Denali Fo’ Real: Part 1

Sorry about the delay. One of my hopes for this blog is that it goes a bit deeper than just soundbites, so the writing takes time.   In order to do this justice, I’m breaking the story up into three pieces. Thanks for waiting. Hope it’s not a boring tower of text. Here’s the first installment.

Midnight was my cut off. Around me, friends about to graduate college or leave for the summer danced or discussed their way through the second round of G and Ts. Many had finished their last assignments for the semester, and were looking forward to a few more drinks, a sleep in, late breakfast. Earlier in the week I’d picked up a cold from my sister, so I’d been napping and Dayquiling my way through that last seventy two hours. Hard to say how gin works on a stuffy nose, but I was tired. Time to leave. As I said goodbyes, a few told me to stay. I repeated the same thing I’d been saying all night—“Sorry. We fly north to Denali tomorrow.”

Since the schedule of my own college years, I can’t remember a date that I knew so far in advance. “We fly north on May 17th.” I’d said it a couple hundred times. Each was a moment to mentally check how many weeks, then days to gather gear and get those last few things. As I left the party and woke the next day on a couch, it felt like noticing that oil change sticker in my windshield matched the odometer. The trip, which only two weeks prior had been only thoughts, was palpable. Getting more real by the minute.

Grant and I met up at his place in Mill Creek to assemble our stuff. From here until the ski plane hit the glacier, we’d be at the mercy of all our stuff. Pickets, macaroni, skis, Lil’ Jon; everything to survive in a cold tent for a month.  Here’s most of it spread out across Grant’s living room.

Thanks to Grant’s plane travel regimen, we were both able to bring two checked bags for free. Given Alaskan food prices, it seemed better to bring more north since we had the space. That meant three checked bags apiece, carrying our slimmed-down packs on the plane, and ski boots stuffed with waterbottles as a “personal item.”

After some last minute shopping for lunch and snacks (Fred Meyer) and radios (REI), we rolled into the airport with three hours to spare. Grant walked off to get a cart. He came back. “They’re five bucks.” We thought about it for a bit, and did the math. “Six checked bags. A few at 50 lbs, a few others that were less.” I gave in to not schlepping the nearly 300lbs to the terminal, disregarding the fact that we’d be pulling most of it up the mountain. “I’m getting one.”

My sister and buddy Mark (who graciously drove my car back to Tacoma) arrived with an extra expedition duffel. We said goodbyes, and piled our flotilla of nonsense onto the stupid cart. Everything went smoothly through security. Boarding the plane, it occurred to me that we were literally flying to Alaska. More and more real.

Clouds obscured most of the trip north.  Grant sat by the window, and though I usually sleep on planes, it didn’t happen. We landed in snowflakes, the glow of the latest light I’d ever witnessed still lighting the tarmac.

All our luggage arrived on the carousel, and thankfully the ski bag stuck out the Oversize window. Piled outside on the curb, it was impossible to miss that we were another couple of climbers in a grand tradition of arriving in Anchorage. Just inside the door, a couple of sleep deprived guys stood next to a giant pile of expedition bags on a cart. After introducing myself, I promptly forgot their names until they camped behind us on the Kahiltna. They’d been traveling 26 hours from Sweden, and both had the name of Kristian (which also led to some confusion at first). As I thought, it turned out they were headed for Denali too. West Buttress. I tried to make jokes, and though I initially thought they were a little awkward, it was probably just that they hadn’t slept.

A month or so before, I’d arranged with my friend Sarah to give us a ride to Talkeetna. She rolled in with her boyfriend Wes, and I was thankful they drive a Landcruiser for two reasons. One, we had a lot of stuff, so much so that the ski bag got strapped to the roof. Two, it was snowing. After a quick grocery stop for a few more things and whiskey, we hit the road north amid flurries. A slushy road and somewhat stumpy trees (cottonwoods) were my first experience of Alaska. We scouted for moose and talked about the old legends of the PNW freestyle ski scene as the flakes came down.

Rolling into Talkeetna at 2:30am, I realized that it might be a problem finding Talkeetna Air Taxi and our place to sleep. It was the only time I used my headlamp all trip, despite carrying it all the way to the summit—habits die hard. Eventually, some guy walking his dog (who walks their dog at that hour?) pointed us toward the Pavilion. The snow had at least six expeditions backed up before we’d fly, and that meant the bunkhouse was full too. On the phone, they’d mentioned “it’s not heated, but it’s dry.” I replied that we were prepared for the cold. After unloading our gear, Sarah and Wes took off. Huge thanks to them for the ride up, especially in the dark and snow through those moose infested swamplands.

