Location

ALASKA

Elevation (above sea level)

5,895m

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Cost (per person)

BOOKINGS CLOSED

Itnerary

NINE DAYS


COMPLETED MAY 2013

IN MAY 2013 THE FIERI GRAND SLAM TEAM CLIMBED UNSUPPORTED AND CONQUERED MT MCKINLEY, THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN NORTH AMERICA. THIS NOTORIOUSLY DIFFICULT MOUNTAIN PROVED CHALLENGING, TESTING AND REWARDING.


 

The McKinley team had been preparing for this expedition in the UK and Chamonix fine-tuning alpine climbing techniques and adapting various procedures to accommodate the teams injuries. Of the 6-man team, Jaco has an amputated left arm, Martin climbs with a paralysed right arm and Craig is completely blind! Harry, Henry and Alec all suffer with old age!

On our departure from base camp we climbed quickly to camp 1 at 7800ft over a series of snow bridges covering deep crevasses. This camp is situated in an enormous glacial plateau overlooking a deep U shaped valley. On arrival the team adopted a set of procedures that would be repeated at every camp, establish camp and build protective walls around the tents and our cook tent to protect us from winds that would range from 5 to 60 mph over the coming weeks. As this was an unsupported attempt on McKinley we carried rucksacks and pulled sledges laden with equipment, food and fuel to last a month as the weather on McKinley often forces teams to wait for sustained periods at various points. This meant carrying around 30lbs each in our rucksacks and close to 200lbs in our sledges. Physical preparation and conditioning is a must!

From Camp 1 we began forward carrying food and fuel up the mountain in stages as elements of the route are 50 degrees in gradient and moving forward in one push with enormous loads is too dangerous on steep terrain. It was on returning from one forward carry that we received a call on the Satellite phone informing us of the tragic news that Alec’s brother had died. All of our efforts now went into getting Alec off the mountain to be with his family. We redistributed his kit and said a number of emotional good byes and promised to place picture tributes of a close friend of Alec’s on the summit when/if we make it. Over the following days we attempted to push up the mountain and were forced back by poor visibility, strong winds and extreme cold. McKinley was living up to its reputation.

Eventually high pressure arrived and the skies cleared allowing us to progress up motorcycle hill, along a dangerous traverse and over undulating glacier to camp 3 at 14000ft. This was a particularly challenging climb pulling our sledges as it is fairly steep in parts and the terrain falls away initially to the left side, then the right which results in the sledge dragging the climber with it, if not for our crampons griping into the snow and ice. On arrival at 14000ft camp we were now high enough to bare witness to the most impressive views I’ve ever seen. Scenery of uninterrupted snow capped peaks as far as the eye could see which is simply unrivalled. The following day we walked back down to pick up the food and fuel we had cached at 13500ft before a well-earned rest day. (The only rest day of the trip as it turned out).

McKinley decided to display her lenient side and the high pressure resulted in clear blue ski and mild temperatures, which we decided to make best use of. Harry suggested that we push straight for the summit (20360ft) from this camp whilst we had good weather. This would be demanding and we decided that would simply add to the challenge so the next morning we departed camp for the summit. The sensible option is to climb from 14000ft to 17000, rest and return in order to acclimatize before a summit attempt. However, the weather had already demonstrated how rapidly it can change and an opportunity presented itself to make a rapid ascent. We departed camp 3 at a fast pace overtaking 5 teams before we hit a feature I’m calling the wall for obvious reasons (see below). This 50degree pitch proved to be similar to the hourglass on Manaslu and the Lhotse face on Everest. 2000ft of ascent in just over an hour, not surprisingly I could feel a mild headache coming on. Jaco and Harry tend not to suffer from altitude unlike Henry and I. As such, they enjoyed mocking us as we climbed!

Above the wall the route turns to the right and a gradual ridgeline ascent up to the camp at 17000ft offering the most impressive views of any part of the expedition. To our right was a sheer drop over 2000ft into the valley below and beyond more snow capped mountains than I could count, (Breathing heavily suffering from altitude) which were a beautiful sight.

