Sloshing up Mt. Stimson

Splash. The sole of the ski boot connected with slippery Pinchot Creek bottom, and for a minute, it seemed like the plastic shell might keep the creek from soaking my liners–the liners that might freeze solid that night in the tent. The liners we’d need to ski. The liners that still had miles to skin before we could make camp. Reaching the snow, I clicked back in, started skinning to catch up with Clay, and felt the squoosh of water that was now a part of every stride winding through the underbrush and up the valley. We’d skin for a while; the creek would cut us off. We’d shoulder our skis and wade in. And each time, I thought that some part of us might never recover from this trip.

Our reasons seemed pretty clear: Mt. Stimson is a truly worthy climb or ski in any season. It dominates the skyline of the southern portion of Glacier. During our climb/ski of nearby Blackfoot Mountain last year, the clouds parted and Clay asked reverently, “What’s that monster over there?”

Further, its southwest face occupies the only NW Montana entry in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, a coffee table book that occupied our living room in Whitefish and occupies my dreams on the regular.

Countering that occupation, Stimson has a reputation for being very tall, which it is, and very hard to get to, which it also fulfills. With a summit just over 10,000ft, it rises nearly 7,000ft above the trailhead on Highway 2. Summer approaches via established trail can range to twenty miles. Being skiers, we figured that with good timing, we could use snow to skin over much of the legendary, vicious underbrush that makes the direct approach up Pinchot Creek so memorable. We’d still have to cross the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Coal Creek, and Pinchot Creek, but thrall to that gorgeous line, and our propensity to embark into suffering, we figured we could do it.

The day before, we got our backcountry permit, and took a quick trip north to scout the trip to the river. Post holing through isothermal nonsense over deadfall in light shoes, we noted that the river didn’t seem too wide upstream of the crossing. So we arrived around six am the next morning with a pack raft, a map, lots of rope, our skis, and some dim notion of what we were about to do.

Skinning over the crunchy postholiness of the day before, Clay dragging the raft behind him through trees, it took us a while to wander to the river. A steep embankment of mixed skinning and logs didn’t help.

But after skinning across the swamp, we found the river. And found that it was much, much wider at the ford than where we’d scouted. After a quick try, we realized that the 30m glacier line tied to a 75ft throw bag we’d brought to return the raft to the person waiting on the other side wouldn’t be enough. Clay ferried the gear across, making me the only piece of luggage necessary to make the other side.

Every piece of cord we had totaled seven different pieces plus two NRS Straps and a big stick. With only himself in the raft, and pulling the cord I tried to keep out of the water, Clay paddled for the far bank. Given that we were trying to cross perhaps 170ft of water, the rope dropped into the current, pulling into a large bow shape that kept Clay from getting quite to the other side. Our plan was that he’d bail out into the shallows, leave the paddle, and I’d pull it back. Instead, committed to his bail next to the steep bank, I held the stick and watched the boat flip. He went fully into the river, clinging to the paddle, and swam madly to shore. The current pulled the boat downstream, and as I dragged it back in with our makeshift line, the inflation sack from the raft floated on downstream with my hopes for the day.

That left me on the near shore, with my bear spray, camera, and a raft, but no paddle. Our plans were shot, but to even sort out our retreat, I had to take the raft across the river. Two paddle raft paddles were sitting in the back of Clay’s rig, so I spent an hour potholing up the softening snow to the railroad tracks, the car, and coming back down. Tying the two paddles together with prussik cord, I took my makeshift kayak paddle, went well upstream, and made it over to Clay.

Arriving on the other bank, I found him exceptionally fashionable in wet ski boots, dry boxers, and his down coat. Unlike the ski gear draped across the trees to dry in the 10am sun, his spirits weren’t drenched. The moment he went in, I’d written the trip off, and was already contemplating lunch at home. In our planning, we’d barely worried about the Middle Fork crossing that had taken us nearly four hours. But in the hour I’d been gone to grab the oars, he did “a little wallowing in self pity, then got dry gear on and started to think about it.” We were there, and it seemed right to go up and check things out since we’d already been through so much–in perhaps a half mile from the car.

Our predictions about patchy snow came true. Before clicking in after yet another section of walking up mud, I’d try to kick my boots in the snow to keep grit out of my tech fittings. The Coal Creek trail led us up the hill, and into some flats where we started to see the ridiculous country where we were headed.

For a while, the trail heads northwest before running up against the embankment of Coal Creek and turning south. Following directions from some friends, we went about a half mile past the junction. Our descent route involved perhaps the worst ravine out there, but we kept our skis, skins, and touring modes on our feet. Clay getting into it:

After that, it was time to cross Coal Creek itself. Clay’s soaked gear meant he wasn’t getting much wetter, so he charged in while I  stood in the snow, stripping off my boots and pants in a strange hope of keeping them dry.

Once on the other side, we took a minute to refill our water and think. Both of the major stream crossings were done, and we were that much more committed to a goal that was still a long, long way off. Thinking back, I don’t know when we decided that we’d commit to going in or coming back out. Some mutual stubbornness got us up, put our boots on, and lead us up the embankment and into the trees.

An old trail exists somewhere on the north side of Pinchot creek. Like many of the old  and unmaintained options in Glaicer, it’s probably overgrown and crumbling. Plus, it was probably under snow for a lot of our route. So our routefinding took us up the ridge to the south. Snow came and went, and after too many transitions, the grass and dirt skinning became natural.

Because we had skis, it could have been possible to go a long ways up the ridge, and then do a traverse back down into the valley floor to gain distance. But as we got higher up, the deadfall worsened. Skinning got extra difficult, and we spent an hour skin skiing and then booting down through isothermal patches of snow between logs to the creek bed, which looked more welcoming. In places, the ground was still frozen. This made for a preponderance of treacherous footing and swearing. So even though I was worried about my liners, the splooshing into the creek was actually quite an upgrade.

The time we spent zig zagging across the creek drifts out of memory. Between the bear keg and overnight stuff in a day pack and sore legs, I was loosing motivation. Clay, however, kept his spirits high, checked his watch, and kept us going upward.  Even though he started the day by falling into a cold river in his ski gear, here he was, keeping things chipper as I slowly sank into the swamps of my own frustration. I credit his optimism with the trip, and his leads through the creek bottom kept me with our mission.

