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Denali Summit Climb!

Updated: Jun 21


5/14/21

The flight to Anchorage was crowded but smooth and I was able to choose an exit row seat with plenty of leg room to spread out. I sat next to two Alaskan natives, one who spend the last 20 years in Talkeetna - the place where I'm heading. From there I'll catch a ski plane and land on Denali's Kahiltna glacier. Interestingly, both of them were brought up in families that moved to Alaska in order to escape the hustle and bustle of city life on the East coast. They were both raised in cabins surrounded by mile upon mile of raw wilderness. I have a patient who was also raised in this manner. Although life must have been extremely challenging for them growing up in these circumstances, nobody I spoke with seemed to express remorse. Instead, they appreciated the simplicity and depth of their childhood experiences.


I arrived in Anchorage at 10:30 that evening and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Anchorage. The room was very cozy and I slept really well. In the morning, I woke up, opened the curtains and staring back at me were endless snow capped mountains across from the parking lot!


5/15/21

With a little time to kill before meeting my team at the airport, I decided to take a short walk down a hiking path behind the hotel. The weather was gorgeous and for being right near the airport in downtown Anchorage, the path was stunningly beautiful.



Members of our climbing group started trickling into the airport at 2:00PM. I was feeling extremely excited and nervous at the same time. "What will my climbing partners be like?" "Are they well trained?" "Are they fit enough?" "Are they going to leave me in the dust?" All of these questions were swimming through my mind when I met the first climber, James, who arrived all the way from Hong Kong. It took him 3 days to get to Anchorage. He was soft-spoken and courteous, putting my mind at ease.



We all boarded a shuttle and stopped off at REI and a supermarket in Anchorage and then off to Talkeetna where we would stay the night and hopefully fly to the Kahiltna the next day. The day was overcast and although we were getting closer to Denali, there were no mountain in sight.... until... two and a half hours later all of a sudden right before entering Talkeetna, Denali suddenly showed her magnificent presence. We immediately stopped the shuttle and rushed out to take pictures. Tears welled up inside of me when Denali suddenly stood out above the clouds. Although Denalu looked humongous, I didn't feel intimidated, just awe.... she is so beautiful!!



That night we stayed at the Swiss Alaska Inn in Talkeetna:

Slept unusually well that night since my bed was surprisingly comfortable despite the mouse in the wall and the ancient lonely feeling of the Swiss Alaska hotel in Talkeetna. We were generously provided with single rooms that have two beds for each of us five climbers. Plenty of space to spread out our gear on the second bed for a gear check the next day.


Climbers:

Armaan - living in New York and originally from India. Climbed several Himalayan Peaks, Aconcagua and others around the world. He was first to ride a motorcycle across largest lake in Siberia, Lake Baikal (395 miles long) - on pure ice!!

James - Living in Hong Kong and originally from England. He climbed many mountains including Everest, about which he wrote a book, He has a great sense of humor (dark and genuinely British).

Jack - living in Jacksonville Florida. He is an avid hiker and completed the Appalachian Train along with other multi-week climbs. He is very kind and full of charisma.

Greg - living in Kansas City, climbed Aconcagua, trained in Colorado climbing the 14000'ers and Cotopaxi in Ecuador.


Guides:

Main Guide - Climbed all over the world including guiding Denali at least 7 times and Everest. His stories are numerous and full of rich experience. One involved a fall on Everest when a fixed line anchor that popped out of the snow and sent him flying downward.

Guide 1 - Guided several Denali climbers to the Summit. Extremely enthusiastic and strong climber.

Guide 2- Has not climbed Denali yet but is very competent and very mountain savvy. She gave us many pearls of mountain climbing wisdom.

Today was our orientation and gear check day. Felt relieved knowing that I had all the right gear since two of our team members had to return all the way back to Anchorage to get a missing beacon and mittens. This entailed paying $85 each for a taxi and a total of 6 hours driving. Over the last few months I compulsively reviewed the gear list and even memorized it. Our main guide allowed me to drill a few holes on one of his sleds to rig it with poles. To do this I brought a battery-powered drill with me from Portland. I found this method of rigging much easier and safer when training on Mt. Hood. The other climbers will be using ropes instead of poles.



