Editor's Note: This feature originally ran in Issue 10 of Backpacking Light Magazine (print version).
For many of the one thousand registered climbers, Denali’s West Buttress is the ultimate extension of their years of backpacking. But after several seasons on the mountain, I am surprised at how quickly lightweight tactics get kicked to the curb on this grueling 13,000-foot ascent. Most climbers on the route barely move under towering packs supporting crushing loads of seventy-five pounds or more. Sadly, this seems to be the norm, something you just have to endure if you want a shot at the top of North America. In 2007, Agnes and I put together a little experiment to see if that’s the hard truth.
The goal of our Denali Light Expedition was to combine equipment and techniques from ultralight backpacking and alpine climbing to execute a safe, self-sufficient, and most of all enjoyable ascent of the West Buttress in fourteen days. Our project did not include prior acclimatization: we took two weeks to properly acclimate and move up the mountain, just like everyone else. We also employed the standard expedition tactics of moving our supplies up the mountain in carries. This practice is also critical to helping the body acclimate before moving to a higher camp. After a lot research, planning, and tough decisions, our pack weights dropped down to just twenty pounds. On the mountain, we cruised between camps, clocking a mere three hours where others typically report twelve. We moved unencumbered and arrived in camp feeling fresh. It was too bad that a mega-storm system shut down the upper mountain for over two weeks. Our fourteen-day itinerary ended after seven days sitting at the 14,300-foot basin camp with three failed attempts to move higher.
To keep in the spirit of our experiment, I pared down the camera kit to the bare minimum. On past expeditions, I have hauled a complete selection of lenses, lights, and accessories for two Nikon camera bodies to meet the needs of an assignment. For this project, I selected the Nikon E8400 as my sole camera. This ‘mini digi’ had everything I needed to produce high quality publishable images from our project. The Nikkor ED glass produces crisp images with good contrast and color saturation. The camera’s true optical 24-85mm lens (135 format equivalent) is appealing to someone who prefers wide-angle lenses. The 8MP size produces publishable full-page images in a RAW format.
|Nikon E8400 w/ battery||16.5 oz|
|Spare battery||2.5 oz|
|CF card x2||1 oz|
|Total for kit||21.5 oz|
Denali Light 2007 GalleryClick on any of the photos below to view them in a gallery.
Clouds swirl over the South Face of Denali as seen from the landing strip on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Over a thousand climbers attempt to reach the mountain's 20,320-foot summit during the peak months of May and June. Denali is the highest mountain in North America.
May 21, 2007 Our minimalist Stephenson Warmlite 2RL set-up next to more serious expeditions at Camp One (7800 feet) on the lower Kahiltna Glacier. Even without a single guy line, the 2.75-pound Warmlite sheds wind and snow like a champ. But if that sort of thing makes your palms sweat, the 11.5-pound Trango 3.1 (background) sports dozens of tie downs.
May 22, 2007 Multi-purpose, plain, and simple was the key to our cooking system. All our meals were just-add-hot-water, allowing us to bring one four-liter aluminum pot for melting snow. The MSR XGK stove provides the BTUs required to melt large quantities of dry snow in a short amount of time at high elevations.
May 30, 2007 Agnes Stowe gets breakfast going while hunkered down at the 14,300-foot basin camp on Denali’s West Buttress. We employed an 8 x 10-foot Integral Design Siltarp as an oversized vestibule. It served the dual purpose of a cooking shelter in high winds that brought wind chill values off the chart and provided shade during the heat of the day when temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in the tent. Sometimes these two extremes exist only hours apart.
May 28, 2007 Climbers pick over supplies being given away by descending teams at the 14,300-foot basin camp, also known as Barter Town. Groups heading down the mountain try to ditch excess food and gas to lighten their loads for the long haul back to the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip. Coveted items are unopened cheese or butter, anything with processed meat, and unused pee bottles.
