Dates of Trip:
In addition to the selfish reasons to climb mountains (bond with teammates, bag badass peaks, experience the spiritual smallness of us versus the mountain) we wanted to use it as a vector to spread an environmental message. We decided to climb Denali with vegan food and gear to highlight the scientific consensus calling for a radical change in our food system. We are working now to make a video about the expedition that we hope will raise awareness of the topic. The video will be released in the late Fall 2019 at https://veganali2019.github.io/
What this document is about:
Since there are tons of resources on the West Buttress, we wrote this report to try to offer more insight on the organization of the expedition--what worked and what did not work--rather than route description and beta.
There are technical hurdles in not using animal-based gear in an environment such as the Alaska range at 20’000 feet. We brought at least 50% more weight in terms of synthetic parkas and sleeping bags as compared to their down counterparts. For instance, the sleeping bag we used (MH Lamina -35 F) weighs 3 pounds more than a similar down-filled bag.
Take home points/surprises during our trip (in random order):
- Consider starting the expedition at the end of May. When we started our trek on May 19th the summit rate was still 0%...too cold to attempt in the first half of May.
- Encourage your teammates, even a couple of words can be huge for the morale.
- Bring beers and cache them at base camp!
- Fly there with a fresh cooked pizza and eat it at basecamp! Then, cache the box.
- Ski the first part of the route (until camp 11k), but train going downhill with a sled unless everyone on the team has prior mountaineering ski experience.
- Train going downhill with sleds. In your training, make sure your sleds are heavily loaded and the slope is considerable.
- Bring a 4.5 L pot, not 2 x 2.5l. Jetboil is considerably faster and easier to use. You can also bring some wooden (or any other insulating material) surface to insulate your cooking items from the ice.
- Build all walls with the direction of the wind as a primary factor.
- Matterhorn mountain guides are at least an order of magnitude faster than traditional mountaineering teams.
- Drones are not allowed, rangers will confiscate them…luckily, they did not send us back to Talkeetna.
- At 14k, empty your CMC as much as you can…dealing with frozen poop is “shitty”.
- Be patient. Everything takes more time than you think it will.
- While descending fixed ropes, consider having just one or two members of the rope-team prusik to the fix rope in order to speed up the process.
- Leave your headlamps at home unless starting before mid-May.
- Consider shipping some food to the Air Taxi company to save time once you arrive to Anchorage.
- Get on a regular bathroom schedule. Number 2 should be taken care of in the morning before departing for the day to avoid lengthy and uncomfortable delays.
Denali is strenuous, extended winter camping, so it is fundamental that you have your kitchen setup and cooking dialed in. We thought we prepared, but the reality is that we were under prepared in this aspect. For that reason, we struggled a bit during the first few days. Practice lighting stoves, organizing cooking equipment for easy setup and pack-up, cleaning and fixing stoves, etc. This should all be accomplishable with gloves on.
The main contributor to our summit success was the weather: major storms hit us when we were acclimatizing at camp 14k and at base camp and a little one at camp 11k, but never when we were ready to move up. We also highly recommend skiing the lower part of the glacier until 11k, it will make the way down so much faster.
Detailed Trip report:
Preparation needs to start at least 60 days in advance when you need to register your expedition team at the Denali NPS. The 60 days deadline is pretty strict. Nevertheless, physical training should start a bit before that depending on your cardio base. What we did in terms of physical exercise was train our cardio base; consider long runs, hill runs (or Harvard stadium training), and some prolonged indoor climbing (like 30 min of 5.8 autobelay). For the people living in the NE, we also loved going up Mount Washington to train with skis and sleds and to review all the technical skills required for the expedition such as self-arrest, crevasse rescue, ascending/descending fixed ropes. Mount Washington in the winter is also a great environment to test your gear (clothes and tent). Hauling heavy loads is one of the most serious challenges on Denali: make sure that you practiced going uphill with a heavy (>40 pounds) backpack and possibly a sled.
We spent the day in Anchorage, mainly at REI and Home Depot, to get last-minute items needed for rigging the sled. In the months prior to the expedition, we trained on Mt. Washington by carrying loads with sleds to figure out the best system; we really liked the rigid frame obtained by rigging the sled with PVC pipe. We cannot stress how much we recommend training with a sled for hauling loads; it is pretty key on Denali. Spend a couple of weekends to find the system that you will be most comfortable with.
We then took a bus in the afternoon to Talkeetna. Talkeetna is the 800-person town where you take the bush flight that brings you to Kahiltna Glacier. This is the location of the start of the journey and where the base camp is located. Alternatively, you could hike more than 20 miles crossing rivers up to the knees and coping with flies and more concerning, bears, by approaching Denali from the south side. A group of rangers were attempting that route; however, they had sleds and equipment already cached after 20 miles. Mushers and their sled dogs had brought in their supplies in March when everything was still in the solid phase. Without that, it would certainly have been an endeavor.
