Text and pictures © 1995-2023 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"As in any alpine region, the weather is changeable, protection questionable, route-finding bewildering, rockfall frequent and descents tedious. In short, it's everything you could ever ask for." — from the Canadian Alpine Journal, 1993
Left: Denali as seen from the north in spring.
I went to Alaska in early '95 to work at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Fairbanks, in central Alaska. It was a year of intense biking and mountain climbing but poor rock climbing. Alaska is a great place, too bad it's so flat near Fairbanks, but there are many animals to see.
Left: Before the mountain pictures, here are a few typical Alaska pictures, like the Fairbanks ice carving festival held every year. This sculpture is life-size. Or rather was, because it sure melted since I saw it.
Right: In summer Alaska is not cold at all and actually booming with life, like this Ptarmigan, a stupid but delicious bird. Stupid because you can catch it by hand (almost).
Left: Another kind of local animal not so easy to catch by hand is the grizzly bear. I was lucky enough to see this young one during a bike trip in Denali National Park in spring. There's a reason why cyclists in AK are called Meals-on-Wheels...
"Campaigns to bearproof all garbage containers in wild areas have been difficult because, as one biologist put it, 'There is a considerable overlap between the intelligence levels of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists'."
"In light of the rising frequency of human/grizzly bear conflicts, the Department of Fish and Game is advising hikers, hunters, and fishermen to take extra precautions and keep alert for bears while in the field. We advise that outdoors men wear noisy little bells on their clothing so as not to startle bears that aren't expecting them. We also advise outdoors men to carry pepper spray with them in case of an encounter with a bear. It is also a good idea to watch out for fresh signs of bear activity. Outdoors men should recognize the difference between black bear and grizzly bear droppings. Black bear droppings are smaller and contain lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear droppings have little bells in them and smell like pepper." — Grizzly bear notice.
Left: Mt Prindle, a 400 meter virgin cliff where I opened some new routes with Eric Breitenberger and Stan Justice.
Average quality granite covered with lichen. No big deal, but it's so rare to be able to open some new routes nowadays. There aren't any good climbing spots near Fairbanks, only a couple tiny rocks like the Tors.
Right: A slender sled dog.
Other local specialty, the sled races, like the famous yearly Iditarod. Dogs bred for races are a mix of husky, wolf and hounds. They are fast, they can pull heavy sleds and they can do it for days in a row in the cold of the Alaskan winter. Those dogs opened up Alaska at the turn of the century and they are still doing their share of the work.
"Cats are smarter than dogs. You can't get eight cats to pull a sled through snow." — Jeff Valez
Right: Aerial view on the west buttress of Denali.
Denali (the Great One, aka McKinley) is the highest summit in North America at 6192m. I was supposed to go open a new route with a friend from Fairbanks, but he fell from his bike a few days before going, so I ended up going alone on the West Buttress which is the classic route. The drive to Talkeetna was uneventful, apart for the bus driver talking for 8 hours about how hard it is to be a bus driver. After paying the just instated 'rescue fee' at the ranger station (just an obvious hidden tax, since I had independent rescue insurance) and being forced to watch a gruesome 'this will happen if you try to climb Denali' video showing plenty of frostbites, amputations, crevasses, avalanches, frozen bodies and other assorted tidbits, I finally make it to the plane charter where I have to fight my way in the middle of the tourists just coming for a view.
Left: Going up on the Kahiltna glacier. Mt Frances in the middle and Hunter in the back.
Arriving at base camp I get my first glimpse of reality, as opposed to a video: a helicopter brings back the body of a climber, hanging frozen underneath.
From base camp it's as simple as: put on your skis, attach your sled, go down for a mile or so to get to the main Kahiltna glacier and then start the long flat walk. Well, not quite. First of all, dig a hole somewhere you can remember and stash some food away to be found by later hungry climbers of future archaeologists. Then, what about the crevasses. From the plane the glacier didn't look too bad, I decide not to risk it and seek a partner or party. I hook up with 3 americans who are willing to take me along. They are about ready to go when I talk with them and have a nice setup of sleds connected by ropes. I easily attach to the end and away we go.
Right: Camp 2 below Windy Corner. All the rays of the sun get concentrated there by the snow walls above.
