Sleep In The Dirt

Big Agnes on Denali

Essays From the Field

The sun has been down for a couple hours–it’s still not dark which is crazy, but there is more of a bite to the chill in the air. We are pretty tired under the weight of our full sleds and decide to make camp on the lower Kahiltna glacier alongside the trail about 2 miles short of Camp 1. It’s 2015 and I am on my first Alaska expedition.

Last minute I jumped on board with three of my friends headed to Denali. I rushed to put my kit together and barely had time to train, much less break in my boots and fully test all the gear. I brought with me a -20 degree down sleeping bag with a GORE windstopper shell; because when you’re at home looking at a computer screen that seems like a good addition to a sleeping bag (you know how windy it can get inside a tent.) I quickly realized that the membrane in the shell of my sleeping bag not only added weight and made it bulkier and harder to compress, but it noticeably affected the breathability of the sleeping bag. Meaning every night that it was warm, like my first couple nights on the mountain, the bag felt way too hot and swampy.

Jump ahead three years, I have a lot more glacier and alpine experience and I am going back to Denali, this time as a guide working for Mountain Trip. With a lot more than 30 days to prepare for my expeditions (I worked two trips up the mountain between late May and mid July) and the knowledge of my first Denali trip and other alpine experiences, I am much more prepared to assemble a solid kit for Denali.

Arguably the most important part of the Denali kit is the sleep system.

If you aren’t warm and comfortable at night and getting good sleep life basically sucks. So much time is spent hanging out on the sleeping pad, especially if the trip is stormy and there is a lot of tent time. I even brought a pillow and it was awesome. The Deluxe Travel Pillow was perfect because it served as a neck pillow on the plane to Anchorage and then as my camping pillow on and off the mountain. When I pulled it out the first night on the mountain my co-guides laughed, but I caught both of them using it for a nap!

Staying insulated from the snow is super important and needs to be redundant. Having a closed-cell foam pad under an air pad is pretty standard on glacial expeditions. This adds warmth to an insulated air pad and if something happens in the middle of the night to your air pad you can last until morning with just the foam. Another super important reason to bring a closed-cell foam pad is to use as a seat in the cook tent or outside when the weather is nice and you want to chill out.

I took the Third Degree Foam Pad and it was perfect. It has a tire-tread pattern on the bottom that actually helps it stay in place, especially when using it directly on snow as a seat in the cook tent or outside. I layered the Q-Core SLX on top of the foam. This is the most comfortable air pad I have ever used and having it on Denali was amazing! I had the long and wide (25″ x 78″) version because I’m 6’7” and it was like having a real bed.

For the sleeping bag I took the Crosho UL -20. I was hesitant at first because the bag looks so trim I did not think there would be enough room for extra layers, boot liners, water bottles and all the other crap you have to sleep with so it doesn’t freeze. I was surprised that despite the svelte look there was plenty of room in there for me and all my stuff. Not having to pack around the extra material was awesome. For a bag this warm it is surprisingly light. My previous -20 bag weighed in at 5 pounds while the Crosho in a long length (remember I’m a giant) tips the scales at just 3 pounds 4 ounces. Not having a membrane also meant that on warm nights on the lower mountain I did not have to sweat it out in a bag that doesn’t breathe well. The DownTek™ down was able to do its thing and regulate a comfortable body temp. I was actually a little concerned the first night I slept in it because it was not cold out, and I felt like I should have been way too hot. When I woke up at a comfortable temperature I was worried it would not be warm enough when things did get cold, but I was comfortable in this bag down to about -30F.

I had the idea to add the synthetic Farrington liner bag to the kit. This served multiple purposes: It was perfect by itself when I was off the mountain in Anchorage, and since it only weighs one pound, I brought it on the mountain and used it as an overbag to the Crosho instead of inside as a liner. Since it’s synthetic it added a little warmth to the main bag but also protected it from moisture. Condensation on the inside of the tent from body heat and breathing can soak a sleeping bag if you aren’t careful. Having the Farrington over my down bag gave me more of a security margin against a wet bag.

After boots, the belay jacket is the most important piece of clothing you have on the mountain. This is the jacket that can keep you warm against everything. I like to think of belay jackets like an insurance policy in the mountains. If things go sideways you always have this jacket with you to get you through a bad situation. I took the Fire Tower belay jacket and it was exactly was I needed. I was never cold when I had it on, and the fit was great. It is light and stuffs down small, and it has all the pockets I need. It made getting out of the tent first for coffee duty bearable. I honestly loved having it on and looked for any excuse to wear it.

Spending two or three weeks on a high-altitude arctic mountain does not need to be uncomfortable. When you have a cozy jacket and bed it makes all the discomforts of mountaineering a little more manageable.

Matt Park serves as an outdoor guide, husband, and #vanlife ambassador. Follow his buslife adventures on Instagram.

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