Team: Yes We Xan!
Members: Eric Dahl, Peter Dreher, Nick Brunger, Jacob Brownlee
Trip Dates: May 10, 2015 to June 1, 2015
At the beginning of May, myself and team Yes We Xan! flew out of Talkeetna with the hopes/intentions of summiting Denali. In the subsequent weeks, it turned into more of an adventure then I could have ever imagined. There was some exhilarating skiing, an incident involving an avalanche, the triumph of reaching the summit, and finally, the rapid descent off the mountain. The following is the breakdown of each day of the trip from my personal journal entries. Due to the source of the entries (me), they represent only my own opinions and many of my own experiences, and do not necessarily represent the experiences/feelings of my teammates.
June 2014 – May 2015
Peter first approached me with the idea of climbing Denali when we were finishing up our last semester at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). Having had only a small taste of mountaineering, I wasn’t super crazy about the idea. However, when he mentioned that we could ski it, I was hooked. As an avid backcountry skier, I loved the idea of skiing Denali. After some discussion, we decided we would feel most comfortable with a team of 4 spread over 2 rope teams (essentially 2 teams of two). The idea was to have the mobility/freedom of a 2-man rope team, but with the safety in numbers should a crevasse rescue situation arise on the lower mountain. Luckily for us, Nick (also a classmate) and his friend Jake expressed interest. All 4 of us met and discussed a training plan. We agreed each rope team would train separately, except for a joint trip across the Eklutna Traverse prior to climbing Denali. Over the course of the winter, Peter and I skied some of the steepest lines of my life, hauled sleds with upward of 120lbs, and put in countless field days/hours refining our rope work and crevasse rescue techniques. In April, our two rope teams came back together and completed the Eklutna Traverse. Feeling confident in our progress, we all began to mentally prepare for our Denali climb. We (and by we, I mean mostly Peter) dehydrated and packaged food for the trip. As our fly out date approached we felt like we had done everything in our power to prep for the trip. The only two factors we couldn’t control were the weather and how our bodies would deal with the altitude (This made me the most nervous because of my lack of experience at altitude).
May 10, 2015
Day 1: Arrival
After a drive to Talkeetna and a meeting with the park rangers, we flew into Base Camp (7,200ft) with K2 aviation. We landed around 5:30pm, made a cache, and prepared to move to 7,800ft Camp. The views were amazing, and huge. Once we started moving down Heartbreak Hill, the magnitude of our expedition began to sink in. Having never done a climb of this magnitude, I was a bit nervous. But as we moved down Heartbreak Hill, it wasn’t nearly as daunting or frustrating as I had heard. After a quite pleasant ski down Heartbreak Hill, we boogied 5 hours up to 7,800ft Camp. We arrived around 11:30pm and had a hasty meal before heading to bed. Personally, I had to recover from some ill-advised pre-Denali partying from the night before.
May 11, 2015
Day 2: Caching at 11,000ft
I woke up around 10am after a much needed night of sleep. What had woken me up was the heat in the tent. With bluebird skies and the sun sitting overhead, the thermometer inside the tent read 60 degrees. After dragging myself out of a sweaty sleeping bag, our team spent a lazy morning enjoying the sun and scenery, hoping to move in the cooler temperatures of the late afternoon. Well, that didn’t work. It stayed hot longer then our patience did. Around 3pm we ended up moving a cache up to 11,000ft Camp. By Kahiltna Pass (approx. 10,000ft) Pete and I started to really feel the elevation and our skinning pace turned to a crawl. In total, it took us 5½ hours to reach our cache spot. I felt really out of it at 11,000ft and probably had pushed it a bit too hard for day two. After getting our cache buried, we transitioned and skied on Denali for the first real turns of the trip! Boy was I glad we brought skis. That is the only way to get down the hill! It took us less then half an hour to get back to 7,800ft camp. The first few turns were decent, but the snow rapidly turned into a deadly crust requiring survival skiing below Kahiltna Pass. Back at camp we prepped to move to 11,000ft camp.
