Climbing Denali / Mt McKinley, 1997

On 6 July 1997, I reached the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley. The summit of Denali is 20,320 feet / 6,194 metres above sea-level, and the mountain is not only the highest mountain in Alaska, it’s also the highest mountain in all of the United States, as well as the highest mountain in North America.

Denali was the fourth of the Seven Summits I’d climbed. (The Seven Summits consist of the highest peak on each of the earth’s seven continents, and before climbing Denali I’d reached the summits of Africa’s Mt Kilimanjaro on 12 December 1985, Europe’s Mt Elbrus on 13 August 1994, and South America’s Cerro Aconcagua on 31 December 1994.) Denali was, however, the first of the US state highpoints that I’d climbed – and it remained my sole state highpoint for more than seven years.

Because the climbing party I was with got stuck on the mountain for eight days during our descent, I arrived back in New Zealand a week after the university’s second semester had begun and was immediately immersed in a hectic schedule of lecturing, writing and editing. As a result, I didn’t do what I’d done after climbing both Elbrus and Aconcagua – namely, write an account of the climb. For far too long there was a large and obvious hole in the Climbing page of my website. By the time I’d climbed or visited 30 US state highpoints and made web-albums about all of them with the exception of Denali, it was downright embarrassing.

Consequently, I have decided to plug that gap with a fairly brief account of the climb … and that’s what you are reading now. In due course, after I’ve had literally hundreds of colour negatives digitised, I’ll supplement this page with a far better illustrated web-album about the climb. In the meanwhile, though, here is a somewhat bare-bones account of my Denali climb.

Climbing party
I was part of a guided climb on the West Buttress route of Denali / Mt McKinley.

There were three guides who were working for the Mountain Trip guiding company. They were Sean Gaffney, 31, from Haines, Alaska, who was the trip leader; Bill Allen, 26, who also lived in Haines; and Kirby Senden, 23, from Anchorage.

There were eight clients. Four had joined the expedition via Mountain Trip. Two were from Albuquerque, New Mexico – namely, Rich Cherian, 35, and Jeff Dohner, 38; and two were from Anchorage – Soren Threadgill, 38, and his wife, Eva, 36 (who was originally from Austria). Four of us had signed up for the climb via Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions (the UK company with which I’d climbed Aconcagua; it’s now known as Jagged Globe) – namely, Aidan Brennan, 32, from London; Josie Kieran, 44, from Dundalk, Ireland; and Mike Sikora, 48, also from London. Mike was the only person on the trip whom I’d previously known: he and I had climbed Aconcagua together in late-1994. At the age of 53, I was oldest member of the expedition.

The climb
We drove from Anchorage to Talkeetna on Saturday, 21 June 1997, and late that afternoon flew from Talkeetna to Denali Base Camp at an altitude of 7,200 feet / 2,195 metres above sea-level in the South-East Fork of the Kahiltna glacier.

The Doug Geeting Aviation company's small ski-equipped "bush plane" in which I flew from Talkeetna
to Denali Base Camp in the South-East Fork of the Kahiltna glacier on Saturday, 21 June 1997.

During the next eleven days, we made our way slowly up from Base Camp to Camp 4, which is at an altitude of 17,200 feet / 5,243 metres above sea-level. The routine we followed involved carrying and hauling gear and supplies up the mountain, caching them, and then picking them up the following day. As a result, we not only climbed the route from Base Camp to the top of the headwall (which is 16,000 feet / 4,877 metres above sea-level) twice, but we also obeyed an important acclimatisation dictum, “Climb high; sleep low”, and that undoubtedly contributed to our success.

Here’s a brief summary of what we did on each of those eleven days.

Sunday, 22 June 1997 (day 2 on the mountain): We hauled gear from Base Camp to the site of Camp One, which was at 7,900 feet / 2,408 metres above sea-level, cached it, and then returned to Basecamp. Time taken to get to Camp One: 3 hours and 10 minutes; time taken to return to Base Camp: 2 hours and 35 minutes.

This is a photograph that I took of one of the pages in an Alaska Range Route Guide to the West Buttress Route. From Base Camp
at an altitude of 7,200 ft / 2,195 m above sea-level on the South-East Fork of the Kahiltna glacier, the West Buttress route on Denali
initially goes down Heartbreak Hill, then turns right and heads north up the Kahiltna glacier to Camp One at 7,900 ft / 2,408 m. After
Camp One, the route climbs Ski Hill on its way towards the Kahiltna Pass (which is above the 9,700 ft. cache-site that's marked on
this diagram) before it swings right again (i.e., east) and on towards the site of Camp Two (which isn't visible in this photograph).

