Denali Expedition 2018: a very late retrospective

About 5 years ago my friend Jason raised the idea of training toward the goal of climbing Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. At the time our experience amounted to a few weekend mountaineering trips to Mt Shasta. Going from that to a 3 week long expedition sounded like a huge hurdle to overcome. Nonetheless without much persuading, Jason got me and our friend Brent to join the team. Over the course of the following year we spent a lot of time researching and training to bolster our confidence. By late May 2018 we were riding a bush plane to the mountain. We got to high camp and made a summit attempt, but turned around due to weather conditions. We ultimately opted to end our ascent due to waning willpower and for what seemed a likely cold injury.

This past season my two teammates trained for a return to Denali and reached the summit a few days ago. I didn’t join them due to schedule conflicts, but have eagerly followed along with their progress. During the 2018 trip Jason’s wife Beth published a blog which tracked our day by day progress at https://climbing.ogasian.com/denali-2018. Their 2022 expedition progress is also documented there. This led me to reflect on our 2018 trip, which will be the meat of this post. 

Like any Type-2 fun adventure, as time goes on the memory of the sufferings fade away while the triumphs brighten. Thinking back, it all seemed like a great time. But was it? Luckily we took photos and I jotted notes each day of the journey to try and capture the reality. We also have messages and mapshare from my Garmin Inreach (satellite messenger) which was shared with some friends and family at the time. Select photos and nearly unabridged notes (bulleted) taken from 2018. The rest is my current commentary. 

First off, an overview of my Denali mapshare messages. These are the live updates that most folks following along saw during the expedition.

Rendezvous at Jason's place. Planning, preparing, aclimatizing.
May 17, 2018 10:44 AM
I'm starting from here.
May 18, 2018 6:22 PM
Bags checked and through security. Ready for takeoff!
May 18, 2018 6:22 PM
Welcome to Alaska
May 19, 2018 1:28 AM
Testing. PBJ to Sheldon
May 19, 2018 1:25 PM
Shuttled to Talkeetna! Checking in with Sheldon Air Service.
May 19, 2018 1:25 PM
Orientation complete. 7 percent success rate for the summit so far this season
May 19, 2018 4:45 PM
Weather clear. Time to fly!
May 20, 2018 10:53 AM
Landed. Base camp cache is here.
May 20, 2018 1:04 PM
On to camp 1.
May 20, 2018 5:27 PM
Candy break
May 20, 2018 5:28 PM
We have arrived! Camp 1. Just below ski hill.
May 20, 2018 8:02 PM
First ramen spill in the tent. . . 28 degrees out.
May 21, 2018 12:06 AM
16 degree morning. Camp booties are winning
May 21, 2018 10:00 AM
Heading out to cache higher. Double carry part 1
May 21, 2018 12:19 PM
Lunch break. Gorp, snickers, jerky
May 21, 2018 3:32 PM
200lbs cached. Terrain 5. Difficulty 1
May 21, 2018 6:50 PM
Back at camp and ready to collapse.
May 21, 2018 8:40 PM
12 degree morning. Snow is warm.
May 22, 2018 9:47 AM
First fullCMC burial. ✨
May 22, 2018 11:26 AM
Camp 2.
May 22, 2018 5:06 PM
Camp MVP complete : tent up, bathroom built, cook tent floor done, snow quarry mined
May 22, 2018 10:25 PM
0 degree morning. A warm pee bottle is starting to look tempting. . .
May 23, 2018 9:59 AM
Cache retrieval
May 23, 2018 1:08 PM
Back at camp. Time to fortify the walls
May 23, 2018 3:37 PM
Top of motorcycle hill!
May 24, 2018 2:06 PM
Squirrel hill topout
May 24, 2018 3:10 PM
Coming up on windy corner
May 24, 2018 4:28 PM
Cached after windy corner
May 24, 2018 5:35 PM
Back at camp.
May 24, 2018 8:20 PM
Leaving camp 2
May 25, 2018 12:27 PM
Camp 3! at 14k. killer views
May 25, 2018 6:23 PM
Moved into an abandoned site with high thick snow walls. -14 degrees tonight.
May 26, 2018 12:41 AM
Cache retrieval
May 26, 2018 4:04 PM
Back at camp
May 26, 2018 5:18 PM
Top of the fixed lines!
May 27, 2018 4:19 PM
Explored the ridge, backtracked to cache below washburns thumb
May 27, 2018 6:33 PM
Rest day pancakes, bacon, and maple syrup courtesy of chef Jason. Living the high life.
May 28, 2018 1:23 PM
14k camp cache
May 29, 2018 12:11 PM
High camp. 17.2k. COLD
May 29, 2018 9:24 PM
Rest day. Camp has a communal walled pee hole. And snow sculptures.
May 30, 2018 11:54 AM
Autoban top
May 31, 2018 3:54 PM
Recharged, refueled, and packing up camp for the descent.
Jun 1, 2018 11:53 AM
Passing by the real Washburns thumb
Jun 1, 2018 3:55 PM
Cache retrieval
Jun 1, 2018 5:08 PM
Back at 14k camp. No more highs of -25
Jun 1, 2018 8:18 PM
Digging up the CMC cache from 11k camp
Jun 2, 2018 5:21 PM
And snowshoes!
Jun 2, 2018 5:22 PM
Back to camp 1 for the night and the last cache pickup. Our old site has seen some use.
Jun 2, 2018 8:52 PM
Arrived at base camp after a slog up heartbreak hill. Ready to break into our final cache of margaritas and fireball before flying out. 😊
Jun 3, 2018 3:41 PM

