We were feeling good after an active winter so we planned a 2 1/2 week Kahiltna trip for the month of May. I had climbed Denali before so I pushed for Foraker. Yvonne was easily convinced and so after hauling 5 gallon jugs of water up Flattop for 2 months we shelled out the cash for the NPS permit and TAT flight and buzzed into the Kahiltna on a beautiful May afternoon.
In camp our friends Thomas and Mary (who were volunteering for the NPS) greeted us and gave us the report that the entrance slopes to Crosson were melting out faster than normal. Not something we wanted to hear- but we figured we’d check it out anyways. After a day of hanging at base camp with other friends we packed up 15 days of food and moved across the Kahiltna glacier to the base of the icefall that comes off the SE face of Crosson. The next morning we hauled 10 days of food and fuel up the icefall and over to the base of the SE couloirs that you climb to get to the base of the SE Ridge. I had been up Crosson in 2002 so I knew the route – but as we got closer we discovered a nasty dirt couloir topped with water-ice. Not something we wanted to see- but we figured we’d check it out anyways.
So across to the base where we were greeted with the sign of freshly rolled microwave sized rocks at the base of the couloir. We dumped the food and fuel and opted for a quick recon. A quick traverse over to the base of the couloir for a closer look didn’t make it look any nicer. I wasn’t going to touch them mid day so we decided to dump the gear and come back in colder temps. And so back to camp for a down day.
The next morning we were up at 3am, camp was broken down and we were moving by 5 with the intention of climbing the couloirs with all our gear before the sun hit the slopes at 10. By 6am I was starting up the right-most couloir. But even in the 10 degree 6am temps rocks were still rolling down. Plus the couloir was 60-plus degrees and melted out so I was climbing frozen gravel with an ice axe and whippet. Our only pro were pickets and screws, which wouldn’t have done a thing. About 50′ up I was stopped by a short section of 4th class rock — maybe 10′ of easy scrambling (albeit on absolutely manky rock). It was the type of move you’d happily do with a day pack in the mountains near home – but I wasn’t comfy at all with the moves with 10 days of food on the back and opted to downclimb the frozen gravel (which was equally not fun). Back down on level ground I then traversed left and took another couloir. This one started off easy and within minutes I was 100′ and looking at the remainder of the route- which was a full pitch of exposed loose 4th class followed by a full pitch of Grade II water ice.
When I had climbed Crosson in 2002 I had nonchalantly walked up and down these couloirs in shin deep snow – a very different experience than what we were facing here. And so I threw in the towel 10 minutes up a 10-day route and 100′ up a 10,000′ route. I turned and dejectedly began down climbing the couloir- except it was far steeper than I had thought and I wasn’t comfy down climbing with a huge expedition pack. So I tied off the pack and lowered it down which enabled me to easily down climb the couloir- which went relatively fast. It was easy climbing and I yelled back to Yvonne to not bother with the belay as I down climbed my steps-. Only to suddenly step into a hole and drop into a bergschrund.
The fall into the hole probably only lasted a second at most – but during that time I had a nice long conversation with myself. Something along the lines of, “Great- you trained all season long to climb Foraker but then you chicken out 100′ up the route and to add insult to injury you’ve now managed to fall into a bergschrund. Just great. And you’re not even on belay. Super.”
But luck was with me. Instead of taking the long fall into the especially nasty crevasse my body somehow twisted and I landed with my legs in the hole, my torso downhill and my body in a contorted position that hurt like hell! I leapt up quickly- did a quick check to make sure nothing was broken, found my backpack and then took off down the hill away from Foraker as fast as my legs would carry me.
Thus ended our Foraker attempt. (If you can even call it an attempt.) By mid morning we were all the way back down on the Kahiltna looking back up and arguing about how to spend the remainder of our vacation. Time off from work doesn’t come easy to my wife- so she was prepared to fly back to Anchorage and return to work to save up some hours for the next trip. But we were on the Kahiltna – and we had 12 days of food and 1.5 gallons of fuel and Denali was within spitting distance.
And so we decided to try Denali. We had 15 days to kill (only 12 days of food but we could stretch it)- not really enough time for a standard Denali trip but if the weather is good you can do it in 10- so we put our heads down and started skiing towards the West Buttress.
