Denali Fo’ Real: Part 2

And we’re back. If you’ve returned after that last massive missive, thanks. If you’re just wandering in, this is part two of three from my Denali adventure this spring. The third section, which will include our summit day and leaving the mountain, will be along shortly. I left off just as we arrived at 11,000ft camp.

All the prep and travel to get to the mountain had the effect of winding me up. Some of my buddies talk of getting “itchy” after extended stints of normal behavior; there was no question that I was raring to go by the time we set foot on the glacier. Excellent weather only made me want to take advantage in case we got cut off by an incoming storm.

Arriving at 11,000ft camp, I was stoked. Over the past few days we’d made serious progress on the mountain. Our team worked. We had what we needed. We’d made friends. The night of our arrival, we got our first gifts from an expedition lead by a climbing ranger: cheddar cheese, salsa, and reindeer sausage. Grant savored his meat treats while I threw restraint to the winds and clobbered the whole lot of cheese.

And it felt good. Many folks have asked what surprised me most about our trip, and I’ve pointed out that it went beyond my previous experience in many categories. The most winter camping. The heaviest loads and sleds. The greatest elevation gains. Altitudes above 12,000ft. The largest amounts of glacier travel. I guess there’s a certain amount of hope that one will cope well with all those difficulties—I certainly believed that we’d be up to them—but to have it actually happen is vindicating. Lying there in the tent at 11,000ft, it was undeniable that we’d be doing well.

Rest was the objective of our first day. We’d done 3200ft the day before, a grand of it with all our gear. The sun was well overhead and the frost on the tent had long since melted into water by the time I got up. For the first few days on the glacier, I’d refused to wear my noseguard. On one hand, it was pride, because there’s absolutely nothing even remotely cool about noseguards. On the other, it changed the fit on my glacier glasses so that light came in underneath them. I’d tried to be diligent with sunscreen instead, and had a bright red and aching schnozz to show for it. So to make up for my stupid pride, I did the sensible thing and covered the chapped skin in duct tape. It stayed on for two days and, while looking even less appealing than the noseguard, allowed it to heal somewhat. After that, the noseguard was on every day.

Right above camp is Motorcycle Hill, supposedly so named after the even steeper hills that see motorcycle hillclimb competitions. The good weather had many groups in the same state of excitement I was exhibiting, so we watched various ropeteams jockey for position, take different routes, and eventually all get stuck crossing a crevasse at the same point. Good spectating was had from camp, warm mugs of oatmeal in our hands and down booties on our feet. Later in the day we skinned up Motorcycle Hill and found the few pow turns to be had there.

Sometime after we got back from our ski, the Army boys rolled in and set up camp right next to us. They’d sit on our counter/bench, give us candy or poptarts, and tell stories that made me weep from laughing so hard. Guys that I’d probably never talk to elsewhere became friends to joke and struggle with. Just before we went to bed, the Swedes arrived, called us Cinderellas (I still am not sure why), and we helped them dig a cache.

The next day dawned the coldest yet. In the shadow, we packed up most of our food and gas, our really cold gear, and set off up Motorcycle Hill.

Slow and steady, we made our way up towards Windy Corner. When nasty, it’s common to see 60-100mph gusts cutting across the rock bands. For us, it was still and sunny. Going up the hill right before it, I thought I smelled white gas, which seemed strange given that there weren’t any camps nearby. A hundred feet before the top my ass started to burn, and the smell was getting stronger. Upon opening my pack, the fumes got worse and it became apparent that our lucky streak had ended.

Nearly everyone on Denali burns white gas as fuel in their cookstoves. Most of it is purchased from the air taxies, who stockpile it on the glacier and give it to you when you arrive at Kahiltna Base. Following the elevation, the two gallon cans in my pack had ascended nearly 13,000ft from where they’d been put on a plane in Talkeetna. Amongst everything we’d made happen, we hadn’t opened them to equalize the air pressure with elevation. That caused them to leak, and some bolts on the frame of my pack rubbed holes in the plastic of the garbage bag that contained them. Two and a half sticks of precious butter had been soaked. My pack reeked. The white gas had leaked onto the waterproof bottom, soaked through the seam into my hipbelt, and soaked into my pants. Which accounted for the burning sensation. Frustrated, I repacked everything and poured water on my pants to dilute the gas.

