An Ice Axe to Grind on Denali's West Buttress

An Ice Axe to Grind on Denali's West Buttress

In high altitude climbing, weather windows are everything. If you can move fast enough, and are opportunistic, you can sometimes grab the summit alpine style while expedition climbers are waiting around for a bigger window. It worked for me on Denali: I just had to push harder.


When Mark, Konstantin and I arrived at Denali base camp on the evening of June 9, we were greeted with a lot of negative energy from the Park Service Ranger there. To him everything was dangerous this season with its strange weather, bizarre spring snow patterns and warm conditions down low on the glacier. The ranger mandated that we (and everyone else) should move slow in our ascent and not do the West Rib directly-that is, avoid the NE fork of the Kahiltna, aka the "Valley of Death."  Instead, we should go by the West Buttress, acclimate on it, then traverse over, drop down and do our route.

The West Buttress?! The most crowded mountaineering route in America- 90% of climbers on Denali climb via the Buttress, half of them incompetent hikers trying to boost their ego or resolve some midlife crisis...and with 10 pitches of fixed lines, no less!  We came to climb the West Rib Alpine style. Not the West Buttress with its festival-sized camps and toilet regulations, and hordes of guided groups. Where you can find climbers who claim the most valuable thing they brought was a satellite phone and a solar charger...and for many the most important thing is "ticking" the peak off their list. The second most was getting fed well in the mess tent.

And what is more, the base camp ranger was being almost paternalistic in his advocacy of very slow acclimation... I've had all of my success on big peaks by charging hard. As Anatoli Boukreev advocated, there is a tradeoff between strength and acclimation- you lose one as you gain the other. For a peak of 20,000 feet, strength seemed to me to be the party to side with.

For me there is only one style of climbing to know: alpine style. Up, summit (or not), then down. Never double carrying, never shuttling loads. It makes no sense to me to climb that way. That expedition style approach is why it takes a standard 14-21 days to summit Denali, and that's why people get shut out-even when acclimated- when their weather window doesn't open up just as they've scheduled it.

But indeed the Valley of Death was in bad shape. Even the main Kahiltna glacier was falling apart a month earlier than usual. There was only one responsible choice: up the West Buttress route to 14k camp, then over to the Rib. But there was no way we were climbing only 1000 feet per day and shuttling loads. It was up to 11,000 the first day (from 6,800). On to 14,200 the second day. During which things got tough. Pulling a sled (which is how Alaska works-a way to carry enough food for long trips) was exhausting. Konstantin and I bore the brunt of this pulling and would collapse in the snow at every rest stop.

We had to rest and make water 300 meters outside of camp, on flat ground, we were so spent. In camp, my heart rate was 85 that night. The weather was perfect the next day but everyone needed a rest. But as Liora reminded me before I left, "Only the mediocre are always at their best."


When I awoke in the morning, the heart rate was back under 60. We did take a rest day, but I watched the cloudless sky and I knew I should be out climbing. We talked to the ranger at 14k camp (Mark Westman! infinitely more logical and respectful than the base camp ranger) who suggested we summit first on the West Buttress, then drop and climb the Rib.

Summiting via the West Buttress was not something I had considered. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. If I was really going to rail against this route, I had better experience it to know how to talk about it. Westman suggested going to 16,000 and back, then 18,000 and back with rest days in between, before trying the summit. And there were some tricky parts, so be sure to have a partner.

But I knew the weather forecast: the perfect weather was to begin deteriorating tomorrow and lots of snow would begin falling in subsequent days. Tomorrow was the window. I was still 3000' below high camp with 6,000'+ to go to the summit, and hadn't been above 14,000' (i.e out of the 48) in 4 years. But I also knew that I have strength within strength at altitude, and this was my opportunity to use it. I was going to speed solo the West Buttress in good alpine style.

I told myself that I would go as high as I could, and would be fine with not summiting if it was too exhausting or dangerous. The real goal of the trip was to climb the West Rib; the Buttress was just a side show and I didn't want to destroy myself too early. But I knew inside that if I was capable, I would keep pushing hard to the top of the Buttress. Summits have a siren song.

