Press-Ups on the Summit of Denali
This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Trek & Mountain magazine.
We are nearly at the top. Just 1000 feet separates us from the summit of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. High on the infamous Cassin Ridge, the isolation is immense. After the storm this morning the sky is clear and settled. Now, as evening approaches, its dark blue shade begins to concern me. Using the 24-hour daylight, we must keep moving to stay warm. I swing my arms, trying to thaw frozen fingers. We wade upwards through loose powder, crunching the snow under our boots; two steps forward, one step back. Another storm is imminent and our only way off this hill is over the summit. Up, up. Totally committed.
5 weeks earlier…
The red and white Cessna 185 airplane roared into life and taxied onto the runway. After a whirlwind of international flights, logistics and last-minute food purchasing, we were finally off: into the mountains of the Central Alaskan Range.
America was truly super-size. Tom Ripley and I got lost in a ‘small’ supermarket, panic-bought 2 kilos of Jelly Belly sweets and walked the wrong way across town in search of breakfast. Now, however, we were soaring into the crisp mountain air, the thin white band of jagged teeth on the horizon growing ever more menacing. I called ‘shotgun’ and got the co-pilot’s seat, gawping at the spectacle.
The short airstrip known as ‘Kahiltna International Airport’ is nothing more than a gentle slope on the Kahiltna Glacier, with several tents dotted nearby. Each day, planes would bump down, disgorging climbers and luggage into the bright sunshine. Then they would turn, engines rumbling and tearing in the thin air, before disappearing into the distance. A hushed, revered silence soon returned to the mountains.
We met up with a couple of fellow Brits, Andy and Nick, and acquired sledges from the Base Camp Manager, an ever-patient woman called Lisa.
The vast, imposing mountains that surrounded us were constantly shedding snow, sending great avalanches crashing down onto the glacier. We were minuscule beings, tiptoeing through a giant’s lair. Black granite buttresses rose for thousands of feet, thin white streaks of snow and ice intertwining the features. It was impossible to relate to what we knew. How many Scottish mountains could be stacked onto that face? How many thousands of feet does that ice couloir run for?
Mt. Hunter’s North Buttress protruded into the middle of the glacier, dominating the skyline and demanding attention. It just begged to be climbed, but I remember staring up at the clouded summit and wondering how I could ever reach such heights.
We set about ‘warming up’ for our main objective by ticking some of the nearby routes. Ironically, as temperatures continued to rise, we would be forced to move to higher altitudes and forego the full ‘warm up!’. We quickly dispatched classic alpine routes such as the South West Ridge of Mt. Frances and ‘Bacon & Eggs’ on the Mini-Mini-Moonflower. Both fantastic and well worth doing - especially considering their close proximity to the airstrip.
After shelving our dreams of an attempt at the ‘Moonflower’ route on Mt. Hunter due to the conditions, we decided to head high, onto Denali (Mount McKinley). We packed our enormous sled bags, mine a wonderful bright pink colour (thank you Ripley). I grimaced as I clicked on my skis and pulled with all my weight: the fully-loaded sledge slid about an inch. Try to pull a car uphill and you’ll get an idea of the struggle. The sledge (nothing more than a plastic tray) soon felt our anger as it dragged reluctantly through the slushy snow. A pitiful three kilometres passed during that first day, as we gained several thousand feet in altitude. We learnt a valuable lesson: ‘sled hauling sucks!’
The next few days passed in a blur of monotony. The sleds protested at our every effort as we dragged them higher and higher, moving from camp to camp up the mountain. They were impervious to our pleading and cursing, the tedium of hauling tempered only by the ever-changing vista. Considering neither of us had properly ‘ski toured’ before, we were grateful that it was an easy skill to acquire; we did not envy the crocodile-lines of snow-shoe walkers, stumbling along.
We arrived at 14,000ft camp late in the evening, dazed and exhausted. The weather was aggressive, fierce winds stinging our eyes and cheeks. Spindrift whipped across the barren glacier as we battled to pitch the tent before collapsing inside.
Several days were spent recovering, sleeping late and digging a giant snow cave with Andy and Nick. It was a relief to sunbathe and simply eat as much as possible. ‘I could get used to this “expedition” lark’, I commented to Ripley. I took longer than hoped to adapt to the altitude, but was determined to continue with our ‘plan of attack.’
The aim of this expedition was to attempt a new route on the Father and Sons Wall, a subsidiary face on Denali. We had been generously supported by a number of companies and grant foundations.
The Father and Sons Wall involves a complicated glaciated descent to reach the base, features snow, ice and mixed climbing for 7000ft and is south-facing. It was hard to know for sure, but it also appeared to be threatened by a large serac on its lowest slopes.
We investigated the Wall through a monocular shortly after arriving at 14,000ft camp, tracing lines across the face. I felt like an artist, connecting the dots on a giant canvas. There are a few existing routes, but plenty of potential.
