REGION: Alaska Range

ACTIVITY: Mountaineering


Denali's West Buttress
Trip Date: 06/07/01 - 06/20/01   Posted in Alaska Range & Mountaineering Tags: kahiltna  

After our trip into the Ruth Gorge Jeff young flew back to Anchorage while Brad and I flew to the Kahiltna and started up the West Buttress of Denali.  The following are entries from my journal from May 30th - June 6th.

Denali's West Buttress

June 7th - Kahitna Base Camp (7,000') - Yesterday we hung out today on the Ruth glacier until around 2pm when TAT picked us up for the shuttle over to Kahiltna Base Camp.

The flight was intense - we spiraled high over the glacier looking down at cobalt blue pools of water glistening on the ice. Then we flew over Explorer's Peak, banked southwest and flew south of Huntington and past the south face of hunter around then around the west face and past the West Ridge where we saw tracks leading up.


We're starting late in the season. People are coming down and we hear 14 camp is packed. We leave tomorrow to begin the West Buttress.

Rain and sleet with a little snow has delayed our start. This morning I caught a Goldfinch. She was sitting on my sled bag with her head tucked under her wing. I cupped her in my hand and gently set her inside the text to warm up. Brad wasn't too keen on a bird in the tent and tossed her out again.

June 8th West Buttress, Camp I (9,800') - We're perched on the hill leading up to Kahiltna Pass looking down at the lower Kahiltna, We left Base Camp at 11 am today and reached our camp around 7 pm -- 8 hours of skiing, 2,500' of gain. 7 miles, a 50 lb. pack and a 55 lb. sled. We trudged right past the normal Camp I (7,900') and skied slowly up Ski Hill to the 9,000' camp where we collapsed. We ate Mac and Cheese with butter and bacon for dinner and now we're struggling to stay awake for pudding and tea.

June 9th West Buttress, Camp II (11,200') - We slept until 8:30 and then got up, packed, cooked and listened to Morning Edition on NPR on my little portable radio which is keeping us sane (not to mention very informed of the Middle East Peace Process and struggle for ANWR in the Senate). We finally left camp at 12:30 and made the 11,200' camp at 3 pm. It was only 2 miles and 2,000' - a mellow day. Tomorrow is a rest day - a day of food and relaxation.

June 11th West Buttress, Camp II (11,200') - Yesterday we took a rest day. We had a long breakfast and then I went and skied two runs on the slope outside (south) of camp. The snow is fantastic.

Today we carried a load to 14 camp today. Our packs were ridiculously heavy. The carry took 5 hours up and one hour down. Windy corner was insanely cold and windy - but other than that it was fine. We hope to move camp tomorrow but a storm is brewing...

June 13th West Buttress, Camp III (14,200') - We awoke yesterday in a soft wet snow. It snowed all day - accumulating about 6-8 inches of fresh powder. So we stayed in the tent - reading, eating, listening to NPR. It finally stopped snowing in the evening so we packed up and by 8 pm were moving. The going was good - deep snow but a good boot track had been packed down by a team that had descended after the storm. We moved up Motorcycle Hill, Squirrel Hill and then into a crystal clear basin with the clouds below us. We tromped across the basin and then up and around Windy Corner in the alpenglow to where we had cached our skis yesterday. Once on skis we were able to cruise up the final 500' to 14 camp. We reached the camp around midnight and had camp set up by 1 am.

It was cold - around -25 degree - and dark (the sun goes behind the West Buttress early) and we were quite cold. Both my fingers and toes were stiff and numb.

Today it is nice - sunny with cloud breaks drifting in and out. Tomorrow we will do a carry if we feel good.

June 13th West Buttress, Camp III (14,200') - Today we carried to 17 camp. It took 8 hours round trip - 3 1/2 to the top of the fixed lines, 2 hours along the ridge and 2 1/2 hours back down. Tomorrow we move camp.

June 17th West Buttress, Camp IV (17,200') - We left 14 camp at 1:45 pm yesterday - shouldering obscenely heavy packs and working our way up the steep face to the fixed lines that go from the bergschrund at 15,000 to the ridge at 16,000. I was feeling rough but Brad was strong and we tromped up the hill and then pulled ourselves up the fixed lines to the ridge. Once on the ridge we began the climb in heavy winds.

The ridge is a beautiful climb. 1000' of mellow scrambling up and over rock, ice and snow steps, including about 1/2 mile of tiptoeing along an exposed ridge and finally up and around a corner then down to the 17,200' camp which sits in an alcove overlooking the 14,000 basin. Up at camp we set up our tents under a stream of heavy wind - shivering to stay warm - and finally collapsing in the tent. I was short of breath., lethargic, and spent the night trying to sleep with a pounding headache.

Today we took another rest day and tomorrow we go for the summit.

June 18th West Buttress, Camp IV (17,200') - The alarm went off at 7 am but we didn't stir until close to 8 am. We finally crawled out of the tent, boiled some water and donned our climbing equipment.

To climb began with about a mile and 1000' of elevation gain across the 'Audoban' - an ice slope that one traverses to reach Denali Pass. Upon reaching the Pass we turned sharp right (south) and headed up mellow slopes to the Football Field. We then traversed the Football Field (which is a giant flat field at 19.000) and climbed a short steep hill to reach the summit ridge.

The summit ridge is the highlight of the climb. 1/2 mile of exposed ridge climbing where one must balance across a knife edge ridge and crawl up and over a gigantic cornice that hangs out into space.

We reached the summit and sat about enjoying the view for 20 minutes. I t was my second time on the top and Brad's first and we sat about enjoying the thin air and looking down at the surrounding peak - already scheming up ideas for our next adventure.

After a while we began to grow cold so we packed up again and headed down. We down climbed our route without incident and were back in our tent after 9 1/2 hours of climbing. Tomorrow we will start heading down.

June 20th West Buttress, Camp IV (17,200') - I'm sitting at Base Camp relaxing and drinking a beer. Yesterday we descended from 17,200 to Base Camp in one long (12 hr) day. The descent was hard work but straight forward - the toughest part being trying to control the sled while skiing rope up.

The lower Kahiltna was cracked up but not too bad - and Heartbreak Hill (the final 900' elevation gain back to Base Camp) destroyed us. But we're back at camp now -- playing Frisbee, drinking beer and waiting for the plane to pick us up.


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(610 KB)
West Buttress
Description: Map of the route up Denali's West Buttress.

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