Eventually, the creek narrows, goes into a canyon, and we detoured up onto the slopes below Eaglehead Mountain. By this, we gained quite a bit of elevation, got out of the bottom, and didn’t have any more creek crossings. For the first time, we could see the line we’d come all this way to attempt (direct center).

The clock wore on. Crossing some large avie paths was the easy part. Between, the contour line was constantly interrupted by brush and terrain. Stubbornness was the motivation to bash through, skis slipping on logs. We continued up to about 5200ft, and skinned into where we wanted to camp right around 7pm.

We’d been at it for thirteen hours, nine since leaving the Middle Fork. The morning promised 5000ft of gain after an early start. The line loomed above us as alpenglow colored the peaks. I ate my freeze dried macaroni with the satisfaction of someone who is wearing all their layers and about to get into a summer sleeping bag while snow camping.

My gamble had been that I’d go light, hopefully be warm enough in temps that were probably a good 10 degrees F colder than my sleeping bag rating. The night started pleasantly enough. But when we woke at 4am, I was starting cold. Lacking good insulated storage, we’d planned to melt drinking water in the morning. Then the stove went on the fritz after a few cups of hot, watery glory. There was plenty of fuel. It was primed. But it wouldn’t burn strongly, emitting a feeble flame that ate up an hour and a half before we each took about a liter and a half in disgust.

Our liners, which we’d tried to dry, and tucked in our bivys, were soaked and nearly frozen. Clomping around camp in socks and boot shells was more comfortable. And so we left, heading up the valley towards the saddle in the predawn not-dark-enough-we-wasted-so-much-time-on-that-damn-stove.

We fairly flew to the pass, aside from a few patches of steeper crust. In the light, angles were hard to guess at, and I slid back a couple times. Behind us, the peaks above the valley were gathering light. Our midwinter Middle Fork haunts stood up down the valley. I chewed a bar in silence, not quite thinking, and not taking it in really, but just witnessing. Perhaps that’s all I could do, and it felt right.

Eventually, the south face came into view above us, and the full task was at hand.

Looming really isn’t the right word. To get where we wanted to start skiing, we’d need to achieve the center high point. Given the blocky cliffs on both sides, the best route seemed to be up the right side, through the shadow line, and up. 10am was our goal for being on the summit, which would give us some leeway on the SW face that was not yet in the sun. . And so we pushed on, ski crampons biting into the glassy surface of refrozen sludge.

Rime ice covered the boulders, and the pitch steepened. So it was crampon time. Made so easy by the skis on our feet, our rapid progress seemed to halt as we kicked steps into variable, refrozen crust. It wasn’t beyond boot deep, but the exhaustion from the day before seemed to drag behind me, taunting with its weight.


Swinging leads, it seemed to go on for a long time. We were both feeling it, but the sense of how far we’d come grew with the visa below. Attached by my axe, whippet, and crampons, I reveled in the joyful but tenuous feeling of being a fly on a pretty big wall. Water from my liners gave every step a squoosh much more like the creek than the front point. Then, at a break, Clay nudged his pack, and the sunglasses and helmet atop it skittered past our feet down the boot pack. Without them, his red buff and black hair gave the impression that I’d just been following Rambo up the boot pack.

It got steep too.

So when I navigated around a rock, and found myself on the summit ridge, it was relief–cut short by the sight of what still sat between me and the top. It floated perhaps a quarter mile away, the broken rocks and cornices seeming like some castle wall jutting up into the sky.

The short walk to the summit is my favorite part of a climb. Cruxes are interesting, and route finding proves to be the worthy challenge, but the last few steps when you haven’t yet achieved what you’ve set out to do, but know that there’s now nothing that can stop you–that moment is an easy, quick one amongst more that are, by their nature, more complex. To get to that moment, we’d need to traverse over the blocks covered in rime ice, avoid cornices, and not fall off.

And it looked daunting. Our crampons were balling up nearly every step. Making the first, spidery moves across the unsupported snow fields meant pulling out the microscope: be right here, right now. This little slope. One movement at a time, with an idea of where to go that lasts about twenty feet. We moved a little, and I think Clay just had had enough.

“I’m good. Since I dropped my lid, there’s just no desire to keep moving there. I don’t care about skiing that other face, not without a helmet.”

He was right. Calling it there was a good move. Skiing our ascent line would be plenty interesting to ski. But in the time that we’d already made on the ridge, the fear had become manageable. I could move in this. And it was visible the whole way.

I said, “I think I’m good moving across this. You ok with that?”

He was, and I set off. Things got easier, then harder, and before I knew it, that last twenty feet came up, and the easy, successful feeling came out in a lonely little wolf howl.

A selection of shots from the summit:

Back across the summit ridge toward Clay:

Looking down the SW face:

Out the west ridge to the right:

South towards St. Nicholas and the Cloudcroft. Pichot is in the foreground.

North, over Nyack creek with Blackfoot and Jackson.

When we climb, we get to survey the world while it truly dwarfs us. Seething masses of geology and water, held in temporary forms until they erode away, giant waves becoming flattened by each particle of rock carried down a stream–they hold such easy ability to keep us humble, tiny, and permeated by wonder. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So moving back along the ridge, my water gone, kicking my feet into the places where I’d been before, I wandered out of the blank bliss of the summit and into the reality that, hey, we get to ski down this thing.

Clay in his perch.

Getting our gear on, and setting up, it registered that we were getting late–11am. Looking around for a wet slide that I heard coming down, I realized that it was on the skier’s right of the bowl we’d ascended. Clay dropped in, ski cut on the steeps, and after posting up we both watched his slough step down into small pockets and sludge its way out the bottom of the bowl.

Looking down from the perch. Clay is the speck on the right side, above the rocks.

Like the ascent, we took turns swinging into sheltered pockets and navigating the skier’s left. It was steep, nicely edgeable, and a whole hell of a lot of fun.


As we skied out the bottom, I spotted a dome shaped white thing next to the murder scene of some grouse that came to a rough end. It was the helmet that had skittered away. Rambo reclaimed his helmet. And we surfed down the old moraines, jumping off stuff and chortling all the way to camp.

