Denali (Mt. McKinley) Expedition Report

Denali (Mt McKinley) is the highest mountain in North America and stands at 20,320' (6190M). Denali or 'The High One' is situated 150 miles (250km) to the north of Anchorage in the Alaska Range, close to the Arctic Circle. It rises dramatically above the tundra of the National Park, and dwarfs the surrounding peaks into insignificance.

Denali has a well-justified reputation for bad weather, yet the mountain draws climbers from all over the world. Several hundred people attempt the climb each year, attracted by its status as one of the Seven Summits, of which Denali is second only to Everest in overall difficulty.

In June 2007 Ben took on the challenge of not only climbing Denali, which alone has been likened to the larger Himalayan giants, but also traversing the mountain, a feat that is thought to have not been successfully completed for four years and only twice in the preceding 9 years. Aside from the weather, the reason for this is in part a factor of Denali's position on the globe; the difference in the barometric pressure at northern latitudes affects acclimatization on Denali and other high arctic mountains.

Denali's latitude is 63° while the latitude of Everest is 27°. On a typical summit, the Denali climber will be at the equivalent of 22,000' (6900M), which equates to nearly 4/5th's of the way up Everest. The phenomenon of lower barometric pressure at higher elevations is caused by the layers of troposphere and stratosphere being thinner at the poles.

Any expedition on Denali requires commitment, physical endurance, altitude acclimatization, tolerance of Arctic cold and storms, and is an incredible challenge. The demands of the Traverse accentuate those requirements, and make a summit via the standard West Buttress route seem relatively straight forward. On the traverse there is no 'pyramiding' of food, fuel and supplies, as everything is needed for the decent on the remote and dangerous north side of the mountain. Therefore, everything is carried up and over the mountain and the expedition is truly self sufficient and isolated.

The traverse ascends the mountain via standard West Buttress route and descends via the Muldrow Glacier route on the other side. Once off the mountain the expedition then involves trekking and bushwhacking 25miles out to Wonder Lake (Grizzly Bear country), with the final obstacle a mile wide section of the McKinley river being negotiated by wading through the ice cold glacial waters – all with packs weighing anything up to a backbreaking 100lbs!

Ben, and only 7 other remaining team members, successfully summited and traversed Denali in 2007, enduring some of the worst conditions seen on the North Side of the mountain, and escaping one very real deadly situation on the Muldrow Glacier.

Their summit, traverse and safe return home made them the only team in 2007, the first in 4 years and only the third in 10 years to achieve this goal.

"It was a massive achievement for us all, and one I'm increasingly proud of".

4th June 2007

The expedition really started today as we made our way to the Kahiltna airstrip where we loaded the masses of gear, probably around 150lbs per man including group gear, into a very small, but tardis-like plane. We all sat tight throughout the flight, which 1000's of tourists understandably pay for each year. It took us past the tundra, and then skillfully close, only wingspans away, to the mountainsides of the imposing and seemingly never ending Alaska Range, then on to our destination, a small field of ice on the vast Kahiltna Glacier deemed safe for us to land, at c7200ft.

When we landed visibility was poor and we were totally unaware of our surroundings. Then, as we unloaded all our gear and set up camp we were treated to an unusual shower of a slushy type of rain, which on Denali only happens once in a blue moon. Although it's an indication that the temperature isn't very low, all the gear became wet and we had to retreat to the cook tent to make the necessary modification to rucksacks, sleds, and harnesses that are required for climbing and moving safely on such big and notorious glaciers, which we would soon experience over the coming weeks.

5th June 2007

We awoke today to find that the relatively warm temperature of yesterday had disappeared and we were really feeling the cold dry air, which meant we were going to move. But, as we were to find out, yesterday's weather had had a lasting effect on the Kahiltna Glacier. Today we were going to attempt to negotiate the glacier and move up to ‘8,000ft camp’, at the North East Fork Junction.