Books have been written about the West Buttress so I won’t bore you with the details and will instead give a nice concise report: Day 1 was a long day- we were up at 3am, trying to get up Crosson at 6am- and then we switched gears and skied all the way to 9.5K on the Kahiltna which we reached around 8pm. On day 2 we pushed it to 11K camp. We did a carry and by day 4 we were moved into 14K camp.
Then a storm hit and we spent the next 8 days holed up inside the tent, reading, visiting and hanging out in the heated NPS tent with other Anchorage friends. 8 days in a tent is a long time. 2 days is long enough. 8 days in a tent sucks. We should have gone down after day 4. But we didn’t.
We ran out of books and coffee- thankfully Michael Burmeister (of Mountain Trip) supplied us with coffee. Michael was a life saver- if there is a hell on earth it would be tent bound at 14 camp without coffee. Ironically the last time Yvonne and I did an expedition we ran out of coffee- and that time we were saved by Bill Allen – another Mountain Trip guide – so we owe Mountain Trip a pound of coffee or two. The NPS also came to the rescue with another book. A little known fact is that your Denali fee also covers library rentals from the 14K NPS tent. Next time you’re stuck there without a book swing by the heated tent. Unfortunately most of their library consists of mountaineering epics; why anyone would want to read about mountaineering epics while tent bound on Denali is beyond me- maybe next year they’ll have more speculative fiction.
Anyways- we sat out the storm and when it finally broke we made a run for 17K camp with everyone else. As most well know – the fixed lines and ridge to 17K can be a zoo after a storm. We pushed up amidst the crowds. I felt like crap – Yvonne was strong as usual. 17K camp was reached, tent was set up and dinner was served. And we awoke to 40mph winds on the summit plateau. By now we were out of time so we decided to bail. And when I decide to bail I can move-. 10 hours after leaving high camp we stumbled back into Kahiltna base camp where we crashed for a few hours and woke up to a morning flight back to the West Rib Pub. 30 hours after leaving 17K camp I was home and in the shower.
And that’s it. Bailing wasn’t such a hard decision. Conditions were abysmal and the weather worse. We started the trip to the sound of a C130 buzzing in circles and watched the NPS heli bring down Jeremiah O’Sullivan after his horrific night at 19K. While we were at 11K camp, Luciano Colombo slipped at 18K and died of injuries related to his fall. We watched the NPS helicopter carry the body out while sitting around at 14K camp. And while eating breakfast at basecamp after bailing from 17K we watched the NPS helicopter sling load the lifeless contorted bodies of Jiro Kurihara and Junya Shiraishi right past our tent.
A day after returning to Anchorage we heard the news that 2 more had died. We knew it had to have been someone we were sharing 17K camp with so we waited nervously for the names. We found out a day later: Suzanne Allen and Peter Bullard.
Yvonne and I had met Suzanne on Aconcagua in 2010, at TAT last spring, and had shared camps with her at 14K and 17K just a few days previously. In a sad twist of fate, I later learned that Suzanne’s partner, Dave Heinbach, was one of my old climbing partners from college.
Chancing upon Suzanne on the TAT porch, the West Buttress or learning that her partner was an old climbing friend wasn’t really a surprise. The longer I do this the more I recognize people in multiple places and see relationships of past and new climbing friends intertwined. Likewise it shouldn’t really be a surprise when a climbing acquaintance that has chosen to make her home in the mountains moves further down the path – yet the news is always sobering.
I spent my 21st birthday camped under the Bridge Buttress at the New River Gorge with Dave Heinbach. We climbed cracks all weekend and laughed at how wonderful our lives were. 17 years later I speak to Dave on the phone and he tells me, “I don’t know if you can imagine what this is like.”
I cannot imagine. It seems that every spring I spend in the Alaska Range brings such news and causes me pause. Is the desire to spend time in the mountains a step towards the right livelihood that I imagine it to be? Is there even a correlation between our lifestyle and anything beyond temporal pleasure?
Since we’ve been back two others have died on Denali. Brian Young of Kodiak and Juergen Kanzian of Austria. Thus perhaps a better question is in order: is it even right to contemplate our own path when it is others who suffer?