We go, we go, we go but we don't seem to be getting anywhere. They are slow as an arthritic turtle. It's my first day up here too and I can feel the altitude, but the glacier is mostly flat, so there's no point in going slow to avoid getting to high too fast, no ? In the evening we make camp just on the other side of the smallish Mt Frances. The trail is easy to follow, with tent holes and 'brown spots' mostly everywhere along it.
Left: Climbers taking a rest on their way up windy corner.
As I watch them make some big fireballs with their brand new MSR in the evening we chat about climbing. Or mostly I chat about climbing while they talk about the three 14ers they have hiked up in Colorado. In summer. I'm beginning to think I'm safer alone... The next day, after a couple hours to get ready and an hour to do the first hundred meters, I decide to part company: the trail is good, we haven't seen any crevasse on the first day and there are plenty of people going both ways. After 2 hours they are way behind which comfort me in my decision. I won't see them again until my return from Hunter 26 days later, as they come back from Denali: one took a fall on the ridge at 1500ft and that's the highest they went, judging it safer to head out at that point.
Right: Avalanche down the Messner Couloir. Two japanese snowboarders in it.
I encounter a german climber going down solo. While I ask him about the crevasses and an extra tube of sunscreen, he tells me about the rescue he was involved in a few days ago: some Koreans froze up on their summit bid, without any warm clothing and refusing to descend. One was the corpsicle I saw the previous day.
Left: It's so warm in the tent during the day that you can melt snow by leaving it in a trash bag. But don't get too hopeful, although it never gets dark at night, the temperature drops dramatically.
I make it to camp 2 uneventfully, although I begin to feel the altitude on the last leg of the hike which gets steeper near the camp. The interesting part starts here. It's very hot during the day at that camp, but at the end of the steep slope above the winds accelerate around the corner of the aptly named 'Windy Corner'. I debate taking the skis with me as it's too steep to ski up with my old skins. I carry them up with half of my gear. There are lots of crevasses to negotiate and even a few small seracs, not a good place to stay. I drop my load at the high camp, just in time to see two snowboarders start in the Messner couloir. A couple minutes later an avalanche rips from the top and we watch horrified as they disappear in the gigantic white cloud. After waiting for a while, we still don't see anything and while rangers are on the radio planning a rescue, I go back down to my tent. I still have that avalanche on my thoughts as I ski around the crevasses with very little control from the plastic boots (not ski boots) and from pulling a crazy empty sled behind me.
On my second trip up the next morning, I encounter a japanese guy walking down with a snowboard on his back. He tells me, yes, that was him up there. When the avalanche came, he jumped in the rocks on the side and escaped with a major fright. His partner was not so lucky: he was carried down by the snow and jumped a couple rock bars. He apparently had a broken back when the helicopter picked him up. No, he doesn't want to snowboard anymore. The routine on Denali is pretty serious.
Right: Crowded west buttress ridge at around 15000ft.
To acclimatize I go to take a look at the high camp, located on the ridge of the West Buttress at approx. 5200m. It take a very light day pack and my camera. I start at the same time than 3 frenchman from Lyon going up to carry some load. Two of them bail and I end up offering to carry their load. The ridge is easy with even a couple fixed lines where everybody wait or step on each other... while it takes about 2 minutes to pass on the side ! Here on the picture there was a blind man going up the line ! That year 1400 people tried Denali, about 400 made it to the top and 6 didn't make it back... Some of the people who go there are utterly clueless, like that group on the first day, and if most of them take guides to check them out, cook for them and lace their shoes, there are plenty who think that reading all the books they could find about Denali is good enough. Then you wonder why people die when the going gets tough.
Left: Hiding from the storm in a snow cave.
Talking about tough conditions, I decide I don't want to go to the high camp (it's exposed to storms and I'm too lazy to carry tent and stuff up there). So I decide to go bivvy above the fixed lines, at about 5000m, and then go to the summit in the morning. During the night a storm moves in that will last for the next 3 days. I'm alone with my thoughts the first night, but then 4 other people join me. They are coming down from the high camp where their tents has been blown to shreds by the wind. Temperature inside the snow cave peaks at -27°C. Cold enough when you are not moving for 3 days in a row, saving food. I'm glad to have taken a tiny radio receiver, it's amazing how many radio stations you can get from up there. I keep it warm on my stomach to save the tiny battery. One night I wake up gagging: the snow has obstructed the entrance of the cave and we have to dig it out to get some air back.
