2023 Denali Season Review

2023 denali season review

by Jessica Flandro

When I, a member of the logistics team, first arrived at the Alpine Ascents office in Talkeetna, Alaska to begin preparing for the upcoming climbing season there was an unseasonable amount of snow still on the ground and more winter storms forecasted over the coming weeks. Ever the optimists, we assumed the poor weather would quickly fade into summer but the 2023 Denali climbing season has been marked by bad weather and then more bad weather.

The standard Denali itinerary is set for 21 days, which includes extra days in case of bad weather or other eventualities. 9 out of the 10 completed trips this season used 19 plus days, with all but 3 teams experiencing a weather delay either flying into or out of base camp. For a quick comparison, last season 1 out of 13 climbing teams used 19 days. The other 12 teams climbed the mountain in 14-18 days. But this season, the climbers have faced high winds, exceptionally cold temperatures, whiteout storms, and then returned to Talkeetna to enjoy the rain.

This season kicked off with the aptly named Team 1, led by Sam Hennessey. We were excited to see familiar faces on Team 1 as some of the students of last year’s 8-day Alaska mountaineering courses returned for their own Denali climb. While the weather flying in to base camp looked iffy, Talkeetna Air Taxi was able to sneak Team 1 in during the last flyable hours of the evening. Team 1 experienced a few days of notable winds at 9500’, which Sam described as “quite unpleasant”. Despite the challenges faced early on, Team 1 experienced likely the best weather alignment of the season and spent the least amount of time on the mountain, summitting and returning to Talkeetna in just 17 days.

Our next team – the Denali Ravens – would experience close to the opposite in getting to base camp. The weather deteriorated rapidly the afternoon they were scheduled to fly, and they’d spend the next two full days in Talkeetna before finally sneaking on to the glacier in the early morning of the fourth day. The extra time spent in Talkeetna was put to full use as lead guide Victor McNeil ensured everyone’s skills were up to snuff. The Denali Ravens practiced everything from crevasse rescue to tent set up guaranteeing that once they did arrive on the mountain, they would be ready to start moving uphill. Plus, the team was lucky enough to enjoy the best food in Talkeetna and had ample time to find team mascot and fellow summiteer – Jeremy the Duck.

Jeremy the Duck and the Denali Ravens.

Are you seeing a trend? While Mitosis Are Cold, led by Vern Tejas, flew in on time both Legs Miserables and Team 5, led by Evan Miller and Kristie Kayl respectively, experienced an overnight weather delay in town. Both teams enjoyed a bonus meal in Talkeetna and agreed that good food, a cold beer, and another night in a bed wasn’t such a bad thing. Despite the delays, all three teams would align and parallel each other while making their way to 14k camp. From here Mitosis Are Cold decided to continue uphill and wait out the next forecasted storm at 17k camp. Both Legs Miserables and Team 5 chose to wait out the storm at 14k camp before a weather window appeared and they made the move to 17k. The day after moving to 17k many teams will take a rest day, before the final summit push, however the day after Legs Miserables and Team 5 arrived at 17k camp was the only suitable and foreseeable weather window for an attempt. All three teams made a successful push for the summit on the 5th of June.

During all this climbing and movement, the logistics team was back in Talkeetna working hard to ensure each team had the necessary food, gear, and enthusiasm to head out. While there is a small grocery store in town, we drive two and a half hours each way to shop at a full grocery and Costco. The snow and Alaskan roadways delayed our first few shopping trips which caused the grocery list to become so large, we almost lost Jessica amidst the Costco boxes of food filling the van. At one point, all of Alaska was out of individual packets of cream cheese, a lunch-food favorite. Turning to creative solutions, we asked a friend flying up from the lower 48 to check a bag full of cream cheese packets and cold packs. The poor weather resulted in stacked teams and us launching 5 trips in one week. We somehow navigated the tight logistics and transported the teams to and from the hangar, air taxi and hotels. Despite all these food and weather challenges, we were extremely grateful that the mosquito population seemed to be sparse this season. Whether because of the poor weather or the mosquito vacuums Brittni diligently took care of, and the subsequent hundreds of mosquitos we microwaved, the first half of the season was marked by a fortuitous lack of the Alaskan state bird.

