Same as prior days - up at 7am to prepare for departure but postponed at about 07:20 and then called off for the day at 11:00 am. Luckily the weather forecast is changing:
and there appear to be low winds on Fri, Sat and Sun now so hopefully we will have a summit opportunity at some point this weekend. Along with a large number of other groups as probably 10 - 15 people arrive each day we wait.
I do a bit more ice sculpting and otherwise just general relaxing and chatting to other people in the camp.
A bit of a treat for supper tonight in that we have some fresh salmon (Alaska has excellent fish and this is the fishing season) which another group very kindly gave to us on their way down. Most groups bring up large quantities of food in case of prolonged delays on the mountain and then try to get rid of it when they have summited so as to lighten their load on the way out.
Weather forecast for tomorrow is very windy so no chance of us heading up unless the forecast is wrong, which it usually isn't for the next day. Just hope it remains correct about the good weather at the weekend.
Forecast is for it to be windy today so I don't even bother packing or waking up early. Unsurprisingly, there is no call and the day is much the same as the others. Reading and doing bits of exercise to keep active.
The updated forecast now has Fri, Sat and Sun all with low winds so good for summiting. The camp continues to fill so the slopes are going to be absolutely packed on those days.
These pictures show the difference between the strong winds higher up and the clear sunny conditions in camp:
Interestingly, rumours are coming in of sustained bad weather from Sun night on. This raises the prospect of delays flying off the glacier and so being stuck at base camp for a number of days just as we are here. There should be little backlog there as all groups ahead of us should be off the mountain having summited 4 days ago or so.
The plan for tomorrow is to start at about 5am - really need to get ahead of the other groups to set up camp and get some rest in advance of our summit attempt the day after. We are splitting into a fast group and a slower group so that we can get there early and get camp set up and hot drinks on for when the others arrive.
One of the team has not been on a mountain before and it has been decided that it is not going to be safe for her to come as she just does not have the experience in mountains or the technical skills required - I have probably been making light of the conditions as well as a number of guides here still seem to be concerned about them. I feel very sorry for her but do not know what conversations the company had with her about her lack of experience when she was booking. Right from the start I have been concerned about her (not so much on the fitness front) but all the small things you learn about looking after yourself on a mountain and which you can only learn from time spent in harsh conditions. What is right for one person is not right for another and unless you have learnt those things about yourself you put yourself in danger and the success of the expedition at risk. Denali, which is meant to be one of the toughest of the 7Summits, is not the right place to learn!!
At the same time, this should allow greater latitude with the weather so hopefully we should finally be setting off tomorrow. From chatting to a few other groups, it appears that a few people aren't going up from here - the short window and difficult conditions predicted for the descent and way out has been giving a number of guides and climbers food for thought.
If we don't go tomorrow, it looks as though our last option will be a one day charge on Saturday - bound to be an interesting conversation if we get to that!!
For some reason, I just don't feel that tired and so don't get to sleep until well after 2am. Oddly, I don't feel that tired when I wake up at 04:45 am the next morning either. The skies are still and there are no tell tale snow spirals coming off the ridge as in prior days. It is though pretty cold which makes getting ready not particularly inviting - especially given the last minute cancellations of the past few days. This does not come however and I actually complete my packing and have an early breakfast.
We are aiming to be the first ones off (as there are a lot of people heading up today) and quite surprisingly we manage that with a couple of private groups and our rivals following us out of camp within 10 or 15 minutes. We are leaving before the sun has come round so it is still very cold indeed but we should soon warm up once we start up the incline.
We head straight up the Headwall and unfortunately all the footsteps that had been so useful on our prior climb have melted away in the hot sun and / or been filled with the wind blown snow of the past few days. This makes the ascent much harder but a quick look down the slope at the large queues forming makes it all worthwhile. The clouds have completely cleared and we get some stunning views out over Alaska.
We head up to our cache and dig it out, taking our deposits and leaving the remainder neatly arrayed for the other team. The route from the cache to High Camp follows a long ridge with a 1,000m drop back to ABC on one side and an even bigger drop into a glacier that leads out of the mountains on the other side. It would certainly have been interesting (but doable) to have been up here in the winds earlier in the week.