May 12, 2015
Day 3: Move to 11,000ft
We got another late start, which meant…(You guessed it!) traveling in the scorching sun again! Our goal was to move to 11,000ft Camp today. Pete and I sweated it out and arrived at camp around 8pm. After that ordeal, we decided to try and avoid moving on the lower mountain in the heat of the day again. At camp there was no premade campsites to move into, so Peter built our cook area while I quarried an area for our tent. By midnight we had a campsite with walls as high as our tent, a bomber cook area for our mid, and bellies full of food. No sign of Nick and Jake; we assumed they made camp near Kahiltna Pass. I was definitely feeling the elevation. I couldn’t take complete breaths, had a headache, and felt lethargic. Having come from sea level to 11,000ft in 3 days was probably a bit ambitious and I think I paid the price with some mild altitude sickness.
May 13, 2015
Day 4: Rest Day
Pete and I needed a rest day. We slept in, ate well, and did a bit of work to get camp dialed. Like I said before, I think we moved a bit to quick to 11,000ft and we were now paying the price. I ended up taking a short nap and started reading the book I brought. By late afternoon, Jake and Nick rolled into 11,000ft camp. They had grabbed a previous cache and moved it to 10,000ft the night before. Earlier in the day they packed up their camp and moved it all in a single haul to 11,000ft Camp. Once we had all four of us together, we began to plan our move up to 14,000ft.
May 14, 2015
Day 5: The First Jump
High winds and snow kept me up most of the night. When we crawled out of the tent we experienced our first taste of a storm on Denali. Everything in camp was partially buried and spindrift wreaked havoc on the inside of our cook shelter. After a miserable breakfast in the spindrift, we began to church up camp. First we built better walls and a door for the mid (Bye-bye spindrift!). Next we reinforced the walls on our tent and bathroom areas. With the main chores completed, Pete and I set to work building a jump. A few hours later I was sending backflips on Denali! I was so stoked. After a couple flips, Pete and I toured up Motorcycle Hill above 11,000ft Camp for 2 of the better ski runs of the trip. The snow was fairly wind affected, changing from soft wind deposited pockets to firm wind hammered crust throughout both runs. With such an action packed day, I turned in early with the hopes of moving a cache past Windy Corner the following day.
May 15, 2015
Day 6: How Windy Corner Got Its Name
We woke up to decent weather at 11,000ft Camp and watched as half a dozen parties geared up and headed up Motorcycle Hill. After two days of rest, we eagerly geared up and followed for a cache around Windy Corner. As we skinned up Motorcycle Hill to Squirrel Point, the winds steadily increased. By the time we reached Windy Corner, we had a good idea on how it had gotten its name. The wind was HOWLING! Twice I was almost knocked off my feet. Moving was slow with the increase in altitude and the snow/rocks the wind was tossing at us. Thankfully, we eventually reached our cache location at 13,500ft and dropped our gear. The return trip wasn’t much better. We started roped around the crevasses on Windy Corner, but I insisted on transitioning near the end of Windy Corner (P.S. downhill skinning with ski crampons and being roped is foul/frustrating). The ski down from there was firm windy scoured snow. It wasn’t great, but it was still better then the death crust at 7,800ft Camp. By the time we reached Motorcycle Hill the snow softened up and we got our first semi-pow turns of the trip. Back in camp we discovered that most teams had cached before Windy Corner because of the winds. The weather report that night didn’t bring good news either. It called for high winds (60+ mph) for the next few days. It looked like we would be stuck at 11,000ft for a bit longer.
May 16, 2015
Day 7: The Broken Ski
We woke up to more wind. We decided to wait to see if the weather would die down later in the day, so that we could move to 14,000ft Camp. Unfortunately it stayed windy all day. So despite the bluebird weather and sun, we had another “weather” day at 11,000ft Camp. To pass the hours, we talked to our neighbors. One group was from the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) and was doing their capstone trip. Another group was made up of U.S. Veterans, who were carrying flags with the names of fallen soldiers to the summit on Memorial Day. Later in the day, some of the guys from the UAS group built a mini terrain park. Pete and I got into it and started hucking ourselves off the park features. But the fun didn’t last. Pete exploded one of his skis in a compression between features. With one of Pete’s skis having the ability to bend in half, our goal of skiing off the summit became a bigger challenge then it already was. I knew that if I skied off the summit, I would most likely be doing it alone.
