The Great One: 20,320

Previous posts on our trip, in order:

1, Our arrival in Talkeetna                  2, Basecamp Opens                              3, The Lower Kahiltna

4, Move’n On Up                                5, Goodbye to the Kahiltna                    6, Now We Start to Climb

7, Feeling the Altitude                        8, Rest and Weather                             9, The Most Spectacular of Days

June 29.  Day 15 on the mountain.

Before going to bed, Vern told us he would wake us up at 7:30 am if we were going to the summit.  Otherwise, we were sleeping in till 9:30 am to have a rest day.  His decision would be based on the weather conditions in the morning.

Vern woke us up at 8:30 am.  Which caused a bit of confusion for the team.  Were we going?  We didn’t know right away.  The weather looked perfect.  A blue bird day for sure.  During breakfast it seemed that Vern and Lauren were still debating whether to go or not.  As I write this, I don’t recall the specific details of our conversations in the cook tent, but I recall talk about the snow pack on the Autobahn and concern for avalanche.  After all, only one person (that we know of) had even attempted to go up the Autobahn since June 17.  We saw him climbing the Autobahn the evening we pulled into Camp 5.  He never made it back to Camp 5 as he died when he fell somewhere just below Pig Hill.  There was a lot of snow on that slope and all the protection was buried and useless.

Vern discussed how much protection we would need to reach the summit.  Not just on the Autobahn, but on the slopes above there as well.  I don’t remember the exact number, but I think it was 15 anchors on the Autobahn and another 6 to 10 for the rest of the trip.  Our team had 10 anchors.  So, Vern started putting together a plan with the other climbing teams at Camp 5 that were willing to make an attempt.  He found three other teams that wanted to go.

The Chinese team.  They consisted of two Tibetan climbers who were guiding a Chinese client to the summit.  I don’t know how to spell the name of the lead Tibetan guide on this team.  But it was similar to Dorsing.  We never really got to meet him, but he would prove essential for our climb to the summit.

The Honey Badgers.  This was a team of four western climbers who took their name from the You Tube video of the Honey Badger.  If you haven’t watched it, go check it out.  It’s pretty funny.  I have to put a language warning in here however.  I say they were westerners because I don’t know if they were Canadian or American.

The last team to go up with us was Richard Parks’ 737 Challenge Team.  This was a 2-man team consisting of Richard and a buddy of his.  Shelley and I didn’t meet Richard formally till we got back down to base camp.

Between the four teams, Vern was able to collect enough anchors and establish a plan for everyone to work with each other to help all of us get to the summit.  The most difficult part was just getting up the Autobahn.  There was a lot of snow on the Autobahn.  A lot.  The powder was easily thigh deep.  Vern would be just behind the lead climber who was breaking trail.  Vern would be checking the slope for avalanche danger as he went and placing the anchors.  Richard would be one of the climbers who took turns breaking trail along the way.

Because this weather break was such a surprise to everyone, nothing was put together the night before.  So it took a few hours to get things together this morning.  When it was time to move out, we still weren’t sure what the snow pack was like and there was a chance that once Vern got up on the steeper portion of the slope he would find the avalanche danger too high and would turn everyone back.  So among our group only the Orange Team moved out with Vern.  The Purple Team stayed back.  No reason to waste everyone on a failed attempt on the Autobahn.  No reason to risk everyone either.  The Orange Team was Vern, Scott, Ryan and Paul.  The Purple Team was Lauren, Shelley, Roger and myself.  Lauren and Vern would communicate by radio.  Although Vern could actually just yell down to us from the slope.  There was absolutely no wind and voices carried clearly all the way back down to camp.  When the teams were yelling to each other on the slope, we could hear what they were saying.

So, finally around 11:30 am the first teams moved out to head up the Autobahn.  The below photo was taken shortly after the first teams moved out and we waited back at camp.

The snow on the Autobahn was deep.  It varied in places from ankle to waist deep.  The climbing was very slow.  My understanding is that it typically takes about 2 – 2 1/2 hours to climb the Autobahn.  This day, it took 5 hours.