I’d guess it got light at 4am. After a magnificent introduction to The Roadhouse’s breakfast, we spent the day getting oriented, our gear repacked, weighed, and ready to fly. Our NPS orientation, mandatory for all parties on Foraker and Denali, was a great help. Many last minute questions were solved, and the climbing rangers were all very friendly. By noon, it’d cleared out and planes roared off the airstrip all afternoon. We took a trip to the AMS shop, and concluded that you could probably outfit an entire expedition there. Really great selection of last minute knickknacks (wet wipes, noseguards, slings), so I’d recommend a stop there. As we left, Grant expressed how we were both feeling: “No more buying things. We’re done.”

Talkeetna itself is a really interesting mix. Without the proximity to Denali, it might just be another group of Alaskan locals (typically burly men with large beards operating power tools while wearing rubber boots) who cater to tourists from cruise ships. Instead, an international cast of climbers awaiting their trips or looking for real food post-freezedried mingle in. Julbos are actually in fashion, and after a little while, I stopped doing double takes when I saw people wandering around town in 8000 meter boots. To their credit, the locals made every effort to make us feel welcome.

After a ramen dinner, we wandered over to the river. Standing on the accumulated ice on the edge, we watched icebergs head downstream. Looking to the northwest, I freaked out.
“Oh god. Look at that thing.”
Grant: “What? Those spikey mountains below the clouds?”
“No. Look above the clouds.”

As a first real glimpse of our objective, it was pretty stunning. Denali doesn’t stand. It towers in the skyline. The layers of mountains and cloud beneath it make the vista pretty impressive. Given that Talkeetna is at 360 ft, we were looking up nearly 20,000ft to the summit. That’s a larger altitude discrepancy than anywhere else on land on Earth. I walked back into town feeling a little daunted, and promptly bought a KitKat.

I’ll take a quick moment to note that Grant’s camera, much like everything we owned by the end of the trip, seems to have been covered in hair. Including the lens. So if you’re wondering why some of the shots have weird thingys on them, there you go.

At 8:30 the next morning, TAT sent a van over to the bunkhouse (which we’d moved into), and we loaded up. Wandering around the airstrip in our ski boots, dressed for the glacier, we loaded our gear into a Beaver and took some pictures. In retrospect, it’s funny that the airplane’s colors matched our toilet for the next few weeks.

Despite living in Mill Creek, right under the flight path of nearly every aircraft that flies into or out of Boeing, Grant had never been up front in a small plane. He won the rock/paper/scissors, which seems just. The flight confirmed my swampy suspicions. In every direction from Talkeetna, there were frozen rivers through frozen swamps under leafless trees. So Alaska was nothing but swamp.

Then we turned west, and I had to amend that—Alaska is nothing but mountains. Approaching the Alaska range, they start small and get big. Really big.

We banked through Singleshot Pass and over the Kahiltna. One long sweeping right, and we were on the glacier.

Our plane on the runway.

There’s enough of a hustle when you land that it takes a few minutes to hit you. Moving bags off the runway, dropping off a registration card with the base camp manager, moving gear up the hill to a campsite.

But when that spare moment hit, and I got a chance to look around, wow. BIG. Everything is big. Huge, unnamed glaciers hanging off the mountains. Foraker across the way. Hunter directly on the eastern flank of camp. Mt. Frances to the north, and Denali visible through a pass. All around, tents of folks coming or going to the Buttress or other wild destinations that may or may not have ever been climbed before.

On that note, Mountain Equipment athlete and all around badass Jens Holstein was right nearby during our time on the mountain. Though I didn’t know it and didn’t meet him there, they put up a first ascent which makes the Buttress look like child’s play. Check out his report to see how real men climb mountains.

I guess I expected some sort of giant revelation when we landed on the glacier. Of all the steps, it seemed the biggest, and perhaps the realest in our planning. When my moment of clarity didn’t quite show up, it was nice to know that we’d been thinking and buying for months. After a full run-through of gear, we’d only forgotten a couple things:
-A whisk broom for sweeping frost out of the tent. Moisture from our breath would condense and freeze to the tent walls. This made getting out of my bag that much harder, as no matter what you do, you’ll touch a wall or the zipper and get snowed on. When sun hit the tent, it would melt the frost, meaning the whole thing would be wet. Instead of the broom, I just used my mittens, and got very good at sweeping with them.
-Dish soap. It’s amazing what snow and hot water will do, but sometimes cheese just doesn’t come off for a few meals if you don’t have soap. With minimal flatware, it can mean the water tastes like tea or oatmeal.

As we arrived, at about 10:30 or so, many groups were packing up to leave. The general theory about traveling the lower Kahiltna is to do it at night. This means the glacier will be colder, more frozen, and less likely to drop one through the many trapdoors atop its crevasses. Before June, it’s less of a concern, but mid-day still isn’t ideal. Plus, we had plenty to do.

