Wednesday, June 26, 2013

AC Denali Post 3: Expedition Overview

RC here and I wanted to give you a brief overview of what lies ahead for Anders and his climbing team--so here it goes:

Denali (which means the "High One" in Athabascan--local folks), aka Mount McKinley is of course the highest mountain in North America and one of the Seven Summits.  It's summit is 20,320 feet and as such it is the 3rd highest of the fabled Seven Summits behind Everest and Aconcagua.   However, since Denali stands at a latitude of 63 degrees north (which is parallel to the Hudson Bay and central Scandinavia) the altitude actually affects one's body as if it was several thousand feet higher (the air in thinner, the closer one gets to the poles).  Denali is just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle and during the winter, it is one of the coldest places on Earth with temperatures routinely dropping below -95 degrees and with winds frequently higher than 150 mph.  In fact, on the first winter ascent of Denali (in 1967), the temperature dropped to an incredible -148 degrees F!  (Another effect of this high latitude is that it never really gets dark and indeed, Anders did not even bother to bring a headlamp even though most of his climbing will be at night.)

Anders, fortunately won't face these winter temperature extremes but make no mistake about it, Denali and it's formidable weather will present significant challenges--certainly during this expedition he will need to function and survive in -40 degrees and most likely have to sit-out several day snow storms with 5+ feet of snow.  Denali is considered more challenging in many respects than Everest since there are no porters or donkeys to assist in load carrying.  At each camp, Anders and his team will need to build their campsite, creating snow-walls to protect against the fierce wind.  They'll have to boil snow to have water to make meals and drinks.  They'll have to cache their supplies 6 feet down in the snow so that the Ravens that populate Denali's slopes don't eat their food and ravage their equipment.

Anders is in Talkeetna today and he and his team spent the day preparing their equipment for the days ahead.  Soon, and perhaps tomorrow, they'll fly to the base of the Kahiltna Glacier where they will face an 18 mile and 15,000+ climb to the summit.  The vertical in this climb is greater than mountaineers seeking to summit Everest have to overcome!  In fact, it has the highest base to summit of any mountain on earth that is entirely above sea level.  In terms of topographical prominice it is the third largest of all of the world's mountains behind Everest and Aconcagua.

On the climb, Anders and his team will establish 4-5 camps--often making double carries from one camp to the next.  They'll for the most part travel at night--leaving around 2 a.m. as it is very warm during the day now on Denali and the risk of crevasse penetration and rock fall is higher as the temperature increases.  Denali has the greatest crevasse risk of any of the Seven, although the Khumbu Ice Fall on the south side of Everest is certainly more of an objective danger than Anders will face on this climb.

Anders is climbing with an RMI team of 8 clients and 4 guides, including the legendary David Hahn (whom we'll detail on in a latter post).  This is RMI's 7th and last Denali team of the year.  So far, in 2013, RMI teams have enjoyed great success with the first 5 teams all summitting and the 6th still on the mountain.  Normally, about 1000 people each year attempt to summit Denali and the long-term average success rate is around 54%---although, this rate is lower later in the year as the heat makes conditions dicier.

Here is an excerpt from the team's blog yesterday:

"The last RMI Denali team of the 2013 climbing season is in place in Talkeetna.  All people (12) and all baggage (24 plus) made it to Anchorage without delay.  We met at four in the afternoon and shortly thereafter we’d connected with Bill, our Denali Overland shuttle driver and we began the shuttle to Talkeetna.  We got to feel the much discussed heat wave… It was hot.  We took a short break in Wasilla, to take on final provisions, and then Bill took us up to Talkeetna town.  Most elected to take it easy on this jet lagged evening, settling down to a comfy night in the Talkeetna Motel.
  Work starts tomorrow."

We talked to Anders tonight after he finished up the day's work.  He has met up with his team and likes them.  He was thrilled to meet Dave Hahn and during equipment check Dave complimented him on his crampons (which are mine) so that was kinda fun!  They had a very long day in Talkeetna today at the airport hanger sorting through their equipment and they are all set to go potentially tomorrow morning local time.  Anders has 71 pounds of personal gear and will carry another 30-40 pounds of group gear---having experienced a bit of what that is like I must say this represents an extraordinary physical's easy to dismiss this piece of data as numbers or stats but it really is pretty amazing when I think about the physical challenge that Anders will face--physically propelling 100+ pounds at altitude over 5-9 hours is not an easy challenge for sure.

The big issue right now is the weather.  As we talked to him the weather was over 90 degrees!  Alaska--really?  They are in the midst of a major heat wave right now--almost unprecedented.  It needs to get quite a bit colder or they may be shut out from any real summit attempt.  The big issue is trying to land the planes on the Kahiltna Glacier--when it gets hot like this the crevasses open up and it's too dangerous to land the planes.  They are about 50 miles from the glacier so it's too far to walk.  Another weather complication is that it looks like it's going to rain/snow until around July 3rd, which presents it's own set of challenges.  Nothing to be done about all of this now of course.  They have done all that they can do to prepare and they'll go if they get their shot....

Anders was in great spirits when we talked to him.  He is concerned about the weather but is prepared to enjoy himself no matter what the weather gods throw at him.

Here are a couple of pics--first a sunset view over Talkeetna Lake and then a couple of pics of the airport hanger where all the long hours of preparatory work took place today:

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