Denali's West Rib Solo in Winter

Publication Year: 1990.

Denali’s West Rib Solo in Winter

David Staeheli

HOPING TO CLIMB DENALI’S SOUTH Face solo in the style of its first winter ascent (AAJ, 1983, pages 93-97), my pilot friend Paul Claus set me down on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on February 25.I had finally found time between guiding jobs to make the attempt, which I had been planning for two years. Originally, I intended to try the Cassin Ridge; so, armed with route description on a sheet from a yellow legal pad and several years of hearsay, I was ready to give it a go.

A very intense cold spell had gripped Alaska during the early part of the month, but this finally gave way to a warm spell with powerful winds out of the north. On our approach to the mountain, the wing tips of the Piper Supercub made huge figure-eights as Claus battled the turbulence. I was glad to be put down on the relative safety of the glacier. On landing, the plane had skidded across the tops of colossal sastrugi before flopping belly-deep in a snow drift. We dumped out a mountain of gear and unstrapped my 14-foot ladder, which had been lashed Alaska-style to the plane’s belly. It took time to dig the plane out before Paul gunned the plane and left me in a cloud of spindrift.

To my surprise, I was not alone. It seems that climbing Denali in winter is getting popular. At Kahiltna Base, there were four climbers: three Austrians who had just completed an ascent of the West Buttress and a solitary Japanese, who was waiting there for his three companions. They were already six days overdue. With consistent high north winds, it was looking grim. Two weeks later, they were spotted below Denali Pass, frozen, having succumbed to cold and ferocious gales. Denali in winter, or in any season, can be very unfriendly. With that thought in mind, I began my odyssey up the mountain the next day.

My traveling rig was unusual: two sleds hooked in tandem towed by a 14-foot aluminum ladder suspended from my pack. This was my insurance against a crevasse fall. At first, it took me five minutes to climb in. After lining everything up, I would step in between the middle rungs of the ladder and strap on my skis. Then I would hoist the pack up, leaving the ladder suspended around my waist. Hooking my sit harness into the ladder was the final step before I lurched off along the glacier. The whole carnival train, all 21 feet of it, would have been an amusing sight if anyone had been around to see it.

To approach the south face of Denali, either the Cassin Ridge or the West Rib, one first must ascend the main Kahiltna Glacier from Kahiltna Base to the northeast fork and climb this so-called “Valley of Death” to the upper basin, hoping not to be swept away by an avalanche. My first day was pretty much what I expected, hard but not impossible. I placed Camp I just short of the northeast fork. The next two days proved hellish as the weather turned sour with heavy ground blizzards. Wearing a 14-foot ladder while threading through crevasses and trying to maintain balance against 30-knot gusts of wind is not fun. Progress was limited to a mile a day for the next two.

Camp IV was at the base of the big icefall, my next obstacle. It took two days to force my way through as I had to resort to load carries. The ladder became a nuisance and it was impossible to wear here. As with all icefalls, it was an enigmatic maze until every last secret passage had been found. I was grateful to establish Camp V at 11,200 feet at the base of the West Rib couloir.

Until then, I had intended to climb the Cassin Ridge. I had several equipment problems, the most pressing being my boots. I had bought a new model and found them not as warm as they had been made out to be. Every day, it was a struggle to keep my feet from freezing. Looking up at the sunless ice chute leading to the Cassin Ridge, I realized that if I continued, I would suffer severe frostbite. A much wiser and more profitable idea was to climb the West Rib instead. Not having researched this route meant that I had to rack my brain to remember everything I had ever heard about it. I made a short reconnaissance up the couloir and decided on it.

The next day, I carried a load up the couloir, often using a 300-foot piece of 7mm rope. After establishing a cache just short of the “snow domes,” I returned to camp.

On day eight, I broke camp and moved up the couloir. In the gully the climbing varied from step-kicking to front-pointing on nearly impenetrable boiler-plate ice. Since previous winter attempts had found the gully to be mostly all ice, I considered myself lucky. Crossing the snow domes was the trickiest part of the whole climb. I was forced to use double tools and front-points on wide-open exposed slopes. A very happy camper dug his tent into a bergschrund that night. The next few days saw me carrying loads and moving to Camp VI at 15,000 feet and Camp VII (Balcony Camp) at 16,300 feet.

Through this time, the weather was mostly windy with a fair amount of sunshine. What really surprised me was that the average daily temperatures continued to rise as I gained altitude. The coldest I had recorded was -28° F down on the northeast fork. On the summit day, I arose to a very comfortable 5° F. A veritable heat wave. In researching other winter ascents, I found such a temperature inversion is not uncommon.

Although I was on the steepest terrain yet, the summit day, March 11, was uneventful. I concentrated particularly hard while climbing the “Orient Express,” scene of many a fateful accident. I was amazed when I came to the “Football Field” at 19,500 feet to find that the winds of the past month had

carved the most spectacular sastrugi I had ever seen. They were up to four feet high with underhangs of five or six feet.

The weather on the summit was the clearest in all my years of standing there. I had no feeling of exhilaration, though, as I was now facing the most dangerous part of any climb, the descent. Climbing carefully down, I reached Balcony Camp seven hours after leaving it.

The next morning, I left Balcony Camp via the West Buttress to descend to my next camp at 7800 feet at Ski Hill. Carelessness on the descent is not unusual. I managed to contract a case of what I call “mechanically induced frostbite” on several toes. That night at Ski Hill, I was treated to one of the best northern lights shows in years in probably the best location to see them. The next day, at Kahiltna Base I was able to flag down bush pilot Doug Geeting. By early afternoon, my fiancée and several excellent friends plied me with ’burgers and champagne at Talkeetna.

This was the first solo winter ascent of Denali by a technical route. Winter mountaineering in the Alaska Range is serious business, but not without rewards. Fourteen people have stood on McKinley’s summit in winter but six of them have died. I believe that all the winter accidents can be traced to poor judgment, carelessness or inexperience with local conditions. Alaskan climbs can be safer in winter, especially if the main objective hazards are icefalls or avalanches at altitude. I believe my success was good luck, but luck is made as well as found.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

Solo Winter Ascent: Denali (Mount McKinley), 6193 meters, 20,320 feet, via West Rib of the South Face, Summit reached on March 11, 1989 (David Staeheli).

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