For the first full day on the ice the normal aim would be to carry a cache of food, fuel and equipment to the 8,000ft camp, at the North East Fork Junction, then return to base camp. However, not wanting to get stuck at base camp and wanting to take advantage of the colder weather (the colder the better for glacial travel) we packed up everything and 'single carried' towards our second camp below Ski Hill. The route initially drops down Heart Break Hill, aptly named I imagine for those tired climbers returning from a standard West Buttress attempt who face one final up hill push. As we were attempting the traverse and going up and over the mountain we set off looking forward to our own challenges never to experience that particular 'heart break', or so we thought! After about 4 miles of moving across the glacier in white-out conditions the air cleared and despite such heavy loads most of us were doing well. One climber however was already struggling and needed to turn back, his trip was already over! Of course, to be safe, this means that an entire rope team needed to accompany him. Volunteers for the return were asked for and as I was feeling good I thought it would be a good idea to get some extra 'training' so I put myself forward and was one of three fit climbers who turned back to base camp. I found returning to base camp wasn't much of a 'heart breaker' because the views from base camp that we had been denied on the first day were incredible and for me the first realisation of what an awesome place we had been dropped into.

After we said our farewells to the retiring climber, we left base camp for the second time to follow the other full rope teams up to 8000ft. It wasn't long before we saw some large holes in some of the ice bridges en-route, but we made good progress and arrived at camp understandably tired after an extra 8 miles on a single carry day, but unscathed. However as we arrived we instantly found out that that was not the fate of the other rope teams who had pushed on, they had experienced two big crevasse falls, one of which took an hour and a half to get the climber out of. Thankfully though no one was seriously hurt, and by 'nightfall' (which actually never happens at this time of year on Denali) the team was reunited. It was quite an eventful first move day, but only a small taste of the events to come.

6th June 2007

Today we carried a load towards camp at 11,000ft. The climbing involved a long haul up "ski hill" to the head of the Kahiltna Glacier. We actually cached at Kahiltna Pass and retreated back to camp at 8000ft. This 'climb high, sleep low' approach is common practice and in addition to making moving from camp to camp less back breaking as the loads are halved, it helps with acclimatization. The weather at 8000ft camp although cold hasn't really been too bad but on the carry up we definitely noticed that we were moving into a different layer of weather on the mountain, as visibility dropped and winds picked up.

Today saw the only death of the expedition!...a small bird which looked like a yellow Robin had been blown up onto the mountain and was flying around us aimlessly as we moved through the white out. It perched a couple of times on my rucksack as we moved (the extra weight was terrible, have you heard of the straw that broke the camels back?!) then it landed on the floor behind me, only to be trampled by the following climber and his sled behind him. Tragic!

7th June 2007

After caching the majority of our food yesterday our plan for today was to move camp. Although the loads were lighter in our packs and on our sleds than yesterday, I couldn't decide at this stage which was a harder day, a carry day or a move day. The conclusion I came to was to that they are both equally hard, but for different reasons. On the carry days the loads are really heavy and you are moving up to a new altitude for the first time in that expedition, whereas on the move days there are still really heavy loads and the day is longer as you have to take down camp, you generally move further than the cache the previous day and then you have put up camp again on arrival. After doing this a number of times throughout the expedition, in hindsight I think move days are harder (the hardest yet to come). The move today was still a tough one though. As we moved up to 11,000ft and the foot of 'Motorcycle hill', we walked straight into a storm which meant that setting up camp after a long day was difficult but the team pulled together and we soon rested, storm bound, but warm in our tents. Being in your sleeping bag at the end of the day is one of the nicest places in the world, despite waking every morning with frost all over you, the inside of the tent and basically everything - and if you can use a bottle you don't need to get out of it to do a pee (I have to say I considered using one when I got home but back in ‘the real world’ it's just not right no matter how convenient!).

8th June 2007

The storm we were greeted with on arrival to 11,000ft camp had subsided by this morning and we were awaking to a cold but calm camp. It made today's retrieval of the cache from below 11,000ft a really quick process, and we all benefited from what was an active-rest day.

9th June 2007

Today’s objective was to set ourselves up for a light move day by carrying a heavy load up to just past Windy Corner (13,000ft). Above 11,000ft the climbing becomes significantly more interesting and we were able to get stuck into a few proper hills as we started the climb on the actual West Buttress.

