Denali '89 - SBRR

Four against
great Denali

ell, since I am continually asked about how the mountain went, and I always feel that I either give too little a response or too much of a response, I decided to write a small summary of the trip, and send it to various friends. Don't feel that you need read it, only if you are interested.

Last week of school (finals week) turned out to be really hectic. Those people at school know that Bradford Smith and I were making gear modifications up to the very last minute. I had a fast drive to Oklahoma, and spent one full day getting the rest of my gear organized. I still had anchors and repair kits to make, and at 1:00am went to bed in a bed for the last time. The next morning Dad and I boarded the plane, taking gear to make in carry ons.

We met Brad and Ken Bayne in Anchorage at the airport, and assembled all of our gear. WAY too much!! And off to Talkeetna, where the plane to fly us onto the mountain was. Here we cut our food supply by a third, and left some spare gear. The next day the pilots were not able to fly until evening, as the weather was bad. We were flown into the glacier at about 8:30. Dad and I landed on the "glacier strip" fine, but Brad and Ken were dropped off about a mile from us. Our first adventure was to meet Brad and Ken, and get all of this gear to one spot.

The next few days were spent moving ourselves and all of the gear (probably about 225lbs each at this point) to the base of the South Buttress route. It was only the first night out that we discovered we had forgotten something of vital importance. We had no pee bottle!! It is a big pain to get out of the tent every time you have to go in the night. Snowshoes were giving us a little bit of a problem, and everyone was sore, but the views for the first few days (they were clear) were great!

Once at the base of the route, we realized that there was more avalanche danger involved than we anticipated. After a scouting mission we all took a vote, resulting in the decision to go up the West Buttress instead. The next morning we had decided to get up at 6:00 to get an early start. It usually took us 4 hours to break camp, so we were planning on being on the trail by ten. At about 4am an avalanche let loose. This had been happening regularly for the last few days, so I thought little of it until a small air blast hit our camp. An avalanche air blast is a snowy cloud of air that is pushed in front of the avalanche. These clouds can get moving over 100 mph, and can be very destructive. This one was small, and none of us got up. At 6:15 we were all still in bed, and I woke to the sound of another avalanche. When the air blast hit our tent, both Dad and I dove for the poles to help hold them up. Brad and Ken did likewise in the Dome tent. The blast-lasted for a little while, then died off. Of course, we were now all wide awake and ready to go. The toilet was destroyed, packs moved, and tent poles severly bent. We came out of it pretty well, but agreed that the West Buttress was a more feasible (and less hazardous) route.

The next camp was on the West Buttress. We fondly (or not so fondly) called it Motel 4. We had decided to set up only the two man Bibler tent with the large vestibule, and all four of us sleep in it. This was fine, but the next day we were not able to travel due to the bad weather. Visibility was around 75 ft. at the most, and it was impossible to see where the glacier stopped and the sky began. This was not so fine. We spent the day lounging around in the 54 square ft. that the Bibler provided. A little tight and a little damp. The next morning I ended up pouring a water-ice combination out of the tent.

The next few days were spent slowly working our way up the mountain. We were not able to make progress as fast as we would have liked to due to the lingering storms on the glacier. At 11,000 ft. we broke through the cloud layer, and Bradford got his wish to climb through the clouds. The next two nights were both spent with a view of the top of the storms on the lower glaciers. The clouds would move like waterfalls through the passes below us. Our camp at 12,800 ft. was referred to as "cloud camp" due to this beautiful sight.

As a technical aside, I changed my contacts for the only time at cloud camp, and still have them in ... 36 days later. I am starting to wonder if high altitude does something weird, to disposable contacts.

The next day we moved up to "club med" or med camp. This is at 14,000 ft., and is the location of the high altitude medical research station on Denali. Two tents, jam packed with med supplies. In the morning, Ken, Brad, and I went down to 12,000 ft. to pick up some food, and left it at 12,800. We all then moved to med camp, going around "windy corner" (the name says it all). None of us were having altitude problems, and the climb was really coming together.

The first day in med camp, a cardiologist (Ben) came over and asked us if we would like to be a control group for his study. We immediately volunteered, although I am not sure if it was all for the good of science. Lower on the mountain, we had heard that control groups could get blueberry pancakes for breakfast! Anything for pancakes! Alas ... we got no pancakes, but we found out that we were all doing quite well, and we got to see great pictures of our hearts while they were beating. Dad volunteered for an Oxygen and Nitro-glycerin test (he got food for this one) and I got "bubble tested". They shoot microscopic bubbles into your blood to see if you have a hole in your heart. No hole ... what a relief!

