As many of you know, I’ve had my eyes set on climbing Denali for the last few years. In May/June of 2022, I was finally able to take it on.
Everyone has been pinging me to see the photos, so here you go. I felt that a blog with pictures would offer more context for the photos rather than a simple slide show. Hope you enjoy!
Note: I’ll be adding more pictures and vignettes to this doc as I have time/receive pics.
If you’re not familiar, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310' (6,190m). It has a huge amount of relief when compared to the surrounding area and is known for having truly nasty weather due to that relief and just how far north it is.
Guide Company — Alpine Ascents
I always go with a guiding company on these trips because glacier travel and big mountains are dangerous. I’d always prefer to outsource my risk management to someone who spends 250+ days per year in the mountains.
I highly highly recommend Alpine Ascents which who I’ve climbed with many times including this trip. I go with them whenever I can. Have loved all my guides and can’t wait to climb with them again.
Climbing a giant mountain like this takes a lot of time and preparation.
Denali is not an “introductory mountain.” I’ve been climbing large glaciated peaks with Natasha and my other climbing buddies for the last few years. These include Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Gannet Peak, and more. Climbing mountains like these lets you understand what it feels like to be on a large peak, understand the gear systems that will help you succeed, and gaining experience preparing your body for the hard work of winter camping and uphill travel.
Denali Prep Course
Alpine Ascents also expects you to attend a week long Denali Prep course. Mine was on Mt. Baker in northern Washington in January(!!!) of 2020. It was a wild week of camping in the sloppy snow, trying to stay dry and warm (both loosing battles in those sloppy conditions), and digging your tent out of the snow in the middle of the night. Fun!
Staying in Shape
In preparing for Denali I split my workout time between cardio, weight training, and functional “heavy bag” hiking. In a normal week this was 10+ hours of workout time.
I climbed a TON of stairs with my backpack as a cardio workout.
…usually while wearing a 65 lb backpack and my triple mountaineering boots.
I’d often relish the “nasty” days in Seattle to go try out my Denali gear.
On the nice days, Natasha would come with me. Sometimes she’d try to carry my pack around the parking lot :D
Getting a Bit Fluffy
You burn an absurd number of calories during a climb. Your body is always burning to 1) keep itself warm 2) manage the lack of oxygen 3) keep up with the physical work. So eating a couple extra burgers before a big expedition is generally a good idea.
Prior to leaving for Alaska, I was heavier than I’ve ever been in my life at 212 lbs. After the 18 days on the mountain, I was back down to a normal 197 lbs!
Big mountain climbing takes a lot of gear. So acquiring, fitting, testing, and modding the gear you take with you takes a lot of time.
Alright, now that I’m experienced, in shape, prepared, loaded down with gear, and a little chunky, it’s time to head to alaska.
Seattle to Anchorage to Talkeetna
My journey started with a flight from SEA to ANC with beautiful views of the Chugach mountains around Anchorage. From there I took a group taxi to the small town of Talkeetna, AK which is the staging area for the flight onto the mountain.
It was a gorgeous day so i was able to catch multiple views of the mountain, even all the way from Anchorage
Though I didn’t know he was going to be on the climb, one of my fellow AAI Denali Prep course climbers was on the same group taxi as me. Geoff and I decided to be tent mates for the next few weeks.
I spent the couple of days in Talkeetna, walking around the town, staring at the mountain, and meeting the rest of the team as they got into town. Talkeetna is a tiny town that swells in population for the climbing season as it’s where the climbers take planes and helicopters onto the glaciers of the Alaska Range.
I also spent a lot of time in my room at the Latitude 62 hotel triple and quadruple checking all my gear. Luckily there were no surprises.
The day of the climb, we were picked up in a bus to go to the AAI office (house with an airstrip and hangar) south of town. We met the guides, exploded our gear, and went through it piece by piece before weighing it for plane travel.