Monday, 23 June 1997 (day 3 on the mountain): We struck camp, and carried and hauled all our gear and supplies from Base Camp to Camp One. Time taken to get to Camp One: 3 hours and 35 minutes.

Tuesday, 24 June 1997 (day 4 on the mountain): We hauled supplies from Camp One, up Ski Hill, to Kahiltna Pass (10,00 feet / 3,048 metres), cached them, and returned to Camp One. Time taken to get to our Kahiltna Pass cache-site: 4 hours; time taken to get back to Camp One: slightly less than 2 hours.

Wednesday, 25 June 1997 (day 5 on the mountain): We struck camp and hauled and carried all our gear from Camp One up Ski Hill. We then carried on past our Kahiltna Pass cache-site and established Camp Two at 11,000 feet / 3,353 metres above sea-level. Time taken to get to Camp Two: 6 hours and 20 minutes.

Rich Cherian (left) and Jeff Dohner, carrying large packs and hauling loaded sleds,
make their way from Camp One to Camp Two on Wednesday, 25 June 1997.

Thursday, 26 June 1997 (day 6 on the mountain): After resting for the first half of the day we did a “back carry”: we went back down the mountain to our Kahiltna Pass cache-site, collected the gear we’d left there, and then returned to Camp Two. The total time spent on this back carry was only 2 hours and 10 minutes. It was, as I noted in my diary, “a very light day.”

Friday, 27 June 1997 (day 7 on the mountain): Carrying gear to be cached and wearing crampons for the first time on the mountain, we climbed Motorcycle Hill and rounded Windy Corner (which did not live to its name) before depositing our gear at about 13,500 feet / 4,115 metres above sea-level. We then retraced our steps and returned to Camp Two. Time taken to reach our cache-site: 4 hours and 20 minutes; time taken to return to Camp 2: 1 hour and 30 minutes.

This is a photograph I took of another of the pages in an Alaska Range Route Guide to the West Buttress Route. Camp Two is at
11,000 ft / 3,353 m. Skis and snow-shoes are usually left behind at Camp Two and crampons donned for ascending Motorcycle Hill
and, of course, for the rest of the climb. The West Buttress of Denali / Mt McKinley begins at the top of the dramatic black pyramid
that's to the left of the 13,500 ft cache-site in the middle of this photograph. Camp Three (also known as Advance Base Camp) is
at 14,200 ft / 4,328 m. The headwall is the left-hand half of the route that's marked between Camp Three and the 16,000 ft / 4,879 m
cache site on the West Buttress. The final portion of the route to Camp Four (at 17,200 ft / 5,243 m) is directly along the ridge of
the West Buttress.

Saturday, 28 June 1997 (day 8 on the mountain): We struck camp and carried our equipment and supplies from Camp Two up Motorcycle Hill, round Windy Corner, and past our 13,500 feet cache-site to Camp Three (which is sometimes also called Advanced Base Camp) at 14,200 feet / 4,328 metres above sea-level. Time taken to get from Camp Two to Camp Three: 7 hours.

A heavily-laden Mike Sikora makes his way up Motorcycle Hill en route from Camp Two to Camp Three on Saturday, 28 June 1997.

A photo taken on Saturday, 28 June 1997, of two members of our party weaving their way through some of the massive
crevasses between Windy Corner and Camp Three. Mt Hunter (14,573 ft / 4,442 m) dominates the background.

Sunday, 29 June 1997 (day 9 on the mountain): Our second back carry: we left Camp Three and went back down to our 13,500-ft cache-site, retrieved the gear we’d left there, and returned to Camp Three with it. The total time spent on this back carry was only 2 hours and 10 minutes (exactly the same time we’d taken to do our first back carry three days earlier).

Monday, 30 June 1997 (day 10 on the mountain): After a very cold start to the day (at 8:00 am, the temperature was –14 degrees C / 7 degrees F), we left Camp Three at 8:55 am and climbed the “headwall”, which has fixed ropes on its upper half and which leads up to the main ridge of the West Buttress of Denali / Mt McKinley. It took us 4 hours and 45 minutes to reach the 16,000-foot / 4,877-metre high top of the headwall, where we cached gear, ate our lunch, and – in order to aid acclimatisation – rested for 2 hours and 20 minutes. Descending the headwall and returning to Camp Three took 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Aidan Brennan clipped into fixed ropes and nearing the top of the headwall on Monday, 30 June 1997.

Tuesday, 1 July 1997 (day 11 on the mountain): Our first full rest day, during which our only exertion was walking across the 14,200-foot plateau to the “Edge of the World” to look down 5,000 feet / 1,524 metres into the “Valley of Death” (otherwise known as the North-East Fork of the Kahiltna glacier).