Hard Rigged Sled:

After a lot of trial and error and research, I realized that a hard rigged sled is the way to go. With only ropes between my sled and I, it's easy for it to bang against the back of my legs while going downhill and swing to the side when traversing steep sections. Stainless steel hard-rigged poles prevent this from happening by keeping the distance between sled and legs constant. I investigated several ways to hard rig a sled and tried each one of them. At first I tried using PVC poles, but these were flimsy and prone to cracking. The final product was my own version, involving 5 foot long 1/3 inch steel pipe which doesn't bend much or crack. I used an angle grinder to make steel brackets out of u-clips and mounted them to the sled with screws. Next I drilled holes through the steel pipe and placed a 1/8" pin and locker on each bracket. This setup worked wonders while training for and climbing up Denali until it didn't... At first the IMG guides were hesitant to accept my version of sled and warned me that in a crevasse fall the steel bars would cause injury. So I remedied this situation by wrapping the bars with pipe insulation. There are several sections during the climb where climbers have to strap those huge expedition sleds to their backpacks after dropping off the cache. I suggested that all the sleds be placed on my hard rigged sled and then I can haul them back to camp for everyone. Our main guide, liked this idea and it worked out perfectly. This avoided having to attach sleds to everyone's pack (not an easy task) and the inconvenience of wind hitting the sleds, pushing climbers off balance while hiking back to camp. It wasn't until the last day of the climb that I regretted my hard rigged sled configuration. In order to take the steel poles on my flight to Alaska, they had to be cut in half. So I decided to use a union with screws as the easiest way to reconnect them in Alaska. I also brought a battery powered drill, wrench, screwdriver, and all the accessories to rebuild the sled in Talkeetna. I practiced how to fix the sled in route if needed - which came in handy. There was a lot of fixing to be done while descending Denali since the unions kept splitting apart and there was no way for me to stop and fix them!! In hindsight I should have placed a pin and a stopper in the middle of the steel bars instead of a union.



Just kept praying for good weather and a strong team. It was quickly becoming obvious that everyone was getting along very well. My teammates were really cool and their passion for climbing really shows. I hope that my teammates become friends for life and that we can celebrate at the summit. May the universe look out for us and support our mission as psychotic as it is. Today is a beautiful day in Talkeetna - a total blessing. Denali lures you in like a black hole. The closer I get, the deeper the urge to place my feet on her soft white skin. At her mercy we cautiously put one foot in front of the other, hoping she abides as we make slow and gentle strides.


5/16/21

We waited all day for the weather to clear in order to fly via Talkeetna Air to the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip. Thinking that we'd be able to fly out after a couple of hours of waiting, they loaded a 6 seat ski plane with all of our gear, then waited... waited.... and waited some more. After about 7 hours, they called the day off and off we went back to the Swiss Inn. We were all still in great spirits and met members of other teams. Cracked jokes, drank a bit of whiskey, and chilled out all day on the porch overlooking the runway. We were told that it's common to wait days before planes can fly to Denali due to constant cloud cover above the runway. Pilots will sometimes fly if there is a "hole" in the clouds and dive through it aiming for the airstrip on the Kahiltna.


5/17/21


I have never seen anywhere this beautiful in my life. The mountains here are magnificent and full of earth's energy that simply overwhelms my being. Today, first thing in the morning, we were given the go-ahead and rushed to the airport for our incredible flight to the glacier. As we flew closer to Denali the plane practically whisked the sides of each snow-capped ridge. Before boarding, I asked the pilot to give us one of his signature dive landings

- a maneuver that pilots make that requires diving through a hole in the clouds. The pilot complied and said "by special request, I am going to nose dive to the glacier." It was crazy fun!! Luckily, to this day, nobody on the team knows what the hell he was talking about or who requested the nose-dive. Landing on the snow felt surprisingly smooth despite the chunks of ice, dips, and bumps. As soon as the plane stopped, we were reminding right away that this wasn't your typical tourist excursion. We immediately had to unload over a thousand pounds of gear and get it at least 100 feet away from the plane and runway with only a few minutes to spare.

