One thing I started to sort out as soon as I committed myself to Denali was the gear I’d need for the expedition.  While I’ve accumulated quite a collection of mountaineering and general outdoor clothing and equipment over the years, the conditions on Denali (a combination of high altitude and polar temperatures) require a lot of specialty gear I simply don’t have and haven’t needed until now.  There’s a lot I don’t know about climbing in those conditions but thankfully there’s a wealth of information out there and a lot of gear reviews to base some of my decisions on.

Expedition Company Equipment Lists

Each of the expedition outfitters provide quite detailed information about the clothing and equipment that each climber is required to bring.  There’s unsurprisingly a lot of similarities between the lists, but also some glaring differences.

Previous Denali Expedition Experience

Prior expeditions provide a lot of feedback on how kit performed as well as recommendations on must-have/nice-to-have items – or things you can do without.

Buy vs. Rent

Alpine Ascents provides a list of personal gear I’ll need for the expedition so I don’t freeze my fingers and toes off and/or jeopardize the team.  Communal equipment like tents, stoves, snow shovels, ropes, food and first-aid kit are provided by the company so I don’t need to worry about that stuff.  I can also rent some of the real specialty kit that I’ll probably never need again, and at this stage that’s looking like just two items:

  • Expedition sleeping bag: down fill, rated down to -30 to -40C
  • Large volume backpack: around or over 100L capacity, able to carry loads up to 30kg/70lbs

Specialty Kit Purchased for Denali

It’s been enjoyable to spend time researching some of the real specialty cold-weather gear needed for Denali, and I’ve made some selective purchases.

  • Scarpa Phantom 6000 Boots: Double mountaineering boots with a neoprene/insulated insert, a waterproof outer and built-in gaiter.  These boots should serve me well on this trip, and I will use them for future winter mountaineering and ice climbing days.  I’m really excited about these boots and have been impressed with their performance and comfort so far.
  • Forty Below Purple Haze Overboots: These are a necessary complement to double boots on Denali, due to the potential for extremely low temperatures high on the mountain. They’re made of heavy neoprene and completely enclose the boots up to just below the knee, and will be my insurance against losing some toes to frostbite.
  • Forty Below Camp Booties: These are a bit of a luxury, but will sure beat clomping around camp each night in stiff mountaineering boots.  They will fit inside the Purple Haze overboots to provide a bit more weather resistance and traction.
  • Mountain Hardwear Nilas Jacket: 850 fill jacket, hydrophobic down, fully baffled body and sleeves, awesome butter cuffs, minimal but ideal pocket placement, only 2/3rds the fill of the MHW Absolute Zero expedition parks but with a higher quality down and just half the weight.
  • Arc’teryx Alpha FL Jacket Shell: I’ve been wanting to get this jacket for a long time, and splurged on it when I was able to get it at a deep discount.  I’ve had the earlier Alpha LT shell for many years, and love it to death, but it’s a Medium and really only good for layering in summer conditions.  I went for the Alpha FL in a Large and it’s perfect – cut for alpine climbing, enough room for layering underneath, and lightweight without too many bells and whistles.
  • Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody Softshell: Another thing on my wish list for many years, I’ve wanted this jacket for so many reasons and Denali was the excuse.  It’s not cheap but it’s a great medium weight softshell jacket; and the light fleece lining should save me carrying another fleece up the mountain.
  • Arc’teryx Konseal Hoody 3/4 Zip Midlayer Fleece: This item filled a gap in my repertoire, as I’ve needed a lightweight (100-weight) fleece top with a hood.  This is the perfect midlayer, and I especially like the thumb loops and the close-fitting hood with built-in face mask which should be great inside the tent at night.
  • Outdoor Research Alti Mitts: These expedition weight mitts are a must at high altitude when the wild weather really kicks up.  I sized them big enough to fit lightweight gloves inside, as I won’t want bare skin exposed whenever I need to take the mitts off.
  • DeLorme inReach Explorer: A text message device, emergency beacon and GPS unit in one, all with the help of the Iridium satellite communication system.  Paired with my old iPhone this will let me stay connected with the outside world, track our progress, and post updates to social media (Facebook & Twitter).  Can wait to start exploring what this handheld device is capable of!
  • Instapark Mercury 10 Solar Charger: Compact and lightweight solar panel providing 10W (5V & 1-2A) output via 2 USB ports.  I’ll need to buy a good battery too so that I can recharge devices and camera batteries in the tent in the evenings.
  • Petzl Summit Ice Axe: I’ve been lugging around a Charlet Moser 65cm ice axe (straight shafted and T-rated) that I’ve had since my early days in Switzerland over 15 years ago, but needed something more lightweight for Denali.  While I could have got away with really basic ice axe for glacier travel, I wanted something I’d find a bit more useful on steeper mountain terrain and liked the look of the redesigned Summit with its curved shaft and ergonomic design.  I decided to go for the borderline too-short 59cm length rather than the more traditional 66cm length, as I expect it will be easier to use/swing when beyond piolet-canne mode (i.e., in piolet-rampe or piolet-traction mode).
  • Petzl Ascension Ascender: Again, another bit of kit I haven’t needed until now, but a crucial item as we’ll be heading up fixed lines on the steepest section of the route between 14K camp and high camp.

