. (See our Denali posts category, more than 78 posts and counting.) Lou
-Did you find the extra configuration on your sleds worthwhile? We were planning on only taking sleds to 11K and then double or triple carrying to 14K. We might take one sled to 14K to haul down any food/fuel we can’t give away when descending.
— Louie and I agree that if we went up there again using skis, we’d not use sleds for 11,000 to 14,000 foot camp, but rather do carries up and do whatever it takes to get down safely without a sled in tow. They really don’t work all that well if you’re skiing from 14,000 on down, but then, neither does a HUGE pack. Very tough call. Traveling light is key. Between our blog gear, extra food and other things, while we were not as heavy an expedition as some we were not the lightest. Now that I know the situation up there, I’d adjust my gear and food, and especially carry less food.
-Where did you find your large (5/6L) pots? The only lightweight aluminum pot I have been able to find in that size range is the GSI Bugaboo Basecamper.
—- Liberty Mountaineering gear distributor. Work through a retailer and they can order you some.
-How many stoves did you take? We have a group of 4 and were planning on taking 3 stoves- 2 for melting water and 1 for boiling water/cooking.
-My standard for this sort of thing has always been about one stove per two people, or two stoves for two people if the group is only two. We took one per two people plus a spare pump in our massive repair kit. For four guys on Denali, I’d think three stoves would be ideal as you could still gang two under one pot for speedy snow melting, then have the third for cooking. Large, insulated, well made stove boards save a huge amount of hassle and work. Like we did, make boards with holes for pegs you build into the stove legs, and make the boards big enough to support the stove tank/bottle along with the stove. Our boards didn’t support the stove tank, so everything would get whacked out of alignment as the various parts shifted around. Larger stove boards are worth the weight. Make with 1/4 inch plywood topped with aluminum flashing, glue thin foam to the bottom.
-For your cooking system, did you find the lack of a heat exchanger or pot cover to have a significant impact on efficiency?
—- We had lids, they indeed help, though while melting snow they can be fiddly and you tend to leave them off. Didn’t feel the need for heat exchanger as in my view a larger pot with a good windscreen does a pretty good job of capturing heat. The amount of fuel they recommend you buy at Kahiltna Base is sufficient but don’t bring any less than that. As the days progress you can watch your fuel consumption and act appropriately. Carrying plenty of fuel and thus eliminating lots of niggling about fuel consumption is worth the slight bit of extra weight on this kind of glacier slog. The type of food you cook makes a difference in fuel consumption. We had nothing that required much cooking, so we seemed to have enough fuel when eventually supplemented by folks giving fuel away before their descent.
-What were your thoughts on your solar charging set-up? If we are just going to be charging Ipods and E-readers, is a smaller set-up adequate?
—- Depends on how many people, but smaller will probably work as don’t forget you get a lot of light in Alaska during summer. Test at home! My system was big, but remember I was running a computer along with a satphone, as well as charging 7 guy’s music players.
-Did ever feel like it was necessary to build a snowcave or did the Nammataj tents hold up to the storms
—- Didn’t feel need for cave, might have been nice one or two nights but generally the cold damp cave is not attractive unless it’s really stormy. Different story up at 17,000 foot camp. I’d never stay up there without a cave at least as a backup. If you’re fit and all good climbers, I really don’t recommend the 17,000 foot camp. But, if you don’t camp at 17,000, resign yourself to some acclimation days and don’t cheat as trying to cheat physics and physiology on Denali can kill you. We used up some beautiful weather days doing acclimation climbs. That was tough on the young men, but they broke out the mental discipline and pulled it off. I was impressed.
-How are ski boots kept warm enough for Denali? Our plan is to use ski overboots (probably the 40 Below versions) along with Intuition liners in over-sized AT boots that will fit a VB sock system (very similar to what you guys did). Do you feel this will be sufficient? I was also wondering how well the ski overboots worked with step-in crampons- should the neoprene be trimmed near the toes and heel or do the bails compress it enough for a solid fit?
—- Man, you need to go back and read our Denali gear posts (grin). We oversized most of our ski boots and used 40 Below overboots. Check with 40 Below for how crampons work with their overboots. Depends on model, fitting, etc. Don’t go gonzo on oversizing your boots as if you go too large they won’t ski well enough, just go one shell size larger than normal if you tend to normally fit boots with a smaller shell, and mold with a pair of thick wool socks, plenty of toe room, and nice thick insoles. Plan on spending a whole winter getting your boots dialed. I tried using Boot Gloves, but they didn’t work well due to snow packing up into the sides. I actually had quite a bit of trouble keeping my feet warm as they’ve finally gotten compromised due to my age, and I kept trying to avoid hassling with my over boots. The younger guys had no trouble. My hands, however, were awesome as always. I did the whole summit climb in lightweight liner gloves, then gloved up for the trip down.
-How much technical gear for glacier/crevasse rescue did you take?
A very well thought out selection, but not huge. With 4 guys as well as other people around, you’ve got options. If the trail is beat out and you’re good at staying on it, you could travel as two ropes of two. If things are dicy in the crevasse fields, I’d have all 4 on the same rope. Bring one ascender per climber to use on the fixed lines on the headwall, and figure that ascender is also part of your crevasse rescue kit.
