I kept wondering if the title for this post was appropriate. After all, this post covers our move up to Camp 5 and our back-carry to our cache at 16,200. It’s not the summit post. So I kept wondering if “The Most Spectacular of Days” kind of overshadows our summit day. However, as I looked back on our climb I really think that our move up to Camp 5; climbing the ridge that makes up the West Buttress easily offered the most spectacular views. Both Vern and Lauren were in agreement that this portion of the climb was their favorite part of climbing Denali. As great an achievement climbing to the summit of Denali is, I still think that our move to Camp 5 was The Most Spectacular of Days.
I forgot to turn on the GPS unit when we left Camp 4 and then the batteries died quickly. That took me by surprise so I don’t have any GPS data between camp 4 and our first break on the Headwall and then after 16,200 feet.
June 27. Day 13 on the mountain.
Vern spent the evening of June 26 meeting with the other climbing groups that were planning on moving up to Camp 5 on June 27. With the storm that blew through the last few days, there were many groups now at Camp 4 looking to move up on June 27. The plan was to have everyone stagger their departure times so there wasn’t a huge traffic jam of climbers all hitting the fixed lines at the same time. He worked out a schedule with everyone to depart about every 30 minutes with our team leaving at 11:00 am.
We ended up being 30 minutes late.
The weather wasn’t bad for us. It was cold and it was snowing when we left, but the day cleared up as we headed up the Headwall. The storm had really dumped a lot of snow on the Headwall for our ascent. This didn’t hurt us much as we weren’t breaking trail, but it did make it harder than our carry day back on June 24. The other thing that made this harder was it was a move day and our packs were full. Plus we were going to pick up some clothing out of our cache at 16,200 that we would need at Camp 5.
There was a funny story that happened on this climb up to our cache. As Vern was separating group gear he laid everything out and you just grabbed some stuff. This included our one and only CMC can. By the time I got over to the group gear the CMC can was the only thing left. The bad thing about having to carry it is it takes up so much volume. It’s not heavy, just big. But I was able to stuff it in my pack with no issues. We knew we were leaving late too, so I was in a rush and just grabbed it. And off we went up the Headwall.
Here’s a picture I took at our first break stop on the Headwall.
These next series of photos were all taken by Paul. This first one is looking up the Headwall from that same break stop as the photo above. You can see a team of six moving up the fixed lines and a team of two at the bottom of the fixed lines. The small group of three to our left at this stop was a Chinese team. This team would be the team that helped break trail on the Autobahn two days later. Remember that orange jacket, you’ll continue to see it.
Here is the Orange Team, with Vern leading, approaching the bottom of the fixed lines. That team of two that you see in the above photo are now about 3/4 of the way up the fixed lines.
Things started to get busy at the bottom of the fixed lines as groups of us started to form a traffic jam. In order to maintain our place in line, Vern moved onto the fixed line to take his break. He didn’t want anyone passing us at the bottom. Then, in order to keep things moving along, he had the Purple Team move onto the fixed line with him. So instead of each team moving up the fixed line behind each other, both teams would move up the fixed line at the same time. Shelley and I were on the Purple Team this day. So what ended up happening is Shelley was on the Purple Team and Paul was on the Orange Team. But on the fixed lines, Paul was only about 5 feet behind Shelley. You’ll see in the photos below. I didn’t take any photos on the fixed lines as I was just trying to stay ahead of Ryan, who was just behind me. It was a bit congested for our teams, that much is for sure.
How Paul took these next photos is anyone’s guess. These are taken as he was ascending up the fixed lines, directly behind Shelley. This first photo is taken shortly after clipping into the fixed lines. If you look at Shelley’s right leg you’ll see two ropes to the right of her right leg. The orange rope is the climbing rope for Paul and the Orange Team. The purple rope is Shelley’s climbing rope for the Purple Team. On Shelley’s left hip is a white-ish / grey rope with purple stripes. This is the fixed line that Shelley is clipped into to and which is anchored to the slope. The purple rope in the background, laying on the snow, is the fixed line for down-climbers descending. Just in front of Shelley and to her left (in the photo it is right under her right elbow) is an anchor for the down line. Got all that?
As we were starting our ascent, a climbing team from RMI was reaching the bottom of the fixed lines. The lead guide on this team was Jake Beren, who we had climbed with in Mexico just back in December. We knew Jake was on the mountain as we had been following RMI’s blog before leaving for Denali. Since we hadn’t run into him yet, we also figured he was at Camp 5 while we were at Camp 4. It was good to run into him, however briefly. I asked one of the climbers from this team how it was up at Camp 5. His reply was, “We sat up there are just rotted. We rotted for five days.” I can’t imagine how it must have been to be stuck up there for that storm. Being unable to summit and being unable to descend.
