Denali Expedition Itinerary

I’ve been reading up more on the West Buttress route up Denali.  I was looking for the full expedition experience and this route definitely seems to fit the bill – hauling gear to camps higher and higher up the mountain before attempting a summit push will be quite a challenge!

Here’s a day-to-day sample itinerary from the Alpine Ascents site:

Day 1: Morning meeting in Talkeetna. Meet at the Alpine Ascents office. After introductions, orientation and final gear check, we’ll board a ski-equipped aircraft and fly to Base Camp on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier (7,300 ft.). The flight to Base Camp is marvelous, presenting outstanding views of a variety of peaks, including Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Moose’s Tooth. Upon arrival, we’ll prepare our Base Camp. (Glacier travel review may be done on this day.)

base_camp_1
Base camp on the Lower Kahiltna Glacier. Photo courtesy of SBNation.com 

Day 2: Glacier travel review. We’ll carry to our intermediary camp (approximately halfway to the traditional Camp I). This gives us a chance to get an easy start and let you sort out any adjustments in gear and sled-pulling setup.  This is important, as we will be pulling sleds for the next eight days.

Day 3: Carry loads to Camp I (7,800 ft.). Snowshoes may be necessary between camps on the lower part of the mountain.

Camp1
Camp I views of Denali.  Photo courtesy of Voketab.com

Day 4: Carry loads to cache between 9,800 and 10,000 ft. (Camp II) and return to Camp I. The route this day ascents a slope called “Ski Hill,” which flattens out as we approach Camp II.

Day 5: Our carry today depends on snow/weather conditions and how the group is feeling. We’ll either ascend back to our cache and camp for the night or continue on to 11,200 ft. (Camp III.) Camp III is located in a small cirque at the base of Motorcycle Hill.

Day 6: We’ll carry all our gear to Camp III.

Day 7: We’ll carry half our gear up Motorcycle and Squire Hill and then traverse a long gradually rising plateau to Windy Corner. We’ll continue on around this narrow corner for a few hundred yards to make a cache (at approximately 13,500 ft.) and return to Camp III. This day provides stunning panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and the northeast fork of Kahiltna Glacier, 4,000 feet below.

Motorcycle Hill 11 Camp
On Motorcycle Hill above 11K Camp.  Photo courtesy of RMI Guides

Day 8: Move to Camp IV (14,200 ft.).

Day 9:  Descend to our cache at 13,500 ft. and carry to Camp IV. This is an easy day as we’ll descend 700 ft., pick up our gear, and return to Camp IV.

Day 10: We’ll carry loads to 16,500 ft. and return to Camp IV. From Camp III, we’ll ascend 1,100 ft. of moderate snow slopes to reach the beginning of the fixed lines. Using ascenders on the lines to self-belay, we’ll climb the Headwall, which consists of 900 feet of 45° to 50° snow and ice up to the crest of the West Buttress. From there, the climb takes on an entirely different nature with views that fall off in both directions several thousand feet below us.

Day 11: Rest Day at Camp IV.

View down to 14 Camp from 17 Camp
View down to 14K camp from the 17K camp.  Photo courtesy of RMI Guides

Day 12: Carry and move to High Camp (Camp V, 17,200 ft.). We’ll again ascend the fixed lines and follow the exposed ridge 600 feet up around Washburn’s Tower, and on to Camp V, which we establish on a saddle just above the Rescue Gully. It overlooks Camp IV 3,000 feet below.

Day 13: Rest day. Rest and prepare for the summit attempt.

Day 14: Summit day. We traverse across a steep snow face to Denali Pass. From here, we’ll follow gentler slopes to reach Archdeacons Tower and a large plateau at 19,400 ft., known as the “football field.” From the plateau, we’ll ascend moderate terrain to the crest of the summit ridge, where we’ll look down upon the immense 8,000 ft. South Face, with Cassin Ridge and the South Buttress in full view. Once on the summit ridge, excitement grows as we’ll climb the last 300 feet to the top of North America. From the summit, we’ll have a 360° view of the entire Alaska Range, with Mt. Hunter and Mt. Huntington to the south and Mt. Foraker to the west. These peaks, along with scores of others, make this mountain view one of the most impressive in the world. After taking photos, we’ll descend to our High Camp.

