Peak(s):  Denali - 20,320 feet
Date Posted:  06/10/2012
Date Climbed:   05/27/2012
Author:  jimmtman
 Denali West Buttress - Part 1 to 14k  

Denali West Butress
May 13-31 2012 with Mountain Trip

I had thought about doing Denali unguided but couldn't find any partners even after casting a line out on the website. I know that time is running short as I have just turned 45 and who knows how many more good years I have left. During training for Denali I started to have knee issues for the first time ever. So for me the extra money of going guided was worth it in order to take this trip now instead of a year or two from now. Going on a guided trip increases the chances of summiting noticeably. The head guide on this trip (John Race) has an 80% success rate on his 20 trips to Denali. The second guide has a 60% success trip on Denali on her 10 trips. This compares to an overall average success rate of around 50%. The key factor is weather - if you have good weather the chance of topping out is very good and for our group it was 8 out of 9 clients. This year was tougher than usual on Denali - early trips had very cold temps and high winds and late trips still had high winds. Few groups summited ~90% of their people.

Every Denali trip starts in Anchorage. After arriving around midnight from the direct Denver flight on United a 10 minute taxi ride ($17) takes one to the center of Anchorage. Along the drive to the Earth B&B I saw a female moose cross the road behind us.

After a short night we had a good breakfast of assorted muffins etc. along with a crab quiche (odd thing for breakfast IMHO). After that we met our guides and did an equipment check.

It was unseasonably cold and wet in Anchorage and it was a little cool doing the equipment check outside. After that we went to AMH and REI to pick up a few last minute gear items and then to a nice pizza lunch (on Mountain Trip). After that we came back and selected our "lunch" food. Lunch food is food to be consumed while on the go during the day and consisted of candy bars, granola bars, cookies, etc. Large bins of this were laid out and we picked what we wanted.

The target was for ~15 lbs. of lunch food for up to 22 days on the mountain. I selected 15 lbs. which was just about perfect for the actual 16 days we were on the mountain - if we had been there a few more days for bad weather I would have had to beg from others.

The guides were adamant about saving weight. The target was for each person's personal gear to weigh 75 lbs. such that when adding the group gear of 50 lbs. the total is 125 lbs. We carefully scrutinized every item to save weight. My kit came in around 70 lbs. or so.

We went to dinner in Anchorage at Orso which had good food and good beer from a sister brewhouse.

Next morning the van and trailer came to load up our stuff for the trip north to Talkeetna. It was a pleasant drive. Along the way we stopped in Wasilla at a large grocery store to get any fresh lunch food we wanted. Before we knew it we were closing in on Talkeetna. Just before the town we came to an amazing viewpoint on the road with a view of the Alaska Range.
Foraker left, Hunter middle, and Denali right

Foraker is one left, Hunter in the middle, and Denali on the right. The weather was great while the previous few days had been socked in with no planes flying.
We got to Talkeetna Air Taxi in the early afternoon. We weighed personal and group gear and loaded in two separate planes. We took off and enjoyed the wondrous flight to Kahiltna International airport some 45 min away. The day was a bit cloudy but still there were great views from the plane.
Nice view from plane

Another nice plane view

The second plane arrived around 5 pm so we set up basecamp for the night. It was unseasonably cold with temps at 14k of -25 F and at 17k of -32 F. So basecamp was 0 F or below.
Basecamp tents - Denali in middle back

The view of Mt. Hunter and Mt Foraker from basecamp is awesome.
Mt Hunter

Mt Foraker

The next morning we rigged the sleds for the single carry to the 7800 ft. camp I.
Rigging the sleds for single carry

View back to KIA and Hunter from base of Heartbreak Hill

The track to Camp I is about 5 miles and very gradual. The first mile is downhill to reach the main Kahiltna Glacier and then uphill to Camp 1.
Rest break on way to Camp 1

We left at 10:30 AM and arrived at 3:30 pm - 5 hrs elapsed with 3 hr 30 min of walking. This is a pretty normal time. We traveled as 3 rope teams but all at the same pace. I found the pace on the slow side to where you were always stopping and starting and not keeping the sled moving smoothly behind you.
Camp 1 in sight, Ski Hill rising above

The next day we carried a load up to Kahilta pass at ~10000 ft and cached it there.
Right out of camp we climbed up ski hill.
Climbing up Ski Hill

Between 9000 ft. and 9600 ft. the slope flattened out and there were campsites there. After that the track steepened again up to the cache site.
View down from 10k cache

After burying the cache we returned to Camp 1.
Clear but high winds up high - bad summit day

While the weather was sunny it wasn't a great summit day due to strong winds up high.
The next day we moved to the 11k camp which is basically 1.5 hrs up to the right from the cache location. Most guided groups do not camp at the 9000 ft. or 9600 ft. camps because Kahiltna pass is a trap for bad weather. We saw this on the descent.
The 11k camp is in a small valley that gets a lot of late day sun. There are beautiful icefalls on either side that usually do not drop on camp.
Cool seracs above 11k camp

Great view from Camp 2

View up Motorcycle Hill and edge of West Buttress

Above the Camp is Motorcycle Hill and the rocky point is the bottom of the West Buttress. Windy corner is up to the right by the edge of this buttress.

The next day was an easy back carry down where we dropped down to pick up our cache in 20 min and then crept back up the hill in 1 hr and 30 min. That morning we had a great breakfast of pancakes and bacon!

The next day we did a carry up around Windy Corner to the cache at 13600 ft. The weather around Windy Corner was pretty mild.
Rest Stop below Windy Corner

The ridge above Motorcycle hill forms a very nice looking cornice.
Cool corniced ridge

The next day we moved to the 14k basin camp with our sleds. Some groups leave sleds at 11k but we wanted them to help haul out all the trash.
Near the top of Motorcycle Hill

Heading up Squirrel Hill

Nice view on way to Windy Corner

The views of Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker from the 14k camp are great.
Hunter from 14k Camp

Foraker from 14k Camp

The next day we took a rest day and did some organization for the upper mountain.

The next day we did a carry to the top of the fixed lines at 16200 ft. The segment from 14k camp to the high camp at 17.2k is the most interesting. There is steep snow up to the base of the fixed lines at 15.5 kft, then 600-700 vertical feed on the fixed lines (40-50 degrees), and then the ridge to high camp which is steep and narrow in spots with steep drop-offs on both sides.
View up fixed lines to 16k

It was a beautiful day with great views of Hunter and Foraker.
Hunter on the slope to the fixed lines

Foraker on the slope to the fixed lines

Part 2 continues with the fixed lines

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Thank you
06/11/2012 13:53
Thank you for the time and effort to post this. Nice pictures and useful interesting descriptions and narrative. This makes me want to try Denali someday!


06/16/2012 20:22
Thanks for the kind words. I have you get to try Denali someday. It is a beautiful place.

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