After a few trips on Rainier it was time to answer the sirens call of Alaska! This open expanse of country has been bringing me back for the last 8 years, first as an archaeologist and then as a climber. Having spent time in numerous areas of the state I still think the heart of the Alaska Range is the most wild and beautiful.
My co-guides for this trip were Travis Powell and the legendary Vern Tejas. Vern has been climbing and guiding around the world for decades, and has spent literally years of his life on the slopes of Denali. Needless to say I found him to be a consummate professional and a great mentor.
Our trip started out at the Fireweed Station Inn, an old train station on the Alaskan railroad that has since been converted into an amazing B&B. We greeted our excited climbers and proceeded to hurry up and wait. Unfortunately the weather turned sour and we were unable to fly due to poor visibility in the range. Though delayed, we were still able to cover a ton of technical systems and material while on hold.
Once the weather broke we made a bee line for Talkeetna Air Taxi. Within 45 minutes we went from the comforts of beer and wifi to one of the most isolated areas on the planet. Sometimes this isolation can stun and cripple people. There are even stories of climbers getting off the plane, looking around, and then getting right back on the plane!
After a few days of moving camp we arrived at Camp 1 (7800 ft.) The weather again turned on us and we remained inside the white room for the next week or two. Even though the weather presented challenges we pushed on to Camp 2 (9600ft). Unfortunately one of our climbers developed a respiratory issue while in transit from overseas, and opted to return to basecamp. Travis and I high tailed it down glacier with our climber and saw him off. On our return we encountered what I dubbed "a murder of Koreans." A team of Korean climbers was skiing unroped with sleds and the team captain took a 50ft plunge. Another Alpine Ascents team was on the scene before we arrived and had extracted the climber, luckily he was still alive. Every year there seem to be more and more solo climbers on the mountain, which leads to this pervasive attitude of safety.......sort of strange.
Once reconvening with our team we were able to push up to Camp 3 (11,200ft) where yet again we ran into poor conditions. Heavy snow and steep slopes = avalanche danger. Every team on the mountain was pinned down by this reality until miraculously the weather broke. The mad dash to Camp 4 (14,220ft) began.
Our final move to Camp 5 (17,200 ft) marked the end of our bad weather and the emergence of a high pressure system. Summit day was windless, clear, and warm. The whole day took on this other worldy aura. All team members summited and descended without incident. Even the hike out to basecamp was strangely perfect. We arrived at the airstrip just as the last plane of the day landed to pick us up. I guess in the end, a lot of bad weather days adds up to a few profound ones.
It is hard to encapsulate the amount of work and toil that goes into these expeditions, and really the only way is to experience it yourself. Having a shared experience is what binds climbers together, creating a mutual respect for each other and the mountains. There are countless hours of type 2 fun, as well as a fair amount of type 3 fun (i.e. when others laugh at your experience).
Overall we kept high spirits even in the darkest times and were able to create lifelong relationships, but more importantly memories.
P.S. Big shout out to our team mate and professional photographer Ivan Bideac for letting me use some of his photos.