Here are a series of photos taken by Paul.  He was #2 on Vern’s rope.  The two people in front of Vern were Richard and his friend (I don’t think I ever learned his name).  Richard is in the blue.

Here’s a video Paul made while on the Autobahn.

This is a good photo looking back down to Camp 5.  In this photo, the first in line below Paul (who took the photo) is Ryan followed by Scott.  The next three are the Chinese team and the next four are The Honey Badgers.

Every so often, Vern would need to stop and bury an anchor.  Even from down at Camp 5 we could see him shoveling the snow and placing the anchor.  The anchor needs to go into the hard, ice packed snow below all the powder.  So there was quite a bit of digging just to get down to the hard packed snow to place the anchor.  It was a lot of work and it was very slow progress.

Finally, around 1:30 pm our Purple Team left Camp 5 and started following in the tracks of everyone else.  The going was much faster for us since we didn’t have to stop for the anchors and we weren’t breaking trail.  We didn’t take any breaks on the Autobahn.

The breaking trail was taking its toll on the climbers ahead of us.  Richard and his friend broke trail for the first part of the Autobahn, but they were getting worn out.  So, Vern called to Dorsing, the lead on the Chinese team to come up front and give Richard and his buddy a break.  Even from way below where we were at, you could see Dorsing move up front and just take off.  He was so strong and so fast.  The way he busted trail from that point on was amazing.

We left 2 hours behind the Orange Team but, since we were just walking in the trail they had already made, we got to the top about 20 minutes after them.  Once at the top all the other teams had already moved off.  Vern was waiting for us so we could all move the rest of the way together.  Vern went around to each of us, one at a time, and asked us all if we were still good to continue.  He really emphasised that we probably had another 12 – 15 hours to go before making it back to Camp 5.  Everyone was good.  Remember, I didn’t break trail.  I told Vern I felt 100%, and I really did.  I wasn’t tired at all.

This photo was taken by Paul near the top of the Autobahn.  You can see the Purple Team (the four dots near the edge of the slope, not the three dots closer in) has closed the gap significantly.

The Orange Team waited till we got some food and drink in us and then we moved off again.  There was some switching around of the rope teams as Shelley moved to Vern’s team and Paul moved over to ours.  The climbing above the Autobahn, at first, wasn’t nearly as steep.  Both of our teams could walk side by side up the gradual slope until reaching our next landmark, Zebra Rocks.  The first photo below is Paul’s.  The next couple are mine.

Paul was the only one making videos during the ascent.

In the photo immediately above, you can just make out The Honey Badgers just ahead of us and to the left.  They are just making it over the crest in that hill.

The climbing above the Autobahn was fairly straight forward.  There were a few more anchors that were being put in above us, but not too many.  As you can see in these photos it just isn’t very steep and the exposure is minimal.  It was a pretty straight forward climb.  Our packs were very light.  Maybe 20 pounds.  We mostly carried water and food.  Because we were a guided team, the park service had some additional requirements for us to carry.  I don’t remember the items specifically.  I was carrying a closed cell foam pad as part of that requirement.  I think a bivy sack was another and maybe a stove and shovel?  I’m not sure.  The four items were all geared to survival if someone got hurt.

We made great time once off the Autobahn.  In fact, a normal summit day is about 12 hours and our pace (exclusive of the Autobahn) was right on that time line.  We took regular, short breaks for food and water and just kept moving.

At one point, after another break, both rope teams again headed off side by side.  Paul took these next two.  In the second one, I’m on the left (waving) and Scott is on the right.

Shortly after these photos, we crested a rise and dropped down onto another feature of Denali called the Football Field.  This is a long, wide, flat area just at the base of Pig Hill.  Accompaning the photo is a video from Paul

I left that photo above a little bigger, because way off in the distance, near the top of Pig Hill you can see five dots.  Those dots are the Chinese and Richard Parks’ team.  They are about 90 minutes ahead of us.  Those guys were strong climbers.  In the foreground, you have our two rope teams walking side by side again.  Farther ahead are the Honey Badgers taking a break on the trail before heading up Pig Hill.  At that spot, we too would take a break and we would also dump our packs.  We are only about 2 – 2 1/2 hours from the summit.  There was no wind at all.  It was beautiful weather, but cold.  We got some food and water in us and then carried some food and a single water bottle with us for this last push up to the summit.

