Preface: This post is intended to tell the “story” of my climb of Denali. A more detailed and focused post will be coming that provides tips, tricks, and specific beta on climbing Denali.


Pre-Trip & Background

I first went to Alaska in 2016 as part of a pre-freshman year expedition with Georgia Tech called Tech Treks Alaska. The trip was created by Matt Marcus and David Knobbe, two of my mentors in college. In short, it changed my life. I cannot understate how life-changing it was (thank you Mom and Dad…); it was my first time overnight backpacking in true wilderness. As a kid I went hiking with my family plenty, but I always wanted a bit more. This was the first experience I had where I felt “free”, like a horse let loose on the free range to run without bounds.

One of my first glances of Denali, on the Kesugi Ridge. July 2016

For 4 days, I stared at the mountain, in pure awe. Each summer after that, I returned to lead the trip, and each year, the same awe grew and grew. I needed to climb it.

In the fall of 2020 I put the idea back on the table with two of my climbing buddies, Chris and Dan. We had climbed the North Ridge of Baker together, skied the Coleman-Deming together, and done other trips that had similar elements to Denali.

Three goobers, after summiting Baker via the North Ridge. May 2020.

Flying onto the Glacier

We flew into Anchorage and did our food shopping locally, so as to avoid baggage fees from lugging food on the plane. Anchorage has plenty of options, like Costco, Fred Meyer (Kroger), Carrs (Safeway), etc. We opted to rent an AirBnB in Anchorage, rather than staying in a hotel; it would provide us with more space to lay out gear, food, etc.

We chose to use Talkeetna Taxi to shuttle us from Anchorage to Talkeetna; the service was amazing. They picked us up and loaded all of our bags into the back of a 12-passenger van…and off we went.

That’s a lot of stuff…

We were dropped off at K2 Aviation by 10:30 AM, the flight service we had booked our glacier flight with. All of the glacier flight services are located at the Talkeetna Regional Airport, just as an FYI. We checked in with the pilots and dropped off our bags in the hanger. I gave a call over to the rangers at the Walter Harper Ranger Station, and they were incredibly flexible in moving up our orientation appointment to help us get onto the glacier that day. There was a weather window that was closing…quickly.

Fun fact…small turbo-prop planes can’t fly very high, often below 14,000′, and the mountain peaks in the Alaska Range are that height or greater, making it impossible to fly low on cloudy days. We were racing against the clock. We finished our orientation appointment and headed back to the hanger to explode our gear and pack it to be ready for the flight. We needed to separate our skis, fuel, sharps, as well as the Clean Mountain Cans (poop buckets) that the rangers gave us to use on the mountain.

Within a few hours we got the go ahead and were ready to fly onto the glacier, with two new friends: Evan Hartung and Patrick Niedermeyer, two rad dudes from Alaska.

Dan and Chris carry over our gear in some carts and sleds.

As is obvious, the plane ride was SUPER fun. Flying over the glacial scenery was absolutely spectacular.

The Alaska Range

Clouds were low in the range, leaving the tops of the large peaks like Sultana (Mt. Foraker), Begguya (Mt. Hunter), and Denali out of view.

From the plane we could see rope teams on the glacier moving on the Kahiltna, looking like dots in a white expanse.

We BARELY were able to land; our pilot circled around the Kahiltna glacial valley for a while, remarking that we might not get a window to land. After two or three passes, he mentioned on the radios that he would try to squeeze us in, but that we would “have to get out…FAST.” This was going to be the last window for flying onto the glacier for 3 days, so we were anxious to get down there. Being stuck back in Talkeetna did not sound appealing. Masterfully, our pilot Patrick was able to navigate the cloud cover and bring us down, dump us off, and return to the skies.

Getting to 11k’ Camp

Well…now time to drag sleds. As our plane lifted off into the clouds and left us in the amazingly desolate Alaskan wilderness, it was time to begin our trek. We landed around 5 PM, but with daylight nearly all night (the sun ‘technically’ sets at 11 PM, but that just means it gets ~slightly~ darker) we opted to push on towards the first camp at 7,800′. It would be around 6 miles from the Kahiltna airstrip across the Kahiltna glacier, but we were feeling strong and energetic.