After intros and gear check, we headed back to town for some pizza before loading onto the plane. We stopped for a quick team picture in which unfortunate lighting made me look bucktoothed.
Talkeetna Airfield to the Basecamp
From Talkeetna, we took a pair of DeHaviland Otter ski planes to to our basecamp at 7,000 ft on the SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and got our first up close look at the Alaska range. This flight was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life.
Basecamp Days — 7,020'
Basecamp sits at about 7,000 ft on the SE fork of the Kahiltna Glacier
Once we got to basecamp we were able to take a deep breath. Getting through gear check and loaded onto the plane is a TON of logistics, so being on the mountain finally was a relief. We took an acclimation day there to practice some gear techniques and get used to the air 7,000 ft.
This time was great because we got to know each other and the guides better. The weather was superb, floating around 25 degrees, but super sunny so it felt tropical. Plus the views were incredible. At this spot you have a view right down the landing strip to see Foraker towering in the distance. You also get to watch icefalls on Hunter, which looks pretty small compared to surrounding Foraker and Denali, until you realize that the face you’re looking at is twice the size of the main face on El Capitan and the summit is higher than that of Mt. Rainier!
Basecamp to Camp 1 — 7,620'
We left basecamp for the long hike up the Kahiltna Glacier to Camp 1 (7,620'), which sits at the base of a feature called Ski Hill.
Denali is a long, expedition style climb, so on the flatter sections of the mountain you pull sleds to carry your extra gear. Along with being attached to your sled, you are also attached to the other climbers with a rope. This is standard procedure for glacier travel where there can be covered crevasses under the top layer of snow that you can fall into. Alaska’s crevasses are some of the largest in the world and can be hundreds of feet deep. So being attached to some other folks that can pull you out if you fall in is quite important.
Full body coverage is a must on the glacier to protect yourself from the sun. Sunlight will reflect off the sun and burn any part of you that is exposed. Even the inside of your nose or mouth (if you leave it open).
Camp 1 to Camp 1.5 – 9,310'
Nick, our lead guide, opts to single-carry to a half camp at this point in the climb rather than making a caching run all the way to Camp 2. Single carry refers to moving all your gear at once rather than making a caching run in which you would take half your gear to the new location, bury it in the snow, and return to camp before moving the rest the next day. Single carrying is hard, but you only have to make the walk once. Each strategy has its place.
On the way up we passed “the Estonian Group” which would remain a funny team throughout the climb. They were camped by the trail, blasting a …uhh..different version of trance techno that seemed to involve a lot of clarinet. When they asked us all where we were from, Kieran, an aussie on our team, gave his answer. A couple minutes later, AC/DC was blaring at us from further down the glacier. We were pretty sure it wasn’t by accident.
Camp 1.5 to Camp 2 – 11,000'
We took a rest day at our 1.5 camp as one of our team members decided to descend. Afterward we continued on to the established Camp 2 at 11,000 ft. Also known as “sad camp” it sits in a bowl that can have beautiful views, but usually just catches all the bleh weather that comes from the surrounding areas. True to form, it got cloudy soon after we arrived.
Despite the gloomy weather Camp 2 was great because we got to hang out for a rest day and eat some super tasty food. The guides did an amazing job with our breakfasts and lunch, preparing all kinds of goodies throughout the trip. Some of the highlights: personal pizzas, fettuccine Alfredo, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, and most exciting was ~20oz Costco NY Strips panfried in butter!
Camp 2 to Camp 3– 14,000' — Cache and Carry
The move to Camp 3 was a multi day process in that we did a caching run first. On the first day we took about half of our supplies and made our way up through the five major features that lie between the two camps.
First is Motorcyle Hill a relatively steep, but homogeneous hill leading up to a ridge line.
Second is Squirrel Hill a less steep, but really wonky hill because it’s full of big rocks, and weird turns, all while sloping off down to your left.
Third is the Polo Fields which are a luxurious section of flat between the hills.