Day 0

We didn’t know it then, but we were ahead of the curve; Wearing masks on a plane back in 2018, before it was cool mandatory.

  • Notes Day 0 – Friday 5/18
    • After a week acclimatizing at Jason’s place in Tahoe we are finally ready to catch our flights to Anchorage.
    • We had a send off party on Thursday with Brian and Ondine and a silly bit of crevasse rescue practice on Jason’s deck. Lastly we packed our bags to meet the 50lb per bag airline limits. Took many weighing and re-weighings.
    • A last minute stop at REI on the way to the airport to get a thermolite bag liner (+20 degrees of warmth!), Followed by a Buick bite to eat at Panera.
    • Long term parking was full, do we had to circle around for daily parking. Next time drop off the bags by the terminal door! Moving bags around the parking and shuttle was cumbersome. Barely fit in the shuttle.
    • Tsa precheck got me through a bit faster than j and Brent even though I got pulled over for a random check after walking through the metal detector which just meant going through the body scanner. 
    • Wore face masks to avoid getting sick on the plane. Turned out to be useful as the lady who originally was sitting next to me (before I swapped to sandwich between j and Brent) had a loud productive cough.
    • Landed in Anchorage and shuttled to Alex hotel. No cell reception in Alaska so far. Google fi fail…

Be prepared, the notes suffer from a lot of typos. These were all taken in an offline mode google doc on my android phone on the mountain.

Day 00

The ranger debriefed us on what leaving no trace on the mountain really means. No shit.
We got 2 buckets (CMCs) each.
Meanwhile some locals in Talkeetna burn their shit. Welcome to small town Alaska.
  • Notes Day 00 – Saturday 5/19
    • Sent some last messages to Ally while we had WiFi internet
    • Showered, put on the Merino raglan Ally made, grabbed breakfast. Powdered scrabbled eggs, raisin bran, blueberry bagel, english muffin with PBJ, cranberry orange juice, hot black tea with hot chocolate mix.
    • Briefly bumped into another climber on the elevator. He initiated with “going up or out?” Both we thought. He came down due to weather.
    • Caught the shuttle to talkeetna! Older driver with a mumble. Has a foster son from someone who climbed Denali.
    • First stop wasilla. Fred meyers to pick up butter and booze. 
    • Anchorage – special drivers license if you are alcoholic that prevents purchase. All adults get ID checked.
    • 10 people waiting in the office of Sheldon air. No flights going tonighy. Might have a chance to fly tomorrow morning.
    • Last ones standing in the office to claim office spots. I slept behind the counter and there were some radio messages in the night.

Day 1

We were team PB&J short for Patrick, Brent, and Jason. The numbers weren’t inspiring.
Our stuff, ready to go. Sharps and fuel separate. Total gear weight 411lbs. Total body weight 524lbs.
(Bodies not shown here.)
Almost looks like I was piloting. Forgot I took the first plane up.

  • Notes Day 1 – Sunday 5/20
    • Woke up to office guy standing over me doing something on the computer
    • Flights are a go. We are second in line. Quick run to breakfast at latitude.
    • Ran back and got put on flight with two from the Dad’s team. J and Brent flew separately 
    • Cached the tequila and fireball at bade camp, drank a hot chocolate with the Sheldon air manager, Roped up and hiked to camp 1.
    • Setup tent, walls, pee hole, gathered snow for water, stationed a cmc…
    • Dinner ramen and pasta. Hotchata drink.
    • Sleeping at 12:45am.