I lead the rope team out towards the Kahiltna glacier.

With sleds weighing from 70-80 lbs, and packs with 30-45 lbs of gear, it was a heavy haul for sure. But with mountains of 10,000’+ prominence around us, the travel was magnificent. It was WARM with the evening sun beating down on the glacier, a nice surprise as all of us were in fear of how cold we would be the entire time.

We made it to camp in less than 3 hours and began to set up our sleep tent and cook tent. We would perfect this routine over the coming weeks, but for our first time it went fairly smoothly!

The next day was burly, to say the least. The section from the Kahiltna airstrip to 7,800′ camp is nearly flat, so dragging the sleds across the level glacier was not that much of a wake up call. Carrying the sled up ANY kind of incline, however, was quite a different experience.

Notice how flat it is from the airstrip (~7,500′) to 7,800′ camp.

We wanted to move from 7,800′ to 11,000′ in one push, rather than either camping at an intermediate camp at 9,600′ or double carrying. The day started out slowly as we made our way up the first hill right out of camp. The sleds were HEAVY…we loaded them at around 70% weight in the sled, 30% in the pack. In hindsight, I think a ratio more like 60% pack, 40% sled would have been better for the steeper inclines.

Right around Kahiltna Pass, we hit a bit of a wall with carrying the sleds. Dan had been battling sciatica, a pain due to a herniated disk in his back, and he wasn’t able to keep on pulling the sled. We left his sled around Kahiltna Pass and I agreed to go back down and get it once we had set up our camp. Things got a little more annoying around 500′ above Kahiltna Pass, where both Chris and I ditched our own sleds, annoyed with how slow they were making us go. Triple carry it would be! We opted to just head up to 11,000′ camp with our packs, set up camp, and then return for our gear after pitching out the tent. To be honest, the manuever was quite efficient; we made camp and got all of our sleds up to camp by the time a group we had been pacing with all day made it in single carrying all their equipment.

The Vortex of 11k’ Camp

Once we made it to 11k’ camp we knew we would be spending a few days; weather was on the way, bringing 1-2 feet of snow, but we would also be making a double carry up to 14k’ camp. Turns out we would be holed up in 11k’ camp longer than we would expect. We called 11k’ camp a “vortex”; it is nestled in a bowl and keeps you from seeing the upper mountain. In some ways, it feels like an odd “purgatory”, not quite the upper mountain but colder than the slopes below. I wasn’t a huge fan, as you can probably tell.

Looking up at the upper mountain from 11k’ camp. The slope in the foreground is Motorcycle Hill.

We set up a very mediocre cook tent and the day after we arrived it dumped 2 feet of BLOWER powder. I took some laps on Motorcycle Hill, which is just above camp.

Our very mediocre cook tent, frying up some bagels.

After the snow storm we prepped to make our first carry up to 14k’ camp. As we were climbing out of camp, Chris was having trouble breathing, hacking up a lung. At first he feared it was HAPE, but none of his vital signs indicated that was the case. Turns out, it was asthma acting up in the cold, dry air. Dan and I opted to continue up and make a carry, while Chris turned around and went back to the tent to rest. We hoped that by making an initial carry we would be able to move our camp the next day, even with Chris not making the first carry. Dan and I trudged through 2 feet of powder to Windy Corner, where we stashed our first cache and returned to 11k’ camp. Breaking trail in 2 feet of powder WITH a sled exhausted me, to be honest.

Some funky turns by me in blower powder.
Fresh sled tracks in the snow on the way up to Windy Corner.
We dropped our first cache at Windy Corner, planning to move up to 14k’ camp the next day.

