Fay Manners | My sled and I...
In June of 2022, Fay Manners and Michelle Dvorak travelled to Alaska, climbing Bacon and Eggs on Mini-Mini-Moonflower, and the Cassin Ridge on Denali in the first female ascent of the season. Fay shares her experience and advise on undertaking a trip to the Alaska Range.
Words by Fay Manners. Images by Fay Manners and Michelle Dvorak.
Jetsetting over to America to climb its highest peak Denali, is an ambitious undertaking for any mountaineer. With the summit at 20,310 ft above sea level the journey on skis and towing sleds is a long way up. When you fly over Alaskan Tundra and land on the Kahiltna glacier (your starting point) at 7,200 ft you realise a lot of travel is involved just to reach the climb and return.
A trip of this nature requires some detailed thought around how to tackle this long approach. There are plentiful of challenges to the seasoned mountaineer, with a taste of everything that high altitude expeditions have to offer; crevasses, sled carrying, acclimatisation, technically demanding mountaineering, and most of all, looking after yourself.
I would say though, the logistics of travelling to Alaska are straightforward. International and domestic flights run to Anchorage and it’s easy to book the connecting shuttle to Talkneeta. On arrival in Talkneeta, you check in with the rangers for an orientation and can swiftly weigh and label your baggage ready for the flight. The orientation is largely focused on keeping the park clean. Having just climbed the classic Eiger North face and experienced more than enough of other humans waste, I felt humbled by this vigour. Everyone in the park is provided with a “clean mountain can” (a portable toilet) which should remain with them and their sleds. Those who are planning for a longer stay can empty the waste into a large crevasse at one of the higher camps to avoid overflow. With the exception of the poo crevasse, everything you bring onto the glacier with you should return with you. Subsequent to the orientation, (as soon as the weather permits it), you are free to jump on board the air taxi to your chosen glacier and begin your hauling. The permits require some basic form filling 60 days in advance and everything is done in English.
The bulk of planning for the trip is more the discussion of travelling light versus being comfortable. The local American mountaineers seem to enjoy a Victorian style ascent of Denali! I arrived ready to go with my 47L rucksack, mono point crampons, light weight ice-screws, half cut toothbrush and packs of dried food. Right next to me, my counterpart was loading up her duffel bag with 2 x 24 inch pickets, a neti pot, slabs of butter and enough back up medicine to cure an army. I had to draw the line at her electric toothbrush!
Friends who had been to Denali before had recommended I pack reading books, a large solar panel for charging electronics and as many down clothes as I could possibly carry. But with such an exceptional weather window we didn’t really need any of this, it was possible to haul a little less!
However, it was definitely a mistake thinking that with two tents, two sleeping bags, two stoves and too many of everything else that I would be able to single carry my way up to basecamp! Due to the size of our bodies versus the size of our sleds we in fact had to double carry most of the way. This meant that rather than carry everything at once in one load, we instead made two trips to each camp. With this approach, we could ski some of the mountain without having the sleds smack us on the back of our ankles and also it provided some relief from sled carrying as it was then only required on alternate days. Caching worked out uniquely well for us. Rather than burying our gear every camp on the first carry, we simply left our additional tent up and stashed our gear in that. This meant we had our new home ready ahead of time, allowing us to travel in bad weather and not worry about the hassle of setting up on arrival.
A big concern for us was our skin. Our constant fear was that the intense sun exposure would morph us into leathery skinned grandmas by the end of our trip. On clear days, the sun was scorching, reflecting off the glacier and burning any exposed or unprotected skin in minutes. My partner made herself a face mask that looked akin to the scarecrow in the movie Batman Begins, while I took the more traditional method of applying sunscreen every 30 minutes. Everyone wore their own version of a nose protector but in the end everyone looked the same, like some sort of bird with a pointy beak and a blowtorched red face!
There were plenty of characteristically ‘’American’’ but also nonsensical names given to varying sections of the mountain. Squirrel and motorbike hill were two of my favourites. My partner was happy with herself for renaming the most famous traverse to basecamp “windless corner”. Due to the surprisingly good weather we were gifted with very little wind which meant no breeze and a lot of sweat!
We named our sleds “Torture Teddy” and “Torture Toddy”. Carrying them really was a bit of a sufferfest. Painful on whatever body part you choose to attach them to. My hip bones took some chiselling even with some down jackets stuffed on top to pad them out. Most of the climbers we met seem to pack their rucksacks heavy and keep their sleds light but I just found that whatever I did it was unpleasant. There would be the odd minute or two when I would think “Teddy isn’t so bad, he is somewhat lightening the load on my shoulders” but these thoughts would quickly turn into anger and hatred when with no warning he would swing out of control and try to drag me into a crevasse!
There is plenty of advice about when you should travel on the glacier and whether it should be during the daytime or the night. If it’s too hot and you are at risk of the crevasses having weak snow bridges then it is probably better to move at night in the first days. But as you get higher and it thee temperatures are cooler, moving during the daytime isn’t so much of a big deal. The fact it is non stop daylight means there is no fear of darkness and that you can simply travel whenever you feel like it.
The altitude before and ascending to basecamp felt quite comfortable. One benefit of my friend Torture Teddy is that he slowed me down quite a lot and thus allowed for more manageable acclimatisation. During the summit push, however, the altitude started to affect my body. It brought a heightened awareness of the precariously wild yet beautiful location I was in and the need to get down safely.
Returning to basecamp after summit, you can exploit the leftover food and fuel all the victorian style weight bearing mountaineers have carried up. No one wants to carry heavy sleds downhill so everyone works pretty hard to discard their leftovers. I could have lived up there all summer with the amount people leave behind!
The social scenes, if you want them to be, are spirited around basecamp. While people are patiently waiting for their weather window and slowly acclimatising, cooking tent doors are open and pancakes are shared. You can listen to other people's stories or tell your own. I found that listening was a beautiful way to be inspired and learn about other places to mountaineer around the world.
With whatever route you choose to do, the attitude hits you quite hard at the top. 10 footsteps seems to take longer than you could possibly imagine and you wonder how the last 200m can take more than an hour! But if you summit in the evening, the Alpenglow that paints the surrounding mountains with red and pink, is heartwarming and a sight that I will never forget.
Every mountaineering tale will speak of the hardest work being the descent and Denali was no exception. There is no fast-track back from the summit, and there is the added risk of losing control of the sled when descending faster on skis. We decided to do the descent in one push and we travelled through the night so we would arrive ready for the first plane out of the glacier in the morning which was the right decision, (and saved us hours of unecessary waiting when our bodies desperately needed real food and a shower!)
Climbing Denali, the highest peak in America, amongst the most stunning mountain wilderness on earth, was quiute the privilege. And although, like any expedition it presented it’s challenges, it is a very accessible mountain offering a range of routes for every mountaineer.
If you would like to hear more about my experiences of climbing in Alaska then please feel free to get in touch.