Daniella and I took the opportunity presented by the President’s Day long weekend to head to Zion National Park in Utah.  I hadn’t been to Zion since my first trip there a decade ago while I was at business school, and I was keen to go back and explore more of the park.

We flew to Las Vegas on Friday evening, and after some stuffing around with the rental car (and tracking down an REI to buy fuel for the camp stove) we hit the road around 9pm and drove north up I-15 through Nevada, through the north-west corner of Arizona and into Utah.  It was after midnight when we drove into the park, and as everything was closed we went to the Watchman campground to hopefully find a place to camp for the night.  All the signs said the campground was full, but we drove around until we found what looked like a vacant spot and set up the tent in the gusty, cold wind.

At dawn we woke up to learn that we had set up the tent in someone else’s site, but we were pointed towards a vacant campsite nearby which had just been vacated (it was first come first served); lucky we did so as the campsite was very full, and we would otherwise have been out of luck.  The first thing we did was get to the wilderness desk at 8am to try and secure a permit for the following night, and we were lucky enough to score a great campsite up on the West Rim for the night we needed.

Zion Canyon

With all the admin out of the way, we drove north into Zion Canyon to do some sightseeing on what turned out to be a spectacular, sunny and cool day.  We walked to the entrance to the Narrows (the famous canyon hike up the river) and were surprised to see so many brave souls wading in to what must have been some pretty icy cold water.  We finished the day hiking up into Hidden Canyon, and after a nice 45 minute hike up to the mouth of the canyon we found an exposed rock overlooking the main canyon to have lunch on.  After lunch we scrambled our way a distance into the canyon before turning around and heading back down to the car.  On the way out of the canyon we stopped off at the park Lodge for a refreshing drink out on the deck looking up at the towers and cliffs. By the time we made it back to the campsite it was nearing sunset, so we grabbed some wine and scrambled up a nearby hill to watch the colours change.

West Rim Wilderness Hike

The next morning we packed up camp and drove to the Grotto trailhead, arriving there around 9am.  We saddled up with our boots and packs and started the hike uphill.  We had secured a wilderness permit for one of the West Rim campsites, but rather than hike down into Zion Canyon from the north we were going to do West Rim the “hard way” all the way up from the canyon floor.

The early start meant we avoided the morning sun on much of the ascent.  The trail was full with ill-equipped day hikers heading up Angel’s Landing, but by around 10:30am we had reached the point at which the West Rim trail peeled away from the crowds.  We had already done about half of the total ascent for the day so we took our foot off the gas a little and enjoyed the steady climb north on the trail along the edge of the canyon walls.

By early afternoon we crested the rim of the canyon and came across our campsite.  Campsite #2 turned out to be a real winner, with space for just two people (ourselves) in a location with views back east over the canyon and a hint of Bryce Canyon cliffs in the distance.  We dumped our gear and walked down to the West Rim spring, an iffy water source which was fortunately still flowing (just), and found a nearby rock on the cliff edge for a tasty picnic lunch.

After lunch we set up the campsite and left our gear there while we continue the hike to see some of the views out to the western side of the park.  After a couple of hours of soaking in the views we returned back to our campsite and set to making dinner as the sun set and the temperatures dropped to around freezing.

Angel’s Landing Side-Trip

As we were headed back the way we came up, we emerged back on the main Angel’s Landing trail by mid-morning the next day.  After stashing our packs away from the crowds we joined the conga line heading up the chains.  It’s an awesome, exposed hike and scramble along a knife-edge ridge with tremendous views, but I was frustrated and annoyed at the ridiculous number of people on the hike – with a fairly high number freaking out at the exposure and perceived “risk”.  What should have taken about 15-20 minutes took double that time waiting in the “traffic jams” of people going up and down.  The views at the top did however make the hike up worthwhile – it’s a world class outlook north and south along Zion Canyon.