The next day did NOT go as planned. With packs full and sleds rigged, we attempted to move everything we had left up to 14k’ Camp. However, because Chris hadn’t made his carry up to Windy Corner we had more stuff than was reasonable to make it up Motorcycle and Squirrel Hill(s). Our sleds tipped numerous times, and halfway up Motorcycle Hill we decided to ditch the effort and camp another night at 11k’ Camp. Chris and I would make a carry up to 14k’ Camp, while Dan returned to 11k’ Camp and set up our tent. It was heartbreaking to be halfway up and bail, but honestly there was just too much stuff to move up feasibly. We would have been a junk show…if we weren’t already. Chris and I got to ski some good powder back from 14k’ Camp to 11k’ Camp, but that hardly made up for the heartbreak of the day.

14k’ Camp

FINALLY! After 4 days of the 11k’ Camp vortex, we made it to 14k’ camp, just a day before a storm system was supposed to roll through. 14k’ Camp was a stark contrast to 11k’ Camp, nestled below the upper mountain and with expansive views of the entire Alaska Range. Our stoke was fueled.

A panorama of 14k’ Camp. Notice the upper mountain in the left-hand side and the views of the Alaska Range on the right.

Now that we had made it to 14k’ Camp, it was time to settle in and spend some effort making a cook tent, digging out a tent platform, cutting snow blocks, and making a latrine. We would be at 14k’ Camp for at least a week as we acclimatized and waited for a weather window to attempt the summit.

The next day turned out to actually be clear, so we opted to go and head up the fixed lines, which had been put in the day before we arrived by the rangers (yes…we were there on the early side). The top of the fixed lines are at 16,200′, and we felt great at the altitude.

Chris heading up the slopes above 14k’ Camp to reach the fixed lines.
Chris’s photo of me, in the foreground, skinning up to the fixed lines, which begin above the bergschrund at the top of the photo.

The fixed lines were on a ~45 degree slope of blue ice, so skiing down was not really an option (unless you are Kilian Jornet). With an ascender, though, the travel was really easy; just pull, step, pull step, rinse and repeat.

A mediocre photo of the fixed lines, as Chris makes his way up.

We had planned to rappel the fixed lines with our ATC Alpine…but when we realized that the fixed lines were 12mm cord, which was too wide for our ATCs, we audibled to a prusik with an arm rappel.

Once we got below the fixed lines, we could ski back down to 14k’ Camp. We got around 1,500′ of some sweet powder right back to our tent!

Chris slashes a turn, Dan’s picture.
View of the slopes above 14k’ Camp from our tent.

Sadly, we realized that we were too early for any of the “big” lines on the mountain to be in. Turns out, April and May in the Alaska Range are NOT the ideal months for skiing…later in the year, particularly mid-to-late June, is best for skiing. The reasoning is that in the Alaska Range it is so cold early in the season that the snow that does fall doesn’t stick to the mountain and gets blown off easily, since it is so light and powdery. Thus, when we looked up at the Messner Couloir, Orient Express, and Rescue Gully, all we saw was blue ice and wind hammered snow. Lovely.

The Rescue Gully. Conditions: not great.
Messner Couloir. Conditions: Even worse.

On days where there were powder dumps, we’d go skiing around 14k’ Camp, harvesting powder on low angle slopes below the fixed lines. So we got some good skiing in…but I was definitely kicking myself a bit for not understanding the skiing would be better later in the year. Our plans were initially to climb the mountain via the West Rib, which is more of an ice climbing route…thus early season would have been better.

In a nutshell, life at 14k’ Camp can be boiled down in a few bullet points:

  • You will likely see someone peeing or pooing out of your front vestibule…it’s kind of comical and you’ll get used to it.
  • The views from your kitchen table are INSANE.
  • As soon as the sun heads behind the ridge, it gets COLD…very cold. And you will likely head straight to your tent. Overnight temps were around -5 F during our stay.
  • 14k’ Camp is surprisingly well protected from ~most wind storms on the mountain. Southerly winds are worse than northerly winds.
Dan gives a tour of 14k’ Camp

Summit Attempt #1

After 3 days in 14k’ Camp, Chris and I saw a small weather window, 2 days of clearing conditions with low winds and warmer temperatures. Sadly, Dan’s sciatica had worsened, and he wasn’t up for a summit push due to the cold, wind, and his back. It would just be Chris and I this time. My preference was to make a single-push attempt at the summit from 14k’ Camp and avoid sleeping at 17k’ Camp, which I heard was windy and a poor place to sleep. Chris wasn’t sure if he could make the 6,000′ push from 14k’ Camp to the summit, and felt that his (and collectively our) best chances were to split up the push by spending the night at 17k’ Camp. Although it was certainly not my first choice, Chris was my partner and I agreed that whatever made him feel more comfortable was what we would do.

