Kahiltna Dome expedition 

  May 2015  

  JD's Raiders

left to right:  Buff, Neil Murphy, John Davis, Lee Whitten   Denali in background


It had been quite a few years since I first headed into the Alaska range with Neil and John Davis.  In fact, it was here that we met on a Denali trip in 2007.  Our summit story was quite a tale with a somewhat frightening ending chronicled HERE. This trip ended without outdoor drama but entails a closing scene straight out of a Fellinni movie. (that is your hint to read to the end or at least skip to the end and just watch the videos, I don't really care.)

The first day of our newly formed expedition (May 23, 2015) found us unable to  fly onto any glacier all morning.  In Talkeetna, waiting on flyable weather is a sport quite often conducted at the West Rib restaurant and bar or the local coffee shop.  Time walking down to the river and enjoying the climbing museum killed a few hours as we took turns watching cloud formations roll in from the Kahiltna.

At 6 pm we received our call and rushed back over to Talkeetna Air Taxi where we spent 45 minutes loading a thousand pounds of gear onto a de Havilland Beaver outfitted with skis.  The Beaver is smallest of the glacier landing fleet in TAT’s hanger and it was packed to the brim.  In fact, much of our gear had to be placed on another plane with a group of Japanese that had been waiting for days. 

As we rose into the Alaska sky and squeezed through infamous one shot pass, re-formed clouds infiltrated the glacier as we circled base camp for all Denali expeditions.  The NPS and TAT had successfully dissuaded our team, now named JD’s Raiders, from attempting anything on the Ruth glacier because of melt out and avalanche dangers.  Our options were then limited to the Pika and Kahiltna ports.  Since the Pika was at a lower elevation, crevasses and soft snow were immediate concerns.  It seemed as if our only option was the old familiar Denali route.  However, our objective was now Kahiltna Dome.  That would be a new one.

Banking the corner into Kahiltna “International” fog was obviously settling at the 7200 foot level.  We made another pass and there was some radio communication.  As “Chris” our pilot descended into a wall of white smoke, he pulled the plane back up and gave us the cut throat sign.  Our landing was thwarted and we returned to Talkeetna via the Ruth glacier.  Ironically it was clear as a bell and we caught sight of our original objectives, Mt. Dickey and Barille.  That bonus sightseeing trip teased our group.

Upon landing, it was decided that our gear would remain on the Beaver for an anticipated morning departure.  With that we retreated to the TAT bunkhouse with borrowed sleeping bags.  Staff at TAT agreed to round up some sleeping pads since our stuff made it onto the glacier with the plane ahead of us.  A young girl would drop them off as we were dispatched for some dinner at the West Rib.

Later that evening we settled in at the bunkhouse after picking up the pads placed neatly downstairs.  When John Davis held out his hands with several offerings, I naturally chose the neo air by thermarest.  Having owned two of them, now both sitting in snow on the Kahiltna, it seemed only reasonable to select laterally.

I would say we rose with the sun at 6 am but the sun doesn’t set in Alaska this time of year. The four of us, John Davis, Neil Murphy and Lee Whitten sauntered over to the infamous Roadhouse (devoid of Patrick Swayze but full of prospective climbers).  The Talkeetna Roadhouse is known for large breakfasts and incomparable cinnamon rolls. I downed three cups of coffee and ordered a breakfast casserole that was divine finishing with a cinnamon roll shared with John Davis.  Lee Whitten devoured a usual “half standard” breakfast and we skipped back to the bunkhouse to collect our things and check in with TAT.  As expected, weather was unflyable so we returned our borrowed sleeping accoutrements and retreated for more coffee in town.

Now heavily overmedicated on caffeine, the morning slipped into noon when two girls walked by that we had recognized from the bunkhouse.  Shantelle was approached by Lee for small talk.  Her response was, “Hey did you guys see a neo air pad”.  “Seth” was looking for it.