‘Left, past the rainbow-shaped rock… through the couloir up and right, maaaybe a bivi spot there…’ After a couple of hours we had a line which might ‘go’, but our minds churned with questions: ‘will it work? What if we can’t retreat?’. The ski back to camp was a quiet, introspective journey.
Consulting one of the most knowledgeable Alaskan climbers, Mark Westman, he mentioned that the rock quality was occasionally poor and the south-facing aspect wouldn’t help the ice conditions.
We spent several days debating whether to attempt our proposed route, worrying that it was in dangerous condition due to the warm temperatures. Finally, we decided it was unsafe and too much of a risk.
We still had two weeks left on the mountain so began discussing other options. The Cassin Ridge is one of the most classic alpine routes in North America; a beautiful, knife-edged ridge which dominates the south face of Denali. It rises for 8000ft, topping out on the summit of the highest mountain on the continent. For the most part, it’s continually interesting with moderate ice and mixed climbing, but is fairly committing; a retreat from anywhere after the first 1000ft would be a nightmare. The top 3000ft, however, is less aesthetic - a broad, low-angle snow ridge with few discernible features. The only way to escape is ‘over the top!’.
We acclimatised by walking up the West Buttress of Denali (the most common route to the summit). Again, I found it hard to acclimatise and had to stop 100ft short, my head about to explode. Mentally, I felt fine, keen to push on. My body, though, was totally devoid of energy and a headache burnt through my brain. Ripley appeared unaffected by the altitude and continued to the summit whilst I headed down. My inability wasn’t how I imagined it to be; I had trained hard for this moment, only to be denied.
The familiar rhythm of expedition life returned the next day: lounging in the sun, nursing tired bodies and recovering. We enjoyed bantering with the other climbers, thankful for some brief mental respite, but soon began preparations for an attempt at the Cassin. The Americans drawled the word, making it sound much more exotic. ‘Are you guys goin’ for the Casseeen? That’s rad, man!’ We smiled, embarrassed by the attention.
I love going light; it brings an ease of speed, simplicity and commitment. Hunched over our gear like scavengers, we picked, sorted and argued over each item. Paring down the rack, throwing out extra slings, counting the number of karabiners over and over again. 19 or 20? Would it really make that much difference? In the end we had a single-skin tent, a lightweight sleeping bag each, a single 8mm rope, a thin climbing rack and a stove. Food for three days, fuel for four. Fast and light or in a lot of trouble.
Before setting off, I called home. I told my Dad of our plan, and he enthused and encouraged us, helping me to commit to the objective. I remember describing the route to him, summarising it well: “it’s basically an exaggerated scramble!”. I don’t think he enjoyed being called at midnight, though!
We made the descent from 14,000ft camp and sat at the base of the Cassin Ridge, eager to startthe next morning. We chatted in the evening light with Andy and Nick, who were going for the Cassin’s big brother: the Slovak Direct. Turning in early, our thoughts tumbled with the usual questions before a big alpine route. I prefer to sleep rather than question the future.
At 4.22am, we woke with a start, having slept through Ripley’s alarm. ‘British alpinists, and we’re already late. This should be quite a show!’, I thought, as my brain spluttered into life. There was not the darkness usually associated with this time of day, only a strange half-light.
By 6am we’d pulled over the bergshrund of the Japanese Couloir, the first section of the Cassin. I felt fresh and light, ready for anything. The snow was firm, our crampons easily gaining purchase. We soloed until the difficulties warranted the rope, then quickly switched to pitches. The ice was solid and I swung fast, building momentum. I breathed in the cold, rich air and kicked harder, running up the couloir. This was fantastic!
Three hours later, I crested the ridge ‘proper’ and straddled the snow arete. Blinking in the sunlight for the first time, my eyes flicked towards the summit; the mountain’s spine stretched above, twisting and turning, an enormous roller-coaster ride for 8000ft.
Ripley quickly dispatched his block - the alleged mixed climbing crux, which turned out to be no more than Scottish IV climbing up a broken granite gully. We found our rhythm just as the sun began to soften the snow over the ‘Cowboy Arete’ - a sharp snow ridge which ran for a few hundred metres. I led off, occasionally digging deep for ice screws. We had heard that this section could be a black-ice nightmare or a simple walk. It seemed we got lucky, but every time I peered over the left side of the arete, I shuddered: the hundred metre drop onto rocks did not bear thinking about.
Our high spirits continued as we climbed up the Hanging Glacier and rehydrated in the bergshrund. We deemed the gaping fissure to be the perfect brew spot, but sank an ice screw into the ceiling just in case. The dramatic, untouched mountain scenery was a stark contrast to the hordes going up the West Buttress, and added to the immensity of the situation. Although we were now at a similar altitude to the 14,000ft camp, we might have been in a different mountain range altogether.
