In June this year, I embarked on an Alaskan expedition in North America to climb Denali, meaning “The Great One” in the Native Indian Language. Formerly it was named Mt. McKinley after the former U.S. President William McKinley, it was later changed in 2015 back to Denali.
Denali is a very sought after mountains as it is the highest summit in North American, standing at 6,190 meters above sea level, and is one of the Seven Summits of the world (The Highest Peak on each of the 7 Continents). Known for its unfriendly and unstable weather conditions, from cold and dry to very wet, people can get anything from sun burns, the wind burns to frostbite and hypothermia.
The expedition started at Anchorage, where we met the guides and other team members for a briefing to discuss expectations and safety guidelines while on the expedition. Boxes of snacks were also laid out on tables for us to compile our daily lunches and snacks. A gear check was also done in our rooms to make sure we had all that we needed and we left anything we didn’t need behind.
Next day we drove to Talkeetna, a small Alaskan village, where we would take a small sea plane to the base camp located at Kahiltna Glacier. The weather was bad this day, so this was a no fly day, we booked a cabin and slept the night waiting for the go ahead the next day. This is very common, they call it the “Talkeetna hang”.
Once we got the go ahead, we went to the small air base and loaded up the plane with all our personal gear, food and group gear. The plane took us over the Alaskan range, and we could see from the top all the green turn into white with lots of snow and crevasses! It took 30 minutes till we landed at the base camp, where we were greeted with our first views of other people’s tents set up, and people waiting to take the plane back to Talkeetna.
We set up our tents and took a nap before we had to wake up at 11pm to walk through the glacier to our next camp (Camp 1) on our snowshoes. Our guide wanted to wait until it got a bit colder so that the snow bridges were firm enough to walk over and not collapse and have climbers fall into crevasses. This also happened for the following night up to our next camp (Camp 2). During these two past days, we had to pull a sled, which weighed about 40 kg and another 20 kg on our backpacks. These with the days, become less, as we ate the food and thought of ways to get rid of items we don’t need because as it becomes steeper, it gets harder to carry so much of a load. We then do “carry days”, where we carry some of our loads that we don’t need immediately, bury them closer to the next camp and then come back down. We then pick them up later once we reach the next camp.
A week into the expedition, I got a chest infection, which made it really hard to breathe and walk up the mountain, especially with the altitude, my chest was heavy and I coughed endlessly. The guides checked on me to make sure it wasn’t HAPE(High Altitude Pulmonary Edema – Fluid on the Lungs). I had a hard time sleeping at night, I got a fever, but I tried to drink as much fluids as I can and I was given a course of antibiotics for four days, however, it wouldn’t get any better until I got off the mountain. I was fortunate and strong enough physically to continue with the expedition.
Luckily, we had great weather in the upper camps, so warm actually that one layer was enough. We had a well-deserved rest day and sat outside and overlooked the other peaks and glaciers around us and even had a small snowball fight with another team one day!
Finally, what I had been waiting for, getting rid of the snowshoes and sled and climb up the head wall using fixed lines, from this point on, we wore our crampons and we used an ascender to climb higher-up the fixed ropes. We did this twice, one day to bury our snacks higher up and then again to move to High Camp, which was the last camp before our summit push.
We reached High camp a day later and had a rest day before summiting, preparing mentally and physically for the long summit push. The next day we woke up early and started moving at 9:30am, we started off by traversing an area called “The Autobahn” which is very much exposed and steep and had to clip into fixed snow pickets to avoid falling. In the beginning, it was a bit cold and we had to make sure to keep our hands warm and face protected from the wind, it took about 4-5 hours for the weather to get better. After about 10 ten hours we reached the summit. We took some quick pictures and started our descent down, the journey was not over. I took 200mg of caffeine to stay focused while coming down as I still had to secure myself using the pickets. The descent took about 4 hours. Upon reaching my tent after such a tough day I had some dinner, drank water and fell into a deep sleep!
After the summit, we still had three more days to get back down to the glacier and get a plane out back to town. The snow wasn’t that firm and we fell countless times in deep snow, luckily not in any crevasses. It was snowing one day, so we took a break, it was pointed out that my down jacket was wet, I didn’t even realize, not only mine, but everyone else felt cold and wet and we decided to spend the night and set up camp, I slept in wet clothes so that they would dry from the heat of my body, it worked but it was still very hard to sleep.
Finally, we reached base camp and we found lots of people waiting for their flight out of there. It was such a joy to see our plane arrive, pack the plane with our loads and take off from the glacier, all the white and crevasses below us turned to green, lots of trees and water and finally the air base. The first thing we did once in town took a shower, have lunch then book a cabin for us to stay.
• It took us 15 mountain days to reach the summit and another 3 to get back down. Total 18 mountain days.
• This season saw very tough weather conditions and storms over camp 3. Summit success this season was about 30%. We were very lucky with the weather.
• Throughout the expedition, we always had to be roped up unless, in camp, this was in order not to fall in crevasses.
• There was always sunlight, this was because of being so close to the Arctic Circle, it was hard to sleep at night sometimes, and I didn’t bring an eye mask, so I’d use my buff as one.
• Every day was tough, from the loads we had to carry, from the windy and cold weather, afraid of frostbite, we had to shake and swing our hands to warm them up.
• It took me 5 months of training to get me physically fit for this mountain, I did everything from stair training, pulling tires in the desert, both while carrying a 20 kg backpack, wall climbing, weight lifting, cycling, swimming, running, hiking in the weekends etc. Some days I would training before work and after work for 2-3 hours. ■