It is May 17th, the day before my 29th birthday, I am Talketna Alaska hanging around the K2 hanger making last-minute adjustments to my gear and helping my climbers with theres. We are waiting to fly on to Denali for me this will be my fourth West Buttress trip but for them it is their first and you can taste the anticipation and excitement. Before long our ramper breaks the group in two and has us start loading the corresponding otters with our mountains of gear and 22 days of food. As my bush plane leaves the ground and banks hard we get one last view of Talketna, the rivers, and tundra shortly give way to glaciers and granite. As we enter the Alaska Range I am awed once more by the size and relief of these mountains. Our pilot navigates the otter through knife-edge ridges and daunting peaks like the steel ball of a wooden labyrinth maze game, perfectly focused and calm. I spot the massive Kahiltna Glacier as we come over second shot pass and hear the skis hydraulic dropping them into place. Minutes later we are on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna unloading the plane in the dominating presence of Mount Hunter. Base Camp is always circus, running into old friends, hearing about the pros get on the newest, baddest routes, gear everywhere, planes buzzing in and out.
Before long our group has fallen into a rhythm and we work our way, slowly, up the Kahiltna and on to 11 Camp. From 11 we begin our series of carries and acclimatization climbs, and like worker ants on daily missions from the ant hill we climb higher, establishing 14 Camp and finally caching on the West Buttress near Washburn’s Thumb. 14 is like a small snow and nylon city compleat with neighborhoods, snow walls that grow to form streets and alleys, descending climbers drag sleds around the different suburbs trying to pawn their extra food, fuel, and more. After days at 14 we get a weather window and push up to 17 Camp, our high camp. We don’t want to stay here to long, nobody gets stronger waiting at 17 so have to balance enough rest after the move from 14 with the weather window, with the slow degradation altitude has on our bodies. This year we are forced to wait, mostly tent-bound, for 3 days more than necessary as winds rip through Denali pass and scours high camp.
After weeks getting ourselves within striking distance of the summit the day is upon us. anticipation is high as we pack our summit packs and leave the safety of our high camp. The first obstacle we encounter is the Audubon, a steep hill we must traverse to Denali pass. The Audubon has been the site of many fatalities in the past including and AAI team that summited with me last year, R.I.P Suzanne. In the extreme cold of the early morning high on the Audubon we clip running belays and slowly work our way to Denali Pass, 18,200′. Once there the sun takes the deep chill back to a more reasonable dull, nose dripping, temp. Hours of climbing over more moderate terrain brings us to the football field where we look at pig hill and the summit ridge. People are tired and cold but we have only an hour and a half to the top of North America, I select a few climbers to jettison their packs there and take parkas and water in my own pack for the final summit push. Pig hill takes its toll on us all and as we begin the final exposed ridge traverse to the summit I need to keep my eyes on all members of my rope team, a slip here could end in catastrophe. I take a deep breath and we push on to the summit.
20,320 feet, the highest point in North America