Pulling into the 14,200' camp on Denali - a well organized two man team from Colorado

 

Surviving Denali - 1989


Climbing Journal Fragments

Saturday June 17th, 1989: A day to remember or forget - it all depends on the particular perspective I’m able to focus on the event? With the decision to turn back 600' below the summit of Denali, we voted for survival, not victory. Had we continued in a last desperate effort to grab the 20,320' prize, our chances of surviving the descent to High Camp were extremely limited. At best, we'd have suffered severe frostbite.

So go the hard decisions of mountaineering: Three weeks of struggle, exposure and ordeal moving slowly upward on the massive ice slopes of Denali, North America’s highest peak, now seemed a futile gesture - all for nothing. Or was it? I look back over the scrawled notes of my Denali journal in an attempt to find justification for this extreme and apparently useless effort.

My Denali climb was conceived in early 1988 while climbing solo in the Mount Whitney area of the Sierra Nevada.  On the first day of the climb I made the acquaintance of Art, a fellow solo climber who was training for an attempt on Denali with a guided expedition in June.  In the event, due to reported altitude sickness, Art was unable to summit Denali, so on his return to California began making plans for a private expedition for the following year.

  • Flying out of the Talkeetna airport Flying out of the Talkeetna airport
  • The small, but active climbers town of Talkeetna in May 1989 The small, but active climbers town of Talkeetna in May 1989
  • Art, Jackie and Randy at the Talkeetna Museum Art, Jackie and Randy at the Talkeetna Museum
  • Randy and a Hudson Air floatplane [Cessna 185] on the lake near Talkeetna Randy and a Hudson Air floatplane [Cessna 185] on the lake near Talkeetna
  • Peter hanging around during crevasse self-extraction training in the old Hudson cabin Peter hanging around during crevasse self-extraction training in the old Hudson cabin
  • Jackie hanging around during crevasse self-extraction training at the old Hudson cabin Jackie hanging around during crevasse self-extraction training at the old Hudson cabin
  • Peter at the Talkeetna airport with a Hudson Air Cessna 185 skiplane. Peter at the Talkeetna airport with a Hudson Air Cessna 185 skiplane.
  • Randy and Peter at the Talkeetna airport with a Hudson Air Cessna 185 skiplane. Randy and Peter at the Talkeetna airport with a Hudson Air Cessna 185 skiplane.
  • The Hudson Air Cessna 206 skiplane at Talkeetna airport The Hudson Air Cessna 206 skiplane at Talkeetna airport
  • Flying up to the Kahiltna Base Camp along the glacier of the same name Flying up to the Kahiltna Base Camp along the glacier of the same name
  • Jackie and Art enjoying the sun at our campsite at the Kahiltna Base Camp Jackie and Art enjoying the sun at our campsite at the Kahiltna Base Camp
  • Day one on Denali - Jackie, Art, Randy and Peter at the Base Camp. Day one on Denali - Jackie, Art, Randy and Peter at the Base Camp.
{image.index} / {image.total}

This meeting with Art was to have long term consequences ... leading me and two other climbers into a nightmare world of survival against a dangerous mountain and a chain of bad decisions.  My early impression of Art as a climber wasn't exactly favorable: Well turned out in expensive, fashionable alpine clothing, color co-coordinated and a rather vague history of alpine mountaineering. In many ways he was an enigma, particularly concerning his compatibility as a climbing partner and future expedition leader.  Despite these doubts and a sense of unease about Art - and the venture - I accepted the invitation to be part of his private expedition to climb Denali.

Our plan was to fly into the Kahiltna Base Camp, at an elevation of 7,500' on May 29th, and hope for three weeks of good weather during the month of June.  At Base Camp, there were numerous climbing parties returning from unsuccessful attempts on the summit, now waiting to be flown out. It was reported that conditions had been unsafe for climbing for most of the past three weeks.  Three British climbers have fallen to their deaths; another group had their tents and two clients blown off the 3,000 foot headwall below High Camp [17,200'].  Earlier, two Japanese climbers died in their tent at Denali Pass [18,200'] ...  hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, severe altitude sickness?  No one seems to know the real reason.  What’s certain, the weather has been extreme for the time of year.  We hoped that conditions would improve for our attempt during the next three weeks.  Surely odds would be in our favor?

