For most people climbing Denali (aka Mt. McKinley) is no easy task. A vertical rise of 18,000 feet makes it bigger than Everest. It is no wonder that Denali means “the high one” in the Athabascan language. With backbreaking loads of 100 pounds (45 kilograms) or more the haul to the summit is grueling for even the fittest climber, but as Matt and I proved on this trip, it’s not so miserable with a lighter load. In a mere 3 hours Matt and I trucked into the first camp at the base of the ski hill at 7800 feet (2377 meters) with half the load of a typical climber and plenty of energy to spare. We could not go any further until our bodies acclimated. We set up camp and tried to “chill” in the heat of the day when afternoon temperatures can swelter to 100 °F (38 °C on the lower glacier. Perhaps our two most unorthodox items – at least for this type of climbing – were our 20 ounce (567 gram) packs and 2.5 pound (1.1 kilogram) tent. For most climbers on Denali, these two items alone can weigh from 15 to 20 pounds (6.8 to 9.0 kilograms), while these two items weighed only 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) for us. By taking techniques from ultralight backpacking and alpine climbing, we manage to put together a 30 pound (13.6 kilogram) kit (base weight plus non-worn technical gear) not including food and gas.
Our Golite Gust packs, at 20 ounces (567 grams) with no bells or whistles fulfilled our volume (5000 cubic inches, 81 liters) needs – they carried a lot of goose feathers. I rigged a sternum strap to help adjust the pack under load. We pushed the pack’s 30 pound carrying capacity limit, which helped us keep our loads honest. Early in the trip when the pack was maximized and we were pulling sleds the thin unpadded waist belt made our hips tender. We were thankful to be caching the sleds at the 11,000 foot (3352 meter) basin camp, especially after the hard second day around Kahiltna Pass with high winds.
The high winds persisted at the 11,000 foot (3352 meter) camp, putting our small tent to the test. The Stephenson Warmlite tent (2.5 lbs, 1.1 kilogram) was designed over 40 years ago and today is still one of the lightest high quality mountaineering tents on the market. The tent depends on its aerodynamics to withstand high winds with no guylines attached. As is expected in such cold conditions, condensation formed on the inner walls. The condensation accumulated primarily on the single-wall end sections rather than on the double wall section over the sleeping bag area. This minimized the dampness of our bags.
Another fairly unconventional item that we included in our shelter system was an 8 x 10 foot (2.4 x 3.0 meters), 14 ounce (397 grams) Integral Design Siltarp. Part of Integral Design’s “fast and light,” line this ultralight waterproof nylon tarp was great as a vestibule or awning. During high winds, we setup the Siltarp as a huge vestibule with snow walls digging down to make a cubbyhole great for cooking or just hanging out. Most of the time we did not so much encounter wind but intense sun instead. Using our poles and snow walls, we created a front porch (awning style) that allows us to stay out of the hot tent but remain protected from the blaring sun. The tarp was probably the most admired commodity on the mountain.
When it came to choosing technical gear, we had to ask ourselves, “what can we get away without?” and “what can’t we do without?” One thing we noticed was that many climbers carried excessive amount of technical gear: miles of cordalets, numerous screws and slings, and carabiners galore. The National Park Service provides fixed ropes and permanent pickets at all the technical locations leaving you to provide basic gear in case of a self-rescue situation. We reduced our technical equipment to two pickets, one ice screw, two Mammut Specter slings, two Petzel Tiblocs, and six CAMP Nano carabiners per person (Note:
The West Buttress does not have a high avalanche danger, so we decided we could “do without” an avalanche beacon. A probe, however, is useful for finding crevasses.
Choosing snowshoes instead of skis was a no-brainer for us. It is hard to pull a sled when you’re roped together on skis going downhill. Snowshoes are also lighter. Backpacking Light supplied us with Northern Lite snowshoes that worked great for travel on the lower glacier. We cached the snowshoes along with the sleds at the 11,000 foot (3352 meter) camp. Dependable footing is critical when one slip could be fatal so steel crampons were necessary. On the other hand, self-arresting on blue ice is challenging even with the best of ice axes so we felt safe with lightweight aluminum alloy CAMP USA XLA ice axes, which also assisted with the headwall climb above 14,000 feet (4267 meters).
Multi-purpose items and simplicity were the keys to our cooking system. All our meals were of the “just add hot water” variety, which allowed us to bring one four-liter cooking pot to melt snow for the two of us. Our MSR XGK stove provided the BTUs required to melt large quantities of dry snow in a short amount of time at high elevations. Some of our favorite parts of our kit were our homemade insulated yellow buckets. We purchased 32-ounce Nalgene containers that we insulated with blue foam and duct tape. The buckets were used for both hearty meals and hot drinks. We even used them to cook our Mountain House Pro-Pak meals with an extra half cup of rice. They were easy to clean too – just add water, cover, and shake.
Our sleeping setup was nothing fancy, but it was one place we did not want to skimp. After a bit of research, we chose REI 20-below Sub Kilo sleeping bags. The Sub-Kilo’s specs were comparable to bags costing twice as much. A basic blue foam pad cut to length served as both bottom insulation and as our “blue foam couch” under the front porch. Lastly, a ¾-length ultralight Therm-a-Rest provided a little more insulation under the torso.
When worst comes to worst you want to be warm. A good sleeping bag is one thing, but great layers are equally if not more important. It is crucial that when conditions become desperate you can throw on all your layers and keep moving until you can make camp. Matt and I tested our layering system on a 30-below ski tour in late February so we were confident that our clothing would see us through the Denali attempt. Key pieces included MontBell UL Down Inner Pants (7 ounces, 198 grams), Patagonia Specter Pullovers (6.5 ounces, 184 grams), Intuition Denali Liners (8.5 ounces, 241 grams), Patagonia Micro Puff Pullovers (12 ounces, 340 grams), and MontBell Ventisca down parkas (26.5 ounces, 751 grams). The Intuition Denali Liners are half the weight of standard double boot liners and thus dry quickly. This is important because you want your sweat-soaked liners to dry and not freeze overnight. The Patagonia Specter pullover was light and worked well for protection against any precipitation or wind. Finally, a down parka with a hood that you can throw on over all your layers when things turn for the worst is crucial, and the MontBell proved to be a good choice.
In the end, the only item we wished we had carried was a full-size snow shovel. The Snowclaw shovels are light and useful but when we could not poach a prefabricated tent site, building snow walls and digging out a site through hard ice layers was strenuous and back-breaking.
Slow and light is the only way I go anymore for mountaineering expeditions; not that I know any other way. It just seems like an unnecessary burden to carry a monster load when you can do it just as well carrying half the weight. Hopefully, all of you will find some ways to lighten up on your next mountaineering expedition.