If you have just stepped off Everest, and feeling well acclimitised, rested and inspired, you decide to head straight off to climb Denali, there are a few things that are different – very different. Here’s what you might want to prepare for.
1. The Transition:
The easy access to Denali, piling out of the pubs and hotels in Talkeetna, into a tiny plane and landing on the glacier an hour later can be an abrupt start to an expedition. You are there in an instant. Your first step is out onto the glacier, your new home a tent on the ice, your dinner burbles up on a tiny stove and the toilet is in a can, a very short, cold can with a bag inside.
It feels like you are already at one of the higher camps on Everest, and that is just the beginning.
If you are part of a guided group, they like to run the expedition to a schedule, a rather tight schedule. If you have an off day, you will still need to climb.
Denali is real physical work, every day, day-after-day, in most cases.
There are no heli-breaks for coffee and cakes in the valley below.
There is no cure for this, you must consider it exciting and be prepared for it – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a shock to the system.
2. The ropes, and more ropes and not fixed ropes
Once you land on the glacier, you need to rope up just to get out of the glacier camp. To do that you need to be tied in to your team, and attached to your sled, and if skiing, your skis attached to your harness.
And your climbing rope should run over the top of your sled and be tied into that, so the sled doesn’t fall on your head when you fall in the crevasse. Use a clove hitch, it’s easier to adjust as if it isn’t just right length, the sled will be either kicking your heels or wandering off on its own.
As a friend pointed out on my first climb “If you can just get past the toilet, you will be okay.” A bit laughable but seemingly true. For the rest of the story, just read the book.
Don’t worry about looking foolish roping up and asking advice before you leave. Focus on getting down that first hill tied in and all in one piece. If you have a guide, they will sort this all out for you. Consider yourself lucky. And if you don’t get to ski, you will have snowshoes, you will need to walk like a duck, with a pack and the SLED.
3. The sled:
Unless you bring your own, you will have a yellow-blue-pink-orange, bath-tub shaped plastic sled tied to the back of your harness with long shoelaces. If you were 6 years old and on a good snow-slope, it could be fun.
On Denali you will learn it has a mind of its own. It will slide off in directions it shouldn’t logically go, tipping over, getting stuck and then breaking loose and attacking you when least expected.
The abage “oh, it’s easy to carry more weight with a sled,” may be true, but as the trundle up the glacier it may well also be muttered frequently under your breath.
Pack your sled as if you had to carry it all on your back, then put it all in the sled, heavy items right at the bottom, gas at the other end from the food, tent and warm clothes on top. And the lighter you can make it, the better it will behave.
Best to give it a friendly name, or perhaps call it after someone you really dislike. Either works to personalize your experience and help you realize that it truly has a mind of its own. If you are a parent, think of your sled as a 2-year old.
Denali, the normal West Buttress route on the left skyline. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson
4. The Cold, with a capital C:
On Denali, you can go early season (May) and avoid some crevasses, which must be some of the biggest holes in the world.
Or you can go when an it’s a bit warmer, but the odds go up you will fall into one of these immense holes. And as much as it is cold on Everest, the oxygen makes an immense difference, which you won’t be using on Denali.
You will have to be prepared for temperatures that feel even colder and are more dangerous for your extremities. To ward off frostbite you may wish to read the article Dr. Chris Imray helped me out with to save those precious digits.
Take warm boots (6,000 meters about right, unless you really like clomping for days in an 8,000 meter boot), buy the best gloves you can, learn how to use mittens if you really must. Have a face mask that you have tested and approved that covers every inch of your face. Cover your eyes up so they don’t freeze.
5. If you started using oxygen at Camp 2 on Everest, Denali may well feel higher and harder
As Denali is so far north, it is rumored to have an equivalent altitude of about 3,000 feet higher. So when you hit the upper slopes, you may find yourself reduced to a snail like pace, getting cold very quickly, and that even a bit of wind chills you right through. Even the very last step up to the final ridge, the inglorious and aptly named Pig Hill has proved some climbers undoing.
At this point you are ever so close to the top of North America, but with some clouds, some added wind and an inevitably frozen water bottle, this final hurdle can turn you around – so be ready, and on reaching the final short and spectacular ridge, just keep moving, admire the incredible and unforgettable views, and stomp along to the summit.
If you have been up Everest, it may turn out it was pretty good training for Denali.
And if you can get up Denali, it is also a very good stepping stone to Everest.