There’s as many crazy contraptions for hauling as there are theories about sleds. Stiff poles, rope rigging, jet packs, catapults for all I know. If you bring your own, maybe it’s more fun. For us, like most of the groups we saw, the ones provided by the air taxis at base camp worked just fine. They’re just kids sleds, and since we arrived after a bunch of other parties immediately following the poor weather, the pile of plastic looked a bit beat up. From its bowels we pulled two magnificent steeds of orange toughness, one already christened “Swamp Donkey.” Grant took that one, and I titled mine “Da Oprah Whin-free” with a Sharpie. Using a bit of 6mm cord, we made attachment points and haul systems. Some folks suggest bungies, but given how many times the cords got wet and then froze, I’d hesitate to use rubber strapping. Trucker hitches worked great. I also made sled brakes out of webbing with a couple knots, and we didn’t use them until the descent.

Denali with the Swedes’ tent in the foreground.

I reorganized gear and food while Grant dug our basecamp cache. After we’d done our chores, a hill we’d seen from the airplane called our names. Going up the fork of the Kahiltna, we skied our first pow of the trip.

The temperature was quite pleasant in direct sun, but as the shadow of Mt. Frances crawled over camp in the evening, it dropped. All around camp, down would appear on everyone outside. This held true through the whole trip—the shadow meant less going on, more going to bed. To be frank, we were a little cold. Washington had downright balmy, and wandering into winter came chilly. Not unwelcome though. And after a few days I noticed my body functioning more like it does in the winter—overall running warmer. Temps that required a puffy at basecamp needed less higher on the mountain.

The next morning, we blasted off. After being sick in Washington and all the transit days, I was itchy to move up the hill. Plus, the weather was just as sunny as the day before. We’d been gifted, and I wanted to take advantage. It’s actually downhill out of basecamp, an incline named Heartbreak Hill because of the emotions it inspires while returning. It’s the first test of any ropeteam’s sled system. Ours proved to be no less squirrelly then other folks. Roped up, I lead down the hill sans skins, belaying my sled in front of my skis by its haul ropes. Grant followed in the same fashion, but keeping rope tension proved pretty hard. Each undulation of the hill would cause something to go askew, so though it was downhill, it proved to be our first test of patience with the stop and go that is glacier travel.

Once at the bottom, and on the Kahiltna proper, it’s a fourish mile mostly flat slog to 7,800ft camp. We were some of the first folks out of camp, the glacier was solid, and despite the 70 lbs in our packs and 80 lbs or so in the sleds, we made good time.

Looking ahead to Ski Hill. 7,800ft camp is right at the base.

Some folks use the Camp I, Camp II thing, but since every expedition seems to take a different approach, I’ll call them by their elevation in feet. Sorry to the meters folks.
7,800ft camp sits right at the base of Ski Hill, a very apt name. In our case, it should have been Straightline Hill, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Camp etiquette on the hill dictates that once a party leaves their campsite, it’s up for grabs. We snagged a particularly snazzy spot complete with a nice wall and a great cook pit/CMC usage area. Reusing pee holes keeps things more sanitary and picturesque, so that fact that we were parked right next to one you could practically fall into was even better.

I should take a minute to talk about the CMC. The best picture is the one where I’m holding it with the plane earlier in this post. Government shorthand for Clean Mountain Can (and who knows what people have come up with; we used Canadian Mountain Can every once in a while), the main theory behind this rotund little green cylinder seems to be that if you have a designated spot for everyone in the expedition to poop, it keeps things cleaner. Fitted with a screw on cap and its own harness, it was mountain ready.  During our orientation, we were issued the CMC along with ten biodegradable plastic bag liners. Once the liner fills up, tie off the top and toss it in the nearest deep crevasse. Specific crevasses near camps were marked with bike flags for this express purpose, and it was rare to spend a day around camp and not witness some roped up group wandering off toward the crevasse to chuck their excrement.

For whatever reason, we usually referred to the experience as “going to have words with the CMC.” My most memorable was certainly digging out a small ledge right below the Washburn Thumb and surveying the Peters Glacier at about 16,800ft—all whilst relieving myself. Usually, it occurred in some sort of walled area or pit in camp. We brought hand sanitizer to avoid getting sick, and I’d really like someone to make some that doesn’t pull the heat out of your hands when it evaporates. Get on that, Science. Besides my photo with the plane, the CMC never got a starring role in our pictures. Instead, it’s more of a “Where’s Waldo?” You can usually find it strapped to my sled or backpack when we were moving camp. Happy hunting.

