Mount Denali West Buttress Summary Part 1- Travel to Anchorage, Talkeetna, and the Kahiltna Glacier
Travel to Anchorage, Talkeetna, and the Kahiltna Glacier
I left my office at approximately 1700 on Wednesday May 24. I came home, assembled the remainder of my climbing gear, sorted my GoPro and other technology items. My climbing partner Jake came and picked me up, and he and I went to Sharkeys for a taco before he took me to the airport. (Bastard made me pay for dinner, but his rationale was sound- he was, after all, driving me to LAX on a school night.)
I felt confident that I had placed all my legal files on the proverbial shelf for safe keeping, and trusted in my associate Ben, and my work wife Nikki, to care for my practice in my absence. I owe much to my law firm for its unrelenting support of my pursuit. “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” - Elon Musk. Let it also be memorialized that, as if there was not quite enough work to do, I decided to relocate my residence immediately prior to my departure on an international climbing trip. Yeah, I just sprinkled that on top of the cake of despondency and overachievement, for good tidings.
My flight for Alaska left at 2345 and arrived at 0445 Alaska Standard Time. I have read that some of the most accomplished climbers enjoy a bit of tobacco while on their journeys, and as such, I picked up a bag of American Spirit Blue rolling tobacco and some papers. I began rolling prematurely for the trip, and I would like to blame this on my climbing partners. That is not fair to them. In reality, I, like many another man who started smoking at a young age, have an affinity for the tobacco. To quote my hero and idol, badass American climber Conrad Anker, “Each of us ate one whole energy bar, and Jimmy and I shared a cigarette. Neither of us are smokers, except when we’re suffering, at which point “Sherpa Oxygen” quiets the roar of uncertainty in our minds. Now it was time to find our courage.”
Further truth be told, affairs of the heart prior to my departure were also not unfamiliar to me. Suffice to say, I sent good tidings to many a fair maiden. The flight into Alaska was uneventful. I had a direct flight, and I don’t recall any children or other challenges. There was a guy who was snoring pretty hard, but it bothered someone else more than it bothered me. I wonder why, in hindsight, it did not bother me? This bastard sounded like he was going to choke to death. I suppose I was elated for the journey.
I landed in Alaska and as I landed I began to experience the phenomenon of perpetual sunlight. I had heard about it, but there is simply no way to prepare for it, or to get used to it. We even ignored the climbing advice that we would not need headlamps, and at no time did we ever deploy them. The only way to describe the feeling is how it feels to pull an all nighter, studying, partying, or romancing, and watch the sun rise and feel self loathing, except it occurs every night. One person we met said Alaskan’s are clinical “manic depressives” because during the winter, when the complete opposite is occurring (no sunlight), you become depressive and homebound. When the summer comes, the mind says, it’s time to go, and let’s go!
The other remarkable event occurred as I made my way to my college companion’s house. (Jed Smith, my fraternity pledge educator at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales New Mexico, and his wife Lindsey, generously hosted Dane and I at their homestead. This was remarkable considering I hadn’t actually seen him in almost 20 years.) In any event, as my taxi driver took me to Jed’s house, there stood a moose the size of a horse, chewing grass under a tree at the onramp to the freeway. He might as well have been the Wally World Moose with a sign that said “Welcome to Alaska.” I almost did not believe my eyes.
I arrived at Jed’s home about 30 minutes later. He and his wife Lindsey live with Miles, their aging Labrador looking dog. He has a huge sign that says he stands with Planned Parenthood. Alaska, being a solid red state, must welcome Jed with open arms! I applaud his stances, and his convictions. Poor old Miles, who would later make an accident for Dane and I to take care of in the house, was partially blind and deaf. But when you pet him, he was a happy guy. Dane was already there, and I stayed up a bit talking to Jed, then sacked out for a bit.
When I awoke around 1100 hours, Dane surprised me with the fact he had gone out and secured a rental vehicle so he could buy himself a vehicle. (Dane would remain in Alaska after our journey. As one person said, he certainly started his journey with one of the most epic things a person can do in Alaska- climbing Denali.) It was an anticipated, unique departure when Dane and I parted ways 16 days later. Let that linger, but also this- we arrived in Alaska, and the one day we gave ourselves to sort gear and get ready to climb Denali, we went out and bought a vehicle, that my partner would convert into his living quarters for a minimum of 6 months. If you want to run with us, I suggest you come prepared, as we have internal sources of energy that burn bright and strong forever.
We went to Alaska Mountaineering Supply (AMS) and picked up a couple additional pieces of gear, as well as went to REI, and then to the local grocer to procure the final goods we needed for the mountain. The gear stores in Alaska accommodate real, hard core mountain climbers. Ice climbing gear abounds, sharp weapon looking tools of all shapes and sizes. A true smorgasbord of the tools of the trade of those who love to ride the line just on the other side of the void- crazy ass mountain climbers.
