Where is Bob?
Location: Alaska, North America
Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest mountain in North America and known to be one of the coldest mountains in the world outside of Antarctica. Denali is a massive 20320 foot high (6194m) and is rated as one of the world’s most challenging climbs. Any attempt to ascend Denali is a severe test of mountaineering skill and luck.
Lethally dangerous weather and treacherous glacier travel are Denali’s signature features. It is known around the world as a killer mountain, and with good reason. Until mid-2010, 110 people had lost their lives on the mountain, with 4 deaths between April and June 2010 alone. Dozens of bodies lie unrecovered on the mountain, including one on the very summit.
Denali climbing has a sharply seasonal rhythm. This mountain is heavily exposed (being close to the coast) and so high that it protrudes into the jet stream, yielding winter winds and cold so fierce that only the most intrepid mountaineers will venture onto the mountain when it is at its worst. Nearly everyone opts to make the attempt on the summit during the traditional climbing season, which extends from late April to mid-July.
Ascent date: 1 June 2010
I flew out to attempt Denali in mid-May 2010 and spent about three weeks living on the mountain. I only just managed to get out to Alaska on schedule as Scottish airspace was closed hours after I left as a result of the Icelandic volcanic eruption. Denali is an exceptionally challenging mountain, however this did not deter me.
I has previous arctic experience from making ascents of the two highest peaks in Greenland, as well as making two first ascents in Greenland. However, my Denali expedition significantly increased my extreme cold climate survival experience and acted as an excellent training opportunity for my future mountaineering ambitions in Antarctica and on Mount Everest.
Prior to my ascent of Denali, I had spent about 18 months planning and training for the expedition. Success on the mountain is attributed to, not only good physical fitness, mental preparation, good equipment selection, etc. but is highly dependent on good team work with like-minded climbers. The success of an individual reaching the summit of Denali is down to the team that they are with.
For my attempt on Denali, I teamed up with three mountaineers from north east England, one mountaineer from Canada, one from the United Arab Emirates and six from America. I had previously climbed with some of these mountaineers on other expeditions and new friendships were formed with those that I had not met in person previously.
The mountaineering team met in Anchorage, Alaska, on the evening of 15th May 2010 and had some liquid refreshments that evening. The following day, final preparations were made by doing equipment checks before departing for the mountain. On the 17th May 2010 we drove to the settlement of Talkeetna, had our formal briefing from the Denali National Park rangers and then jumped aboard a chartered single engine otter aircraft for a 45-minute flight to the base of Denali.
The briefing from the National Park service reminded all of us of the severity of the environment that we were about to travel into. The briefing showed various images of frostbite, crevasses, avalanches and some images of the extreme slopes that would have to be negotiated.
The light aircraft had to fly over some mountain passes and gave impressive views of the mountains in the Alaska range. During the entire flight one mountain, the highest in North America, dominated the skyline by towering kilometers above all of the other mountains in the range.
The ski equipped otter aircraft touch down gently onto a snowy glaciated area of the Kahiltna glacier near to Denali without incident. The landing area used for Denali flights change throughout the climbing season as the glacier changes and as snow bridges over crevasses fail.
We disembarked at an altitude of 2200m (7200ft) and were immediately straining our necks looking up at Denali rising almost vertically for about 4km (2.5 miles) above us.
In order to make a successful ascent of high altitude peaks, such as Denali, it is important to take time and allow the human body to adjust to lower oxygen levels in the air. Mountaineers must try to keep hydrated in order to acclimatise well. The body adjusts to altitude by producing more red blood cells for transporting oxygen to vital organs and muscles. Failure to properly acclimatise can result in conditions such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) which is a build up of fluids on the lungs or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) which is a build up of fluids on the brain. Both HAPE and HACE are life threatening conditions if not recognised promptly. During May, at least two mountaineers were evacuated from Denali with one of these conditions.
