It’s midnight in the Alaska Range: Seracs are a blue-purple hue and the surrounding mountains begin to glow with what will be a multi-hour sunset. Everything is quiet. The usual buzz of flightseeing planes has disappeared and the rumble of rockfall and avalanches has subsided for a few hours. This peace is only temporary; the mountain will slowly awaken again as the golden rays of sunlight peek over the South Buttress of Denali. The daily cycle will begin anew, it is late June and the warm temperatures bring the constant struggle between melting snow clinging desperately to steep faces and the indomitable pull of gravity. For us, it’s a moment of stillness, the tent is stowed and packs are loaded but we aren’t quite ready to begin questing upwards. It is a moment to look around and observe the beauty that is the Alaska Range and to remind ourselves how small we truly are in the presence of giants. Under massive granite walls and snowfields that extend up to 20,000 feet, we are alone at 14,500 ft on the West Rib of Denali.
The West Rib was first climbed in 1959 by four members of the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club. Following an ascent of Mount Moran in Wyoming, the team aspired to climb the south face of Denali the following summer. Bradford Washburn had posted a photo of the south face in The Mountain World proposing the West Rib Route. In an incredible effort, they completed their climb during an unprecedented 11 days of great weather reaching the summit on June 19th, 1959.
Climbing in the 21st century is a little different than it was in 1959 – equipment is lighter, weather forecasts can be shared via satellite phone, an abundance of route beta can be found online and the techniques employed on these routes have drastically shifted. No longer are “siege style ascents” the preferred tactic. Modern ascents trend towards lighter, “alpine style” climbs where the safety net of fixed lines and large food caches is removed. What you sacrifice in the ability to retreat easily or weather a multi-week storm allows you to move faster, utilize shorter weather windows and minimize the brutal work of installing fixed lines between camps.
Dave Helland, Matt Park and I flew onto the glacier on Monday, June 18th. The next two weeks were characterized by impeccable weather, allowing us to move up to 14,200 ft on a perfect schedule. Temperatures were uncharacteristically warm, freezing levels were anywhere from 11,000 – 13,000 ft. Sun-hoodies, shorts and a whole lot of sunscreen were the preferred mountain attire.
Due to the warm temperatures, we elected to avoid the NE fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, the commonly used approach to the Chicken Couloir and the base of the West Rib. Instead we headed up the West Rib Cutoff from 14 camp and were planning to descend the route instead. On June 27th we worked our way up the cutoff and descended to 14,000 ft on the Rib. The climbing was varied, including a mix of snow and rock, ridge climbing, and blue ice. We were primarily simul-climbing down the route but had to rappel off a few V-thread anchors to navigate the blue ice sections and the bergschrund. After a long and hot day descending, we put in a camp below the bergschrund and settled in for the night.
Being perched in the middle of a steep snow slope on the side of a large mountain is a surreal experience. Your reality is confined to the inside of your tent and the immediate platform on which you are sitting. It’s a simple existence – trying to recover and hydrate all the while listening to the rumble of avalanches and icefall below you off the myriad of ridges and peaks that dot the fringes of Denali. Once again temperatures were unseasonably warm, freezing at 13,000 ft. We didn’t have the food to wait for a few days for things to cool down. Wanting to avoid the rockfall in the Chicken Couloir, we called our camp below the bergschrund our low point and started our ascent the next morning.
What followed was one of my favorite days in the mountains to date. There we were, midnight in the Alaska Range, ready to go. You get the setting. Route conditions were such that crossing the bergschrund was exciting. It required some exploratory climbing and once we chose a snowbridge to cross we definitely needed to think light thoughts. We found ourselves holding our breath and waiting for the trapdoor to open. Upon reaching the blue ice on the uphill side of the crevasse and placing our first ice screw, we all let out an audible sigh of relief. Five long pitches of 45-60 degree blue ice followed. I have never had the pleasure of being on lead, climbing ice at 2 AM at 14,500 ft in a wind shirt and thin gloves. Conditions were gentle. As we continued upward, re-tracing our route down from two days prior, we climbed through sunset, a few hours of twilight and as we reached our high-camp at 16,400 ft., we were greeted by a golden sunrise across the valley on Mount Foraker. There is nothing quite like spending two hours chopping a platform in firm snow and ice, just to setup your tent, crawl into your sleeping bag and pass out.