Denali Summit Ridge
Climbers on the summit ridge.  Photo courtesy of RMI Guides

 

Days 15-16: Return to Base Camp. From High Camp, we spend two days returning to Base Camp, where we will board a plane and return to Talkeetna.

Days 17-21: Extra days, for inclement weather, rest and acclimatization as needed.

Denali in 2015!

Last week I finally bit the bullet and committed to one of my big challenges for next year – climbing Denali!  After weighing up all the options (and costs…) I eventually decided on this mountain over the other adventures I was considering.  It checked a lot of the boxes – expedition-style mountaineering, moderate technical difficulty, low objective risk, etc. – and it should be an incredible challenge and overall experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the mountain, Denali (also called McKinley) is in Alaska and is the highest peak in North America at 6,195m/20,320ft.  It’s usually climbed along the standard West Buttress route, which makes a massive 4km total height gain and four camps from the base camp start point on Kahiltna Glacier at 2,200m.  Give its near-polar latitude at 63ºN, the mountain is notorious for its cold weather (sometimes down to -40ºC) and vicious arctic storms.  Mainly for that reason, the historical success rate for making the summit is only around 50%.

There are only a handful of commercial operators that are allowed to offer expeditions to Denali, and I’m going to be going with one of the most reputable and respected names in the industry: Alpine Ascents International (AAI).  They have a lot of information about the expedition on their website.

I’m currently down for the May 17th departure date, but I’m trying to see if I can get one of the later June dates which are more squarely in the Denali high season.  That gives me around six months to get into the best shape of my life.  I’ve already started to pull together an equipment list, as while I have a lot of general (summer) mountaineering gear I’ll need a lot of specialty clothing for the cold temperatures.

Really excited for the experience and the challenges to come!

Mt._McKinley,_Denali_National_Park Source: WikipediaDenali West Buttress Route
Source: Alaska Mountaineering School

Day 17: Finally Back to Kashgar to Wrap Up the Trip

We retraced our final steps from Tashkurgan to Kashgar today, and left straight after the 8am breakfast. Unlike our previous morning in Tashkurgan a couple of weeks ago for which we had a brilliant blue sky and sunshine, the pre-dawn light was hazy and the surrounding mountains were faintly visible through it. It turned out that there had been a sandstorm in Kashgar, with dust blowing in from the Taklamakan Desert, and the dust clouds had reached even Tashkurgan high in the mountains.

The constant haze was a disappointment, as I’d been hoping the spectacular views would break up the monotony of the long drive. For the first time all trip I dozed off in the bus, and woke up as we crested the pass at 4100m with Muztagh Ata’s silhouette faintly visible to our right with the sun rising behind it.

It was slow going as we worked our way through the 60km of construction and road works, but we still made good time back to Kashgar and were ensconced in our hotel (the brand spanking new Radisson Blu this time around) by mid-afternoon with time to relax before dinner.

The final group dinner for the trip was at a Chinese restaurant in the old British Consulate building, a now-dilapidated brick and plaster building dating from the early 1900s. Our Pakistani guides Shifa and Didar had stayed with us all the way to Kashgar, and they joined us to celebrate the end of our successful trip. Back at the hotel I downed a couple of whiskeys with Vassi and reflected on how the trip had gone, and I then toddled off to bed to get a good night’s sleep in before the monumental task starts tomorrow to get back to SFO via four flights and three countries.

Day 16: Back over the Khunjerab Pass to China

We started the day in Sost knowing we had a long day ahead to get out of Pakistan, over the Khunjerab Pass, into China, and back to the town of Tashkurgan.

We were at the immigration post in Sost by 8:30am in time for its 9am opening. The first step was easy enough, a pretty basic inspection of our bags for drugs. The second step was a new one introduced just last month, as the health counter wanted to see a vaccination against polio – the Chinese side is demanding it as a requirement for entry, and the Pakistanis want to ensure no one heading across the border will get turned around and sent back down. Fortunately I had my WHO vaccination card on me, but the last polio vaccination I got was back in 2001. I wanted to avoid taking the oral vaccination they were giving out, so I managed to bullshit that the polio vaccination was actually written “2007” and therefore within the 10 year vaccination period. They bought my ruse and I was on to the final step in the process: immigration.