To lighten our load, we opted to take down the cook tent at 14k’ Camp and bring up a MegaMid as our shelter for the night, as opposed to taking a full tent. The snow surface at 17k’ Camp is very firmly packed, so we knew we wouldn’t really be able to dig a snow cave. We would cut snow blocks to help buffer the wind, but it would likely be a windy and loud night. Overnight temperatures were forecast to be -15 to -20 F; thankfully, we had rented -25 F sleeping bags from Feathered Friends in Seattle (the models we used were the Ptarmigan -25).

With heavy packs, Chris and I made it up the fixed lines to 17k’ Camp in just under 5 hours. We opted to rope up on the ridge between the top of the fixed lines and 17k’ Camp. Our rationale was that:

  • It was early season, so there was sections of blue and white ice.
  • There was no bootpack in, again since it was early season.
  • While the ridge was not hard climbing, it was certainly exposed, and any kind of fall would be pretty catastrophic. With heavy packs, you could certainly get thrown off your balance.
Chris’s photo of me on the ridgeline.

The ridge has fixed pickets for protection, so we clipped every few and simul-climbed. While it slowed us down, it made the travel much safer and we weren’t going for a single push anyway.

Clouds began to sock in as we reached 17k’ Camp, and we only saw one other tent. I began to dig into the firm snow, pretty unsuccessfully, when Chris mentioned that the party in the tent was led by Vern Tejas, a legendary Denali climber and mountain guide (he has the record for the most ascents of Denali, 60 per his recollection).

After cutting snow blocks and watching the clouds accumulate, we hopped into our MegaMid and started to boil water.

As the video above shows, the night before we still had high stoke. The forecast called for “Partly Sunny” conditions, which we felt would be good enough for a summit attempt. The route above 17k’ Camp starts on a steep and sometimes icy traverse called the “Autobahn”, but other than that the upper mountain is largely low-angle.

Well, turns out the forecast was WAY OFF. In the morning we woke up, excited, and started to get ready without getting out of the tent. We were a bit startled when some friends we had met at 14k’ Camp approached our camp and asked us if “we were okay.”

“Yeah…we’re fine! What’s up?”, we asked.

“We’re heading back down to 14k’ Camp”, our friends replied. “The visibility is shit.”

NOOOOOOOO! We hadn’t even looked outside, and when we did, all we saw was white. It had socked in, turned to pure “ping pong ball” visibility. TRAGIC. We asked Vern what he intended to do with his team:

“Well, we like that the winds are calm and that it is warm, so we’ll probably give it a try in a few hours after some breakfast,” Vern said. For someone with 60 Denali summits, that might be a fine decision; he could probably navigate this mountain blindfolded and backwards. For us, though, it didn’t feel like a smart decision, so we opted to pack up and go back down, after waiting it out for a few hours. The visibility did not improve at all, so we felt content with our decision.

We laughed when we saw Vern’s group heading out, only to return 20 minutes later because “they couldn’t find the start of the Autobahn.” Coming from someone who has summited 60 times, that meant something to us. It was a NO GO.

A bit heartbroken, we cautiously made our way back down the ridge to 14k’ Camp and holed back up at camp, where the visibility was much better. We could see the MASSIVE cloud that had engulfed the upper mountain. We passed a few parties on the ridge that were turning around as well, deceived by the same forecast.

Chris’s video of me descending the fixed lines.

Waiting out the Storm

A low pressure system had descended upon the mountain; at this point, it was Thursday and high pressure was not supposed to start building back up until Sunday. We would have 4 days of waiting…I suck at waiting.

