Debbie Does Denali Trip Review and Fifty State Completion
© 2012 Dave Covill

Note: Photographs are courtesy of the author.
          Mouse-click them for enlargement.

Dave Covill completion map
(Click for full-size map.)


COHP Gang:

We all made it to The Great One's summit.

was joined by friend Joe Burke of California who had tried twice previously with me; plus 3 fellow Colorado Mountain Club members: Steve Hughes, John Martertsteck and Debbie Markham - all High Altitude Mountaineering Instructors just like myself.

Climb Details

e made extraordinarily good time; moving from the Kahiltna airstrip to Camp 1 at 7,800 feet the next morning early (Sunday, June 17); then making a single carry to 11,300 feet on Day 3 (dropped 100 pounds at 10,000 foot base of last hill - end of Kahiltna main glacier. Day 4 Debbie and I fetched this cache at 5 am, handed it to the 3 guys, who added about 40 pounds more, and moved it to Windy Corner at 13,000 feet.

Opening a Father's Day card!

(We arrived with about 615 pounds of stuff per the air taxi scales, although this included stuff on our bodies like harnesses etc..., airstrip cache including beer, and so on. We each initially had about 110 pounds on our sleds and backpacks.)

Day 5 we moved to the 14,200 foot camp. Day 6 we all fetched our cache of 140 pounds at Windy Corner (about 13,000 feet). Day 7 we brought a cache to 16,800 feet above Washburns Thumb, farther than the usual 16,000 foot top of the fixed lines. Day 8 we chilled out; John taught Joe some Basic Mountaineering skills on steep snow/ice above camp near the trail downward, while Deb, Steve and I climbed to the fixed line for exercise.

self explanatory

(We employed the services of custom weather forecaster Joe Gratz of Boulder, Colorado. We owe much of our success to Joel. His main job is forecasting powder conditions for skiing, but he has done other expedition forecasts. His precise information was most valuable, and caused us to delay moving to 17K by a couple of days, time which would have been miserably and uselessly spent up high. I recommend his services to anyone. Obviously one needs a satellite phone. His price was quite reasonable, and indeed, it cost us as much to call him, as he did in direct charges.)

Day 9 we rested in camp, reading books etc...

Day 10 (Monday, June 25th) John collaborated with a young (19 year old) dude from Seattle named Lance. We all had hiked up to the fixed lines for exercise, in poor conditions. Lance needed to retrieve his 17K cache he had placed earlier and get off the mountain, having been abandoned by his teammates. He had previously climbed Denali at age 18.

Dave again

John offered to accompany Lance and fetch his cache, if Lance would help John carry 1/2 of our cache from 16,800 feet on the ridge to 17,200 feet near the edge of high camp. John and Lance were able to snag about 3/4 of the cache on the way up, and they pulled this off in nasty weather, and thus our cache was right near where we would ultimately camp. Joel's reports were that Tuesday 26th was the day to avoid, and indeed it did snow and blow heavily all day, and we chilled out in our comfy TNF Bastion 4 tent at 14K camp.

Day 12 (Wednesday, June 27) we moved up to 17,200 high camp. This was a tough move, as we all carried 50-65 pounds on our backs steeply uphill. We were exhausted, and the weather chilled us with moderate winds as we moved past he ridge to camp in the late evening.

At the 14K camp you get direct sun about 9:30 am - 8:45 am.
At the 17K camp you get direct sun about 7:30 am to midnight.
This does not mean it is warm out; even with sun 17K Camp can be quite chilly,
perhaps 20-30° F tops at mid-day in full sun, with the thermometer shaded.

final ridge
Final ridge to the summit
from about 20,100 feet.
Three Russians area ahead of us.

Day 13 we rested mostly, although John and Steve fetched our minor cache remaining by Washburns Thumb; while Joe and I grabbed the main cache up high and brought it the 1/4 mile on a level walk to our tent. All camps, especially 14K camp, only had about 1/3 - 1/2 of the usual climber numbers. 17K camp was the same. At all times we moved like a hermit crab right into someone else's walls everywhere. This is one of the advantages of climbing late in the season, along with warmer weather.

Day 14 (Friday, June 29) we waited until 9:30 am, and began our walk to the top. Joel had predicted great weather, and sure enough, we led out in cool but decent temps, zero wind. We took a while to break trail to Denali Pass at 18,000 feet. 1+8 had made it the day prior in minor winds, which had smoothed the trail over a bit. Steve led to here, a big effort. We were split into 2 100 foot rope teams of 3 and 2, as we had been since reaching the relative safety of 7,800 foot camp 1 beyond most crevasse danger. I led Joe, followed by the other 3 person team, up the ridge face to Archdeacons Tower at about 19,500 feet.

