Before we get into the details of the trip it is probably a good idea to provide some background to this whole escapade. At the time of departure I had been doing technical rock climbing for about a year and a half. I had climbed my first 14er less than a year before, and the first time I had put on crampons was in November 2013. My first 14er summit via a snow climbwas March 2014. I've at least been training pretty hard both technically and physically, and at the time of the climb I was leading WI-4, 5.10 rock on gear, and had built up a decent amount of stamina. I was feeling pretty good, but still a bit nervous. Peter, my partner is a little less technically inclined (he isn't quite as crazy as I am), but has a lot more big mountain experience, including trips to Nepal, South America, and a trip to Denali.
Peter and I met less than a year ago in November 2013 at a 14ers.com ice climbing meetup at Lincoln Falls near Breckenridge, Co. We ended up making several more ice climbing trips out to Ouray, Co and eventually started discussing plans for the summer. The first thing he brought up was Mt Hunter, which is also in the Alaska range, but more technically difficult than the West Buttress on Denali. However the third person in our party had to back out and we didn't feel comfortable doing it just the two of us. The next idea that was floating around was a trip that our friend Matt was organizing to climb three 7000m peaks in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately for the two of us that trip was much longer than the amount of vacation we had saved up. So eventually talks turned back to Denali. Peter had made an attempt at the West Buttress the year before and didn't really want to do that route again. I agreed and thought that a more technical route would be more interesting. Neither of us felt like we were in any shape to attempt Cassin, so we settled on the West Rib.
There are several different ways to attack the West Rib. You can climb the West Butt to acclimatize and wait for a 3-4 day window to descend and climb the West Rib alpine style. You can climb the West Butt and only do the Upper West Rib. Or, you can climb double carry the West Rib, breaking up 100lbs of food and gear into multiple 50lb carries. Knowing how bad the weather is on Denali, and that if we summitted via the Buttress that we probably wouldn't feel like climbing the Rib, along with the fact that we are both masochistic idiots, we decided to get on the Rib as quickly as possible and double carry the whole damn thing.
Day 1: Anchorage to Camp 1 (7,800')
Day 2: Storm Day
Day 3: Camp 1 (7,800') to Camp 2 (11,200') with a cache at 9,400'
Day 4: Storm Day
Day 5: Back carry cache through icefall from 9,400' to 11,200'
Day 6: Carried the cache to the top of the Chicken Couloir, 11,200' to 12,300'
Day 7: Really Nasty Storm Day
Day 8: Storm Day - 2' of new snow
Day 9: Rest Day (Nice weather but forecast to be bad, bad avy danger)
Day 10: Camp 2 (11,200') to Camp 3 (13,200')
Day 11: Back carry cache 12,300' to 13,200'
Day 12: Carry cache to 14,800'
Day 13: Storm day, 1' of fresh snow in the morning decent later that day.
Day 14: Camp 3 (13,200') to Camp 4 (16,000')
Day 15: Camp 4 (16,000') to Camp 5 (15,500' on the WB-WR crossover), back carry cache 14,800' -> 15,700' -> 15,500'
Day 16: Camp 5 (15,500') to 14,200' Camp on the West Buttress.
Day 17: Rest / Storm Day
Day 18: Storm Day
Day 19: Storm Day
Day 20: Summit Attempt from 14,200', made it to 17,200'. Move camp from 14,200' to 11,200'
Day 21: Move camp 11,200' to Basecamp (7,200')
Day 22: Fly back to Talkeetna
Day 1 - Anchorage to Camp 1 (7,800')Peter and I both landed in Anchorage around 12:30am on Saturday May 24th. We had our bags by about 1 :00 and grabbed a taxi to take us to our hotel. Enter our first screw-up, we soon learned that there were two Extended Stay America hotels in Anchorage and we just happened to hop a cab to the wrong one (Oops). The hotel manager arranged a cab for us to the other location and we finally got to bed around 2am. Less than 6 hours later our alarms went off and we quickly took a last shower before heading out to meet the "Go Purple Shuttle" van that was scheduled to pick us up at 8am.
Well as it turns out we weren't the only ones to go to the wrong hotel location.... The van finally showed up around 9am and we were off to Talkeetna! We had three shuttle mates, two were planning on climbing Cassin, and the third was attempting to summit in a week. They were all pretty experienced climbers who had done several peaks in the Himalaya so the three hour drive passed fairly quickly with the recounting of everyone's favorite mountaineering exploits.