The initial snow and ice slope above 11,000ft camp curls its way around rock buttresses and is known as Motorcycle Hill. Above motorcycle is the smaller but steeper, and for me a more satisfying section called Squirrel Hill. Today it was not only stamina that was required but also the first day where good technique becomes important both for conserving energy and for safety. Above Squirrel Hill the trail lead up over a small section of blue ice and onto a large basin beneath Windy Corner (13,000ft). Before we reached the notoriously named Windy Corner the plateau itself provided us with a taste of things to come.

The cooling effect of the wind is well documented and experiencing it at such low temperatures can be in every sense a ‘chilling’ experience. I was feeling the cold on my face (and my big nose!) and wanting to be as sensible as possible at this early stage, and not jeopardize my own expedition, so I opted to use my Gortex ’gorilla’ face mask which Velcro’s over my mouth and nose and covers most of my face protecting it from frost bite. It’s a really protective layer and a piece of kit that higher up the mountain would be absolutely essential to coming back with my good looks! ;-) . You can imagine my alarm when one extremely strong gust ripped it clean off my face and away into the distance! I had obviously not made good contact between the two pieces of Velcro, a result of also having a pair of my thickest gloves on at the time and not being able to feel properly what I was doing. I turned round, back to the wind, to see my face mask disappearing with some speed, along with my sense of competence. Then, a ‘1 in a million’ thing happened, the Velcro on my airborne face mask, which seemingly didn’t want to stick where it was supposed to, caught the rope between two of the climbers on one of the other rope teams who were pulling along side us. It was like Denali having a laugh at my expense, like when one of the ‘big kids’ at school taunts one of the smaller ones by holding something out of their reach and making them jump for it. I thankfully managed to get over to it in time and catch it before it disappeared. I still can’t really believe how lucky that was, and judging by what happened later in the expedition, just how significant it was too.

We cached around Windy Corner and were quick to move into a safe area as some climbers died there a few seasons ago and there were falling rocks when we were there to remind us that it’s a dangerous place to linger.

10th June 2007

Today was a clear day; in fact it was pretty hot, particularly when we got moving. The extremes in temperature on Denali are just that, two extremes, obviously incredibly cold most of the time but on occasion also really hot, particularly when you are on the move upwards and you’re carrying these kinds of loads. You almost spend more time trying to react to the changing weather and temperatures than you do actually being appropriately dressed as it is so changeable. It’s best to be slightly cold just before you set off because that way once you have started climbing you warm up to a more comfortable and manageable temperature.

Today we packed camp at 11,000ft and moved increasingly slowly up to camp at the ‘luxury’ that is ‘14,000ft camp’ at the base of the Headwall. I say luxury because it’s a big established camp, with a feeling of community due to the number of climbers here all waiting for the same weather window. It even boasts two long drop toilets and one has a seat! (Definitely the best view from any loo I’ve been to!).

14,000ft camp is the main springboard for summit attempts and although the community makes it feel safe, it is all too easy to forget where you are. The site itself is on safe ground, but the ground is at 14,000ft, which on Denali feels higher due to a lower barometric pressure caused by a thinner troposphere at these latitudes.

11th June 2007

The start of the second week on the mountain saw us go back down to Windy Corner cache today to retrieve our supplies. Going down took about 15 minutes, coming back up took just over an hour. There are some amazing views from 14,000ft; I couldn’t stop taking pictures of Mt. Foraker, which, if you like that kind of thing is a really beautiful mountain.

12th June 2007

The whole expedition so far had pretty much gone to plan, we had pushed hard to where we were, and were technically one day ahead of schedule. Wanting to capitalize on our progress we had talked about pushing ahead again today, but unfortunately some of the team were starting to feel the effects of altitude and needed the rest. I think everyone started to feel the effects of altitude, to some extent, I always felt strong through the day, but at 14,000ft camp most of us started to wake up with a 'thick head' (my family contest that mine is a permanent characteristic) but after re-hydrating and walking around I always felt OK. Unfortunately a few of the team weren't acclimatizing so we rested today with the intention of pushing up tomorrow.

Tonight, when nature called louder than my sleeping bag and bottle could facilitate I ventured outside, where the temperature was clocked at -25°F (-33°C). That's the coldest temperature so far but not close to how cold it got higher up and on the North Side of the mountain. (Let's just say that when you're outside 'for that' you do it as quickly as possible and you don't crouch down to far!)