We were back at the car around 2pm, and basking in the glow of our hiking success we started the long drive back to Vegas.

On the way out of Zion we swung by the old ghost town of Grafton, which has been abandoned since the late 1800s.  There wasn’t a lot there apart from a couple of old buildings and the Mormon church that had been restored, but it was a pleasant enough place for a picnic lunch.  We drove back south through the desert and were back in Vegas by late afternoon.  As our flight the next morning was at 6am, our plan was to grab a nice dinner, have a few drinks and stroll around the strip before getting a few hours of much-needed sleep before the early morning wake-up.  We went to the Aria casino and were fortunate enough to get into Michael Mina’s new French restaurant there AND take advantage of the happy hour specials

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Brief update about a change in my departure date for Denali that has some exciting implications.  It’s just one day later than I originally planned (May 18th rather than May 17th), but I made the change to take advantage of the fact that explorer and guiding legend Vern Tejas will now be leading the May 18th departure!  I wanted to take the opportunity to climb with someone so experienced (not just on Denali but on some of the biggest mountains around the world, as well as the polar regions), plus this departure is for six climbers rather than the original team of nine which is an advantage in my mind.

Here’s Vern’s bio from the Alpine Ascents website – looks like I’ll be in good hands!!

Vern is known for Denali’s first solo winter ascent, the first solo of Mt. Vinson (Antarctica’s highest), first winter ascent of Mt. Logan (Canada’s highest) and as lead guide for Col. Norman Vaughan’s first ascent of Mt. Vaughan in remote Antarctica. In 2000, Vern was named one of Alaska’s top 50 Athletes of the Century by Sports Illustrated and in 2012 was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

In addition to his fame in the extreme environments of Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica, Vernon’s success in guiding people to the summit is simply remarkable. Along with guiding numerous high altitude expeditions, Vern is a ten time summiteer of Everest and an avid adventure racer finishing 10th in 1999 and 13th in 2001 in the Eco-Challenge Race. Vern’s guided ascents are an extremely unique blend of his dynamic spirit, climbing expertise and guiding savvy, known throughout the guiding community.

Recently Vern had outstanding success Mt. Vinson, Last Degree-South Pole, Denali, Elbrus (Europe’s highest) and has guided all of our Everest expeditions this century. Notable among his accomplishments on the Seven Summits, Vern climbed and guided all 7 in 134 days (the current speed record), he has climbed all 7 at least 10 times. He also completed all 7 twice within one year. Vern is also the only person in the world to have completed “The Seventy Summits,” and first to guide Seven Summits and North and South Poles. With a guitar in hand and a smile on his face, Vernon treats everyone to the remarkable experience of life.

Significant Ascents

First person to climb Seven Summits 10 times
Mt Everest (10 guided summit ascents)
Denali (53 guided, 1st solo winter ascent, 1st paraglider descent, 14:50 speed ascent)
Elbrus (32 guided & speed 3:20 ascent from hut)
Aconcagua (25 guided & 8:02 speed ascent)
Carstensz Pyramid (3 Guided, via Jungle route)
Vinson (30 guided & personal,1st solo ascent, 10:20 speed ascent, 1st paraglide descent)
Kilimanjaro (14 guided & 10:45 speed ascent)
Greenland (world’s northernmost mountain)
Mt. Hunter (first winter ascent), Alaska
Mt. Logan (first winter ascent), Canada
Mt. Blanc (3 guided & personal), Rainier (2 guided), Cho-oyu (1 guided)
Chimborazo, Matterhorn, Kinabalu, Cotopaxi

Significant Explorations

1st Traverse of Wrangell-St. Elias Range
Ski Mt. Guide Shackleton Traverse
First Wheeled Crossing of Antarctica
Ski Guide Last Degree to South Pole
Ski Guide Last Degree to North Pole
Scout Overland Traverse to South Pole
Kayak Guide Greece, Santorini and Crete

Awards & Recognition

Alaska Sports Hall of Fame
Life member American Alpine Club
Alaskan of the Year Governor’s Award
Sports Illustrated Top 50 Athletes Alaska
Eco-Challenge finisher 10th & 13th place
NPS Denali Pro Pin for Rescue
“Cover Boy” Alaska Magazine
15 year member USHPA (Paragliding)
Producer “Strummit from Summit” CD
Host for Food Network’s “Tasting Alaska”
Talent ESPN TV special “Surviving Denali”

Certifications

Wilderness First Responder (7 times)
20 year member AK Mountain Rescue