-What are your thoughts on the use of softshell bibs coupled with WPB shell pants rather than soft-shell pants coupled with WPB shell bibs for the upper mountain? Did you find the Arc’Teryx bibs breathable enough?
—- If you get a cold snap, the WPB bibs would of course not breath well. But for average Denali temps they seemed to work fine. Main thing is your high altitude outer layer needs to be windproof. During summit day, softshell outer would not have worked for me, would have been too cold. Basically, on most summit days it’s fricking cold up there, though some days are amazingly warm.
-Do you feel that a full-on WPB shell jacket is necessary or is a good wind shell sufficient?
—- If it rains or sleets for days on end while you’re on the glacier lower down, you’ll need a real jacket. So work that into your system. It’s Alaska, it rains.
-Are helmets necessary for the WB route?
—- Would be nice to have if they got worn, but with so much else going on, and so many hat/hood/clothing variations, they tend to get left dangling on the backpack, gumbie style. We didn’t bring.
-On the upper mountain, where do you suggest roping up? My understanding is that on the WB ridge, unless one is placing protection for a running belay it is more dangerous to be roped than unroped since a fall is likely to take the whole rope team down.
—– Standard for us is we only rope together if crevasse danger, or if running belays are available. Lots of fixed pro on Washburn Ridge and Autobahn, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Really depends on how icy things are. As you can see from photos, the route was soft when we did it so roping across Autobahn, for example, wasn’t necessary. I found it nice to do some running belays on Washburn Ridge, with Louie helping me out with that. Kind of some hairy stuff up there when you’re tired and the wind is blowing. There is nothing on Washburn ridge that’s any different from say climbing Pyramid Peak, Colorado in winter conditions. But the altitude combined with heavy pack, as well as lots of other people around upsetting your rythm, all that makes it quite a bit tougher than you’d expect.
-For skiing downhill, which sections do you recommend being roped up for? We were planning on skiing roped downhill on the lower mountain (below 14K) but are unsure about the upper mountain.
—- Tough call. Of course stay roped together on lower angled glacier terrain where doing so is easy. Up above, being roped while skiing can be dangerous due to being pulled down by the rope and thus instigating a fall — you could even get pulled into a crevasse. I think that one of the big problems with skiing areas such as just below Windy Corner is you’re kind of darned if you do and darned if you don’t. Louie and I tried to stay roped in that area while descending in a gathering storm, but ended up untying (which scared the heck out of me). When skiing untied, it’s super important to stay in other people’s tracks where they’ve “tested” the trail, preferably tested on foot. If it hasn’t stormed for a while the beat-out trail you can follow semi-safely is amazing. You’ll see lots of solo climbers using that technique. A bit dicy in my view, but they pull it off pretty often. Main thing is to study photos of the route and know where the more hairy crevasse fields are, and try to ski roped through those for sure. I wish we’d stayed roped more than we did.
-Do you have any beta for ski descents from the summit and the Orient/Messner/Rescue couloirs or the Headwall?
Depends on conditions, and climb them first if possible. Carry a GPS with waypoints programmed for entry points. The big lines were just not in condition when we were there, sadly. Let the mountain do the talking.
-As far as skins go, from the photos and trip beta I have read it seems that they are not useful beyond the headwall up to the WB ridge. Would they be useful for coming back from skiing the Messner/Orient/Rescue couloirs or can those sections be skated?
—- We took skins to summit in case we got into a posthole situation as we had them anyway from climbing fresh snow above 14,000 foot camp. But I’d leave them behind if possible and just boot everything. You see climbers going to the summit (from 17,000) with no pack at all, and you start realizing your ski pack is really slowing you down. Thus, hauling things like your climbing skins can add weight you don’t need. On the other hand, as Colby mentions below, we did choose to bring enough gear to summit to be somewhat self sufficient if something bad happened. Many parties don’t do that.
-How necessary is it to wand routes? We were planning on bringing a GPS and using that for white-out navigation on the lower glacier and using wands mainly to mark caches.
—- From my observations, while folks plop in the occasional wand (you’ll see quite a few labeled with guide service names), hardly anyone stabs wands in on the standard route. It’s all based on GPS now, as well as following the guides and their wands around. Bring enough wands for cache marking and marking things like campsite probed boundaries, and to drop the occasional wand in on the route to make your own contribution. Bring a few to the summit and drop them in if necessary, but just a few. BUT, bring a couple of GPS units and know how to use the danged things. Also bring magnetic compass and know how to use it. It’s amazing how many people end up wandering around up there because of the lack of wands combined with no GPS or compass skill.
-How did the pre-cooked bacon work out?
—-Fine. We probably had a bit too much (grin). If I was on a more casual trip I’d probably bring some bacon to cook, and some eggs.
-What are your thoughts on rations and food — how many lbs per person per day. We were planning on 2lbs/pppd but are unsure if that will be sufficient calories to keep us warm if the weather turns.
—-2 lbs PPD will work for shorter expeditions with climbers in their 30s or older. Go to 2 1/4 if you’re younger our out for a long time. There is always extra food around at 14,000.
Again congratulations on your successful trip, climb, and descent.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.