Denali Light: The 2007 Attempt

Lightening up on Alaska’s classic mountaineering route.

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by Matt Hage, Agnes Stowe | 2009-12-08 00:00:00-07

Editor's Note: This feature originally ran in Issue 10 of Backpacking Light Magazine (print version).

Introduction

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 
Ultrapod 1.5 oz 
Total for kit 21.5 oz 

Denali Light 2007 Gallery

Click on any of the photos below to view them in a gallery.

Denali Light (2007) - 1
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.

Denali Light (2007) - 2
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.

Denali Light (2007) - 3
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.

Denali Light (2007) - 4
May 22, 2007 Climbers endure high winds at the Camp Two (11,000 feet) basin. Gusts to sixty miles per hour put our shelter system to the test early in the trip, giving us confidence to move higher on the mountain.

Denali Light (2007) - 5
May 19, 2007 Agnes Stowe ‘lugs’ her entire kit up Motorcycle Hill, a steep 700-foot climb above the 11,000-foot camp. Our heaviest days were those where we moved to the next camp. In addition to our entire set-up, we also packed food and fuel for four days during these moves.

Denali Light (2007) - 6
May 25, 2007 Climbers ascending to Windy Corner while on their ascent of Denali's West Buttress. Most parties, including ours, make two trips around Windy Corner to cache supplies before moving to the 14,300-foot basin camp. This also helps with acclimatizing.

Denali Light (2007) - 7
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.

Denali Light (2007) - 8
May 28, 2007 Agnes Stowe celebrates her 25th birthday at the 14,300-foot basin camp. No birthday cake here, but a big bowl of chocolate fudge pudding with a couple of candles was a good substitute, not to mention lightweight.

Denali Light (2007) - 9
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.

Denali Light (2007) - 10
May 31, 2007 Climbers gather around Mark Dzikowski, of Alberta, Canada to listen in on the nightly weather report at the 14,300-foot basin camp. Weather forecasts are broadcast nightly at eight o’clock for different areas of the mountain.

Denali Light (2007) - 11
May 29, 2007 Packed for our move to the 17,200-foot high camp, Agnes Stowe ascends to the steep headwall at 15,500 feet on Denali's popular West Buttress route. High winds combined with cold temperatures to create a double whammy that turned us back three times from making high camp.

Denali Light (2007) - 12
May 30, 2007 Towering loads make their way up to the steep headwall at 15,500 feet on Denali's West Buttress route. The average pack weight on a West Buttress trip sits at sixty-five pounds.

Denali Light (2007) - 13
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.

Denali Light (2007) - 14
June 2, 2007 After two weeks high on the West Buttress, we returned to Kahiltna International and a cache of post-trip goodies; a pound and a half of thick cut bacon, a fifth of tequila, and lemon-lime Gatorade for margaritas. Agnes gets busy while we wait for a pilot.

Denali Light (2007) - 15
June 2, 2007 Climbers crash out at the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip after an all night descent from the 14,300-foot camp on the West Buttress.

Matt's           Agnes's          
CATEGORY ITEM BRAND MODEL WORN PACK CATEGORY ITEM BRAND MODEL WORN PACK
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
  Socks Smartwool Socks 4.0 4.0   Socks SmartWool Socks 3.2 3.2
  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

Citation

"Denali Light: The 2007 Attempt," by Matt Hage, Agnes Stowe. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/denali_light_2007.html, 2009-12-08 00:00:00-07.

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Denali Light: The 2007 Attempt
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Addie Bedford
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Locale: Montana
Denali Light: The 2007 Attempt on 12/08/2009 17:15:12 MST Print View

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