Seth was a guy who just flew back in from the Ruth glacier. We had conversed with him prior to retiring the preceding night.  Now he was long gone so I tried to reunite him with his coveted property for a good part of the morning.  We told the girls to have him contact us and we even tried to call the guide services to no avail.  TAT had no record of Seth so he may have been squatting at the bunkhouse from another air service.  Either way I left the pad with them and a note at the bunkhouse on the door. 

As the afternoon wore on and we exhausted all the entertainment in Talkeetna including a museum I had seen before and a 2 mile walk along the river, it was becoming apparent that flying wasn’t in the cards today either.   John Davis, our leader, came up with a capital idea.  He suggested we drive to Wasilla (of Sarah Palin fame) and watch newly released Mad Maxx.   After checking in with TAT and taking cues from owner owner Paul Roderick to call it a day, we drove the one hour to Wasilla for some cinema time.

Rounding the corner into this town, JD’s phone rings.  Guess who?  Yeah.  TAT is calling us because the weather has cleared.  What that probably meant is that some Denali climbers were ready to get out and they wanted to make it a double header with us.  When JD explained that we were heading into a movie, there was an audible pause on the speakerphone and radios crackled in the background.

We were somewhat put out by this because glacier flights are quite expensive and it seemed as if they wanted us at beckon call.   Needless to say, we continued with the movie plan.  TAT would have to deadhead into Kahiltna that night.

Next morning we enjoyed the usual routine.  Up at 6, over to the Swayze free Roadhouse. We had been in the same clothes for days sleeping on a bunk in a place that wasn’t going to be featured in Northern Living anytime soon.  But it was free to TAT patrons and, apparently, Seth if you don’t count the neo air pad which runs about a hundred bucks.  Waltzing over to TAT in the rain, little needed to be said.  But the afternoon opened for us and we were soon boarding the larger Otter plane.  The Otter is more spacious and comfortable than the cramped Beaver.  Now we were joined by the two climber girls who first notified us of the “theft” of Seth’s air pad.  Shantelle and her friend whose name we never caught would land on Kahiltna with JD’s Raiders.

(our second attempt at flight was more successful)

This particular flight was scenic and a pattern of high pressure obviously prevailed upon the great northern reaches of the Alaska Range.  Our carriage touched down on the glacier as landing skis connected with snow.  Offloading onto our home for the next week, we handed duffel after duffel of comfort foods, ice axes, crampons, folding chairs and comfort beverages.  The pilot remarked about our rations that we could get stranded but it would be little inconvenience.  He was right.  We had 10 days of rations.  I recognized this spot and remember watching Brian Moran digging with a shovel there in 2007 as he prepared a platform for his group.

Each of us grabbed a sled and began hauling our kits up the hill for a suitable tent and staging area.  Soon we were erecting respective domiciles and digging out a proper kitchen.  The sun was beating down and the snow softened to mush as I buried anchors for my mountaineering tent.  Female voices drowned out the steady stream of landing planes, taking advantage of a weather break to offload and pick up dejected and hopeful Denali climbers.

Mt. Frances

Denali as seen from our basecamp.

Mt. Hunter

Mt. Foraker battles a lenticular cloud.

What I heard Shantelle say to Neil was, “Did you see my tampons?”  At this point I was bent over digging in an anchor with a drain spade about two feet down in soft snow.  I first thought that my own crack may have been showing but realized she was asking our crew a legitimate question.  Neil and Lee quickly looked about, insistent that we had not stolen any of her gear from the plane.  I raised up to retort, “Oh, you come to the known thieves’ camp, huh!  Well I promise you I didn’t abscond with anything this time”.  As soon as I finished, JD rounds the corner with a black bag.  “Are these your crampons?”  JD asks.  And with that our reputation as gear thieves is cemented.

Lee and Neil's abode is well anchored.

