Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


Eighteen days on Denali.  May 2006  written by Kim Mason

Team members: Kim Mason, David Hamilton, Julian Power & Oliver Gandy

In May 2006, our team of four stood at Talkeetna air hanger, Alaska, waiting for a four-seat plane to fly us and 260kg of equipment to Mount McKinley's base camp. Officially called Denali since 1980, Mount McKinley is North America's highest peak at 20,320ft (6124m).

The 40-minute flight to base camp, at 7,050ft on Kahiltna Glacier, was stunning and flying through the "One Shot" pass, we had the first glimpse of our goal.

Unloading our kit from the plane, including food for 21 days, we saw that several

international teams had already camped and were preparing for the journey to the next  four camps. We spent the rest of the day making similar preparations, dividing food and equipment between sleds and back-packs to be cached at points en route. Despite everything we had heard about the extreme cold that this mountain would throw at us, the temperature when we set off on our first morning was 15C.  Not comfortable though, when each team member was carrying and pulling approximately 64kg. It was a long and slow skin to Camp 1 at 7,634 ft where we stayed for two nights.  This set a routine of load carrying between the next three camps as we slowly made our way up Denali's West Buttress.

Our journey to Camp II (11,056 ft) on yet another clear, warm day showed us the vastness of the Kahiltna Glacier, which at 44 miles is the longest in the Alaska Range.  With the sleds and several steep sections, the route from Camp II to Camp III was a long haul.  Skinning up attached to ropes was awkward but as always skiing back down to camp with empty sleds was rewarding.  But after this load carry towards Camp III, one team member, Oliver, had had enough and decided to leave for home.

Now down to three, we had our first bad weather. Winds were exceeding 60 mph as we approached Camp III. Here, at 14,206 ft we decided to leave the skis behind and proceed on crampons.  Our dream of being able to ski from the top of Denali with wind-blown, blue-iced faces was hindered by the lack of snow All that separated us from Camp IV at 17,160 ft was a 250 m fixed rope climb of 45 degrees and  a long narrow ridge where we were rewarded with amazing views

On arrival at Camp IV, with a good weather window but a dramatic drop in temperature, we decided on day 13 to go for the summit. But as we approached Denali Pass (18,200 ft) Julian and I concluded that we were not going to make it to the top on this attempt. However, we encouraged David Hamilton to continue, to take advantage of the weather and attempt his sixth continent summit.

Congratulations, David made it.  But the weather deteriorated and visibility became poor.  After having had to shelter from the heat and sunshine this 'coldest mountain outside the Antarctica', which sits at latitude 63 degrees north, was now showing us how cold and windy it could be.

Whilst the majority of the other teams with us on the mountain now descended, for three days we sat out winds that ranged from 30 to 90 mph. Our determination was worth it.  On day 16 the winds cleared leaving extreme cold but perfect climbing conditions.  The three of us made another summit attempt.  By the time we reached Denali Pass, however, Julian was exhausted. He left David and I to continue to the summit, this tune with perfect views of the top of North America that were shared with a few other parties who had also persevered and sat out the high winds.

Our return to base camp was as interesting as the route up.  Despite poor weather conditions, half-loaded sleds and stops to collect buried caches on the way, we skied down from 14,000 ft all in one long day. Thanks to Julian, our last evening of rehydrated food was complemented by a miniature of Scotch whisky that had been on chill in a cache of base camp waiting for our return!




David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
CV10 0SG


Telephone:    From UK    02476 395422
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