June 15 West Buttress Expedition – Final Dispatch

June 15 Rapid Ascent

“Never again in my life” Was the answer Victor gave Grace at the upper runway of basecamp when she asked if he would ever climb Denali again.

We had just finished the ‘death march’ an all-night push down the mountain starting at high camp (17,200’) and ending in base camp (7,600’). It’s a great way to end a Denali expedition and get off the mountain quickly after summiting. Usually, this day comes after more than 2 weeks on the mountain, it was the morning of day 10 for us. 

This was the first “rapid ascent” team that we have had on Denali. A small team of 2 guides and 4 climbers who were all experienced, strong, and pre-acclimatized. Mountain trip has done pre-acclimated ascents before as private trips, this was the first open trip where the climbers did not know each other before hand, and it worked great.

Originally we had just two climbers signed up, Matt and Chris. They had committed to sleeping in Hypoxico tents, (hyperbaric tents that erect over your bed allowing you to simulate sleeping at altitude while at home). for 6 weeks before the trip In order to be ready for a faster than normal ascent program.

About 6 weeks before the trip Grace decided to join, she was on her way to Nepal to attempt Everest for the second time and if it all went well, she would have 3 weeks at home in Chicago, sleeping in a hypoxico tent to hang onto her acclimatization before heading up to Alaska to try The Great One.

And then, 5 days before we were set to launch, we got Victor. Victor had been climbing in his native Peru and prepping for his own personal, unguided ascent of Denali with his wife and friend. When that trip fell through, he went searching for another option and found the last spot on our team.

Boaz and I had just successfully guided an unintentionally fast (12 days) Denali trip earlier in May and were hoping our fitness and acclimatization from the first trip would hang on and allow us to move quickly on this trip. Because the first trip went so fast we had almost 2 full weeks off the mountain between trips. This allowed me to return home to Utah where my house at 7,400’ would help me hang onto that acclimatization a little bit. Boaz stayed in AK packrafting and seeing all the beautiful things that place has to offer with a mean altitude of ~150’.

Things started off well, and just kept going well! We had amazing weather and trail conditions on the first few days allowing us to move from basecamp to a camp at 9600’ between camp 1 and camp 2 in the time it takes most teams to make the move from BC to camp 1. We were also aided by lighter loads since extra food and stove fuel from our first trip was cached strategically on the mountain allowing us to walk with only 7 days’ worth of food and less than 1 gallon of fuel. 

I had modified my usual heavy Denali menu of Pizza, pulled pork sando’s, rainbow curry etc. with some freeze-dried meals from Europe called LYO expedition. Up until recently I would have recoiled at the idea of eating freeze-dried on the lower mountain. Something we usually only do at high camp. But these meals are different, super clean, no added sodium and they cook the food before freeze drying which means altitude does not affect rehydration times. Add some pita’s, shredded cabbage, or veggie sausages to them and you have a great meal at a fraction of the weight. These meals helped cut our food weight to under 1 pound per person per day! This was huge in allowing us to move quickly but eat enough to recover day after day.

I wasn’t surprised that no one had headaches or felt ill when we moved to camp 2 (11,200’) the next day, I was surprised the following day when we took a cache of supplies to camp 3 at 14,200’ that no one had a headache or felt ill. ‘These Hypoxico tents must work’ I thought. Having never used one myself and always acclimated on the mountain this was my first experience with them. The real test came on day 7 of the trip, when we single carried (no previous cache of supplies carried some or all of the way to the next camp) to high camp, 17,200’. When everyone on the team made the move relatively easily and without headaches I knew their training and pre-acclimating worked.

On paper it seems like just sleeping in a low-oxygen environment would not have the gross effect of acclimatization we are looking for. 8 out of 24 hours spent in the tent seems like one step forward two steps backwards. But fortunately, our body systems are incredible and the repeated stress of going into that low oxygen environment every night taught these climbers bodies how to shift into “high altitude gear” so when the time came on the mountain to move up, the body knew what to do. That, and all their amazing training and hard work allowed them to march right up the mountain and back without ever experiencing a headache.

The following day (day 8) we left camp for the summit, we could not have asked for better weather. It was calm and relatively warm, but the best part? We were the only team on the upper mountain. Eventually a team followed us, but we did not see them till after we made the summit and started our descent. It’s a lovely thing to be on top of a great mountain with just your team and no others around.

Climbing big mountains is a complicated machine of logistics, weather, trail conditions, team health/fitness, crowds, and other factors that all need to line up in order to experience success. We were super lucky that not only did everything line up for us to summit, but it did so in an incredibly short amount of time. That is not to discredit the work we all put in to make it happen. My personal approach to mountain climbing is to focus on all the details that are within your control and plan and prepare for the most success and don’t sweat the things that are outside your control. Luck is what happens when foresight and preparation meet opportunity. I have never had such a well-prepared crew, and I have never had such “good luck” on The Great One.

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1 Comment

  1. We had good luck but we were also incredibly lucky to have guides who are so experienced, proficient, and strong.

    Let’s do it again, Victor.

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