An account of the 1995 Chutes & Ladders Expedition to Mt. McKinley, Alaska. Ski descents of the Messner Coulior from 20,320' and the Orient Express from 19,200'. One day ascent of the upper West rib from 14,300'. Spanish rescue effort and body recovery.
I had almost no interest in going to Denali until I saw a photograph of the Messner Couloir during a slide show. Being a chute skiing hound, seeing this was close to a religious experience. After the show, without even knowing what or where it was, both Mark and I said "Wow! Did you see that chute! We've gotta go!" It starts at close to 20,000' above sea level and runs straight down the center of the Mt. McKinley massif for a vertical mile of 40-50 degrees. It has a pronounced hour glass shape to it and the bottom section doglegs slightly. In my mind it was the great grandfather of all chutes - the chute that all chutes aspire to be and the chute that all chutes have come from. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there aren't any lifts on Mt. McKinley yet, so getting there was going to be involved.
The first part of the trip, once I was finally able to put away my Visa card which just about had the numbers rubbed off it from gear purchasing, was the long approach up the Kahiltna glacier. I had talked to a lot of people about this to get a feel for what this 11 mile, 7,000' climb was going to be like. The one thing that no one remembered to tell us was that it was a lot of work. Actually, it was a $#@^!'ing lot of work! It ended up taking us about 5 days to complete the trip up to the 14,300' advanced base camp. This was caused in part by our unwillingness to suffer any creature discomforts as we packed along cans of Spam, gallons of 12 year old single malt Scotch, pillows, two full size tents, a mini boom box complete with spare DD batteries, fresh pasta, gallons of fuel, two stoves, a full assortment of ski gear, climbing gear, books, Crazy Creek chairs and lots and lots of warm clothes. We packed all the light fluffy stuff into big backpacks and put all the dense stuff into hateful little creatures officially called "sleds", but more commonly known as The F***ing Sled. They are basically cheesy little bright pink kids sleds that you load up and drag behind you. They tip over often. They plow into your ankles. They get caught on things, then break loose and try to pull you into crevasses. Quaint features like "Ski Hill" became "Ski Hell". Motorcycle Hill became "MurderCycle Hell" as we ferried loads up it for the third time. Windy Corner, a 3,000' section that could be done in a few hours with no loads became a 3 day undertaking as we carried close to 250 lbs of decadence up it. By the last day I was really beginning to wonder what the attraction of alpine climbing was. But, when we finally reached the 14,300' camp, the staging area for trips to the summit, we were able to spread out and start trying to eat our way through some of our immense baggage rather then carrying it.
Denali is not a secret place. At times there were close to 150 people camped at 14.3, the majority of which were planning on climbing the West Buttress. My partner Mark Holbrook and I didn't really care which route we climbed, as long as we got to ski down something worthy. We came across Doug Byerly, a friend from Salt Lake City that had similar desires to ski the Messner, and not only that, but he had a plan on how to do it.
"We should climb the West Rib and ski it from the summit. It's never been skied all the way from the summit."
Mark and I agreed that sounded like a good plan. Having spent one day at 14.3, we set out the next day with two other friends from Colorado up the West Rib. We started by following the tracks of the two park rangers who were looking for a trio of Spaniards that had started up the West Rib four days earlier and hadn't been heard from since. We all reached the 17,000' balcony site together and tore into some ancient tent remnants with our ice axes thinking we might find bodies frozen in the snow. Much to my relief, we didn't. The tents were from some previous epic and there were no bodies. The two rangers, Daryl and Colin, decided to head down and since Mark was starting to feel the effects of a quick gain in altitude, he joined them. We continued on as the sun got further away and the temperature began to drop. I was floating in my own little hypoxic sea of misery as we crossed the 18,000' landmark, and was beginning to wonder if I should go higher as we crawled up to the 19,000' mark. I was third or forth in line at this time and suddenly heard something different then the usually heavy breathing and quite moans of lactose poisoning. Deaun had been in the lead at the time and as we crested the formation that forms the end of the actual rib on the West Rib route, he had stumbled across the lost Spanish climbers.