A loo with a view! Looking past Camp Three's toilet towards Mt Foraker (17,400 ft / 5,304 m),
with Mt Crosson (12,352 ft / 3,765 m) in the middle of the picture.

Wednesday, 2 July 1997 (day 12 on the mountain): This was one of the toughest – if not the toughest – day on the mountain. We left Camp Three, re-climbed the headwall, retrieved our cached goods at the 16,000-foot mark, and then climbed the West Buttress to reach Camp Four at 17,200 feet / 5,243 metres above sea-level. It took us 9 hours and 20 minutes (as I exclaimed in my diary, “9 hours and 20 minutes to cover a mile-and-a-half!”).

This photograph of me about to set off along the ridge of Denali / Mt McKinley's
West Buttress was taken by Aidan Brennan on Wednesday, 2 July 1997, after we
retrieved the gear we'd cached at 16,000 ft / 4,879 m two days earlier (and as a
result I had possibly the heaviest pack I'd ever carried in my life!).

Bill Allen (left) and Josie Kieran making their way on Wednesday, 2 July 1997, up a set of
fixed ropes towards Washburn's Thumb on the West Buttress of Denali / Mt McKinley.

Summiting Denali
Thursday, 3 July 1997 (day 13 on the mountain): This was a rest day, during which we all went for a series of small walks to aid acclimatization.

Our tents behind ice-block walls (to protect us from the wind) at Camp Four, which is at an altitude of
17,200 ft / 5,243 m) and is situated on a small, largely crevasse-free plateau near the foot of Denali Pass.

Friday, 4 July 1997 (day 14 on the mountain): Plans for an Independence Day summit attempt were thwarted by lenticular clouds – which indicated that there were very strong winds – across the top of the mountain.

Saturday, 5 July 1997 (day 15 on the mountain): Moderately heavy snow put paid to plans for a summit attempt. As I noted in my diary, after “our first 13 days on the mountain [had gone] entirely to plan”, the two-day delay in mounting a summit attempt was “annoying, boring, and frustrating.”

This is a photograph I took of another of the pages in an Alaska Range Route Guide to the West Buttress Route. From Camp
Four (which is at 17,200 ft / 5,243 m), the route to the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley heads up through the shadowed area
in this picture to Denali Pass, then turns right for the long haul up to the 'Football Field', after which there's a short steep
climb to the mountain's summit ridge.

Sunday, 6 July 1997 (day 16 on the mountain): Summit day: we woke around 6:30 am and left Camp Four at 9:50 am. We climbed Denali Pass slowly using running belays, then headed east up a long ridge before turning north and dropping down onto the Football Field. The climb from there up the slope to the mountain’s summit ridge was tough, but I was pleased – and surprised – to find the exposure on the summit ridge did not worry me. At 7:03 pm (nine-and-a-quarter hours after leaving Camp Four) I stepped onto the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley.

Aidan Brennan took this photograph of me shortly before 7:00 pm on Sunday, 6 July 1997, after the three-man rope team
I was on had crossed Denali / Mt McKinley's summit ridge. We were about five minutes from the summit of the mountain.
Mt Foraker (17,400 ft / 5,304 m) is on the right.

Soren Threadgill took this photograph of me on the 20,320 ft / 6,194 m summit of Denali / Mt McKinley at about 7:10 pm on Sunday,
6 July 1997. I'm holding up a t-shirt displaying the name and logo of the Victoria University of Wellington (i.e., the university
where I taught). Denali was the fourth of the Seven Summits I'd climbed, but my first US state highpoint.

I took a cheap throw-away panoramic camera with me to the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley, and – as a result – this is, sadly,
a rather poor photograph looking south-west down onto Denali's summit ridge and across at
Mt Foraker (17,400 ft / 5,304 m).

This is another of the wide-angle photographs I took from the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley.

Nine of our party reached the top that evening (Jeff was suffering from altitude sickness and had stayed behind at Camp Four, while Mike – despite the fact that he was exhausted – had gamely struggled up as far the staging plateau at the start of the summit ridge in order to let the rest of his rope team – Bill, Eva, and Josie – have the opportunity of getting to the top of the mountain). We all got back to Camp Four at 12:43 am after an almost 15-hour day – a day that had, as I noted in my diary, been “exhausting, tiring, but immensely satisfying.”

This photograph was taken of me by Aidan Brennan at 12:43 am on Monday,
7 July 1997, as I returned to Camp Four after summiting Denali / Mt McKinley.