13th June 2007

Today we packed a heavy load and carried up to the Headwall, we cached just below Washburn's Thumb.

This is where the Traverse starts to stand out as a much tougher expedition than a standard West Buttress attempt. The loads carried from now on are considerably heavier than any other parties' on the Buttress as everything needed to make it all the way up and over and out to Wonder Lake had to be taken with us.

Despite the rest yesterday one climber had retired from the expedition before we started climbing today, and as a result of the exertion and new altitude today another called it a day after an agonizingly long push up to the ridge. The majority of climbers took in the views and rested at the cache, acclimatizing at about 16,400ft, but I was involved for the second time on the trip in helping take a retiring climber back down, this time to the relatively thicker air of 14,000ft. (No rest for the wicked!)

It's sad when you see climbers retire because you know how much they have invested in the expedition, both financial and emotional, you share their aspiration and often it's the culmination of years of planning and dreaming. You become close to everyone in a short space of time because you are all part of one team, working towards one goal that can then be shared equally, so today, although we had made a good advance up onto the ridge, it was overshadowed by knowing we would have to say goodbye to 3 new friends (two climbers one guide).

14th June 2007

With all goodbyes said this morning and camp packed up the remaining 8 of us set off up the headwall onto the ridge and towards 17,200ft camp. For me today felt the real first day of what I had perceived as the expedition as we were beginning to get close to the summit. I had been getting antsy and itchy for the summit ever since we arrived at 14,000ft camp a few days ago, and getting to 17,200ft camp, where most summit attempts are made from, was a psychological sigh of relief, particularly after hearing that some teams before us were stuck at 14,000ft camp for over a week due to bad weather. In fact we were climbing in the knowledge that hardly anyone, if anyone, had summited throughout May so getting to 17,200ft was a big deal.

Above the fixed ropes of the Headwall and past the cache we had made yesterday we made it to Washburn's Thumb, from there we moved along the ridge and onto the camp at 17.200ft. The ridge provides some really cool climbing as it's really exposed and as thin as it gets in places – thankfully we had good weather, and when you manage to put the constant throbbing pain in your shoulders out of your mind, you really feel privileged to be where you are.

The air at 17,200ft camp on Denali is noticeably thinner, but we were all feeling pretty strong as we 'plotted' our ambitious tactics for tomorrow.

15th June 2007

Today was a cold but clear morning but the plan we had made yesterday was looking slightly less do-able as we all awoke feeling groggy and tired. Everything starts to happen a little in slow motion at this height on Denali so it took us all a while to get organized. The plan normally would be to have an active rest day and return down the ridge to retrieve the cache at Washburn’s Thumb. What we had planned yesterday was to do this and then continue up with the carry past 17,200ft camp and up and over Denali Pass (18,200ft), effectively doing two days in one. It was a pretty aggressive (assertive) strategy, particularly with only having just made it to 17,200ft yesterday, but I liked it, and we went for it. There was an air of confidence without arrogance in our team which allowed us to push hard without biting off more than we could chew.

I was lucky enough to lead back down the ridge, which was really cool. When you are on the ridge you are totally exposed and having no-one in front of you accentuates that feeling – but it’s a great feeling. We retrieved the cache and after a rest back up at camp we made the carry up the autobahn, over Denali Pass and onto the north side where we cached at about 18,000ft. We had effectively secured the traverse!

It was already getting late in the evening when we met a bottle neck at Denali Pass with successful summiteers on their return down to 17,200ft. Although we’d not been to the summit we had had a long and equally tough day with such heavy loads and we felt we looked relatively strong, so summiting started to feel like a certainty.

The number of returning climbers meant it was slow progress and after midnight by the time we arrived back at camp. Not everyone in the team made the carry over Denali Pass so when we did get back we were greeted with hot drinks and supper already made for us. It was a good day and gave us an extra day’s chance of a weather window for whatever we might need it for.

16th June 2007

It was extremely cold yesterday and when we were exposed to the harsh winds over Denali Pass it definitely felt colder than when the temperature was clocked a -32°C, and today would prove to be even colder.