Later on the mountain we heard from one of the other teams that their pee bottle broke in their sleeping bag.

Day 2

  • Notes Day 2 – Monday 5/21
    • Cached ~200lbs at 9933ft. 2k elevation gain over camp 
    • Pack was too heavy – Jason thinks it was 20lbs more than his. Shoulders, hips, and back sore now. Shift more to sled…
    • Saw an avalanche – sounded like a jet plane taking off.
    • Olive oil is congelled! Still squeezes out well
    • Feet look like they’ve been to war (day 2)
    • Left black garbage bag of snow at camp during the day. Came back to a bag of water (and snow)! Need to do this more.
    • Potatoes “soup” dinner plus olive oil, butter, bacon bits, miso. Ramen.
    • Melting snow…

We had one crazy dinner that was something close to 2000 calories of mashed potatoes per person. It was an unreasonable challenge.

Day 3

  • Notes Day 3 – Tuesday 5/22
    • Moved to camp 2
    • See an avalache, sounds like a jet engine at first
    • Olive oil is in a semisolid state. Cleaner than liquid oo
    • Tube hydration system for lower mountian is okay and cache it at camp 2.
    • Straws for bottles are great #winning
    • dark buff folded over 3x to block the 24hr sunlight
    • don’t take off sun protection or you’ll go snowblind
    • don’t take off liner globes or you’ll go frostbite

Don’t remember where I got the tube hydration note, but none of us had one. Probably saw some other guy. I still use a straw in my bottle.

Day 4

  • Notes Day 4 – Wedsday 5/23
    • Retrieved cache
    • Lots of snowfall – have to dig out the tent every 2 hrs to not get buried and sufficate. “Tent trying to kill us”
    • Sleeping pad is leaking air 😐

One of the bigger moments of doubt. My sleeping pad was flat each morning.

Day 5

  • Notes Day 5 – Thursday 5/24
    • Cached at windy corner
    • Korean guy sitting on side of trail with frozen water bottle (swears when sees frozen), does not understand offer for water or ask if needs help. Wearing a mountain rescue jacket.

Watching other climbing groups was frightening.

Day 6

  • Notes Day 6 – Friday 5/25
    • Cached snowshoes and extra stuff at camp 2
    • Moved to camp 3
    • Sunny camp with lots of tents and folks around in baselayers
    • Break out the solar chargers
    • Cold cold night -14 degrees F
    • Weather report says low -30 at high camp, high of -25 at summit
    • Debate summiting from 14 camp
    • Oo frozen solid, no hope for it
    • Sleep with bag liner and full mummy mode

Don’t bring olive oil (Oo).

Day 7

  • Notes Day 7 – Saturday 5/26
    • Need extra foam in booties (foam got crushed by day 7!)
      Retrieved cache
    • Led the rope team – faster pace. Tripped on the sled line on the downhill… lapped a guided team on the return from getting the cache (passed them on the way down)
    • Day ahead of Smiley’s ambitious itinerary

I remember having such a hard time catching my breath to the point of almost losing some body control…

Mark Smiley is a well known guide. We trained with some of his online videos and somewhat tracked his itinerary on the mountain.

Day 8

  • Notes Day 8 – Sunday 5/27
    • Fast! Past 4 parties on the way up to the fixed lines and topped out in only 3.5 hrs. Smiley’s guide said if you can do it in 5 then you could summit from 14k…
    • Up and down the fixed lines
      • Roped up with Brent and Jason in usual fashion.
      • Used microtrac and carabineer backup
      • Passing the pickets was annoying as it took time and the rope was fat 11mm? Which barely fit in the microtrac
      • Other guy going up the line was on my ass which made it stressful.
      • One other guy went up just holding the Lin with his hand. He passed around us.
      • Down the fixed lines I used a locker and nonlocker on a doubke length sling and doubled up triple length sling girth hitched to belay loop and hard points respectively. So passing the pickets there was always a biner on the rope
    • Running belay up the ridge and past washburns thumb. Picket anchor points with slings we’re already placed. We just clipped in a biner and rope. We went higher looking for a cache spot but ended up backtracking to cache below the thumb.
    • Got a headache on the descent. Let the rope get too slack and almost trip Brent a few times…

Missing from photos and notes thus far are the snack breaks. Dosage: handful of peanut M&Ms every half hour. Never got old.