May 17, 2015
Day 8: Moving to 14,000ft Camp
We decided to move to 14,000ft Camp today. With Peter’s ski busted, we pushed onward on foot. I soon discovered that it is significantly more challenging to boot then to skin. It took us nearly 9 hours to reach 14,000ft Camp. The winds weren’t nearly as brutal around Windy Corner, and the views were amazing. Also, the size of the crevasses continues to grow, both in width and depth. We rolled into 14,000ft Camp around 8pm and did our best to set up a hasty camp before bed. The first team to summit this season (outside of the solo winter ascent in January) returned around 11pm. They had pushed from 14,000ft Camp to the summit and back in 16 hours on foot.
May 18, 2015
Day 9: A New Plan
We slept in after a camp move day (a common trend for us). When we woke up, our U.S. Veteran friends let us know there was a walled tent site open. We quickly moved in and added a super deluxe bathroom area (very plush). We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and talking to other teams. Our direct neighbors were the two guys who had summited the day before. Both guys were very nice and willing to share beta. From talking to the rangers, we learned there was a body found at 17,000ft Camp and they were waiting for the next calm day to remove it from the mountain. After getting some time to look at the upper mountain and talk to other teams, it didn’t look like the conditions were going to be right to ski the Messner Couloir. Instead, I switched my attention to skiing off the summit and down Rescue Gulley. As the afternoon turned to evening, we got bored and decided to go get our cache at 13,500ft and bring it up to 14,000ft Camp. It took us 2 minutes to get to the cache via skis, but another 45 mins to slog it back up to camp. A bit after Pete and I got back to camp, Nick and Jake rolled into 14,000ft camp for the first time. This meant our team had completed the up portion of the lower mountain and would spend the next few weeks preparing for a summit bid.
May 19, 2015
Day 10: Recovery
A much needed down day at 14,000ft camp. We slept in, did minimal work, and felt lethargic all day. We reinforced our walls and attempted (and eventually gave up on) building a cook area for the mid. Instead we decided to ditch the mid and cook in our vestibules when the weather turned foul. We were given some extra instant soups from a Polish team that was leaving, but we were still looking for more fuel. Our nightly weather report was calling for high winds for the next 4-5 days, so we planned to relax, ski, and acclimate.
May 20, 2015
Day 11: Recovery 2
We awoke to a spectacle on the Headwall. 50+ people had decided to go cache today above the fixed lines. However, I was still getting my ass kicked by the altitude and decided to take another easy day. We reinforced our snow walls in preparation for the incoming wind event and took a quick nap after the chores were done. By the end of the day I finally began to feel better being at 14,000ft.
May 21, 2015
Day 12: A Bear Sighting
This morning there were high winds (60 – 100 mph) on the upper mountain, and all of 14,000ft Camp was waiting to hear if the Mongolian team (camped at 16,600ft) and the Belgium team (camped at 17,000ft) were ok. As we waited for news in the snow and wind, we had our first Denali Bear sighting. Now by “bear”, I obviously mean a very large, hairy, and slightly intoxicated climber wearing only boxers and a parka. The bear charged our camp and knocked over part of our snow walls in his haste to come over and say “Hello”. After shooing the bear away, there was a break in the weather as the snow stopped and the sun came out. It was then that we saw the Belgium team coming down Rescue Gully. We later discovered that the team had run out of food and had their tent blown away during the night. With the small break in the weather they made their way safely back to 14,000ft Camp. With the improvement in weather and other skiers/snowboarders arriving at 14,000ft Camp, we decided to go ski below the fixed lines. Our group consisted of myself, Peter (on a pair of borrowed skis), Bill (a snowboarder from Colorado, John (a skier from Girdwood), and Alex (John’s climbing/skiing partner). Our group skinned/booted to the base of the fixed lines and had a wonderful ski back to 14,000ft Camp. As we skied down, we also watched the Mongolian team make their way safely back to 14,000ft Camp. If tomorrow looks good, we hope to go ski Rescue Gully.