Shortly thereafter Lisa, the base camp manager begins to approach saying, “Is this the infamous JD’s Raiders”.  Hoisting our moniker proudly Neil replies, “Why yes, yes it is”.   Lisa then asks us how we liked the Mad Maxx showing in Wasilla last night.  Our team belly laughed as Lisa related how the staff at TAT was put out with us having overheard the entire discourse via two way radio.  Raiders indeed, our nefarious group was making their mark upon America’s highest peak, yet again.


Have Sled, Will Travel

Taking advantage of this spate of good weather, we packed up and departed for Kahiltna Dome.  This would entail donning skis and skins and sharing the load of three fifty pound sleds.   These sleds would contain all we needed to thrive and survive for four days on the flanks of Denali in route to the Dome.

It was noon the next day by time we departed our “fat” set up at the airstrip.  We built a refrigerator to bury perishables and whisked downhill to the lower Kahiltna glacier.  I was reminded of the first time I had been in this very spot 8 years ago with Neil and JD.  Things looked the same but big avalanches fell from the flanks of Foraker and Frances throughout the previous night.  It made me wonder about the Dome.  Ever cognizant of the crevasse dangers we quickly managed the half mile downhill section that always breeds a false sense of ease.  My sled pushed me like a rocket.  Camp 1 was 5.5 miles from here.  We were heading beyond that point.

Mt. Hunter showered us with avalanche television throughout our stay on the Kahiltna.

The sun was at full force by 12.30 on May 25, 2015 as we lathered up in creams and lotions beneath wide brimmed hats.  Painful was the experience of removing your sunglasses, even for a brief moment to apply more protection, as Lee pointed out.  It was that bright and hot.   We assumed our glide which was rhythmic and slow including jerks from the ever present sled, called “piggies” on Denali.  My pig was behaving but that would change later.   I soon developed blisters on both feet right where the big toe creases into the footpad.  JD developed them at the same spot.  That heat was tremendous and I can only imagine the temps inside double plastic mountaineering boots with two pairs of wool socks.

Unbeknownst to me, Lee was having even worse issues.  When he removed his shoes three days later, I don’t see how he was even able to walk.  His toes looked like hamburger meat. But Lee is tough.  Alaska tough.  So is Neil.  JD and I are lower 48ers, so we get a pass.   6 hours after starting, we pass the traditional camp 1 on Denali.  In 2007 we got stuck here for two days in a storm but this day was nice and we decided to press onward.  Why I don’t know.  We were all pretty whooped and a 500 foot hill known as ski hill awaited.  JD offered to take the sled from me and I told him we could switch at the top of the hill.  Little did I realize what a chore that would become.  That hill likely took us another hour.  At the top, JD took my sled and we marched up another hill before someone suggested we start probing for a campsite.  Since I was in the lead, now lighter, it was my task to find a suitable area and we were collectively stamping out and digging platforms for our home of a few hours.

Our fearless leader assesses the situation.  JD's Raiders we are.

Lee began the arduous task of melting pounds and pounds of snow for water.   Neil, JD and I cut blocks for our igloo home.  It was a respective campsite by the time we were finished.  Cold air blew in from Denali and my super puffy parka was essential from this point onward.  It takes several hours and a lot of white gas to melt enough snow for four people and their dinner.  On these expeditions, a stove is usually running most of the time you are in camp.  Hence the need to carry a couple of gallons of fuel per person on a usual 3 week Denali run.  We were using whisperlite and simmerlite stoves.

Neil never broke a sweat.  That guy is in incredible shape.

I was somewhat nauseated from the heavy exertion and sudden altitude jump so my appetite was diminished.  However, Neil had some powdered soup and I forced liquids such as cider which caused this dehydration to subside.  It was a heavy day of caloric expense and the next few promised the same so resupplying the bank was essential.  It was a lesson learned from multiple trips to the Highlands.  Any army marches on its stomach and mine needed to be full.

This is our freshly dug camp at 8000 feet, give or take. 