As if it sensed our relief and the sun shining down, the stove worked fine back at camp. Water melted, we allowed a short nap to dry things out. Note the recycled avie debris used as a drying rack.

Descent came much more quickly. Our skin trail lead back down the valley through the nonsense of bushes we’d already crashed through once. Instead of zig zagging, the bench on the south side of Pichot Creek held snow for at least a half mile past where Peril Creek comes in. All good travel seems to end on this trip, usually in dirt or downfall or heavy shrubberies. So eventually, we fixed bayonets and once more waded into the creek.

Felt soles would be better. However, you can’t roll your ankle in ski boots. Or stub your toe.  And the liners, once soaked, work sort of like a wetsuit by insulating and warming the water around your skin. Each time the water comes over the top of the boot, it changes the warmer stuff around your foot. Which keeps things interesting.

In an attempt to avoid the deadfall doom of our descent into Pinchot Creek, we followed it a bit downstream. By and large, we missed the deadfall by going straight into a band of christmas trees packed onto the fringe of the burn like teenagers stageside at a boy band farewell concert. Swearing at them doesn’t really do much, so grabbing them by the throat and pulling yourself uphill makes for better uphill headway.

Our reward was a nice gap in the burn. Much easier walking afforded a better route to a newly swollen Coal Creek. Crossing involved a desperate skate across a large, flat boulder while waist deep in the current.

But by this point, we knew it could be over soon. So the manic energy of finishing the task coursed through our soggy, limp enthusiasm. I found myself chasing Clay down the trail over dirt patches as he plowed onward into the dusk that was coming down.

The Coal Creek trail goes right through the middle of this melt pond. It’s under about ten feet of water here, which will all go away later in the season. I know you’re looking at the trail.

Once arrived at the Middle Fork, we arranged gear, ferried, and got across by two manning the pack raft. I lay on the bow, my feet to each side of the cockpit, beard over the water like a tired figurehead in some bizarre aquatic comedy involving ski boots. Clay paddled us across, landing as it truly began to be dark.

It all got slower then. Around the swamp. Up the hill. Walking along the trail tracks, with Clay carrying the ricksack filled with raft on his front and all the ski stuff on his back. Eventually, our headlamps reflected in the headlights of the Suburban. Dry gear gave way to weariness, and the drive back in to Columbia Falls was a tired one.

So many words for only two days. So much difficulty. And both easily worth it, to see my estimation of my own abilities bested by the miles traversed and difficulties overcome. Thanks to Clay for his enthusiasm, skills, photos, and being badass enough to totally go in the river and decide to carry on.

Denali Fo’ Real: Part 2

And we’re back. If you’ve returned after that last massive missive, thanks. If you’re just wandering in, this is part two of three from my Denali adventure this spring. The third section, which will include our summit day and leaving the mountain, will be along shortly. I left off just as we arrived at 11,000ft camp.

All the prep and travel to get to the mountain had the effect of winding me up. Some of my buddies talk of getting “itchy” after extended stints of normal behavior; there was no question that I was raring to go by the time we set foot on the glacier. Excellent weather only made me want to take advantage in case we got cut off by an incoming storm.

Arriving at 11,000ft camp, I was stoked. Over the past few days we’d made serious progress on the mountain. Our team worked. We had what we needed. We’d made friends. The night of our arrival, we got our first gifts from an expedition lead by a climbing ranger: cheddar cheese, salsa, and reindeer sausage. Grant savored his meat treats while I threw restraint to the winds and clobbered the whole lot of cheese.

And it felt good. Many folks have asked what surprised me most about our trip, and I’ve pointed out that it went beyond my previous experience in many categories. The most winter camping. The heaviest loads and sleds. The greatest elevation gains. Altitudes above 12,000ft. The largest amounts of glacier travel. I guess there’s a certain amount of hope that one will cope well with all those difficulties—I certainly believed that we’d be up to them—but to have it actually happen is vindicating. Lying there in the tent at 11,000ft, it was undeniable that we’d be doing well.

Rest was the objective of our first day. We’d done 3200ft the day before, a grand of it with all our gear. The sun was well overhead and the frost on the tent had long since melted into water by the time I got up. For the first few days on the glacier, I’d refused to wear my noseguard. On one hand, it was pride, because there’s absolutely nothing even remotely cool about noseguards. On the other, it changed the fit on my glacier glasses so that light came in underneath them. I’d tried to be diligent with sunscreen instead, and had a bright red and aching schnozz to show for it. So to make up for my stupid pride, I did the sensible thing and covered the chapped skin in duct tape. It stayed on for two days and, while looking even less appealing than the noseguard, allowed it to heal somewhat. After that, the noseguard was on every day.

Right above camp is Motorcycle Hill, supposedly so named after the even steeper hills that see motorcycle hillclimb competitions. The good weather had many groups in the same state of excitement I was exhibiting, so we watched various ropeteams jockey for position, take different routes, and eventually all get stuck crossing a crevasse at the same point. Good spectating was had from camp, warm mugs of oatmeal in our hands and down booties on our feet. Later in the day we skinned up Motorcycle Hill and found the few pow turns to be had there.

Sometime after we got back from our ski, the Army boys rolled in and set up camp right next to us. They’d sit on our counter/bench, give us candy or poptarts, and tell stories that made me weep from laughing so hard. Guys that I’d probably never talk to elsewhere became friends to joke and struggle with. Just before we went to bed, the Swedes arrived, called us Cinderellas (I still am not sure why), and we helped them dig a cache.

The next day dawned the coldest yet. In the shadow, we packed up most of our food and gas, our really cold gear, and set off up Motorcycle Hill.

Slow and steady, we made our way up towards Windy Corner. When nasty, it’s common to see 60-100mph gusts cutting across the rock bands. For us, it was still and sunny. Going up the hill right before it, I thought I smelled white gas, which seemed strange given that there weren’t any camps nearby. A hundred feet before the top my ass started to burn, and the smell was getting stronger. Upon opening my pack, the fumes got worse and it became apparent that our lucky streak had ended.