I awoke on June 13 at 6am with a heart rate of 53, which encouraged me. I brewed some breakfast, and started up at 7:26. Mark and Konstantin would do some acclimating to 16000' so they didn't need as early of a start. Denali is quite cold at night (as cold as -13F at 14k while we were there). The sun is almost always up but it is behind the mountain, so we're in the shade till 9:30 or so. I was shivering and my fingers and toes were quite painful, even in double mittens and double wool socks. From 14k camp, the first 1200' are easy- 35 degrees- pole territory. The only problem was that whiteout came. In every whiteout I get a little seasick, tired and my eyes hurt. I tried to keep my eyes closed, occasionally opening them so as to not go off route. The slope was constant so it worked ok.

Then, at 15,400 come the fixed lines. Of course I did not jug/ pull them and ruin my alpine style ascent, but I did switch to an axe for this steeper section. Mostly those 10 pitches didn't much exceed 40 degrees of 8 inches of snow on top of hard ice. No front pointing needed (on the way up) and I only used the axe every few steps. I arrived at the col at 16,200- the west buttress proper, around 2.5 hours after starting. It was taking longer than I thought. I already had to take a few rest breaks, the altitude was getting to me.

I continued up the ridge, on good snow and rock ground ranging from flat to 50 degrees. There were fixed ropes but exposure was minimal and climbing was easy; I avoided them. However around 16,500 I began to have trouble, steps were occasionally imprecise or stumbling when I didn't focus. This part of the route was good climbing and aesthetic but fatigue- or maybe hypoxia- was setting in and I didn't even think I could make it to 17,000. I took longer breaks and convinced myself that turning around before 17k camp would mean the over-paranoid policies would win. I pushed on slowly, in a somewhat pathetic state. Ten minutes outside camp I saw the first climbers on route with me; they were going down. But though virtually no one was climbing that day, the trail was not hard to break- only a few inches of powder had fallen that night. So a big advantage of climbing on an "off-weather" day- the train of climbers is absent!

Around 11:30 I arrived at 17k camp. I felt like I had achieved my goal. There was total whiteout again, I was spent and I was happy to talk to some people. Everyone was waiting at high camp- the conditions were not good enough for a summit they said. Only one party went ahead to try to summit that day. Dozens of people were huddled at 17k camp, waiting for a window.

Then, I talked to a guided party. I told them I planned to climb the West Rib. One woman said that was impressive. I told her that I was not more impressive than her, I was just pushing my limits. I said Colin Haley was about to speed solo the Cassin (we had spoken with him the day before). I said that was not different than her climbing the West Buttress. I said what mattered was not how good you were, but rather pushing yourself, expanding your own limits- that is what mattered. She responded to me- "no-what matters is getting to the summit." I immediately felt alone in the crowd.

Though I knew this attitude was rampant, hearing it in a fatigued state meant this "only summit matters" attitude jolted me. Peter Croft indeed said summits matter- but what he meant was that once you do the route, finishing up by going to the summit matters. The summit does matter, but what matters most is how you got there- the style, the route, how hard you worked, how far you pushed your own limits. Peter Croft also said "It's kind of a lost, or it's kind of an ignored idea, you know, the idea of magnificent failure rather than a kind of mediocre success."

My emotions started flowing. I thought of my Russian friends in Central Asia- too poor even to go to a national park for the weekend, yet alone a big glacier. Yet they were real climbers. Better than me, many of them. One friend Sacha beat me by ten minutes to the summit in every speed climb locally but couldn't afford to go out the the Engilchek in the summer to climb high peaks. I was blessed to be here on the Kahiltna; now I needed to prove-to myself at least- that those climbers' accomplishments were just as legitimate as the hubris of the masses on the West Buttress.

The overall speed record on Denali is held by Boukreev, up the Rib, but the well-known record- of the Buttress- is Chad Kellogg, an accomplished though far inferior climber but a self promoting and sponsored American. Someone wanting to tag the summit for bragging rights climbs the Buttress; the real climbers tend to stay in obscurity on other routes.

