American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Denali, New Route

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Denali, New Route. The northeast side of Mt. McKinley attracted our attention even before literature about the region became accessible to us. After reading Jon Waterman’s book High Alaska, it became clear that our route would closely follow the Traleika Spur route, which was climbed for the only time in 1973. The members of our team were Fedor Lounev (Leader, 40), Otto Chkhetiani (35), Iliya Mikhalev (35) and Dimitry Oborotov (33), all from Moscow; all had experience in high-altitude ascents and long glacier expeditions in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains.

We started from Wonder Lake on June 20. After fording the McKinley River and shuttling loads, we established base camp on McGonagall Pass on June 25. To acclimatize and view an ascent route from the side, we went into the upper Brooks Glacier to Silverthrone Col. We began to move at night. In this mode, we made it up to 11,000 feet. We made an easy ascent of Mt. Silverthrone on June 30. Before us, excellent views of the east side of McKinley and the nearest Alaskan Range peaks opened up. (On the pass, we found an old cache, presumably from World War II times). We descended to the main fork of the Traleika Glacier on the western side of the pass (ice up to 35-45°). To ascend the ridge that divides the west and east forks of the Traleika Glacier we decided on a new, straightforward route that brought us to a steep 3,200-foot ice slope with a small icefall below, then rising directly up to a col at 11,500 feet (Camp III in 1973).

The beginning part of the 1973 route was, in our opinion, quite avalanche prone. We left camp at 8,300 feet on Traleika Glacier on July 5. The angle of the slope varied from 35 to 45°, with sections up to 50° (on which we used ice screws). The narrowest part of the icefall, in the bottom of the gorge, required fast passage for safety. An intermediate (and safe) camp was placed on the right side at 10,400 feet. At the top of the icefall we found areas of windslab. After a two-day snow storm we continued our advance on the ridge, where we encountered big cornices and ice climbing up to 50°. We rested for a day on July 10, then continued up from the saddle at 11,500 feet to the base of the upper icefall. The next snowfall made a detour of the icefall on the northern slopes of the East Buttress extremely dangerous, so we rose directly up the icefall into Thayer Basin. Movement through the icefall was extremely tiresome because of the deep snow; in addition, we experienced strong winds.

On July 14, after a day of dense fog, we climbed a 35 to 40° slope of hard water ice on the northeast ridge. In the previous days, the mountain was wrapped in clouds that would open up for only a few hours at night. On July 16, the elevations below 16,000 feet were in dense clouds. McKinley was completely open. After six hours of climbing we were on top, with excellent views of Foraker and Huntington. The next front of clouds bore in on us from the west. Before we made it back to camp we were hit by strong winds. We made our descent via Karstens Ridge; the only difficulties were in “swimming” up to our waists in the deep snow on the Muldrow Glacier between 8,000 and 7,000 feet. We made it back to McGonagall Pass on the night of July 19-20.

Fedor and Dimitry had decided previously to return via a known “shortcut” to Wonder Lake. Iliya and I preferred the original plan, an 80-kilometer route east to the Trans-Alaskan highway through Anderson Pass and on the West Fork River Valley, which we made in four days. It was not simple; we had to ford separate streams of the West Fork River and climb rocks and forested slopes. (We flew the last 11 kilometers in a helicopter we met at random).

For Fedor, the journey to Wonder Lake was his last. Three kilometers from the park road, while fording the McKinley River for the fourth time on the trip, he was tragically lost. Dimitry and the rescuers could not resuscitate him.

Otto Chkhetiani, Russia

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