The expensive bus ride ($65 for 2.5 h) was filled with tourists and another solo climber. We were impressed by the number of solo climbers on Denali. I would say that circa 10% of the people were attempting it solo (don’t quote me on this– probably human bias as the solo climbers really stood out). However, given the great condition of the glacier (no crevasses or weak snow bridges) and the amount of people on the route, it is not such a crazy idea.
We met the rangers at Talkeetna station. At the station, we also found out that the summit success rate for 2019 was still 0%. We knew we were on the early side, but that was definitely unexpected with more than 200 people already on the mountain. We had a meeting with the rangers mainly to check that our team was prepared and had suitable equipment for the climb. The meeting was also meant to inform us about human waste disposal on the mountain. This policy has recently changed and the trajectory for the future is towards “leave no trace.” Nowadays, buckets are given to the climbers (generally one each) in which the solid human waste can be disposed in a biodegradable bag. Once filled, the bucket can be cached on the mountain, but they HAVE to be picked up on the way back. The only spot where solid human waste can be disposed of is at one crevasse at the 14K camp.
After meeting the rangers, we went to Talkeetna Air Taxi (the air taxi company that flew us onto the glacier). Here, we started to pack our duffel and organize all the goods we shipped to Talkeetna. In order to avoid excess luggage fees or going around Anchorage to buy all the supply, we had decided to ship nearly all the food and some of the gear that we did not own and had to buy (e.g. snow saw), and this worked well for us.
At around 4PM, we took our bush flight to Kahiltna Glacier. This is a short, albeit very stunning, 40-minute flight in an airplane that barely goes 100 MPH. However, the scenery changes pretty rapidly, and we soon abandoned the green valley and were immersed in the Alaskan range and endless ice. Once we reached the base camp at 7000 feet, what impressed us the most was the calmness and peacefulness of the place. All the sounds where kind of padded. We then met with the base camp manager, who gave us the white gas we purchased in town, as you are not allowed to fly with white gas on the bush flights. Note that you can bring on the plane propane (it cannot be “Jetboil” brand though) but know that if it gets too cold, they do not work very well; be prepared to sleep 15-20 days with a canister in your sleeping bag. After caching some food for our return to Base Camp (I would recommend also caching beers), we put our skins on our skis, attached our sleds to the backpack and started moving to camp 1. Hauling an average of 100 pounds each, we first descended Heartbreak Hill and then moved onto the lower part of the glacier. Route finding was pretty easy as the route is well marked with wands, and the trail is visible; this observation is valid for the entire West Buttress route. It took us about 4 hours to reach Camp 1 at 7,800 feet. I would describe this first part of the route as more pleasant than tiring. I would also recommend this piece of the route late in the afternoon or at night in order to avoid sweating when the sun is out as the sun rays’ reflection can “bake” you. Regardless, wear sun protection. This includes glacier glasses, nose guards, and sunhats. Setting up our tents at 1 AM with alpenglow light still present, we found out that headlamps were pretty useless.
We had a leisurely start, also due to going to sleep at around 2 AM. Only by making breakfast did we realize that our cooking system was not ideal. We had two MSR stoves: i) a traditional Whisperlite and ii) a Whisperlite universal (it can take white gas and propane, but actually does a poor job at both). More importantly, we had two 2.5L ceramic pots…wrong. 4.5 L is the way to go; with a 4.5 L you can just put a ton of snow, scratch your belly, and no need to refill every 10 minutes. I haven’t done the math, so not sure by how much, but it will also use fuel more efficiently. We arrived at Camp 2 (9,800’) at a reasonable time (probably around 4-5 PM) so we decided to continue to Camp 3 (11,000’).
For cadence, we took on a 1-hour push with a 10-15 minute break; This seemed appropriate for our levels of fitness. The last hill before this camp is steep and you need to switchback with touring skis. I believe it would be fine if you had snowshoes. Although Camp 3 was more crowded than Camp 1, we found two sites that were already built by previous parties. This much less shoveling for us!
Day 2 was hard, especially for Enrico, who had the heavier sled. That, combined with the poor weather, we decided to take a rest day. The spirit of the team was not the best. We met with people coming down from higher camps that told us about the extreme weather conditions and that still nobody had summited this season – we were doubting whether we could ever make it. In terms of spirits, I think it was the lowest day on Denali. You will encounter these days; do not try to indulge, but react by motivating and energizing your teammates. Just a few words can make a difference.
