On the 4th of July during my 7 summits solo project, I’d just completed my ascent of the Messner Couloir, and was having what I felt was a well-deserved rest day in the 14.2 Camp.
Then I handed over the video camera so my photographer Joseph Blackburn could review the shots I’d taken from the summit ridge on Denali…
‘Wow, this looks incredible, is this really what it looks like?’
Joe was playing back the footage from the summit ridge. I’d walked along the knife-edged ridge with the camera held at waist height in one hand and my ice axe gripped firmly in the other just the day before, in crystal clear weather.
Just looking through the small viewfinder on the video inspired vertigo, the skinny trail of ice set along the classic single-track ridge. Meanwhile, our tent was warm and cosy, my climb done, 4 of my 7 Summits Solo complete. Even the stove was purring happily.
‘I’d really like to climb Denali you know Robert, I think it is the most important of the peaks to me.’
I lay half asleep. It was the 4th of July, America’s, and coincidentally, Joe’s, birthday.
Having been up to the summit the day before, another ascent held little interest. But Joe wanted to go to the top. ‘And we could use more footage for NBC, Robert,’ added Joe.
That was true and as NBC had footed our bill to climb the peak, with a good deal of prodding directly from Tom Brokaw, we wanted to have shots worthy of being aired nationwide.
As much as my footage looked spectacular, I knew it was nowhere near what Joe would shoot and we really needed some good shots to take back for the NBC News special on ‘The Deadliest Season in Denali’s History.’ That history was already in place and the 11 people that would die that year already complete, before we even got to the mountain. Now we were just doing all we could to not be part of it.
At 7 a.m. the following morning, the 5th of July, Joe started plying me with coffee, a turbocharged blend of three cups, followed by an overflowing bowl of porridge. Having just descended the West Buttress two days previous, I had the route well rehearsed. That doesn’t mean I was all that keen to climb it again, but Joe had enough enthusiasm for both of us.
Plans were quickly and perfectly laid. Not wanting to camp, we’d have to ascend and return the 6,000 vertical feet in a day. I’d carry the pack, food, warm clothing, stove and video; Joe would be limited to one camera only, a sacrifice rare in the extreme.
Having studied under Ansel Adams, Joe’s idea of going light was taking the 5 x 7 viewfinder camera, instead of the 8 x 10 (which came in at around 20 kg). So a single, all-be-it, a full blown Nikon, was limiting in the extreme. I do think he had stuffed an extra lens or two in his pocket to this day.
The ropes rising out of camp passed quickly, a quick uphill slide and glide to the ridge. When you go for the top in a day the big advantage is that is all the weather you need, one good day.
You don’t have the uncertainty of having to predict 3 or 4 days out or look for a real weather window. As much as storms can move in quickly, a clear view out the tent in the morning and a 24-hour weather forecast can be pretty reliable.
The route along the ridge is the most spectacular and interesting climbing on Denali, weaving and twisting up through rock towers glowing in the early morning sun. You circle around Washburn’s Thumb, then creep higher, with the drops expanding on both sides, and Mount Foraker shrinking away below you.
It was fairy tale mountain climbing: crisp snow underfoot, 360 degree views, blue sky and fluffy clouds. The climbing was varied enough to be interesting, short steep sections, ridge traverses, climbing over the occasional rose colored rock.
Four hours out of 14.2 Camp we reached the 17.2 high camp, cached the stove, refueled with snacks and coffee, and headed for the top. The Camp was empty, a few tents flapped, it was a high-altitude ghost town.
The traverse across the Autobahn to Denali pass is where the real summit push starts, heading out onto an exposed snow slope with an ever increasing drop, and a very long traverse to a distant ridge. Altitude also begins to hit here, moving up towards 18,000 feet, and the mountain opens up to the winds of the heights.
Denali changes from being beautiful, to being the beast.
At Denali Pass, the way ahead rolls and twists and winds upwards endlessly, a slope that is not steep, nor is it easy, as it goes on and on and on. Looking up, another rise, looking down, a very long ways.
Two days previous I had come down this. My solo up the Messner Couloir had been done in perfect climbing conditions, nice hard neve snow that allowed me to climb non-stop direct to the summit in a touch under 9 hours from the 14.2 camp.