May 28, 2015

An early start meant climbing another 1500 feet and passing the 9200 camp or camp 2 on Denali’s West Buttress.  It was a steady uphill slog but I had successfully offloaded the piggy to John Davis.  I stayed in back of the three sleds to ensure no stragglers and ascended into familiar territory with familiar faces.  The cold wind and intermittent clouds created a sweat induced chill as I layered up for the final climb.  Passing the traditional camp we eyed Kahiltna Dome over our left shoulders.  It was daunting and fractured but appeared doable.  Within the hour we reached an individual camp from which three men were departing.  Soon our team occupied their igloo and were examining our objective.  The Dome was presenting a few challenges immediately present.

I have mentioned before that John Davis is a bold climber.  Testament to this fact is a rock climb we completed last summer outlined here.   As a matter of fact, John is often quite aggressive in the mountains with strategies that are outside of my usual comfort zones.  There have been a couple of instances on Mt. Rainier where JD went running through crevassed areas unroped and Dan fell right into them.  Of course, Dan has a knack for crevasses as previously noted here.  The point of this is to highlight JD’s risk tolerance.

As we eyeballed Kahiltna Dome, in full cognizance of the fact that no one had apparently ascended it this year, a clear fracture line was evident from the bergschrund and another below the summit cone.  If we were able to eclipse the fracture lines (often indicative of impending avalanche) then there would be the summit issue with which to contend.  Lee gazed through high powered binoculars and Neil readied himself for exploration.  An assault of the Dome would require setting up camp at this spot.  This particular newly vacated spot was, as described by its former owners, “.windy as hell”.  In fact, it was very cold at late morning as we huddled around the partial igloo foundations to escape the consistent blowing.

[Our objective, Kahiltna Dome in all her splendor.  Note the potential avalanche hazards.

Some strategizing ensued.  It appeared as if Lee and JD had great concerns about the avalanche potential.  Throughout this trip, avalanche had been an abiding concern.  As a matter of fact, as I mentioned, two climbers were rescued from our original objective, Mt. Dickey, because of avalanche issues.  Mt. Dickey and Barille were excluded because the NPS and TAT talked us out of going into the range for those reasons.  Neil and I peered at the potential passages.  I really saw no way to eclipse the danger areas to reach the spine leading to the Dome.  Disappointing though it were, I acquiesced to the other two.  It needed to be a team effort and although they agreed to remain in support, I just didn’t think it prudent to push ourselves on that peak at this point in time.  Neil was disappointed but accepted the group decision.  With that, we loaded up and retreated. 

Retreat meant that I would take the sled from JD.  Reason being I have more ski experience, not that he wasn’t doing an outstanding job on the planks.  But wrangling piggies downhill was going to require a great deal of finesse.  Finesse later proven I obviously did not possess.

Losing ground on mountains is so disproportionate to the effort getting up them.  Unless you are dealing with sleds.  Neil proved his efficacy with these contraptions by disappearing into the white sloshing effortlessly down the upper Kahiltna glacier.  His gracious turns and consistent speed prohibited the problems I was going to have with my piggy.  It overturned twice on me due to my snowplowing to keep it in line.  Indeed, at times, the piggy passed me going downhill and I felt like the little dog in the Grinch cartoon.  I could picture that creature sitting atop my gear cracking a whip as I nosed headlong into softening snow.

Righting the beast after my second passing by it, I slipped into a hole up to my waist that I nearly couldn’t escape.  Because of the softening snow, I was temporarily trapped.  Lee was a good deal behind me struggling with his piggy so I wasn’t overly concerned.  He had the good sense to don snowshoes, however.  I did not.

That was a mistake because within five minutes I was up to my waist in more quicksand.  This time, it appeared as if extrication could require surgery.  I have never been so far down in snow in my life to the point that I began to wonder if a crevasse wasn’t lurking beneath this slush.  Employing the techniques for quicksand I attempted to lay horizontally and started swimming in that direction.  I wasn’t having much success.  The only method that would allow me any purchase was to cup my hands and “rudder” snow towards me as I gained traction and eventually escaped.  By now Lee had arrived on the scene laughing.  Snowshoes were on my feet within ten minutes.

