Denali Update 1 of 6: Now the Fun Really Begins

In 6. Denali, North Americaby Steve

Struggling to Keep Up to Date

Apologies, I am posting this update slightly out of order. Between cramped long haul flights, jet lag, the actual climbs themselves and recovery, I have found it difficult to keep up to date with my trip reports. I still have Carstensz and Elbrus to catch up on. However, I thought I would get this report out on time to provide an update on my current movements. I will back fill the other reports when I get a chance.

A Big, Cold Mountain!

The climbs so far have been fun, but I’ll be honest, they haven’t presented any great challenges. They have been more of a formality. But that is about to change.

When you list the 7 Summits, most people immediately assume Everest to be the most challenging. Now don’t get me wrong, Everest is going to be a serious undertaking, but the biggest challenge I’ll face throughout this project will likely come on this next climb, Denali.

Denali is a big, cold mountain at the best of times. But we’re not doing it at the best of times, which will make it all the more interesting. The normal climbing season on Denali is the summer months from late May through to late July when the weather is warmer and more stable. That is when the vast majority of people climb. The people who have set the previous 7 Summits speed records have followed that pattern. They’ve climbed Everest in mid-May then rushed straight to Alaska and concluded on Denali late May. In that order they’ve achieved times as quick as 132 days.

A Polish bloke last year mixed it up and climbed Denali in late April then summited Everest on 20th May to set a new time of 126 days. In order to try and beat that, we are going into Denali even earlier, we’re going in now (i.e. late March). It’s a gamble but one which we hope will pay off.

Our First Hiccup

After summiting Elbrus on Tuesday 13th March we had a couple of days in Russia before flying straight out for Denali. It was going to be another horrendous sequence of flights; Mineralyne Vody – Moscow – Dubai – Seattle – Anchorage. And before that even began, we had a 3hr drive to the airport in Mineralyne Vody.

Checking in at Mineralyne Vody on Friday afternoon we were advised our flight to Moscow was delayed about an hour. Thankfully we had a few hours layover in Moscow so it was not a problem. We transited in Moscow and boarded our plane for Dubai on time, but then just sat on the tarmac. The scheduled departure time came and went and we kept waiting. Eventually the pilot came on over the loudspeaker notifying us they were experiencing “technical problems” and would be delayed about 30min. About an hour later the pilot came back on over the loud speaker and notified us that in order to fix the technical problem, they had to get a spare part flown in which would take approximately 2hrs. With this extended delay we all disembarked and waited back in the terminal.

It took a further 5 hours until they fixed whatever the technical problem was and we re-board. By the time we took off we were about 6.5 hours late. With only a 3hr layover in Dubai I had missed all my connecting flights.

In Dubai we were rebooked onto the next scheduled flight to Seattle, but since they only fly once a day, it meant waiting till the following morning. Thankfully the airline put us up in a hotel for the night so we were able to get a bit of rest. And as an added bonus, the hotel we were in had an exceptional gym so at least I was able to fit in a bit of training in as well!

After a quick break in Dubai, Sunday morning we were back at the airport for our 15hr flight to Seattle. Then due to the delays and rescheduling, I ended up with an 11hr layover in Seattle before another 3hr flight up to Anchorage. It was 3am Monday morning by the time I finally made it to the hotel in Anchorage, completely exhausted.

So far all our flights had gone relatively smoothly but I guess with the itinerary we had we were bound to encounter delays at some point. This was our first real hiccup.

Preparing for Denali

Yesterday (Monday) morning, after just a few hours sleep, I got up at 07:00, spent an hour in this little gym at the hotel (if you can even call it that), then met the other guys for breakfast. Since Denali is going to be such a challenging climb we’ve recruited a couple of friends to form a team of four; myself, Jon, Chris and Rob. We then spent the morning running around town buy supplies and more gear. At this time of year we will be the only team on the hill so have to be fully self-sufficient hence there is an exorbitant amount of kit we need.

At lunch time I went back to the hotel and slept most of the afternoon. Jet lag and sleep deprivation was catching up with me.

This morning we drove about 2hrs from Anchorage to Talkeenta. A nice drive through fairly flat country, but all covered in a few feet of snow at this time of year. Along the way we saw 4 moose, 2 alive and 2 road kill. One road kill was still quite fresh. As we drove by a car had pulled up and two guys were skinning and butchering the animal for meat. A pleasant sight.

This afternoon we had a briefing with the Denali National Park Rangers, covering everything from trash management, human waste management, mountain conditions and rescue services. The Rangers were incredibly knowledgeable and thorough. The take away messages were; we’ll be carrying all trash back out with us, we’ll be shitting into plastic bags in a small drum and carrying it out with us, we are the first team to go in this year and will be the only ones on the mountain, and there are no rescue services in the area this early in the season. If we get in trouble we get ourselves out. Our plan is to err on the conservative side and not get ourselves into trouble to begin with.

We are now just finishing sorting, packing and weighing gear for our flight tomorrow morning. Tonight we’re sleeping in the Talkeetna Air Taxi hanger. We were meant to be in a bunk house but being this early in the season it is not operational yet, so the hanger it was. At least there is plenty of room to spread out and sort out our gear.

Tomorrow morning we’ll get a small ski plane up onto a glacier at the base of Denali. Once dropped off and the plane returned, we’ll be on our own. If everything goes well, we should be out in about 2 weeks, but we’re taking food and supplies for 3 weeks so we can sit out bad weather.

This Is Going To Be Brutal

I am under no illusion, this is going to be brutal. Looking at the forecast I can understand why people typically don’t climb at this time of year. This week summit temperatures are as low as -49degC ambient, winds up to 150km/hr, and wind chill down to -78degC. But then a few days later it is forecast to warm up to a reasonably pleasant -30degC. So it could be a real mixed bag. 4

Regardless of what happens, this is going to be the toughest, coldest climb of this entire trip. Last week on Elbrus we got a slight battering with winds up to 80km/hr and temperatures down to -25degC but that is really just a taster for what we will likely encounter on Denali.

If, or should I say, when we get through this, we then only have the simple matter of Everest remaining.

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“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.

Steve Plain

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