The climbing in the First Rock Band meandered regularly, searching out the easiest line in the jumbled buttresses. Simul-climbing, taking turns up front, we continued our pace and the afternoon passed quickly. The snowfield before the Second Rock Band had recently been refreshed by a big storm so we wallowed upwards, counting out the steps. We were beginning to slow, tired from 12 hours of constant climbing.
We stopped to rehydrate and eat, and at 8pm turned on our walkie talkie to listen to the daily weather forecast from Lisa. It wasn’t encouraging, despite the previous inaccurate forecasts. Strong winds and heavy snowfall would make getting over (and off) the mountain very dangerous, but Lisa assured us that we had 24 hours before the storm hit. The pressure was on.
The next few hours were tough. The light dimmed and a biting cold crept into our damp clothing as we consumed mixed ground, metre after metre. We simul-climbed until I ran out of gear, set up a belay, then repeated, over and over again. We had to reach a small bivi site marked on our topo in order to pitch the tent. I was jealous as Ripley plugged in his iPod and escaped. I could feel my limbs begin to ache and mind slow down, finally sighing with relief when I saw the tiny ledge midway through the Second Rock Band. It was much smaller than expected, however, and I eagerly hacked at the ice to enlarge it. The tent sagged over the steep drop, barely big enough for us both. I remember thinking, ‘we might have to spoon,’ but this was quickly replaced with, ‘I’d rather die!’.
We put on all our clothes and got into our sleeping bags, remaining tied to the wall. Sleep finally drifted over us around 1am.
At 7am we woke to thick cloud, moderate winds and light snow falling - this wasn’t forecast! We were immediately worried that the storm had hit much earlier than expected and hastily packed up. Just two climbing pitches separated us from the easy snow-plodding of the Upper Ridge, but conditions were very ‘Scottish.’ I led us up a tough mixed corner covered in sloppy fresh powder, before emerging out of the Second Rock Band to poor visibility and strong gusts.
We followed the topo cautiously, anxious not to miss the gully which would bring us back onto the Ridge. The snow-wallowing was tough work and I longed for the technical intricacies of climbing again. After traversing above the ‘Big Bertha' serac we found the correct gully and Ripley crested the ridge, sitting in a tent platform that had been cut by climbers a few weeks before. We were amazed how long some people take to climb this route - 5 days is usually considered fast! ‘Imagine the size of their rucksacks,’ I thought, as we brewed up and painfully ate another foul-tasting Clif Bar. Concerned about the weather, we debated making a diagonal traverse off route to take the most direct route over the mountain. However, as we melted snow the winds began to calm and the cloud shrouding the summit rose off like a tempting veil. It seems She was giving us a chance.
What followed was perhaps the ultimate form of torture for me: never difficult, just boring! The Upper Ridge widened and, loaded with fresh snow, became an exercise in wallowing upwards. We took turns out front, one hour each. Ripley’s altimeter watch gave him an indication of how far we had to go, but I couldn’t decide if this was a blessing or curse. I began counting steps, counting sheep, humming - anything to make the journey faster. I was also worried about my acclimatisation, so began consciously taking deep, slow breaths in an effort to improve oxygen intake. As usual, Ripley appeared unaffected and soldiered upwards.
As we approached the summit ridge the wind intensified to a howl. The thickening clouds below did not look too hostile, but the winds seemed to be rising and we didn’t want to wait and see. Despite wearing all our clothing, we had to keep moving to stay warm. I felt gloriously receptive to everything as a surge of elation swept over me; ‘we might actually do this’. I glimpsed into the sunlight and it shimmered with blowing snow, sparkling in a thousand points of light. It warmed my soul and I took a moment to absorb the view.
Dropping our packs at the top of the ridge, we turned right and trod the final steps to the summit. Since it had previously eluded me it felt even better to reach after our long route. The mountain cast a giant triangular shadow onto the turbulent cloud inversion below. Waves of relief soaked through my body, but mostly I recall the tiredness! In typical fashion I kept a ridiculous promise made to myself months ago: ‘I’m going to be so happy if I get to the summit. I’ll do some press-ups on the top: that will be my reward!’.
I did three press-ups on the summit of Denali whilst Ripley filmed, laughing at me. We celebrated together before beginning the long path down, eager to get off the mountain.
Six days later the tiny plane bumped down on the tarmac. Walking down the small main street of Talkeetna, we looked beaten up - sunburnt cheeks, bedraggled hair and sore eyes. Our surroundings took on new perspectives: the air was warm, the wind calm and gentle. Colours returned, too. Trees and grass took on a new freshness, an originality that we thirstily absorbed. Content with our success, we headed to the restaurant. My first taste of Alaska didn’t disappoint.
Tom Livingstone and Tom Ripley are indebted to the following organisations; without their support the expedition would not have taken place:
Financial Support from: BMC , Mount Everest Foundation and Welsh Sports Association.
Equipment was supplied by: Anatom, Cotswold Outdoor, First Ascent and Mountain Equipment.
Blog write-up of the Cassin Ridge - Tom Ripley
Blog write-up of Alaska - Tom Livingstone