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Ascent of Mount McKinley on 2008-06-07

Climber: Caj Svensson

Others in Party:Eva Gustavsson
Daryl Harmon
Pontus Axelsson
Gerry Doney
Joe Butler
Kevin Koprek
Ali Criscitiello
Date:Saturday, June 7, 2008
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount McKinley
    Location:USA-Alaska
    Elevation:20320 ft / 6193 m

Ascent Trip Report

The decision
In July of 2007 we had all been out climbing; some of us climbed rock up in the North East United States, some climbed small hills in Sweden, one of us climbed in a rock gym in Florida and all of us climbed some mountain in the Pacific North West. After finishing Granite Peak, MT, we had a couple (hmmm, maybe more than a couple) of IPA's and started thinking about what to do next. Well, we didn't really think for long - we started doing some research on Denali.

The team
We got down to the most important matter as soon as possible - gathering the team for the Denali climb. The team originally started out with Caj and Daryl. Not long thereafter Eva signed on, and quickly, not wanting to miss an opportunity to climb yet another big mountain, Pontus was on! Finally adding Gerry to the team, we became the Denali Vikings.

The preparations
Choosing a guide service
Choosing a guides service is a highly individual matter. What one person think is great, another may not like at all. The Vikings interviewed all six guide services carrying a permit to guide Denali. We selected Mountain Trip - which we highly recommend having spent 23 days on Denali with them. They provide excellent service, pre-trip and on-trip, and the greatest food you can imagine, well maybe except in high-camp.

Training
Living in three or four different places the team didn't really train together. Also, we probably had as many different approaches to the training as we were members on the team. With that said; go do some research and then start doing what You like the best. The most important is to get a lot of training in; getting your body used to working out almost every day, and carry a heavy backpack. Some of us simulated dragging a sled by using an old tire tied to the backpack. Think it helped, but those of us who didn't performed equally well on the mountain, so... it's all a matter of personal preference.

Meeting the guides
On May 18 we finally met our guides for the next three weeks, Kevin and Joe. Having spent a day with them, checking gear, and getting all last details for the trip straightened out, we felt pretty comfortable. This was gonna be a great trip.

The climb
Over land to Talkeetna
Anxious to get going we're all set well before departure time at 8 am on May 19. Our stuff is neatly stashed outside Barbara's B&B and finally the Mountain Trip van comes around the corner. We quickly load the gear and we're off to Talkeetna, from where we’ll fly on to the Glacier. Talkeetna is a small little town living pretty much of the mountain; there’s a NPS visitors center, a handful of companies flying bush planes onto the glacier, a guide service and quite a lot of motels and bars.

A few miles before reaching the town we got a first view of the Great One. On a day with clear skies, like today, it’s an awesome view.

We had our mandatory speech by a park ranger and headed off to the airport, getting our gear weighted and ready to go.

In mid-afternoon we left with about 950 lb of gear and flew 45 minutes to the Kahiltna glacier. It was hard to unload the plane, the breathtaking view’s was distracting and it took awhile before we did concentrate on setting up camp and preparing the sleds for next day’s haul to camp 1. This was our first of 23 days on the mountain.

Camp 1
Day 2 on the mountain started early to "beat the heat". Having a day with mostly flat terrain ahead we decided to make a single carry, i.e. carry all our food and gear with us at the same time. Like yesterday, we had a beautiful day. The trail up to camp 1 was well trodden and firm, making it possible to skip the snowshoes and just walk up. We actually did not use our snowshoes until the last night of our expedition, when we hiked out in a bit soggy conditions.

Having hiked for 6-7 hours we reached camp 1 at 7800 ft and set camp. Slowly we started to learn how the weeks laying ahead of us would be like.... Wake up, have breakfast, hike for several hours, set camp, relax, have a nice and tasty dinner and hit the sleeping bag before the sun set behind a ridge making it cold in camp.