Fourth is Son of a Bitch Hill which sucks as the name might imply. It looks small, but it just keeps going and going and going.
Finally, there’s Windy Corner which luckily wasn’t very windy for us. It’s a hard left turn around a corner with rockfall hazard above you on the left side, a very skinny walking path, and a lot of crevasses down below to the right. Unfortunately no picture of this since you’re somewhat gripped while crossing it.
I’m so happy I never had to pull a sled through these sections because sleds love to start rolling down to your side and are generally just a huge pain in the butt in these areas.
Unfortunately though, During this day’s climb I expected it to be colder so I wore an extra layer on the top and bottom and didn’t take them off soon enough. So when I got to the top of SOB Hill, I was overheated and felt absolutely terrible.
Luckily, that was the end of it, and we set up our caching site for our gear, making sure to dig deep enough that the ravens couldn’t get to our food. They like to go digging and then throw your food all over the glacier while they eat it. We saw at least one cache that had been raided. Pretty gross.
We hiked back down the hills to Camp 2 to spend the night. Then packed up all our gear the next morning to move to Camp 3. The move day is a lot heavier usually, so this day was tough. Luckily all my gear fit in my pack, so I could ditch my sled. This made going up the hills great because sleds suck on hills, but when we got to the top of SOB and faced a long, relatively flat walk to Camp 3, I felt like I was dying. The sled is great on those sections because it let’s the ground take a lot of the weight. You don’t get that luxury when it’s all in your pack. So when we made it to Camp 3, I was perfectly happy to soak up the sunlight and take a nap on the snow (again it was super cold, but the sun made it feel hot).
We hung out and napped for a couple hours while waiting for the Alpine Ascents group that was on its way down to vacate their campsite. Taking over a nice campsite is great because you don’t have to do as much shoveling. And I felt like crap so shoveling did not sound fun.
Eventually they moved on and we moved in.
Camp 3 Days– 14,000'
Everything changes at Camp 3. From there on, you’re doing a lot more up than over. The camp is also known as “advanced base camp” because it’s where the real alpine climbing starts. It’s like a small city, with hundreds of tents. The park rangers have their camp set up a little bit to the side.
The camp sits in a big bowl with the ridge line of the West Buttress hanging out about 2000' above you. The bowl is south facing so it gets a ton of sun throughout the day and can feel quite tropical, especially when compared to gloomy “sad camp”.
It’s a funny camp too because there are always people who are descending the mountain that are dragging around sleds full of food trying to hand hand it off so they don’t have to carry it down the mountains. They’ll put the hard sell on you too: “I know you want the coffee, but you can’t have it unless you take the 5 cliff bars.”.
It’s also a cool spot because you can see the fixed lines for the first time. In mountaineering, as the terrain gets more and more dangerous, you add extra layers protection to the route to keep yourself safe. To attain the West Buttress ridge you must climb a few hundred feet of steep blue glacial ice (hard as granite). This is considered a “no fall zone” because if you start sliding you won’t be able to stop yourself, and will likely go straight into a crevasse.
Fixed lines are ropes anchored directly to the route that you clip into with an ascender. The ascender is a tool that grips the rope, only allowing it to travel one direction. So each step you take, you slide up the ascender and “lock in” your progress. Then if you fall, the ascender will catch you as it’s attached to the mountain via the fixed lines.
The process of traveling up the fixed lines is …bracing.
Before we could tackle the fixed lines though, we took a rest day to retrieve our cache from down near windy corner.
Camp 3 to Camp 4–17,000' — Cache and Carry
The cache day on the way to Camp 4 was one of the more intimidating days on the trip. The picture above does not really do justice to how scary the fixed lines look from Camp 3.
You start with two pushes up to the base of the fixed line. A push is usually about an hour of movement, before taking a stop to eat, drink, sunscreen, personal care, etc. The first two pushes are semi-steep snow and ice. In the picture above you can actually see a group breaking at the top of the first push, and then the upper crevasse that crosses the route is roughly where the fixed lines start.