Nearly everyone on Denali burns white gas as fuel in their cookstoves. Most of it is purchased from the air taxies, who stockpile it on the glacier and give it to you when you arrive at Kahiltna Base. Following the elevation, the two gallon cans in my pack had ascended nearly 13,000ft from where they’d been put on a plane in Talkeetna. Amongst everything we’d made happen, we hadn’t opened them to equalize the air pressure with elevation. That caused them to leak, and some bolts on the frame of my pack rubbed holes in the plastic of the garbage bag that contained them. Two and a half sticks of precious butter had been soaked. My pack reeked. The white gas had leaked onto the waterproof bottom, soaked through the seam into my hipbelt, and soaked into my pants. Which accounted for the burning sensation. Frustrated, I repacked everything and poured water on my pants to dilute the gas.

A guided group at Windy Corner.

Just shoveling out our cache at 13,500ft took our breath away.

After wanding it and clicking in, we made turns back to camp. 7.5 hours up, 15 minutes down. All fun and smiles.

Until I pulled out my avalanche beacon to turn it off. Safely back in camp, I realized that some hardware flapping on my harness must have struck the screen. With the crystal broken, I had no idea of the battery life, and the search mode was only auditory—no arrows or distances. It was the second setback.

Sound sleep usually follows big days, and this was no exception for me. I was out like a light, until awakened by what sounded like Grant hacking up his third lung for the evening. I must have dozed off. 5am, and I open my eyes to see Grant wide awake, reading. Not at all normal. He’d been up all night hacking, and while he explained this the coughing fits would interrupt him. Scrolling through both our heads were thoughts about HAPE—we were within  the elevation range, and Grant has a history of altitude sickness. Shortly behind those were thoughts that the whole expedition might be in jeopardy. We talked it through, reiterated our commitment to coming home safe before everything else, and changed our plan.

With good weather in the forecast and momentum behind us, the strategy was to head up to 14,200ft camp that day. Get past Windy Corner with our gear, acclimate, relax, and then push for the summit when the weather gave us a window. With only three days of food in camp, the supplies weren’t there to wait out whatever the cough or a storm might bring. I found a couple of guys we’d met the day before, Robert and Edward, and asked to rope in with them. I’d go up and grab food from the cache, come back, and in the mean time, Grant would try to call my uncle, a doctor, on a borrowed sat phone to see if we could get some expertise on the situation.

Throwing some bars in my jacket for breakfast, I hustled to get ready. Edward was about to leave the Air Force, and was prepping for a speed ascent. While I tied my prussiks on, he mentioned that Robert, a priest by occupation, had been hit by a truck at some point and suffered frontal lobe damage. I realized that I was tying in with two of the crazier people on the hill. We flew up the hill, and they fed me Snickers bars at 14,200 camp while I took it all in.

Robert leading below the Messner.

Gapers. Real gapers.

Another Foraker shot. I wonder if climbers over there constantly take pictures of Denali.

14,200ft camp feels like the epicenter. Above, the fixed lines trace up to a saddle at 16,200ft. Rescue Gully drops into cracked, icy aprons below 17,200ft camp. A few over, the Messner Couloir, Orient Express, and West Rib all drop nearly 5000ft from the Football Field that sits below the summit.

Fixed lines.

Messner is on the right.

From above, the camp itself looks like a town: a central sort of broad thoroughfare, with the sprawl of walled, tent subdivisions springing up around its periphery. Only 6000ft from the summit, it’s the first place that really feels within striking distance. Knowing that I had to descend, grab food from the cache, and potentially not make it back up that high if Grant took a turn for the worse made it bittersweet. Our lack of experience at altitude wasn’t helping us, so I asked a few friends already at 14,200 what they thought. The general consensus was that it was some sort of respiratory bug that came from the cold, dry air. Optimistically, I dropped in and enjoyed the skiing back to 11,000.

“Want a picture before you head out?”

Grant was doing much better when I returned. Coughing only occasionally and smiling, he’d been chatting with folks in camp and had come to the same conclusion—probably just the dry air getting to his lungs. The plan was to take another rest day, and head up to 14,200ft the day after. My brain was sporting an altitude headache, so I took a nap while he cooked dinner.

The offday saw us basically sedentary. I built a lounge chair of snow and read Moby Dick in the sun. During our training, I’d anticipated the fun of off days—just getting to hang out in the snow, no real goals for that day. Lazy style in the midst of a ton of activity.

The Swedes in their 11,000ft camp.

The next morning, it was back on. Feeling similar to our second carry day to 11,000ft, we kept up a good pace, took breaks, and made it into 14,200 camp in the evening.

“This, kids, is a rainshadow.”

Looking up to Windy Corner.

A few hundred yards out of 14,200ft camp.

We’d backcarry for the cache at 13,500ft the next day, but for the moment it was wonderful. Taking a spot in what we later learned to be an empty Alaska Mountain School camp, it was only a few hours before the Army boys joined us, pitched their tents, and the neighborhood resumed.

Prior tenants dug a massive amphitheater-style cook pit, so we all piled in to melt water and share the stoke of arriving.

My last trip up had been in different conditions, with the expedition hanging on how Grant would feel. To be there, have our stuff and friends, and stare out at alpenglow on Foraker while brushing my teeth—it’s another in a massive series of moments, each valuable enough on their own to be worth remembering for years, all compressed into a tight bundle that sparkles differently from each direction in which it’s viewed.

That was the first night I was cold. With morning temps around -15F, it was always a bit of motivation to get out of the sleeping bag. After, I started sleeping in my heavy long johns and Fitzroy. Which only added to the motivation issues. Perhaps the best qualifier for that couple minutes of hopping around in the vestibule and changing is the view. The trick seems to be a vista with a gravitational pull equal or greater to the contentment of staring at the tent ceiling, totally toasty. For those wondering, I took a Mountain Equipment Iceline down bag. 800ish fill power, rated to -12F (-25C). The next step of armament would have been a -40F bag, and that was overkill. With my clothes layers to amplify, it worked great.

As motivation to get our cache, Grant and I promised ourselves a pancake breakfast after we returned.

The Army boys grab their cache.

Our unqualified pancake disaster (eating mushy, half cooked doughballs) from a Stevens Pass trip was swiftly dispatched by expert-level non-stick pan handling.

Drying out our bags.

