Yes, yes, yes! It was too quick, way too quick, but that’s the way it turned out (although that was not the plan).
Denali is part of my 7summits7flights adventure. We originally started with this peak back in 2010, but were refused access at the time as no flying is allowed in the park. As a result, we shuffled things around, paid a little extra for airline tickets, and went off to Elbrus, otherwise known as ‘Mother Russia’, located in the Ural Mountains.
That adventure now sits in the past, and Denali awaited us in the future. I was apprehensive as to whether they would let us fly off or not. ‘Us’ included myself and my two mates, Nico and Joe, who had joined me on my journey. We arrived with the attitude of fanned ignorance. The authorities saw us coming from a mile away, armed with all the necessary legal documents that required our signature, and stopping us from flying off the summit before any issue of a permit to enter the park.
We decided not to cross the park police, and instead changed our ambitions. Our new goal was to traverse the mountain from South to North and end up at Wonder Lake. We estimated that our travel time would take 18 days, and therefore packed accordingly and appropriately. One pair of thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, a thicker thermal top, Salopets over all of this, water proof jackets and wind breakers, topped off with a large down jacket. Oh, and FOOD. You can never take enough food. This all added up to a large amount of weight, the most being fuel to heat up water to support my tea addiction.
I must add, this was the first time I was going to do what I would call ‘proper glacial travelling’. I had been on glaciers in Europe and South America before, but had never experienced a glacier scale as grand as this mountain contained. Vast carpets of crystal white ice, an incredible sight.
After having flown for miles and miles over nothingness except expansive forests, what seemed like mashes, and lands of mosquito infected snow fields, we were dropped onto a glacier. This was the starting point for all the south based climbs. Looking around, soaking in the present moment with my mates, my packed food at my side, and kilometers of space both vertically and horizontally as far as the eye could see, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “WOW FUCK! This really looks like hard work.” As mentioned before, I had done some glacier travel and ice climbing, but Nico and Joe had done zip, nada, nothing. I admired them, this was a big adventure, down played by myself as to the enormity of the task and the shite one can get into if all went pear shaped. Luckily, my sweet words created images of adventure, enticing and encouraging them.
As soon as we landed we were loaded off with a hurdle in our minds. Our first moments began with snagging, cursing, and tripping over our ropes (which will never be used for climbing again as a result of our crampons stepping on it about a million times). Armed with plastic boots, snow shoes, and two toboggans, of which we should have had three, we were ready to haul ourselves and our baggage up Denali. Our first mission was to walk down the mountain and towards the main glacier. Unless you were last in the line, this was a frustrating task. The two toboggans crept behind the first two hikers, hitting and scratching at our heels. Following the placed flags as not to fall into crevasses, we finally made it to the first camp, a little base located on Kaltiekna glacier.
After a day of rest, we set off up the progressively steep incline to the second camp, sitting at the height of +- 3200m. This was officially where the fun ended. Day three presented an extremely steep climb. An incline of 1000m to the third camp resulted in a six hour trek. The wind consistently blew with a bitter coolness as we ventured through ice and snow. Finally, we completed the white flaked walk only to further haul our gear to the advanced base camp. When reaching advanced base camp, one has to stash their gear about 1m into the snow to prevent the crows from plunging into our luggage and eating our precious food stock. Once this task has been completed, we descended back to the previous camp for the night. I say night, but this concept is far from what a South African like myself understands. The sun does not set. It wanders along the horizon, constantly watching the mountain. It provides little warmth, leaving the festering snow to lead the temperature down to -20 degrees.
A seven hour rest did wonders for our fatigued limbs and restless minds. We proceeded to retrieve our buried baggage at the advanced base camp, which left one of our teammates battling with altitude sickness. This meant another full day of rest, which included admiring the view called ‘The Edge of the World’, a euphoric experience. The base camps are like bustling mini climbing towns, where one can barter for food and supplies, meet other hikers, and socialize over shared and unique experiences.
The next day introduced another tow of our luggage, this time up to 5200m. This was a wonderful walk consisting of a slope inclining at about 50 degrees, a pleasant rock climb with a 1000m drop off on either side, and ending on a ridge overlooking a mystical view of a landscape floating in between congestions of clouds. Here we had to dig yet another hole for our gear, which proved far more difficult than the last. With rock hard ice, we really had to prove our strength. After the tough accomplishment of stowing our gear, we headed back down to the previous base camp for the night. Unfortunately, our battling teammate was losing to the altitude sickness and needed another full rest day. During this day, we were informed that a big storm was approaching. We had to summit the very next day or not at all. The remaining two of us decided to trail upwards immediately to 5200m, where we made camp and slept away the last hours of the day.
Waking up to fantastic windless weather, we climbed to the summit with smiles on our faces. The ascend to the summit began with the aid of a rope, leading to a hike without the need of a rope, and ended with a last heave again with the rope. The weather, as mentioned before, was perfect, especially for flying. However, we were not permitted to do so and our paragliders were resting at the bottom of the mountain. We relished in the paragon of Denali, but I would not let myself celebrate just yet. We still had to walk down, we were only halfway finished.
Walking down is the most dangerous part of the whole adventure. As we arrived to camp, we were still being warned about the storm. In a slightly fearful hurry, we made our mission back down to the 4200m camp and asked a ranger to book us a return plane as soon as possible. Picking up of gear, the two of us raced as fast as we could to the planes landing strip. We used the toboggan for speed, until we reached the hill. A giant mound, the only thing between us and our flight to safety. Tugging ourselves and our gear up this glacier was possibly the hardest part of the whole climb, and most definitely the most mentally challenging part. We finally arrived to await our plane, only to be told it had left without us. Desperate, we asked the ranger to contact a nearby tourist plane to give us a lift. The tourists on board accepted in the excitement of touching down on a glacier, only to resent their decision on account of our smell. We hadn’t cleaned ourselves for a week.
Finally, we were back in the town of Tolkietna. Six days to the summit, one day back down. What an unforgettable experience.
-Story by Pierre Carter
-Written and edited by Georgia Carter