May 22, 2015
Day 13: The Fixed Lines
Weather moved in and out all morning, the only constant was (as usual) the wind. In the afternoon we decided to head up the fixed lines for an acclimation day. We made it to the fixed lines at the same time as a guided party. Peter was ready first and started up the lines. Meanwhile, Nick and I got stuck behind the guides & their clients. The going was sloooooooow. Paint dries faster. To stay warm and pass the time, Nick and I broke into song and dance while we watched guides try to help their helplessly tangled clients. About half way up, we saw Peter already coming back down on the other line. He let us know that it was howling on the ridge and suggested we head down. Not wanting to be stuck behind the guided party for another hour, we removed our ascenders, slapped on an auto block, and headed down. At the base of the fixed lines, Peter (who was again ski-less) and Nick roped up while I transitioned to my skis. The ride down was variable wind affected snow, flat light, and gusting wind. Surrendering to the “suck”, I decided if the skiing wasn’t going to be pleasant, then I would set a challenge for myself. My goal was to ski from the base of the fixed lines back to camp without stopping. Not an incredible feat by any means, but by the time I hit camp, my legs were burning and I was gasping for breath due to the altitude and challenging snow conditions. A short while later, Nick and Peter strolled into camp. (P.S. Jake had a stomach bug today and took a deserved rest day).
May 23, 2015
Day 14: Tent Bound
Snow & wind meant another weather day. However, this was the first weather day that kept me mainly in the tent. We refurbished some of our snow walls, but I spent most of the day glued to a book. The forecast the next few days looked poor for climbing, but with snow in the forecast, there could be some skiing to be had.
May 24, 2015
Day 15: Jumping the Serac
No climbing today (again), but I decided to go look at a serac above 14,000ft Camp for a possible jump location. I spent a good 30-45 minutes probing and wanding the landing and about an hour prepping the in-run and takeoff. The finished product ened up being a 40ft drop off the top of a protruding serac , which featured plenty of blue ice and flat light conditions. I was the most nervous I have ever been before dropping in. I finally worked up the courage and threw a slightly overrated backflip off of it. I came out ok, with a slightly sore chest, but a little disappointed about not stomping it. Still stoked to have thrown that big of a flip off a serac above 14,000ft on Denali!
May 25, 2015
Day 16: Caught in an Avalanche
We woke up to a mass exodus up the fixed lines. Despite the blue skies, we weren’t convinced the winds were low enough to move to 17,000ft Camp. Instead we decided to go check a cache above the fixed lines (16,200ft) that a Spanish team had left for us to use. Nick, Jake, Peter, and I all roped up and with James & Bill (a skier and boarder from Colorado) in tow, we climber to the bottom of the fixed lines. As we got nearer, Bill, James, and I decided we wanted to try and boot up Rescue Gully to check conditions before skiing down. So, I dropped off Nick, Jake, and Peter’s rope and roped up with Bill & James. We walked about 15-20 mins before Bill (who was leading) took a step and the whole slope “whoomfed”. A split second later, the slope was coming down on us. Bill was near the crown of the avalanche and was taken first, then James, and finally the slide was coming for me. I remember watching a wall of snow move towards me and irrationally thinking, I might be better off if I run towards it and jumped over the initial impact. That didn’t work. Everything went dark as I was swept away. My only thoughts were to keep swimming towards the surface and try to keep snow away from my mouth so that I could keep breathing. Every time I felt like I had clawed my way to the surface, the rope connected to my harness dragged me back under. Eventually the slide slowed and we came to a stop. Luckily, I was unburied and slowly got up in a daze. The rope was buried, but Bill and James were both visible on the surface. Bill and I were able to move, but James was buried to his waist and couldn’t get himself free. Bill and I shoveled James free and sat down to collect ourselves. Nick, Jake, and Peter, who had watched the whole event take place, rushed down with a nearby