Here are our two teams passing each other at the bottom of the fixed lines. I am the first climber you see coming up. I’m on the purple rope. I have already passed Jake and the RMI client I spoke with. Also, in the group of climbers below us to the left in the photo, you can see that orange jacket (it sort of looks yellow here). That is the 3-man Chinese team just behind us getting ready to clip into the fixed line as soon as we move up a bit more.
Another thing you can see in this photo is where the down line ends compared to where the up line starts. Remember I talked a little about that in the previous post. The descending climber in this photo (in the dark blue jacket) on the far right of the image is at the end of the down line. You can see the down line laying in the snow uphill from him. The climber just below this guy (with a red jacket and red pack) has his ice axe in his left hand. He’s off the down line. But he’s right next to me and I’m clipped into the up line.
The fixed lines are not a single rope going up 800 feet. It is a series of ropes. About ten ropes, I think it was. Each rope is anchored on each end into the slope. So as you come to an anchor, you must unclip your ascender from the rope you are on and clip into the next rope. So on and so forth all the way to the top. Some anchors have enough slack in the rope to allow the rope to reach up a foot or so off the snow, others are tight with the slope. It just depends on conditions right at that particular anchor. In this next photo you can see Vern (white pack and blue outfit) leaning down as he unclipped and then clipped back into the line at an anchor. The climber behind Vern is Lauren (in the lead of the Purple Team).
Looking back down you can see me next in line with Ryan directly behind me.
Another good photo of our team coming up. This time you can see the RMI team farther down, descending to Camp 4 in the background. You can also see the bright orange rope (the fixed line) ending at an anchor point just in the foreground. My ascender is clipped into that bright orange rope. When I get to that anchor point, I’ll unclip from the orange rope and into that off-white colored rope.
Near the top now. You can see another group of climbers just starting their descent on the down-side of the fixed lines. This is close to about 100 feet from the top. The next one is just below the top. Vern is at the last anchor point before the top. The fixed lines kind of made a 45 degree left turn right where Vern is at and goes behind those rocks a bit. The slope then levels off a bit and you can unclip from the lines.
This photo was taken at the top of the fixed lines where we took our break. If you look down into the middle, slightly to the right, you can see the an orange rope coming to an end at an anchor point. That’s the top of the fixed lines.
We took a good break once at the top. We also dug out our cache to pick up some clothing we would be needing at Camp 5 today and tomorrow. For Shelley and I, this consisted of our expedition down parka and our down pants. We had a pretty good idea we weren’t going to need them at Camp 4, so we buried them in our cache and saved a little weight for going up the Headwall this day.
So, back to my funny story that started when I picked up the CMC can before leaving Camp 4. During the break at the top of the fixed lines, Vern came up to me after I took my pack off and put his arm around my shoulder and asked, “When you grabbed that CMC can, did you check to see if it was empty?” I told him I didn’t. He told me to grab it and I just did what he said to do. He told me that he doesn’t think anyone checked it or emptied it before we left. So I took the CMC out of my pack and checked it and sure enough…….it was full. That’s right, I had just carried about 10 pounds of shit up the Headwall and the Fixed Lines. Literally.
Vern took the bag from me and took care of it into the glacier below us but down the opposite side from where we came up. We were both laughing at this as it was pretty funny.
So, I replaced the weight of our crap with my extra clothing and after getting some food and drink it was time to start moving up the West Buttress itself. The snow wasn’t too deep up here. Maybe about six inches or so, but we certainly weren’t breaking trail so the climbing was easy. We still had another 1,000 feet to go but the climbing would be fairly gradual at this point. The exposure up here was the most extreme Shelley and I had ever climbed on but there were a lot of anchors to clip into for the climb. The only fixed lines would be around Washburn’s Thumb. The anchors we would be using consisted of a carabiner hooked to a rope that was then attached to an anchor buried deep into the snow. As we approached each one, we clipped our climbing rope into it. This just limited any fall to the distance between yourself and the anchor. At least, that was the hope.
The weather would be going in and out the rest of the day. The wind was blowing hard, but below the 40 – 50 mph limit that would have forced us back down. And it was cold. The break stops were nice, but you would have to hunker down behind a rock or something to break the wind. These photos were taken by Paul, so that’s Ryan behind him. Lauren is then behind Ryan with Shelley behind Lauren.
I love this picture. Just spectacular. It reminds me of that famous photo Neil Armstrong took of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon.
Ryan took these next two photos. In the first he is looking up at Paul who is taking a photo himself. Probably one of those above. In that photo with Paul you can see one of the anchors in the snow just above Paul. In the second photo, Ryan is looking back down the hill at Shelley coming up.
After some climbing we made it to Washburn’s Thumb. You can see three climbers already moving up the fixed line going up and around to the left of the rock formation.
I took this next series of photos of Shelley. We took a short break below Washburn’s Thumb while the Orange Team made their way up the rope. Then Lauren went off followed by Shelley and I. In this first photo, that is Roger going on the slope. You can just barely make out Vern near the base of Washburn’s Thumb. In that second photo, that’s Paul on the rope going up the slope.