The van dropped us off at the Sheldon Air Service (SAS) hanger around noon and we quickly set about getting our bags ready for the flight to the glacier. We had everything ready in about an hour and snagged a ride from one of the guys at Sheldon over to the national park service office to pick up some paperwork, undergo a briefing, and get our Clean Mountain Can (CMC). We headed back over to Sheldon, changed into our glacier clothes, and were ready to fly by about 5pm.
|Coming into base camp.|
Day 2 - Storm Day at Camp 1 (7,800')
Day 3 - Into the Valley of Death: Camp 1 (7,800') to Camp 2 (11,200')
|Entering the NE Fork of the Kahiltna.|
|The first crevasse field.|
When we got to the Japanese camp it had already been packed up and they had obviously moved up and through the icefall. This gave us hope that we would be able to make it up to Camp 2 at 11,200' that day and be relatively "safe". We were however done with pulling the sleds. Our backs were aching and the next stretch of terrain was no place for a sled. After quick cache pit was dug and our duffels buried we pressed on into the icefall. During the short amount of time that we were stopped we heard at least 3-4 avalanches and saw one big one that stopped maybe a couple hundred yards away!
|One of the seracs above the valley. We watched a fairly substantial avalanche come off of this thing while we were setting up our cache.|
|Looking up towards the icefall.|
The first challenge was a roughly 60-degree snow and ice slope. (We later found a way to avoid this on our back-carry). Peter bravely led through this section and soon we were moving into a heavily crevassed hallway with large blocks of ice on our right. This hallway ended in a headwall with a 2-foot wide crevasse running along the base. To continue we had to place our tool on the headwall and kind of jump across the crevasse onto the headwall. Once firmly on the headwall you climb up about 10' and traverse right. Eventually there is a point at which you can crawl out and flop onto a nice level surface.
|Approaching the crux of the icefall.|
Day 4 - Storm Day
Day 5 - Back carry from 9,500' to 11,200'
|Weather was kinda crappy during the back carry.|
Day 6 - Carry to the top of the Chicken Couloir (11,200' to 12,500')
|Me leading up across the bergshrund at the base of the Chicken Couloir. I was pretty scared to be honest.|
|Our cache at 12,500' at the top of the Chicken Couloir.|
|Attempting to rappel back down the Chicken Couloir. Our tag line system failed horribly|
Days 7-9 - More Bad Weather
|I think this will work??? (Pick is held on by nothing but 5mm cord)|
|Spindrift coming down off of the rock buttress.|
|Lots of snow!|
Day 10 - Camp 2 to Camp 3 (11,200' to 13,400')
|Looking back down the NE Fork.|
|Looking up at the First and Second Ice domes.|
|Looking back down the first ice dome towards the icefall in the NE Fork. Yup we went through that mess down there.|
|Me headed up the second ice dome.|
|Me following up the second ice dome just below the massive wind slab.|
|I really wish I had done this pano intentionally.|
|Finally, a decent flat spot to setup camp.|
|Sunrise from behind Denali.|
|Me coming down the second ice dome.|
|Me climbing back up the first ice dome after retrieving half the cache.|
|Hanging out back at camp.|
|Looking up at our next step. We decided to cache in a small bergshrund about 2/3rds the way up.|
|Peter setting up his cache at 14,900'|
|Me setting up my cache. Also this was a new height record for me!!!!|
|Sweet view of Foraker.|
|Headed back down to our little camp on the edge of the void.|
|There were some pretty gnarly cornices not too far from our camp.|
|The weather was kinda nasty...|
The second schrund crossing was probably the sketchiest. I was on point and carefully swam up the snow bridge. However, the bridge came to an end about 6" from the next slope, which rather than being a mellow 60-degrees, was dead vertical sugar snow. I ended up having to dig through about a foot of snow and pile it up under my feet on the bridge before I could get up high enough to sort of jump into firmer snow. Immediately above the bergschrund was steep snow comprised of several firm slabs seperated by very weak layers. I yelled, and cursed the mountain with some colorful language and pushed up about 30' above the bridge and dug a hole down to firmer snow that might hold a picket. I belayed Peter up and let him take the next crossing, which also turned out to be pretty sketchy.
We ended up reaching 16,000' around midnight. Both of us were suffering from extremely cold hands. My outer gloves were completely frozen solid, and I ended up sort of dragging Peter up the final 300' or so as by that point his hands were too cold to place pro. Climbing at that elevation for the first time was really really hard. I would basically quickly push 20-30' and then have to stop and catch my breath. Even just standing required enough oxygen that I was breathing as hard as if I had just run a mile.
|Our target is the ridge at the top of the rib. We took the gully that was dead in the middle of the rib.|
|Peter leading up over the third bergschrund crossing.|
|Looking down at the 14,200' camp on the West Buttress. Those things that look like rocks are tents.|
Unfortunately the weather forecast called for basically a week of storms moving in. At this point we decided that the smart choice would be to head down to 14,200' camp on the West Buttress to wait it out. At this point I was basically shot. I hadn't slept well the previous night due to the altitude, cold, and dehydration. I just wanted to go down to 14 camp to sleep, eat, and enjoy the company and safety of other human beings. I really, really didn't want to go back down the rib to get our cache, but we had to, with weather moving in this would be our last chance to go back for the cache. Peter managed to convince me to suck it up, and once I got some food and water in me I started to feel a lot better. I wasn't looking forward to going back for the cache, but at least I was willing to do it. We set up the tent at 15,700' so we would have a place to drop our gear and be able to just crash after coming back with the cache. We then headed back down the West Rib to get our cache.
Day 20 - West Buttress Summit Attempt from 14,200'