Mt. McKinley: Beren & Team Wrap Up Their Expedition
Well I’m sure you all have been wondering where in the world we are. Forgive the suspense, but it has been an action packed few days. After our last sub-space frequency, we had to re-reevaluate our situation and make the difficult, but ultimately very clear decision to return to lower elevations. After many days at 17,000 feet and over a week waiting for a window at 14,000’ camp we were plain out of time for a realistic summit attempt. Often these expeditions make allowances for running over budget on time and our team was prepared to hold out for a workable window to go for the top. However, the weather never did us the favor of cooperating. Such is the way of the mountains and we are wise to read their signals.
Our stay at 17,000 feet was marked by deep snow, drifting thigh to waist high outside of camp and persisting for days. Accompanied by high winds that loaded start zones and released multiple full track avalanches that ran down almost to the ranger station at 14 camp, stability seemed far from our reality. Our route to Denali Pass ran several times and when the storm cleared long enough the famous autobahn is positively pregnant with deep windslabs. The weather reports we have been monitoring continue to predict unstable weather, high winds and more snow, followed by a large low pressure system bringing more bad weather to the mountain. Still we didn’t want to head down, but staying longer in such weather exposes us to greater risk the longer we stay.
Capitalizing on a lull in the weather, we began our descent of the West Buttress yesterday. That is my favorite part of the route and presents some of the most interesting climbing on this route. Our 19 days on this beautiful mountain prepared us well to move efficiently and though I would gladly have gone to the top with such a great team, I was glad to be able to handle the route’s namesake feature in windy conditions with safe teammates.
Despite the spindrift and new snow, conditions did present us with some pockets of sunshine where we were able to see this mountain in its stormy glory. We made it down to 14 camp where we regrouped and hoofed it down to 11,000 feet for a hot meal and a few hours sleep with some amazing skies on our way around Windy Corner.
Three hours of downtime, then it was off again and we raced the warming Lower Kahiltna Glacier’s snow bridges to the runway. On our exit we were able to see the upper mountain up the NE Fork and again from the airstrip. It was still socked in with a cloud cap and high winds and our call to escape, though bittersweet, remains sound.
Having not heard the sound of planes in the air for days, it was a treat to see the Otters, Beavers and Cessnas amongst the spectacular backdrop of Mt. Hunter and Foraker. Our gear sorted, we were on the afternoon flight and are now back in Talkeetna, magically back to summer and a land where green things flourish and showers imply happiness instead of misery. In a few hours our team will meet again for another dinner, prepared by strangers and without the ambiance of a snow fort. It will be a welcome treat.
Thank you friends and family for the support and love on our adventure. We went out not knowing what would happen and we returned safe, but with some unfinished business. I am content that we gave it our all and emerged friends and stronger for the time amongst the clouds and upper atmosphere. Thanks to a great team and excellent colleagues, it was an adventure I am happy to have shared with everyone,
RMI Guide Jake Beren