Chris and I headed up to cache some of the gear and food at 13,500’. Enrico was still recovering from minor altitude symptoms and decided to stay at camp. From camp at 11k to the cache at 13.5k there are three hills. Motorcycle Hill, Squirrel Hill, and a shorter hill before Windy Corner. Conditions were good...good enough: sunny, but with strong winds…probably not ideal for going around Windy Corner. I heard in the past that Squirrel Hill can be kind of sketchy, but we felt pretty safe. On the other hand, the small traverse just before Windy Corner was sketchy. A fall on the traverse funnels into a huge crevasse. Conditions were super icy due to the high winds (probably between 30-50 MPH) so the possibility of self-arrest was close to zero; moreover, we also had heavy packs (probably close to 50 pounds each) as we were caching for three people. We were careful, super careful. We were happy to reach the cache point and return to camp 11k with light packs. We also decided to traverse a bit higher on the way back in order to be further away from the crevasse. NO MENTION OF MY DOOKIE BOMB I HAD TO LEAVE JUST BELOW WINDY CORNER!? (now it is mention...). Back at camp, we were happy to see that water was already boiling. Enrico was feeling better and had cooked food for us and dug a hole for the cache for supplies and gear to be left behind at 11k. Team work starting to flow!
We moved to the camp at 14k. Basically, we redid the route of the previous day, with an additional push to reach 14k. It took us about 5-6 hours. On the route, we chatted with two Guide del Cervino (Guides of the Matterhorn). They had established a camp at base camp, and this was their second acclimatization trip. We were amazed to find out that it had taken them only seven hours to reach camp at 14k. Even though they were super light, we could not do anything else other than acknowledge how fit and strong they were! By the way, their aim was the Cassin… After arriving at camp 14k, we started shoveling to build the camp. If we had to do it another time, I would recommend building the wall mainly on the south side (where the winds are predominantly coming from); this is not what we did and in the following days we had to rebuild the camp and adjust it several times. Camp at 14k is fun and it is the time to bond with people. At that camp, we connected with our neighbors. Since they had picked 4:20 as their radio channel to communicate with each other, they were soon named the “Four-Twenty Bros,” whereas we soon became the “Vegan Sausages”.
The “Vegan Sausages” name came from our vegan food that we planned for the expedition. For dinner we either had vegan, freeze-dried meals or ramen with vegan sausages. Breakfast was oatmeal with a ton of peanut or almond butter. There is not really time to cook lunch while you are moving, so our lunches were protein Bars and/or Cliff bars. We budgeted around 3000-3500 cal/day..not enough! On the mountain, we were burning an average of 4500-5000 cal/day so force yourself to eat more or stick some fat before the trip.
Enrico and I retrieved the cache at 13.5k while Chris worked on adjusting our camp. We used a tarp to create our kitchen. Again, learning from our mistakes, if we had to go back we would go for a teepee-like structure to create the kitchen area. Creating a hospitable place in the camp is so important. It is crucial for team dynamics and mental sanity to have another area (apart from the tent) where you can recover from the elements. This is especially true at camp 14k where you end up spending the majority of the nights in the expedition.
Today was a planned rest day and we spent it mainly at the Edge of the World taking cool pictures and taking advantage of the sunny weather. In the afternoon we organized the kitchen area of our camp a bit more and returned to the Edge of the World to fly the drone. Drones are not allowed, so it was confiscated; we almost had our trip permit cancelled if it wasn’t for the ‘filming for a good cause’.
It was cache (mainly food and fuel) day. We wanted to cache some items that we would need for our days at high camp. This trip was also meant to be an acclimatization trip. We were pretty light and it was easy to take over some of the guided groups on the approach that leads to the Headwall. Luckily, by the end of the approach, we were ahead of most of the climbing groups and we did not have any waiting to get on the fixed ropes. Regarding the fixed ropes, Enrico and I used the Roll and Lock from Climbing Technology and we found it to be a really versatile tool. Basically, you can use it as an ascender and pulley and it weighs half of a traditional Jumar. After the fixed lines, there is the ridge, which I personally found to be the most beautiful and scenic part of the route. Here there are some pickets that you can clip your rope to for the more exposed parts. We wanted to cache our items at camp 17k, but we noticed that the weather was changing rapidly, so we cached our stuff on the ridge before reaching the camp. Indeed, the weather did change rapidly and we found ourselves descending on the fixed ropes in a complete whiteout. For descending the fixed ropes, I think having the first member of the team prusik down and the other two following only in-direct with a carabiner on the rope is a good compromise between time and safety (in case you need to get down fast).
On our way back, we met the “four-twenty guys.” Well, only two of them. They had decided to leave at 2 AM for a summit push from camp 14k via the West Rib. One of them had symptom of altitude sickness around 17k so together with the second person of the team they came down. The third person decided to go for a solo summit push but at 19k, got caught in the same storm that caught us. He decided to abandon the push and down climb the Orient Express. We could see only his tiny black dot slowly descending the mountain in the storm. It was worrying to see, but the fact that he was in touch with his teammates via the two-way radio was reassuring. He reached the tent at 11 PM (basically a whole day in the elements) and had to pay his dues. He had 9 frostbitten fingers, and a couple of them were third degree. He was flown out two days after (along with the confiscated drone) when high pressure came back to the range.