We had planned to acclimatise by progressively increasing our altitude up the mountain by establishing camps at 2375m (7800ft), 3350m (11000ft), 4330m (14200ft) and finally up to 5245m (17200ft).
The weather conditions on Denali are extreme and it is common for expeditions to have to wait out storms on the mountain. It is not uncommon to be tent bound for periods of up to 10 days at a time during bad weather. We had allowed ourselves 3 to 4 weeks to gradually ascend the mountain, hopefully get a crack at the summit and to descend.
Spending 3 to 4 weeks on a mountain requires significant quantities of food and cooking fuel. On Denali there is no Sherpa or mule support, therefore mountaineering expeditions have to carry all of their supplies up and down the mountain with them. The result of this is that mountaineers have exceptionally heavy backpacks and also need to drag sledges behind them as it is impossible to carry everything on their backs.
Each expedition team member initially had to take loads in excess of 50 kg (110 lbs), which collectively as a group meant that over 0.6 tonnes (1320 lbs) of food, fuel and equipment were being moved up the mountain.
During the first full day on the mountain, we moved all of our supplies and equipment to a camp site at 2375m (7800ft). The first part of this journey on the lower Kahiltna glacier started with a 175m (575ft) descent down “Heartbreak Hill”. This slope is known as “Heartbreak Hill” as it must be ascended at the end of a Denali expedition, when people are tired, to get to the aircraft landing area. Following the descent we then had to safely negotiate our way along and up the lower Kahiltna glacier.
The Kahiltna glacier has many crevasses on it and it is challenging to find a safe route along it. Early in the climbing season many of the crevasses are covered over with snow bridges and mountaineers can often walk over these without falling into crevasses. Later in the season, when temperatures are higher, many of the snow bridges have disappeared or are significantly weaker making glacier travel especially dangerous.
It can be a hard balance choosing the most suitable dates to attempt Denali as the glacier travel is safer earlier in the season but the temperatures are significantly lower leading to higher risk of hypothermia and frostbite. The early May expeditions on Denali experienced temperatures on the lower reaches of the mountain in the region of minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit) excluding the effects of wind chill.
A safe route was found to the first camp and after a long tiring day all of the team’s supplies and equipment had been moved 9 km (5.6 miles) with an overall increase in elevation of 175m (575ft). From this first camp, which was located at the base of “Ski Hill”, due to increasing steepness and elevation gains the movement of supplies and equipment was then staged.
The next day, half of the supplies and equipment were hauled for about 4.5 km (2.8 miles) to a height of 3060m (10030ft). A hole was then dug in the snow and these items cached for collection later. We then descended back to the camp at the base of Ski Hill. The following day we moved the rest of the supplies and equipment a distance of 7 km (4.4 miles) to a height of 3350m (11000ft). The next day was an “active rest day” where we descended to our cache and hauled the temporarily stored items up to the camp at 3350m. On Denali it is common to carry loads, cache them, descend, carry more loads up past the cache, then descend and collect the cache to bring it up to the next camp. As a result of caching supplies, to make loads being carried more manageable, mountaineers end up basically climbing the mountain twice.
Unfortunately some high winds were noted the following day higher up the mountain streaming over an area known as “Windy Corner” so we waited a day for the winds to ease. In arctic environments even light winds can significantly reduce temperatures even further and increase the risk of developing frostbite, therefore it is important to be careful when deciding whether to move up the mountain on any particular day. There have been at least ten cases of severe frostbite on Denali during this year’s climbing season already with various people losing fingers and toes.
The next day, the winds were lower and it was decided to make a cache further up the mountain at a height of 4115m (13500ft). This involved a significant amount of effort up steep slopes visiting some of Denali’s infamous areas including the Polar field and Windy Corner. After making the cache, we descended back down to the camp at 3350m and stopped for photographs of the scenic Peters Basin. At the time, none of us were aware that where we stopped for photographs was the exact point where Frenchman Pascal Frison (51) had fallen to his death just two days earlier.