On our arrival at 17000ft we immediately erected the tents and began to melt snow and replenish our water as Henry and Jaco were going to push on straight for the summit that night. By this point I was now dizzy with mild altitude sickness so Harry and I would rest here over night and crack on at dawn. Both Harry and I found it difficult to rest knowing that Jaco and Henry were on a summit push but confidant that they had the strength to make it. At 01:00 we heard what sounded like voices and lone behold Henry and Jaco were returning from a successful summit bid. They were both shattered but in good spirits having summited close to midnight!

The next morning Harry and I woke and melted snow at a now very cold 17000ft camp. It is truly amazing the temperature variation at this altitude when the sun goes down. Our day began early with a traverse along another steep slope descending to our left with crevasses along the way. Don’t fall now I reminded myself over and over. Our progress was slowed by a group of Russians ahead and we patiently waited for a suitable place to over take. Harry suddenly upped his pace and off we went climbing past the Russians much to their surprise. Amazingly, as we approached a feature known as the football field I heard retching coming from ahead. Harry was bent over and suffering from mild altitude sickness. Bonus I thought, it’s not me for once. We stopped as the wind was starting to pick up significantly as we needed greater facial and hand protection. Time to put the shades away and put on goggles, storm hates and down mitts! From here we pushed towards the summit ridge slowly and methodically aware that the forecast of 20mph winds was somewhat inaccurate and this wind was on the verge of our safe climbing limits. There’s a rule we use on high altitude mountains that I took from Russell Brice, the 20/20 rule. If it’s minus 20 and there are winds speeds of 20mph, you’re at the limit! The temperature was now dropping although it was fairly mild at a guess of around minus 8 but the wind was significantly greater than 20mph.

As we hit the summit ridge the wind picked up again and Harry was doing a mental risk assessment of the feasibility of pushing on. At this point we were the only people at this height, the Russians were now at least 2000ft below us moving slowly. Harry pushed along the ridge and shouted back that we’d go for it but tread carefully. The summit ridge varies in width from 30cm to 3-4 meters in width. There’s a gradual decent to our left and a vertical drop off a cornice ridgeline on the right. On several occasions I went to ground as the wind gusts picked up.

Around 40 minutes of traversing and careful foot placements we hit the summit. The wind was now howling and the temperature dropping further. We congratulated each other, took some photos of Alecs’ friend being placed on the summit and enjoyed one of the most spectacular views in the world. It’s well known in the mountaineering world that most ascents are more physically demanding than the decent. However, most will agree that the decent is more dangerous. Although we had made great progress with a fast ascent (The guided groups will take between 10-14 hours for a round trip from 17000ft according to the rangers, we were up in half that time), we wanted to get down as quickly as possible as the wind was continuing to build and Henry and Jaco were waiting at 17000 for us. We also had Craig at 14000ft with friends to get back to.

The decent proved a challenge as expected, the wind picked up and the visibility reduced to white out conditions. It’s a times like these that you rely on your training, past experience and team work to move efficiently and safely. On our way towards camp 4 we came across two Polish climbers who were protecting themselves from the elements beneath a rock. The wind had now picked up to a dangerous speed and the Polish lads were unable to descend safely as a pair as their rope was too short for them to hook into the anchor points on the glacier.

Harry and I had a 60ft rope so Harry rigged them up behind him and I pushed ahead clipping us in to various anchor points as we descended. On safe arrival at 17000ft the Polish lads thanked us and Henry and Jaco congratulated us with hot brews. The wind had now made a return to 14000ft impossible so we bedded down for another virtually sleepless night listening to the raging wind battering our tent all night. The following day we woke and returned to Craig at 14000ft before continuing down the mountain over two days to the airfield. As with the McKinley tradition, this was no easy decent, the speed of our climb resulted in carrying two weeks worth of food down the mountain (the rangers at 14000ft happily took our excess fuel but no teams were interested in our food!). Heavy loads descending proved more difficult than climbing up to manoeuvre, especially using one arm to try and control the sledge!

This expedition proved testing and demanding. McKinley is no easy mountain to crack. However, 3 disabled veterans and two old men were grateful to her for allowing us to climb her.The Fieri Grand Slam aims to demonstrate the human ability to overcome adversity post life changing injury. We intend to climb the highest mountain on each of the Seven continents and walk unsupported to both the Geographic North and South poles.We need enormous support to achieve this and are looking for sponsors, partners and members of the disabled community who would like to join us on this endeavour.

We would like to say a huge thank you to our Mt McKinley expedition sponsors.

 

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