Soon afterwards, we took a 7 mile trek with 120lbs combined weight in our packs and sleds to 7800 camp. We passed areas of huge serac and ice waiting to fall. The weather held nicely. Made it to 7800 camp, carved tent platforms, and erected our tents within a few hours. I've heard horror stories about the Kahiltna and how crevasses were everywhere. Luckily, due to an early season start, the crevasses

weren't so prominent and our trail avoided them entirely.


5/18/21

Today we climbed up ski hill - which was much longer than I anticipated. The term "Hill" was probably meant to encourage climbers or ridicule them. The proper term would be "mountain." Today's mission is to cache our gear at 10200 feet and then return to our camp at 7800 ft. Weather became rough from 9000 ft with white out, wind, and cold. After caching, everyone had to load sleds into their backpacks because lighter sleds are prone to flipping over when not loaded.... except me! Since my sled was hard-rigged and not prone to flipping, I simply towed it behind me without an issue.

5/19/21

Today was a "rest" day at 7800 camp since weather above us was too windy to proceed. It was warm down at camp though! I was feeling amazing and had tons of pent up energy so I asked if it were okay if I dig the cache hole although it is usually the role of the guides. Of course they were like, "Sure! Go right ahead!" So I dug a 5' x 5' hole in the snow and then did a cardio exercise routine while others shook their heads at me and conserved their energy per recommendation of the guides. Our guide was excited to see the hole I dug and proceeded to check out the layers in the snow and conduct an avalanche test. I was, as with most days, the first out of the tent (and usually the last one in the tent at night). Tears automatically flowed down my face as soon as I opened the tent zipper that morning as the stunning views unfolded.



5/20/21 Today we climbed to 11000 Camp. On the way we dug another cache hole at 10,200 and placed our gear inside. Weather was windy and cold. At appx. 500 feet from 11000 camp our guide suddenly fell ill and collapsed on the trail. After a long period of time with wind howling and whiteout, he then proceeded to barely make it up to camp and then collapse again. Once we arrived at camp, I immediately attended to him. The other guide told me to work my "magic" after I placed my arms around him and said that I will help him get better. I immediately administered acupressure on his LI11 and LI4 points (since he was having intestinal spasms) and then gave him highly concentrated electrolyte water since he was extremely dehydrated. Shortly afterward, I also had him drink water with concentrated clove and ginger oils to help regulate his digestive system. I could immediately see that he was improving and told him to rest. Within a few hours he reported feeling much better and the expedition went on. We then occupied ourselves with tent platform preparation, wall building, and tent building - this took several hours. Our Main Guide thanked me afterwards and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction assisting him. I was grateful that the other guides felt comfortable enough to entrust me in his care.


5/21/21

This was just a chill day at 11000 camp. Laid down all day, hung out in the tent while watching downloaded movies. Watched the movie 02, which was filmed inside of a small capsule that transported a scientist to a new planet. At first it was difficult to watch because I felt so crammed into our tent of 3 people that watching this movie made me feel claustrophobia phobic.


5/22/21

Today we went back down to the cache sight to retrieve gear. Basically, this entails digging up gear such as food, shit can, and climbing gear that we buried into the snow about 5 feet deep for storage. The whole cache scenario helps reduce carry loads and aids in acclimatization. I woke up with a light headache and couldn't shake it the entire day. Took some ibuprofen which helped a little but realized that it would be better to take at night to prevent headache the day after. Luckily the weather improved today and we can see Motorcycle Hill to our back and a huge crevasse and serac layer surrounding us. Just met another climber from Argentina. Slept in the middle of a three person tent and couldn't sleep at all. About an hour after hitting the sack, my tent mate rolled over onto me and kept shaking from the cold. With no extra space in the tent I just laid there like a zombie.


Can't believe that 8 days have passed already! I dreaded the idea of storm days before going on this trip and sitting inside a freezing tent without anything to do, but eventually found them to be quite pleasant! At least yesterday wasn't so bad staying in a warm tent chilling with the company of my ten mates. Armaan is a very sincere and kind friend while James has an amazing sense of humor and a great climbing storyteller. I listened to downloaded audio books and movies. James suggested that my next climb should be to Camp 3 of Everest to get a "taste" of what climbing the big one feels like and see if summiting is in my future. James climbed Everest and a shitload of other mountains. With all the combined experience of my team mates, I felt surrounded by giants.


