Climbing Denali

Sun, Jun 25, 2017

Back in ’92, I climbed Denali.  Here’s the short version.

On May 30, 1992, I flew to Anchorage to meet my guide and climbing partner, Jeff Lakes.  I was introduced to him through the guides during my climb of El Pico de Orizaba (18,491′), a Mexican volcano that is the third highest peak in North America.

Jeff was a Canadian sheetmetal worker who wanted to guide full time and I was his first client.  Neither of us had been to Denali and my high elevation mountaineering experience was limited to Mt Ranier and El Pico.

For those climbs, it’s four people to a rope so that if one falls, perhaps in a cravasse, the other three can save him.  But we did the climb as a twosome.  The park rangers were not happy when we did the mandatory check-in to get our permit.

We took a shuttle to Talkeetna and learned that the planes had been grounded for the past week due to clouds on the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip.  So the town was full of climbers hanging around just killing time.  Same thing on the next day.  Then we woke to a clear day.  You could feel the excitement in the air as the planes were fired up and everyone was making their way to the airport.

This was the view from the airport.

01 Denali in the Clear

We flew on this plane with Doug Geeting Aviation.  The customer rule is that it’s first in, first out.  Since we’d only been there two nights, we were at the back of the line but we didn’t care.  Just wanted to get up there.  And you can bet that the climbers stuck on the glacier were happy to be flown back off.

02 Geeting Airplanes

Here’s the landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier on our fly by.  Those campsites have Igloo type walls built around them for wind protection.

03 Landing Zone.2

We had provisions for 21 days and that’s way too much to carry on your back.  So we pulled our food, fuel and equipment on cheapo plastic sleds.  Everyone does this as they work great.  Here’s Jeff loading up.

04 Sleds are Packed

For the first two days, we skied uphill, with skins, and pulled the sleds behind us.  Our backpacks were full of the lightweight stuff such as our -40F sleeping bags.  Here’s Jeff on the way down.  He was an expert skier.  What I remember about going down was the sled banging into my skies and shooting between my legs!  Yes that happened.  And remember, we weren’t on downhill ski boots.  We wore our climbing boots that are no higher than your ankle.

06 On the Move

Our high camp was at 16,200 ft right on a saddle.  That means that we were on a low part of a ridge with a steep drop-off on either side.  We endured one long stormy night with winds that sounded like a freight train.  Occupied tents have blown off the mountain at this location.  It was truly frightening.

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A typical scene of the glaciers flowing from Denali.  This is a shot from the summit.

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Jeff on the summit ridge.  It’s 10,000 ft down if you fall on the left but only 3,000 on the right. We walked on the right side 🙂

That’s Mt Foraker in the background, 6th highest mountain in North America.

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Me on the summit.  Do I look relaxed?

That dark pyramid on the left is Denali’s shadow cast into space (that white streak is a scratch on the negative that transferred to the scan).  This is about midnight and the sun is in my face.  See the reflection in my glasses?

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The summit day climb was 10-1/2 hrs up and 3-1/2 down.  So 14 in total.  Most climbing accidents happen on the way down due to fatigue.  But I felt great and I was ultra focused.

One section that scared me was the Orient Express.  So called because of all of the Asians who’ve fallen there and perished.  Walking down I was super careful to lift my feet each step so that my crampons wouldn’t catch the ice and trigger a fall.  That’s how it happens.

Jeff and I unroped on the way down.  It’s steep and if one of us were to fall, we’d both go down.  So it was solo and I was all in.  I felt great all the way down and was happy to make it back to camp.  One of the best days of my life.

Overall, the climb was 10 days up and 2 days down.  Broken down, it was 2 ski days up, rest day, haul supplies to 14k & retreat, climb to 14k camp, rest day, haul supplies to 16k & retreat, climb to 16k camp, storm (rest) day and then summit day.  We came down in two days.  Denali was kind to us.

But 1992 was not a good year on Denali.  Eleven people died in May just as we were getting ready to go.  Four were killed on May 31st and we watched the helicopter flying back to the airport with body bags hanging from a rope.  Not what you want to see when you’re ready to climb.

And then sadly, the world lost Jeff in 1995.  During our climb, we were going up at roughly the same rate as a group of Scots and their leader had a permit for K2, the second highest mountain in the world.  Jeff offered to guide and got the gig.  K2 is much more challenging than Everest and not easily conquered.

During their trip, bad weather prevailed and most climbers gave up and went home.  But an ambitious British lady named Alison Hargreaves was having none of it.  So those still on the mountain formed a new team and went up.  The team included some great climbers including Sir Edmund Hillary‘s son and Jeff.

Off they went.  The weather soured and Hillary and others turn back.  Jeff continued but then he also turned back.  I don’t know the details but Alison Hargreaves and others were blown off the mountain.  Jeff made a heroic retreat to a lower camp only to find it destroyed by avalanche.  So he continued down and finally made it to one of the lower camps.  Those present got him into a sleeping bag and fed him soup to fight the dehydration.  He should have been ok but was dead in the morning.

I learned of the incident from the Sunday newspaper while vacationing in Hawaii with Carol.  Had the story not mentioned him by name, I wouldn’t have known since we’d slowly lost touch.  This was three years after our climb and limited email and virtually no internet in those days.

Climbing Magazine put this story on the cover a few months later which is how I learned the details.  They included a nice sidebar explaining Jeff’s fate.  I have a hard copy but can’t find an online link to share.

Rest in peace my friend.

2 thoughts on “Climbing Denali

  1. Pingback: Alaska (Chapter 5) – July 2017 | travelwiththeslowskys

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