Today, after just a few hours sleep we moved up from 17,200ft camp, up along the fixed protection on the autobahn and once again over Denali Pass to the north side. It was definitely ‘Traverse or bust’, and from now on the eight of us were totally isolated and finding our own path.

Again as we crossed to the north side we were hit by the wind and temperatures dropped considerably. We were all understandably tired today and now on the upper Harper Glacier a storm was building around us. We were walking on un-trodden, un-probed ground and as conditions rapidly worsened to a full artic storm, with gusts up to 50mph and temperatures at their lowest yet, we were looking for a place to make camp.

After a long day when all you want to do is slip into your sleeping bag the last thing you want to do is have to work extra hard for it! When we eventually found a small area which we thought might be safe just above the icefall at about 17,600ft, visibility was down to about 15 yards. We probed the area for hidden crevasses and then began to cut out a ledge for us to pitch our three tents on. The whole process took about an hour and a half, and I had made the mistake of putting up with thin gloves and cold hands as I was determined to get camp set up as quickly as possible. Two of my fingers suffered frost nip and were left totally numb and white down to the first knuckle. I was lucky it wasn’t worse.

17th June 2007

The storm we had walked into yesterday evening had blown all night and into this morning, and it was showing no sign of stopping anytime soon. We had awoken in a very cold tent, covered in frost with everything that wasn’t in our sleeping bags with us, frozen solid. The wind outside was blowing in 50mph gust’s, and despite now being in position for a summit bid, we weren’t going anywhere today, so we rested in the pocket of safety provided by the tent, as the storm continued throughout the day around us.

18th June 2007

Today was the start of week three on the mountain. The storm had died down slightly this morning, so we decided to, at the very least, go and retrieve our cache from up at Denali Pass. After a day’s rest at 17,600ft we were actually feeling a little lethargic and the short, relatively un-strenuous climb back up to Denali Pass at 18,200ft seemed unsuitably intense. Having got to the cache, through the whiteout conditions we had the option of leaving the cache and pushing on for the summit, then picking the cache up on our return. Nobody really wanted to say it but it didn’t really feel like a summit day. We were uncharacteristically tired and the storm that had relented for a few hours was clearly closing in again, so we agreed to go back to camp with our supplies and hope for a summit day tomorrow. After all we had worked hard to get where we were and had an extra day to use.

After about 10 minutes on our descent back down the upper Harper Glacier the conditions had really worsened and we were again in sub-zero (around -35°C) temperatures in 50mph gusts feeling our way to camp through a real high altitude Arctic storm. Needless to say we were suitable dressed, covered from head to toe, and I was wearing the facemask I had very nearly lost in the wind lower down the mountain. Even with the facemask my nose was frozen solid by the wind and I had to try and rub it warm whilst we were on the move. When we finally made it back to camp after an hour or so, I was told that I had again got frost nipped, this time on my cheek from where the wind was blowing on a patch of skin that had become exposed. I have to say I didn’t really mind, and think we were all just glad to be back at camp, now certain of the traverse and set ready for a summit attempt.

19th June 2007

The storm had gone this morning and we were coming out of our tents to some of the best views yet and a cold but beautifully clear day. That meant just one thing, today was ‘Summit Day’.

We packed up early and set off. After the last couple of days’ efforts and conditions we all felt really good today and we just kept pushing up, and up towards the summit. I felt as strong if not stronger today, than any other day on the expedition. From here, the route bears right up a very long but low-angled snow and ice slope, between rock buttresses to Arch Deacons Tower on the edge of the summit plateau. A short descent leads onto the ‘Football Field’ which itself is just below the final couple of obstacles before the summit.

We rested at the Football Field for a while knowing that only something out of the ordinary could stop us reaching the summit now.

From the Football Field the route heads up one of the steepest sections on the climb, a snow slope of a couple of hundred feet called Pig Hill, which intersects the summit ridge at Kahiltna Horn.

Once on the ridge you can see the final traverse to the summit. The Summit Ridge provides some of the best climbing of the expedition. The ridge itself is knife thin, with 7,00ft drop to one side, and requires crossing a large over hanging cornice. We were the first climbers up on the ridge today, due to us approaching from high on the north side. This meant that we had the ridge and the summit to ourselves.