"Are you OK?" he was shouting through the howling wind and -20 degree temperatures. "Any frostbite? Are the others OK?" He was speaking to a standing climber who was shivering in front of a flimsy looking tent, half collapsed by the wind so that it revealed the outline of two other figures huddled inside of it trying to support the last surviving tent pole. He replied that he was OK, but the other two inside had some frostbite on their hands and feet and their tent was about to fully collapsed from the wind. They had pitched their tent on one of the only flat spots available, which unfortunately was in one of the most wind exposed areas on the mountain. While the others continued to talk with them, I moved around and tried to find another site for their tent, but to no avail. The area around them was strewn with tattered gear, pee stains that had been stretched 20' by the wind, heavily sculpted sastrugi snow and lots of car sized rocks that offered a little protection from the wind, but no place to pitch a tent. When I made it back to the tent, a plan of action had been decided. Doug and I would ski down the Orient Express and report them to the 14.3 ranger station, while Terry and Deaun would traverse by foot over to the 17.2 camp and try to get a hold of a radio there. The Spanish said they didn't need food, warm clothing or fuel and it was apparent that they were too strung out from frostbite, exhaustion and altitude to move any further. Doug and I started getting our skis on (I frostbit my thumb in the process) while the other two began their traverse across the Messner Col to the 17.2 camp.
Although my mind was occupied with getting down and reporting the Spanish trio, all that changed with our first turns at the top of the Orient Express. Aptly named for the many Oriental climbers that have fallen to their death while trying to descend this direct line, the snow conditions didn't do anything to dispel the book and magazine images of crushed bodies after the 4,000'+ fall. Each turn was an adventure. No two turns were the same. Powder pockets, layers of crust, hard neve, blue ice, deeply runneled sastrugi, firm hard pack. It had it all. Add to that the effects of the altitude which only allowed about 10 turns before turning your legs to oatmeal and leaving you feeling like you were slowly being strangled as you collapsed on your poles grips and tried to suck in as much air as possible. You'd take a long rest, think you were recovered, make a few turns and assume the position again. It reminded me of the dazed confusion a fish must feel as it's clubbed to death on a pier - except it kept going for a long, long time. Luckily, the final 1,200' was perfect powder and we were able to link turns in long shots all the way down to the rangers hut at 14.3 where we gave them the report about 45 minutes after meeting the Spaniards. They started the proceeding for a helicopter rescue, but due to the late hour (it was about 10:00pm) and the fact that they didn't seem to be in dire need of an immediate rescue, the evacuation was scheduled for the next day.
We decided that we'd take a rest day, then the day after make another attempt at the summit and skiing the Messner. As we were lounging around in the morning, Mark noticed that there was a person skiing the Messner. We watched for awhile as the solo figure worked his way down the chute and was then met with a hail of cheers from his friends as he skied into the 14.3 camp. After a few hours, I decided to go congratulate him on his descent, with the ulterior motive of pumping him for some details. His name was Paulo and he lived near Balogna in Italy. I asked him how it was:
"Good. A little hard in spots"
"Where did you start?"
"At the top"
"The top of the mountain, or the top of the Messner?"
"The top of the mountain."
"You skied right off the summit?"
"Oh. Uhmm, did you know that that's the first time the Messner's been skied from the summit?"
The wild backslapping, grins, handshaking and excited yabbering that followed this question convinced me that they did indeed know what they had done - captured the first descent of the greatest chute on earth from it's highest logical point. I congratulated him again and shirked back to my camp to break the news.
"He skied it from the top."
"The very top?"
"Yep, the summit."
"Does he know that that's a first?"
"Damn" said Doug
"Damn" said Mark
"Yeah, damn." I said. "But he did it by overnighting with friends at 17.2 and then summitting and skiing it the next day while his friends took the camp down. We could climb the West Rib to the summit and ski the Messner in a day without support....?"
"Hmmm." said Doug. "That would count. It would be a legitimate progression in style."
So with that in mind, we decided to do it the next day. Being first at something wasn't necessarily the main goal, but it does help to have some sort of rationale to help explain to yourself why you are doing this and to keep you motivated. So, we got all of our gear ready and made plans for an early start the next day. Unfortunately, right before we started fixing our early dinner, Chuck Brainerd, a friend from work, came by and said "You're wanted in the ranger station ASAP. Doug also."