As Neil flew down ski hill into the 7800 camp, Lee and I employed varying methods to control the pigs.  I settled upon a rig with perlon and slings from my harness that dropped the sled in front as I lowered it one step at a time.  That hill which took us an hour to ascend, took about as long to drop.  When we had reached Camp 1, many folks were there to herald our anticipated arrival.  We must have been quite a sight.

JD and Neil were establishing camp in a formerly vacated spot marked with cache wands behind snow walls.  I was ready for some flavored water.   The afternoon was spent relaxing, unwinding and visiting with neighbors.  We were treated to a visit by Scott Woolums.  He has led many Everest expeditions and I had followed some of his exploits throughout the years.  He was interested in our foray to the Dome and we swapped stories and mountain tales.  He was friends with Marty and Denali Schmidt.  I shared that I had the privilege of spending time with them on their final days of life on earth during the Broad Peak debacle documented in my book, Tempting the Throne Room.  This mountaineer's experience in the Alaska Range is broad.  He has scaled both our original objectives, Dickey and Barille in years past.   Scott was leading a Denali trip for Alpine Ascents.

Speaking of Denali, you may have noticed that I never refer to its official name, Mt. McKinley.  It is amazing how many people get that confused.  I have had people ask me when I was going to climb McKinley only to inform them that Denali was McKinley.  In the mountains, I always refer to the native names of peak instead of politically motivated ones.  McKinley is definitely a politically motivated name that usurped the original Athabascan one.  So I never referred to it as such.  This past week, President Obama passed legislation reverted McKinley to its original name, Denali.  I wholeheartedly support this move spearheaded by Alaskans.

Without going into further details about the expedition and boring you to tears I will make the highlights.  In the middle of the night, we were awakened by a returning team excavating their cache adjacent to our tent,  3 am to be exact.  The next morning, Shantelle and her friend arrived from base camp with a ski problem that Lee, aka McGyver, solved for them.  Perhaps our legacy as disingenuous thieves was diminished as a result.   When we loaded up for the descent back to base camp, I estimated our time on the glacier would be four hours.

Neil disagreed.  He said it was mostly downhill and we could ski it.  I didn’t remember it as such but chose to live in that mindset until we departed.   Our only detour was a visit to the local crevasse outside of camp wherein we deposited one bag of stuff from our clean mountain can.  The CMC is a bucket into which you squat for defecatory purposes.  The CMS are legendary parts of the Denali experience and the NPS requires it. They are lined with removable plastic bags and carriage of such is usually relegated to the last person out of camp.  I agree with the sentiment of cleanliness and abide the regulation.  (We even went so far as to use one to hold up a kitchen tent pole at base camp.) As we departed camp 1, Neil ceremoniously deposited the inner most offering as our gift to the mountain and we began our return to Kahiltna base some 5.5 miles away.

As predicted, it was so much downhill that what had taken us 6 hours days before now was coming up on 55 minutes.  We literally skied the entire way back to the base of ski hill in 55 minutes.  Here is a video showing what that was like.  Yes, we were unroped.  (Dan Walters is having fit right about now, I’m certain)  Understand that I am cautious and convinced myself that with the skis and moving so fast in established tracks, we were probably ok.   That proved to be true.   Our blistered feet were so appreciative of the break.  I would later discover that my footpads were blister upon blister much like JD, Lee and probably Neil, although Neil never complains about anything.

a pause before attacking Heartbreak Hill. Neil estimated we traversed about 20 miles with the pigs in tow.

Heartbreak Hill is what we expected.  It is a final climb into Kahiltna base camp.  That half to quarter mile takes around 45 minutes to climb with sleds.   We arrived to tents melting out in the hot sun but plenty of refreshing beverages and pringles to assuage our growing thirst.  We remained for two days in base camp before flying out with a team of Britons who had summited Denali via the West Rib. 