Right: The 14000ft pass after the storm. In the back of the picture you can see Mt Hunter on the left and Mt Foraker on the right.
The morning after the storm, going down the fixed lines which are hidden under 50cm of snow is a major drag. There's a line of people queuing down. I try to pass but gets swallowed by the 2 meters of fresh snow accumulated right there. I go back to my tent at the main camp (visible as a couple specks on the photo), eat a stick of frozen butter like an ice cream (yeah, when you are hungry...), warm up a bit in the afternoon sun, then sleep like a log in a sleeping bag soaked by a ruptured bag of water. In the morning I decide to go for the summit directly from the main camp.
Left: High camp on Denali. The track traverses to the left, reaching the pass.
I leave the main camp at 9 in the morning (I wanted to leave at 3 but I overslept...). I reach the high camp (picture) in 90 minutes where the same French guys I helped out earlier offer me breakfast. Nobody has started for the summit yet which is strange given the late hour. There's some obvious deep snow dropped by the storm and nobody wants to do the trail, particularly not the guides. I count 11 parties roped up and ready to go, but none of those bastards wanted to do the trail. So after waiting half an hour and swearing at them, I take off alone and they all follow in my footsteps without shame. Fortunately higher up the snow gets harder. When I reach the pass I can see the first group has barely made it to the end of the flat plateau...
Right: An automatic weather station above the pass.
The ridge is mostly hard snow but now the altitude is draining me down. I've been going too fast. A bit above the pass I'm surprised to find an AWS (Automatic Weather Station) of a different model but very similar to what I worked on in Antarctica. It's covered with ice and not operating. I take a 10 minutes breather while I clean it up and re-activate it, although I have no way to verify the data. A tag on it says it was installed by a japanese team in memory of Uemura, a famous Japanese soloist.
It takes me 5 hours to get to the summit from camp 3, not counting the wait at the high camp. At about 5800m the wind picks up and clouds move in. It start getting cold, then really cold. I have 3 pairs of gloves/mittens as well as heat packs in my shoes but I'm losing it. After traversing the dreaded 'football field' below the summit, I start up the last short slope to the summit but it's just too cold. I stop for a while and dig my but in the soft snow to try to shelter from the wind and munch on a power bar while I decide what to do. The video must have gotten to me as I decide to head back down. As I get up to go, suddenly, the wind drops, the sky clears, the temperature soared and, turning around, I see I'm a mere 10 minutes from the summit. Sometimes you're just plain lucky. As I go down, I encounter only 3 other climbers...
Left: Alone on the summit of Denali
Right: Back down at the pass, with the north summit of Denali in the background.
It took me only 9 days to climb Denali and I had food and energy left. I briefly attempted a two day run up the East Ridge of Foraker, but forgot my sleeping pad and backed out after seeing some ugly crevasses on the ridge. Then I met two Aussies at base camp, Marc and Mark, drinking beer like any self respecting Australians. We decided to team up and go for Hunter, that interesting piece of rock towering above base camp. It's the 3rd highest summit of the area, but is technically much harder than Denali, even via its normal route, the west ridge.
First day of the climb: no climbing. We move from base camp the base of the route in the afternoon, then go to bed on a warm night. It begins to sleet and as howling winds and wet snow batter our tent all night our will to start early disappear. In the morning we split my book in three parts and start reading in disorder. Bad choice of book: Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, the base of the movie Soylent Green, proves to be an even grimmer story than the movie. By the end of the day, with the storm still out there, we are depressed and only want to go home.
Right: A well frozen rope in the morning
Left: Amateur brain surgery at 4000m. Those Aussies will survive anything.