Our expedition was facing a bit of a tricky situation; Dan was not going to give the summit an attempt, so he was stuck in this “purgatory” of waiting for us to try the summit. Fortunately, a friend of mine and his group were on the mountain as well, and they were heading out soon because they had run out of time. We asked them if Dan could ski out with them, and they said yes. It was a good option for our team: Chris and I would stay, waiting for another weather window, while Dan could get off the mountain and try to treat his sciatica. Plus, he wouldn’t be stuck in the cold of 14k’ Camp anymore. It would mean that Chris and I would have way more gear to manage descending with, but it would give us the opportunity for another summit attempt. We were sold. We said our goodbyes to Dan and holed up in our tent, reading and playing cards, as we waited for the weather to improve.


We had to wait until Monday, but we finally saw high pressure returning. Unfortunately, it was not the perfect mix of conditions. While the clouds would be clearing, the winds were projected to be higher than last time, 35-45 mph depending on which weather model you looked at. This was just on the threshold of what we considered safe climbing conditions; on Denali, wind is the killer environmental factor. With ambient temperatures on the upper mountain of -15 to -25 F, strong winds can easily drop the wind chill to -40 or -50 F, where frostbite and hypothermia are serious hazards. We agreed that our threshold would be 40 mph; any higher than that and we wouldn’t give it a go.

Again, we made a push up to 17k’ Camp, but this time we were able to make a better camp spot with more effort put into cutting blocks. We would need as much shelter from the wind as possible.

AND, this time we weren’t alone. A number of parties had made the push up to 17k’ Camp as well, after having waited in 14k’ Camp for days. Our friends from Colorado were up there as well, and one of the climbers from their group would join our rope team if we did indeed make a summit attempt. We agreed to wake up and see what conditions were like in the morning.

A bit cozier this time.

We woke to the snow walls collapsing on us, a truly claustrophobic feeling. I rushed out and removed the blocks, only to find the wind strong. UGH…it was a grey area, with winds of ~35 mph. It would not be comfortable, but it was just underneath our safety threshold that we had set. But the decision wasn’t an obvious one. Here’s what was going through our heads:

  • The winds weren’t strong enough to knock us over, but they would make the wind chill a serious concern.
  • The winds were supposed to die down to 30 mph mid-day, then kick back up to 35-40 mph at night.
  • Clear skies all day meant we would have sun.
  • The night before a climber had fallen ~1,000′ on the Autobahn after he slipped unroped on the icy traverse. He had been evacuated by the NPS and was in the ICU with severe head injuries.

If we did launch for the summit, we would have to be CONTINUOUSLY moving to keep our blood flowing, preventing cold injuries. And we would need to be back at camp by 6 PM; after that the winds looked to worsen. Michael (the climber from the CO group), Chris, and I agreed to give it a shot. We would place running protection on the Autobahn, since a climber had fallen on the icy traverse the day before and needed evacuation. This would slow us down, but was a necessary safety measure. We agreed on a turn around time of 3 PM and headed out.

We were in the shade on the Autobahn but our strategy of moving continuously, albeit slowly, worked to keep us sufficiently warm. I started out leading the traverse, Chris then swapped for a short bit, and then I took back over once he had run out of pickets. The Authbahn took us 2-3 hours, which was painfully slow, but it was safe, which after that climber’s accident was the most important thing to us. We turned the corner on Denali Pass and began heading up towards Archdeacon’s Tower.

Michael in the shade on the Autobahn.

At around 18,000′ Michael stopped us and said that he didn’t think he could make the summit by our 3 PM turn around time. We were about 1 hour off, and we discussed the safety margin of pushing back our turn around time to 4 PM. We all agreed that since we had skis we were comfortable pushing our turn around time back, under the assumption we would make up time on the descent. We continued slowly up past Archdeacon’s Tower and towards the final summit ridge.