Crossing the cornice proved interesting as one of our climbers caused the whole cornice to ‘Whumff’ and shudder as he moved across it, but thankfully it didn’t break off and we all made it to the summit. We had climbed the Highest Mountain in North America!

The whole day round trip took about 10 and half hours but was nothing compared to the days ahead us on the descent!

20th June 2007

Today we moved camp down the Harper Glacier and around Brown’s Tower. It was heavy going being fully loaded again and snow conditions under foot were starting to break up. I had two consecutive crevasse falls early on in the day around the Icefall, where I punched through ice bridges, one up to my neck, but nothing too worrying.

The plan for today was to avoid being stormed high on the mountain and move down to the Muldrow Glacier at around 10,000ft. It turned out to be a LONG day.

Around Brown’s Tower we started the descent of the steep and tricky Karsten’s Ridge. Hold up’s on the fixed protection and the worsening conditions under foot made very slow progress. We found ourselves going down the ridge, with heavy packs and trailing sleds in deep powdery snow that simply ruined people’s technique and most of us were pleased when we came to a section of steeper ice that needed to be ‘down-climbed’ using front points. (Although it’s one thing doing it in Scotland, and another thing doing it here with just one axe and a 30lb sled hanging off of you!)

Finally we made it off the ridge and down onto the Muldrow. It was already into the next day but ‘days’ have no meaning really on Denali. The importance of being on top of your game on the Muldrow, even this high up, can’t be overstated. Luckily it was cold at this time of ‘night’ and the glacier seemed quite solid as we negotiated are way through the crevasses to a spot in the compression zone at about 10,000ft. After 14 hours on the go we set up camp and fell asleep.

21st June 2007

Today we rested, having not got to the camp until so late last night. Considering moving down the Muldrow Glacier in anything other than clear and cold conditions is just not an option. On the first section of the Muldrow last night, and from camp, we could really appreciate just what an active glacier the Muldrow really is, as we could hear cracking and popping all around us within every half hour as the glacier moved, contracted and expanded.

22nd June 2007

An early start today, around 4am, as we wanted to take advantage of the relatively cold temperatures. The Muldrow has been described as a Disneyland of huge crevasses and tricky icefalls. It was clear when we set off, with just a few misty clouds around us, and it definitely felt otherworldly as we moved quickly in and out, up and down, over and around the obstacles of the glacier. I was really enjoying this fairground type adventure, and feeling privileged to be where so few people ever go, but the day quickly changed from a childlike amusement, to a very serious and potentially deadly, ‘grown-up’ epic!

As we moved down the glacier we moved into whiteout conditions, and it became quite humid, not really what you would expect or want. There must have been forest fires on the Tundra as there was a smell of burning pine, but that was a long way away, and we were about to face challenges that could have meant we didn’t get there.

The whole glacier was starting to break up under foot and with every step we were sinking in and trying to wade through waist deep sugary and worthless snow. Not only is it physically tiring but mentally it’s exhausting, as every time you sink, which in this case was every step, you heart jumps a beat, you don’t know if you’re going to stop or whether you are going to keep going through whatever it was you were standing on and down until you’re rope team can catch your fall.

I was second man today in our rope team, which meant I was responsible for Dave, the guide. This meant I was on full alert all day as he was out front searching ‘safe’ ground. With visibility now at a new low of about 10 metres, we were in a section called the Hill of Crack’s where crevasses start to run in every direction rather than parallel to each other. Needless to say tension was running high and we were all pumped with adrenaline as we weren’t making any progress. On a different part of the glacier in these conditions we would have set up camp and waited for the whole glacier to freeze but where we were was too dangerous and it could have taken weeks to freeze, so we had to push on, not only because it was too dangerous but we didn’t have enough supplies to sit and wait.

We had crossed one particular crevasse a few times, and had then fallen through the snow on the other side in a number of directions looking for a safe way to go. After backing up and trying once more, we could see that what we were stood on, and what we had fallen through in places, was a triangular shape formed by three crevasses running in different directions, and about the size of half a football pitch. This meant one of two things; We were either standing on the top of a huge pillar of ice, or we had unwittingly found ourselves, dangerously and precariously above a giant sink hole, which judging by the conditions we were experiencing wouldn’t hold our weight.