Day 9

  • Notes Day 9 – Monday 5/28
    • Rest day. Pancakes bacon yum
    • Sunglass/phone screen as a mirror

Apparently not much of note this day.

Day 10

  • Notes Day 10 – Tuesday 5/29
    • Move to high camp!
    • Packed up – heavier today than on cache day… maybe 55lbs?
    • Cached the sleds. I’ll miss them.
    • Up the fixed lines. Passed a few parties. Took 45 mins longer than last time
    • Running belays over the ridge and up the real washburns thumb
    • Arrived at high camp to find a “Denali 18” snow/ice sculpture and a valley of shambly tents below.
    • Shared a wall with another friendly team. They lent us their ice saw too. We quarried out blocks to build a wall for wind protection. I went into full puffy mode for this. Jason didnt but was still the most active. Brent and I are slow and tired. He went full puffy too.
    • After the wall we setup tent, dumped our stuff in and went to sleep.
    • High camp is like a community driven together through adversity. Communal walled pee hole / trough. Bring your own CMC (byocmc) to use in the walled snow garden. 
    • Everyone ran into tents by 10 Talk about the coming winds
    • Nose icicles
    • Eyebrow icicles
    • Eyelash icicles
    • -20 degrees F night
    • Sleeping pad deflated again and I rolled into Jason…

Despite the dead sleeping pad, the cold and cushion wasn’t bad at night.

Day 11

  • Notes Day 11 – Wednesday 5/30
    • Brent has a headache (caffeine withdrawal?)
    • Brent maybe has a cold?
    • Jason had mild headache
    • We’re both still taking diamox.
    • Dug dip station
    • Organized summit packs for Thurs.
    • Snow carving PBJ
    • guy with permanent ass pad attached to his pants with cord
    • My snoring is costing team sleep ☹️ – started at 14k camp.

In retrospect, given the above, we pushed too aggressively. Should have taken another rest day…

Day 12

  • Notes Day 12 – Thursday 5/31
    • Denali summit attempt. Topped at 18,500 above the autoban a bit. Nearly 2k short of the summit 😦
    • Nps guy said that two slings and biners were taken from fixed gear (pickets) and a note was left saying it was an emergency. He was looking for leads as to who did it.
    • Wore 3 baselayer tops and 2 baselayer bottoms plus underpants
    • Wore all jacket layers expect parka and puffy pants and hardshell pants.
    • Made it up the autoban and hid by some rocks for wind protection
    • Super cold and wind (less than 15mph though “low wind”) hands and feet feeling numb and cold. 
    • We each individually went into survival mode and threw on parka, mittens, I threw on puffy pants and ate two GUs. We didn’t eat or drink much in the morning or on the way up. Needed to switch between mittens and doing stuff to avoid hands freezing.
    • Goggles froze over so switched to glacier glasses
    • Nose constantly running and mucus freezing
    • Autoban itself was a steep single foot width hike with running belays and fixed protection (pickets, slings, biners)
    • Decision whether to continue on the ridge (Denali pass) or wait (45+ mins) for parties on the auoban to all come up so that we could descent.
    • Brent was complaining of finger and toe numbness/cold/can’t feel.
    • We made a short walk up the ridge to see and felt more wind. I couldn’t hear J or B so I signaled thumb over shoulder to get out and retreat.
    • We backed back down to the rocks and waited.
    • Jason fell and yelled falling on the way down. His ice axe mostly self arrested himself, Brent and I also self arrested.
    • Made butter bagels using the camp stove (xkg whisper light)
    • They discuss going again tomorrow. Weather from radio and inreach (Beth) looks the same so probably no go.
    • Gear and bags in vestibule, boot liner in sleeping bag, pee hole before bed, 
    • Headache again after descent. Took ibuprofen and diamox
    • Guy going for speed record jogged past us on the autoban…
    • Neighbor forgot mittens so crafted one from a sock and duct tape… neighbors group summited they got the no wind window. His aneometer read 16 mph max for the whole way. Also said wind died at the summit when they got there.
    • Saw helicopter delivering 300m rope
    • Saw nps guys dragging a litter up the hill. Maybe practice?
    • Vapor barrier liner seemed to work

Fall was a couple feet maybe, not much. We were exhausted and turning around was the right call.

