Denali 2022: Smooth Sailing to a Summit
Written by Mike Pond, Alpenglow Guide
Every now and then, everything lines up. For all the trips where you get bad weather, illness strikes, you encounter difficult mountain conditions, or face any number of other challenges — sometimes it all lines up and the trip goes without much of a hitch. Denali 2022 was one of those times.
Typical Denali trips (including my previous six) run about 20 days, though only about 14 are assigned a task. The remaining days are allotted to waiting out brutal weather and resting from the altitude and workload. On this trip, we were in and out in 15 days. And it’s not because we found some secret weapon. We just had absolutely delightful weather the entire time, and had a team that was fit and prepared. Combine that with good attitudes all around, and you get an expedition that sails.
Even an “easy” Denali trip is still a lot of work. No one is here to help you pull your weight (literally). No Sherpas or porters to carry loads. No base camp, mules, or other support. Just you and your 125 pounds of gear and a whole lot of dragging sleds and digging in snow. That’s part of the appeal and beauty of Denali – you’re on your own, making your way up as a team, slowly progressing and acclimatizing on your ascent. Any obstacles that come your way are dealt with as a team.
On the first day, our team of 7 (five climbers and two guides) met at the airplane hangar in Talkeetna, loaded 20 days worth of equipment, food and fuel, ate one final pizza, and flew to the Kahiltna Glacier with Talkeetna Air Taxi. Flying in a bush plane outfitted with skis for landing on the glacier is a highlight in itself, passing above lifetimes’ worth of Alaska’s majestic peaks, which quickly rise from foothills to the tallest on the continent, finally landing in the middle of the mighty Kahiltna glacier.
There’s no feeling quite like seeing the plane fly away. Just like that, you’re in the middle of a massive glacier below the tallest peak in North America. The word “committed” comes to mind.
The following 11 days were spent doing our daily tasks – caching gear, moving camp, back carrying cached gear, establishing camp, melting snow for drinking water, cooking, eating, and finally resting. Rinse and repeat from Camp 1 (7,800’) to High Camp (17,100’) on day 12.
Summit day, ironically, feels quite a bit like every other day. Wake up, eat, drink, gear up, ropes on, and walk uphill for 6 hours. The difference between summit day and the previous days is that this day’s ascent culminates in a knife edge ridge at 20,000 feet with Denali’s massive South face beneath your right side and endless miles of tundra to the left. At the summit, we soak up the majesty of Denali as we are on the top of North America.
I think we all had our inward reflection of what it meant to be at the top of North America. For me, I have done this trip seven times and every time I have had a different feeling at the summit. Sometimes I had feelings of relief, other times of disbelief, others of dread and anxiety seeing massive storm clouds rapidly approaching (that was a descent I’ll not forget). On this particular day, we were in no rush to leave, as the superb weather granted a few extra minutes to soak it all in. I couldn’t help but notice the smoke from an Alaska size wildfire. We were well above the smoke line and far away from the fire, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at how big this wildfire was. Was this a typical Alaskan wildfire or a result of climate change? Would I return home to California to our own wildfire season in early July?
We descended back down to High Camp (17,100’) which went smoothly, our spirits high from our accomplishment. The next morning, faced with some uncertainty in the weather forecast, we decided to do the mega decent – retracing two weeks of climbing in one long day, down 10,000 feet to base camp. Giddy up.
On a late season trip, what you gain in warm weather, you pay for in the descent on the lower glacier. On the way in, we passed a few suspect cravasses, but the travel was smooth and the glacier remained unbroken. Our descent, only 14 days after first arriving to Denali, was a different story.
When we arrived at Camp 1 (7,800’), we rested for a few hours. We would depart along with several other guided teams, as having a few friendlies nearby would be nice if someone fell in a cravasse or if route finding required a few more sets of eyes. At 2am, three hours after arriving at camp, I took the lead our mega group, setting sail to the broken and complex glacier ahead.
The lower Kahiltna was one of the more involved and demanding sections of glacier travel that I’ve done. We crossed hundreds of cravasses. There were no tracks to follow, there was no group ahead of us. I busted out all the tools in the climbing kit, and a great deal of focus, a bit of intuition and our fair share of luck brought us through the thick of it. Another team swapped us out for the final lead to base camp. With only a few minor waist-deep cravasse falls, everyone made it back safe. We cracked the beers we buried two weeks ago as we waited for our ride home.
And just like that, you’re sitting in a plane. Thirty minutes later you’re landing in town. Warm air, text messages, and the smells of the verdant Alaska summer rush in, the world of snow and ice already a memory.
Summits aside, the moments that stay with me the most are some of the most unassuming. Laughs in the cook tent. A helpful hand when you’re tired of digging. A 10-minute break spent in absolute stillness. Vegging in the late day Alaskan sun. Gorging ourselves at 14 Camp on the way down (our appetites returned after High Camp and summit, all our finest meats and cheeses consumed in one fat meal). Meeting friendly climbers traveling parallel to us, the feeling of “team” spreading beyond our group of 7. Who could forget the beer we cached two meters deep in Base Camp snow, cracked open when we finally returned at 7am after two sleepless days of demanding travel. The first smells of vegetation upon landing back in Talkeetna. Topping it all off, an evening at The Fairview (enough said!).
Finally, more than anything, what sticks with me is the bond that is forged among team members during an arduous expedition. You step on to the glacier as individuals and summit as a team. Here’s to five of the strongest and most fun Denali climbers I’ve had the pleasure to share the mountain with — Thank you Mark, Syd, Ronan, Erik, and Baptiste. Until we climb again!
*While on this expedition, Mike received the Denali Pro Pin for leading a large group off of the Kahiltna glacier to safety, and for preventing an incompetent group from certain accident by having them follow his team up the mountain.