"Debbie Does Denali" team on top.

We were passed by a Russian trio with a tall blonde leading at this point, and were happy for this, as they broke trail up the final slopes of Pig Hill to the summit ridge crest at about 20,100 feet. We later learned she was a Seven Summiter and multiple Everest ascender.... Ludmilla! We slowly gained the ridge, then walked the exhilarating, corniced, narrow knife edge to the top. We arrived at 5:30 pm, 8 hours. Winds 0-3 mph, skies clear except minor clouds to the southeast, the temperature around 10° F.


It's never that nice up there.... I was wearing fleece TNF Denali gloves (not my big mittens) the whole day to there, and was in my fleece blue jacket, no shell, no down coat. Yes, I put on my down jacket after a bit.... We traded off taking fotos with the Russians, they left, we had it to ourselves, and stayed about 50-55 minutes. Lots of photos and videos. We passed 2 Swedes back down at the Football Field, so only 10 summited on this most perfect of all days. We got down in 3.5 hours, and could have been under 3 if we hadn't bothered to clip all the pickets under Denali Pass. It was quite warm walking back into camp close to 10:15 pm.

ridge route
On the ridge at about 16,400 feet
and below Washburns Thumb.

I was pretty emotional near the end, and admit crying a bit hugging the summit BM marker post. I had spent 22 days in 2007 and 16 days in 2010 attempting Denali. I had been state highpointing on purpose for 31 years and a couple of months to pull it off. I had seriously thought about Denali since around 2001 or so. (Don't give me this crap about taking 40 or 50 years to complete the 50 state highpoints - you are counting a Mount Washington or Clingmans Dome jaunt with your parents when little; I am starting the clock in April 1981 with visits to KS, OK, AR, OH, IN and PA....).

Day 15 was epic unto itself; we walked from 17K at 1:15 pm, and reached 14K 3 hours later, made more water and some food, then descended to 11,300 foot camp by 10 pm. We slept 4 hours there, rose and on Day 17 and walked to 7,800 foot camp in 2 hours flat down 3,500 feet in about 5 miles, then took 3.5 hours in 5-6 miles to reach the airstrip through the lower crevasse fields, at about 9:45 am. We basically descended over 10,000 feet and then up Heartbreak Hill's 600 feet in 21 hours. We were flogged. Base Camp Lisa scored us a ride out with our TAT Air Taxi in under 2 hours, and of course I happily parted with my remaining Baileys and Jamison to help make this happen....;) Yes, we made straight for the West Rib Pub, and had a lot of halibut, salmon, burgers, fries, beer, salads, etc... We parted as friends, a top priority for us headed into this undertaking.

Some Details

slept in the TNF Bastion 4 tent with Joe and Steve the entire trip, while married couple John and Deb slept in a Mountain Hardware Trango 2 tent. We used the Covill purple sleds rigged with runners and poles, and they worked great, except that John snapped 2 tee-boxes early-on and we had to rely upon duct tape to hold that one together to 11,300 feet, at which point we went to just 4 sleds to 14K Camp.

We have bagels, scrambled eggs with veggies,
pre-cooked bacon, cheddar cheese, hash browns.

We used an XGK flamethrower to melt most of the snow, and a new JetBoil Sumo (1.8 liters) to do most of the boiling. John and Deb had a Whisperlite International which converted from white gas to canister, and they used it a lot in their vestibule. We used the BD hanging stove a bit, but not nearly as much as the JetBoil. We used roughly 2 gallons of gas, and about 10 8oz canisters, if you're curious. It was never too much less than 0° F until 17K Camp, and even then only perhaps -5 to -10° F at night. Nothing like what Joe and I had experienced previously.

I lost 16 pounds, others a similar proportion of bodyweight. I can shove my fist easily into the front of my pants, even today 3 days after leaving the mountain.

To answer a couple of questions; yes, the Japanese climbers perished (a most appropriate word) a few days before we arrived at Motorcycle Hill. For some reason the trail meandered across the Hill's top, instead of the usual straight up it, and it had been snowing when they passed by at 2 am. They did nothing wrong; just were in the wrong place at the wrong time per the rangers. The one survivor did indeed walk straight to the airstrip. I understand he spoke little or no English, and yes, he did indeed walk past many people at 11,300 feet right there, plus the 9,200 foot and 7,800 foot camps. One never knows what the mind will do when subjected to intense stress. It took until much later that day to get a rescue team investigating it. In so many words, the team was buried deeply in a crevasse to the trail's right looking up. A rope end was found, but victims were buried under much debris, and will not be recovered. We passed by it a total of 4 times, and paid our respects to those beneath us. I would estimate the bodies are 10-20 feet to the right of the current trail, and perhaps 10-20 feet in. Yikes!

