Venturing into the Alaska Range: Taking a Route Less Traveled By on Mount Denali

In May, climber and outdoor adventure journalist, Ryan Wichelns, found himself on a plane heading for Alaska. After nearly two years of planning, Ryan and his friends Robert Paulsen, Freddy Romero, and Gabe Messercola were finally on their way to Mount Denali  the highest peak in North America – with plans to attempt an exploratory mission up its South Buttress. The team of four better known as the Crampon Cowboys had an incredible experience pursuing this dream. I sat down with Ryan to hear all about what drew them to the route, what the team learned and accomplished, and what piece of Give’r gear proved most valuable on this epic journey into the Alaska range.

Mount Denali
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

 

(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)
 

How did the Crampon Cowboys team form?

Gabe and I have known each other since elementary school and we started our climbing careers together. Rob and I knew each other from high school, and I met Freddy in a gear shop in Seattle.


How did the idea for you to climb Mount Denali first come about?

Gabe and I have climbed smaller peaks in Alaska together, including one route on the Brooks Glacier we’re fairly certain no one else has attempted before where we linked together five summits. We also climbed the Pico de Orizaba in Mexico which is the third tallest mountain in North America. It wasn’t long after that we knew Denali was the next step, but we needed some more team members. We all came in with different experience levels and strengths and were all excited to pursue Denali together.

 

Crampon Cowboys team
 (Photo by Lauren Danilek, @lauren.danilek)

How long have you been planning this expedition?

In fall of 2019 we started to focus on planning which route we wanted to pursue and putting the pieces together. Me and Gabe’s success taking a route less traveled by on the Brooks Glacier in Alaska inspired us to do the same on Denali. We love the idea of not following the boot pack up the mountain and pursuing something unique instead. Most of the people who attempt to climb Mount Denali fly into the Kahiltna Glacier and go up the West Buttress. During our research we met a climbing ranger named Mark Westman who recommended to us that we try the South Buttress. He climbed it in 1996 and, as far as he knew, he and his team members were the last ones to climb it in its entirety. We settled on going for the Thayer Route on the South Buttress which had some traffic in the 1950s but lost popularity as more and more people successfully climbed the West Buttress. Going into it, we had a good amount of information on this route, knew it was within our team’s collective ability levels, and knew there was a reasonable chance it was still climbable. We also knew there were a lot of question marks including the route’s condition, but to be honest, that’s what drew us in to accept the challenge.

 

How did the name the Crampon Cowboys come about?

It’s an alliteration! And if we started a guide service that’s what it’d be called. We also thought it applied to the kind of experience we want to have on Denali – an exploratory, remote, and unique experience! Much like the romanticized ideal of cowboys going off into the unknown.

Crampon Cowboys in the Alaska Range
(Photo by Gabriel Messercola, @gabrieljames_)
4 Season Give'r Gloves
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

Going into the expedition, what were you collectively most excited about?

Just being in the Alaska range. Gabe and I knew what it felt like. It’s a truly surreal and life changing experience, and we were so excited to witness the other guys experience it for the first time. We were all excited about the exploratory nature of our mission, too. A big goal of ours was to use this as a way to encourage other people to get off the beaten path. The experience you can have in a place is so much more rewarding when you think outside of the lines.

 

So…how’d it go?

We flew out to the Ruth Glacier and spent a couple days hauling ourselves in with our gear which included 28 days worth of food, tents, sleeping bags and pads, stoves, all of our jackets, gloves, layers, and more. We started up the glacier going into the route where there are a couple potential cruxes including ice fall and a big headwall we needed to climb. We knew this was going to be the hardest part of the expedition, and if something were to go wrong it’d most likely be here, so we spent two days scoping out the ice fall. Navigating glaciers of this size are like figuring out a giant maze, and there’s no way to tell which way you need to go. After spending a couple of days route finding, we met a giant crevasse that stretched across the entire glacier. Every potential route we could find ended up on the other side of the crevasse, and the only place we could go up and underneath it was on the steep face of Mount Huntington. We also could have scrambled through some rocks and descended through some snow. It was a hard and complicated decision to make, but we spent the time we needed to know that there wasn’t a safe way through it that was inside our comfort level and tolerance for risk. Ice fall changes every year, so it’s not surprising that the conditions of the route had changed so significantly over 25 years. We ultimately knew what we had to do, it just took us a couple of days to process it completely.

Crampon Cowboys in the Alaska Range
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

Crampon Cowboys in the Alaska Range

(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

What did you learn during this trip?

The biggest thing we learned was how to think about these exploratory trips. In 2015, Gabe and I had so much success in Alaska we were so excited to go on another unique and exploratory expedition. But this experience reminded us how important it is to keep an open mind, especially if you’re taking a road less traveled. It’s a mental game really keeping your mind open to the possibilities but also not totally focusing on your goal to a fault.

 

What was the highlight of the trip for you?

Just being in the Alaska range. Even though we didn’t accomplish exactly what we’d set out to do, we got to spend a lot of afternoons hanging out at camp trying not to get cooked by the sun looking up at Mount Huntington watching giant avalanches come down. There is truly nothing like it.

 

(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

 

Crampon Cowboys in the Alaska Range
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

How did returning home feel?

Coming off the mountain was complicated. After we made the decision to turn around, we spent a little over a week further down on the Ruth Glacier doing smaller climbs until we ran out of things we could do with the gear that we had. We were all twiddling our thumbs a little bit. A 10-11 day trip was a lot shorter than we’d prepared for. I felt a mix of being ready to go home and stop just sitting around, and not wanting to leave because it is so difficult and expensive to get there. Calling the plane didn’t feel good, but it did feel good to come out and be able to stand up afterwards and say this is what we did, and we feel good about it. But we weren’t in there long enough not to miss it once we’d left. It was bittersweet.

 

Would you pursue this expedition again?

I am still very attracted to climbing the South Buttress, but I don’t know that with the ice fall it will ever be possible. I’ve already talked to other people about other ways to access the South Buttress, and I’m intrigued and certainly not forgetting about it any time soon. I don’t want to drop it, but I’m not going to let it consume me. We went in there wanting to see what we could find, and we accomplished that. I feel good about pushing that body of knowledge about this route forward a little too.

 

Crampon Cowboys in the Alaska Range
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

 

What’s up next for the Crampon Cowboys?

We all want to take a break from treks that involve towing sleds and instead go on a ski trip with big tents and good food. We also want to eventually climb Mount Denali, but we’re all on the same page that first we need to take a break.

 

Is there a quote, mantra, or idea you kept in mind on this expedition?

This may sound counterintuitive, but we really went into it with an "every day is going to get harder" philosophy. On my last big expedition, we fell into the trap multiple times of thinking "it's all downhill from here" when it definitely wasn't. Imagining every day getting harder was our way of keeping our expectations in check, and it gave us some room to accept the bad days as "just another day" out there. That weirdly gave us permission to keep our spirits up even when it was tough. 

4 Season Give'r Gloves
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)
Crampon Cowboys in the Alaska Range
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)

What’s your favorite piece of Give’r gear?

For me, the 4-Season Gloves, for sure! When it's that cold, you're pretty much doing everything in your gloves all day long and a lot of Denali climbing is hard work: Lots of pulling ropes, swinging ice axes, and so much shoveling. Durable gloves are critical some place like that.

Alaska Range
(Photo by Ryan Wichelns, @ryan_climbs)