mountain rescue team from Arizona. Once they reached us, they asked if we were all ok. In our shock and adrenaline filled state, we all felt fine. Then they started giving us the details of the avalanche. We had slid 1,000ft, half of which they had lost sight of us because all three of us were completely buried. They classified it as a larger D2 avalanche with a 2-3ft crown. Thankfully, only Bill, James, and I were caught and no one else coming up the mountain. As the emotions began to drain away, it turned out Bill had a pretty bad ankle injury and was having a hard time putting weight on it. He was helped back to camp as James and I skied down. Despite some initial soreness, I came out feeling okay, except for a serious sense of stupidity for not properly assessing the avalanche danger in the area we were trying to ski. I had become complacent and my/our poor decision-making could have had fatal outcomes. Bill and James’s trip was done, and I was done skiing above 14,000ft. I counted my blessings and planned on summiting on foot at the end of the week. Later that night the 3rd person of the climbing season summited solo from 14,000ft in 12 hours. That is 3 summits in about a month. (Roughly a 0.8 percent summit rate)
May 26, 2015
Day 17: The Edge of the World
I woke up feeling like I had been in a car accident. Everything ached, and I could feel some minor whiplash when I moved my head/neck. Also, I found a hole in my ski pants, long underwear, and a small puncture on my knee from narrowly avoiding putting a crampon through my leg during the slide. Thankfully, the team let me take the day easy. After breakfast, painkillers, and some reading, we all headed out to the Edge of the World (a sheer 5,000ft drop near the edge of 14,000ft Camp that overlooks the Kahiltna Glacier and 7,8000ft Camp). We took some photos before heading back to camp so that I could rest. Tomorrow we planned to move some caches we had inherited from the Spanish team and the U.S. Vets team (both of whom had left the mountain with equipment cached at 16,200ft) up to 17,000ft camp.
May 27, 2015
Day 18: Caching at 17,000ft
I still woke up sore, but excited to climb to 17,000ft for the first time. We rushed breakfast and quickly got in the line of teams heading to the fixed lines. Having been cold my last few trips to the fixed lines, I wore my fleece top & bottoms for the first time on the trip. But, of course, today would be the day that it would be hellishly hot, with no sign of a breeze. This makes for a great summit day, but a miserable day for an overdressed climber on the fixed lines. Eventually we made it up & passed some of the guided parties we had been stuck behind. The ridge from 16,200ft (the top of the fixed lines) to 17,000ft camp is unimaginable. Huge exposure, a gloriously thin ridge, and picturesque views defined the trek to 17,000ft Camp. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. After a long day, we made it to 17,000ft Camp with our inherited caches. Once there, we learned 30-40 people were trying for the summit today (most of which would make it, because the day was so perfect!). Also we watched the rangers prepping the body of the climber who had passed away at 17,000ft camp weeks ago, but couldn’t be removed from the mountain because of the high winds. We got our equipment and food cached and moved back down the ridge towards 14,000ft Camp. I learned how much I dislike hiking down (not skiing), but I am still a little spooked to ski the wind-affected snow on the upper mountain. By the time we got back to 14,000ft camp, we were all tired, but not as affected by our trip to a higher altitude as we were when we moved/cached at 11,000ft or 14,000ft. Tomorrow will be a rest day, and then a high-pressure system should move in and allow us to move to 17,000ft camp and on to the summit.
May 28, 2015
Day 19: Fuel and Hydrate
A basic recovery day. Sleep in, eat well, and drink lots. Tomorrow is the move to 17,000ft camp. We got everything prepped and planned to leave by 9am. I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to bring skis. I was still a bit shaken up from the slide, but we watched a group safely boot down Rescue Gulley today. I finally decided that the best way for me to remember the mistakes that lead to the avalanche would be for me to stay off my skis the rest of the ascent of the mountain and only use them to move back to the airstrip from 14,000ft camp.