It was just our luck that they had implemented a new electronic immigration system two days beforehand (we had been issued handwritten visas when we arrived two weeks ago), and it was taking about 10 minutes to process each person. Apart from general computer illiteracy by the government officials – they even had their IT guy there to hold their hand – the bigger problem was the iffy power supply, which kept cutting out. When it did, all the immigration officials downed tools and went for a smoke outside to wait for the grid to come back online.

It was a good three hours before we were all done, and we piled into the minivans and started the drive to the border. The trip up to the pass seemed to fly by, with a few quick stops for the bathroom and a couple of security checkpoints, and before we knew it were were back at 4730m and standing at the border! It was a beautiful sunny day, but windier and colder than it had been two weeks ago.

When we first arrived at the pass we started posing for a few photos before a gruff Chinese soldier came up and started barking at us in Mandarin, clearly unhappy at us taking the pics. A couple of Pakistanis nearby came up and shouted back at him, noting that he was actually on Pakistani soil (we hadn’t yet passed the barbed wire that marked the border line) and should f#ck off back to China! Which he then did. I found the exchange to be quite entertaining…

Our Pakistani team had prepared a tasty biryani lunch for us at the pass with some Hunza apricots for dessert, and we quickly wolfed down some food and drink as we had to keep moving to get through the Chinese side. We said goodbye to our Pakistani friends and drove a couple of kilometres down the road to the Chinese border post.

The Chinese side was where the fun really started. No smiles here and lots of Chinese flags and men with guns. We were escorted in to a room where we passed all our bags through an X-ray machine. One at a time we were then directed to a table where a guy in uniform rummaged thoroughly through all our gear, even looking on cameras at iPads at photos and files. I didn’t have anything of concern to the officials, but a few of our group had some non-fiction books of a political nature (eg. History of Central Asia) confiscated. While we were being searched, our vehicles were being taken apart piece by piece as they looked for anything contraband.

Once that was all done we were ushered back to our vehicles via a bathroom stop, a gross reminder that we were back in China – the country that gets my vote for the worst toilets on earth. We weren’t allowed to leave however, as vehicles need to travel in convoy with a military escort from the border to Tashkurgan. We waited for probably an hour and a half in the vans while other vehicles arrived and were searched. Eventually we reached quorum with around eight vehicles, and with a bored-looking soldier on board one of the vans we drove together down to Tashkurgan some 120km away.

It was dark by the time we arrived in Tashkurgan, but we still needed to be processed through immigration into China. It was a fairly straightforward process, but still took over an hour to emerge out the other end of the building.

It was 10:30pm Beijing time (we had moved 3 hours forward going over the border) and dark by the time we limped in to the Crown Inn in Tashkurgan, and after a quick tasty dinner (more spice than Pakistan!) we all went to bed around midnight. Three days driving down, one more to the finish line in Kashgar tomorrow!

Day 15: From Skardu back to Sost near the Pakistan-China border

The second day of our long road trip retracing our steps back to Kashgar took us from Skardu, where we had spent the night, back up the valley to Sost which was to be our staging point short of the border crossing back into China.

The drive followed the Hunza River upstream around the western edge of Rakaposhi. We stopped at the memorial to the builders of the KKH, and later stopped at the Rakaposhi view point for tea. The staggering views up the north face above were just as impressive the second time around!

We drove straight through the green terraces of the Nagyr and Hunza without stopping and made good time to the rockfall which formed the Attabad Lake. It was at this point we said goodbye to our faithful 4WD drivers as well as Sher Baz, our cultural guide. Crossing the lake by wooden boat was a highlight of the entire trip, just as it was when we crossed it two weeks ago (even though it feels far longer than that!) – a mini adventure in itself, and lovely to kick back and take in the views of the turquoise lake, high cliffs and snow-capped mountains for the hour or so it took us to traverse from one end of the lake to the other.

