Denali dreaming: Arabian nights

On the Excel gear list, the box reads “Softshells.” In the comment section next to it, Grant wrote “Arabia.” With these last few weeks, the sunscreen dwindling in my pack, his words have proven prophetic. It’s been full-on spring here in the Pacific North West.

Montana presents a conundrum to the springtime skier. Lulled into a peaceful state by the usual easy access to winter touring, it’s a rude shock when spring comes around and melts the lower elevation snow. Hiking boots then weasel their way into my day touring kit and my boots and skis spend those first couple miles whining on my backpack. Most drives to trailheads are too far under patchy snow to get to, and access into the high alpine by car doesn’t get going until late in May and June. If you saw the pictures from our trip to Many Glacier, you know what I mean.

Given that this spring was my time to prep for Denali, it seemed smart to head to my college stomping grounds in the Pacific North West. The volcanoes out here more closely mimic the style of self-supported expedition climbing we’ll be doing. They rise more gently. Many of them are taller than the mountains at home. Getting gear and practices dialed with Grant is much easier in person than by phone. Despite the horrendous drives and traffic, many people I care about live out here, and a month would be a chance to see them. And total honesty would also have me admit that my time further west left a piece of my heart with the Cascades. So I packed up the car and drove out April 20th.

A quick list of the destinations shows I’ve been making loops: Leavenworth to pick up some gear. Mill Creek to grab Grant. Rainier for three days. Mill Creek. Bellingham to work on a boat with Luke Tanaka. Leavenworth to ski and climb. Mill Creek. Rainier for two days with Grant. Mill Creek. Bellingham to climb Baker with Carl and Iris. Mill Creek. Stevens Pass with Grant for an overnight. Mill Creek. Tacoma, where I’m currently being reminded that I’m old and can’t drink like the college kids.

I’ll narrate the photos. To start, here’s the first trip Grant and I took to Rainier. We planned to climb the mountain and ski the Fuhrer Finger.

We slept in the parking lot, woke to clear skies, and got underway a bit late. As we crossed the lower Nisqually, clouds came in.

Upon clearing, we realized what a strange, circuitous path we took. The fog made navigation pretty difficult, so much so that I was tapping around with my ski pole to see if I could feel the edge of the cornice. In reality, it was something like fifty feet to our right. Right below camp, we switched to crampons  and booted up a steep face that could easily have been skinned around. Minutes after we started to set up the tent at 9200’, the clouds lifted.

Needless to say we were stoked. Unfortunately, Grant was feeling the elevation, the product of gaining 9000 feet from sea level in somewhere around eighteen hours. While the Cascades are a great place to practice, the sea nearby assures that whatever acclimatizing we did will quickly dissipate. Such huge changes in elevation aren’t anything like what we’ll see up north—most of the trips between camps on Denali are two to three thousand feet at most.

At camp, the wind came up. Grant dry heaved. I ate cold burritos in the vestibule while darkness fell, the Finger only a thousand yards away in the moonlight. I didn’t set an alarm.

We woke late to see other skiers moving into the Finger. Wind had pushed on the seams of my wall all during the night. Where the snow had been loose, it had been eaten away, so I took note to make them more solid for next time.

Grant felt well enough to eat some breakfast, so we took it easy and finally left camp around 2pm.

Moving up the Turtle Snowfield with light packs, we made it up to 11,600’ at Camp Hazard. Grant’s headache had returned, and the decision to call off our Finger attempt was vindicated. Hanging out just under the Kautz ice cliff was pretty impressive.

Dropping in made my first turns on my new Tychoons. The conditions ranged from windscoured sastrugi to breakable icecrust, the new whips handled everything with ease.

Back at camp, we made dinner and melted more water. I suppose that activities while climbing and camping on big mountains can be divided into two categories: melting water, and everything else. At least that’s how it seems.

While out to pee around 1am, I saw a mouse scurrying about camp. It didn’t dawn on me that we were going to get snaffled until back in my bag. Then, chewing sounds on the sacks of food in the vestibule. After a few minutes, I stuck my head through the door. Perched on the waist of Grant’s harness, the little bastard stared back at me in the dark. If we brought the food inside, he’d chew through the tent. If we put it in our packs, he’d chew through those. In retrospect, we should have buried it, but that didn’t occur to me as the intruder and I stared each other down. So I threw Grant’s boot shell at him, he ran at me, and I dove back into the tent.

Evidently, he dodged the boot. In the morning, the snaffle toll included my bagels, a clif bar, and the trash bag. He also left the snow floor of the vestibule dotted with presents. I went for a little mixed solo climb on the rock above our tent.

Then we packed up and skied the variable slop back into the Nisqually. Note the powder eights that disintegrate when we both almost lost it due to heavy packs.

Our overall route follows the rib in the far left of the photo.  You can see the Turtle and Kautz ice cliff on the upper section of that rib.

We bumped up out of the Nisqually and back to the parking lot.