We are the first team to make it to the camp and it is great to see a place not full of other people. I need a bit of an extra walk at a decent pace as before to deal with the pace we have been walking at and then we dig a flat area and put up the tents and snow walls for the rest of the group as well as take in the spectacular views.
I really don't feel that I have acclimatised as well on this trip. The lack of any strain on the walks meant that my body never really got kicked into gear and forced to acclimatise. Something to remember for future trips?
Most people crash in the afternoon - a mix of tiredness from the day and lack of sleep the night before. At about 7:30 we meet for dinner and a chat over our summit day and then bed after a quick look at the start of our walk tomorrow.
We start on the right hand side heading up to the longest finger of rock and then an inclined traverse across to the shoulder in the middle of the picture. The problem with this is that it does not get the sun until later in the morning and so needs to be crossed when the ground is very hard and icy - a slip here can lead to a long slide down the slope with a big risk of cuts and sprained ankles from even a short fall as most people are roped together. This was named the autobahn after a few German climbers slipped to their deaths here - not the best way to name something for me.
For some reason I just can't get to sleep as I don't feel at all tired (I think I only slept from about 3am to 5am) but I don't feel groggy at all in the am - perhaps it is the fresh mountain air combined with the adrenalin.
Compared to many other big mountains, summit day on Denali is not that bad and so the plan is a leisurely start with a good breakfast of cereal, oatmeal and bagels to really set us up for the day. Unfortunately, and on the most important day, there is only enough hot water for a hot drink, no milk powder for the cereal and no bagels either. So it is basically cereal and cold water for breakfast!
The rest of the day is part excellent and part pretty poor. The weather is pretty good so we get fantastic views all day long. On the other hand, the two groups move together so we travel at the same miserable pace all day. Walking so slowly for so long is not only playing havoc with my energy levels but it is also giving me a really sore back. I end up stretching and going for additional walks in the breaks to try and cope with this (writing my notes in bed it either has not worked or I would be in a world of pain without it).
We start out in the shadow of the mountain which is pretty chilly until we start the hard work of climbing the first slope:
Our guide then has a complete fit. He has given unclear instructions to the assistant guide and then blows a fuse when he finds out that things have gone wrong. This develops into a wider rant as to how if there are any more cock ups he will turn us all back to High Camp and then continues to have a go at me for not taking off my pack immediately when we have a rest! I have never seen or heard of anything so unprofessional and it is only fear of him actually carrying out his threat in his unstable frame of mind that prevent a few of us from doing anything about this - there is a bit of worry about his suitability to lead us in this state but the conditions are pretty good and the path is clear so I am not too bothered. From there we have a fairly long and tedious walk along the flat before we approach Pig Hill and then the fun of Summit Ridge:
We all get there without any real eventualities and luckily the weather holds for us allowing plenty of time for photos and to enjoy the view.
The descent is uneventful as well and we return after 11 hours compared to the expected range of 8 to 16 hours for the day. Whilst it has at times been frustrating for a variety of reasons, the day has been superb and the feeling of exhilaration when you get to the summit is just so hard to match. What a day!
A small apology here to those wanting to follow in such footsteps - I am not quite sure what we did but it appears that Denali will never be the same again - Denali shrinks by 83 feet!
Bit of a chat about the next day and then supper and bed. After the long stay at ABC we are all pretty keen to get back to civilisation as soon as possible - the best option is basically to walk all day and night to get to the runway in the early am, have a couple of hours sleep and get the first plane off the glacier. Sounds good but we will need to see how people go - that is quite a long day after summiting!
For some reason no one seems to sleep well after summiting - I did not feel anxious or excited or adrenalin filled, just not at all sleepy. I end up reading and thinking until about 3am when I finally get some fitful sleep until 7 am, when we start getting up. It probably does not help that we are sleeping 3 to a tent at High Camp and despite the tents being called 4 man I am not sure it would be physically possible to have an extra person in here!
The walk from High Camp starts out superbly at 09:59:47, 13 seconds ahead of schedule! There is not much cloud and a strong sun keeps us warm and provides wonderful views.