It was a forced rest day due to the stormy conditions. We spent the day reading and shoveling and realizing that our kitchen set-up with the tarp did not stand the heavy snowfall and wind. At night we decided to chill in one of the tents for dinner. It was a nice bonding experience and we chatted about life for three hours. When we got out around midnight we realized that the second tent where Enrico and I were sleeping was almost entirely covered in snow. We started shoveling and building a higher wall in order to get inside the tent -- we finished this talk around 2 AM. Do not underestimate the rate of precipitation in the Alaskan range.
We spent the day packing and organizing for the move to 17.5k. We opted to bring one tent up (Hilleberg Saivo 3 people) for two main reasons: i) it was extremely cold and cuddling would not hurt, ii) we had to hopefully only spend 1-2 nights at high camp and we preferred to go light and give away some comfort. After hearing the weather report at 8 PM on channel 1.0, it seemed like there was at least a 48-hour window characterized by high pressure and low winds. Talking about temperatures, it is almost useless – in the higher part of the mountain always expect a min temp of -25F and a max of -10F (if lucky)…always very cold.
We moved to camp at 17k, redoing the route we climbed three days before. We waited for some parties to break trail as the heavy snowfall deposited approximately 2-3 feet of light snow. After we reached high camp, we set up the tent and made dinner. The night before the summit bid was exciting and daunting; it was cold, but we were ready to tackle the summit. Luckily, we felt pretty strong and nobody in the team had any signs of altitude sickness. That being said, 17k camp is exposed, cold and icy; don’t expect comforts up here. Everything from the bathroom, to making water is difficult due to temperatures and altitude. It is recommended to spend as few nights up here as you can afford.
Summit bid! The weather seemed to hold. We woke up around 6:30 AM and spent 2,5 h getting ready and waiting for the sun to hit the ridge…we were one of the last groups to leave camp and we found ourselves behind a queue on the Autobahn (a gnarly traverse where a whole rope team of Germans slipped to their death many years ago.). I believe this is the worst part of the mountain to be standing in a queue for several reasons. It is just after the camp so you do not have enough time to warm up, it is in the shade, and there are spindrifts coming down the upper ridge. I was cold, really cold. I had not put on puffy pants because I thought we would move fast and generally I am never cold…generally. In hindsight, get ahead of queue by leaving early; the outside temperature may be colder but you will at least be moving.
As soon as this technical part ended, I removed my crampons and harness to put on the much needed and warm, puffy paints. Chris also cracked some hand warmers to put inside my mittens. Game changer! The last part of the route is a slog apart from the final ridge which is exciting. We reached the summit at 5 PM. Feeling excited, tired, happy and mesmerized by the clear view surrounding us, it is hard to fully describe the experience; I don’t think the altitude helps with the mental clarity either. After a glorious 20-30 minutes spent on the summit, we started our descent to high camp.
After another cold night, we were ready to further descend the mountain to camp 14k. Going down the ridge at 16k, I confirmed that it was, for me, the best part of the route in terms of technicality and scenery. We reached camp 14k and decided to rest for a bit before further breaking down camp and descending. We now had a sled with us that made things easier to carry, apart from the sketchy traverse before Windy corner. There is not a great way to traverse with a sled; what we found worked the best, or the least worse, was keeping the sled as close as possible to one’s body almost kind of holding it. Going downhill with the sled, we decided to put it before the first and second person in the team, prussiking the sled on its back. In this way, the weight is mainly carried by the second person. After we reached camp 11k, we retrieved our cache and put on skis to continue descending. With my ankle still injured from a recent fall before Denali, I found the hill just before the camp hard to descend on skis and sleds whereas all the other hills were manageable. We decided not to rope together given the stable glacier conditions, good trail visibility and well-marked route. After reaching Camp 1 and passing several groups on snowshoes on the way, we decided to push for Base Camp. Heartbreak Hill before Base Camp is really heartbreaking and the long day on our shoulders did not help. We reached
Base Camp at 3 AM, totally exhausted. It was a long day considering we left High Camp at 9 AM. I was personally hammered; I found this day to be more difficult than the summit day.
So why we did not split the decent into 2 or more days? We wanted to get off the glacier before a forecasted, multiple-day, low-pressure system reached the mountain and air taxis could not fly. However, despite our best efforts, the storm arrived before we could safely fly out and we spent the next 48 hours reading, eating, and bonding with our neighbors. Needless to say, when the air taxis picked us up, we were really excited to head back to civilization.
We thank Larissa Zhou and David Ding for the editing and suggestions.
Carlo, Chris, and Enrico