We had hoped to climb the Upper Rib the following day, however that was not to be the case. As all mountain climbers know, the best-laid plans often go awry. Todd Rutledge commonly likes to remind all of us to remain “rigidly flexible” in our mountain pursuits. The next few days were a testament to that philosophy. Seventy-two hours of 30+ mph of wind were in our future, the incessant flapping of the tent was our constant companion and we spent hours diving deep into all manner of conversation from philosophy to who had the latest joke off the inreach. Avalanche conditions would eventually drive us off the West Rib, forcing us to re-route back to the West Buttress. We had our hearts set on summiting via the Upper Rib, but conditions would not allow.
In classic style for our team, we just rolled with the punches, switched our mindset and immediately dove in to our new objective. We had a whirlwind of a few days at the end of our trip, moving up to 17,200 (high camp on the Buttress) on July 4th in four hours. We awoke on the morning of the 5th to perfect, and I mean absolutely perfect, weather. There was only a thin skim of ice in our water pot, unheard of at high camp! No winds and benign temperatures made for an easy decision; we were heading to the top. After six hours of climbing, we stood on the summit of North America. Standing on top in wind shirts and liner gloves for an hour and looking out over the Alaska Range with two of the best climbing partners I could have ever asked for was an experience I will not soon forget. We descended to 14 camp that night and flew out the following morning on the 7th of July.
While we took a roundabout route up the mountain, it was nonetheless an amazing trip. We got a little bit of everything, except for extreme cold, and made it back safe and sound in perfect health. We honestly couldn’t have asked for anything more. Cheers to Dave and Matt for an excellent expedition! Relaxing back in Colorado in flip-flops and shorts, it is hard to imagine that we were up on Denali a little over a week ago. It is a land of incredible vistas, majestic mountains and most importantly it allowed the three of us to share an unparalleled experience.
Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/VRKFgUFbxN6VhJ1x9 (All photos in this album and in the same order as in the album)
Photo 1: Looking off the wingtip of a Talkeetna Air Taxi Otter on the flight into basecamp.
Photo 2: Sunrise on the Kahiltna Glacier as seen from 9,600 ft. with Foraker glowing on the right and the shadow of Denali seen on the horizon.
Photo 3: Looking down-glacier from 11,200 ft at thunderheads building off the North side of the Alaska Range.
Photo 4: Dave Helland and Matt Park (Guide) descending the West Rib at 16,000 ft with views of Foraker and the Kahiltna Glacier in the background.
Photo 5: Dave Helland rappelling above the Bergschrund at 15,000 ft on the West Rib.
Photo 6: Our tent perched on a snow slope below the Bergschrund on the West Rib. This was our lowpoint on the rib at 14,400 ft.
Photo 7: Organized chaos inside our tent while on route.
Photo 8: Sunset on Foraker as seen from camp at 14,400 ft.
Photo 9: Midnight at 14,500 ft. on the West Rib. Dave Helland climbing up towards the Bergschrund with views of mount Hunter, mount Foraker and the NE fork of the Kahiltna behind him.
Photo 10: Matt Park and Dave Helland climbing blue ice above the Bergschrund at 14,800 ft. Warm temperatures allowed for climbing in light gloves at 2 AM.
Photo 11: Dave Helland looking stoic at a break around 15,200 on the West Rib.
Photo 12: Dave Helland climbing a steep snow gully as we regained the ridge at 15,800 on the West Rib.
Photo 13: Matt Park and Dave Helland cresting the steep snow right below the West Rib Cutoff.
Photo 14: Our high-camp on the Balcony at 16,400 on the West Rib looking towards the South Buttress of Denali.
Photo 15: Looking down from the Balcony at the West Rib. The “snow domes” can be seen in the bottom left of the photo.
Photo 16: Matt Park and Dave Helland ascending the 16 Ridge on the West Buttress of Denali in windy but stunning conditions.
Photo 17: A view from the summit of Denali looking back down the summit ridge.
Photo 18: From left to right, Dave Helland, Fischer Hazen and Matt Park enjoy perfect conditions on the summit of Denali.
Photo 19: A closeup of the Denali summit marker.
Photo 20: Matt Park and Dave Helland are obviously excited as we descend the summit ridge on Denali.
Photo 21: A stunning sunset as we descend around “Windy Corner” on the West Buttress. Large forest fires sent lots of smoke into the Alaska Range.
Photo 22: Denali saving the best sunset for last as we descend towards Kahiltna Pass on our final day on the mountain.
Photo 23: Dave Helland enjoying one last morning in the sleeping bag as we wait for a plane to Talkeetna. He is doing it right with a celebratory glacier beer in hand.