Waking up early next morning, in beautiful weather, it’s hard not to love climbing. Guess our guides weren’t too impressed by the Vikings though, taking a good two hours getting ready for the carry up to 10 000 ft. Making good progress on the mountain hiking faster than any other rope team (important to some…) the Vikings sough forgiveness and were treated with Quesadillas for lunch, man, those were great. From this moment on we knew, this was gonna be a gourmet trip.

Moving into Camp 2
And getting stuck in a snow storm. Moving day was up next and treated us with about a foot of powder. Wouldn’t have been too bad .. if we’d been downhill skiing .. but walking uphill, breaking trail, was painful. It took us a good 8 hours moving from 7800 ft to 11000 ft in these conditions.

The weather forecast has been predicting a storm for the last few days, thus, we did not get surprised waking up on day 6, finding some non-cooperative weather. It was a back-carry day, meaning we’d go down to 10000 ft and pick up the stuff we cashed the day before yesterday. We headed down the hill in white-out conditions, having a hard time finding the wands, marking the trail. Finally reaching the cache and heading back up the hill, the weather cleared for a while, and we get back fairly quickly. Then we got stuck in the storm for two day.

Getting stuck in a storm isn’t too bad as long as you have good friends along and a deck of Fluxx (cardgame). Soo, squeezing 5 people and some salty licorice into a 2.5 person tent the game was on… don’t really remember who won, Fluxx can do that to you. In Caj’s first game, he misunderstood everything and gave away the victory to Gerry. Except for playing cards, we shoveled some snow, slept, and ate. A typical meal plan for a day looked something like:
- Freedom toast with Maple (yes Maple) syrup and Kaladi Brothers Coffee for breakfast
- Soup for lunch
- Pepperoni pizza for dinner
And Dude, once we even had Burritos :)

The food on the trip was excellent until we moved into High Camp; from then on we had instant oat meal, mashed potatoes, instant soup, Ramen noodles and some freeze dried meal. Not much variation having to spend 8 nights up there.

Moving into ABC (Camp 3)
Having waited out the storm and also made another carry up to 13 000 ft, which is passed Windy Corner, we were ready to move into Camp 3 - Advanced Base Camp. I think we all looked forward to the move; Camp 2 is a windy place, even without a storm. Yet again, spending some hard hours on the trail, and for the first time using our crampons, we arrived in ABC midday. In ABC they have toilets, the kind you can sit down on, much appreciated service.

We soon learned about the Mountain Trip hospitality. A MT guide from a group ahead of us, showed up like jack-in-the-box and offered water and help digging out for camp.

Somebody once said “Denali prepares you for what to come” – meaning for each day the climbing will get steeper and the weather colder. That is probably true, at least what we’ve seen so far. The steepest part though, was yet to come, and that would be very soon. Looking out from the vestibule of our tent we could see the headwall, a 50-60 degree snow and ice slope rising 2000 ft above ABC, followed by a steep and narrow ridge up to High Camp, passing the big rock called Washburn’s Thumb. Some of the steepest sections of this part of the climb have fixed ropes. We spent some hours practicing using an ascender for the climb up the fixed lines.

Again being treated with some warm (well, what shall we say) and sunny weather we had a rest day and for the first time we decided to fly the Swedish flag at our camp. It did not take long before some other Swedes showed up from “nowhere”. We learned it was a great way to meet people from home.

Of course the Vikings also brought the Stars and Stripes. Unfortunately we never had the opportunity to fly it. Gerry had not been feeling well for a couple of days, starting out down lower having some sleeping problems he also caught some virus giving him a respiratory infection. For most of team the hardest day on the climb was one, or the other, of the days we moved camp. For Gerry, it was, having to make the decision of quitting the attempt to climb Denali and turn around. Due to his respiratory problems he got the doctor’s advice to do so. This was a sad day for the team, losing one of the Vikings and our gadget geek.