A guided group at Windy Corner.

Just shoveling out our cache at 13,500ft took our breath away.

After wanding it and clicking in, we made turns back to camp. 7.5 hours up, 15 minutes down. All fun and smiles.

Until I pulled out my avalanche beacon to turn it off. Safely back in camp, I realized that some hardware flapping on my harness must have struck the screen. With the crystal broken, I had no idea of the battery life, and the search mode was only auditory—no arrows or distances. It was the second setback.

Sound sleep usually follows big days, and this was no exception for me. I was out like a light, until awakened by what sounded like Grant hacking up his third lung for the evening. I must have dozed off. 5am, and I open my eyes to see Grant wide awake, reading. Not at all normal. He’d been up all night hacking, and while he explained this the coughing fits would interrupt him. Scrolling through both our heads were thoughts about HAPE—we were within  the elevation range, and Grant has a history of altitude sickness. Shortly behind those were thoughts that the whole expedition might be in jeopardy. We talked it through, reiterated our commitment to coming home safe before everything else, and changed our plan.

With good weather in the forecast and momentum behind us, the strategy was to head up to 14,200ft camp that day. Get past Windy Corner with our gear, acclimate, relax, and then push for the summit when the weather gave us a window. With only three days of food in camp, the supplies weren’t there to wait out whatever the cough or a storm might bring. I found a couple of guys we’d met the day before, Robert and Edward, and asked to rope in with them. I’d go up and grab food from the cache, come back, and in the mean time, Grant would try to call my uncle, a doctor, on a borrowed sat phone to see if we could get some expertise on the situation.

Throwing some bars in my jacket for breakfast, I hustled to get ready. Edward was about to leave the Air Force, and was prepping for a speed ascent. While I tied my prussiks on, he mentioned that Robert, a priest by occupation, had been hit by a truck at some point and suffered frontal lobe damage. I realized that I was tying in with two of the crazier people on the hill. We flew up the hill, and they fed me Snickers bars at 14,200 camp while I took it all in.

Robert leading below the Messner.

Gapers. Real gapers.

Another Foraker shot. I wonder if climbers over there constantly take pictures of Denali.

14,200ft camp feels like the epicenter. Above, the fixed lines trace up to a saddle at 16,200ft. Rescue Gully drops into cracked, icy aprons below 17,200ft camp. A few over, the Messner Couloir, Orient Express, and West Rib all drop nearly 5000ft from the Football Field that sits below the summit.

Fixed lines.

Messner is on the right.

From above, the camp itself looks like a town: a central sort of broad thoroughfare, with the sprawl of walled, tent subdivisions springing up around its periphery. Only 6000ft from the summit, it’s the first place that really feels within striking distance. Knowing that I had to descend, grab food from the cache, and potentially not make it back up that high if Grant took a turn for the worse made it bittersweet. Our lack of experience at altitude wasn’t helping us, so I asked a few friends already at 14,200 what they thought. The general consensus was that it was some sort of respiratory bug that came from the cold, dry air. Optimistically, I dropped in and enjoyed the skiing back to 11,000.

“Want a picture before you head out?”

Grant was doing much better when I returned. Coughing only occasionally and smiling, he’d been chatting with folks in camp and had come to the same conclusion—probably just the dry air getting to his lungs. The plan was to take another rest day, and head up to 14,200ft the day after. My brain was sporting an altitude headache, so I took a nap while he cooked dinner.

The offday saw us basically sedentary. I built a lounge chair of snow and read Moby Dick in the sun. During our training, I’d anticipated the fun of off days—just getting to hang out in the snow, no real goals for that day. Lazy style in the midst of a ton of activity.

The Swedes in their 11,000ft camp.

The next morning, it was back on. Feeling similar to our second carry day to 11,000ft, we kept up a good pace, took breaks, and made it into 14,200 camp in the evening.

