Denali Fo’ Real: Part Three

Whew. One last installment of Denali and then back to regular mountain shenanigans. If you’re just tuned in, this is installment three of three from my trip on The High One this spring. If you and your internet connection survived all the photos from the last two posts and still returned, thanks. I left off on the end of the day we moved to 17,200ft, the high camp.

True to form, we got up late. Our orienting ranger back in Talkeetna had advised us to travel the Autobahn only once the sun had climbed up over the shoulder—we definitely waited until at least 9am before crawling out. Judging by the nickel size flakes that covered the inner tent, it had been the coldest night of the trip. So it was a good call.
We’d been at high camp for about fourteen hours, and the altitude was already starting to mess with my stomach. Somewhere above 14,000ft, the body stops digesting proteins and fats. It will continue to acclimate, but the strain of maintaining itself only saps the strength gained below. Many people will try to make summit bids and high climbs from 14,200ft camp to avoid camping on the upper mountain. Given our levels of stamina, that wasn’t an option. So the Poptarts, which had usually been a solid breakfast, tasted like the cardboard they actually are. Oatmeal wasn’t that great either.

Weather reports stated that the storm would be arriving Sunday, the next day. That meant that our window was today, and today only. No getting stuck in storms at 17,200ft camp. Strangest of all, it dawned on me that if we got up to our destination, we wouldn’t be able to go up any higher. Two weeks of plodding and resting with no end to the hill made it feel a bit mythic.

Sometimes it’s better to just keep my head down in suffer. Though neither of us said it until later, the first hour out of camp was rough. Grant was out of breath. Both of us felt like garbage from the long day before and our intestinal rebellion. At our ends of the line, we each fought a little internal battle to keep going even though it didn’t seem like we’d make it.

Worst of all, we’d witnessed a rescue by radio the day previous. Near the Washburn Thumb, Grant’s radio turned on. Because it was set to the evening weather channel, which is also the accident reporting channel, we heard the status reports on a couple of climbers who had HAPE on the summit ridge. They were short roped down. But all along the tracks, alongside the fixed protection, were the reminders—dark red splotches of foamy, dried blood that they’d coughed up on their way down. Each one was another opportunity to check my own mental state, think through our quick ascent from 14,200ft camp, and worry about the altitude drugs in my pack.

Stuffed alongside the nifedipene (emergency treatment for HAPE) was the heaviest summit pack I’ve ever carried. All my clothes. An emergency bivy and sleeping bag. Extra food. Water. A stove. Spending the night out above 19,000ft is somewhere near the top of the list of things I don’t need to do. And of course, my skis. During our short time on the upper mountain, ours were the only skis I saw. Implicit in strapping them on was the promise that, come the summit, I’d lock down the bindings and take the easy way back to camp.

Looking towards Denali Pass:

Much of the plodding is the same on the summit day as anywhere else on the hill. Both of us had nagging headaches; not bad ones, but enough that we took ibuprofen that further unsettled our stomachs to calm our heads. At Denali Pass, 18,500ft, we stopped for a break.

But it’s the stop about half an hour later that interests me more.

Archdeacon’s Tower:

Moving along at our slow but steady pace, I realized that the blood on the trail was getting to me. The altitude was. I wasn’t sure if I was ok. So we stopped, I drank some water, and rebuilt my mental state over a few minutes—we were moving fine. Some headache, but not the splitting ones that could signal HACE. We had the gear. We had our skis if we needed to move fast downhill.

Looking back towards the North summit:

At that, it was back on for me. Before too much time went by, we were just below Archdeacon’s Tower. Then beside it surveying the Football Field, Pig Hill, and at last, the summit. These final sections took us three hours, mostly because every other group on the route that day was stacked in front of us.

Pig Hill and the summit:

Pig Hill is steep. The summit ridge above it is narrow enough to warrant running protection. When it comes into view, the summit itself seems to deny that universal rule of Denali: no matter where you are, it always gets higher. No more up.

The Army boys head up the last bit of ridge:

And all of a sudden, with a hug and some words, I got to congratulate Grant on making it. Halfway to a safe ending, but still on the top of North America.

