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Trip Report – Denali via West Buttress, Part 2

By: Tony Ruzek

Source: Australis (Australia Section) Newsletter (Sep 2017)

Putting a team together was a long time in the making. At one point, it looked like we would need to split into two groups; a couple of months later, it was just Jack and I. We spread the word and Leo and Felix from SUBW came onboard. We knew each other, strong guys and decent rock climbers, eager to get into high alpine climbing. We had seven months to bond as a team, fine-tune all gear, and kick ourselves into shape.

Our aim: The West Buttress, the most common route on Denali. Summit success rate in early season is much lower. It means colder conditions, lots of new snow, but weather tends to be more stable. Also, we were hoping to avoid the Seven Summits crowds later on in the season.

It all started the first week in May, catching up in a cheap motel room in Anchorage. Arriving on a few different flights from different destinations, the team of five shook hands for the first time. The wild card was Volodymyr, a Ukrainian guy living in Ontario. A couple days of shopping and repacking food, and we were ready to roll towards Talkeetna. Talkeetna is a base with a handful of flight services that get you closer to any climbing or skiing objectives in Denali NP.

After arrival in Base Camp we were in for a good spell of weather. Caching emergency food for our way back, we roped up without any delays, and were on our way up Kahiltna Glacier. Our progress on the mountain followed the “best-case scenario” itinerary. In nine days, our camp at 14,000 ft (Camp 4 or Basin Camp, 4270m) has been fully stocked up. By this time, we also had one carry each to the top of the Head Wall via fixed ropes, and cached four days’ worth of food and extra gear.The weather forecast was erratic, mostly turning out better than forecasted, at least before the late afternoons. It looked like we might have a window. We were all pumped to set up the High Camp at 17,500 ft (17K Camp, 5180m). Felix had the occasional headache when going up and decided to stay a couple more days in 14K camp and catch up with rest of the team later. This was absolutely fine as we planned to have tents both in Basin and High Camps set up for the duration of our time climbing/skiing higher up on the mountain.

It looked like a beautiful day. I took my time in the morning, thinking I’ll be faster skinning up to the bottom of the fixed ropes. We caught up with Felix and Volodymyr on the ridge just below Washburn’s Thumb. Felix helped to carry our tent all the way here, before returning back to Basin Camp. We continued up the ridge with Volodymyr. Heavy packs and more technical terrain slowed our pace. Also the wind picked up significantly and, before we knew it, we were in a fully blown storm. My skis, strapped to the outside of my pack, gave me a hard time in ever-stronger winds. On the ridge, we were crawling on our knees trying to stay low; the wind threw us around quite a bit.

Arriving at camp, it was a large, open area – easy to pinpoint Jack and Leo’s Trango. Volodymyr with his huge backpack showed up on horizon couple minutes later, turning left and right, bending over into the wind. Jack and Leo helped us set up our tents. I’m sure on everybody’s mind were passages from trip reports warning: “doesn’t matter how tired you are, when setting up the High Camp, you have to build the walls straightaway!” But this was out of the question, everybody knew it. The wind picked up again. I couldn’t believe we were so slack – until now, every camp we set up was absolutely solid, half way in the ground, snow walls high up.

The next three days were pretty rough. According to weather report, we had 100mph storm outside. Anything you pulled out of your sleeping bag froze almost instantly. Finally it cleared. There was a pretty decent track up Denali Pass. Beautiful bluebird day, but pretty chilly and in shade all the way to the Denali Pass. Just before leaving the tent my thermometer said -32 degC. We were heading up almost 1,000m higher. Fair to assume it would be the infamous -40 on the summit.

On the way up the Autobahn, I passed a French climber. He was sitting next to the track while clipped to his ice axe. His boots were off and he crazily massaged his toes. I gave him a smile, bent over and made a joke about helping him out. He smiled back. How little did I know. A bit later I pop up at the top of the Pass. Full sunlight, beautiful day, feeling awesome! It was solid ice in this section, but it fet secure. Not much visible exposure, which might give a false sense of security.

A couple of hours later, I was on the other side of Football Field, just before the climb steepened up to the final summit ridge. There was no sign of the other guys anywhere; their pace must be pretty good, so they would be somewhere above me. Once on the ridge, the South Face drops down below your feet – incredible views! Finally, I recognise the guys in front of me. We are passing each other on the most narrow part of the ridge, just a few metres below the summit. Everyone has smiles on their faces, and urgency to head down. A couple of minutes later it was me standing on the summit: beautiful views, snowdrift stops, even time froze – a pretty special moment! I took a few pictures and a short video, before all batteries gave up.

The descent was survival skiing at its best. Skating through Football Field, my knees were shaking – I was pretty tired. The steeper section towards the pass was just solid ice as in the morning. I side-slipped the top, but there was no point. Skis off, it would be so much safer and less energy-consuming to down-climb. Towards the bottom of the traverse, no more than 200m from our tents, I saw Leo, half-sitting, half lying in the snow. At first I was a bit concerned, but then I see him laughing. I sit down next to Leo and we talk rubbish. Laughing at each other, he gives me all reasons why he can’t be bothered to go any further. “Look, the tents are right there. If I want, I can bumslide from here. Just leave me here. It’s all good.” I smile back, “Doesn’t work like that, mate. Fix your crampons and let’s keep rolling”.

Half an hour later I walked into the camp. Felix was here; he used today’s good weather to come up to High Camp. I asked if anyone had boiled some tea. Jack answered something along the lines: “You don’t want to drink from that, I just defrosted my hands in this pot.” What? I thought of it more of a joke. Jack looked pretty grim, holding both hands up without gloves. Leo has a closer peek: “looks pretty bad mate”. It’s hard to read Jack’s face. He was smiling but looked concerned at the same time. “It looks better now, but I had to cut the blisters.” What? I’m not really sure I’m ready to admit the seriousness of the situation. Let’s get some rest first. I took crampons off and climbed into my tent. All I had to do was take off the boots and climb inside. I slid my sock off, and got a nasty surprise. Gee, my toes look quite purple, what’s going on? I wondered how long before they get back to normal. I have a trip lined up in NZ in mid-July, and yes need to get off this mountain first!

Jack got on radio with Park Service in 14K Camp, trying to get some tips on what to do with his hands. Interestingly enough, they seem more concerned about my feet – you can do extra damage to frostbitten feet, even when walking on a flat ground, not to mention front-pointing while you down-climb. Also, Jack’s hands were totally useless. He couldn’t hold his ice axe, let alone self-arrest if needed. The instructions were simple: keep in touch and we’ll try to fly you out the first chance weather permits. Two days later, the winds were still too much. We spent the morning at the agreed landing zone, but there was no chance a 5-seater Squirrel could make it all the way to us.

I felt really stupid. Apart from my toes, still in the best shape of my life, putting others’ lives in danger. I made the decision pretty quickly – if I managed to get my feet back into my boots, we would down-climb. Jack was in. A few hours later we met with the NP rescue team at the top of the Head Wall. From here, they short-roped us and took care of us for the next three days before we could fly off the mountain.

The story is far from finished. There are a lot of people we are very obliged to. Starting with NP Service, their volunteer team in Basin Camp, the rest of our team for clearing our gear off the mountain, our friends in Anchorage, Dr Gagnon in Wasilla, the list goes on. Frostbite heals slowly, if at all. It cost me six toes and I’m learning to walk again. Jack lost a couple of fingers. I wish I could say we learnt our lesson. Not really sure though, and I still wonder when things went wrong.

Posted: 23/03/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland