Denali 2012 - Base camp

By Scott Swalling

Denali 2012 basecamp, embarking on a journey to North America's tallest peak.

On the 25th May, a team of climbers with varying experience left London Heathrow for Mount McKinley (Denali), Alaska. The team consisted of Will Hardy, Franca Serafini, Daniel Bergo, Nick Mortley, Alex Erskine and myself. We all had different strengths and weaknesses coming into the expedition and some of these would be shown.

We arrived in Anchorage very early on the 26th, got some sleep did our food and last minute equipment shopping and then headed for Talkeetna, the gateway to Denali. We got registered at Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) and then rested up for the night.

The next day we had our briefing with the rangers at the Denali National Park Service and then we began to wait at TAT for a window of opportunity. The weather needs to be good in Talkeetna, in the range and in between. We would wait here patiently some times and others frustrated for a few days. Even one evening we were in a plane with our new friend Nina, off the ground and heading for the mountain. It rises straight out of the tundra and looks intimidating when you first see it. But this flight was turned around as we heard the weather had closed in again.

Talkeetna Air Strip

The following day however would be our lucky day, as we got crammed into Cessna 185's and after a flight with amazing views we were stood on the glacier at Base Camp. It was finally all happening. We registered with Lisa, got our fuel and set up camp, ate and got some sleep.

It was meant to be a rest day, but eagerness and maybe a bit of weakness saw us heading off across the glacier in the middle of the day for 7800 Camp. With skis on our feet and sleds attached to our rucksacks these sleds would cause us no end of frustration and I would even break a ski pole on one, we headed into the white cauldron. Dan, Alex and Nick as one team, Will, Franca and I as the other.

It was hot and hard work and Franca was already struggling with weight of pack and sled, and she was having binding problems also. This was resolved by me, and the application of her ski over to the boot that kept popping out of the ski. Half way up, Will and I swapped rope positions and Will led to 7800 camp. We arrived and met the others, who had set up camp and started to melt snow. We set up camp and began to help the guys. Franca was still struggling and appeared to be faffing a lot. A few members of the team had noticed this and were concerned about the apparent difficulties that lay ahead on the route.

Camping in deep snow below Denali

Camp 7800 (Ski Hill)

After a good meal we retired to bed and I got a surprisingly good nights sleep. The next morning after a solid breakfast, thoughts turned to the next few days and how to approach them and some of the team members expressed their concerns with Franca in an open and candid discussion as they were concerned that the weather and speed of movement may affect the group safety and summit bid. As we made plans to head to Camp 9600 and then 11000 to allow for good acclimatisation for the entire group, Franca took me to one side to discuss what had been said and had decided that she thought it best to head to BC and out of the range. A no doubt difficult and painful decision to make. But this did change our plans.

Will and Dan would head back down to base camp with Franca. Nick, Alex and myself would head up to 9600 with a load carry and hope to meet the guys back at 7800. Not long after they headed to BC, we sorted a load to carry and headed up to 9600 Camp. The weather was getting a little gloomy and threatened to whiteout a few times, but soon after arriving at 9600 and caching the load we were on our way back down.

On the way back, Alex was struggling greatly with the mountaineering boot ski combination while Nick and I cut turns and even videoed each other. Who said mountaineering was hard work?

Soon back at camp and some toys out of Alex's pram ;) we ate and turned in for the night.

So we had turned in for the night and would get a peaceful nights sleep, today we would break camp and move as much as the 3 of us could carry to 9600 and wait for the others. There was discussion of pushing onto 11000 and descending the next day to meet Dan and Will at 9600 and retrieve the cache, but we thought this might put too much ground between us and them and we had the best part of the kit and food and if the weather turned it could get a bit painful for Dan and Will.

Nick, Alex and I ate, packed and broke camp and headed for 9600, the weather had started to turn after we had been waiting for the sun to sink a bit lower. As we started off the wind had picked up and the snow started to fall. We were about to experience some Denali weather. We pushed on and made it to the camp, dug out the cache and got the tents up fast and ate. The weather got increasingly bad and more snow and spindrift was picked up by the wind.

