Ouray, Colorado, via Denali, Alaska.

Denali Expeditioneers 2007 from left to right: Neil Murphy, Josh Hoeschen, yours truly, Erik Jannsen, Dan Walters, John Davis, Jared McFaddin, Mark Postle.

Back in 2007 I joined an expedition to the wilds of Alaska in hopes of reaching the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America. In Talkeetna, the jumping off point for all such attempts, I met my fellow expeditioneers. My tent mates were Jared McFaddin an engineer and Dan Walters a general practice physician, both from Cincinnati. Also joining me on that trip were John Davis, professor of Jazz music at the University of Colorado, Erik Jansen, a Dutchman from Rotterdam and Neil Murphy, a obstetrician from Eagle River, Alaska. As a resident, he hoped to summit the mountain under whose shadow he had lived for decades.

Our trip was incredible. From the harrowing flight through one shot pass on a Dehavilland Otter we landed on the Kahiltna Glacier and began our journey to 20,320 feet. Our first few days were olympic chores of sled hauling to higher camps on the mountain. We carried 50lb packs and sleds of equal weight. For each member of the team, we had about 5 gallons of stove fuel, tents, sleeping bags, clothing, shovels, ropes, ascenders and food. We moved roped in teams of four on snowshoes through the land of the midnight sun. For months after my return I awoke thinking I was still roped to those guys. The glacier was austere and dangerous. Crevasses were lurking under the ice here in early June.

From camp to camp we double carried loads, stashing gear up higher and sleeping low. This acclimatization strategy was a proven winner. As we went through our five respective camps, we retrieved gear and goods as we inched up the largest and coldest mountain on earth. Several days were spent tent bound as a result of the usual Alaska storm. Weather was fickle. Some days were brutally warm and others miserably cold. Minus 20 degrees was a morning that made me realize the efficacy of a middle zipper in the back of my climbing pants.

John Davis became known as John2 and I was John1. We later realized that Johhny Knoxville and John Denver were equally appropriate. Two weeks into this adventure we found ourselves at high camp. Our first summit attempt was thwarted less than an hour out of the seventeen thousand foot camp. The winds continued to whip up unconsolidated snow and we were breaking trail on the highest ledge in North America. When it got so white that we couldn’t see our own rope team partners, Mark, our expedition leader, pulled the plug.

That’s the way it goes on Denali. Weather is often your biggest adversary. I was acclimatizing better than expected but didn’t mourn the turnaround; I could use another day’s rest before our next shot at 20,320 feet. It wasn’t unexpected, the night prior to this aborted run, the wind was in excess of 40 miles per hour and felt as if it would pull our tents right out of their anchors. Mark was getting us ready for summit day and the potential stress therein.

On June 19, I was first out of the tent early that morning. The wind had abated and sun burst through the clouds with some promise for a second shot. My team mates hollered from their tents, “How’s it look?” “Like a great summit day.” I responded. Less than two hours later at 10 am, we were roped up again and moving towards the Autobahn, a particularly steep section of fixed rope between 17,000 and 18,000 feet on the West Buttress of Mt. McKinley. We were still the first group out of camp and broke trail for several hours, cleaning anchors and belaying each other up to Denali Pass. At the Pass, winds picked up due to the position of the geography and we all struggled with the extreme cold. Mark swirled his arms in circular motion to restore blood flow. It was essential that we keep moving to stay warm.

I followed the tug of our team leader until I felt lead weight behind. One of our team was struggling and we stopped more frequently now less than four hours out of high camp. He was showing signs of Edema, a life-threatening condition and was pulled from our rope. We mourned this for Neil as we knew what that meant, no summit for our good friend and the only true Alaskan in the group. Mark now placed us all on one rope, a potentially risky move having donated our alternate lifeline to Neil and an assistant guide. The now consolidated team trudged up past an area called the Football Field and took a short break. By now the sun was bright and winds had abated. A huge obstacle confronted us before gaining the summit ridge, an area called Pig Hill. We stashed our packs and I made the most difficult and steep climb of my life. By the time we reached the apex of this one hour snow slope, the summit was within striking distance and there was no retreat. We were going to summit Denali. At 600 pm on June 19, 2007 we topped out and spent over an hour at the Highest Point in North America.