During the night the storm moves out and we start a little later than expected. The weather has turned to a foggy wet and we start our climb too much to the left. Not knowing very well where we are, we just keep going up; we end up climbing steep mixed with lots of shnice (shit snow and ice, a local specialty) up the ridge on the left of the plateau. There are plenty of times when the terrain is too steep or too bad to move together and we lose time doing pitches, usually poorly protected by a lone snowstake. At a certain point Mark is going up increasingly steeper soft shnice and just falls backward 20m before he can manage to stop his sluggish fall on a flat snow spot, his axe having opened his skull on a good 4 cm. Further up I find myself in the same situation: I'm in deep snow up to my thighs and I fail to find the next anchor for my tools. As I keep evacuating tons of tiny ice pebbles with large arm movements, I can feel the snow behind my knees slowly give way. I dig quicker and end up carving a trench to move my way up. After 17 hours of this sort of snow digging we finally reach the main ridge and stop at the first a suitable spot for the tent. Very wet and tired.
Right: Back view of the west ridge, with Foraker in the background
Left: The ridge on the second day, with the plateau visible above. The summit is out of view.
While M&M dig up a tent platform, I set my small stove in the snow and start making water. After a few minutes we get inside and start changing and relaxing. Something weird happens at that point: Marc opens the backside of the tent, stands up with his feet still inside and starts, err, taking a piss. And then he just falls in it ! We grab him and he wakes up saying he's no clue as to what happened. After making copious fun of him, the exact same thing happens to Mark. And then to me ! We quiet down and decide to take it easy the day after: no long push to the summit.
Left: Evening on Camp2
Right: Early morning start on that same camp2
So we wake up late only to find my old rope totally frozen like a metal cable. Short day with a leisurely 5 hour climb along a beautiful ridge. The steepest section offers 100m in 65° ice but the rest is quite easy, with a few ups and downs. We set up camp on a narrow spot with a marvelous view of just about everything: Denali, Foraker, the glaciers below, base camp with its incessant series of parties hiking back from Denali and its noisy taxiplane flights... The summit seems at hand just above us, but when we reach it the next morning, that high point proves to be only the start of a long plateau. We start to traverse on it for about a km in soft snow, but a cloud comes and hides the view.
Left: Steep snow below the summit of Mt Hunter
Right: Right below the summit of Mt Hunter
With the deep snow and the lack of directions from the fog, we end up too far left to take the summit ridge. Climbing straight up proves to be real hard work with deep steep snow to reach the summit, on the last part before reaching the ridge, I sometimes have snow up to my neck... So much snow. But, oh well, by now the sky has cleared and the summit picture with Denali in the back is well worth it. Far below huge vibrations announce the arrival of Huey twin choppers coming to dismantle base camp. I light up a candle on my waterbottle for Mark's birthday.
Left: Summit of Mt Hunter, with Denali in the background.
Right: Our trail down from the summit
Back to the high camp we are not too ecstatic anymore: all the food we have left goes into our stomachs, except for a bunch of bars I took extra. One more day of downclimbing and rappelling that long ridge where I have to fiercely defend my few remaining powerbars from two hungry aussies. We use every trick in the book: snow ballards, snowstakes, lings around boulder, downclimbing, jumping crevasses... before we finally recover our snowshoes to make it back down to base camp, indulge in some booty food, and can finally call in the planes to get back to civilization via a nice tour of the Alaskan range.
Left: Preparing one of many snowstake rappels down the steeper sections of Hunter.
Right: Our camp at the base of the west ridge of Hunter. The route is visible on the glacier in our back.
Right: As seen from Talkeetna: Foraker, Hunter, Denali and some beer.
After 28 days up in the mountains and only one change of underwear, I can tell you that the smell was not nice when I arrived at above freezing temperature. First thing a loooong hot shower, then a razzia to the best restaurant in Talkeetna: salad, salmon, steak, shrimps, chocolate cake all with heaps of beer. Then a nap and back to the restaurant for a Hobbit-like second lunch. In the evening we spent some time looking at our summits (picture above, from the left: Foraker, Hunter, Denali) with beer in hand.
The funny ending happened as I hitch-hiked back to Fairbanks with all my gear. Several cars picked me up and I told them my climbing story. In the third car that took me there were 5 girls between 12 and 18. I started bragging about my accomplishment, to which they replied: "Hey, yes, we just climbed Denali too !". Most of them were from the same family and had held the record of the youngest girl up Denali at one point or another. Yup, humble, humble.
An eskimo has his snowmobile break down while riding past a small town in Alaska. He takes it to the repair shop and is told to come back in about an hour.
When he come back, the mechanic says: "It looks like you have blown a seal."
The eskimo answers: "Err... No, that's just a little frost on my mustache."