Preparing to Climb Denali

Red Mtn Pass

Shortly after we arrived in Telluride we fully committed to climbing Denali (AKA Mount McKinley) in the Spring 2016. We made this decision for a couple of reasons. First, we needed a “home base” to train for this expedition and since we were living at 9,000 feet in a super comfortable condo it seemed like the right thing to do. Second, I was having a really hard time adjusting to, well … living. I was in the middle of grieving the loss of my Dad and we had basically slipped into typical retirement life. For me this was unnerving. I felt like I had no purpose, I missed traveling, and I hated how much money we were spending to live in Telluride. Third and last, climbing Denali was on both of our bucket lists. So we agreed to the climb and started making plans.

The first thing that we needed to do was get fit — really fit! It will take us about 21 days to climb the mountain in big expedition style. Setting up camps and carrying loads higher and higher on the mountain, until we are close enough to the top to lay siege. With just the two of us, we’ll each need to carry a 40-50 pound backpack and pull a 60-80 pound sled. Thus the need, to build a well oiled mountain chassis. We decided to enlist the help of Mountain Tactical Institute in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for our training. We’ve now completed a customized training plan but since the plan was only 10-weeks long, we designed our own plan for the months of December, January, and February. In Telluride we were able to workout at Telluride FUEL, which was basically a private gym, as well ski, hike, and climb outside.

Once Telluride Ski Resort closed at the end of March, we relocated to Durango. We hoped Durango would provide us better and less expensive access to climbing, groceries, and a crossfit gym to finish our training. We found the most amazing VRBO house to rent which saved us a ton of money and we ended up working out at the local recreation center, which also saved us money. The rec center didn’t have all the equipment we needed, so we made sandbags to do sandbag getups and loaded step ups. A little more than half of the workouts we had left to complete, we did at home, which provided us with an amazing view. In fact just this past week, we watched a bald eagle dive into the lake and catch a fish.

With a solid physical training program in place we got to work planning out our gear, food, and logistics. It’s lucky that we don’t have jobs because it’s extremely time consuming. It would be so much easier to hire a guide company but then we’d be stuck with a group, a guide, and an enormous bill. Because we have the experience, skills training, and time we decided to undertake this trip unguided.

Despite our experience, this will be the longest trip that either of us have done unsupported. The reality of that set-in while I was planning our meals. I estimate that we need to consume about 150,000 calories over the course of 21-days. Breaking that down into daily consumption was difficult, especially since we can only have “fresh” ingredients for about the first week. Additionally, either of us want to eat “instant” meals for the entire trip, so I needed to come up with nutritious meals that we could make with only the simplest of ingredients. When I taught at Colorado Mountain College, I was lucky enough to be a part of the Outdoor Recreation Leadership students two week “orientation” class. We spent the first week in the Sawatch Range mountains near campus and the second week near Green River, Utah. The trip was all about cooking elaborate meals and everyone took turns. So I knew it was possible to eat well out of a backpack with simple ingredients but I had never planned it out. Enter the NOLS Cookery.IMG_1422 So with a solid meal plan in place, all I had to do was track down and purchase all the ingredients, pack it into bulk style containers, create recipe labels, and put it into a backpack. I should add that we decided to eat instant meals while we’ll be at 17,200′ camp, because let’s be honest everything is harder at that altitude. So we did purchase a handful of organic meals from Mary Jane Farms.

After the food planning was handled, I started in on a trip plan. We purchased the map we needed from the USGS and started laying out our itinerary. After marking camps and cache sites on the map, we came up with this itinerary:

  • Day 1 – Meet with NPS Rangers at 8:30am
    Take bush flight onto the Kahiltna glacier (7,200′) and cache supplies
    Move to Camp 1 at 7800’ below Ski Hill”
  • Day 2 – Carry cache of supplies to Camp 3 at (11,000′) & return to Camp 1
  • Day 3 – Move to Camp 3 (11,000′)
  • Day 4 – Rest Day
  • Day 5 – Carry cache to 13,500′ around Windy Corner or 14,200′ and return to 11,000′
  • Day 6 – Cache skis at 11,000′ and move to Camp 4 (14,200′)
  • Day 7 – Rest Day / Retrieve cache from 13,500′
  • Day 8 – Rest Day (My 39th Birthday!)
  • Day 9 – Carry cache to 16,200′ (Ridge Camp) and return to 14,000′
  • Day 10 – Rest Day
  • Day 11 – Move to High Camp (17,200′), pick up cache from 16,200′ along the way
  • Day 12 – Rest Day
  • Day 13-16 – Summit days x 4
  • Day 17 – Return to 14,200′
  • Day 17 – Optional Rest Day
  • Day 19 – Return to Base Camp at 7,200′
  • Day 20-23 – Weather Buffer Day x 4
  • Day 24 – Fly to Talkeetna & Drive to Anchorage

Since we have time, this itinerary will give us the best opportunity to summit. We can wait out a storm for more than a week, make a summit attempt, and still have time to catch our flight “home.” Home is of course a relative term to us. It’s basically our 10 x 10 storage unit, which we’ve decided to relocate once again. After this trip, we’ll be traveling more full-time for the rest of the year and our flights will be out of Phoenix, so we are moving our storage unit to Arizona at the beginning of next week. The airport in Durango is really expensive to get in and out of and Sean’s parents live in Phoenix, allowing us to have a free place to stay while we are in-between trips. Plus we love being closer to them, so it’s a win win all around.

Next on the to do list was to create a comprehensive tour plan. This is where my AMGA training kicked into overdrive. I wanted to create a plan that would allow us to navigate via GPS (inReach), or via map and compass. So I marked camps on our paper map using UTM coordinates and I create a route on the inReach using latitude / longitude coordinates. This allowed me to record compass bearing for each leg of the trip, as well as back bearings should be need to retreat at any time. Lastly, I estimated how long each leg of the trip will take. This is the most complex tour plan I’ve ever created, so it’s far from perfect but I’m excited to use it in the field. Our inReach navigation will only be possible because Goal Zero gave us a Sherpa 100 Power Pack to take on the trip. Amazing I know! Thank you Goal Zero.

IMG_1401Peppered throughout all of our planning, we completed multiple field tests to make sure we had the right gear. These are invaluable shake outs to see where holes exist in the planning. Since we’ll be camped in the same place several nights at a time, we need a shelter to cook in. Our first shelter didn’t work at all but we were lucky enough to snag a Brooks Range Mountaineering Stubai (I took my first AIARE avalanche course from the guide in this video). At just over 3 pounds this will be an amazing kitchen tent.

While planning and preparing for this upcoming expedition has been a tremendous amount of work, it’s given me much needed focus and purpose. I continued to struggle with the day-to-day living in Telluride until about February. Up to that point I had tried to focus on dieting, which I had never done before and it made me crazy. I read an interesting article in the New York Times last week about the psychology of dieting and why you can’t lose weight when you diet. It makes perfect sense now that I’ve tried dieting. I gave up dieting and just focused on being fit, healthy, and happy.

Now a year into our travels, I realize that what helps me the most is meditation. I use the Headspace App which has helped me deal with grief, self-esteem, anxiety, happiness, sleep, relationships, balance, etc.

Now we are packed and ready to leave, so here are a few photos from our prep time in Durango. You can follow our trip on the mountain, here

John Muir

2 thoughts on “Preparing to Climb Denali

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