After visiting AMS, we went and scouted three different vehicles, the first, the aptly named “FLOOR1”, ended up being the winner. This fine Ford Econoline E150 Full sized van, year 1994 or so, with a hearty 5.4L V8 Motor, two captains chairs, and stripped out backseats and a built in cabinet, won the day . The owner kept good care of it mechanically, but of course being only a $3000 vehicle, it has some other needs. It was cherry red with some large pin stripes, and had mean burly tires on it without flashy rims, finishing out the contrast of work van and do anything spirit.
It was called FLOOR1 because the prior owner had a customized plate that read FLOOR1. You seriously cannot make this shit up. It became our ongoing joke, wondering about FLOOR1 as we were on the mountain, and every time I asked about her, I put in a Southern Drawl. Mulligan would eventually, wisely, change the plate from FLOOR1 to a non-vanity plate, but it remained an enjoyable aspect of our journey. The other two vehicles were not worth mentioning, save for the Ford F350 that had a cracked steering column and a cracked out owner. We drove in FLOOR1 to the Knik river (pronounced “Kuh-Nik”), and took a spiritual cleanse in the glacial waters of that river. Nobody swims those rivers; I was tempted, but thus would have ended the journey.
We returned to Jeds’ and he fed us hamburgers. He also benefitted our campaign with delicious salmon jerky. It would be a nice compliment to our otherwise very flavorless food options over the next two weeks. (It did make everything, and I mean everything smell like salmon, which ended up adding to the menagerie of smells with which Dane and I polluted our borrowed tent (also known as “feet and buttholes”- Pistol Pete of Benny and the Jets). We hung out late, drank good whiskey and smoked some tobacco, and then hit the sack around after midnight (with the sun still putting out light).
Dane and I awoke at 0600 on Friday May 25 to begin our journey to Talkeetna. We had a good bit of coffee, a bit of breakfast, and were on our way by 0715. We stopped once for fuel, and Dane learned the top of the gas tank had a hole in it, causing fuel to spill when the tank is full. Not a big deal, but certainly an unexpected surprise. We saw Denali proper on our way in, and the weather was perfect for the journey. The first time I saw the mountain, it struck me just how massive it is. It can be seen from more than 200 miles away. It foreshadowed just how incredibly challenging a climb on the mountain can be. Also, I’ve since been told that people travel to Denali and never even get to see the mountain; a sign of our good fortune and preview of things to come.
We were also granted an exceptional weather window for the summit, which took 9 days of sunshine in between storms. It was spectacular. We pulled into Talkeetna and went immediately to the National Park Service (NPS) orientation. We had been told by Lindsey that her friend Nellis worked for the NPS, and sure enough we ended up with her. We also ended up with her because there was a group of illegal guided clients from Poland that had been holed up as the NPS decided what to do with them. We didn’t even have an appointment, and yet within 10 minutes we were receiving the mandated orientation, again, good fortune abounded. We learned about use of the CMC can (poop can), a 2 or so gallon green bucket that you line with a bag made of corn, handle your business, and when done, they take the bag and contents and feed it to special worms designed to deal with that crap. Gone are the days of chucking the bag into the glacier, a good thing in my opinion. We also received what had to be a somewhat scare tactic about the challenges of the mountain, though with hindsight the challenges of Denali are very real.
Denali becomes cumulatively more difficult as you go up the mountain. Not just in terms of colder temps, thinner air, but also the actual objectives become more and more difficult. You have crevasse risk, white out risk, harder and harder slopes with greater fall potential, and continual terrain that is beyond simple hiking, or hiking with crampons. After the first camp, you go up Ski Hill, then Motorcycle Hill, then Windy Corner, then the Fixed Lines, but then the Lines above the Fixed Lines, then the Autobon, and then the technical climbing above the Autobon, finalized by Pig Hill, and the Summit Ridge. It is truly a cumulative technical experience.
After the NPS orientation, we went over to Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) and made our arrangements to travel to the Kahiltna Glaicer. TAT is a cool experience. If anyone ever has the chance to travel to Denali, I highly recommend taking the TAT plane into the backcountry. It is raw- not pressurized, prop plane, 8 seats, pilot manually operates the flaps, use of big helicopter like headsets to drown the noise and hear the pilot, stinks like oil. A very worthwhile experience. We ended up on a plane with a group of sightseeing persons, as opposed to a group of climbers, and this benefited Dane and I because the pilot took a fair amount of time to show us the landscape. We parked FLOOR1 in the TAT parking lot, and we were transported by Tom to our TAT plane. A comment on that wilderness- like Tanzania, it is raw. There is just raw land, and a tangible feeling of life and wild in the area. You are transported to your innate inner caveman.
I got the co-pilot seat, thanks to Dane’s thinking about asking. As we approached the landscape it was like something from a painting, the vast contrasts and depths of mountains into which we flew. We encountered the Moose’s Tooth, which I had read about so much in my lifetime. We also saw huge 40 mile long glaciers, and just an absence of comfort and life. Really, it is a feeling of otherworldly discomfort. You become comfortably numb in the intimidation of it all.