So 7,800ft camp. As was typical, we put up our tent, exploded gear everywhere, melted water, and ate food. Grant usually took a bit to get to sleep. On the other hand, I would often pass out in fifteen seconds, give or take. I link it to the hard work, but there were a couple of conversations that randomly stopped when the party on my side of the tent responded with breathing or a snore. Before we dropped off, the shadow engulfed camp and we snapped a few pictures of Mt. Hunter and the moon. Did I mention that everything (aside from the pee holes) was beautiful up there?

Dawn of another perfect day caused rallyage. Our bagels were frozen. Our cream cheese was frozen. My sunscreen was frozen. On the outside of the cream cheese, it addressed our plight: “Do Not Freeze.” So we cut it up, half spread half sliced it onto frosty bagels, and chowed. Later, Grant would indeed sleep with the cream cheese to keep it warm.

Still excited by the weather, I wanted to do a double carry to 9,700ft camp. That’d mean doing the hill twice. We packed up the first load, mostly fuel and food, and headed up.

A two man rope team lacks the length and strength of three, but it makes a few things easier. The leader sets the pace for two people, meaning that tiredness or energy of only two climbers affects progress. In the back, the caboose has to keep rope tension for only one section, not two. Great weather and all the rest really had me wishing to send it, so I would gradually speed up on the hills. We’d hauled sleds before, but this was the first bit of significant travel with weight. I needed to learn to keep a slow, steady, consistent pace that didn’t jerk my rope partner and wasn’t too fast. Needless to say, this wasn’t easy.

Expecting something similar to the walls and tent city of 7,800 camp, we got all the way to about 10,066ft before checking the GPS. A little further up the route swings east to head up to 11,000ft camp. Grant had bonked and was coughing, probably a product of my going too fast. I dug the our cache while he tried to rest, but when we strapped our sleds onto our packs, he still wasn’t feeling well.

Our cache tag on an extra tall bamboo wand.

Easily the best part about hauling skis uphill is getting to use them on the down. We blew past a ton of folks on our way back to the tent. Some sections had powder, and lower down, it was a sort of wind mank. We stopped somewhere below the crest of the last hill and did a tandem straightline into camp, hooting and hollering.

While Grant napped, I brewed up some Ramen and  refilled our water.

It was really hot, so I wandered around shirtless for a bit. A bird flew into our tent. Amazing how good a cheap noodle soup can taste after a hard day of hauling. Doskrillos, the expedition name of the two Swedes named Kristian, rolled in to 7,800 camp that day. They surprised us by coming over to visit and bringing pudding. Very neighborly. By the time we got to bed, Grant was feeling a bit better. I vowed to go slower, so we plotted about going all the way to 11,000 ft camp the next morning.

The sun rose clear for our fourth day. We watched a slide come down from just below Windy Corner.

We packed camp, and hit our stride on Ski Hill. We both felt great. Clouds moved in near Kahiltna Pass, but that meant that things cooled down for our ascent.

On our way up, we passed the camp of a group of Army boys we’d chatted with at 7,800 camp. They’d left in the afternoon heat the previous day for a single carry to 9,700. I didn’t envy them. They were taking a rest day, and told us some stories while we took a break. Karl, one of the leaders, threw candy at us. I thought about the amazing unity that being on the mountain creates. I’d liken it to being at a sporting event where everyone’s rooting for the same team—just being up there in a common struggle brings folks together. Between the Swedes and Army boys, we’d spend a great deal of time during the rest of the trip. Cooking. Laughing. Telling stories. Sharing misery. And that’s the beauty of being on the mountain with so many other people. It’s not solitude; it’s the social dimension that makes life richer in any setting.

If it hasn’t been obvious, all of our water came from snow melted on the stoves. The true limits to how hard and far we could go were our reserves of agua—about three liters per person. We sat down to make some after grabbing our cache.

Following that, everything went back together and we headed up the hill in the fog. I suppose some food and gas weight had been used up, but it was hard to feel the difference with all the weight in our packs and sleds.

11,000ft camp is on the top of a convex rollover right below Motorcycle Hill. We chugged in tired, elated, a little loopy from the exertion at elevation, and ready to find a spot. Borrowing a shovel from some guys I’d given pieces of KitKat to earlier, we dug out a camp.

Dinner was a pile of starch and cheese. Perhaps the true achievement of mountaineering is that it makes generally crappy food taste like ambrosia. Falling asleep with the prospect of a late morning and rest day, it occurred to me that we were really there. Really on Denali, and managing to handle it. The tent flapped a little in the wind, and as was usually the case, I conked right out.

This is part one of three of our Denali trip. Check back for the next section, which will cover 11,000ft camp through 17,000ft camp. Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “Denali Fo’ Real: Part 1

  1. Loved reading about your adventures. Looking forward to part 2. We just did a day trip into Denali so I can really picture it all. This will be one of the highlights of your life!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s