May 29, 2015
Day 20: Moving to 17,000ft Camp
We woke up early to beat the guided parties to the fixed lines. That turned out to be one of the best decisions we made all trip. It cut the heat down and we made it to 17,000ft Camp 2 hours faster then our previous trip. We arrived in camp around 2pm and setup our tents. Once camp was up, we hydrated and sun bathed. I couldn’t believe how warm it was. I ended up taking a quick nap in just my base layers and bare feet on a sleeping pad outside the tent. As the evening rolled on, we decided on a wake up time and headed to bed.
May 30, 2015
Day 21: Summit
We woke up at 5am, and left camp around 8:15am. We beat most of the guided parties onto the Autobahn. The rangers had replaced all the running protection the day before, so we moved along fairly quickly to Denali Pass. By the time we hit the pass, I could feel the stomach bug that I had been fighting for the last 24 hours rear its ugly head. As we moved towards the Football Field, I felt like spewing from all orifices. Pete was patient at the end of our rope and let me move at a crawl of a pace. Eventually we hit Pig Hill. Fuck Pig Hill. It about ended my climb. We had ditched our rope before hand, so that we could move at our own pace up the hill. My pace was agonizingly slow and painful. Having lost my appetite due to my stomach bug, my energy levels were plummeting. When I reached the crest of Pig Hill, Nick, Jake, and Peter were waiting. Nick was my hero when he shared a pack of Shot Bloks with me. Finally having some fuel for my body to use, we made our way up the summit ridge. And then we were there. The summit. It was (and still is) surreal. The views were endless and breathtaking. Calm, clear, with only a slight breeze. We snapped a few photos, let out a cheer, and started heading down. It was amazing how good going down in elevation felt. In what felt like no time, we were back at 17,000ft Camp. In total it took us 10 hours. 7 hours up and 3 back down. Back at 17,000ft Camp, we got water boiling and broke down camp. We planned to move back to 14,000ft camp that night. By 10:30pm we were finally moving back down the ridge, away from the summit and 17,000ft Camp. The sunset walk down the ridge was the most beautiful moment on an already visually stunning trip. As the light faded, we rolled in to 14,000ft Camp. We tossed up the tent and crawled in. Peter got some water on and made some soup, but I was so tired that I fell asleep before it was ready.
May 31, 2015
Day 22: Returning to the Kahiltna Airstrip
We woke up, handed out our extra food/fuel, and skied away from 14,000ft Camp for that last time. I ended up skiing from 14,000ft to 7,800ft (except around Windy Corner) and skinned with Peter from 7,800ft to the Kahiltna Airstrip (7,200ft). At 11,000ft Peter picked up his broken skis and we “fixed” them using leftover wands and a roll of duct tape. It worked well enough that he was able to ski/skin from 11,000ft back to the airstrip. The whole push took us 6 hours and we felt great. Our rapid decent from the summit to the airstrip took a total of 30 hours. At the airstrip we dug up our cache, cracked a beer, and made a little backcountry pizza. We had a flight out first thing in the morning. Nick and Jake left 14,000ft Camp after us (wanting to wait for evening temperatures to solidify the crevasse bridges on the lower mountain) and showed up around 4am.
June 1, 2015
Day 23: Morning Brews
We woke up to beer, whiskey, and the news that we would be on the first flight out. By the time the airplane showed up we were in quite the celebratory mood! We loaded our equipment, said goodbyes to the other teams we had met, and flew back to Talkeetna for much needed showers!
An Alaska Dispatch News article with info on the avalanche (not accurate), the high winds this climbing season, and the body at 17,000ft Camp:
Thank you to…
Peter Dreher for convincing me to come on this amazing trip, training with me, making breakfasts/dinners most nights on the mountain, and overall being a phenomenal climbing/skiing partner.
Nick Brunger and Jacob Brownlee for being great expedition/team members and having my back on the mountain.
SkiAK for helping me out with equipment purchases and ski tuning.
Matt Beckage for being a mentor to me in the mountains for the last handful of years and helping me hone my mountaineering skill.
My friends/family and the friends/family of my teammates for all of the love and support
Shoshana Keegan, my amazing girlfriend, who put up with me obsessing and training all winter long.
If you have any questions or comments about the trip, please feel free to let me know! I can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org