 

  • A Hudson Air Cessna 185 on the ski-strip at Base Camp A Hudson Air Cessna 185 on the ski-strip at Base Camp
  • Randy and Jackie after arriving in the Hudson Cessna 206 on the ski-strip at Base Camp Randy and Jackie after arriving in the Hudson Cessna 206 on the ski-strip at Base Camp
  • A Cessna 185 of Geeting Aviation that attempted to land in cloud - no injuries! A Cessna 185 of Geeting Aviation that attempted to land in cloud - no injuries!
  • Our second or third day dragging sleds up the Kahiltna Glacier - in whiteout conditions. Our second or third day dragging sleds up the Kahiltna Glacier - in whiteout conditions.
  • Peter standing below Ski Hill during a rare break in the weather. Peter standing below Ski Hill during a rare break in the weather.
  • Our two tents dug deep into the snow below Ski Hill Our two tents dug deep into the snow below Ski Hill
  • Peter on a rare clear day at our camp above Ski Hill Peter on a rare clear day at our camp above Ski Hill
  • Freezing our butts off near Windy Corner - too late in the day! Freezing our butts off near Windy Corner - too late in the day!
  • Our campsite in the advanced Base Camp area at 14,200' Our campsite in the advanced Base Camp area at 14,200'
  • An organized, well equipped team of two walking into the 14,200' camp An organized, well equipped team of two walking into the 14,200' camp
  • A rare sight on the mountain - a dog sled team at the 14,200' camp. A rare sight on the mountain - a dog sled team at the 14,200' camp.
  • Jackie and Peter on the way up from the 14,200' camp to the headwall notch. Jackie and Peter on the way up from the 14,200' camp to the headwall notch.
{image.index} / {image.total}

June 7th, 1989:  Morning procrastination ... although not the best weather conditions, other groups are moving out. We’re finally packed up, cached snow shoes and other items at 11,000' by 2 pm!  Then a slow march, with long stops in cold conditions for repairs to Randy's crampons.  Around Windy Corner in icy conditions for the longest, coldest 13 hours climbing in my life, stumbling into the 14,200' camp at 3 am, with the temperature at - 10° F.  My feet are near freezing and body close to hypothermia, believing I'll never be warm again.  Jackie and Randy much worse than me. 

There's no discussion on either the cold or our choice of moving so late and for so long, all because of indecision in getting underway each morning.  We'll never make the summit if this continues.   Despite numerous clear and constructive references to this problem, nothing changes.  I’ve given us the name 'The Midnight Wanderers'.

June 10th, 1989:  A good weather day and it’s up the headwall to the notch at 16,200' with a carry of 4 days food and fuel to cache at the notch.  Once again, we leave late: Out at 2.30 pm and not at the notch until 8.30 pm, but weather remained excellent with great views on both sides of the West Buttress – superb!  The climb and descent of the top 1000' of the headwall is protected by fixed ropes, which are difficult to use, particularly during the descent.  Back to a very cold camp - late. 

June 17 th, 1989:   We leave for the summit at 9:45 am in perfect conditions, although some pluming obvious along the summit ridge, but we hope this wind will reduce by late afternoon [our estimate for reaching the summit].  We make good time to Denali Pass, where the wind is howling in from the east. Then its up the ridge to the Football Field by 6 pm.  The summit knoll is just ahead, maybe 1½ hours to go.  We reach 19,700' at the same time as the clouds roll in from the west, accompanied by gale force winds.  The summit knoll quickly becomes obscured by cloud and the general consensus from ourselves and other climbing parties in the vicinity is to retreat immediately to our camp at 17,200' before the weather situation deteriorates further, blocking any chance of a safe return.  Temperature is -20° F and dropping. Our decision to turn back, with the summit so close, we can almost reach out and touch it, is heartbreaking.  We realize this is our last chance at a summit attempt but the decision to retreat is the only choice in the circumstances. 