June 1, 2007 Climbers ascend the steep headwall at 15,500 feet where the National Parks Service maintains ropes to aid climbers in reaching the ridge crest at 16,200 feet. Fixed ropes and permanent pickets are located at all the technical sections, leaving you to provide basic gear in case of a self-rescue situation. Many climbers carry excessive amounts of technical gear with miles of cord, numerous screws and dozens of heavy carabiners.
|FOOTWEAR||Shell Boots||LOWA||Denali Plastic Boots||65.2||FOOTWEAR||Shell Boots||Koflach||Degre Boots||60.6|
|Insulating Boots||Intuition Sports||Denali Liners||10.8||Insulating Boots||Intuition Sports||Denali Liners||7.6|
|Camp Boots||Outdoor Research||Camp Mukluks||15.2||Camp Boots||N/A||14.8|
|Gaiters||Outdoor Research||Expedition Gaiters||12.2||Gaiters||Outdoor Research||Expedition Gaiters||9.6|
|Liner Socks||Smartwool||Liner Socks||3.5||3.5||Liner Socks||SmartWool||Liner Socks||2.6||2.6|
|Vapor Barrier Socks||Integral Designs||Vapor Barrier Socks||2.4||Vapor Barrier Socks||Integral Designs||Vapor Barrier Socks||2.4|
|TREKKING CLOTHES||Bottom Base Layer||Patagonia||Activist Tights||8.6||TREKKING CLOTHES||Bottom Base Layer||Patagonia||Lightweight Capilene Bottoms||6.6|
|Bottom Shell Layer||Marmot||Full-Zip Precip Pants||10.4||Bottom Shell Pants||Patagonia||Dimension Pants||20.2|
|Top Base Layer||Patagonia||Lightweight Capilene Tee||4.5||Top Base Layer||Patagonia||Midweight Capilene Tee||3.4|
|Top Mid Layer||Lowe Alpine||Midweight Top||8.4||Top Mid Layer||Patagonia||Capilene 2 Zip Neck||5.0|
|Top Insulating Layer||Mountain Hardwear||Windstopper Fleece||23.0||Top Insulating Layer||Mountain Hardwear||Windstopper Fleece||20.0|
|Top Shell Layer||Patagonia||Spector Pullover||6.8||Top Shell Layer||Patagonia||Spector Pullover||6.2|
|Warm Hat||Wigwam||Stocking Hat||2.0||Warm Hat||Smartwool||Hat||2.4|
|Base Layer Gloves||Patagonia||Liner Gloves||1.2||Base Layer Gloves||Patagonia||Liner Gloves||1.2|
|Shell Gloves||Black Diamond||Shell Gloves||3.4||Shell Gloves||Black Diamond||Shell Gloves||3.4|
|Eye Protection||REI||Glacier Glasses w/Case||4.6||Eye Protection||Smith||Empire Sunglasses w/Case||2.6|
|Bottom Base Layer||Patagonia||Tights||8.6||Bottom Base Layer||Patagonia||Midweight Capilene Bottoms||9.0|
|Bottom Insulating Layer||Monbell||UL Inner Down Pants||7.2||Bottom Insulating Layer||Montbell||UL Inner Down Pants||5.8|
|Top Base Layer||Under Armour||Long Sleeve||7.8||Top Base Layer||Under Armour||Long Sleeve||6.0|
|Top Mid Layer||Patagonia||Capilene Midweight Long Sleeve||7.2||Top Mid Layer||Patagonia||Capilene Midweight Long Sleeve||6.0|
|Top Insulating Layer||Patagonia||Micro Puff Pullover||12.0||Top Insulating Layer||Patagonia||Micro Puff Pullover||10.8|
|Top Insulating Layer||Sierra Design||Down Parka||27.0||Top Insulating Layer||Montbell||Ventisca Down Parka||26.8|
|Face Protection||Mountain Hardwear||Balaclava||1.4||Face Protection||Seirus||Balaclava||2.6|
|Face Protection||Columbia||Neck Gaiter||1.5||Face Protection||Comfort Skins||Neck Gaiter||1.2|
|Eye Protection||Uvex||Goggles||6.0||Eye Protection||Bolle||Goggles||5.4|
|Shell Gloves||Outdoor Research||Mittens||10.2||Shell Gloves||Mountain Hardwear||Subzero Down Mittens||11.0|
|Liner Gloves||Black Diamond||Liner Gloves||2.2||Liner Gloves||Patagonia||Liner Gloves||1.2|