The next stage of the ascent of Denali involved moving all of the remaining supplies and equipment up to “Basin Camp” at 4330m (14200ft). This was a physically demanding day as we were carrying heavy loads in an oxygen deficit atmosphere and ascending a height greater than that of Ben Hope. We made it up to Basin Camp and, upon arrival, immediately started constructing snow block walls.
Storms on Denali can occur at short notice and it is best practice to protect tents from the worst of the winds as the loss of a tent can spell the end of an attempt for a summit of the mountain. Snow walls are effective at reducing the wind speeds experienced by the tents however they take team effort to build.
The following day, we had an active rest day and collected the cache of supplies and equipment that had been left lower down the mountain.
The final stage in establishing the team in a position to make a summit bid was to move up to “high camp” at 5245m (17200ft). The route to get to the high camp is a crux point on any Denali ascent. First the Denali headwall has to be ascended. This headwall is pure ice at an angle of about 50 to 60 degrees for a vertical gain of about 300m (1000ft). After the Denali headwall has been ascended, mountaineers then have to carefully make their away along a narrow knife edged ridge for a further 250m (820ft) of height gain. This section of the mountain is notorious for slips, trips and falls being fatal.
In order to achieve this final establishment stage, we performed a load carry up the steep Denali headwall and made another cache of equipment and supplies at 5000m (16400ft) and then descended back to Basin Camp.
This was then followed by a full rest day to aid acclimatisation. By this point we were surviving in an arctic environment at a height greater than most European mountains so it was important for summit success to give our bodies as much chance to acclimatise as possible.
The following morning the weather was poor, however it improved sufficiently by late morning and it was decided to push on upwards to High Camp. We hauled all remaining supplies and equipment up the steep Denali headwall, collected our cache that had been left 2 days previously and slowly carried everything to High Camp.
Upon arrival at High Camp, temperatures were plummeting rapidly and the winds increasing so camp was hastily erected and some snow walls constructed to give limited protection from the elements. The winds abated during the night and we then had a relaxing rest day at 5245m (17200ft). During the rest day the entire team contributed to improving and reinforcing the snow wall defences around the tents as any storms at this altitude could be very serious.
From High Camp to the summit of Denali it is only 4km (2.5 miles) each way and a height gain of 950m (3115ft) or to put it another way it is like climbing Ben Hope but your starting height is the summit of Mont Blanc. The perverse equation of altitude where pace, and the ability to keep warm, decreases as you forge ever higher into the thinning air makes it especially challenging to reach the summit and survive without any effects of frostbite.
After the rest day, the weather was marginal but based on the weather patterns of the previous days it was anticipated that the conditions should improve by the afternoon so we set off for the summit, hungry for success. Unfortunately the weather changed for the worse and we were in white out conditions, on steep snow slopes, with the wind increasing. The decision was made to abandon the summit bid on that day after a few hours of hard fought for height gain. The entire expedition team returned safely to high camp but spirits were dampened from the failed summit bid. Was that the only summit bid chance gone? We did not know the answer to that question but what was known was that the high pressure system that had been over the mountain for about two weeks was beginning to break down and that severe weather was being forecast for the near future.
The following day the winds appeared to be strong high up on Denali as jets of snow were streaming off of the upper reaches of the mountain. To go for the summit in those conditions would have meant certain frostbite for some of the expedition team members so another enforced rest day was taken. The bad weather that was forecast was getting ever closer.
On 1st June 2010, the winds had dropped and although temperatures were low, it was decided to have another attempt for the summit. The summit push was exceptionally hard work in the thin air (<500 mbar pressure) but we gradually weaved our way up the “Autobahn” (named after some Germans who took the Expressway down), around Denali Pass and up past Zebra Rocks to reach a flat area below the final slopes known as the Football Field. It was clear that the weather was deteriorating again and that we may need to turn around again before reaching the summit.
