Two Denalis in one week By François Cazzanelli
Published on 10/06/2019
Talkeetna 2nd June 2019. Finally, after 20 nights spent on the glacier we can finally enjoy a comfortable bed. Francesco and Teto are swearing downstairs with the airlines to change flights, Roger sleeps and I relax in bed and think back to these last 20 days ....
When we arrived on Kahiltna Glacier on May 15th 2019, the weather was not great, it seemed to be winter, there was a lot of fresh snow and it was cold.
In the first days of the expedition we explored the area getting familiar with our new "playground". During the two afternoons after our arrival, Roger and I built a huge igloo (2 meters high and 4x4 meters wide) which proved to be fundamental: in fact, there were zero degrees inside and you could eat and cook under any weather conditions, saving a lot of fuel.
The goal of our expedition - now I can declare it openly - was to reach the summit of Denali, repeating the "Cassin" route. It was opened by an Italian team in July 1961 led by Riccardo Cassin along with the "Ragni di Lecco". The route is very long, about 2,500 m of ascent from the rimaye to the top. Climbing is varied, on high quality solid granite, goulottes, mixed pitches and a very aerial snow ridge. Only a few repetitions of the "Cassin" by other Italians are reported: the first in 1993 by Franco Dobetti, Bruno Dossi and Bruno Rota; the second Italian repetition, in June 2009, organized by the Gamma group and composed by Giacomo Bianchi Bazzi, Roberto Chiappa, Massimiliano Gerosa, Eugenio Manni, Fabio Valseschini.
Our strategy was to set up a base camp near the airport, on the "Kahiltna Glacier" at an altitude of 2170 m; and then set up an advanced camp on the normal Denali route at 4327m (in the same place where camp 4 is set up for those who do the normal route), so as to allow us to move faster towards our goals.
After setting up the base camp, on May 17th, we loaded the sledges and left for camp 4 at Denali (at 4327m). To get there we had to climb 2500 m in altitude spread over 24 km. That day, loaded like mules, it took us 8 hours and 46 minutes.
I remember it as a very hard day: when the tents were set up and something was torn apart, we collapsed in sleeping bags!
On awakening, the following day, we began our acclimatization. The weather was bad, but we managed to move easily on the normal "West Buttres" route, reaching an altitude of 5500 m. On May 19th, we returned to base camp, having slept for two nights at 4.327m. At this point the acclimatization was completed: all we had to do was climb.
Finally on May 22nd, the optimal weather conditions came to start again towards the advanced camp at 4.327 m. Our fitness was definitely improved, we only took 6 hours and 30, against the almost 9 hours of the previous time and always with decidedly heavy backpacks.
Unfortunately, having arrived at the camp, they told us that the window of good weather had been reduced to just 24 hours. What to do? Francesco and I have so decided that the following day we would have done a tour of patrol on the "West Rib" to see the start of the "Cassin" route; while Teto and Roger would have continued their acclimatization on the normal route, the "West Buttress".
On May 23, at 11am, Francesco and I set off. After arriving at the hill we could not see anything under us, but we guessed that above, the sky was clear, so we decided to continue.
The road before us was not easy, but at the same time it was fun and the conditions decent. From time to time it was necessary to trace and occasionally ice slabs were found, all alternating with nice rock passages!
Step by step, we were arriving at the key passage of the route: the final corniche. Once this was over, all we had to do was run to the top!!
After 9 hours of climbing, at 8 pm, we were on top of Denali. Superb! The clouds had cleared and there was not even wind. Just the time for some photos and then running down the normal route and in just 11 hours and 56 minutes we were back at camp 4.
Waiting for us were Teto and Roger who told us that at 5,500 m they had to give up the summit and go back because of the fog that prevented them from finding the way.
The West Rib is rated Alaska Grade 4, can be compared to the Triftjigrat ridge on the north face of Breithorn. From Camp 4 in Denali, the altitude difference is 1900 m. The difficulties end with the so-called "football field" at 5900 m. From there the street re-joins the "West Buttress" route.