There is always a moment before you ACTUALLY do something when you realize you are going to do it. For me, this is always a moment of pure joy, sometimes more intense than the actual achievement itself. This came when we reached the final 200′ on the summit ridge and could finally see the true summit. We found an oddly windless spot where the sun made us warm. It was our only break from the wind all day long. We stopped, ate some food, drank hot water, and realized WE WERE GOING TO MAKE IT!

Michael’s photo of me approaching the final summit ridge.

I led us on the final push to the top. WOOHOO! The top of North America, a dream come true. We snapped a few photos quickly, spending less than 5 minutes on the top. It was cold and windy and we did not want to dawdle in such harsh conditions.

Michael’s photo of me laying with the USGS benchmark.

We began our descent off the ridge and noticed high clouds had started to form….WHAT?!?! What happened to our high pressure? It didn’t look too ominous, but the absence of pure sun was a bit frustrating.

Michael and I clicked into our skis right around Archdeacon’s Tower; we opted not to bring skis to the summit proper because of large sections of sastrugi that would have made the summit ski bumpy, icy, and a bit too hazardous for our taste. We would still get to ski from 19,500′ to 18,000′ at Denali Pass, so we were content with that. The snow was firm windboard, which made for ~decent~ skiing. Chris opted to just boot down, not wanting to go through the process of taking off his overboots and crampons. We met him at Denali Pass, roped back up for the descent down the Autobahn, and made our way back down.

Later in the season, it is very normal to just ski down the Autobahn, but because we were so early this would have been an icy and harrowing traverse (and mentally we were worried about it since the climber had fallen the day before). So, against every skier reflex in my body, we down-booted the Autobahn. Turns out, during the course of the day the NPS and a guide service had went in and placed 40 pickets to protect the route, in reaction to the fallen climber the day before. It felt like a sport climbing route, clipping a picket every 30m. Safe and sound, we were back down at 17k’ Camp.

Michael’s photo of me, walking out towards 17k’ Camp after descending the Autobahn, both axes raised in delight.

The winds had begun to ramp up, so we opted to not spend the night at 17k’ Camp but instead pack up and head down to 14k’ Camp. We were a bit worked, but it would be worth it for the better sleep. I led us back down the ridge to the fixed lines, in 45 mph winds at this point, which from time to time made us a bit wobbly. Conditions were deteriorating, and fast. Thankfully, we were off the ridge and below the fixed lines before the winds really started to pick up to 60 and 70 mph. By 11 PM we were back at 14k’ Camp, sipping hot water and chatting with our friends from CO in their cook tent. Mission accomplished.

Exit to Airstrip

Chris and I woke up with that feeling of “Wow…I just got WORKED.” Our bodies ached a bit, but we agreed to descend down to the Kahiltna Airstrip that day. A weather system was supposed to roll in again, and we wanted to be down and try to catch a flight the next day. Packing up all of our stuff was a bit hectic in the strong winds that remained from the day before, but by 11:30 AM or so we were on our way.

Skiing down with heavy sleds was NOT simple; we did not have PVC reinforcements for the sleds, just accessory cord attached to our backpacks. On steep slopes the sled would either tip or run rogue. Not to mention that the snow was a trap crust that was horrible for skiing. Around 13,500′ we began to boot a section where there were crevasses and icy conditions; we would boot all the way down to 11k’ Camp, sadly. On Motorcycle and Squirrel Hill(s) we had to take the sleds down one at a time, with Chris strapped in front of the sled and me behind it, keeping tension to prevent it from sliding all around. It was an ugly and frustratingly slow process.

By mid-day we had reached 11k’ Camp, though, and the slopes below 11k’ Camp were much more conducive to skiing with the sleds. As I began to ski out of camp I fell FLAT on my face, only to hear, “Sam?”. It was my friend, Porter, who was on the mountain guiding. “You are NOT telling Kyle about this,” I pleaded.

Chris and I found our groove skiing down below 11k’ Camp with the sleds. I positioned my sled in front of me, instead of behind, letting it fall down the slope and keeping a “pizza” ski all the way down. Chris opted to ski down with the sled behind him, which seemed to work as well.

Skiing down the Kahiltna valley in pure sun was incredible. Looking back at the mountain we could see the pure alpine nature of it.

