By Jim Doenges, Expedition Leader
This plan represents a best guess. Weather, snow conditions, health of team members, or other factors will likely cause us to deviate from this itinerary. We must hold our plan with open hands, and respond to the leadings of the Holy Spirit and conditions on the mountain as they unfold. We will need to be flexible. In addition, if an acute need arises on the mountain we must be willing to come to the aid of other climbers, if necessary. In putting others before self we will manifest the love of Jesus and increase our witness. Remember that there will be more than 1,200 climbers on our route during the very brief climbing season. It will not be a wilderness experience. We will likely interact with more people and have much more contact time than church teams do when on typical short term mission trips.
The purpose of this plan is to give you an idea of how our progression up the mountain may go, and give you more information on the climb. We will be climbing “expedition style.”
Day 1 (May 13, weather permitting)
Start in Talkeetna (about 400 feet above sea level). Fly onto the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier — probably two at a time — from Talkeetna via Hudson Air in single-engine planes equipped with retractable skis. The views on the flight in will be one of the aesthetic highlights of the mission. God’s creation in the Alaska Range is breathtaking. The expedition leader must register the team at Base Camp, and we will pick up our allotment of fuel. Establish a camp at the landing strip, located below Mount Hunter at approximately 7,200 feet. We will likely discuss and learn together things like camp building, pooper etiquette, how best to set up and arrange the cook tent, etc. From Day 1 we are on mission, and should look forward to opportunities to interact with other climbers. We will worship God, led by Charleton on guitar (if the weather is not too harsh for his fingers). Worship will not be restricted to Sundays!
From Day 1 until we arrive at the 14,000-foot camp, no one travels outside of the pre-probed camp areas without being roped up. No exceptions. Even during breaks during the day, we must stay roped up unless someone from our team has probed the area and wanded a perimeter. There is no crevasse danger in the very large camp area at 14,000-foot or at High Camp at 17,000 feet. However, we will be roped up in between these camps, and on summit day. We will travel in three rope teams.
We will have breakfast and dinner in our cook tent each day, together as a group. Melting enough snow for drinking water for 10 people each day will take time. This will be great fellowship time throughout the mission, and will be our principal time for devos, teachings, and group prayer. On most days, lunches occur during a break while we are on the move between camps.
Together, we will have a crevasse-rescue refresher using a crevasse near Base Camp. We will learn and reinforce our skills from one another. We will also assemble sleds (if disassembled for the flight), and divvy up food and fuel, and bury a cache. (The carefully marked buried cache will provide food and fuel in the event that weather does not allow us to be picked up by Hudson Air when we return to Base Camp at the end of our trip.) Depending on time, etc, we may choose to do a carry to Camp 1. While most teams do a single carry between Base Camp and Camp 1, an option is to carry a half-load, cache it at Camp 1, and return to Base Camp.
Move to Camp 1 at approximately 7,800 feet and below Ski Hill. Distance is about 5.5 miles. We will lose about 400 feet going down Heart Break Hill right out of Base Camp, but end up gaining about 600 feet of elevation by the end of the day. Assuming we move in a single carry, this is one of the more difficult days of the mission. You will likely have up to 150 pounds split between your backpack and sled. Most every other day of the ascent you will carry a half-load. Great views up a side glacier known as the “Valley of Death” – a good place to reflect on Psalm 23!
Carry loads to cache at about 10,000 feet near Kahiltna Pass below Camp 2 and return to Camp 1. Distance: about 7 miles round-trip, with about 2,200 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Move to Camp 2 at about 11,200 feet below Motorcycle Hill. Distance: about 4 miles, with about 3,400 feet of elevation gain. Camp 2 and all camps above will require some fun snow-engineering work: shoveling off loose surface snow from an area to pitch the sleeping tents, sawing blocks of snow from the same area, building up walls with the blocks, and reinforcing/chinking with snow. We may get lucky and be able to inherit empty walled camps ready for occupancy at any given camp, but we should never count on that. An option is to establish Camp 2 at the 10,000-foot cache location, and a Camp 3 at 11,220 feet. (Several options for camps exist between 9,000 feet and 11,200 feet, and camp locations will depend on weather, snow conditions, and team health.)