“This, kids, is a rainshadow.”

Looking up to Windy Corner.

A few hundred yards out of 14,200ft camp.

We’d backcarry for the cache at 13,500ft the next day, but for the moment it was wonderful. Taking a spot in what we later learned to be an empty Alaska Mountain School camp, it was only a few hours before the Army boys joined us, pitched their tents, and the neighborhood resumed.

Prior tenants dug a massive amphitheater-style cook pit, so we all piled in to melt water and share the stoke of arriving.

My last trip up had been in different conditions, with the expedition hanging on how Grant would feel. To be there, have our stuff and friends, and stare out at alpenglow on Foraker while brushing my teeth—it’s another in a massive series of moments, each valuable enough on their own to be worth remembering for years, all compressed into a tight bundle that sparkles differently from each direction in which it’s viewed.

That was the first night I was cold. With morning temps around -15F, it was always a bit of motivation to get out of the sleeping bag. After, I started sleeping in my heavy long johns and Fitzroy. Which only added to the motivation issues. Perhaps the best qualifier for that couple minutes of hopping around in the vestibule and changing is the view. The trick seems to be a vista with a gravitational pull equal or greater to the contentment of staring at the tent ceiling, totally toasty. For those wondering, I took a Mountain Equipment Iceline down bag. 800ish fill power, rated to -12F (-25C). The next step of armament would have been a -40F bag, and that was overkill. With my clothes layers to amplify, it worked great.

As motivation to get our cache, Grant and I promised ourselves a pancake breakfast after we returned.

The Army boys grab their cache.

Our unqualified pancake disaster (eating mushy, half cooked doughballs) from a Stevens Pass trip was swiftly dispatched by expert-level non-stick pan handling.

Drying out our bags.

Later in the day, we did a little walk over to the Edge of the World, a spot with a view off the glacial bench that 14,200 occupies. It looks some 6,000ft down into the NE Fork of the Kahiltna, the distance that I earlier showed an avalanche sliding down.

If we’d hauled it this far, might as well enjoy a nip.

Colton and Troy from the Army came with us, and when we returned, the Swedes had arrived to fill out the neighbors.

Each evening, folks at the Airstrip would relay the weather forecast at 8pm via the little handheld radios. Everything seemed to stop for a couple minutes while the decisions for the next couple days were determined by what the little voice would say. 14,200 camp was different in that the NPS camp posted a weatherboard, so it was easier to make plans if we’d missed the forecast or just plain couldn’t hear it. That second night at 14,200ft was a Tuesday. Weather was supposed to roll in during the weekend, and with it our summit bid time seemed to be closer. If it was Sunday, we could swing it: cache Weds, rest Thurs, move to 17,200ft on Friday, summit Sat, head down Sun. If it held. Any sooner and we’d be interrupted, on the hill longer, and possibly running out of belly fire to get the thing done.

Shadow crossing into camp for the evening.

Foraker, 2AM. By Grant. I was asleep.

Following the plan, we headed out to cache the next day. Sleds aren’t much use above 14,200ft camp, so it was just our packs filled with food, skis strapped on the outside for the ride down. There’s no proper name for the headwall below the fixed lines, but it just gets steeper the higher you climb. An hour or so out, the fog came in. We watched a group of injured climbers make their way off the ropes with assistance from the NPS folks. After, we walked over, clipped our ascenders on, and started up. Having seen the lines from below, it’s obvious that you’re exposed to falling and crevasses below. Rockfall from above. Though in the fog, it consisted of cuplike steps in the ice.

Stops to clip around the pickets anchoring the lines in. More of a slog than an awareness of the place; a huge mountain rendered down to the little circle of visibility.

At the top of the lines, 16,200ft, it was intermittently clear. Clouds seemed to be cupped in the cirque above camp, pouring over into the Peters Glacier on through the notch. Grant realized he had cell reception.

Pile of rope and anchors when we stopped.