Here we are moving off from our break stop.  The Orange Team is out front (Vern is in the blue jacket followed by Shelley in the black jacket) and the four members of The Honey Badgers are in front of them.  The time was about 10:30 pm on June 29.

About a quarter of the way up Pig Hill, one member of The Honey Badgers had an equipment issue and their team was forced to stop.  We ended up going around them and they then pulled in behind me on the trail.  I was the last person on the Purple Team and the Orange Team was ahead of me, so I was last in our group.  I got to talk to the guy at the front of their rope while going up Pig Hill and confirmed with him that, yes, they named themselves after the infamous Honey Badger video.  He was pleasantly surprised that I knew of the video as many people thought they named themselves after the animal.  Paul took this photo looking down Pig Hill.  I’m right behind Paul, just in front of The Honey Badgers.

Pig Hill was tough.  It was the steepest section of the climb above the Autobahn, but didn’t need any protection.  It was a good 800 foot gain as well.  And being that it starts around 19,200 and finishes near 20,000 feet, there was a lot of breathing going on.  But it only took about an hour to climb and we got our last break in at the top.  The summit ridge was next and it was spectacular to see.  Ryan snapped this photo of Lauren reaching the top of Pig Hill and the next one of the Denali’s shadow.

The weather changed significantly on top of Pig Hill.  The summit ridge had been protecting us from the wind while down on the Football Field, but up on the ridge we were right out in the open for it.  In this photo Paul took, we are all taking our last food and water break before pushing to the summit.  In the distance you can see climbers nearing the top.

There were a few anchors along the ridge here.  As you can see, the exposure is pretty high and the fall is a long way.  Initially, we stayed pretty far to the right to avoid the cornice you can see on the left.  Then about half way up, we moved over to the left side and away from the cornices on the right.  Paul was the only person in the group that managed to get any photos on the summit ridge.

About 30 feet onto the summit ridge, my glasses began to ice over.  Within about 20 minutes the only way for me to see was to pull my glasses up a little and look down under them.  This allowed me to see my foot steps and see the area immediately around me.  I thought about just taking them off, but I was concerned about the wind blowing in my face and not having any eye protection.  I also was concerned that if I did push them up, and I needed them back down I might not be able to get them back on right with my gloves on.  And there was not going to be any stopping on the ridge.  I didn’t want to be the one to have an equipment issue that stopped the team this close and this exposed.  I could still see and it wasn’t a safety issue, I just couldn’t see the great views around me.

Finally, at approximately 12:50 am on June 30, after 13 1/2 hours of climbing for the Orange Team and 11 1/2 hours for the Purple Team, both teams stood on the top of north America.

So, no pictures of Shelley and I you ask.  Well, we kind of had a technical issue on the summit.  Many things had to fall into place for the failure to occur.  The Orange Team got to the summit first.  They were probably about 5 – 7 minutes ahead of my team.  I was also at the end of my team, which meant I was the last of our eight climbers to reach the top.  It was very, very cold.  My thermometer on my jacket read approximately -25 F.  The wind was blowing about 20 – 25 mph.  That comes out to around -49 F.  When I arrived on top, Vern was already talking about getting down.  He did not want us staying up there any longer then necessary.  Which was understandable.  My problem was it is hard to get things set up when your that cold and as tired as we were in such thin air.

I needed to get my Mark Stall streamer out and hooked to my ice axe so it didn’t blow away.  That took a few moments.  I also couldn’t do it with my gloves on so I had to pull one glove off to get it set up.  That was cold.  (Note to myself for the next time as well).   Shelley had been up there for about 10 minutes at this point and she was getting colder too.  Remember, we aren’t moving now so we aren’t staying too warm and our heat is being sucked out of us by the cold wind.  She didn’t want to take her gloves off to take my picture.  I don’t blame her as my hand got pretty cold just for the few seconds I took to rig up the streamer.  She only had her mitts with heavy liners inside.  She wasn’t wearing any thin liners.  Why would she?  So I turned to Lauren, who happened to be standing next to me and asked her to take the photos.  She had thinner liner gloves on and could manipulate the camera without exposing her fingers that much.