In retrospect, the incredible thing about this unexpected but desired summit is that exactly on the same day one year ago, on May 23rd, 2018, I was at the top of Lhotse, in Nepal, together with Marco Camandona!!
On May 24th, we returned to the base camp and ordered 4 pizzas and 4 beers from the airline and we went into our tent to celebrate. The weather remained bad for several days, it snowed a lot and the wait began to be unnerving!
Finally, with the 28th of May the good weather arrived and we left for camp 4, goal for me and Francesco was the crest "Cassin" route; for Teto and Roger the "West Rib". Our shape was definitely improved and in fact it took us only 4 hours and 20 minutes to go up to field 4 against the almost 9 hours of the first time.
That evening at camp 4 it was really cold, ate fast, we immediately locked ourselves in our sleeping bags!
The next day the alarm was set early, we drank coffee and ate something and we were ready to go.
We walked all four together the first 600 m up to the col, at this point we split into two teams and greeted Teto and Roger who would continue for the "West Rib". Francesco and I started the descent of the "Seattle ramp". In 4 hours and 20 minutes we were already at the base of the road; it took us 10 minutes to prepare the gear, take refreshment and go. Moving again to attack the "Japanese Couloir": the conditions weren't the best, there was a lot of ice, but we managed to get away quickly. A couple of rock pitches and we were in a short time, riding the "Cowboy ridge". The track of the two teams in front of us helped us a lot and in a few hours we were at the hanging glacier to take refreshment!
We stopped only for a few minutes and we were again ready to leave for the "first rock band", which is a splendid climb, never difficult and very fun.
At the top, we passed the other two teams: a handshake, a bit of mutual encouragement and then on to the "second rock band". Having easily found the hidden couloir, we passed it easily. At the top of this stretch at about 5,000 m we stopped to eat something.
When the radio was on, Roger's euphoric voice overwhelmed us, giving us the good news that he and Teto were on the summit of Denali from the "West Rib". This news gave us a great boost. In total, we had already climbed for more than 2000 meters and fatigue was starting to be felt. We were super happy for the two "kids": it was a real fuel injection, we started more motivated than ever.
The next step was to overcome the "third rock band", but the game got complicated: for the next 400 m we would have had to trace the way with the snow at the knees. We were at 5,400 m and the night was coming. We decided to stop for two hours to rest and drink, so as to spend the coldest hours indoors. Once inside the small tent and lit the stove, the hours passed quickly and at 2am it was time to leave.
It was very cold around -36°C with 45 km/h wind. The last 700 meters were very difficult. One step at a time, gritting my teeth, finally at 7 am we were in the sun and at the top.
It was very cold, the eyelids froze.
We had taken exactly 18 hours and 58 minutes from the rimaye to the top.
Two quick shots, a few videos and a run down to warm up. We continued non-stop to camp 4, where we arrived at 8.45am, exactly 26 hours and 45 minutes from our departure.
At Camp 4, our friends were waiting for us with good hot tea. After a few hours of rest, together with Roger and Teto, we packed up all the gear on the sledges and we set off again towards the base camp, reached in three hours.
Only on arrival did we realize what really happened in the last hours.
Francesco and I are very satisfied with our two climbs to Denali, in just one week and above all the "Cassin" route. Tackling such a difficult route so quickly, finding conditions that are not always favourable for us, has enormous value and pushes us on for our future projects.
We had come to Alaska with the idea of quickly climbing technical routes that we had never faced before and this result repays us in full of the efforts made during the preparation, meticulous and continuous throughout the winter. Nothing comes by chance.
I am also very proud of the result obtained by the two "kids", Teto and Roger, who take home, on their first international expedition, an important route with a clean and light style. Well done!
Article and pictures by François Cazzanelli, May 2019.
François Cazzanelli, born in 1990 and based in Cervinia (Italy), is part of the Grivel team since when he was a child. Mountain guide, mountaineer and member of Società Guide del Cervino since 2012, he collected many extra-European expeditions, from Patagonia to Himalayas, to the unknown massifs of Sichuan, opening many new routes.
Favorite Grivel product: North Machine Carbon ice axes.