|TREKKING GEAR||Self Arrest Ski Poles||Black Diamond||Whippet and Ski Poles||20.6||TREKKING GEAR||Self Arrest Ski Poles||Black Diamond||Whippet and Ski Poles||20.6|
|Ice Axe||C.A.M.P. USA||70cm XLA 210||10.0||Ice Axe||C.A.M.P. USA||60cm XLA 210||8.8|
|Crampons||Black Diamond||Sabretooth||33.8||Crampons||Black Diamond||Sabretooth||36.2|
|Harness||Black Diamond||Alpine Bod||14.0||Harness||Black Diamond||Alpine Bod||17.8|
|Carabiners||C.A.M.P. USA||Nano x6||7.2||Carabiners||C.A.M.P. USA||Nano x6||7.2|
|Ascenders||Petzel||Tibloc x2||2.8||Ascenders||Petzel||Tibloc x2||2.8|
|Runners||Mammut||Spector 24" Sling x2||1.3||Runners||Mammut||Spector 24" Sling x2||1.3|
|Ice Screws||Black Diamond||4" Express Screw x2||5.6||Ice Screws||Black Diamond||4" Express Screw x2||5.6|
|Rope||BlueWater Ropes||8.8mm x 60m||48.0||Rope||BlueWater Ropes||8.8mm x 60m||48.0|
|Snow Picket||MSR||24" Snow Picket x2||14.0||Snow Picket||MSR||24" Snow Picket x2||14.0|
|Snowshoes||Northern Lites||Backcountry Rescue||43.0*||Snowshoes||Northern Lites||Backcountry Rescue||43.0*|
|Shovel||Snowclaw||Guide Aluminum||12.0||Shovel||Snowclaw||Guide Copolymer||6.2|
|Avalanche Probe||Mammut||Probe||7.0||Water Bottle||Nalgene||Softside Bottle x2||15.6|
|Water Bottle||Nalgene||Softside Bottle x2||15.6||PACKING GEAR||Backpack||GoLite||Gust w/Straps (S)||20.0|
|PACKING GEAR||Backpack||GoLite||Gust Pack (M)||20.0||Sled||Paris Company||Big Boggan w/Bag||84.0*|
|Sled||Paris Company||Big Boggan w/Bag||84.0*||CAMPING GEAR||Shelter||Integral Designs||Siltarp2||16.0|
|CAMPING GEAR||Tent||Stephenson||Warmlite 2RL||44.2||Stakes||SMC||Snow Stakes x7||9.0|
|Sleeping Bag||REI||Sub Kilo -20, Regular||60.0||Sleeping Bag||REI||Sub Kilo -20, Short||57.0|
|Sleeping Pad||Therm-a-Rest||3/4 UL||15.4||Sleeping Pad||Therm-a-Rest||3/4 UL||15.4|
|Insulating Pad||N/A||Blue Foam Pad||8.4||Insulating Pad||N/A||Blue Foam Pad||7.8|
|Bowl||Nalgene||32 oz Container||10.3||Stove||MSR||XGK w/Kit||20.0|
|Eating Utensil||Lite-My-Fire||All Purpose Utensil||2.5||Cooking Pot||Open Country||4L||11.4|
|Water Bottle Insulation||Outdoor Research||Bottle Parka x2||18.4||Bowl||Nalgene||32 oz Container||8.3|
|Fuel Bottle||MSR||33 oz||15.6||Eating Utensil||Lite-My-Fire||All Purpose Utensil||2.5|
|MISC GEAR||Repair Kit||Duct Tape, Nylon Patches, Sewing Kit, Therm-a-Rest Repair Kit, Clamps||6.0||Water Bottle Insulation||Outdoor Research||Bottle Parka x2||18.4|
|Pee Bottle||Nalgene||Canteen||2.2||Fuel Bottle||MSR||33 oz||15.6|
|Reading Material||Book||2.0||MISC GEAR||First Aid Kit||Homemade Kit||4.0|
|Camera||Nikon||E8400 w/Battery and Cards||21.5||Toiletries||Dr Bronner Soap, Toothbrushes, Toothpaste||6.0|
|CONSUMABLES||Food||14 Days||411.9*||Pee Funnel||Freshetta||1.0|
|Fuel||1 gallon Container||128.0*||Reading Material||Book||2.0|
|Water||1 Liter||32.0||CONSUMABLES||Food||14 Days||411.9*|
|Total Weight||oz||lbs||Fuel||1 gallon Container||128.0*|
|Total Weight (Worn/Carried)||390.4||24.4||Water||1 liter||32.0|
|Total Base Pack Weight||355.8||22.2||Total Weight||oz||lbs|
|Total Weight Consumables (Sled)||571.9||35.7||Total Weight (Worn/Carried)||316.9||19.8|
|Total Initial Weight (Pack + Sled)||927.7||58.0||Total Base Pack Weight||345.0||21.6|
|Full Skin Out Weight||1318.1||82.4||Total Weight Consumables (Sled)||571.9||35.7|
|Total Initial Weight (Pack + Sled)||916.9||57.3|
|* Cached at 11,000 ft camp with one day of food||Full Skin Out Weight||1233.8||77.1|