Later in the day, we did a little walk over to the Edge of the World, a spot with a view off the glacial bench that 14,200 occupies. It looks some 6,000ft down into the NE Fork of the Kahiltna, the distance that I earlier showed an avalanche sliding down.

If we’d hauled it this far, might as well enjoy a nip.

Colton and Troy from the Army came with us, and when we returned, the Swedes had arrived to fill out the neighbors.

Each evening, folks at the Airstrip would relay the weather forecast at 8pm via the little handheld radios. Everything seemed to stop for a couple minutes while the decisions for the next couple days were determined by what the little voice would say. 14,200 camp was different in that the NPS camp posted a weatherboard, so it was easier to make plans if we’d missed the forecast or just plain couldn’t hear it. That second night at 14,200ft was a Tuesday. Weather was supposed to roll in during the weekend, and with it our summit bid time seemed to be closer. If it was Sunday, we could swing it: cache Weds, rest Thurs, move to 17,200ft on Friday, summit Sat, head down Sun. If it held. Any sooner and we’d be interrupted, on the hill longer, and possibly running out of belly fire to get the thing done.

Shadow crossing into camp for the evening.

Foraker, 2AM. By Grant. I was asleep.

Following the plan, we headed out to cache the next day. Sleds aren’t much use above 14,200ft camp, so it was just our packs filled with food, skis strapped on the outside for the ride down. There’s no proper name for the headwall below the fixed lines, but it just gets steeper the higher you climb. An hour or so out, the fog came in. We watched a group of injured climbers make their way off the ropes with assistance from the NPS folks. After, we walked over, clipped our ascenders on, and started up. Having seen the lines from below, it’s obvious that you’re exposed to falling and crevasses below. Rockfall from above. Though in the fog, it consisted of cuplike steps in the ice.

Stops to clip around the pickets anchoring the lines in. More of a slog than an awareness of the place; a huge mountain rendered down to the little circle of visibility.

At the top of the lines, 16,200ft, it was intermittently clear. Clouds seemed to be cupped in the cirque above camp, pouring over into the Peters Glacier on through the notch. Grant realized he had cell reception.

Pile of rope and anchors when we stopped.

Then the real climbing began. Though there’s a plethora of pre-placed running protection into which to clip your rope, a fall would certainly be a bad choice. The Peters Glacier lurks somewhere down to the left, and on the right, clouds obscured the rock face crowning the ice down to 14,200ft camp.

Somebody who didn’t quite fit into the kindness of the mountain theme had pulled all the biners from the running protection. Leading meant piling most of our spare biners together, clipping them in one by one, and Grant would pull them as the rope fed up to his harness. Slow progress. Though at least it’s steep, with rocks peeking out or actually in the way. After all the glacier slogging it felt like we’d finally found a mountain.

By the time we hit the base of the Washburn Thumb at around 16,800ft, I was beat, woozy from the altitude, and wondering about how deep a cache I could dig. The hardest part proved to be finding a spot on the ledge that wasn’t already colored with urine.

Descent proved easier than I’d thought.

Grant exits the fixed lines.

Getting to the bottom of the fixed lines, we switched into skis and partied through six inches of dust on ice. Somewhere, I slashed to throw up a bit of snow. Flakes filled my glacier glasses, rendering the rest of my ski somewhat blind. I chortled and yelled my way into camp, thinking that I wasn’t any crazier than any of these other people. It was comforting.

Rest day pile in the tent.

The next day, we rested. Sort of. Grant managed to get through Game of Thrones and guarded the tent from unoccupancy. I read, then got itchy and went sledding in my camp booties with one of the Swedes. We picked up a pile of food from some Quebecians and a guided group on their way down, so I got to surprise Grant with a large package of Pop-Tarts and some peanut butter cups. Gio, one of the Army boys from SoCal, grabbed some bags of bagels. The XKG was converted into a toaster, and the food party was off to a great start.

Grant cooked up freeze dried potatos O’brien at 3pm. The Swedes had long since divided themselves into a cook and a dishwasher, and the cook brought over a cheesecake he’d made over the stove.

Krill with his cheesecake.

No idea how that worked. Delicious. We probably drank some whiskey too, though I don’t see that in my notes.

The night before, I’d seen a couple of guys ski below us as we descended from the lines. After wandering over to their camp it became apparent that I’d finally found the other Montanans on the mountain. Kurt and Craig proved to be suitably badass, having made their summit a few days prior. They were hanging around and hoping to get up into the Orient Express. Late in the “rest” day and somewhere in the middle of our food party, I met up with them and we skinned up to the bottom of the fixed lines to make three more tracks in the fresh snow.

Skis and the fixed lines–a match made in heaven.

And Grant.

The food party was prep for what now feels like the hardest day on the mountain. Per usual, it took us forever to get out of camp. Our packs were heavy, only to get heavier when we picked up the cache at 17,000ft camp.

Instead of stashing our skis, we carried them up the lines. While Grant chatted with his girlfriend at the notch, I talked to a couple guys heading down, and realized we both know Ryan, one of the guys at ON3P in Portland. Heading up, we grabbed our cache, and promptly got involved in a tangle of folks on the fixed lines going around the Thumb.

The Army guys were just above it.

For the rest of the walk to 17,200ft  camp we followed them over narrow spines and rocky moves with the heaviest pack I’d yet carried. The scenery was worth it, and as we walked around a shoulder to see camp, Denali Pass and the Thunderbird Couloir popped into view.

17,200ft camp.

Me walking over to the edge. I think that’s a hair on the lens of Grant’s camera.

Looking back at the ascent route–it goes right up the top of this ridge.

Best of all, we’d cleared the clouds. With nothing taller to block the sunset, the rays kicked down until almost 1am.

The Thunderbird Couloir sits in the middle of this black rock face. So tantalizing. Denali Pass in the center of the photo.

Autobahn, and the way up.

We made camp, scattering our gear in a somewhat organized way. I gaped at Foraker for about the hundredth time. After staying away all trip, I took some Diamox to help acclimate. Dinner was macaroni and cheese. We were beat, tired, spent, and we fell asleep knowing that in the morning, we’d try to ski off the summit.

Part three, which will include our summit day and leaving the mountain, will be coming very shortly. Thanks for stopping by.

