Ascent of Denali on 2019-05-30

Climber: Serguei Okountsev

Others in Party:Weiwei Yin
Date:Thursday, May 30, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Airplane
    Elevation:20310 ft / 6190 m

Ascent Trip Report

Denali - unepic West Buttress expedition

Two of us climbed Denali via standard route West Buttress. It took 22 days after two years of research, training and preparations, two major accidents, a 1st degree frostbite, a rescue, surgeries and 7-days hospitalization at VGH trauma unit. We practiced camping at -20C, climbing at 100km/h winds, ascending fixed lines on very steep snow. On top of that, tons of our expedition gear (down parkas, sleeping bags, backpacks, etc.) were once stolen from our car parked in a US state park, so thanks to it, we got brand new modern replacement - our original gear was in fact outdated.

After such an epic prepping, the entire expedition was what they usually call "uneventful": none of us had altitude effects (used no altitude pills), frostbites or bad falls - major reasons for failing to summit, the climbing season 2019 had enough of each of them. We had a very good appetite every day and even gained weight - no kidding!

Checking in the Talkeetna rangers office, we saw first injured - they made it to 17K, got frostbite and went down without topping Denali. "Too cold." Only after return we fully realized, that even making it to 17K camp then was quite an achievement - at that time even 14K camp had no rangers. Some people never got higher than 11K camp - two weeks trapped in bad weather, go home. Getting on the air taxi, we saw two skiers unloading - "How high did you guys make it?" - "Not high". All the way to 11K we met parties returning without success. "Too cold".

Windy Corner was in a very sad shape, blue ice patches under dust of snow just above a huge drop. Someone before us fell there, broke some ribs and had to stay through -20C bad weather for a few days until finally rescue helicopter could pick him up. Rangers staying at 11K camp could not reach him, even though it's just a walk in normal conditions. We carried part of our stuff in backpacks, only a sled in one go would be too dangerous. I underestimated this section grossly, my expedition sled, even partially unloaded, almost ripped me off the surface, twice.

Stayed 10 days at 14K camp for warmer weather, took one real Alaska snowstorm. Started worrying about our food and fuel supplies running out. Then it warmed up. Took a shot on May-30 from 17K camp just before another snowfall, left camp at 4:45 a.m. at -20°C, no wind, reached the summit in whiteout, no people. On descent the wind picked up, having full force on Denali pass, but it was blowing from our backs, so had no face frostbite. 19 days to the summit, 22 nights total on the mountain.

With two brand new weather stations (installed in 2019) the weather forecasts posted at 14K camp by rangers were pretty accurate - they predicted two major storms up to an hour, a few days in advance.

Quite a few popular statements about Denali West Buttress route proved to be just pure myths, such as white gas stoves being more reliable than (Reactor) canisters, that everybody will lose (~15lb) of body weight, that one needs at least 5,000 cal of food a day, that "regular" insulated boots (e.g. Nepals) are too cold to climb Denali even with overboots, etc, etc..

Gear failed: four-season tent MSR Remote 2 (broken pole), Therm-a-Rest NeoAir (leaking air), crampons. Garmin GPSMAP 64S refused to navigate for about an hour, when we needed it to locate our cache.

InReach's weather forecasts (paid service) were always a wild guess and entirely out of touch with reality. Texting was marginal, 20% didn't work.

We never missed civilization back home, such as "good" food or a shower or Internet - when Vera casually mentioned that we already spent ten nights at 14K camp, I was surprised - I thought it was only 4-5 days. Besides, I never touched books saved in my phone in case it would be boring - we never were. We both agree - 14K camp is the best among five "official" camps on the route.

The headwall was icier, steeper and longer that we both expected. Jumaring up, hollow block with handwrap down. Crampons had be tightened to the extreme (as Vera did and I didn't), or they may fall off - and they did on return with full expedition gears; had to stop midway on hollowblock and adjust both, luckily nobody was above us.

The day before the summit at 17K camp Vera went for beta from climbers who just returned from the top. The advice were super useful and correct. "Wear all your warm clothes and still, you will never sweat. Bring all your carabiners: Autobahn has fixed snow pickets every ~25m except one long section unprotected. The hardest part is final Pig Hill - no air." And yes, although we trained for Autobahn specifically on Mt. Hood - it was harder, longer and more dangerous then we both expected.

Returned from 14K straight to Base Camp, during cooler night hours. Crampons. Because we used up one ski pole repairing broken tent at 16K ridge, Vera had only one, so all the load (two connected sleds, backpack) was on the lead (myself) - was OK except the very last piece, Heartbreak Hill. This was a bit harder and slower, but it didn't matter after all, we have done it!

Arrived at the base at 05:00 a.m. and flew off at 09:00 a.m. After landing, incredible, never experienced before, reaction to green color, food and shower. Absolute inner piece and deep harmony, if I could call it.

The last note worth mentioning - we have been often asked, what was the hardest part of the expedition? We both agree - making (right) decisions was the most difficult. If you go guided, all you need to do is to follow instructions from the leads, but when you are on your own, every single day you need to decide what's next. Experience, determination, prior training, intuition, luck, healthy team moral, and a lot of alpine mileage together are must.

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Summary Total Data
    Route:West Buttress
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Open Country, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Ski Poles, Snowshoes, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:22 nights away from roads
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Serguei Okountsev
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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