Somewhere above Washburn’s Thumb taking another short break to get something to eat. The second photo is the Orange Team just moving off from this stop. Right to left: Paul, Ryan, Lauren, Roger and Vern just over the rise.
Paul took this next series as we climbed along the ridge to Camp 5. You can see Camp 5 in the photo as well as the Autobahn above Camp 5. Start at the black rocks above and to the right of Vern. Then move right and slightly down, along that ridge of brown, exposed rocks. You’ll come to a plateau of white snow. That’s Camp 5. Directly above Vern and slightly to the left is a saddle in the ridge in the background. That saddle in the ridge is where the Autobahn tops out.
Paul then turned around and took this of the rest of us coming up behind him. You can really see the kind of exposure we had on this ridge. It was really an incredible view all around us as well as down both sides of the slope.
This photo taken by Paul is just before we rounded the last corner before walking into Camp 5. In the foreground lying on the snow is another good example of the anchors we used as we climbed along the buttress.
We pulled into Camp 5 pretty late. This climb took us about 9 hours as we pulled in at around 8:30 pm. We didn’t have to worry about the sun setting early like at Camp 4 because there isn’t a ridge to the west to block the sun. Both Shelley and I were pretty tired. The altitude really impacted Shelley when we came into camp. She had to sit down for a bit to let her body settle down. I too was pretty lethargic as well. I tried to counter this by moving slowly as I dug out the tent platform and set up the tent. I was shoveling a load of snow and taking 3 or 4 breaths. Paul came over and helped out a bit with our tent after he and Roger got their tent set up. The spot we ended up taking was only big enough for two tents so ours was a bit exposed. We tried to put the tent in tight next to the other two tents. The platform sucked though and it was a lot of work to get it right for the tent.
After camp was set up we had dinner and hot drinks and relaxed a bit in the dinner tent. I remember that the weather seemed to be worsening this evening, but it wasn’t terrible. I don’t remember what time we went to bed or what time we woke up the next morning. I know I neglected to make an audio entry into my phone so I have no notes on these things. The next day we would be going back down the ridge to 16,200 to pick up the remainder of our cache.
As we walked over to our tent to turn in, there was one last group of climbers coming up the ridge into camp. Roger took the first photo to give you some sense of perspective and I took the close up photo below Roger’s to show the climbers moving up the ridge just above Washburn’s Thumb.
June 28. Day 14 on the mountain.
The weather seriously deteriorated over night. The wind was still blowing and it was snowing pretty good this morning. The conditions were pretty borderline for going to get our cache. Everyone was tired from the long day before too. But our packs would be lighter and it would be a shorter day. When we woke up in the morning, Shelley and I both took some pulse ox measurements. My resting pulse ox was at 74%. Shelley’s was at 68%. My resting heart rate was at 116. With pressure breathing for a few minutes we were able to get our pulse ox back up to 92-ish. Getting it back up in the high 90’s seemed out of the question up here. This reflects the importance of proper breathing at this altitude .
I can tell that everyone was tired on this day because there were only three photos taken during the entire day. All three were taken by Paul. Here are two of them.
The first one is taken during our descent back to the cache and the second on the ascent back to Camp 5.
As you can see in the photos things were not looking promising for us in regards to the weather. My guess is if we didn’t have to go get our cache on this day we probably wouldn’t have gone. But we needed the fuel and food. We were anticipating the weather might trap us at Camp 5 so we needed these supplies in case we couldn’t move for a few days. The conditions weren’t deadly, they clearly were within safety parameters, but it sucked just the same. It was very cold, windy and the snow was deep in places on the ridge.
When we got back to camp we were tired. That seems to be the recurring theme. But because it was a fairly short day, about 5 hours, we were going to be able to go to bed early. The talk around the dinner table was to sleep in tomorrow and take a rest day. In the off-chance the weather cleared we would go to the summit, but things were bad outside and continued to get worse as the evening progressed. No one figured we’d be going anywhere and we were all looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Vern told us to plan on sleeping in till 9:30 am and breakfast would be around 10:00 am. If we were going to go to the summit, he would wake us up at 7:30 am. With those instructions, we all went to bed.
As we went to bed the wind was howling. It was the worst storm, in regards to wind, we had experienced since arriving on Denali. Shelley and I could hardly sleep even with earplugs. The tent was shaking so hard our sleeping bags were vibrating and the wind was really loud. We dosed in and out of sleep. Then around 2:00 am it really became violent. The wind gusts were hitting us so hard that I was becoming concerned about the tent. Remember, our tent placement wasn’t the greatest. Then in some type of violent Grand Finale, the storm got incredibly violent and then stopped. In the span of about 5 minutes it just died out. We both fell asleep with our alarms set for 9:30 am.