May 8th West Buttress Denali Expedition – Makes it to Camp 1!

Well, it’s official: our Denali season is off to the races! 

The May 8th Team is on their way up the mountain. After spending one day in Talkeetna, waiting for good flying weather, the team flew into the Alaska Range on the morning of May 10th, arriving at Kahiltna Base Camp to begin their grand adventure.

The “Otters” flown by Talkeetna Air Taxi sometimes feel like magic teleportation machines, because in an instant they transport climbers from the green vegetated lowlands of Talkeetna straight to the inorganic world of snow and ice that is Kahiltna Base Camp. When you step off the plane and land your feet on the snow covered glacier of the Kahiltna Air Strip, you realize that you have just entered a whole new world. For many climbers, this is the moment where the whole journey begins to finally feel real, because from this moment forward, their feet will only be treading on snow, ice and rock until they take that first step back onto the plane, several weeks from now!

Stepping into a whole new world at the Kahiltna Air Strip.


But, there’s no time to get sentimental, because as soon as you land on the Kahiltna, the journey to the top of North America has begun, and it’s time to get to work! All the gear must be offloaded from the plane, dragged off the airstrip, and sorted into piles. Some teams opt to spent a night here at Basecamp, but if you arrive in the morning and the weather looks good, it’s sometimes best to pack up and hit the trail.

Kevin, Eli and Chris did just that. After arriving on the morning of May 10th, the trio packed up their sleds and began the long plod across the lower Kahiltna to Camp 1 (7800′, 2377m). The fun and challenge comes quickly on Denali as the first thing the climbers encounter along their route is the long sloping downhill of Heartbreak Hill, which takes you down the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, where Basecamp is located, to the main arm of the Kahiltna Glacier.

Why is it called Heartbreak Hill, you ask? Well, since the West Buttress Route is an “out and back” route, everything you go down, you must later go back up. And at the very end of the expedition, after the long descent from the upper mountain, the never-ending gradual uphill climb of Heartbreak Hill is the last obstacle standing between your tired expedition team and the hot showers and cold beer of Talkeetna!

Crossing the lower Kahiltna Glacier. The summit is just 13,000 ft up from here!

Heartbreak Hill’s gentle downslope can also convince climbers that “Hey, this sled isn’t that heavy!”, which eventually leads to heartbreak when they hit the flat stretches of the main Kahiltna and finally feel the full pull of 100lbs of food and gear on their backpack straps.

Day 1 of Denali is often the hardest, and definitely the heaviest, move of the entire expedition. Since the elevation gain is minimal between Basecamp and Camp 1, most expedition teams will carry their entire 22 days worth of food and equipment the 5ish miles across the flat Kahiltna Glacier to establish themselves at Camp 1. Also, Day 1 of the expedition is when you sort out all the little kinks in your systems and begin to feel what it is like to travel in snowshoes, on a rope team, hauling a sled, on a glacier. When you finally arrive to Camp 1, it feels truly amazing to have the lower Kahiltna behind you!

Stoked to be done with a long day!

The May 8th team of Kevin, Eli and Chris successfully made it to Camp 1 on Friday afternoon and setup camp. Since then, over the last two days, they made some efforts to carry loads up to Kahiltna Pass in order to cache some of their gear halfway between Camp 1 and Camp 2 (11,000′ / 3352m), but poor weather has them currently staying at Camp 1 until things improve. In the meanwhile, they will get some rest and begin to settle into the expedition mindset of climbing Denali (hint: it’s a marathon, not a sprint!).

In the next dispatch, we’ll describe just how our team of intrepid climbers is able to carry 22 days worth of food and equipment up the mountain utilizing the strategic “Cache and Carry” system of expedition climbing. Stay tuned! 

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