Climbing Denali/ McKinley 9-23 June, la Expedition

The highest mountain in North America with a summit elevation of 20,320 feet/ 6,186m, Denali or Mt McKinley in Alaska was going to be my highest mountain of the 7 summits. It is the third most prominent peak after Everest and Aconcagua (lowest point to summit) from the Kahiltna Base Camp it’s 13,000 vertical feet and 18 miles to the summit. Denali, as the indigenous people named it, means ‘the high one’ or ‘the great one’. Even the Russians named it ‘big’ while they owned Alaska. In 1896 a gold prospector named it McKinley after president William McKinley.

Most of my teammates on Vinson had climbed Denali, many said they found it harder than Everest. Some of the reasons why Denali is so brutal:

- extreme weather

- high altitude

- crevasses

- heavy load carrying

Our team was due to leave for Base Camp on Tuesday the 9th but due to snowing and clouds at BC didn’t get out of Talkeetna until Thursday evening. We didn’t expect to fly out that day; it was raining heavily when we were loading the two small otter planes. Despite being two days behind schedule already and having read about the low summit rates and unsuccessful teams we were still very keen to get going! I could write a novel about what happened next but here are some extracts from from my trip notes. .

"Monday 15 June, 7.44pm, 11,000’, Day 5 on the mountain

Finally at Base Camp Friday evening! After landing we established our camp site (although we only stayed for the night) and had dinner in the mid tent. Felt like a kid when I crawled into my sleeping bag! We didn’t leave till 10am in the morning; backpack full, sled full, snowshoes on and left for Camp 1 at 7,800ft.

(building camp at Camp 1, 7,800ft)

(view of Mt. McKinley from our cosy tent at Camp 1)

Saturday was ‘carry’ day, which meant we took half of our gear (group gear, food, personal lunch and high altitude clothes) to just below 11,000ft camp. You have to negotiate Ski Hill first, which looks intimidating from Camp 1. These are HOT glacier travel days and what I noticed is that our team (6 climbers + 2 guides in 2 rope teams of 4) somehow doesn’t like to be left behind and our guides have the urge to catch up with other teams on the mountain. As much fun as it sounds, I don’t want to burn out during the first couple of days…

We moved up to 11,000’ camp on Sunday passing our cashed gear marching up the mountain in our snowshoes. When I removed my boots I found the biggest and nastiest looking blood blister I’ve seen (new boots plus snowshoes without risers!) Not good but didn’t panic.

Had it popped this morning and swapped snowshoes with the main guide so picking up cache and hiking back up the hill to Camp 2 felt like walking on soft cushions! ☺"

(snack break)

(the ugly beast popped and treated)

Tuesday – carry and cache at 13,500’

(snack break around Windy Corner)

Wednesday – move to 14,200’

(drying socks and gloves.. learnt my lesson after Vinson not to dry socks on my bear tummy.. things can get stinky..)

"Thursday 18 June, 6.35pm, 14,200’, Day 8 on the mountain (or is it?!)

We had a relatively easy day today; a two hour round trip first thing in the morning to collect cache we left below two days ago. After the yammy egg& bacon breakfast I decided it was time to go for a walk on my own. This is the only camp site where you can walk around and meet people from other teams without the danger of falling into a crevasse. Headed up to the rangers quarter where they update the weather board and had a quick chat with one of the guys working there. Superb feeling walking around freely without being roped to someone!

(weather board at the entrance of the rangers' tent)

The other reason I wanted to get away from our tents was because almost all my teammates had mobiles with them and believe or not, at 14,200 feet they had phone signal! We were asked not to bring our mobiles but seemingly I was the only one who read that section of the notes. It’s not a big deal of course, but when you’re on an expedition the last thing you want to hear is your teammate chatting to their family/

girlfriend/ wife... it takes away the whole beauty of ‘wilderness expedition’ and it is hugely distractive.

I love it at 14 camp though. The views are just breathtaking; I can see Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker in the distance. Sometimes they have clouds wrapped around them other times you can admire both mountains glowing and alive in dawn. It’s white everywhere except where it’s shiny light blue, a sign for open crevasse, and the sky changes every second. Photographer’s paradise! Until of course you turn around and look at Motorcycle Hill and the fixed line section where climbers are a size of a dot. We’re going up there tomorrow to carry so an early night is a must.

(Foraker from my tent at 14camp)

(Foraker in the middle of the "night".. I knew it was worth getting out of the tent for a pee)

(practising opening and closing the ascender with one thumb only on our day off)

Saturday 20 June, REST DAY at 14,200 Day 10 on the mountain I’m in my warm sleeping bag as I’m writing this, listening to music and the

watching the snow building up on our tent walls.. Despite the good and positive weather forecast, the camp had a lot of snow yesterday and scary looking low clouds moved in. In three words, total white out.

(Foraker was playing hide and seek today!)

Carried to 16,200’ yesterday starting on Motorcycle Hill followed by some juicy 45 degree walls. As always, we were marching up after other teams as if it was a competition. The cold didn’t help either, had to put my mitts on during the first break (well, I spent the entire 5 minute break trying to peel off my fleece gloves and force my numb hands into the mittens) and kept them on until the sun hit the bottom of the fixed lines where we stopped again to put our helmet on. As soon as I attached my ascender to the fixed line, I was in my element again!

(some of the group gear)

(bottom of the fixed lines)

(back at 14,200' camp I asked one of my tent mates to join me for a photoshoot)

Glad we’re having a “day off” today, needed. The weather is not ideal but not bad enough to stop us so fingers crossed we’ll move tomorrow. The plan is to pick up our cache on the way and carry everything up to the last camp also known as the high camp at 17,200. From there, it’s a return ticket to the top!"

© copyright 2021 by Alexandra Nemeth