Denali has a split personality. On the one hand, it is "The High One," the stately and lofty red and white ruler. But it is also De-gnar-li, the snow-choked, windy, frigid monster. In summer, you get to see a lot of the former in nice weather windows. But the latter rears its head even more often. And yes we got to see him up close and personal.
As a brief overview, here are Denali's 5 most important routes, from easiest to hardest. All routes are very big, rising 13000+' feet from base camp.
West Buttress: Akin to Everest's South Col route, this sees the vast majority of the traffic on the mountain, much of it by yahoos.
Muldrow Glacier: Before the West Buttress' sinuous route was mapped by air, this was the easiest/standard route. Approach is still by dog sled; today it's mostly done by those seeking solitude or history.
West Rib: Denali's most obvious line, a beautiful 9000' direct line to the summit. Seldom does it exceed 50 degrees, and is usually much less steep. Still, very sustained climbing. The West Rib has compelled me since I first read about it in 2003. Never very difficult, but never letting up either, it's the quintessential natural line of Alaska. We wanted to approach it from below but conditions proved too dangerous (see TR here). Instead, we'd settle for cutting over to the West rib from 14k camp on the West Buttress.
Cassin Ridge: A perfect line, in the 50 classics of North America. 5.8 crux; nonetheless a serious and unrelenting route with a less than 10% success rate for those who obtain a permit for it. Plans for a future ascent are already in the works.
Czech Direct- aka Slovak Direct: Hardest route on the mountain, possibly the hardest line in Alaska, and by all accounts, some of the best climbing in the world. Has only seen 5 ascents. See Mark Twight's speed ascent (60 hours) account here. Twight's blog is supremely inspirational if you like alpine style or single push climbing and/ or punk rock. The Diamond is another hard and important route, like the last 3 routes here also on the South face.
On our seventh day on the mountain, June 15, we made our first foray toward the West Rib. This was turned back at 14,700' when Mark's newly acquired bronchitis, combined with altitude, necessitated his descent. So it was just Konstantin and me, back at 14k camp. The next day the two of us started out again, but only making it to the edge of camp before being turned back by avalanche threats. It might have been for the best since both K and I were feeling sick that day (me moreso), probably from some bad snow used to make water.
The third try, on June 17, finally worked. We followed the cutoff to meet the rib at 15,500' (Colin Haley had broken a trail part of the way there in preparation for his approach to the Cassin Ridge for a speed record attempt). Once on the Rib, things immediately became interesting. The real climbing had begun! No tracks to follow, no one else to be seen. We were in alpine solitude.
We moved up the ridge- often belaying, but with minimal pro, with joy. It was hard to lug our packs but the climbing wasn't so difficult that it was a substantial problem. Only one corniced section of ridge forced us onto the steep slope below for a bit; otherwise we did well to stay safely on the crest. A couple hours later and we found ourselves at Thumb Rock at 16300', the last bivy spot before the crux of the Upper Rib. Here we set up camp and enjoyed our tiny perch on the narrow Rib. The next day we would try to summit.
In the morning, June 18, we woke up early for a big summit day. The only mishap came when the rehydrated granola milk spilled all over the tent, getting my boot liner wet among other things. I was nervous because the toe area was wet, the area most susceptible to frostbite. I dried it off on my sleeping bag as best I could, then we packed up and got going a bit after 8am. As it turned out, it wasn't me who needed to be worried about the frostbite.
The next 700' was all belayed climbing, steepening to more than 50 degrees. Konstantin led the first pitch, then I led the second before things got steep. He took the first steep pitch, eventually setting up a belay and a manky station that made use of some nylon clothes drying cord that some party had left. I climbed up to him and he gave me the next lead- not that I wanted it. We only had 2 pickets so had to get pretty run out on the unstable 50 degree slopes. The thick sheet of packed powder meant avalanche was a real possibility; we tried to stay close to the edges. I finished my pitch and set up the belay. I tried to keep my feet on rocks while belaying, out of the snow to keep the blood flowing and the feeling there. But nonetheless, this was fun once it got going. So much harder than the West Buttress!
The couloir was cold and the snow was deep. About 2 feet of packed powder lay on the route, meaning no mixed climbing as the route described, only snow and ice. This turned out to be slow, exhausting, and cold. But there was sunlight just up ahead, and it seemed Konstantin might lead into it at any moment. But he hadn't moved for 20 minutes. I kept calling up after him if he was ok- he answered that he was- then didn't move for another 10 minutes. Eventually he said the climbing was impossible to proceed upwards- he kept slipping. He got in an ice screw, backed up by his axe and called off belay.
Only one last steep bit was left but it was the steepest yet. For the steeper parts, we had to clean the route, hacking off 2 feet of powder to get down to the ice and hard snow where the pro might hold. For this next part, in order to move up at all, I had to clean the entire route making a veritable tunnel so we could frontpoint the route. It took an incredible amount of time to move the 50 vertical feet to the next belay- in the sunshine. Once there, 2 easier pitches- where we were comfortable running it out, led to the most amazing ledge I had ever encountered. A 30mx30m, completely flat break in the ridge, this was the 17,000' Balcony Camp. The most incredible bivy spot I have ever seen, improbably large on this amazing ridge.
