Denali trip Part 3- 14000 feet to the Summit, the Pig in a Blanket Disaster, the Canister Catastrophe, and a 25 hour Monster Summit Push
I forced Dane up early (up at 0600 as I recall) on Friday June 1, and we were able to get moving by 0830. This caused his hands to suffer a bit, I believe he developed the Screaming Barfies (this enjoyable experience is where your hands go numb and the numbness wears off- you want to scream and barf at the same time). It was around 10F at camp, though the skies were clear.
The day before, on our rest day, we had spent a good deal of time melting snow to make water, and we filled up “The Pig.” The Pig is the nickname associated with a large 10 Liter MSR Brand Nylon Bomber Water Sack. It was so nicknamed by my mentor, and up to this trip, I hadn’t owned one. However, on this occasion, after a discussion, we elected to buy one. The Pig is aptly named The Pig because it is a big fat hog that is messy and generally fucking annoying. Still, an abundance of water inside is like The Bacon of the Mountain. Ole Piggy. As we pushed to get ahead of the crowds that morning, we failed to check the Pig for a good lock on the seal. Dane handed the Pig to me, and I assumed it was sealed, though I, like him, was also in a hurry. So, I took the Pig and sought to ensure it didn’t freeze during the day. I deliberately chose Dane’s sleeping bag, knowing that if there were a disaster, I would rather not have it happen in mine. I didn’t do it deliberately to cause Dane problems; it was an instinct of self preservation. Thus, later, when the Pig made a mess, became the Pig in A Blanket Disaster.
We left 14000 Camp and arrived at the start of the Head Wall. The Head Wall is a 2000 foot vertical feature, starting just beyond 14000 Camp. It ascends somewhat mildly until you reach a bergschrund, a large crack in the side of the glacier, that actually separates the glacier from the mountain. From here, you go over the gap, and end up on a 55 degree slope, which is set with lines that are fixed. This is the technical crux of the mountain. It was actually fun as hell to ascend, though I was sweating from being over dressed. Still, you deploy an ascender, a tool that has a cam that slides only in one direction, and move your way up the lines. The steps were already kicked in for us, so although the consequences of falling are significant, the gear, if deployed properly, makes for fun, marginally scary work.
When we topped out of the fixed lines, we had to navigate the West Buttress ridgeline to 17200 Camp. This contained more obstacles than expected, and was a bit technical. The guiding services had put up fixed protection for their clients, but for the most part, Dane and I skipped clipping the pro (in simple terms, the guides sunk huge metal T’s into the ground, that had loops on top where you could clip a rope, and if you fell, that metal T would arrest your fall). Dane was not happy with my decision, initially, but he eventually became more comfortable with the situation. He nicknamed it the “American Death Pact.” This is because he and I were roped into one another, and thus only he had my back, and I his. I knew from climbing with him he had the head to deal with that type of movement; he just needed to get a bit more steady on his crampons. The views were spectacular and there was thousands of feet of drop.
Dane and I arrived just above 17200 camp after about 6 hours, and though not sick from altitude, we realized we were in for a 20 hour day, so we did a micro cache drop and then went back down the ridge, back down the fixed lines. We encountered Pistol Pete on that return! It was quite funny to see him soloing up to us. Ryan and Ben were not up for the day, so he was just out acclimating. We were delayed in our descent down the ridgeline and the fixed lines, and finally returned around 2200 as it became cold again. At that time, Dane discovered the Pig had unleashed 3 liters of its contents into his sleeping bag. He never got pissed, and instead sprung into action, resulting in repair of our Whisperlight stoves, which had begun to perform poorly because of carbon deposits. This was done to heat water to melt the ice in his sleeping bag. I offered to suffer in the cold sleeping bag, but he wouldn’t have it. I must applaud him for his patience. I would have become quite irate, and made my partner sleep in the fucked bag. He sprung into action, and he endured. A solid character.
The next day, we had the greatest fortune yet again, as it was the sunniest, calmest, prettiest day we had the whole trip. This allowed us to put out our clothes, and Dane’s wet sleeping bag, and get everything dialed in for the next day. His sleeping bag was never worse for the wear. On that day, we were invited by Ben and Pete to come over for dinner, and they made us a nice pesto chicken pasta, though it may have made me sick. I ended up developing a hard case of heartburn. We smoked some weed as well, now legal in Alaska, and sat in a hangout and watched the sunset. That would have been Saturday June 2. I sent my sister a happy birthday text that day. It simply was a glorious day.
The next day, June 3, we woke, casually, and broke down the entire operation. We cached a huge amount of our gear, and then went to the fixed lines. We were 45 minutes delayed by the significant crowds in front of us, and further the work up the lines was harder with the heavier packs. We were also delayed on the ridgeline technical terrain, but it was only about 7 hours to Camp 17200. There is not much you can do when you’re behind slower parties. The risks don’t justify the reward. You just grim and bare it.