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The author, surrounded by Costco boxes!

The poor weather continued through the end of May into June and our next two teams – Pineapple Express (led by Stephen Williams) and Pirates of the Carabiner (led by Nik Mirhashemi) – both spent several days lower on the mountain in the same white out storm that had stalled teams higher up the mountain. Taking advantage of narrow weather windows, they were able to slowly make their way up the mountain finally arriving at 17k. From here the only possible weather window looked extremely cold but sunny with no wind. Deciding this was their best shot, they gave it a go and summited in temperatures around -30F. Everyone agrees that it was a gorgeous albeit very cold day. Even more special was that lead guide Stephen Williams’ father was also on the Pineapple Express team, and the father/son duo was able to climb together.

Our next two teams encountered some of the most consistently bad weather of the season. When The Cretaceous Wrangalians From Mumuland led by Stuart Robertson made it to 14k camp, they needed to acclimatize before moving higher up the mountain. Unfortunately, this necessary acclimatization would coincide with the best weather they encountered during the trip. The team spent 10 days at 14k camp waiting for a suitable weather window to move up. When one was finally forecasted to appear, they were ready, and attempted to move to 17k camp but were forced to turn around due to strong winds and poor conditions.

The Glacier Donkeys led by Hannah McGown experienced bad weather lower down on the mountain that prevented their move to 14k camp for a few days. However once at 14k and acclimatized, the team was able to use an early weather window to make the move to 17k camp. Knowing there was only a narrow window forecasted before everything shut down again, the team attempted to go for the summit. Unfortunately, the forecast significantly underestimated the winds on the mountain and Hannah made the disappointing but necessary call to spin the team at Denali Pass. They returned all the way to 14k camp that day to escape the wind and left for base camp the next day. Knowing the weather was going to deteriorate again they raced to base camp in an attempt to fly out before the storm hit. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the team would spend the next 4 days eating pre-cooked ribs and other prepacked items from the base camp food cache, before finally flying back to Talkeetna.

While the first half of the season was marked by a decided lack of mosquitoes, the second half made up for it with swarms of the small, terrible creatures. Regrettably there are no sick days because of masses of blood-sucking insects and so the logistics team continued on ensuring all gear, food and paperwork was ready for our departing teams and welcoming back returning climbers. As the summer season continues in earnest in Talkeetna it becomes more and more difficult to find available hotels for returning climbers. We’ve spent hours on the phone calling hotels and Airbnb’s to ensure each climber can book a room. It’s been a wild and wet season here in town and we’re proud to have moved over 100 climbers with just two vans and an unpredictable schedule.

During such a tough weather year, we’ve been especially grateful for our relationship with both Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) and the National Park Service (NPS). TAT has navigated the continuous weather delays this season with absolute professionalism. Their team has supplied us with copious amounts of coffee, laughs and snuggles from Beaver the cat. NPS not only supplies us with CMC’s (poop cans) but also arms our climbers with the knowledge to become stewards of Denali themselves. We’re grateful to work with the amazing ranger team and love being a part of this climbing community.

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Beaver enjoys the Talkeetna sunshine.

As of writing this post, our final team of 2023 has recently returned safely to town. Our late in the season Team Sled Zeppelin, with an all-star guide team led by none other than Jangbu Sherpa, arrived back in Talkeetna on the 7th of July. Almost hit with another in town weather delay on their way in, the team just managed to steal on to base camp the afternoon of July 19th. (And the weather had just around then become warm enough to necessitate a night travel schedule on the lower mountain.) They were able to sneak in a summit push during an extremely narrow weather window on the 2nd of July, and had a long but successful day out. They navigated their way back down to base camp, and once back in Talkeetna, Sled Zeppelin capped off a challenging but fun 2023 Denali climbing season with Alpine Ascents.

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