Hi Guys, sorry for the Twilence I have been catching up on sleep and spent all last night travelling and I am now in Boulder in Colorado now.
My last proper update on Denali was from Camp 14 at 4,200m so here's what happened next;
We had been there a day or 2, weather was really poor above us and it looked like a low-pressure system was approaching which meant yet more bad weather.
We ended up spending 5 days stuck at Camp 14 with mixed conditions, which were pretty challenging. We had some rare good moments but mostly we spent the 5 days waiting for the bad weather to clear. You could see Camp 17 (high camp) and part of the summit above us and the weather looked terrible. We had reports down that people were having a bad time up there.
The low pressure was due to stay so we were sitting it out, we had a lot of snowfall at Camp 14 which meant a lot of slopes were prone to avalanches. There was a lot of minor avalanche activity at Camp 14 but towards the end of our stay at Camp 14 the weather forecasts suggested that there would be a small weather window on Tuesday (12th) that they were calling "Magic Tuesday" where there would be an improvement, nevertheless the conditions were still challenging and marginal.
Even if there was a weather window we knew the climb was going to be challenging just to get to Camp 17. The climb from Camp 14 to Camp 17 is one of the toughest parts of the climb as you are carrying a full load. The steepest part of the climb - which is called the Headwall is around 600 metres of vertical climb just to get to the top of the Headwall, then when you get to the top of that you have Washburns Ridge which is one of the most exposed parts of the climb, especially in poor visibility, high winds and with heavy packs on our backs.
On the Sunday before the Magic Tuesday no other teams were moving up to Camp 17 (Camp 17, also known as High Camp is called Camp 17 not because there are 17 Camps but because it is at 17,000ft) because of the conditions, but we were feeling acclimatised, strong and confident and had been moving well as a team. That Sunday (the 10th) we were the only team to move to Camp 17 (High Camp) in pretty poor conditions but we made a safe and informed decision to put ourselves in the best position to capitalise on the Magic Tuesday weather window which everyone was talking about to be in the best position to attempt to summit.
That day turned in to a tough day. It was around a 9 hour climb and as we got close to High Camp the visibility was total whiteout which made navigating the ridge challenging and we arrived at High Camp whilst it was snowing with high winds and still had to put the tent up and build snow walls to protect us from the weather. It was cold too, considerably colder than Camp 14, probably around minus 20 I guess.
On the Monday the weather cleared a little, it was still cold, windy and grim at Camp 17 (5,300m/17,388ft) is really baron, and there were only 3 or 4 tents around us. Most people had already come down from Camp 17 abandoning their summit attempt but a few had stayed. We took the day to rest, eat and were in good spirits and just as the weather started to break we went to bed a little beaten up, but very positive and feeling like we had a lot left in the tank to attempt the summit. We knew we might have to break trail because of the snowfall etc but were really confident but then we woke up on Tuesday morning and it was horrific!
We had over a metre of snowfall in 24 hours at 5,300m, it was very cold, all our sleeping bags were iced up, inside the tent was half a foot of snow and it was by far the worst day with really challenging conditions. We spent most of the morning digging ourselves out of the tent. We knew then that this weather window was not going to happen and we were not going to get the opportunity to summit.
The forecast had completely changed and there was reports of another bad weather system coming in, gusts up to 80mph, more snow, and even colder for the next week.
Conditions were bad even below us, we could see that Washburns Ridge below was a total white out and high winds meant we couldn't go up and attempt to summit but we also couldn't go down either, which was physically and mentally challenging for us.
With all the information on the table, we tried to take advantage of a small break in the weather on Tuesday evening. We packed up camp really quickly and tried to get down to Camp 14 but we got to the top of Washburns Ridge - we had high winds, it was snowing, absolutely no visibility, so we turned back as it wasn't safe to climb down the ridge, so we climbed back up to where we had been camping and had to rebuild snow walls and set up camp all over again.
We woke up Wednesday, conditions had improved to a point but the mountain felt sketchy and unsafe. Conditions were changing quickly and severely and weather reports were not accurate making decision making difficult, so we made the decision on Wednesday to get off the mountain as quickly as we could. We had a long, exhausting 25-hour down climb all the way to base camp to get on to the glacier to get a flight off as quickly as possible.
We left at lunchtime at high camp and went throughout the night, as we knew the mountain would be more stable at night. On our way down to Camp 14 we had learned that the day before on the Tuesday a team that were climbing down to Camp 14 the same day as us hadn't decided to turn back like we did, they continued to climb down the same day, they got caught in an avalanche on the Headwall that we might have got caught in. We passed the remnants of their accident, their rucksacks strewn underneath the Headwall. We also learned that every major slope had avalanched in the last 24 hours. We were getting extra information at Camp 14 as we had been quite isolated at Camp 17, this reaffirmed our decision to try and get off the mountain quickly and safely.
After the 25-hour down climb we flew off the glacier finally on Thursday morning.
On Friday we learned of the news that 4 out of a team of 5 Japanese climbers had sadly died in an avalanche. We were back in Anchorage when we heard the news. The avalanche happened on a slope on Motorcycle Hill, which we had climbed literally to the hour 24 hours before they were on it.
When we were down climbing through it we were climbing down through thigh deep snow.
My overall feeling of the trip it that it was a really challenging one. All things considered I am really grateful and happy to be safely in Boulder now. Of course mountains are extreme environments and are inherently dangerous places in which to try and perform in, never the less, it is really sad and tragic when fatalities happen on mountains. It's a tough place to earn a living.
Overall Nikki (my climbing partner for this expedition) and I had a fantastic and really productive expedition. It was a really important research and development trip to prepare for my next project. I was testing an MSR tent and some new clothing I have designed with Rab and was also testing different dehydrated food products from different companies for my next project. My tent and Rab gear performed amazingly and the expedition has given me a lot of confidence moving forward...Remember guys it doesn't have to be fun to be fun!
So now I have arrived in Boulder, Colorado this morning (It's boiling hot!) I am spending the next few days with the Rab USA guys and tomorrow night I am talking at one of America's biggest retailers called Neptune in Boulder, talking for Rab as a Rab Ambassador. I am really grateful to Neptune and Rab USA for helping me raise further funds in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care as well. My climbing partner Nikki has to put up with me for a few more days yet! Nikki is the Marketing Manager for Rab but an awesome climber and friend. We have spent 24 hours together in a tent for 16 days, the equivalent to 7 years of marriage we reckon! Ha! and we are still talking and mates!
I hear the weather has not been that great back home so I will try and bring the Colorado sunshine back with me.
Speak soon guys, sorry the update took so long but it's been an epic week! Thanks for all your messages on Twitter and Facebook. I am going to try and reply to lots of them over the next few days when I can. Rich.