....During our two days at base camp we saw evidence of some extreme skiing right across the valley on the flanks of Mt Hunter (2 radically sweet lines falling out of a HUGE cornice), plus one of our group (Neil, the most energetic person I have ever known) skinned up the local valleys each afternoon and got some easy and moderate turns in as a reward on the way down. The route out to Moonflower Buttress provides the skier with two separate slopes to cut some turns on the way back to base camp.  (Neil is not on crack or meth.  I confirmed this with his wife. He skied these routes after we did the march back from camp 1 as we tended our feet and rehydrated)
Here is a link to Moonflower Buttress.  The buttress is seen here from our basecamp. The Moonflower Buttress is one of the most infamous slabs in the Alaska Range for climbers.


One peculiar story upon which to end our expedition involved the morning of our departure.  We informed Lisa that we intended to leave the next day and she told us to let her know in the morning at 8 am.  Then she would arrange a flight.  Neil sauntered over to her at 8 am and she told us to be ready in one hour.  I should have known this was going to happen.  We had packed none of our stuff.  But within one hour we had packed up everything, extricated frozen tent anchors (it was cold at this time of the morning), and hauled all our kitchen kit down to the landing strip.

  In the midst of doing so,( unnecessarily hurried, I might add probably as a result of our reputation and fearful we may pursue a movie somewhere or absond with other's belongings) we enountered a sight that will remain with me forever.  From the spot at which the landing strip meets the hill upon which we set camp, a Korean climber was walking in a funeral durge sort of procession with something tied to his waist.  His steps were deliberate and his head was bowed.  It was Sunday morning but this was no religious observance because in tow, at the end of his string was a clean mountain can.  You will remember that CMC's are as far from any form of iconography as Jeb Bush is from not running for President.   I'm fairly certain a crap container holds no beatifying prominence in Korean culture.  But there he was, engaged in a 30 minute walk of shame up the hill between several expeditions towing a toilet.   Whatever he had done must have merited the ultimate merit badge.  Lee, Neil and myself thought we were hungover.  My only regret was not photographing the incident but it seemed as if it could only add to his embarrassment so I declined, if you can believe it.


 We landed in Talkeetna the morning of and offloaded mounds of gear.  We could have stayed longer but were fearful of getting stuck there given our prior experience getting in.  That afternoon, another TAT flight landed in Talkeetna and apparently landed smack dab on top of a Cessna, seriously injuring the pilot.  It reminded me of the German wings experience in March.  Laurel and I flew out of Germany on the same day a pilot nose-dived his craft into a mountain.  I remain ahead of mountain tragedy presently.

In Anchorage, Neil and his wife Angela and Lee Whitten were super gracious hosts who treated us to wonderful Alaskan meals and entertainment.  We rented bicycles and toured the trails around downtown Anchorage and visited local shops and restaurants before departing on a redeye flight.  Lee had done so much legwork prior to our trip that he must have spent a month preparing our food and sled needs. To say that Lee and Neil are gracious is like saying they are tough.  Both observations are lowballing these Alaskan residents.  As JD says, they are Alaska tough.  And that is the truth.

 A redeye flight deposited me in Los Angeles at 5 am.  My brother Todd picked me up and we loaded on a fishing boat headed for the Pacific in search of sculpin and rock bass.  My sleep deprived body struggled as we reeled in fish after fish to catch our limit.

A day or two later, after a Dodgers game and Hollywood carousing, we embarked for the Angeles mountains and drove up to 7000 feet where we car camped for two nights with several of his friends.  It was a successful trip in many regards.  Summiting is always a bonus. One I have learned is not worth risking your life.  Returning with all your friends and fingers is mandatory.  Many thanks to Neil, JD, Lee and my brother Todd for their hospitality.

Below are some random pics from the climb:


Check out Lee's pictures here.  There are some good ones.