The mooring place for the boats at the upstream end of the lake was past the point at which the lake meets the silty waters of the river pouring into it, and our boat struggled along near the bank (where the current wasn’t as formidable) to make headway. Some deft boatmanship got us across the river to the opposite bank where we were able to tie up to some rocks and scramble up to the road and into the same minivans we rode in when we first arrived in Pakistan.

A short drive later past the bulging snout and terrifying roadside moraines of the Gulmit Glacier and we were back in Passu for a late lunch at the hotel we had stayed in. We didn’t stay in the hotel however, as our objective for the night was the town of Sost and the basic/dated PTDC hotel. Sost was where we would be processed and stamped out of Pakistan tomorrow – if everything goes according to plan.

IMG_0194.JPG

IMG_0196.JPG

IMG_0195.JPG

Day 14: Over the Deosai Plains

We left Shigar at 6am expecting a 12+ hour day of driving ahead. Following the road back to Skardu, we turned up a side road just before we got into town and headed south up a deep valley. As we gained altitude we drove through different layers of vegetation, and the first light hitting the changing foliage of birch trees was quite brilliant.

The road surface was pretty good most of the way up, but the last couple of kilometres were nothing more than a jeep track. Approaching an altitude of almost 4000m the valley widened out and we entered the plateau of the Deosai Plains. The scenery reminded me of the Scottish Highlands with rolling hills covered in grass, and a dusting of recent snow had covered the higher slopes. This late in the summer, all the grass was brown.

It took around five hours to cross the plains, chugging along some very rocky jeep roads. We broke up the travel with a tea stop and lunch, and there wasn’t too much to see in the desolate expanse apart from the occasional herd of goats and sheep as well as colonies of golden marmots – the biggest (and tamest) I’ve ever seen, all fattened up for winter ahead.

While on the plains we were passed by a British motorcyclist who had ridden his Triumph bike from England across Europe and Russia, through China and down the KKH. He was on his way to Amritsar, where he planned to turn around and drive back to the UK along a different route through Iran. Impressive stuff! He joined us for tea and it was great to hear his stories. www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/China-Jolly/

Once we crested the 4300m pass on the western side of the plains we began a loooooong descent down the Astor Valley. It took about four hours to drive back to where the Astor river intersects with the Indus (and where we picked up the KKH again) at around 1200m altitude. We didn’t stop too often on the descent as the weather was turning and there wasn’t much to see, and we were hit by a thunderstorm at the point we should have been able to look straight up at Nanga Parbat – shame!

One and a half hours later we were back in Gilgit, exhausted and dusty from the full day of off-road driving. With one day behind us, we have still three full days of travel to get back to Kashgar in China.

IMG_2413.JPG

IMG_2410.JPG

Days 12 & 13: From Khaplu back to Shigar via Skardu

We left Khaplu and drove back down the Shyok valley to where it converged with the Indus, and then followed the Indus past the turn-off to Shigar/Askoli to Skardu. We were going to spend a few hours in Skardu and I was curious to see what it was like given the historic role the town has played in the mountaineering history of the Karakoram.

We first took a stroll down the street through the bazaar in the old part of town. Nothing too special to see, just a busy local scene. We then drove a short distance away to the famous K2 Hotel, where so many of the expeditions over the decades have started and ended. After a basic lunch we walked through the hallways which are adorned with stickers, postcards, photos, posters and handwritten notes from all of the various expeditions and groups over the years. There were a lot of famous names in the world of climbing up there, and it was great to see even the Army Alpine Association (to which I used to belong in Australia) get a mention.

We also toured the K2 Museum adjacent to the hotel, erected by the Italians to celebrate their first ascent of the mountain in 1954. I loved seeing the old photos (not much has changed locally it seems, but Westerners tend to wear fewer pith helmets) and the old maps of the Baltoro Glacier and Karakoram range. Once we were done there we drove back to Shigar, to the Fort Palace where we had stayed a few nights ago.

The following morning we took a long walk around the lovely village of Shigar. The locals were very friendly to us and we visited a girls primary school – super cute watching them learn Urdu by reciting poems they had written in front of the class (and a gaggle of Westerners).

IMG_0190.JPG