Jon Gupta’s 7in4 VIII: DENALI
Denali in Alaska is the highest mountain in North America & was always going to be the crux of the entire project. Most people assume Everest would be but it’s not – especially when attempting Denali out of season!
Exped dates – 21st March to 6th April
Summit – 3rd April (Day 77 of Project 7in4!)’
It is highly regarded as one of the coldest & harshest mountains on earth. On top of this, we (Steve, Rob, Chris & myself) went very early in the season when it’s even colder, windy & there is absolutely no one around…just the 4 of us! After our small fixed-wing plane dropped us on the glacier & flew off it all felt a bit more real! For 17 days the 4 of us were alone on the mountain. There were no fixed camps, porters/Sherpas or mules. Just us.
The first night temperatures plummeted to -22 at 2200m, & we all realised this was going to be a cold few weeks – we were going to 6000m! We had over 600lbs of expedition kit between us including 20 days of food, 800ft of fixed rope, 6 gallons of fuel, 3 cookers, 2 mountain tents, 4 sleds…enough to survive for 3 weeks or so.
Over the first 9 days we dragged our sleds, continually broke trail, wanded the route, built snow block walls for our camps, melted litre after litre of snow & counted our lucky stars as the sun shone & the wind was nowhere to be seen. We carried, cached, moved, and back-carried until all our equipment & supplies were at 14,200ft camp.
Established in at 14,200ft camp (4350m) we had one day where we fixed the steep headwall above camp & the weather changed, as Denali showed her true colours. For 3 days we didn’t leave the tents as a huge storm smashed the upper mountain. Some gust were around 90km & strong enough to knock the walls down! We began counting backwards; how much food did we have, how many more days could we stay at 14,200 camp, would the wind ever stop?? We were running out of days.
We had daily weather forecasts coming into our Garmin InReach & suddenly there was a tiny weather window developing on the April 3rd, sandwiched between more strong winds. This didn’t allow us to move & use the high camp 900m above us…so we only had one choice. We left 14k camp at around 9am on 3rd April, it was still a little breezy & lenticular clouds were hammering the summit. Out of camp & up the fixed lines we had put in place 5 days earlier to gain the thin ridge. The climbing along here was superb! As we arrived into high camp after around 5 hours, we swapped into our down suits, drank a little & tried to eat something. It was cold.
The afternoon was perfect. We gradually gained altitude via the ‘Auto-bahn’, the ridge, through the ‘football field’, up ‘pig hill’ & eventually along the summit ridge. By now the sun was setting & we were both pretty pooped but we had it in us. At 21:30, just over 12 hours from our camp we stood on the summit of a windless & cloudless Denali – it could not have been more perfect. The forecast had been 100% spot on! It was so cold we stayed for just 1 minute!
Tired, dehydrated but elated with what we had achieved we carefully retraced our steps all the way back to camp. It was a clear, calm night but brutally cold at around -45 degrees. We were both wearing more clothes than you would on an 8000m mountain!
Arriving at camp just before 05:00 am – our 20-hour epic had been incredible! Rob & Chris who hadn’t come to the top were up & awake, & thrust litres of water at us, knowing only too well we would be severely dehydrated.
We collapsed into our tent. We had done it.
Thanks to – Denali National Park, TAT for flying us in & out, Exposure Alaska for arranging our food (outstanding!!), Rob & Chris for being an amazing team.