Denali Fo’ Real: Part 1

Sorry about the delay. One of my hopes for this blog is that it goes a bit deeper than just soundbites, so the writing takes time.   In order to do this justice, I’m breaking the story up into three pieces. Thanks for waiting. Hope it’s not a boring tower of text. Here’s the first installment.

Midnight was my cut off. Around me, friends about to graduate college or leave for the summer danced or discussed their way through the second round of G and Ts. Many had finished their last assignments for the semester, and were looking forward to a few more drinks, a sleep in, late breakfast. Earlier in the week I’d picked up a cold from my sister, so I’d been napping and Dayquiling my way through that last seventy two hours. Hard to say how gin works on a stuffy nose, but I was tired. Time to leave. As I said goodbyes, a few told me to stay. I repeated the same thing I’d been saying all night—“Sorry. We fly north to Denali tomorrow.”

Since the schedule of my own college years, I can’t remember a date that I knew so far in advance. “We fly north on May 17th.” I’d said it a couple hundred times. Each was a moment to mentally check how many weeks, then days to gather gear and get those last few things. As I left the party and woke the next day on a couch, it felt like noticing that oil change sticker in my windshield matched the odometer. The trip, which only two weeks prior had been only thoughts, was palpable. Getting more real by the minute.

Grant and I met up at his place in Mill Creek to assemble our stuff. From here until the ski plane hit the glacier, we’d be at the mercy of all our stuff. Pickets, macaroni, skis, Lil’ Jon; everything to survive in a cold tent for a month.  Here’s most of it spread out across Grant’s living room.


Thanks to Grant’s plane travel regimen, we were both able to bring two checked bags for free. Given Alaskan food prices, it seemed better to bring more north since we had the space. That meant three checked bags apiece, carrying our slimmed-down packs on the plane, and ski boots stuffed with waterbottles as a “personal item.”

After some last minute shopping for lunch and snacks (Fred Meyer) and radios (REI), we rolled into the airport with three hours to spare. Grant walked off to get a cart. He came back. “They’re five bucks.” We thought about it for a bit, and did the math. “Six checked bags. A few at 50 lbs, a few others that were less.” I gave in to not schlepping the nearly 300lbs to the terminal, disregarding the fact that we’d be pulling most of it up the mountain. “I’m getting one.”

My sister and buddy Mark (who graciously drove my car back to Tacoma) arrived with an extra expedition duffel. We said goodbyes, and piled our flotilla of nonsense onto the stupid cart. Everything went smoothly through security. Boarding the plane, it occurred to me that we were literally flying to Alaska. More and more real.

Clouds obscured most of the trip north.  Grant sat by the window, and though I usually sleep on planes, it didn’t happen. We landed in snowflakes, the glow of the latest light I’d ever witnessed still lighting the tarmac.

All our luggage arrived on the carousel, and thankfully the ski bag stuck out the Oversize window. Piled outside on the curb, it was impossible to miss that we were another couple of climbers in a grand tradition of arriving in Anchorage. Just inside the door, a couple of sleep deprived guys stood next to a giant pile of expedition bags on a cart. After introducing myself, I promptly forgot their names until they camped behind us on the Kahiltna. They’d been traveling 26 hours from Sweden, and both had the name of Kristian (which also led to some confusion at first). As I thought, it turned out they were headed for Denali too. West Buttress. I tried to make jokes, and though I initially thought they were a little awkward, it was probably just that they hadn’t slept.

A month or so before, I’d arranged with my friend Sarah to give us a ride to Talkeetna. She rolled in with her boyfriend Wes, and I was thankful they drive a Landcruiser for two reasons. One, we had a lot of stuff, so much so that the ski bag got strapped to the roof. Two, it was snowing. After a quick grocery stop for a few more things and whiskey, we hit the road north amid flurries. A slushy road and somewhat stumpy trees (cottonwoods) were my first experience of Alaska. We scouted for moose and talked about the old legends of the PNW freestyle ski scene as the flakes came down.

Rolling into Talkeetna at 2:30am, I realized that it might be a problem finding Talkeetna Air Taxi and our place to sleep. It was the only time I used my headlamp all trip, despite carrying it all the way to the summit—habits die hard. Eventually, some guy walking his dog (who walks their dog at that hour?) pointed us toward the Pavilion. The snow had at least six expeditions backed up before we’d fly, and that meant the bunkhouse was full too. On the phone, they’d mentioned “it’s not heated, but it’s dry.” I replied that we were prepared for the cold. After unloading our gear, Sarah and Wes took off. Huge thanks to them for the ride up, especially in the dark and snow through those moose infested swamplands.

I’d guess it got light at 4am. After a magnificent introduction to The Roadhouse’s breakfast, we spent the day getting oriented, our gear repacked, weighed, and ready to fly. Our NPS orientation, mandatory for all parties on Foraker and Denali, was a great help. Many last minute questions were solved, and the climbing rangers were all very friendly. By noon, it’d cleared out and planes roared off the airstrip all afternoon. We took a trip to the AMS shop, and concluded that you could probably outfit an entire expedition there. Really great selection of last minute knickknacks (wet wipes, noseguards, slings), so I’d recommend a stop there. As we left, Grant expressed how we were both feeling: “No more buying things. We’re done.”

Talkeetna itself is a really interesting mix. Without the proximity to Denali, it might just be another group of Alaskan locals (typically burly men with large beards operating power tools while wearing rubber boots) who cater to tourists from cruise ships. Instead, an international cast of climbers awaiting their trips or looking for real food post-freezedried mingle in. Julbos are actually in fashion, and after a little while, I stopped doing double takes when I saw people wandering around town in 8000 meter boots. To their credit, the locals made every effort to make us feel welcome.

After a ramen dinner, we wandered over to the river. Standing on the accumulated ice on the edge, we watched icebergs head downstream. Looking to the northwest, I freaked out.
“Oh god. Look at that thing.”
Grant: “What? Those spikey mountains below the clouds?”
“No. Look above the clouds.”

As a first real glimpse of our objective, it was pretty stunning. Denali doesn’t stand. It towers in the skyline. The layers of mountains and cloud beneath it make the vista pretty impressive. Given that Talkeetna is at 360 ft, we were looking up nearly 20,000ft to the summit. That’s a larger altitude discrepancy than anywhere else on land on Earth. I walked back into town feeling a little daunted, and promptly bought a KitKat.