Though it was pretty intimidating, once I got over the initial crevasse and got into a rhythm of using the ascender, the fixed lines were a lot of fun. Eventually we reached the top of the ridge and paused to cache our gear before descending.
The descent might be a little bit more scary than the way up. Firstly, you don’t get to use an ascender. You clip in with a safety line that can slide, and then simply wrap your arm around the rope. The friction of the rope on your arm is your “brake”. It works well, but it’s definitely scary until you get used to it. We made it back down to our camp and spent the night before one of the hardest days of the climb.
The move day from Camp 3 to Camp 4 was hard. Heavy packs and steep, technical terrain are a tough combination. Plus the day was frigid at the beginning. We started before the sun came out from behind the mountain, and when there’s no sun on Denali, it feels polar. It was like this for packing and the first push. Eventually the sun came out and it immediately felt better.
A sad episode happened at this point when one of our party members had to turn around. It was gut wrenching and cast a bummer note on the day.
However, the climb after the point where we picked up our cache was breathtaking. We were up high, like really really high. We could look down on the Peters Glacier to the north, see ridge that leads to the north summit (smaller summit), and of course see much of the West Buttress on which we were standing.
The rest of the days climb was grueling but beautiful. There is significant exposure on both sides of the climber on the ridge line, falling off 2,000 to 3,000 feet on either side. We used running protection (pickets) throughout this section. Pickets are snow anchors and running protection means we clipped our rope into them as we passed by, that way if we took a tumble, we would be anchored to the mountain.
We passed a tough feature called Washburns thumb that involved another fixed line, though we did not actually need to clip into this one. At the top we looked down at Camp 3 3,000 feet below.
Eventually, the terrain flattened and we made it to the windswept flat area that is Camp 4 at 17,000 ft. We had made it to high camp!
High Camp — 17,000'
High camp is a wonderful place…if there’s good weather. Luckily it was beautiful while we were there. But as you can see from the picture above, it’s a little walled city with snow walls built to protect camp from winds that are known to shred tents.
You always try to ascend to high camp when you see a good weather window for getting there, summiting, and getting back down. Sometimes that doesn’t work out. I’m glad it did for us.
If I had to choose a word besides beautiful to describe High camp, it would probably be uncomfortable. At 17,000' there’s very little oxygen compared to what your body wants, so everything is hard. Headaches and nausea are common. Moving quickly is a no-no. Your appetite often leaves you. Plus we went 3 to a tent at this point, so you’re cramped.
A good example of this was setting up our tent. Normally this is a process that takes a half hour or so. At high camp, we probably worked on our tent for 90 minutes. The ground was so hard that we couldn’t get stakes in. We had to use our ice axes to dig a trench to deadman (bury sidewise) them into the ground. But digging the trench was difficult due to lack of oxygen, so you’d get about five swings in before needing to switch with a partner.
Uncomfortable is a good word for the whole scenario.
But we were all excited because we sat there staring at the Autobahn (the first feature you cross on the way to the summit). We were getting close!
That night at a team meeting, we voted and decided to go for the summit the next day since the weather looked great and you don’t really recover much at 17,000 ft.
High Camp to the Summit— 20,320'
Summit day was a hard day. Not only was it hard because of the emotional toll from the events that would transpire near the summit, but it was incredibly physical as well.
The first major feature you tackle is called the Autobahn, a long steady traverse with a steep drop off the left. You use running protection to stay attached to the mountain. While not super steep, this section was difficult because you cannot stop without causing a log jam. It also took us a LONG time because there were many groups heading up that morning. I believe it took us about 3 hours to reach the end of the section. Normally I’m told it takes about 1.5 hours.
Once you’ve completed the Autobahn, you’ve reached Denali Pass, the saddle between the two peaks of Denali. From there you take a sharp right, and head to through a steep section called Zebra Rocks. At this point I was struggling. Though I was doing alright aerobically, my legs just didn’t have the juice in them that I felt that they needed.