Drop back down to retrieve our cache at 10,000 feet and return to Camp 2. This is called a “back carry.” Distance: about 1 mile round-trip, with 1,200 feet of elevation loss and gain.
Carry up Motorcycle Hill and around Windy Corner and up to 14,200 feet to a cache. Distance: about 5.25 miles round-trip, with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. A big day. It is most likely the first time we will wear crampons and the views just get better and better. An attractive option is to cache down near Windy Corner at 13,600 feet and back carry after establishing Camp 3. The cache can also be left below Windy Corner at around 13,300 feet.
Move to Camp 3 (known as “14 Camp”) at about 14,200 feet. The views are incredible at this camp: the tops of Foraker and Hunter, the West Buttress headwall, and upper part of Denali. Distance: about 2.75 miles, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. The 14 Camp is our best location for interacting and witnessing to other climbers. Almost all climbers take rest days here before proceeding higher. It is a broad flat area and there could be hundreds of climbers camped here. There is a common crapper, which we will use, and usually a National Park Service ranger present as well.
Rest and acclimatization day, or do the easy back carry if we cached at 13,600 or 13,300 feet instead of 14,200 feet. Either way, we will have time to do some intentional outreach by walking around in groups of two to meet people. There will likely be people from all over the world. If available, we will have our blood oxygen saturation level tested via pulse oxymeter by the NPS personnel.
Rest day. We may review using fixed lines and passing running protection as a rope team in preparation for the days ahead. We will invite other climbers to worship with us, and praise Him, pray corporately and individually, and share in the Lord’s Supper. Imagine the possibility of an international worship service held at 14,200 feet on the highest mountain in North America!
Carry with packs only up the headwall to about 16,200 feet and cache on the crest of the West Buttress. This ascent includes fixed lines that protect approximately 800 vertical feet. We do not have to fix any lines; they will be in before we arrive. The headwall is about 50 or perhaps 55 degrees at its steepest. It can be a snow climb or ice. There may be no apparent bergshrund, there may be a very small one that is easily stepped over, or a larger one that will require more care. Like everyone else on this route, we will use jumar-style ascenders and also remain roped up in three teams. There should be separate lines for ascending and descending parties. A fun day with incredible mountain views. If the ascent prior to this was mostly a slog, from here on up you will feel like you are climbing. No snowshoes or skis are used above the 14 Camp; it’s crampons all day, every day. Distance: about 2.5 miles roundtrip with about 2,400 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Optional rest and acclimatization day, with more opportunities for outreach. Ascending further is totally dependant on the weather. We will not move up if the forecast is for only one day of good weather, since it is far safer and restful to weather storms at 14 Camp than it is higher, where life can be a bit desperate during storms.
If the weather forecast looks favorable, we will get into position for a summit attempt by moving to Camp 4 (High Camp) which is located on a small plateau at about 17,200 feet. Prior to ascending we will leave a cache at 14 Camp, including our sleds. Physically, this will be one of the three hardest days of our mission (the other two being the move to Camp 1 and Summit Day). All needed gear, food, and fuel must be carried in our packs to High Camp. We will ascend the headwall again and pick up our cache at 16,200 feet. The West Buttress between the top of the headwall and High Camp is an airy ridge with occasional gendarmes and long drop-offs on either side. Aesthetically, this may be the most beautiful and rewarding stretch of the entire route. (You may appreciate it more on the descent.) The ridge is not passable in bad weather. Making our snow fortress will be very hard work in the thin air, and we will need to be use extra effort to fortify and anchor our tents as much as possible. We will likely carry only four tents to High Camp, and leave the cook tent at our 14 Camp cache as well. The views from High Camp may be the finest of the trip, in part because you will likely be able to enjoy it more than views from the summit. Distance: about 1.75 miles, with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. An option is establishing High Camp without picking up the cache at 16,200 feet, and then doing a back carry tomorrow as part of an acclimatization day. However, space is very limited and this is not a good location in bad weather.