However the descent of the fixed ropes becomes tough as the sun climbs in the sky and the temperature soars. The slope is pretty protected and there is no wind at all so the place becomes like an oven with the sun's energy rebounding off all the snow and ice. This is far worse for me than any of the cold that we have suffered. I have undone pretty much all my buttons and lie in the snow when we rest but I am really struggling with the heat! Tempers fray a little and our guide nearly yanks one of the team off their feat and blows are only narrowly averted – as they say, accidents usually occur on the way down!
We collapse into ABC to take some respite from the sun and our plans change a bit to allow a 4 hour break here before heading on as it is just too hot to walk. Whilst descending, we could see a large number of groups coming into camp from down the hill. They are all exhausted having made the climb in this heat - not normally a problem associated with Denali which is more widely famed for its storms and extreme cold. The camp site is very quiet in the pm and we take a nap to try and catch up on some sleep and get out of the sun.
We set off again in the cooler evening and are treated yet again to wonderful views, this time with a sort of setting sun shortly followed by a beautiful sunrise. We are now walking downhill with fairly full packs and sleds and it is a real trial to keep the sleds going straight and not tripping either you or the person in front - dragging my polk over the pressure ridges at the North Pole was great preparation for this.
There is a lot less snow and ice than when we passed through here on the way up and there are a lot more crevasses as well. At times, there is no option but to cross them where they appear the strongest and as we go over one, my right foot punches through the snow crust with my crotch being the next part to hit the snow. Whilst in the throes of agony I shout to the people either side of me to pull the rope tight in case the rest of me goes through the crust and into the crevasse. Our guide (helpful as ever) starts shouting at me to 'move forward' seemingly ignoring the fact that my leg is in a rather deep hole and I am struggling to work myself free. After a bit of wriggling and hampered in no small way by carrying a 25kg rucksack and being roped to a 30kg sled, I managed to get out; smiling at another interesting close encounter that could so easily have gone horribly wrong!
There are still parts of the slope that are in the shade of the sun and these remain pretty chilly so, especially after cooling down while stopping to retrieve our caches, we have to dress up again.
This does not last for long as soon we encounter the heat and slush of the lower glacier. This makes the going very hard and following sunrise we are again in the sun which despite it being 5am is becoming very hot and the last stage is actually quite a bit of a struggle - this is the final slope up to the runway which is known as Heartbreak Hill.
We finally get back to Kahiltna Base Camp at about 6:30am to find a pretty full camp of people waiting to fly out. We get our names on the list for a flight which is likely to be in the late afternoon and then grab a bit of sleep.
All of a sudden we are woken at 08:30 to be told that there is a spot at 9am and that if we can get to the top runway by then we can get on the plane. This seems great until we learn that the top runway is a good 30 mins walk and so we start trying to pack rapidly to head off there. The group next to us also seems to be getting ready but only a few of them seem to be in much of a hurry. Coming on top of walking through the night after summit day this is a real challenge and there is a lot of mutual encouragement as we kick our weary limbs into action and try to get our sleep deprived and just woken brains into gear. We just make it when the plans lands and organise our gear to fly out. The neighbouring group start to straggle in, although half their team are still a long way down the hill, and a bit of an argument about something briefly flares between the guides before we get onto the plane and take off.
It turns out that they had been in the camp for some time and that this was their reserved spot but that the organisers at the runway, on seeing their lack of preparedness had changed it to a first come first served basis as they needed to get as many people off the mountain today as possible before the bad weather arrived. This is quite a coup for our guides as no one was looking forward to spending the rest of the day at Base Camp with the possibility of getting stuck there for days if the bad weather came in!
And then we were off back to Talkeetna, enjoying the view and thinking about showers, beer and food. We had a quick turnaround in the airport to get out of our rather appalling mountain gear and into something which would allow us into civilisation.
Talkeetna has a number of places that cater perfectly to hungry climbers and whist none of us chose to go for the eating challenge, the beer and very large (as opposed to ridiculously sized) burger we found were superb and combined with our recent exercise and lack of sleep had a rather predictable result on the trip back to Anchorage.
I had a few extra days before my flight out and spent them on some great mountain biking and the unexpectedly good food in Anchorage.
Next trip Elbrus in July and Angus now joins the fun!
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles