American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, McKinley, South Face from Thayer Basin

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

McKinley, Southeast Face from Thayer Basin. On May 28, Bob Gammelin and I flew to Kahiltna Base to attempt a new route on Denali, one rising out of Thayer Basin to join the southeast spur at P 18,900. It was our perhaps perverse intent to approach the Basin via the East Fork of the Kahiltna and the Japanese Ramp, which would require a descent of 1500 feet from the crest of the South Buttress—should we be fortunate enough to survive the objective hazards of the Ramp and reach the South Buttress at all! We spent four days hauling up the East Fork, establishing our final glacier camp on June 1 at 12,000 feet. The technical crux involved wild stemming between a sérac flake and the main crevasse wall early on in order to gain the Ramp as the lower section was badly broken. Our only camp on the Ramp was made on June 3 at 14,000 feet beneath a sheltering sérac, just left of the icefall which separates the Ramp from the Wyoming Spur. This icefall provided interesting moments, fortunately the only area active during our time on the Ramp! On June 8, we moved up over the South Buttress, picked up a food cache and staggered into Thayer Basin, where we were greeted by an unrelenting ground blizzard which continued for the next three days. On June 13, the weather let us move onto new ground. We climbed the right branch of the great couloir that splits the southeast face to its junction with the east ridge on 50° to 60° ice and snow, with a camp at 16,000 feet below the top of the couloir. Beautiful weather held and the following day we climbed to 17,800 feet on the ridge, finding moderate to easy climbing on snow and weaving a line through rock buttresses and outcrops with only intermittent rock or mixed moves necessary. At that point, the weather deteriorated and the next five days were spent tent-bound, watching food and fuel supplies evaporate mysteriously, as it didn’t seem we were eating all that much! A second crux, this one psychological, was encountered when, on June 20, the weather broke and we were able to complete our climb of the ridge to P 18,900 and follow the Southeast Spur to the summit—an exhilarating finish up a sharp, exposed ridge with 8000 feet of the South Face falling below us! We retraced the route of ascent on our way down, with a variation involving a traverse south into the main branch of the great couloir just above the narrows at 16,000 feet, which allowed us to avoid down-climbing some rock encountered on the way up. We left Thayer Basin on the 22nd, beginning a 40-hour marathon, reaching Kahiltna Base on the evening of the 23rd, after climbing through the night on our descent of the Ramp. The route is moderate and enjoyable, yet committing and remote. Aside from the summit day and some specks on the Cassin, we saw no one for over three weeks … on Denali!

Lee L. James, Hosemeisters International

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