We arrived Camp 17200 about 1900 on Sunday June 3. There were no good spots, so we had to build our own camp. That took about 2 hours, and was tiring, and camp was marginal. Plus we were now at 17200 feet, so air was thing. As we began to relax, and make water, Pete and Ben showed up. They had started with Ryan, but he had changed his mind very early on in the day, and they took him back down, rebuilt his camp with him, and then set off to solo from 14000 feet to top and back. They passed through our area, knowing we had their extra bottle of fuel, and they asked if they could prepare water at our camp.
It was at this time that they proposed we push to the summit within a few hours, as opposed to Dane and I sleeping, trying to get up, miserably at 0600 at -25F, and then get ahead of everyone on the Autobahn (this is a feature just above 17200 camp, a bit technical). Dane and I gave it serious consideration, and after we let Pete and Ben know that if anything happened to either team, that team was on its own, we all agreed to set off together. I advised Ben I was concerned about his cough, and that I felt it was a liability. He reacted directly, without emotion. I know my tone can be abrasive when I’m dealing with a delicate subject, so I may have alienated Ben a bit. However, all was resolved when I invited them in, even after the Gas Canister Catastrophe.
The Gas Canister Catastrophe
We prepared to make water (I think we brewed up 12 liters). We then had the Gas Cannister Catastrophe, which saw me using Benny and the Jets’ fuel tank on my stove, causing a small explosion in Dana’s tent, and causing a hole. Up to that point we had not caused any damage to the tent. I was livid. It had more to do with us all trying to cram into his 3 man tent for warmth, and make water at the same time. Of course it happened on my watch. To date, I’m not sure how Dana is going to react to the hole in the tent. We smoked a bunch of ciggies and drank a ton of tea. We mentally prepared ourselves to disembark.
We eventually disembarked at 0100 on June 4 from the tent, and got on the autobahn and headed towards Denali pass. It was -25f with no wind and no clouds. It was cold. I was barely warm enough with what I was wearing, and if we stopped to make adjustments or do anything, the freezing set in and I got the shivers. It was a net loss if we stopped. Meaning, the amount of time it took to make an adjustment or get water or food did not justify the value of the water. Next time, mental note, carry a snack in the pocket on summit day, and good luck on the water situation. At one point a team came across the Denali Pass, moving very slow. I was convinced they were injured. They were not, just very tired. Then another small team of 2 or 3 came through as well, but I vaguely recall that team.
The Autobahn and Denali Pass approach were single shoe step tracks with high consequences, and we again ignored clipping fixed protection. I applaud Dane; he has an intuition about what is really dangerous and not, and he moved swiftly with me. After Denali Pass, we stopped for adjustments. I ended up making my hands very cold by doing so, in fact getting the screaming barfies. We continued on, watching as the sun slowly rose in the distance in front of us, not on us, just teasing us a bit. We were in the Camel Area when I stopped eating, and Dane began to force food on me. He was looking out for me. Ben and Pete were in front of us the whole time, but not by much. I was really having a tough time, I needed calories but I did not want to eat. I had developed some altitude sickness by that point.
We approached Pig Hill, the last feature before the summit ridge, after the football field, and Dane remarked he felt were in a dangerous predicament, because we were so wasted and still had a hill to go and had to get back down. I told him we were only 60 vertical feet from the summit, actually only 200 vertical feet, and we couldn’t stop now. He accepted this, and within 15 minutes we stood on the summit ridge. But to Pete and Ben chagrin, what appeared to be the summit was actually a false summit, and we had 15 more minutest to go.
From our vantage point, the last traverse looked as hard as anything we had done. It was along this knife edge ridgeline traverse at the top of the highest mountain in North America, and it had a precipitous drop on two sides. Somewhat intimidated, I took lead and marched us to the true summit. It was a large copper looking item that must have been set by the NPS a long time ago, and was not going anywhere. I felt a surge of accomplishment, but just for a moment. I was incredibly cold, shivering, and very tired and thirsty. We stood on the summit of Denali at 0800 hours on 4 June 2018.
We began our descent, and Dane took lead on that. At one point he wanted to stop, and I sat down and fell asleep. We then came back to the technical portions, downclimbed those with ease, and then ended up skier left of the gazillion people on the autobahn. We saw some asshole with a guitar strung around his neck, and that asshole was Vern Tejas, I learned later. Tejas is one of my heroes, he holds all kinds of records of first ascents and speed records. He also can run circles around me, still, and he is 65 years old.
We arrived back at the tents at around 1200 hours, so it took us 11 hours to summit and return, and factoring in the climb from 14200 camp, when we started at 1100 hours on Sunday, we were in motion for no less than 25 hours. We sacked out. I started to suffer from a combination of altitude and GI distress. I wasn’t interested in eating, and I shunned food. I had heartburn so badly. I was able to take in water. But in reality, I was having heartburn around 8/10 on the pain scale. It was miserable.