I’ll take a quick moment to note that Grant’s camera, much like everything we owned by the end of the trip, seems to have been covered in hair. Including the lens. So if you’re wondering why some of the shots have weird thingys on them, there you go.

At 8:30 the next morning, TAT sent a van over to the bunkhouse (which we’d moved into), and we loaded up. Wandering around the airstrip in our ski boots, dressed for the glacier, we loaded our gear into a Beaver and took some pictures. In retrospect, it’s funny that the airplane’s colors matched our toilet for the next few weeks.

Despite living in Mill Creek, right under the flight path of nearly every aircraft that flies into or out of Boeing, Grant had never been up front in a small plane. He won the rock/paper/scissors, which seems just. The flight confirmed my swampy suspicions. In every direction from Talkeetna, there were frozen rivers through frozen swamps under leafless trees. So Alaska was nothing but swamp.

Then we turned west, and I had to amend that—Alaska is nothing but mountains. Approaching the Alaska range, they start small and get big. Really big.

We banked through Singleshot Pass and over the Kahiltna. One long sweeping right, and we were on the glacier.

Our plane on the runway.

There’s enough of a hustle when you land that it takes a few minutes to hit you. Moving bags off the runway, dropping off a registration card with the base camp manager, moving gear up the hill to a campsite.

But when that spare moment hit, and I got a chance to look around, wow. BIG. Everything is big. Huge, unnamed glaciers hanging off the mountains. Foraker across the way. Hunter directly on the eastern flank of camp. Mt. Frances to the north, and Denali visible through a pass. All around, tents of folks coming or going to the Buttress or other wild destinations that may or may not have ever been climbed before.

On that note, Mountain Equipment athlete and all around badass Jens Holstein was right nearby during our time on the mountain. Though I didn’t know it and didn’t meet him there, they put up a first ascent which makes the Buttress look like child’s play. Check out his report to see how real men climb mountains.

I guess I expected some sort of giant revelation when we landed on the glacier. Of all the steps, it seemed the biggest, and perhaps the realest in our planning. When my moment of clarity didn’t quite show up, it was nice to know that we’d been thinking and buying for months. After a full run-through of gear, we’d only forgotten a couple things:
-A whisk broom for sweeping frost out of the tent. Moisture from our breath would condense and freeze to the tent walls. This made getting out of my bag that much harder, as no matter what you do, you’ll touch a wall or the zipper and get snowed on. When sun hit the tent, it would melt the frost, meaning the whole thing would be wet. Instead of the broom, I just used my mittens, and got very good at sweeping with them.
-Dish soap. It’s amazing what snow and hot water will do, but sometimes cheese just doesn’t come off for a few meals if you don’t have soap. With minimal flatware, it can mean the water tastes like tea or oatmeal.

As we arrived, at about 10:30 or so, many groups were packing up to leave. The general theory about traveling the lower Kahiltna is to do it at night. This means the glacier will be colder, more frozen, and less likely to drop one through the many trapdoors atop its crevasses. Before June, it’s less of a concern, but mid-day still isn’t ideal. Plus, we had plenty to do.

There’s as many crazy contraptions for hauling as there are theories about sleds. Stiff poles, rope rigging, jet packs, catapults for all I know. If you bring your own, maybe it’s more fun. For us, like most of the groups we saw, the ones provided by the air taxis at base camp worked just fine. They’re just kids sleds, and since we arrived after a bunch of other parties immediately following the poor weather, the pile of plastic looked a bit beat up. From its bowels we pulled two magnificent steeds of orange toughness, one already christened “Swamp Donkey.” Grant took that one, and I titled mine “Da Oprah Whin-free” with a Sharpie. Using a bit of 6mm cord, we made attachment points and haul systems. Some folks suggest bungies, but given how many times the cords got wet and then froze, I’d hesitate to use rubber strapping. Trucker hitches worked great. I also made sled brakes out of webbing with a couple knots, and we didn’t use them until the descent.

Denali with the Swedes’ tent in the foreground.

I reorganized gear and food while Grant dug our basecamp cache. After we’d done our chores, a hill we’d seen from the airplane called our names. Going up the fork of the Kahiltna, we skied our first pow of the trip.

The temperature was quite pleasant in direct sun, but as the shadow of Mt. Frances crawled over camp in the evening, it dropped. All around camp, down would appear on everyone outside. This held true through the whole trip—the shadow meant less going on, more going to bed. To be frank, we were a little cold. Washington had downright balmy, and wandering into winter came chilly. Not unwelcome though. And after a few days I noticed my body functioning more like it does in the winter—overall running warmer. Temps that required a puffy at basecamp needed less higher on the mountain.

The next morning, we blasted off. After being sick in Washington and all the transit days, I was itchy to move up the hill. Plus, the weather was just as sunny as the day before. We’d been gifted, and I wanted to take advantage. It’s actually downhill out of basecamp, an incline named Heartbreak Hill because of the emotions it inspires while returning. It’s the first test of any ropeteam’s sled system. Ours proved to be no less squirrelly then other folks. Roped up, I lead down the hill sans skins, belaying my sled in front of my skis by its haul ropes. Grant followed in the same fashion, but keeping rope tension proved pretty hard. Each undulation of the hill would cause something to go askew, so though it was downhill, it proved to be our first test of patience with the stop and go that is glacier travel.

Once at the bottom, and on the Kahiltna proper, it’s a fourish mile mostly flat slog to 7,800ft camp. We were some of the first folks out of camp, the glacier was solid, and despite the 70 lbs in our packs and 80 lbs or so in the sleds, we made good time.

Looking ahead to Ski Hill. 7,800ft camp is right at the base.

Some folks use the Camp I, Camp II thing, but since every expedition seems to take a different approach, I’ll call them by their elevation in feet. Sorry to the meters folks.
7,800ft camp sits right at the base of Ski Hill, a very apt name. In our case, it should have been Straightline Hill, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Camp etiquette on the hill dictates that once a party leaves their campsite, it’s up for grabs. We snagged a particularly snazzy spot complete with a nice wall and a great cook pit/CMC usage area. Reusing pee holes keeps things more sanitary and picturesque, so that fact that we were parked right next to one you could practically fall into was even better.