Then before we could react everybody sank, surrounded by the sound of a giant ‘Whuummff’ as the whole platform dropped 6 inches and then by the grace of god came to rest almost instantaneously. There were no sighs of relief though as everybody realized that there was no time to consider what might have happened, we were definitely over a hole, which could have been 150ft deep. If the platform didn’t come to rest we would have disappeared all the way to the bottom, and there was no reason why now it wasn’t more unstable than it was before. We turned and ‘ran’ without hesitation back over the original crevasse, with no probing or question of what we were running over, that had just been answered for us! For me, in hindsight, this was the highlight of the trip but at the time I honestly didn’t see how we would ever get off the Muldrow.

After 20hours on the go, and numerous occasions where we had to jump across holes (both successfully and not) and frequently stopping to build anchors to protect the leaps, we made it off the glacier, having covered only 6 miles and probing every step of the way! We camped just short of McGonagall Pass in one of the most rugged and baron places anyone could imagine, but very few ever go to, but at least we were off the ice and on solid ground!

23rd June 2007

Today I awoke to find that the blisters on my fingers, from the frost nip had burst, which made them painful but, to be honest I just didn’t care anymore. We were all really ready to finish the expedition as quickly as possible now that we were off the mountain, so we started the push towards Wonder Lake 25 miles away.

Trekking 25 miles over the tundra sounds like quite a pleasant and civilized way to spend a few days in picturesque Alaska doesn’t it? Wrong! The last two days proved to be some of the most frustrating and physically agonizing of the whole trip.

Starting from camp, carrying and dragging in the region of 80-100lbs per man, over rocks, shale, scree slopes and snow patches we climbed up and over McGonagall Pass, and clumsily down the boulder ridden other side! All, at the end of a long expedition and after our epic day yesterday. It was really frustrating as it just seemed to me to be a totally impractical way to travel across this terrain, but we had to do it.

Having made it down the other side of the pass and onto actual tundra and vegetation for the first time in over three weeks, it felt like we should be in touching distance but when you are dragging the anchor that is you’re sled, progress is slow and painful. To add to this there is no set path and we soon found ourselves bushwhacking through vegetation that you would have trouble getting through with an axe! Again all with heavy loads on our backs and dragging a p*ssing sled behind you! Ridiculous!

We set camp after another 14 hour day by Cache Creek, where the human to mosquito ratio is about 1 to a billion! We were pretty knackered and a bit down beat having not had a good day.

24th June 2007

We woke this morning knowing that no matter how long it took it was going to be our last day, and despite the trials and tribulations of the last days of the expedition we were all feeling up beat and we made excellent progress. We pushed through much of the same terrain as yesterday, the difference being that today we knew what to expect and that we could literally see the finish line. The only thing that stood in our way was the McKinley River, and the only way across was to wade through the icy cold glacial waters!

At our chosen crossing point a mile wide split into 20-odd river braids ranging from ankle to waist deep. Having just dragged part of our loads 20 miles across the tundra, we now had to load all 80-100lbs on our backs, sleds included! That is well over half my own body weight, and was a little uncomfortable! We used the technique of facing up river and linking arms where we felt the current was particularly strong. Staying on your feet is difficult not only because of the force of the water but the river bed isn’t stable and slides away under your feet. This soon happened to me and I was washed maybe 10metres away but I was quickly able to regain my footing. A few others were washed a little further but no-one was hurt.

The worst part of the crossing is the extreme cold. We made it to one braid after a long crossing section all with near frozen feet. We quickly took our shoes off to warm our feet in the relatively warm air, but most of us had totally white feet like blocks of ice so it took a while to get the blood back in them. My feet weren’t warming up as quickly as I would have liked and I really didn’t want get frost nip, having got it twice already. I was also acutely aware that I needed to pee so I killed two birds with one stone and ‘warmed my feet’ - by peeing on them!

When we got to the other side we had a 4 mile slog, still with all the weight on our backs, but we made it to Wonder Lake at 2am after another long day, triumphant, having ‘Summited and Traversed’ Denali!