I will admit, there were some shenanigans on the ski down with the sleds. I fell at least twice, when the sled came to a stop but I ended up running right over it. Turns out, there isn’t really an elegant way of skiing with sleds. It’s just ugly.

By 9 PM (which was still plenty light out) we had reached the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and transitioned to skins to make the final climb up to the airstrip. It had been a long day of shenanigans with sleds, but the trip was coming to a close. We had made it to our exit point…now time to wait for the plane.

The Airstrip Days

Hurry up and WAIT. Wow, the Airstrip Days were rough. We reached the airstrip Wednesday night, and were told by the aviation company we hired that we would likely be able to fly out the next day. Well, turns out that flying in the Alaska Range is an EXTREMELY delicate process. Most planes cannot fly above 14,000′, meaning they need great visibility and minimal cloud cover to navigate the deep glacial gorges that give way to the Kahiltna valley in the central Alaska range. Thursday was clear in the Kahiltna valley, so all day long we were perplexed why planes weren’t flying. The weather was poor in between us and Talkeetna, where the planes fly from.

So the weather needs to be perfect, everywhere?!?! I guess so. Thursday we went to sleep, heartbroken that we weren’t back in town eating burgers. We had given away our extra food at 14k’ Camp before we headed down because we were confident we would be able to fly out. That was a mistake. Friday came, and this time Talkeetna Air Taxi was able to land and extricate their clients, but our air service, K2 Aviation, lacked the planes and technology to fly above 14,000′. Thus, we were stuck on the glacier for yet ANOTHER day. Saturday brought horrible conditions, total white out with falling snow, so another day it was.

Finally, on Sunday we got a weather window in the morning and were able to fly out. 4 days on the airstrip, with no good skiing and having finished my book already…I think I can say that I was stir crazy.

Tents at the Kahiltna Airstrip, with Denali behind.
Playing a makeshift game of cornhole on the Kahiltna Airstrip, as we wait for the planes.

While frustrating, the Airstrip Days weren’t that bad. We were treated with incredible scenery and great friends. It was just frustrating to be stuck. Lesson to learn: cache some beer and food at the airstrip as soon as you land just for the case where you are stuck for days.

Major Takeaways

  1. I have never experienced the scale and size of the Alaska Range before. Imagine standing at Puget Sound and having Mt. Rainier 5 miles away from you…it feels like that.
  2. Bring a pee bottle. Enough said. It’s magical to not have to get out of the tent in the middle of the night.
  3. Don’t start early in the morning. There is no reason for it. The sun never sets…just wait for sunlight and you will be MUCH warmer.
  4. Cache food at the Kahiltna Airstrip that you won’t carry with you, just in case you get stuck. Steve House, a legendary alpinist, talks about being stuck at the Kahiltna Airstrip for 8 days. Cache yourself something nice, too, like cheese and bacon and some beer. At the end of your trip it will be a magical treat.
  5. EVERYTHING needs to go into sleeping bags or pockets at night. Otherwise it will freeze. Electronics, lighters, even MSR Whisperlite fuel pumps.
  6. Spend time and effort making your cook tent at 14k’ Camp. You’ll spend most of your time in it and you don’t want to be cramped and uncomfortable.
  7. May is early season, no matter what anyone tells you. Conditions will be icier and firmer than in June, when a majority of the snow in the Alaska Range falls. In May the route will feel more exposed and more involved; later in June, when there is a solid bootpack in, you may feel more comfortable without a rope.
  8. Bring an ascender for the fixed lines; having a handle, as opposed to just a Micro Traxion, will be worth it.
  9. Don’t overload your sled, especially on steep inclines. The heavier your sled is, the more likely it is to tip. Keep 60% of the weight in your pack, and 40% in your sled. Try to fit all the bulky items in the sled while keeping the heavy, dense items in your pack.
  10. Invest in a PVC reinforcement for your sled. It will make skiing down simpler.

I plan to have a dedicated “Denali Lessons Learned” post coming soon, so stay tuned.