Though it seems like a little thing as I describe it here in a few short paragraphs, these 2–3 hours between the end of the Autobahn and the feature known as Arch Deacon’s Tower were the crux of the climb for me.
When you’re struggling with fatigue, it can become a mental battle. You’re trudging along with a heavy pack on, 45 ft from the next person in your rope team, alone with your thoughts. You ask yourself “Do I have the stamina to get up and down safely without endangering myself and my team?” Your body says no, your ego says yes, and your brain is flip flopping in between.
There were a few times were I felt really scared that I was going to need to turn around, but with some disciplined eating at the breaks and some mental stamina, I was able to get some juice back in my legs and overcome the fatigue before it became stupid for me to continue.
These few hours, fighting a battle alone in my head, are where I grew the most and are what I will cherish most from this climb.
The day remained absolutely gorgeous as we neared the summit. I wore only a couple jackets, even at 19,500'. You could see forever. It was incredible.
Once we reached the section called the Football Fields, an easily recognized flat spot before the final incline (known as Pig Hill), I about started crying because I knew we were there.
Atop Pig Hill (~20,100 ft), I snapped the photo my favorite photo that I’ve ever taken. It’s my summit picture.
Near the Summit — 20,100'
Unfortunately, a triumphant stroll up the final ridge was not meant to be. Rather than rehash the events, I will instead paste the email I sent to my friends and family from a hotel in Fairbanks a few days after my climb when the events were still fresh.
Begin Email from June 8, 2022:
TLDR: I’m safe and had an amazing time on the climb and hit all my goals, attaining the summit ridge at 20,000 ft+ on June 4th. However, there was a tragedy on another team that adds some emotional complication to the experience.
First, I’m safe, emotionally and physically healthy, and off the mountain with all my fingers and toes. Only a bit of wind/cold burn and some really gross toes and lips :) And I’ve also showered after ~17 days without…yay!
I know a lot of you have reached out to Natasha to ask questions about why the AAI Cybercast stopped working. So here’s the long of it. I’m assuming you’ve followed the Cybercast up to 14 camp so I’ll leave that out.
We linked up with the AAI team at 14k ft camp that arrived the day after us to improve our guide to client ratios and support options (a common practice). We had beautiful, bluebird weather all the way to 17k ft camp (high camp). Both teams felt good and decided to go for the summit the following day.
Summit day was again beautiful and clear. Surprisingly so in fact. Both teams traveled together on ~5 rope teams, making our way up to a flat area called the Football Fields at ~19.5k ft. The last obstacle before the summit ridge is a moderately steep incline called Pig Hill.
I was in the lead rope team and topped out the hill (gaining the summit ridgeline) with two other climbers and our lead guide. As we sat for a quick break to eat/drink/self-care our guide received a radio call. He unroped and walked out of site back down the hill. About 10 minutes later he came back, looking shaken, to make a sat phone call for emergency help the parks service for a climber who was unconscious and had no pulse.
It turns out that on the ascent of Pig Hill, a 48 year old climber on our joint team fell backward while climbing. The guides saw it was a medical issue rather than a slip and rushed to aid. CPR was performed for a significant amount of time but he never regained a pulse. No autopsy has been performed but officials are presuming it to have been a sudden cardiac event. Here’s an article with further details. So our extreme joy was mixed jarringly with heartbreak/shock for our fellow climber.
After the guides did what they immediately could, all clients were sent back down to high camp with various teams and guiding services. Here are some answers to the questions I’ve been hearing.
How are you emotionally?
I’m doing well, really. With regard to Fernando’s death, it is a tragedy and sad on many levels, but I was sheltered by not being able to see and not knowing the man other that brief interactions.
How are you feeling about everything else?
With regard to the rest, I’m super excited about my personal performance and my team’s performance on the trip. I accomplished all my goals and then some. I met so many great people. Worked with some first class guides. And experienced on of the most beautiful and rugged parts of the world in an incredibly raw fashion. I have no complaints.