I went over to the station and met Colin who was looking up towards the Orient Express. He handed me some super-spiffy autofocusing binoculars and said "Do you see that dark spot just below the bergschrund on the Orient? I think it's the body of one of the Spaniards." I looked up and could see the faint traces of our tracks from yesterday. Right next to them was a black looking spot that I didn't remember from the day before. "Sometimes people survive a fall down the Orient. We're going to go up there and see what's up." said Colin. We agreed to bring the sled litter and some other emergency supplies up behind them as soon as we could get mobilized. The victim had stopped about 1,800' uphill from where we were, so we geared up and followed Colin and Daryl's tracks uphill, stopping a couple of hundred feet below them to see if they needed the sled or not. Colin made his way through some knee deep snow over to the body. He took off his pack and it looked like he was giving some sort of aid to the victim. We refrained from calling up to see if he was still alive and waited anxiously down below. After awhile, Colin stood up and started walking downhill towards us - away from the victim. Nothing happened until he was about 30 feet away from the person, then the rope came tight and the body surged downhill like an unruly sled, tumbling and plowing snow as it slid. The arms and legs flopped in a grotesque manner that suggested that every bone in the body was broken and the only thing holding it all together was the blood stained clothing. We could see that it was now a body recovery and began to dig out a platform to stabilize the litter for loading. From a distance it was easy to be objective about the lifeless body as it rolled and surged downhill - it just looked like a pile of clothing in roughly a human form. But as they drew nearer, the sight of the exposed hands, now gray and waxen with the skin hanging in loose folds, gave the body a flesh and blood context that quietly sobered the scene. It was a very solemn trip back down to the 14.3 camp.
In the meantime, an Army Chinook helicopter had air lifted Alex Lowe, Marc Twight and Scott Backes (all fully acclimatized) up to the 19,500' summit plateau where they had rigged some fixed lines down to the remaining two Spaniards. With some coaxing, pulling, carrying and general heroics, they were able to get the Spaniards up the remaining 300'-500' vertical feet and into the waiting helicopters. They were immediately flown to an emergency clinic and both have survived. They said there partner fell while they were trying to find a place to relocate their tent a few hours before they were rescued. (As we were doing our final check out at the Talkeetna rangers station, the park radios were alive with a Taiwanese rescue that was taking place. Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker were once again on the summit plateau trying to get people stabilized and down to 17,200'. One died before they reached him and two survived.)
We took the next day off, not feeling up to the mental or physical challenge of trying to climb and ski. The day after that, we attempted to climb again, but were held at bay by one of the infamous lenticular clouds that surround Denali's summit like a skull cap. We climbed up into the edge of it and thinking that it might dissipate, began to wait. The wind and cold inside these clouds is incredibly intense. Hangtime is measured in minutes. There is no visibility. The wind finds any little weakness in your clothing and pushes cold air through. A sense of vertigo sweeps over you where you aren't sure if you're moving or standing still. We waited close to an hour before giving up and heading back down. Doug was tiring of the weather and had other commitments so he decided to leave.
Mark and I decided that the only way we were going to make it up this mountain was to wake up every morning at 5:00 ready to go if the weather was good. Luckily, this worked out on the second day we did it, and by 7:00, with a nice brisk -10 temperature, we were off on the West Rib for the third time. This time the weather held and we were able to cruise our way through to 19,000' in about 7 hours. We had committed to climbing up the upper chute of the Wickwire route, but at the last minute realized that maybe there was a good reason that people didn't do this (there isn't) and traversed across the head of the Orient Express to where we were about 200' above the abandoned Spanish camp. Feeling it was bad karma, I tried to stay high and avoid it, but unfortunately ran into a 30' patch of blue ice - the only ice on the entire route. I frantically tried to stab my self arrest ski poles into the solid ice and only succeeded in getting them up to the first tooth. Each crampon step had to be carefully placed, which required looking down between your feet at the destroyed Spanish tent and the beginning of the 4,000' slide for life. Without looking, I could feel Mark close by and imagined him
accidentally knocking me off. Panicking softly I said "Give me some room here Mark", but I needn't have worried as he was a good 15' feet away having a similar mind riot. We both made it across the ice patch and treated ourselves to some shameless yarding on the fixed rescue ropes that were still in place. From here, it was a long walk and about 800' more climbing to finally make it to the summit.
