Denali, Lower Southwest Face, Dad and Son
Alaska, Denali National Park
My 23-year-old son Denali felt compelled to climb his namesake. While he was studying in San Francisco, he told me over the phone (I being in New Zealand) that he was climbing Denali with or without me. I told him that I would get clients right away for the West Rib; bugger if he was going to Alaska without me.
At the last minute two clients pulled out, but I told Denali we would go anyway and be tight with our budget. Denali is a starving student, and I’m a mountain/ski guide living out of a van. We flew to Anchorage on May 15. We climbed the upper West Rib over 10 days, made a 15-hour climb to the north summit, and climbed Foraker, via the Sultana Ridge, in a 63-hour roundtrip from Kahiltna base camp. We then skied to the northeast fork of the Kahiltna and established a safe campsite below the unclimbed buttress immediately left of West Rim Route (Southwest Rib, AK4 60° Ehmann-Morrow, 1977).
Taking off early the next day, our hearts and minds were in harmony with each other and with the mountain. After swinging tools through the first section of steep snow and ice, we hooked through the lower five pitches, which brought us to the first crux: the broken glacier between what we called the Big Toe and the main body of our climb. We dubbed this section the Fungus, since it was between the big toes. In six hours of fast climbing, we reached the top of pitch 10, below the main crux of the route, a vertical rock wall split by a few cracks. I started climbing this pitch wearing the full pack but removed it for the most technical move, in a finger crack that slanted across the wall (5.10). Denali attached the packs, and I hauled. It was the only time we took them off until we stopped for a brew at hour 24.
Carrying bivouac equipment encouraged us to wish for a ledge, but none arrived. For the 29 hours we spent on the climb, no ledge appeared, so we just continued up, seeking a path through rotten
snow arêtes, vertical chandelier ice pinnacles, thin vertical ice runnels, and big rock boulder moves. We belayed every pitch: Denali is my only son, and nothing was going to get in the way of our safety. Alaska offers the best and the worst of climbing. The worst comes by way of double overhanging corniced ridges, and we dealt with some of those; riding pitch 18 was like riding Brahma bulls in India, waiting for the end to happen.
The next 11 pitches, continuous, steep-angled, hard ice up the backbone of our route, went like clockwork. The final rib we called the Crowning Chakra for several reasons, one being that as the last part of the climb became clear, we finally found the first real sit-down place. We brewed the most wonderful coffees and teas, ate cereal, milk, and bars, and sat absorbing the sights, relishing the past 24 hours. Above, the climbing did not ease in angle, but we found the going easier in those last pitches. After 29 pitches and 29 hours, we reached the highest point, across from Windy Corner on the West Buttress Route.
After negotiating large crevasses between us and the Corner, we headed down the Kahiltna Glacier, following the standard West Buttress Route. We were back at our campsite on the northeast fork by midnight. We packed and were at the airstrip by 4 a.m., the first to register for a flight out. However, our last days on Denali were the longest spent in one place during our expedition. We were stuck for three days while the weather was simply Alaskan. Our route, Dad and Son (5.10 A2 WI5), was the last remaining unclimbed ridge on Denali from the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna.
Marty Schmidt, New Zealand