Change in the weather

We quickly turned in and assumed that Will and Dan would do the same down at 9400, bit it would turn out they only made 7800 in the bad weather. The next morning I woke, the wind was all but gone and the sun was out. Fearing the worst the night before I put a shovel in my tent and I needed it, see below.

Kangri fter a bit of digging.

Soon after I was out Nick and Alwx heard from Dan and Will and that they had only made 7800 and bundle into the tiny BD tent and spent a trying 17hrs in it, total respect guys. We waited for them to join us which would be a while as they were tired from their over night and the massive effort of heading down with Franca.

As they arrived we got them fed and watered and discussed if moving to 11,000 was worth it. We decided against this to let them fully recover and head up the next day. So we spent the day eating drinking and relaxing a bit. We also met Ty and Aaron for the first time at the camp and would move up the mountain with them pretty much to 14200.

The next day we moved to 11,000 not without some sled and pole issues (I broke one, disciplining my sled). Whilst we had started off quite comfortably the hill below 11,000 camp needs to be traversed a little and this is where it all went a bit wrong for a bit. Alex had a sense of humour fail, I managed not to, but did manage to snap a pole re-inacting Basil Fawlty hitting his car with the branch, and could only summon an "Oh bugger" when I did it, Dan was upset as he had just stopped videoing just before this. Sorry Dan.

Soon, we where into the meat of the climb and pushed on at a casual pace, Dan and I being the tortoise to everyone's hare. At 11,000 we struck camp in a lovely split level site with great views, ate and got to bed.

View from 11000 Camp

The next day we rested, sorted gear for the haul to 14200 the next morning and I think this proved to be a good idea and it was good to see the team making decisions together and discussing our options, that had been limited by our fool-hardiness in our catering (something that will be given greater attention to detail next time).

The next morning working in the following teams Nick and Will, Dan, Alex and myself we headed off for a haul to 14200. At about Squirrel Point I started to feel rather ill and let Dan and Alex know. This meant we had to move slower and that I might have to turned back if it got any worse. The guys kept and eye on me and after about 3.5hrs we arrived at 14200 and found the others and they had found a good campsite.

Camp site 1 at 14200, headwall in the background.

We dropped our gear, sorted the site a bit and rested for a little and started down, I was still not great and was still feeling rubbish after Windy Corner, it was not until nearing the top of Motorcycle Hill, well below Squirrel Point I felt better again.

Back at camp, we sorted stuff for the move the next day and went about the normal end-of-day duties.

The next we moved to 14200; tired and in need of rest, we sorted the camp the best we chose, ate, melted ice for water bottles, and the 5 us piled into the Heksa and fell asleep, cocooned in our down bags and the heat within the tent.

The move to 14200.

The next day we milled around the campsite, dug the snow walls a bit higher and enjoyed the views. We also welcomed Ty and Aaron to 14200 and chatted to other climbers and watched the precession up and down the fixed lines and the massively high winds batter the summit ridge and everything down to Washburn's Thumb.

After 6-7 days at camp 14200 (I lost count), a camp move due to avalanche risk, a trip to the Edge of the World (fantastic views) and an attempted outing to the top of the fixed lines foiled by my own lucid concern over coughing up some blood, which did turn out to be nothing and a weather pattern that repeated itself. Cold crisp mornings, sunny warm days with very high winds from 16800 up then enough snow overnight to increase the avalanche risk daily.

After all this, I finally made a decision to head down the mountain with Ty and Aaron; Alex soon decided to join us. The decision was based on the fact that weather reports seemed to be quite accurate, even though others on the mountain were trying to convince themselves otherwise. Some discussions with the rangers and hearing the weather reports that Aaron was getting from his wife meant that we had plenty more of this weather to come. This would prove to be the case when some friends summited as the weather turned, about 8 days after we left the mountain. I also wanted to see a few more things in Alaska; sorry to say, I am not a died-in-the-blood climber, and with the odds stacked against a summit bid, I headed out.