The summit was slightly disappointing. The true highest point is just a section of cornice that probably changes by a few inches every day. We had the summit to ourselves while we were there, but insanely high winds and cold kept it to strictly business as we snapped a few photos, switched over to ski mode, packed our gear and started skiing. Mark made a few turns down the summit hill, then trying to carry enough speed to propel him across the football field, cut loose and did a high speed straight shot down the bottom part. I followed suit and we happily blazed by a group of people working their way up towards the summit. We continued around the West Buttress route until we came to the point that I thought was the top of the Messner Couloir. One of the distinct advantages of climbing up what you are going to ski down is that you know where you are going and what conditions are going to be like. We didn't. Turning into a large open area, we made a few test turns on hard snow. Mark started making turns downhill while I traversed out into the center of the bowl, still not convinced we were in the right place - it just seemed too vast for a chute. About halfway into it, it hit me. The 14.3 camp popped into view 5,000' feet below us, with a long continuous band of snow leading from my skis to it. We were in the Messner alright. It was huge. The headwall was roughly 150 yards wide, with enough room for twenty tracks in it without crowding. We were standing at the top of one of the greatest runs of all time. I made a few turns and immediately suffered leg and lung meltdown. I was hammered. The top section was mainly firm smooth neve that gave off a cryogenic blast of cold crystals everytime your edges cut into it. This continued for about 1,000' vertical of 48 degrees, then turned to a semi supportable powder crust that occupied most of the main section. This was a little more secure feeling, but the unpredictability of it took some extra effort that made it seem to go on for ever. Tens turns and melt on top of your poles. Recover, ten more, meltdown. Repeat until exhausted. We continued down the chute taking turns making 10-20 turns then resting. Finally we got to the famous bottleneck section of it, about halfway down. According to "High Alaska" - Jonathan Waterman's bible of Alaska climbing & skiing - the original name of the chute was the "Hourglass Couloir" due to it's shape. In 1972 Sylvain Saudan attempted to climb the West Buttress with a support team and then ski the Couloir. He claimed to have skied it from the summit, but witnesses claim he only made it to the 19,500 level. None the less, the name was changed to the Saudan Couloir. Four years later, Reinhold Messner and Oswald Oelz tandem soloed it in 8 and 10 hours respectively - Reinhold taking nothing but an ice axe and movie camera with him. The name was changed again - this time to the Messner Couloir, which has stuck. From 14.3, the bottleneck looks like the crux of the ski as it appears to be the narrowest, steepest, iciest section. In reality, it is still a good 150' wide, about 42 degrees and very skiable. Mark and I alternated through it and came down into the crevassed lower section. From camp it looked like we would have to carefully thread our way through these cracks, bergschrunds and ice domes, but as we skied down, the way became very obvious and only required a few excursions outside of the fall-line. We were rewarded by going from blue ice to boot top deep powder which lasted all the way down into the 14.3 camp.
Eleven hours after we left the 14.3 camp, we skied back into it. Fortunately we had been able to show some self restraint during the early part of our trip and we had a nice supply of Glenlivet naturally chilled to -10 degrees waiting for us. Soon afterwards, we decided for some reason that we were too tired to eat dinner and ended up going to sleep.
We had a couple of other projects on the hit list, but we were beginning to feel the effects of permafrost starting to develop in our bodies, so we decided to head out a few days early. Pulling out of the 14.3 camp at 7:00am during a mild storm, little did we know that the next 4 hours would be the most trying moments of our trip. The wind and snow steady increased as we approached the infamous "Windy Corner" (aka Windy Coroner) until it was a howling
horizontal blizzard. We went from skis to boots, boots to crampons, and then finally had to start belaying sections of downclimbing. The wind had turned this mellow 20 degree slope into a grazed ice death trap that we had to negotiate with big packs and full sleds. The sleds would hang up, then suddenly break loose with a lurch and try to pull you after them while the wind did it's best to blast us off the hill. A section that had taken us 15 minutes to ski a week before now became a grim two hour undertaking that left both of us speechless by the time we reached the 11,000' camp. Safe, but thoroughly whipped. And the adventure wasn't even over yet.
We put our skis back on and pulled out of 11,000' in the midst of a total white out, carefully trying to trace the wands and avoid crevasses we crept along. We made it about a mile before the wind scoured all signs of the trail away and the wands disappeared in the consuming white. Vision was limited to less then 100', so rather then risk walking blindly into a crevasse, we stopped, dug a hole, erected the tent and did the time honored British tradition of drinking tea (well coffee anyway) in the tent while the storm rages on outside. This went on for about 4 more hours until it finally cleared enough to see where we were - 30' from the trail and about 200' from a major campsite. We decided to make a break for it and after repacking we were able to ski down to the 7,000' landing strip in about 2 hours. Our total descent time was 14 1/2 hours. A normal slow time on skis is 4.
The landing strip was occupied by people who had been waiting a day or more for the weather to clear so the brush pilots could fly in and pick them up. We spent the night there and the next morning we awoke to scattered overhead clouds and a radio announcement that Doug Geeting (one of the veteran aviators of the area) was going to try to make it through. He must have radioed that it was all clear to the other pilots, because within about 5 minutes of him breaking over the ridgetop and coming in for a landing, the other planes came buzzing through the rocky gap known as "One Shot" one right after another like the Calvary coming in for the rescue. It was a awesome sight and brought lots of cheers from the crowd waiting to get out. We were picked up and flown out right away. On the flight back to Talkeetna, Paul, our pilot, saw a bear and decided to go in for a closer look. He put the plane into a tight spiral until the bear was staring us right in the eyes, then pulled back and headed for home, leaving us all slightly