Denali – Alaska

Denali – Alaska

Denali – Alaska

       Denali (6189m), known also as Mount McKinley, in Alaska, is the highest mountain of North America.  It raises from a plateau of an approximate level of 600m, so that the relative elevation of the Denali summit is more than 5600m, almost twice as much the relative elevation of Mt. Everest, when observed from the Base Camp at the level of 5650m. Denali is located, moreover, in a sub-arctic region, where a cold and dry arctic air collides with hot and humid air from the North Pacific. In effect, the weather on Denali is unpredictable in a much higher degree than in Himalaya. There is also much more rain and snowfall in Denali. Therefore, despite its real height, Denali is regarded as a 7000m category mountain. Moreover, the geoidal shape of the Earth atmosphere contributes to a lower oxygen level at the Denali’s summit.

    The main barrier for climbing Denali is the taiga and tundra at the mountain foot. In the summer it is almost impenetrable area, filled with seasonal lakes, supplied from Denali’s melting snow and glaciers, and swamps. Several weeks could be needed to reach the mountain. Therefore, climbing Denali was a real challenge at the end of XIX century and the beginning of the next one. Now, small airplanes bring climbers over this taiga and tundra in half an hour to glaciers at the level of approximately 2000m. This is possible only in early spring, however. Later in the summer, when the crevasses are exposed, planes cannot land on such a glacier.

    I made two attempts to climb Denali. The first one was in 1994. I was there late in summer, however,  and I was not able to find a plane that could take me  to Denali bottom glaciers. So that  I spent two weeks on glaciers and in the taiga of the Wrangle Mountains. I met there, at a distance of no larger than only 5m, a grizzly bear. It stood on hind legs and was enormously huge. Fortunately, it seems it was not hungry, or after two weeks in the mountains, I did not smell attractive.

    The second attempt was in 1999. I looked for a partner but I failed to find anybody eager to climb Denali so that I decided to do it solo. Studying recent attempts of climbing Denali, I concluded that statistically three weeks are needed for that. Also, it was my impression that statistically, climbers are 35 years old. I was just approaching 60, so that I concluded I should have an extra week for that, so prepare myself for four weeks in the mountains, meaning I will go up to Denali with food and fuel for four weeks’ operation. Moreover, the weight of the equipment was not shared with the partner.

    Before climbing Denali, I had to have permission from the Park Ranger in Denali Park Headquarters in Talkeetna. Before the interview, he told me  that I cannot climb Denali alone. It is too dangerous. He told, there is a team of Canadian climbers, he will have an interview with, and I should join them. I was terrified. How these Canadians feel and react if the Ranger will order them to take unknown grandpa to the top of Denali, only because he has a crazy idea to climb it. They will blame me if they will fail to climb Denali. Fortunately, after I presented my mountaineering experience to the Ranger, he did not order the Canadians to include me in their team. I could climb Denali solo. However, even climbing solo, my “expedition” has to have a name. I called it, “An Old Boy Expedition”.

     I decided to climb Denali by the West Buttress route, which starts from Kahiltna Glacier at 2200m. A ski-equipped Cessna was to take me there, but Denali was not visible in clouds. In three days, a pilot – young woman, got permission to fly and in one hour I unloaded my staff on Kahiltna Glacier Base. Four years later I was in Talkeetna again to learn that she crashed her plane in Denali and died.

     The first goal was to reach the Basin Camp located at the bottom of Denali summit, at the level of 4300m. The food, fuel, and equipment were partially put to a backpack, partially to sleds, which had to be pulled up the mountain on a ski. Since the weight of the fuel and equipment was not shared with a partner, the load was particularly heavy. To protect the tent against strong wind, it had to be put on a half meter deep platform, dig up in the snow. In the morning it occurred that the tent has a major design fault. It was made of cloth not transpa-rent  for vapor in breathing air.  After the night,  the tent’s interior  was entirely covered with ice. It melted  when a stove was fired  to make  the  breakfast.  All clothes were not only wet  but also a few kilograms heavier.              I concluded  that with such a heavy load  I am not able to climb the mountain  so that I made a major evaluation of my load from the weight perspective. I took with me  only such items that were crucial for survival. The rest of it was left in a hole dug up in the snow. I left even a warm jacket.

    In three days, in very poor weather, I reached the Basin Camp, a sort of a village composed of lots of tents, where climbers use to spend weeks for acclimatization and waiting for the good weather needed for the final attack of the summit. I expected the same with me.

    On the first day in the Basin Camp, around midday, there was information that, after a month of very poor weather, there will be one day-long window of fine weather. I decided to use this single day for the final attack, without acclimatization. I took with me a tent, as well as food and fuel for only one week, in case I am trapped by bad weather. By 2 am I reached Denali Pass at 5200m. I was so cold and tired that I was not able to stop shaking so that I was forced to set a tent and have a rest. After I took off my shoes, I found that my feet are white as paper and without any filling. So that, before making tea, I “cooked” my feet until the filling returned. The temperature was -35C degrees. The next day, climbing without any load, I reached in the late afternoon, the fifth day of my climbing, the summit of Denali. I stood at the highest point in North America. By case, it was my 60th birthday.

    The fine weather window was over, however. I reached the Denali Pass in a heavy wind. Not to be trapped by the weather on Denali Pass, I packed the tent and have started to descent to the Basin Camp, which I reached late at night. The rest of the night I slept in an empty igloo. In the morning, the owner of the igloo has occurred and evicted me from it. Having the option of digging a platform for the tent in hard snow being so exhausted, I decided to descant from the mountain. I was back in Kahiltna Glacier Base in one day. I met Canadians fellows who were still a half-way to the Basin Camp. An operator in the Kahiltna Glacier Base, a lady, filled me with sequential huge pots of hot tea and tried to connect the Base, by radio, to the Polish telephone system and my wife. She succeeded so that I was able to tell my wife: “surprise, surprise, you are not a widow”.

    Four years later I came to Denali with my wife, Maria, to enjoy the magnificence and the beauty of the mountain from a plane.