5/23/21

A high pressure system is working its way in (at least that's what they're saying) and I'm hopeful that we can move upward to the 13500 ft cache sight. The challenge is to get past Windy Corner, famous for extremely high wind, narrow ledges and a steep drop off. I feel so grateful for the guidance that IMG provides and their excellent attendance to food/nutrition throughout the climb. So far all advice provided on the trail has been incredibly helpful.

For now, all we can do is sit and wait for the weather to change. Well, actually, you know me... Walking around camp and getting to know other Denali climbers and exercising was actually my cup of tea. I also volunteered to help the guides out in whatever capacity possible... building snow walls, collecting snow for water, you name it...


The Weather:

Every night at 8:00PM sharp on the mountain, National Park Service at 14000 camp gives a weather forecast over CB radio. Pretty much every guide in every team tunes into these announcements and you can hear the forecasters voice vibrate throughout the entire camp. Our guides made sure every night to tune into the weather forecast but at the same time told us that it is a complete waste of time since Denali weather is totally unpredictable. When the forecast predicted improving weather, the weather seemed to get worse. And when they predicted worse weather, it would get better. Perhaps the NPS forecasters were aware of this too and on some occasions would simply report, "Sorry, today we have no clue about the weather" and the guides would let out an "Awww, come on!" Immediately following the weather forecast every evening was a few trivia questions to keep climbers entertained. Each guide team would have a chance to chime in with their answers and National Park Service would respond with "That's correct" or "Sorry, anyone else out there wanna give it a try?" We all found the trivia and NPS's sense of humor very satisfying as it distracted us from our current circumstances, living in sub zero temperatures and pooping in a can. The most accurate prediction of the weather, however, was the sound of our main guide's footsteps every morning. At around 6:00AM he would unzip his tent, walk around a little bit and then, if it was a "No go" that day, he'd simply crawl back into to his tent and zip up again without saying a word. If I heard him walk closer to our tent then he'd usually say, "Okay guys, breakfast in 10 minutes, it looks good out there today!"



5/24/21

After 4 days of stay at the 11000 camp, we finally made it to the cache sight at 13500 feet. It was a beautiful day with little wind and clear skies. Actually, it got really hot with the sun radiating off of the snow and, most of all, Windy Corner wasn't windy at all!! We did, however, take loaded sleds with us and they kept wanting to swing off the edge of Windy corner and take us with them. It was a battle to keep the sleds from swinging like crazy and maintaining our balance. While waiting for the guides to dig up the cache at 13500 ft, my eyes immediately caught sight of a wandmarking a cache sight directly in front of me that read "Mama's Boys". Holy shit!! That's my group!! Well, not exactly.


The Mama's Boys Story:

About a year prior to climbing Denali, I met a potential Denali partner through Mountain Project on the internet. At 25 years old, he was fit and determined. We contacted each other daily and kept track of gear and exercise through online spreadsheets. We had a lot in common and got along amazingly. He even liked my idea of "Mama's Boys" as our registered team name. In January of 2021 he flew all the way to Portland from New Hampshire for 1 week of training with me on Mt. Rainier. I quickly noticed that he was stronger and more of a mountaineer than I was in every way. The weather on Mt. Rainer that week was horrendous. Rangers closed the gate only hours after we passed the entrance to the park and didn't open it until a week later when we were heading down. Actually, we ran into a few rangers on our way down and it was as if they saw a ghost, "What the heck are you guys doing here?" they asked. "We were here the whole time!" we responded. There was so much snow and whiteout that week making it impossible to ascend higher than Panorama Point. But training we did! From wall building, lots of digging, trail navigation, pulling super heavy packs/sleds, anchor building, avy training, skiing with sleds, and snow fort building. At one point during our training we traversed the parking lot and didn't see a single person around and 3 feet of snow covered absolutely everything. While walking across the parking lot, I noticed an unlocked door swinging in the wind from the corner of my eye. I decided to go check it out and to my surprise it lead to a long underground corridor. The corridor was kept at a warm temperature, thawing out my chilled body. At the end of the corridor was a bathroom that was even warmer!! We staying inside the bathroom for hours, drying our sopping wet clothes under the hand dryer. By the end of the trip, everything, including our sleeping bags, was soaked inside out. There were no views of Rainer or the surrounding mountains, just plain whiteout the whole week through. We were the only ones on the entire mountain. The weather started to improve on our way back home so I invited Mike to climb Mt Hood together. He was totally down for it and we had a beautiful climb to the summit of Mt. Hood and down. But I didn't hear from him after he returned to New Hampshire and I had a hunch that he was backing out. Shortly afterward I received an apologetic letter from him saying that he is not sure about going. In short, he backed out with only a few months to spare before our Denali departure date.