An option is to take a rest day after the move to High Camp. We may want and need the rest before summit day. It is common for teams to have to wait several days at High Camp for weather to allow a summit attempt. Most every year, some teams do not even get a chance at the summit. Get your head and heart prepared for that: it’s the journey that matters, not standing on top. In a good year, only around half of the climbers who arrive at Base Camp are able to get to the top. If the weather is reasonable, we will go for it!
Summit Day: While you have likely seen photos of people with open coats and baseball caps on top, expect high winds and very cold temperatures. The trip to 20,320 feet could be the hardest physical thing you have ever done. You will likely pant like a dog all day, gasping for air. The amount of air on top of Denali is the same as about 24,000 feet in the Himalayas. (That is because the atmosphere bulges around the equator. Mount Everest is at about the same latitude as Miami, Fla.; Denali is close to the Arctic Circle.) You will wear or bring all the clothing you have.
The day begins with a long ascending traverse up to Denali Pass. This traverse is known as the “Autobahn,” purportedly because a team of German climbers slid to their deaths after failing to arrest a fall. In recent years, a string of pickets has been placed here and running belays are common. We will bring all our available pickets and wands. After a brief break at Denali Pass, it’s up and up. Archdeacon’s Tower, a false summit, will come into view. (The tower is named after Hudson Stuck, a missionary who was the first person to climb Denali. He later became the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon.) Then we cross a broad flat area known as the Football Field and up another hill to the summit ridge, and on to the summit — if you are healthy and the weather makes it possible. You will not likely spend much time on top. The cold will be gnawing at you, and you may not feel well. Those who are able to summit will pray together. Once on top, you are only half way. You need to return to High Camp with all your appendages intact. Perhaps the most dangerous time of the mission will be the descent of the Autobahn. Exhaustion will make it difficult to arrest a fall on the rock hard snow; we must be alert and vigilant. Distance: about 5 miles roundtrip, with about 3,100 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Pack up our High Camp and carefully descend the West Buttress and headwall back to 14 Camp. If we have to build a new camp, this can be a difficult and tiring day as you will likely be spent from your summit day.
Dig up our cache, eat well, and drink in the rich air. By now the 14 Camp will likely have swelled with large numbers of climbers. We will spend several days focusing on outreach. Each person we will see there was created in the image of God; it will be our privilege to introduce our Lord and share His love through our words and actions. We will build a large cross out of blocks of snow, and again invite climbers to worship with us. Imagine the possibility of an international worship service held at 14,200 feet on the highest mountain in North America! The largest — and perhaps only — ever held. We will depart in late afternoon on Day 20.
Late on Day 20 we will descend from 14 Camp all the way to Base Camp in one long push. Leaving 14 Camp after the heat of the day, we will avoid the oppressive temperatures that now characterize the lower Kahiltna Glacier and enjoy the subdued shades of the low evening sun. The descent to Base Camp will cover more than 10 miles and about 7,800 feet of elevation loss. The last half-mile we will have to ascend the 600 feet of Heart Break Hill. An option is to break the trip back to Base Camp into two days.
We will encourage and offer to pray for arriving climbers. After digging up our cache and if the weather allows, Hudson Air will pick us up and we will return to Talkeetna. The ride out will be a very reflective time. Remember that planes can only fly into Base Camp as the weather allows; it is possible that we may have to wait several days. Hudson Air has arranged one night of free lodging for us at the Talkeetna Hostel. After a hot shower we will break bread together at a restaurant in town, and fellowship as a team one last time. Early the next morning most of the team will return to Anchorage to seek flights home to loved ones.