When I’d asked the Rangers in residence in 14.2 about the route Daryl Miller had said
‘Well, the route is better now, I picked up the bodies from the bottom a few days ago so you won’t have to climb past them.’
Four Canadian climbers had ascended the West Buttress and reached the top of Denali. On their descent, they got lost in the clouds. They traversed off route and wandered off the ridge above the Messner Couloir. They hit black ice and one slipped, pulling the whole team off. They slid the entire 5,000 feet down the couloir.
On the way up the couloir, I’d hit the black ice right at the top, just hidden below a light snow covering. It was the impenetrable, old, incredibly hard ice that with a single wrong step or misplaced crampon sends you sliding immediately. As much as the Couloir can be skied in ideal conditions, when it ices up, it isn’t a place you want to even think about falling.
I’d spent an hour on top in perfect weather on my solo, then set off down the West Buttress.
Climbing solo has real advantages as you can go as fast as you want. In reality, you simply have nothing else to do, no one to talk to, no reason to linger over lunch. So you just climb.
After the intensity of climbing up, coming down proved fast and easy, the descent devoid of people that late in the season. Two hours after departing the summit I was back at 14.2 Camp tucking into a large bowl of soup Joe had made for me.
So my memories of the West Buttress were very fresh, but also highly influenced by the speed of my descent, simply a whir of crampons and my rapid clatter back down the route and in to bed.
The final climb up from Denali Pass for Joe and I stretched out a bit, and as much as I was a bit tired from my previous climb, Joe hadn’t been up high, so his acclimitazation wasn’t all it could be. We had moved very quickly for such a long route, Joe ambling along behind with nary a complaint, snapping away, admiring the view. He was a naturally talented climber that moved easily up the mountain.
Having spent the spring season climbing on Aconcagua and then Kilimanjaro filming, I had confidence he could pull off our Denali in a day escapade. And it was his birthday present to himself after all, quite a good dose of inspiration never hurts.
Denali’s football field is well named and even has a strangely similar atmosphere – a plateau stretching out, that is in reality more like ten footballs fields wide – or at least it feels like it.
On a sunny day it is glorious. You can see the top, everything drops away at the edges of the snow slope to the glaciers far below you. Pure glistening white snow crunched coldly underfoot, the blue was magnificently huge above. You can believe you are nearly at the top, as it sits just ahead of you.
Then there is the aptly, if very unromantically named, Pig Hill.
It doesn’t look that big to start with. Then you get half way up and look down and realize you aren’t anywhere near half way up. For some reason the altitude seems to suddenly double, the wind rises and falls. You are hot and cold, breathing heavily yet no oxygen seems to be coming in. It isn’t steep, but you don’t want to fall off because then you would slide down and have to climb it all again.
This is where the Denali in a day plan can quickly fall apart, being so close and so far away. Joe and I struggled up and mastered the pig, stepping out onto the final, spectacular ridge leading to the top of North America.
Fortunately we had a second breath at the summit ridge, we stomped upwards, just gentle stomping as the ridge is a perfect crest of snow rising magnificently up to the top, and more a place for tip-toeing gently.
Cresting the summit, the North slope suddenly flows away, into white, into gray, into the forest and out across the Arctic Circle. The sun which had been setting for several hours, dipped a bit lower.
The hour was late and cold, ice-laden winds had replaced the semi-tropical temperatures I’d enjoyed two days previously. We had a big hug. I’d envisaged singing happy birthday to Joe but that wasn’t happening, we were out of there. A quick last spin for the view, a few quick summit photos, the fingers numbing in seconds.
15 minutes passed quickly on top and we soon descended back into the gloom.
We paused just long enough for me to capture the image of darkness descending on the east of the summit ridge and the sun shining with its last rays onto the western side of the ridge, with Joe suspended in between.
The climb was worthwhile for that view of the world alone, not to mention helping give Joe a belated birthday present of the top of North America.
That one image, captured the top as well as any photo I took on all the 7 summits. And it had been a very fine climb with a partner who could not only keep up, but enjoy the climb along the way, that made for a very good day out on the hill.
We were back in the tent 6 hours later, and the next day we really got a rest day – at least until noon, when the ice creaking and the crevasses expanding around us got us moving.
We had a late lunch and slid off down the hill, around a curiously quiet and deserted windy corner, down Motorcycle hill and out onto the glacier below.
Exerted with edits from a chapter in my book: To Everest via Antarctica