A week later, we’d find ourselves back at Paradise. As I mentioned during my Two days in Leavenworth post, the Cascades got a bunch of fresh snow, and that turned into nasty avie conditions in many of the lower areas. Since we wanted to do some sled hauling, and given that the Muir snowfield is really mellow from an avalanche standpoint, we once again made the trip.

Ski touring with sixty to seventy pound packs is suffering enough without the malcontent tagalong that is a sled. In the interest of preserving other skiers’ knees above Paradise, we left them unloaded until past Pebble Creek. Even without weight they swing wildly on every sidehill. They skitter on the ice making plasticy, rattley noises. Which meant it was time to have some fun with mine. They don’t steer particularly well, and by the time I’d gone fifty feet, I was spinning around in donuts. Grant and I then held a small sled race, which we both won.

After the race, we filled them with sixty to seventy pounds of snow and continued up the snowfield. Weighted, the overall feel approximates my idea of pulling a large plastic box through a swimming pool of molasses. Maybe more weighty is having to abandon the joy that usually accompanies day touring. Bootpacking was just something I did when I was younger, but there isn’t anything similar to the feeling of freedom that comes with skins. All the toil of post-holing disappears as you literally glide over all that formerly caused so much struggle.

Sleds are a regression to that drudgery. Anything to make the mind wander or shift concentration seems to be the trick. Grant sounded like he was mumbling behind me until he explained that he was making alphabetical lists of movie titles. Once he got to Z, he’d start over.

After a about a mile, we called it quits on the sled hauling. Grant melted water and made ramen while I fell asleep in my empty sled. Must have been more exhausted than I thought, because I checked out for about twenty minutes. Post ramen, we packed everything up and finished the trudge to Muir.

With most of the close spots occupied, we dug ours into the west side of what turned out to be a wind tunnel. Mirroring (or Muiring?) the camps we’ll build up north, full walls were the fortifications of the day. The folks acting as crevasse ballast stared as we cut and stacked blocks.

Cooking will be the loudest thing we do on Denali. My theory about our primary stove, the MSR XKG, goes like this: originally a NASA propulsion laboratory experiment, it was discarded after causing deafness in most of the engineers working the project. Some enterprising, near-deaf, defecting engineer stole the plans and sold them to MSR. Hyperbole aside, these things are loud. We have two, and we usually run them side by side, like we have them here in our Muir kitchen:

They don’t simmer. They don’t have much adjustment at all. They just go. Really, really hard. And given that these things are pretty much standard for Denali, the volume at base camp threatens the levels of preteen screaming at a Justin Bieber concert. We’re taking a Whisperlite as well, but thankfully the XKGs haven’t created the three foot priming flames that sometimes breathe forth from the former. And boy do they melt water.

Filling water bottles comes first. After that, we boiled up water for Thanksgiving burritos—stuffing and mashed potatoes with loads of butter. If you like butter, climbing mountains may be the one time in your life when it’s acceptable health-wise to consume lots of it. While the snow melted, we had a little rum (which we brought to make our packs heavier) and threw ice axes. The other wall of the wind tunnel, about thirty feet away, was a good place for a target. Neither of us hit bullseye, but Grant managed to get the above shot without getting skewered, so I’d call that success.

Sometime during the night, the wind tunnel turned on. By the time I got up at five thirty, one of the Trango 3s also pitched there was practically levitating from its guy lines. Our walls suddenly didn’t seem so superfluous. I went back to bed in the Hilleberg, which barely seemed to flap by comparison. When I got up again at eight, the levitating Trango was gone and a hasty snow wall had been built in front of the tent behind it. No idea if it flew away or the guided group sleeping there took it down.

Given that we were just going to ski down, we went with a cold breakfast. I had also forgotten our oatmeal. So banana chips and a clif bar, in my case. The wind continued to blow as we put the tent away. Grant stuffed it into his pack from the leeward side, all but the two pegs on the windy side removed. I clipped a picket to one loop as insurance. It strikes me now that this is one more bit of learning that wouldn’t be as convincing coming from a book. Moments like this make all the driving and sleeping on floors worth coming to Washington early, as they translate to better safety and efficiency up north.

Though the tent was stowed, our empty sleds still had the potential to fly away. Pulling them down behind us would have been a disaster with the wind. So we strapped them on our packs.

As the wind blew up the tunnel, I spread my arms and let it sail me past the other tents and up onto the Muir snowfield. Left turns took more digging in with my legs to counter the gusts, but on right turns the sled would push me faster down the hill.

By angling my back the right way, I found it possible to use the wind to traverse uphill across the flats near Pebble Creek.

Cresting Pan Point, the zombie hordes of the Saturday apocalypse made their progress up towards us. Our ski down took us past easily a thousand people; they probably wondered about the two yahoos skiing down and making gleeful cheering noises while jumping off the windlips.

Grant dropped a cornice, and we were both stoked to blow up our packs in the parking lot once back at Paradise. The joy of sandals. Smelly gear in the backseat. Residual stoke from skiing almost a vertical mile before ten am.

Pulling out of the lot, the other folks didn’t quite seem to get why I was honking the car horn so much.

Thanks again to Grant for his company and photos.

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