I feel that Denali should be climbed boldly, alpine style, with no acclimatization-just like the Sourdoughs climbed the North peak in 1910. Like Waterman's team did- in winter- on the Cassin in the 80's. If those guys did it in alpine style then, why are we considering any inferior style now? The way to go is not by waiting for perfect weather in high camp on an expedition, but by speed and strength. It's a way to show the mountain respect, and climb it on equal terms. Giving the mountain a chance to beat you is important.

"The hardest of the 7 summits," as many of the 7 summiters claimed? "The hardest peak in the world when it's windy" as the Denali Visitors Center claimed? "The Icy Crown of North America"? I was going to prove this monarch to be but a figurehead. 96 hours after leaving sea level, I was going to summit this peak, for the honor of those climbing much gnarlier lines on much less well-known glaciers- or even the more beastly peaks (Foraker, Hunter, Huntington) that sit in the literal shadow of of Denali. I would defraud the hoax (GZA ref).

45 minutes of break refreshing and acclimating me, I felt amazingly better and set off to Denali pass, a long traverse at 45 degrees that had claimed a handful of lives already this season- the last dangerous bit to the summit. It was whiteout, but the route was well wanded (and even more well trampled from the crowds in the last weeks) and the wind was calm. No danger there. Climbing was decently steep and very exposed but I was in control. I felt better than I did 3000' lower. I kept going up.

Then, as I rounded Denali pass, the cloud lifted. I saw the summit 2000' above me. The wind hit me around the corner, as did low blood sugar, but I put on my puffy and downed some sips from my thermos. I kept moving to stay warm. At 19,500, I began to feel the altitude again. My steps wavered. Just then, I caught the one other party attempting the summit (from 17k camp). They were not in a talkative mood, but I stopped with them for 10 minutes to recover- which I did by chatting about Colorado climbing (where they were from), mostly to psyche myself up. Now it wasn't truly a solo ascent, with those guys also on route. I only had 800 feet to go, and I wanted to keep pushing. It was mostly psychological. Push harder!

I charged up the last slope to the ridge, leaving behind any semblance of conservatism. Then, at 20100', I realized there was still a long summit ridge to go. A (dull) knife edge ridge and a dozen false summits laid out before me, and the doubts returned. I had to climb each of the false summits one at a time; my mind was exhausted and it was hard to think about the true summit, it was so overwhelming. Many times I thought it might be my physical limit, that I could turn around now and tag the true summit in a few days when we went up the West Rib. But each time, I recovered from my doubts. Only at the base of the true summit, 30 feet to climb, did I finally know it would happen.

I collapsed next to the summit benchmark, face to the snow. I felt no joy, just vindication that I could prove- at least to myself- that this route was not the ultimate challenge that it purported to be. 4 days overall; 8:45 from 14k camp to summit. No acclimation, no preparation save one Whitney trip and 2 funerals of loved ones in the weeks before this trip that led to the rest of the trip prep being scrapped. I was drained coming in, but completing this challenge was still within me.

On top of the continent, but you still must remain very humble. The mountain decides whether you summit or not. And though all other parties but one felt the weather to not be good enough, the mountain allowed me to sneak by and share in its glory for a brief minute. The weather held this day but  that night it closed in and those people at 17,000' stayed in place: none of them summited until 4 days later; by that time many had to go back down due to schedules or altitude. I had fortunately caught the end of the window perfectly.


I was tired so I had to focus on the descent, but my strength returned by the 18,000' mark so I could navigate the dicey parts safely. Aside from using an axe instead of poles, the rest of the downclimb was uneventful; I returned to camp exhausted at 7:24, just under 12 hours r/t after I started. Mark had a terrific tortellini dinner ready for me. I ate like I was at sea level.

Kellogg's 11k to 11k record split is 18 hours- while acclimated and with stations staged. Since the non-acclimatized time I just did was almost comparable, I had half a mind to try to break the record on a later attempt after some acclimation. But them I realized that there are many stronger climbers than me- and though the record is very attainable, those climbers don't bother with a speed ascent of the Buttress either. It was time to move on, to get back to harder objectives...first off, the West Rib.