Dad and I went down to pick up the stash at 12,800 ft. while the weather was still good, and we had a real workout getting it back up to 14,000 ft. It was about 140 lbs of stuff, and we divided it into 50, 50, and 40 lbs. The 40 lb sack we switched off carrying/sledding. Remind me not to do that again! Two days of rest/bad weather and ... we were off.

The first passable day at 14,000 was spent ferrying 7 days worth of food and fuel up to 16,400 ft. This took us a while, but everyone seemed to be feeling ok (maybe a little tired). This was the first day in a long time that people were able to make the summit. One group tried for the summit from 14,000 ft., and 3 out of 5 made it. The other two were left on the trail up to be picked up on the way down. That evening I brought up the question of splitting up the group, and what we would do if someone felt bad. After the only semi-heated discussion of the trip (my fault) we agreed that no one should be left alone unless they were in camp. We considered camp safe only due to the other people that could be called upon in case of need.

The move to high camp came the next day, and again Brad got to climb through those clouds. It was beautiful at high camp (17,200 ft.) and we all went to bed as soon as we could. Some people left camp to try for the summit very late (after midnight) due to the good weather. The next morning was good weather and we decided to go for it. Ken had the dry heaves during the night due to mild altitude sickness, so he did not go with us.

Dad led the whole day, and set what turned out to be just about the right pace. Very slow!! I alway read about people taking three breaths for every step, but I found myself stepping, taking 4 breaths, and stepping again. It was really draining. Brad and I both got reasonably bad headaches, but Dad seemed to do fine. It's that old age. We reached the summit in seven and a half hours without mishap. The two climbers that summitted before us were part of an Italian team that we had been see-sawing up the mountain with. One climber was filming the other, as the other skiied down. This was the first Italian ski decent of Denali.

The descent took four hours. On the way down we discussed who would go with Ken tomorrow if the weather was good. Dad was voted to go, as he turned out to be the strongest on our summit day. Just before we got to camp, we passed a team of two on their way up that we had met lower down. They were from France, and were attempting the second climb of Denali with a dog sled team. They ended up making it, but due to the fact that they climbed in the twilight hours which are much colder, one of them got some frostbite, and the dogs got a little frostbite.

The next day started well, but clouds quickly gathered on the peaks. Dad and Ken made it up to Denali pass (18,200) before they had to turn around due to the winds. Brad and I broke camp as they came down, and we all went down to med camp.

The last real day, we got a truly alpine start ... 4pm. Planning only to go part of the way out, we did not worry about how fast we were going. We ended up getting all of the way out at 2am. This meant that what took us a day to go up, took us an hour to come down!

The last two days were spent ferrying gear back to base camp, and waiting for the plane to fly all of us out. Once in Talkeetna, we made arrangments to get to Anchorage as soon as possible. The next morning we were all on our respective planes toward home.

It was a great trip. No one got injured or seriously ill, and I believe I can say that we all had fun. It turns out we were well equipped for the West Buttress, but we will need a little more experience before the South Buttress. My three partners are people I loved to have along, and would want to take on my next big climb. Even though we did not have a truly dominant leader, as was preferred, Dad really kept the team functioning as a team, and group of friends. He did so in manner that makes me say that we had probably the best team on the mountain in terms of group dynamics. Brad was probably the most level headed of us all. Not afraid to do anything, but definitely not willing to do anything stupid. If there was a better way to do something, he would usually come up with it first.

Something that I have always respected in Ken really showed through this trip. Ken was the only one of the four of us that did not summit. He was also probably one of the most cheerful members of the team. Ken always went on when he needed to, and had a great attitude. I don't know how I would have felt if I did not make the summit, but I am sure I would not have taken it nearly as well as Ken did. I hope to have someone like Ken on every expedition I go on.

This is Jeff's description of our 1989 climb of Denali. Our four-man team comprised Ken Bayne, Bradford Smith, Jeff, and me ("dad" in this report). As it turned out, Jeff proved to be the real leader of this group, which would have been demonstrated had we had a serious situation during the climb (which we never did, except possibly for the near-miss avalanche). SBRR stands for South Buttress Ridge Runners, the name of our expedition; as Jeff explains, we had intended to climb via the South Buttress, but went up the West Buttress instead because of the avalanche danger on the South Buttress. -Jerry Wagener