Bagels with Canadian bacon
and cheddar cheese.

We employed Ambien quite a bit (for insomnia); I scored some, as did Steve and Deb, and we used perhaps 4-8 half tablets apiece. Worked great. Deb and Steve had Diamox, no one used dexamethasone. None of us ever had any symptoms at all of altitude sickness; we had spent 7 nights at 14K, and were highly acclimated. Summit Day no one felt funny at all. The Diamox users reported minor tingling, no peeing problems.

Using canister gas is amazing, the only problems were trying to use a cold, partly full can in the mornings.

Two rope teams of 2 and 3 is way better than one of 5. no brainer....

As always, we had too much food, ate about 60% of our food at most.

We all read our books, tore them apart and passed them around.

All brought camp chairs, this was wonderful. We had our Go-Lite cook tent, used it only at 14 Camp, nice to have it.

For Adam's benefit; we had 4 group meals (all arranged by me); bagels fried in olive oil with ham, scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese on Day 7, scrambled eggs with hash browns and bacon and bagels on Day 8, blueberry pancakes with bacon on Day 9, and sausage pizza from 3 freeze dried packs on Day 9. The 9 ounce fry pan was worth bringing! Steve brought two 2 pound bags of pre-cooled bacon. yummmm....

We were fully entrenched at 14K Camp in 6 days, a goal we had going in. We spent 7 nights at 14K camp due to some weather, and trying to time our summit bid such that we arrived at 17K camp only 2 nights prior to summit day. It would not have been possible for me to do a single carry all the way to 11,300'; dumping 100 pounds at 10,000 feet was crucial.

Team "Debbie Does Denali"
back in Talkeetna. From viewer's left,
Steve H, Dave C, Joe B, Debbie M, John M.

Weather forecaster Joel Gratz may be contacted at both Colorado Powder Forecast and Open Snow.

In reference to Dinesh Desai's post about the Warriors (not to be confused with the similar Wounded Warrior Project); we arrived a few days after the gang, and spent a lot of time with them between 11,300 feet and 14K camp. I shared shots of Jamisons with all of them and their guides and able-bodied organizers. Watching them spend 12 HOURS! to climb from 14,200 feet to the base of the fixed lines at about 15,500 feet was agonizing. They went out the same day we did, and we talked to them at the airstrip and again in Talkeetna. Amazing men, who have given so much of themselves to protect our basic freedoms. I salute them. I was sorry they couldn't move higher, but the odds were stacked against them. One of them was a double amputee named Neil from Colorado who I had met a year earlier when we helped train a WWP group to climb Kilimanjaro.

Lastly, you will recall that John Mitchler has given substantial ink time to a young lady from NH named Kristen Kelleher, who was attempting to become the youngest female 50 Completer by a decade. Many of us followed the RMI blog Dispatch of their trip. They sat at 17K for 10 days, and finally attempted the summit. Sadly, they headed out 1 day prior to a blue-bird weather day. They kept going for it, while a park ranger team turned back in the howling wind and cold temps above Denali Pass. They all made the summit, but upon returning to 17K High Camp, most apparently suffered moderate to severe frostbite. My understanding is that some people lost digits, and had bad injuries to faces etc. Such is the seduction of the goal; they had waited so long they felt compelled to make an attempt on the final possible day before heading down, paying a heavy price to attain the summit. I urge you to ponder this while looking over their blog page, which glosses over the bad news in a big way. They got off the mountain the day we flew on, but I failed to see them at the airstrip, probably because RMI uses K2 Aviation while we were on the other side at TAT Air Taxi service. I was told most were rushed to Anchorage for treatment...


kept getting asked: "What's next?" Hmmmmmm..... I have two 14ers to go (out of 55) to complete the Colorado 14ers. Hope to do that on September 7, 2013 at Pikes Peak. Need El Diente too.

My thoughts are with the Jim Nasti family of Illinois, you will recall highpointer Jim passed away via heart attack while sitting on Denali's summit 3 years ago. His corpse remains up there I am told, about 20 feet behind the summit buried under snow and ice now. It was Jim's 49th, with only ND to go. So very sad.

I thought a great deal about the many 48/49 Finishers I know, who may or may not make an attempt on their 50th (always Denali), including my wife Beckie and son Chris, Kevin W, Ron T, Mark & Gordie C, Sjaak, Diane W, Ken O, Ray & Jan, Charlie F, Patrick T, Charlie Z, Ken A, Rick H, Andy M, Kenyon S, Miriam R, the FUBS, and whoever else I have come to know but have forgotten their status. Keep trying, third time was a charm for me!

        Dave (Finally Fifty!) Covill