Denali, Day 10: Summit attempt

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Monday, May 18

Day 1 Travel to Talkeetna, AK
Day 2 Fly to Base on glacier, ski to 7700'
Day 3 Tent bound
Day 4 7700 to 9450'
Day 5 Place cache at 11,200'
Day 6 Move to 11,200'
Day 7 Place cache at 13,500'
Day 8 Move to Genet basin, 14.000'
Day 9 Back-carry cache to 14,000'
Day 10 Summit attempt
Day 11 Return to Base
Day 12 Fly out

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

Stats:

  • Summit push, 2.5 miles, 3000', 5 1/2 hours
  • Camp at 14,000'

Plan was:

  • Rest day, acclimatize

Unfortunately, in following the weather patterns (a major factor in successfully summitting this mountain) we were a couple days off. We had pushed hard lower on the mountain, doing single carries with too much gear. When we got to Genet Basin, we were tired, worn out, and we did not have the time at altitude to head up. We knew we hadn't been in 14k camp long enough to properly acclimatize, but we also knew the weather window was about to close.

We had agreed that if we weren't fast enough (17k camp in 5 hours), we would call this an acclimatization hike and hope for another weather window.

Airport
So we got up early, leaving camp right at 7am. I wasn't expecting us to get under way on time, so this was a good omen. Plus, with our early start there was no one in front of us as we headed up the headwall. And it was warmer (well, sort of)- with no sun yet, it was about minus 10°.
Lunch stop looking toward MackayTom Lopez photo

Between the cold, the packs (we were carrying emergency gear including stove, pot, and we each had our personal pad and sleeping bag), and the altitude, we were not moving very quickly.

Plus, it's about 2000' to the top of the fixed lines. And it's steep.

Here Tom has just reached the fixed lines.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

Although my finger is apparently in the way (very professional!) you can still see Bro crossing the bergschrund. As you stepped across the lip, you had to put your foot on a little snow appendage hanging out over about a 60 foot drop into the abyss.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay
In thick gloves, we were a little clumsy with our ascenders But we were at the top of the headwall by about 9:45. That's Tommy working up the final section.
Lunch stop looking toward MackayTom Lopez photo

We had discussed the times with a group who had summitted from 14k two days previous. To match their 16-hour schedule, we had to be at 17k camp at 11am.

We were together and happy, but behind schedule, running slow.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

Nothing to do but keep on it.

Here we start up the West Buttress proper, with Tom leading. This is where this route really gets cool.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

Although the buttress is not really technical, it is plenty steep and exposed.

Right in here, Tommy declared that his achilles problem was too much, and he was ready to go down.

After some discussion, he agreed to go past Washburn's Thumb, just enough to get over the major obstacles to flatter terrain and see how it felt.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

The large rock on the left is Washburn's Thumb.

There is a fixed line to get around it. If you click for the bigger version, you can see the line, and you can also see a person standing farther down the ridge. For a ridge-lover like myself, this was awesome terrain.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

Tommy's achilles tendon had had enough. Plus, we were way late (it was already 12:30).

Although it was a comfortable 22°, I still didn't like the weather. Looking to the north, this lenticular was forming. Tom didn't think it was a big deal, but it scared me. (Later in the day it would fade, so Tom was right).

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

The pink line shows the traverse we needed to make to get to 17k camp: we were close.

The green line shows the traverse to Denali Pass at 18000'. The little circle shows some people who were on the traverse at the time.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

This is the view back down to 14k camp in Genet Basin.

Behind that in the background, that's the Kahiltna, approximately 10,000' lower than our stance.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

It was blowing a steady 35, which was tolerable. But with just a little more wind, this narrow ridge-crest can become impassable.

Time to turn around.

We had a little to eat and drink, and added some clothing for the descent.

Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

We were again a little slow and uncoordinated on the fixed lines on the descent. Even as we slowly worked our way down, other were heading up. But we were still having fun.

We got back to 14k camp at 3:30pm.

Note that a solo climber who tried to go from 14k the following day is still missing.

Lunch stop looking toward MackayTom Platt photo
We sat down and discussed our options. Tommy was done; his achilles hurt, he was thinking about family and work, and he wanted to go down. Tom wanted to give it another go. Bro felt like it had already been the trip of a lifetime; he'd seen, learned, and done, gone way above his previous altitude record, and didn't feel the need to summit. I was undecided, knowing the summit was close but also not thrilled with hanging out in the crowded camp for a week (there are over 400 climbers on the mountain now)- and perhaps still not getting another chance at the summit. I felt strong, but also very tired. We agreed to wait for the 8pm weather to truly decide. Lunch stop looking toward Mackay

The report said the next two days would have extreme winds (50+ mph) up high, followed by several days of snow. So with that prediction we knew that we had at least five days in camp ahead of us without an attempt, then maybe a weather window. But maybe not--- they don't predict out that far.

A decision like this is a difficult thing, and I suspect that each of us would explain the decision differently. I don't want to put words in someone's mouth, nor point fingers. On a different day or a different time we might have done differently. We thought about splitting the group to make another attempt, but wanted to keep together both for personal and logistic and safety reasons. There were other considerations as well, and making such a decision is one of the joys and perils of a group expedition like this.

In the end, and with some regrets and misgivings, we decided to stay together and go down tomorrow.

Note: On our return, we found that an AAI group on this day had to turn around at 19,500' due to high winds.

 

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