Climbing the headwall and moving to High Camp
Having climbed to the top of the fixed lines to cache, we were now ready to move to High Camp. The Vikings got a late start, Gerry was going down and the rest of us kind of hang around and saw him off.

Starting late meant a lot of people on the headwall, and the line up the fixed rope was incredible. It took forever getting to the saddle above the headwall, and that really worn us out. Eva and Daryl were much more tired than the rest of the team, and our guides decided to split up the two rope teams. Joe took off with Caj and Pontus, and Kevin picked up a slower pace with Eva and Daryl.

The hike up the ridge of the West Buttress was (in addition to tiresome) absolutely beautiful, a very narrow ridge dropping steeply down on both sides. Sometimes the trail wasn’t more than two boot tracks wide...

Team Joe arrived in camp well before team Kevin, and did a very nice job setting up camp for both teams. Having settled into camp we probably had the worst dinner of our 23 days on the mountain. Raman noodles mixed with some bland mashed potatoes. Absofuckinglutely tasteless. Yack.

Not to speak for everyone on the team - this was the hardest day for several of the Vikings.

The never ending wait for the summit attempt
First day in High Camp was about back carrying the cache and making life a bit more pleasant by pitching another tent, having three 3-person tents for the six of us. We didn’t know at the time, but ending up spending eight nights at High Camp, it turned out to be really great.

Being high on the mountain we were more vulnerable to the elements. We built high snow walls around the tents. We didn’t have too bad weather though, the wind up high was really bad, making us stay in camp, in camp it was quite OK though. Temps at night dropped to about -10 F in our tents, outside probably 5 to 10 degrees colder.

We did one summit attempt on our third day in High Camp. High winds made us turn around before we even reached Denali Pass, and we were back down in camp within three hours. It was a good acclimatization climb, though.

Other than reinforcing our snow walls we spend the days in camp playing Fluxx, reading and sleeping. Ohh, and we did some eating as well although we wouldn’t call it gourmet style. We lived on; instant oatmeal for breakfast each day, lunch was power bars or Ramen, dinner was Ramen and Mash or some days we had some freeze dried Mountain House. On a 10-grade scale we voted very low for the food up high.

Getting a couple of days into the month of June we realized that our time on the mountain would be up very soon, and we hadn’t really had a good summit attempt yet. Counting backwards we knew that June 6 would be our last day for a summit bid, on June 7 we would start our hike back down. On the afternoon of June 5 we decided to go for it the next morning, should it be windy up high, we’d turn around. It had been windy for the last 7 days, and we kept our expectations low.

The summit days
June 6 did not greet us well. It wasn’t really windy, but probably the coldest day so far on the trip, mostly due to overcast weather, with NO sunshine in camp. The team hit the trail late morning and reached Denali Pass after a couple of hours. Getting up in the pass it became windy and cold, the wind chill required us to totally cover up, meaning face mask and goggles. This is when the trouble started.....Eva’s and Caj’s face masks forced the used air upwards instead of out, making the goggles first foggy and then icy. Visibility was zero and we had to stop at the Zebra Rocks (just above Denali pass) to decide on how to proceed. Daryl wasn’t doing great when we stopped here, and when it was decided that persons with goggle problems should turn around, Daryl decided to join.

Pontus and Kevin decided to make a summit bid. ......................They did great in the wind and the blowing snow, reaching the summit after about 8 hours on the Swedish National Day. We are so proud of them fighting the lousy weather and summit.

The rest of the team was back in camp very disappointed for the miserable day and the freezing goggles. After three weeks on the mountain it did feel good, though, being turned around by "gear problem", and the next day we were supposed to hike out.

June 7 and the mountain showed us its very best weather. No wind, sun and quite warm.