The problem was I never showed her how to take pictures with the camera.  Which normally isn’t a problem…………… sea level when it’s warm.  We got set up and Lauren took the photos.  After she was done, I never hit the review button to check how they came out.  She took a bunch so I wasn’t worried about them being in focus.  If one was bad, there were others that would be fine.  I think what happened was she saw the camera adjust the focus (which happens as you depress the button), but you have to press it all the way down for the picture to snap.  Between me not telling her that, her gloves, the tiny button and the conditions, the pictures never got taken.

By now the Orange Team had been on the summit for close to 15 minutes.  It was time to leave.  For some reason, Vern decided the Purple Team would be first down even though we were last up.  That put a bit more pressure on me to get ready to leave.  During the descent, the guide goes last.  The climber who was at the end of the rope on the way up, is at the front of the rope on the way down.  That would be me.

I did manage to get my frozen over glasses off and put my goggles on in their place before leaving.  All in all, I don’t think I was on the summit more than 10 minutes.  I was the last up, but the first off.  Kind of a bummer I didn’t get more time up there.  But it was cold.

The descent was fast.  I think we made it back to the football field in about 45 minutes.  Once down off Pig Hill the conditions improved dramatically.  The rest of the descent was uneventful.  It was a steady descent with no problems.

Paul was right behind me on the descent and snapped this out of focus photo of me descending the summit ridge just after leaving the summit.

There were no other pictures taken during the descent except for a few Paul took just as he walked off the summit and a few on the Autobahn just before we arrived back in camp.  We pulled back into camp at around 6:30 am on June 30.  We had been up for nearly 22 hours.  The Orange Team had been climbing for 19 hours.  The Purple Team had been climbing for 17 hours.  We were pretty tired.  All our adrenalin ran out after we got to the bottom of the Autobahn and we just sat on our packs and drank some water or tea.  Vern and Lauren fired up the kitchen for breakfast and we finally got some warm food in us.

It was just before breakfast that I reviewed the camera pictures and realized the summit photos never came out.  I was devastated.  I wasn’t really mad, as I realized all the issues that went on at the summit.  If I had just reviewed the photos there I would have been given time to get them done right.  I know Vern would have allowed that.  Maybe he would have taken the Orange Team down first, but he would have let me get those shots.  I couldn’t believe I screwed that up so bad.  I was devastated that the photo of the Mark Stall streamer didn’t come out.  I didn’t care much about my own summit shot as I cared about that photo.  Then I started thinking……….Team 11 had arrived at Camp 5 the day we left for the summit.  This morning they were to back carry to 16,200 for their cache then make their own summit bid the next morning.  I seriously considered staying at Camp 5 and joining their team to go back to the summit and get the picture.

Realistically I knew that wasn’t going to happen.  Shelley didn’t even try to talk me out of that idea.  But after some thought and getting some warm food in me I realized the only real option to was head down.  I got the streamer to the summit.  I got it up there to honor Mark.  I may not have the photo, but I have knowledge of that accomplishment.  So, I took the streamer out, hooked it to my ice axe and posed at Camp 5 with the Autobahn in the background and had Shelley take another picture.

It was now the morning of June 30.  It wasn’t till around 8:30 am that we finished up breakfast and were ready to get some sleep.  It would be a short turn around for all of us.  The plan was to get some sleep, break down camp and move off to Camp 4 in the afternoon.  After being up for 24 hours and climbing hard for 17 – 19 of those 24 hours, we were exhausted.  But we were going to bed with the accomplishment of having stood on the highest peak in North America.  We got to stand up there and look around and not see anything around us that was higher.

That was pretty special.


2 Responses to “The Great One: 20,320”

  1. The Great One: Going Home « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 10, 20,320                                         11, Coming Down […]


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