I should take a minute to talk about the CMC. The best picture is the one where I’m holding it with the plane earlier in this post. Government shorthand for Clean Mountain Can (and who knows what people have come up with; we used Canadian Mountain Can every once in a while), the main theory behind this rotund little green cylinder seems to be that if you have a designated spot for everyone in the expedition to poop, it keeps things cleaner. Fitted with a screw on cap and its own harness, it was mountain ready.  During our orientation, we were issued the CMC along with ten biodegradable plastic bag liners. Once the liner fills up, tie off the top and toss it in the nearest deep crevasse. Specific crevasses near camps were marked with bike flags for this express purpose, and it was rare to spend a day around camp and not witness some roped up group wandering off toward the crevasse to chuck their excrement.

For whatever reason, we usually referred to the experience as “going to have words with the CMC.” My most memorable was certainly digging out a small ledge right below the Washburn Thumb and surveying the Peters Glacier at about 16,800ft—all whilst relieving myself. Usually, it occurred in some sort of walled area or pit in camp. We brought hand sanitizer to avoid getting sick, and I’d really like someone to make some that doesn’t pull the heat out of your hands when it evaporates. Get on that, Science. Besides my photo with the plane, the CMC never got a starring role in our pictures. Instead, it’s more of a “Where’s Waldo?” You can usually find it strapped to my sled or backpack when we were moving camp. Happy hunting.

So 7,800ft camp. As was typical, we put up our tent, exploded gear everywhere, melted water, and ate food. Grant usually took a bit to get to sleep. On the other hand, I would often pass out in fifteen seconds, give or take. I link it to the hard work, but there were a couple of conversations that randomly stopped when the party on my side of the tent responded with breathing or a snore. Before we dropped off, the shadow engulfed camp and we snapped a few pictures of Mt. Hunter and the moon. Did I mention that everything (aside from the pee holes) was beautiful up there?

Dawn of another perfect day caused rallyage. Our bagels were frozen. Our cream cheese was frozen. My sunscreen was frozen. On the outside of the cream cheese, it addressed our plight: “Do Not Freeze.” So we cut it up, half spread half sliced it onto frosty bagels, and chowed. Later, Grant would indeed sleep with the cream cheese to keep it warm.

Still excited by the weather, I wanted to do a double carry to 9,700ft camp. That’d mean doing the hill twice. We packed up the first load, mostly fuel and food, and headed up.

A two man rope team lacks the length and strength of three, but it makes a few things easier. The leader sets the pace for two people, meaning that tiredness or energy of only two climbers affects progress. In the back, the caboose has to keep rope tension for only one section, not two. Great weather and all the rest really had me wishing to send it, so I would gradually speed up on the hills. We’d hauled sleds before, but this was the first bit of significant travel with weight. I needed to learn to keep a slow, steady, consistent pace that didn’t jerk my rope partner and wasn’t too fast. Needless to say, this wasn’t easy.

Expecting something similar to the walls and tent city of 7,800 camp, we got all the way to about 10,066ft before checking the GPS. A little further up the route swings east to head up to 11,000ft camp. Grant had bonked and was coughing, probably a product of my going too fast. I dug the our cache while he tried to rest, but when we strapped our sleds onto our packs, he still wasn’t feeling well.

Our cache tag on an extra tall bamboo wand.

Easily the best part about hauling skis uphill is getting to use them on the down. We blew past a ton of folks on our way back to the tent. Some sections had powder, and lower down, it was a sort of wind mank. We stopped somewhere below the crest of the last hill and did a tandem straightline into camp, hooting and hollering.

While Grant napped, I brewed up some Ramen and  refilled our water.

It was really hot, so I wandered around shirtless for a bit. A bird flew into our tent. Amazing how good a cheap noodle soup can taste after a hard day of hauling. Doskrillos, the expedition name of the two Swedes named Kristian, rolled in to 7,800 camp that day. They surprised us by coming over to visit and bringing pudding. Very neighborly. By the time we got to bed, Grant was feeling a bit better. I vowed to go slower, so we plotted about going all the way to 11,000 ft camp the next morning.

The sun rose clear for our fourth day. We watched a slide come down from just below Windy Corner.

We packed camp, and hit our stride on Ski Hill. We both felt great. Clouds moved in near Kahiltna Pass, but that meant that things cooled down for our ascent.

On our way up, we passed the camp of a group of Army boys we’d chatted with at 7,800 camp. They’d left in the afternoon heat the previous day for a single carry to 9,700. I didn’t envy them. They were taking a rest day, and told us some stories while we took a break. Karl, one of the leaders, threw candy at us. I thought about the amazing unity that being on the mountain creates. I’d liken it to being at a sporting event where everyone’s rooting for the same team—just being up there in a common struggle brings folks together. Between the Swedes and Army boys, we’d spend a great deal of time during the rest of the trip. Cooking. Laughing. Telling stories. Sharing misery. And that’s the beauty of being on the mountain with so many other people. It’s not solitude; it’s the social dimension that makes life richer in any setting.

If it hasn’t been obvious, all of our water came from snow melted on the stoves. The true limits to how hard and far we could go were our reserves of agua—about three liters per person. We sat down to make some after grabbing our cache.

Following that, everything went back together and we headed up the hill in the fog. I suppose some food and gas weight had been used up, but it was hard to feel the difference with all the weight in our packs and sleds.

11,000ft camp is on the top of a convex rollover right below Motorcycle Hill. We chugged in tired, elated, a little loopy from the exertion at elevation, and ready to find a spot. Borrowing a shovel from some guys I’d given pieces of KitKat to earlier, we dug out a camp.

Dinner was a pile of starch and cheese. Perhaps the true achievement of mountaineering is that it makes generally crappy food taste like ambrosia. Falling asleep with the prospect of a late morning and rest day, it occurred to me that we were really there. Really on Denali, and managing to handle it. The tent flapped a little in the wind, and as was usually the case, I conked right out.

This is part one of three of our Denali trip. Check back for the next section, which will cover 11,000ft camp through 17,000ft camp. Thanks for reading!