The descent is hazardous in the strong wind and all are tired and dispirited.  We take special care from Denali Pass to the 17,200' camp ... there have been numerous fatal accidents on this section of the descent.  Finally, at 10 pm, we arrive at camp in very strong winds and gratefully crawl into sleeping bags to endure the noise of ever increasing wind gusts as the night progresses.  Randy is really down because of our failure.  My reaction will come later, whatever that will be.  I do know that had the fine weather held, I would have made the summit and for the moment I’m content with that.  At least we’re all alive and no frostbite.  The Genet team that returned from the summit early this morning  suffered a number of frostbite casualties.  No summit, and possibly no toes, would be just too much to bear.

 

June 18th, 1989:  I sleep very well for the first time at this altitude, despite a roaring storm throughout the night and morning.  Presently waiting for wind to drop in order to make a safe descent to the camp at 14,200' We decide on a descent down the Rescue Gully [straight shot of 3,000' to the camp].  This based on a move by Genet and RMI to do the same ...  they consider the West Buttress route too exposed with the prevailing wind.  The descent on the fixed ropes takes forever, but necessary because of the steep exposed slope.

June 19th, 1989: A night trip down from 11,000' to the Kahiltna Base Camp is carried out in beautiful conditions ... no wind, not particular cold and with firm snow underfoot.  We pull into the Base Camp at 3 am, throw up tents for the last time.  Randy and I have a celebration of many mugs of essential hot fluids. We’re flown out to Talkeetna by Jay and Cliff Hudson around midday on the 20th, after 22 days on the mountain

Final Assessment

Overall a great disappointment.  The combination of bad decisions and constant extreme weather made the expedition a most dangerous mountain experience.   But I can't complain too much: I went into this with my eyes open, guessing something like this could occur.  At least we all survived the mountain, returning with no injuries or frostbite!

One day, I'll tell the full story of why this climb was so bloody dangerous!

 

 

 

 

  • Mount Foraker [17,400'] as seen from the 14,200' outhouse. Mount Foraker [17,400'] as seen from the 14,200' outhouse.
  • Peter on the upper section [fixed rope] of the Headwall Peter on the upper section [fixed rope] of the Headwall
  • Peter arriving at the Notch [16,200'] at the top of the Headwall Peter arriving at the Notch [16,200'] at the top of the Headwall
  • On the climb from the Notch, along the ridge to the High Camp On the climb from the Notch, along the ridge to the High Camp
  • Looking down from the West Buttress ridge into the Kahiltna Glacier Looking down from the West Buttress ridge into the Kahiltna Glacier
  • Peter taking a break walking the West Buttress ridge at 17,000' Peter taking a break walking the West Buttress ridge at 17,000'
  • Our two tents, protected by snow blocks, at the 17,200' High Camp Our two tents, protected by snow blocks, at the 17,200' High Camp
  • Peter on the edge of the Rescue Gulley at 17,200' Peter on the edge of the Rescue Gulley at 17,200'
  • On our way back down the Kahiltna Glacier On our way back down the Kahiltna Glacier
  • Descending the Kahiltna Glacier at midnight on June 19th, 1989 Descending the Kahiltna Glacier at midnight on June 19th, 1989
  • Back at the Talkeetna cabin with Cliff Hudson and Randy. Back at the Talkeetna cabin with Cliff Hudson and Randy.
  • The old man of the mountains - Peter [aged 50] at Talkeetna, on our return from Denali. The old man of the mountains - Peter [aged 50] at Talkeetna, on our return from Denali.
{image.index} / {image.total}

Back to Top

 

 

home | about us | contact us | sierra nevada | jmt access map | jmt planning | jmt equipment | jmt schedules | jmt2016 | jmt 2015 | jmt 2014 | jmt 2013 | jmt 2012 | jmt 2011 | jmt 2010 | jmt 2009 | jmt 2008 | jmt 2007 | jmt 2006 | jmt 2005 | jmt 2004 | jmt 2002 | mt agassiz | mt sill | mt shasta | matterhorn peak | mt egmont | nz 2016 | mt rainier | mt shuksan | mt jefferson | pct sonora nth | pct tm nth | pct wa nth | mt baker | wonder trail | mera peak | mt adams | goat rocks | cascades 2003 | mt whitney | kaibab trail | presidents | antarctica | hoover pct | recesses | highrte2015 | highrte2016 | denali89 | benson lake | video wmv | videos mp4 |