Shortly afterwards, I came across a Russian team on facebook looking for a 3rd member. I immediately jumped on board desperate to keep my Denali dreams alive. After training with them, however, I realized that you cannot climb Denali with just anyone. The training in Snoqualmie Pass itself went nicely, we drank vodka that evening and joked until late. However, we later argued about safety and other basic issues. It was extremely difficult to decline their invitation after that since I really wanted to ascend Denali by hook or crook. I also didn't want to mislead them into thinking I'd be climbing with them. So my idea was to give them my registered date and name "Mama's Boys" and wish them good riddance while I backed out of the group. This worked out well and they thanked me for eliminating the red tape. To be honest, I was surprised to see that they did not change the group name, nor ask me where the hell I got it from. The name Mama's Boy's was my way of honoring our mommies for raising such crazy but determined kids. Shortly before backing out of the group I contacted International Mountain Guides to see if anyone cancelled since all their climbs were booked. I immediately received a response from our guide, one of the guides, who told me there were 2 last minute cancellations. I immediately jumped on board and paid in full. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, knowing that I would be in good hands. At that point saving money was not a priority. I simply wanted to be as safe as I could be on Denali... safety was my first priority and summiting was second.


So we cached at 13500 feet and then went back down to 11000 camp for the evening. I was grateful that our main guide let me lead the team back down because it allowed me to experience the scenery first hand, without anyone in front of me. So far, I was the only one given the opportunity.



Climbing up and down the big mountain feels like meditating. The rhythmical sound of snow crunching below my feet, breathing in one step and out another, and the sound of the ice axe as its sharp metal tip enters and exits the snow, all put me in a trance. So when suddenly a climber came up seemingly out of nowhere and asked, "are you Gary?" my trance came to a screeching halt and I looked up in shock, "Yes, that's me." The voice continued, "I was your guide last year on the Grand Teton!" How in heaven's name could he have recognized me with ski goggles, face mask, and every inch of my skin covered? There was no way he could have recognized my voice since nobody on my team, including me, said a word for hours. But there was no doubt, he was Jason, the guide to took Pat and I to the summit of Grand Teton last year! On Denali he was a guide for Alaskan Mountaineering School and on the Tetons, for Exxum Mountain Guides. His group was a bit faster and stronger than ours but the weather slowed him down a bit and we eventually summitted around the same time.

Today we ascended a total of 2500 ft and descended 2500 ft.


5/25/21

We woke at 6:00am for our ascent to 14000 camp. It was another amazing weather day and so off we went with fully packed sleds and gear. Today, however, Windy Corner was very windy and my sled (and the one in front of me) kept trying to pull me down into an abyss 2000+ feet as it swung sideways like a pendulum. 14000 camp was also very windy and extremely cold. Setting up camp in these conditions was a real challenge and took what seemed like forever. Setup took hours and sapped our remaining energy after a 3000ft climb with full sleds and packs. Splitting up responsibilities among team members alleviated the burden to some extent. After camp was set up we collapsed into our sleeping bags and slept well.



5/26/21

We woke up at 8:00AM to build snow walls around our 5 tents. Walls had to be about 5 feet high by 40 feet long. I was given the responsibility of making snow blocks by using a snow saw and stacking blocks. I loved carrying out this role and any other because it help keep me warm up and enhanced blood circulation. The more responsibilities the better. My job was to saw out 1' x 2' blocks from a snow

quarry. Other climbers came up to the quarry and hauled off the snow blocks via sleds to the wall where our main guide and other guides carved it to perfection. Later that day we went back to the cache sight at 13500 ft to retrieve our gear. After we returned to 14000 camp it was back to building more walls, which took hours and we were all exhausted. But again, we each had a specific role to play and it helped get the job done much faster.