Summit of Denali

Mount Hunter from 14200

Heading out when I did with Ty, Aaron and Alex, was timed quite well. As we did have to endure some pretty foul weather and with Alex suffering, he and I got to endure significantly more of it then Ty and Aaron. After a couple of moments making camp 11000, we dug out the cache (I dug a great deal more being the stronger of our team). We attempted to ski from here but Alex was having trouble with the weight of pack and sled and only having mountaineering boots to ski in. So we changed plan and started to hump our way out on foot. This would prove to be painfully slow and difficult with fresh, warm, wet snow and sagging snow bridges; skiing would have been the best option.

Eventually, we passed camp 9600 and the lower camp 9400, and we were soon at the top of the ski hill. Which had been very benign on the 3 days we had passed over this section of the route days before. I wanted to unrope as the load on my knee with us roped up was beginning to created issues. Alex and I had a slight altercation over this, but as I was in a huge amount of pain from being pulled left and right as Alex stumbled or his sled went over again, he was really suffering. I feared that I might not be able to ski out from 7800 camp. I knew what was occurring in my knee and knew how debilitating it can be.

We unroped and moved on down Ski Hill with not too much distance between us for most of the descent and without too many issues. At one point, Alex post holed in the same spot I had done and walked out of. He panicked a bit, fearing the worst, but was soon out, and we roped up again to be sure. Nearing the bottom of Ski Hill, I punched through a crevasse properly to my waist; I had my sledge in front of me in case of such an occasion, I pushed it forward and stopped rapidly. I turned to see Alex still walking down the hill towards me and the rope entirely slack. I yelled at him to stop walking a couple of times and to take the slack. By the time he had done, I had managed to self-extract myself with one of my skis; I pulled off my pack. We continued down to 7800 camp found Ty and Aaron’s tent and pitched up next to them for a few hours of kip. Ty poked his head out to check we where ok.

The next morning, we packed tents and roped as a four as planned from this point and headed out. As we did we watched several groups approaching on snow shoes struggle with the crevasses. I was on point and managed to make good decisions on each crevasse and we only had one incident of Alex getting a little stuck in one on our trip back to Base Camp and the wish of a flight to Talkeetna.

Once at BC, the weather finally started to clear, but we would spend a night here and the next day fly out, Alex and I in the morning and Ty and Aaron late that night. Alex and I had basically ate our way around Talkeetna and once joined by Ty and Aaron, we added drinking our way around Talkeetna to the list (its not a big place) although the Fairview did do well out of us.

Denali plane

The TAT way home

Back in Anchorage, I mooched around Anchorage to get to see the place, went on a sightseeing flight to see bears in their natural habitat and generally put weight back on what I had lost on the mountain.

Unlike some others, I am not that fussed about not making the summit, that’s mountaineering as I see, any trip you return from is a good one, yes? I am also not that fussed to return to Alaska to try Denali again. However, the range is an amazing place and I am very keen to return and try more technical routes, in other parts of the range. So in time I will return, but there are many other places to climb.

I learnt a few things on the mountain, which I assume the others did as well. Make a long detailed list of food that you need, if you think it is wrong or you personally need more, say or do something. Make sure the entire team is fit and really knows what they are getting themselves in for, and finally, make sure the team spends more time together than we did; people really need to know each other and how each other reacts under pressure, boredom or indeed if a member of the team has a health concern.

I will certainly only travel to the mountains in the future as pair or a close-knit team of no more than 4, out team size was a little difficult to manage and maybe had a few too many ego’s and one too many passengers, but everyone did get along, and conflict caused by stress and the affects of the altitude were few and resolved super fast without ill feeling.

I learnt a lot about myself as well and one thing being that slogging up a mountain for days, is maybe not my first choice of mountaineering and that I am better suited technical routes.

Alaska I will certainly be back, but winter is near now and my thoughts turn to ice and mixed routes. Fingers crossed for a cold, cold winter.

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