Day 13

  • Notes Day 13 – Friday 6/1
    • Packed up camp and headed to camp 14k.
    • Brent cut off the top of his insoles because they were taking up too much room and compressing his foot.
    • Used arm wrap descending fixed lines at washburns thumb. Carabineer clipped to rope as safety. Felt secure. Much faster than using an ascender
    • Passed “Chris” an nps ranger who we met at 11k camp. He was headed up.
    • Picked up cache. I showed my sleeping bag outside my pack and grabbed most of the cache food. 70+ lb pack. Needed to lift with knee and arm.
    • Descended fixed lines with the heavy pack. Used carabineers and hand held the rope. Faster than last time
    • Lost a glove (BD solo finger) after the fixed lines. It rolled off the hill and landed on the lip of a giant cravasse alongside a few other gloves..
    • Fell into a cravasse on the way down from the fixed lines. Left leg punched threw what felt like soft snow at first then open air. I could get out unassisted. Yelled “ help falling” though delayed because I wasnt sure what was happening at first.
    • Setup camp without walls and ate pancakes and hash browns that Jason cooked. J also melted snow to water again. Gathering snow in trash bag seems to work well.
    • Dug up the 14k cache.

I still remember my glove starting to roll and keep rolling and rolling down.

Day 14

  • Day 14 – Saturday 6/2
    • Slept in until the tent rained instead of snowed. Horfost melting from the sun dripped on my face in the morning
    • Still feeling gassy. 
    • Gave away food to a guy and his son. Opened with “do you have any spare toilet paper”? Then started asking for foods too.  Dad wore hardshell with arms out the pit zips.
    • Gave away tortillas, liter of oo, Nutella, Thai tea, … in exchange for a hunk of skinned Alaskan salmon.
    • Sksds were unruly on the way down. Doubled up sleds behind j on motorcycle hill and after.
    • Dug up 11k cache. Kept going in crampons.
    • Heard avalache
    • Reviewed photos
    • B still can’t feel his toes.
    • Got from 14k camp to 7800 camp

Arms out the pit zips was one of my top style takeaways.

Day 15

  • Notes Day 15 – Sunday 6/3
    • Flew back to talkeetna
    • Sorted gear, dried gear, drank fireball
    • Met a guy in the bunkhouse who turned out to be from the  team that was our neighbor  in high camp. We only ever saw two of them at a time in camp. They had some arguments and didng get along. They were a Veterans tesm, each testing a product with on-body sensors. Names their tent “Jon” after the guy who bailed on the trip. Some of their team got frostbite on nose and lips during the summit bid. “Doc” was the guy who forgot mittens and was planning to use duct taped socks instead. Their team caught the weather window and had no wind at the summit. They saw another team of 3 as they descended the summit (maybe team Dad’s) who were struggling and left their pack in the football field. The guy was a marine captain and from Seattle. Denali is ”fucking goofy man”. He is planning a Himalayan mountain climb next.
    • First thing we ate was pizza, beer, ice cream

One of our top ethics for the climb was to do it safely without injury. After learning that the summiteers that day got frostbite, and given our brush with frostnip, our choice to turn around was the right move.

Day after

We’d like to return these…
  • Notes Monday 6/4
    • guys who summited and calf tendon popped on the way down got flown off mountain.
    • met a guy on shuttle to Anchorage who was working at Cirque du Soleil, went with a guide group (RMI) and got frostbite going from 14 to 17k. Guides didn’t respond well to complaints about cold hands (just shake them out) and tried to rush ahead of other rope team.  He asked guides to help him put his gloves on. Fingers blackened. Guide group cost  $9k. He’s wearing heavily gauze bandaged fingers now. Guide let him use sat phone and let him use his sleeping bag at 14 since they had bags cached at 17. The guys bag zipper had broken.  He “may” have peed in the bag (revenge). Other guide team (ams) helped him down. They helped him tie shoes and let him share a tent. He tipped them 150.
    • soloist up foraker fell in cravasse 30ft accidentally when setting up tent (backed into it). He used tent stakes to dig foot wells to climb out…

Glad we went unguided.

Now

So, was it a great time? Like memories, the photos and notes don’t transfer too much of the struggle. I’m pretty certain there was a lot of struggle, but the feeling is far removed now. With that all in the past, I’d say the price was well worth it. Ultimately this review did little to temper the feeling of missing out on Denali take 2.

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