5/27/21

Woke up today with three more feet of snow and everything in the tent vestibule was completely buried. I had to dig my boots, backpack and everything else out of the snow. It snowed all day with high winds. Couldn't go anywhere or do anything, just stuck in my sleeping bag crammed into the side of the tent. Occasionally we had to go out to fix falling snow walls. We also practiced fixed line climbing to prepare for the headwall climb from 14000 camp to 16000 foot ridge. Not able to sit still for long, I decided to build a snow fort and lay down inside it for a while. The fort gave me reprieve from the howling winds and blinding snow. Our main guide didn't like the idea of me sleeping inside it, so I just used it for resting. He thought that if my clothing gets wet, my expedition would come to a halt. I half agreed with his point despite the fact that the inside of our tent in the morning is probably more damp than a snow cave. Despite the shitty weather everyone seemed to be in good spirits. With all the snow, however, there will be tons of avalanche danger higher up in the mountain, so it is likely we will spend a third night here at 14000 camp. Who said climbing Denali was easy?


Denali's Howl

A book with the title, Denali's Howl describes the plight of 12 men in 1967 who attempted to climb Denali. After reading this book and being intimidated by the story, never did I realize that Denali actually "howls!" At first I thought it was a plane or helicopter flying above. Then I started to think it sounded more like a train - the closest one would be at least 60 miles away. Through the process of elimination, I finally realized that it was the sound of extremely forceful and constant wind higher up in the mountain.




5/28/21

The weather today was much more mild but the snowpack was very loose due to yesterday's heavy snow. Nobody in our 60+ person 14000 camp dared to climb the headwall in such conditions. Hopefully we will be able to ascend tomorrow when the snow settles and bury our cache at 16000 feet and then return to 14000 camp. They are predicting another wave of nasty weather and winds up to 60 MPH. Only tomorrow can tell what the weather will bring.


5/29/21

We waited another day at 14000 camp hoping for a break in the weather. Today was windy and snowy all day. It was so cold that I had to walk around camp a few times to feel my toes again. Several other teams including two IMG groups who arrived after us already bailed out due to unforgiving and unpromising weather. Our team remains strong and upbeat. I really want to summit but also want to return home to see So Young and Angelica really bad.



5/30/21

The weather today looked very promising so we departed camp at 9:30 and then headed up the headwall and across the ridge to our cache sight at 16500ft. I had a slight headache in the morning but decided not to take Advil this time. At first I thought it was a stupid idea to skip the Advil (which usually helps tame my altitude related headaches) but as I

ascended it slowly went away. Usually if I am in higher altitude and wake up with a headache, it only gets worse the higher I go. But not this time!! I felt amazing today overall and just so happy to move after being crammed in at 14000 camp. After arriving at the 16500 cache sight I proceeded to help our main guide dig the cache hole. Afterwards I felt the urge to do pushups and burpies to let off a little excess steam and show off a bit, he, he. I must have looked like a dipshit with my crampons and gear strapped to my body doing exercises in the snow. Our main guide kept calling me an "animal" and wondered where I got all my energy.


Unfortunately, today marked the day when two of our team members turned around due to the effects of altitude. One showed signs of illness early on in the trip while the other experienced symptoms from today.


The weather was beautiful today, not too hot or cold. There was a lenticular cloud surrounding the summit that actually formed a rainbow at its outer edges. The scenery on Denali above 14000 camp is breathtaking. Huge cliffs and ridges hover over us like giants.


5/31/21

Back at 14000 camp today we're waiting for another breakthrough in the weather. Our main guide was afraid that today would be more of the same with bad weather stopping us from ascent. He was still hopeful that we would continue to climb once weather improved and planned for 2 guides to prepare camp at 17000 camp. He was hesitant, however, to separate guides from their clients and I immediately saw this as an opportunity and asked if I could go.


A Note About 17000 Camp:

17000 Camp is the highest camp on our route and it is exposed to extreme wind and cold with no protection from jet stream. Climbers who spend more than a few days there reduce the chan