Did you really summit?
Yes and no. From the technical definition, probably not, as I did not complete the traverse of the summit ridge. However, I consider it a summit by all of my personal, arbitrary metrics since 1) the remainder was a stroll 2) my legs felt well strong enough to complete it and 3) there are multiple state high points where a technical summit is immoral (Mauna Kea) or unnecessary (Tahoma/Rainier Caldera) 4) I stayed at 20k ft for more than an hour. So you decide, cuz I already have :)
I love the mountains, and I love you all for enabling/encouraging/pushing/supporting/following me in my pursuit of experiencing these beautiful places on Earth.
Thank you sincerely, — Pat
End of email.
With everything that happened near the summit, the remainder of the trip felt very different. The events had taken an emotional toll on all of us, and especially on the guides that dealt with it all directly.
After coming down with other guides on summit day, other groups in high camp fed us and generally took care of us that night. We packed up and descended to Camp 3 along the West Buttress. I led this section and it was probably the most beautiful (and scary) part of the climb. When you are descending, there’s not as much mountain “in your face” to block the view. This means that the world just drops off in front of you, especially if you’re the one leading the group. It’s breath taking, and I can’t wait to get the pictures back from the guides who snapped a bunch during this section.
We were met in Camp 3 by some other Alpine Ascents guides who had set up camp for us as we came down. This was incredibly thoughtful and it was so nice to have a hot meal and tent (and a hug) waiting for us.
We stayed one night and most of the following day at Camp 3 resting until the late afternoon so we could reach the lower glacier at night. It had been weeks since we were on the lower glacier and those weeks had been hot. So it’s safer to travel on the glacier in the later season when it’s colder out (read: nighttime). And since it doesn’t really get that dark on Denali in the summer (I didn’t even need a headlamp) you can easily hike through the night.
So we left Camp 3 and had a harrowing descent to Camp 2 as we had multiple minor crevasse falls and pretty significant whiteout conditions.
But after we reached Camp 2, the weather cleared up and we had a beautiful night to travel the rest of the way to the landing strip.
Walking through the night was surreal. The weather was wonderful and we felt like we had the glacier all to ourselves. The sky was this purplish lapis lazuli. The mountains were hulking on either side of you. And everything was quiet except for the crunching of your snow shoes on the ground.
Even though I was tired and the team dynamic was quite frayed, I tried to really enjoy those few hours because they were truly magical.
Eventually we reached the turnoff for the Southeast fork of the Kahiltna and began to climb the last feature: Heartbreak Hill. It’s also aptly named, because the last thing you want to do after descending all night from 14,000' to 7,000' is climb 600'. It sucked. And it sucked worse when it really sinks in that they had to move the airstrip back even further from where you landed because the glacier was breaking up.
But after singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to myself a couple times, the climbing was done. My Denali trip was over except for the flight back to Talkeetna.
It was about 6am. We retrieved our cached items. Those cached items included ~18 beers and two small bottles of whiskey. We sat there, getting tipsy (maybe an understatement) on a glacier at the basecamp of the high point of North America, laughing about what we could as we looked at Denali up close for the last few hours of our trip.
Soon after, we’d loaded our planes and were on our way back to civilization…
My views on the trip itself haven’t changed all that much since my email on June 8th. The events near the summit were terrible, and the fraying of our team afterward was an unfortunate set of events. But from a personal level, the trip was incredible.
I was able to achieve my summit goals, regardless of whether others would consider our trip a “summit”.
I got to know some great people between my fellow climbers and my guides.
I found myself up to the physical and mental challenge of this mountain, showing that my years of preparation had paid off.
I was able to experience some truly surreal beauty.
And most importantly…I reaffirmed my believe that doing really hard things leads to a life better lived.
Thank you for reading my story and thank you again to everyone who has supported me in this dream. See you in the mountains.