Joe knocked on Caj’s and Eva’s tent and asked if a summit bid today instead of hiking out seemed interesting. Joe continued to Daryl to ask the same question, adding "Eva and Caj are going." We have never dressed that fast and never downed breakfast in such a hurry. Roping up and leaving for Denali Pass for the third time, with Joe leading Eva and Daryl followed by Caj and Ali at the end. Ali was a guide that left her group that was going down, unsuccessful, joining us in our bid. The traverse was easy and there was generally no line of people up the hill. We stopped before crossing the pass for a ten minute break and continued uphill after that. Passed the Zebra Rocks where we turned around yesterday and reached the more level part above the ridge from the pass. Short break again and then a small push up to the Football Field, passing south of the Archdeacon’s Tower. We dropped the packs at the Football Field and rested for maybe twenty minutes, looking up at the summit ridge and Pig Hill. Before restarting we dressed up with puff pants and the parkas, preparing for a windy and cold summit. The sun was warm though. Pig Hill is steep and Joe kept as nice slow pace in the lineup. A team of three passed us in good speed. They had their rope setup in a weird way with the leader followed by 2nd in his footsteps. The third was the rest of the rope behind the first two.

The summit ridge starts on top of Pig Hill and we approached it without stopping. The ridge was not that step but with some good exposure and after a short hike, maybe 20 minutes, we stood on the plateau just below the summit. This was very emotional as we started the day in disappointment. About 30 minutes on the summit and then, in line, to hike down again. This time the summit ridge took about an hour - congestion due to exhausted climbers. Uneventful decent to the Football Field where we got our packs and had a quick rest. Next stop at Denial Pass before traversing back to High Camp. Pontus and Kevin waited at the Camp border and greeted us with hot drinks and hot water for dinner. This was a good night.

Hiking out
This was the morning after summiting and we prepared for going down. Tents were packed and we headed out. Strong winds made the ridge to the saddle above fixed lines a narrow and dangerous trail. We were roped up and hiked slow and safely. Below the fixed lines we strolled back to ABC on tired legs. Camp was set and we had dinner from the cached food. This was enjoyable after the freeze dried food in High Camp. Next morning was a sleep in morning with French Toasts for breakfast. We got all gear out and packed it. The Swedish flag was flying high over ABC. Burritos for lunch and we finished up the packing, starting downwards to Windy Corner. Caj's sled was going mostly upside down, over the Polar Field and down the Squirrel Hill. Joe gave a helping hand. A stop at Camp 2 to pick up the cache, e.g. the snow shoes, and further down to Camp 1, wearing the snow shoes. We made a longer stop with coffee and bars at Camp 1 before continuing the last 5-6 miles to Base Camp where we arrived at about 1:30 AM. A quick tent setup and to bed on a very uneven ground.

Wakeup call at 6 AM - another Mountain Trip group need our tent. It took them two more hours to leave after we surrendered the tent. We waited for TAT to arrive to pick us up, and waited, and waited. Jeff from Ct was there waiting with us. He arrived the night before and had decided to not go any further and fly out. This is not an unusual thing to do, but for Jeff this was his third time turning around. At about 6 PM TAT arrived. Four of us flew out with Bill and TAT's second plane arrived as the first took off. Tyler flew the rest of the Vikings and Jeff out.

In Talkeetna @ Motel 62 the showers were open and so was the bar. This is where the 49th signing ceremony of Daryl's HP-book took place.


The celebration
What’s there to say when there’s IPA!!! West Rib followed by the Fairview Inn. Thinking of the wake call at 6 am after a very short night, leaving the Fairview after 1 am next morning is a good party.

The most common questions
Our friends are asking us these two most common questions::
"How was your trip?" and then followed by "What are you guys going to do now?"
You would think the second most common would be "Please tell me about it!"
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:37720 ft / 11496 m
    Extra Gain:12600 ft / 3840 m
    Distance:32 mi / 51.5 km
    Route:West Buttress
    Trailhead:7800 ft / 2377 m
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Ski Poles, Snowshoes, Guide, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:22 nights away from roads
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:20 Days 
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:2 Days 



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