Our guide kept us up there in the balmy -5 degree summer day and kept suspiciously peering over the summit ridge. Only toward the last few minutes of that hour did we receive the best surprise of the trip. It was Neil cresting the summit ridge of Mt. McKinley. He could join his expedition that had spent over two weeks to reach this spot at which he stared for many years from his home in Eagle River, Alaska. Denali had shown her favor to our group, an event for which I will forever be grateful.

Our decision to descend 13,000 feet to the Kahiltna base camp would prove to be somewhat hasty.  In order to spare you my version of events, I will instead refer you to this article. Dangerous descent in Denali » Knoxville News Sentinel

The reason I am conveying this story is to give you some background concerning my ice climbing buddies and our annual pilgrimage to Ouray.  We developed a tight bond on that expedition that continues to this day.  When you entrust your life to a group of guys on a rope, life gets very simple.  I always look forward to time spent and mountains climbed with this bunch.  Lee Whitten also climbed Denali on a separate expedition and is an integral part of the Ouray, Colorado ice sports.  He and I tease each other mercilessly.  A highlight of this recent experience was sneaking into the ice park and catching him cresting the canyon lip on his last pitch of the climb.  I had been giving him constant grief about using his knees to lean on the ice.  He in turn, starting needling me about leaning my hip into the ice, both questionable in terms of form although no one was giving us any style points.  Since Lee was unaware that I was standing at the anchor point, he took a little "knee" break before cresting the lip.  After a five second pause, he stared up at his ultimate objective to see me leaning over with a smile.  His expression was priceless.  We both laughed for days.

Lee(Knee) me and JD

Stuff like that makes our time out there really special.  We climb all day, retreat to the natural mineral hot springs in the evenings and relax at night swapping climbing tales and lies of old romantic conquests.  John Davis used to serenade us with his trumpet until he retired his lips last year.  For Christmas, Dan gave me a new gopro helmet cam.  Now three of us were able to film and critique our form on the ice.  Below are some clips from the gopro.  First is a look at how we dropped into the canyon via rappel and the second is a route over in an area known as the Scottish Gulley.  Enjoy.

This is how we got down to our belay station.


Below is an actual climb.  Isn't that present from Dan amazing?  I think he may have meant for me to use it filming him but....


Last is a video of Dan and I walking out of an area known as the schoolroom.  From here, climbers drop to the river floor where they ascend to this catwalk.


If this sounds like an ad for gopro, it isn't.  Unless they wanted to pay me in form of a sponsorship, then it is a ringing endorsement.  I don't have any pictures of Neil, he came in later in the week.  Dan is the guy in front of me walking out of the schoolroom.  I'm fairly confident that he will produce his usual high quality video that I intend to publish later, so not too worried about lack of photos of him.  I should also mention that he helped me knock out all this illness I have had for two months with medication that made the trip less miserable for us both.  We also shot over to telluride for a day of skiing.  Man, was it cold.  My formerly frostbitten digits were fine climbing the ice but skiing in that single digit stuff was another story.

So in the end, Dan and I departed leaving Neil and Lee to pursue a 6 day hut to hut ski trip they annually complete.  Professor Davis returned to Boulder.  JDavis is our denmother and guide.  He is our fearless leader.  Neil was my mentor for my first true lead climb on the ice.  I will say it was an exercise in terror when I realized that I was ascending unroped on a solid sheet of ice from which I would have slid 30 feet straight down into the frozen river after bouncing about 16 times.  Inserting that first and second screw was like a chapter in a Jack London novel.  It took me about 25 minutes to complete that solo ascent before belaying Lee and Neil from the top simultaneously.  That was a comedy of errors but we all made it out safely minus a few cuts here and there.

 Do you notice Buff with a new Buff?  That's because JD purchased this one for me and I absolutely LOVE it!  They are indispensible in the mountains but I never had one until now.