Then the real climbing began. Though there’s a plethora of pre-placed running protection into which to clip your rope, a fall would certainly be a bad choice. The Peters Glacier lurks somewhere down to the left, and on the right, clouds obscured the rock face crowning the ice down to 14,200ft camp.

Somebody who didn’t quite fit into the kindness of the mountain theme had pulled all the biners from the running protection. Leading meant piling most of our spare biners together, clipping them in one by one, and Grant would pull them as the rope fed up to his harness. Slow progress. Though at least it’s steep, with rocks peeking out or actually in the way. After all the glacier slogging it felt like we’d finally found a mountain.

By the time we hit the base of the Washburn Thumb at around 16,800ft, I was beat, woozy from the altitude, and wondering about how deep a cache I could dig. The hardest part proved to be finding a spot on the ledge that wasn’t already colored with urine.

Descent proved easier than I’d thought.

Grant exits the fixed lines.

Getting to the bottom of the fixed lines, we switched into skis and partied through six inches of dust on ice. Somewhere, I slashed to throw up a bit of snow. Flakes filled my glacier glasses, rendering the rest of my ski somewhat blind. I chortled and yelled my way into camp, thinking that I wasn’t any crazier than any of these other people. It was comforting.

Rest day pile in the tent.

The next day, we rested. Sort of. Grant managed to get through Game of Thrones and guarded the tent from unoccupancy. I read, then got itchy and went sledding in my camp booties with one of the Swedes. We picked up a pile of food from some Quebecians and a guided group on their way down, so I got to surprise Grant with a large package of Pop-Tarts and some peanut butter cups. Gio, one of the Army boys from SoCal, grabbed some bags of bagels. The XKG was converted into a toaster, and the food party was off to a great start.

Grant cooked up freeze dried potatos O’brien at 3pm. The Swedes had long since divided themselves into a cook and a dishwasher, and the cook brought over a cheesecake he’d made over the stove.

Krill with his cheesecake.

No idea how that worked. Delicious. We probably drank some whiskey too, though I don’t see that in my notes.

The night before, I’d seen a couple of guys ski below us as we descended from the lines. After wandering over to their camp it became apparent that I’d finally found the other Montanans on the mountain. Kurt and Craig proved to be suitably badass, having made their summit a few days prior. They were hanging around and hoping to get up into the Orient Express. Late in the “rest” day and somewhere in the middle of our food party, I met up with them and we skinned up to the bottom of the fixed lines to make three more tracks in the fresh snow.

Skis and the fixed lines–a match made in heaven.

And Grant.

The food party was prep for what now feels like the hardest day on the mountain. Per usual, it took us forever to get out of camp. Our packs were heavy, only to get heavier when we picked up the cache at 17,000ft camp.

Instead of stashing our skis, we carried them up the lines. While Grant chatted with his girlfriend at the notch, I talked to a couple guys heading down, and realized we both know Ryan, one of the guys at ON3P in Portland. Heading up, we grabbed our cache, and promptly got involved in a tangle of folks on the fixed lines going around the Thumb.

The Army guys were just above it.

For the rest of the walk to 17,200ft  camp we followed them over narrow spines and rocky moves with the heaviest pack I’d yet carried. The scenery was worth it, and as we walked around a shoulder to see camp, Denali Pass and the Thunderbird Couloir popped into view.

17,200ft camp.

Me walking over to the edge. I think that’s a hair on the lens of Grant’s camera.

Looking back at the ascent route–it goes right up the top of this ridge.

Best of all, we’d cleared the clouds. With nothing taller to block the sunset, the rays kicked down until almost 1am.

The Thunderbird Couloir sits in the middle of this black rock face. So tantalizing. Denali Pass in the center of the photo.

Autobahn, and the way up.

We made camp, scattering our gear in a somewhat organized way. I gaped at Foraker for about the hundredth time. After staying away all trip, I took some Diamox to help acclimate. Dinner was macaroni and cheese. We were beat, tired, spent, and we fell asleep knowing that in the morning, we’d try to ski off the summit.

Part three, which will include our summit day and leaving the mountain, will be coming very shortly. Thanks for stopping by.

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