At the Football Field, all team members donned additional clothing and prepared themselves for an onslaught of poorer conditions. Before making the summit push, copious volumes of water were consumed as it was freezing rapidly in the rucksacks despite being insulated and dosed with electrolytes and carbohydrates to lower the freezing point of the water. For the final summit push, I was wearing six layers on my upper torso including an expedition weight down jacket, three sets of gloves with hand warmers, boots suitable for minus 60 degrees Celsius conditions, multiple hats, etc. such that there was no exposed flesh.
The expedition team slowly ascended up the slope affectionately known as “Pig Hill” to get to the final summit ridge of Denali. The 6194m (20320ft) summit of Denali features an exposed flat area roughly the size of a single car garage. Just below the summit, climbers must negotiate a 500-foot-long knife-edge ridge frequently crossing sides of it to ascend along the safest side of various cornices.
The wind speed was increasing as we reached the summit ridge and my miniature thermometer was off-scale (below minus 30 degrees Celsius) at this point. Based on an estimate of the wind speed, we estimated that the wind chill brought the effective temperature down to about minus 45 degrees Celsius or so. It was definitely a wee bit chilly and we were all getting concerned that the weather could deteriorate further rapidly which could have resulted in significant frostbite for all of us.
We battled along the final summit ridge, touched the summit at about 7:30pm local time and made a rapid controlled descent of the mountain. We were greatly relieved to finally arrive back at High Camp at about 00:30 hours following a fourteen and a half hour summit day.
Of the 12 members in the expedition team only nine reached the top of Denali, however all got back to the camp safe and well.
With most of the team having reached the highest point in North America, we rested then departed from High Camp. We had spent a total of 5 nights living at an altitude higher than anywhere in the European Alps so were glad to be able to descend to get more oxygen. Many more mountaineering accidents occur during descent than do during ascent therefore we were especially vigilant during our descent of the crux section to get back to Basin Camp at 4330m.
We had a few hours rest, then broke camp and, carrying all remaining supplies and equipment, pushed on hard to get to the aircraft landing area on the lower Kahiltna glacier in one day. This mammoth effort was required due to the now imminent storm and the lure of clean clothes and showers was a great motivator.
The weather closed in and again improved during the descent out to the aircraft landing area and, as we approached, aircraft were seen landing and taking off. Spirits were high and we were beginning to imagine the taste of the beer that was awaiting us in Talkeetna. Following the ascent of Heartbreak Hill, two aircraft were seen at the landing area and they took off with other mountaineers. A request was made for the us to get flown out and aircraft were dispatched.
Unfortunately, the weather closed in before the aircraft could land and they had to turn around just ten minutes away from the landing area. And so it was that we had an unexpected flight delay of a few days.
Forty eight hours later, there were fifty mountaineers waiting at the landing area hoping for a flight out. It had snowed heavily in this time and the landing area was very soft. As there was a forecast break in the weather, in which it may be possible to fly out some mountaineers, all of us donned our snow shoes and walked the length of the take off area at least six times to compact the snow enough to reduce drag for the aircraft in the hope that it would be able to take off. These efforts were not in vain as we were able to escape from the harsh arctic environment that day and within two hours were in a pub celebrating our achievements.
Denali is probably the hardest and scariest mountain that I had climbed on and experienced to that date. All mountains deserve respect but those with a reputation such as Denali demand particular respect. I am pleased that she let me reach her summit briefly and allowed me home unscathed. I could not have achieved this summit success without those that accompanied me on this expedition – the success was a team effort. The Alaska range of mountains are beautiful and it was well worth all of the hard training, planning and mountaineering to visit this unique corner of the world.
Media and online coverage
Interview with Myrddyn Phillips – YouTube
News coverage – BBC
News coverage – Manchester Wired
Blog coverage – Koswandy
Blog coverage – Mountain Trip
Ascent photos – Facebook