The descent
Monday, 7 July 1997 (day 17 on the mountain): We woke at 9:00 am, and started our descent at 12:45 pm. It took us 2 hours and 20 minutes to get to our cache-site at the top of the headwall, and – after resting there – a further two hours to climb down to Camp Three, which we reached at 6:00 pm. After retrieving our sleds and packing up all our gear, we started heading on down the mountain again at 7:35 pm, and took exactly two hours to reach Camp Two. We collected our snow-shoes and the “honey-bucket” (i.e., our toilet!) that we’d left at Camp Two, and at 10:45 pm continued our descent…

Tuesday, 8 July 1997 (day 18 on the mountain): … until 1:00 am, when we stopped near the top of Ski Hill (at roughly 8,800 feet / 2,682 metres) and set up a make-shift camp. We slept from only 2:15 to 3:30 am, before getting up, repacking, and heading on down the trail again at 4:30 am. We stopped to pick up a few final supplies that we’d left at our old Camp One site and then carried on down the Kahiltna glacier. However, after weeks of good weather, many of the snow-bridges had melted and Sean fell (thankfully not too deeply) into a crevasse near the top of an icefall between the East and the South-East Forks of the Kahiltna glacier. As a result, we turned round and headed up to the mouth of the East Fork, where we set up camp. It was only 8:30 in the morning, and our attempt to reached Base camp had failed. We spent the rest of the day in our Kahiltna Crevasse Centre camp (as we nicknamed it), at an altitude of about 7,350 feet / 2,240 metres above sea-level.

Wednesday, 9 July 1997 (day 19 on the mountain): There wasn’t an overnight freeze, so we didn’t try to get down through the icefall and instead spent another day at our Kahiltna Crevasse Centre campsite. As we'd brought enough food onto the mountain for only 20 days, the size and number of our meals were now strictly rationed.

Thursday, 10 July 1997 (day 20 on the mountain): This proved to be our third and final day at our Kahiltna Crevasse Centre campsite.

Friday, 11 July 1997 (day 21 on the mountain): We woke at 1:35 am and at 3:20 am started making our way cautiously and gingerly back up the mountain in search of a crevasse-free site where ski-planes could land. Thick mist and wet sleet forced us to call a halt for five hours (from 5:30 till 10:30 am) prior to climbing Ski Hill. At 12: 30 pm, we stopped where we’d briefly camped three days earlier and once again pitched our tents at an altitude of 8,800 feet / 2,682 metres above sea-level.

Saturday, 12 July 1997 (day 22 on the mountain): It snowed quite heavily all night, so we went nowhere at all.

Sunday, 13 July 1997 (day 23 on the mountain): My diary entry for the day begins: “Snow, snow, snow. Will it ever stop snowing?”

Peering out of our tent (and looking remarkably happy) while we enjoyed an insubstantial meal at
our 8,800 ft / 2,682 m campsite are (from left to right) Nigel Roberts, Mike Sikora, and Josie Kieran.

Monday, 14 July 1997 (day 24 on the mountain): The snow, though quite light by this stage, continued for most of the day. Once again, we went nowhere.

Tuesday, 15 July 1997 (day 25 on the mountain): At 12:15 pm, two RMI guides walked out of the mist and into our camp – bringing us some much needed food! Sean decided we’d join them at their campsite a thousand feet above us. As a result, we packed up and set off at 1:55 pm. We spent exactly two hours trudging up to 9,800 feet / 2,987 metres – a couple of hundred feet below Kahiltna Pass – where we pitched camp and then joined forces with an RMI group to stomp out a landing site in the snow.

Wednesday, 16 July 1997 (day 26 on the mountain): After a very cold night, at long last we had a day that dawned fine and clear.

The view out of the back of our tent at our 9,800 ft / 2,987 m campsite on Wednesday morning, 16 July 1997: the clear weather
meant ski-equipped planes could finally fly in, land, and take us off the mountain – a mere eight days after we expected to fly out!

This meant planes could finally fly in, land, and pick us up. Sean, Aidan, Mike and I were on the first flight out. The four of us left our final campsite on Denali at 9:40 am, and a mere 33 minutes later landed in Talkeetna.

The first thing I did was call home. In accordance with its policies, the National Park Service had not passed on messages to let people know we were stuck on the mountain, so Heather and Evan hadn’t known what had happened to me and why I hadn’t returned home on schedule on 14 July! Later on I called work to let my colleagues know why I’d missed the first week of lectures. I also contacted airlines to book new flights, and four days later I was back in New Zealand: my Denali adventure – one of the greatest adventures of my life and probably the climb of which I am most proud – was over.