Since it was already 1pm, we decided to stay at Balcony Camp and cover the last 3000'- a lot easier ground than we'd seen so far- the next morning. We cooked and set up camp. I finally convinced Konstantin that we should top out without packs, then rappel the route (the other option was to carry over and descend the Buttress, which I had perpetually been arguing would be more difficult).
By 3pm Konstantin suggested we go to bed and get rested up. I stayed outside, admiring the absolutely striking vantage point. I was just thinking how perfect everything was: the weather, the amount of food and fuel we had, our physical condition. The route was in gnar condition but we were strong enough to deal with that. A few minutes later Konstantin called to me. I replied; I thought he was worried because of the slick snow and steep dropoffs surrounding our bivy. He then called again "We have to go down."
I thought he still meant that we should go to sleep, and I was wondering why he was ordering me what to do! I know there would be a big day ahead, but at 3pm I felt like I didn't need to go to sleep quite yet. But I returned to the tent and realized he meant something very different than going to sleep. The game was about to change.
Konstantin had his boots off and was pointing to his feet. Frostbite, he said. Having never had frostbite, I can't say they looked dramatically different from normal. A little red, a bit unhealthy looking, but I wouldn't know frostbite. He did, because he'd had it before. We had to go down. We were rapping the route after all. However just then the perfect weather ended and we were entirely enveloped in a cloud. Visibility became minimal. We were going to have to descend blind.
The rappels went well but following the route once off of the Rib was difficult. At one point I saw a gigantic crevasse just ahead; since visibility was so bad I suggested we stop. Then, once we could see a little better, I proceeded. I asked him to put me on belay; he did a hip belay as I proceeded towards the chasm. Slipping in, with only ice axe on solid ground, I called back if he really had me good. Apparently he did, but having hands the only thing holding me out of an abyss is a little discomforting. We got over the beast, and kept making our way down through the whiteout.
Then we heard voices. Since we were the only one on the route, this was a bit surreal. We waited, and then saw Colin Haley and his partner Nils Nielsen returning from simul-soloing the Cassin ridge. They had tried to set a speed record but bailed at the third rock band because of gnar conditions. They then traversed the hanging glacier and descended our tracks down the Rib. See their TR here.
By 7pm we were back in 14k camp, and Mark Westman, the climbing ranger, was checking out Konstantin's toes. He suggested we get down asap and gave K a big dose of Ibuprofin.
We loaded up the sled (we'd gotten a lot of food and fuel from others so were going down with more than we came up with, making it the bane of our existence) and made it down to 11k camp by 11pm. At this point K solicited the advice of another doctor who seemed to not think it was as big of a rush to get down. We overnighted at 11k. His toes blackened overnight.
That evening we descended in stormy conditions to the lower glacier where things really started to get gnar. Unlike most of the huge Alaskan glaciers, the Kahiltna is only 1000 feet deep. Combined with the warm conditions and strange winter, this meant the glacier was the worst in the last 8 years (according to Haley) and possibly the worst ever (according to the ranger). Crevasses ran perpendicular to each other- and every other possible directions- on a flat glacier!
I couldn't read that glacier at all; it was the most heinous conditions and the most harrowing glacier crossing I had ever made. There had been 50 crevasse falls on the Kahiltna in the last week; I added #51 ( a really minor one); some yahoo coming the other way saw me fall, and even after I showed him exactly where to step he fell in the same place, making it #52. One other guided guy took a 30 footer (?!) not far from us. It was a minefield, even in the cold of night.
Once down at basecamp, the epic continued: a storm delayed our departure a full day, while we were met with invectives from the insane base camp ranger about fining us if we were to leave our cache marker on the glacier (I guess spitting tons of tobacco isn't trashing the glacier by his standards but the possibility that we might leave something biodegradable was worth a ten minute lecture). We also got to talk lots with Colin Haley who said Kukuczka and Buehl (not Messner), and Prezelj (not Humar) were the climbers to emulate.
Eventually the weather cleared and we flew off the glacier (no special treatment due to Konstantin's frostbite; the group in the plane with us also had 2 frostbitten climbers). Back in Talkeetna, there was a group of skiers who had just filmed a national geographic film about descending Denali. One of them seemed especially interested in looking at Konstantin's frostbite. This same climber returned and was trying to give his piss bottle to a guy who was about to leave for the mountain. The climber was kind of weirded out; it was a very awkward scenario; I broke the awkwardness by saying I'd take it. He handed it and said "now you can say you have Conrad Anker's pee bottle."
"You got this from Conrad Anker?" I asked "I'm Conrad Anker," he replied. "Wow, you look stronger in the pictures," I said. "Nope, I'm a skinny guy, like you," he said. True story. He subsequently said that he indeed thought that Everest's second step without the ladder was 5.10 OW, and that while it was a nice thought, it was almost impossible that Mallory (and Irvine) summited.
From Talkeetna, we got the shuttle to Anchorage with Colin Haley and Nils, with Colin telling us about the essential faces and peaks (Latok I, Rakaposhi) in the world, as well as his upcoming alpine style attempt on Ogre II.
Back in San Diego, Konstantin elicited the help of a doctor, who was also a Sierra climber, to try to keep his toe. If he does, we can get out there and embrace the gnar again soon.