Finally able to take a picture with both Hunter and Foraker in the frame.

All the planning and money and hard work narrowing down to a last few steps near the USGS pin. I didn’t cry, but I can see why some people do. Two years of the idea lurking in the back of head, a spring of prep, and here we were. All the folks that had helped us along the way, and we’d been able to make it happen.

An Army rope team heads down:

Base camp:

The non-reality began again, though this time it was reversed. Not that we were going to Denali, not that we were there. But that we’d made it to the top. Taking pictures. Marveling at the view. Getting our skis on. Pole whacking the edge of the south side. A pole tap, then traversing out along the summit ridge to drop back into the West Buttress route. Given how we’d been moving, we opted to skip skiing the Orient in the name of safety.

Jumping over an Army rope team mid-Football Field.

The altitude proved to hit hardest while skiing. Even though we were descending, skiing the ice/sastrugi/Styrofoam/wind buff stuff that was the snow around the route up wasn’t easy. Add the weight of our packs, and it was solidly anaerobic work—which left us both with thumping headaches.

Dodging crevasses and keeping our skis mostly on the ground, we rolled into Denali pass just as a guided group was getting set to cross the Autobahn. Earlier in the day, Grant had mentioned that he wasn’t jazzed on skiing across it. With a several thousand foot fall as the cost of messing up, he had a point. Camp would have been an easy twenty minutes away if we skied, so I asked him a few times if he was sure. Given his headache and fatigue, it made sense to walk, so we roped up and cramponed most of the way. Just above camp, I skied the last bit.

Zach, one of the Army leaders, takes a pee.

I don’t think I spent more than ten minutes in camp before I was in my bag, ready to sleep. Grant graciously made some Ramen, which made my stomach feel a bit better. Next thing I knew, it was morning.

My best Reinhold Messner impression.

While we got ourselves functioning, Grant coughed outside the tent, then stuck his head in. “That one had blood in it. Let’s get out of here.” In easily our fastest pack up of the trip, we had everything pulled down and stowed in about thirty minutes. In hindsight, it was probably from his nose, but the blood pushed us out of camp just in time to miss the guided groups leading the parade of folks up the ridge above the fixed lines. I was tired, and clicking into my skis for the flat light slop below the lines was really welcome. Grant hit a death cookie on his descent, but aside from that we pulled into 14,200ft camp exhausted, tired, and generally beat. The Swedes were still there, and they helped us put ourselves together as it started to snow.

For about the next twenty hours, things were really slow. Grant cooked at one point, and I remember eating rehydrated potatoes O’brien in the afternoon. The Army boys came through camp on their way down, though they pressed on towards Kahiltna Base. I fell asleep at 8pm saying I’d wake up and make dinner. At midnight, I woke up, but then fell asleep. At 10am, I finally woke up. A few inches of snow had fallen. It was a nice day. So I made pancakes for breakfast.

Several people asked us when we were headed for the summit. Upon realizing that we’d been there, they asked, “Why are you still here, and digging a snow cave?” To which we had no good reply, but boy was it fun. While we were busy on the upper mountain, one of the Swedes had tunneled from the cook area to our vestibule pit. I enlarged a snow cave that we could stand up in from the tunnel while Grant built an arch.

The Swedes and me.

Rudolph’s Acolytes under Grant’s Arch.

The elder Swede also dug out blocks for their wall, with the end result being a phallus-shaped trench pointed directly at our tent.

Pancakes were the order of the next morning. I gave a few away, thinking of all the food we’d need to get rid of with our descent looming. That morning, we’d made the call to head on down. We had food and fuel for at least another two weeks, but I think the general interest in doing more was gone. Looking back, I’d have loved to ski the Thunderbird or Orient, but it wasn’t the trip.

Sometimes, the strange things are the funniest. Grant’s Nook would display images of famous authors when it turned off. I walked into the tent to find him snoring, the Brontes not six inches from his face.

So I piled our supplies, we grabbed five days of food, and I wandered around camp giving everything else away. The half bottle of Jack Daniels was thrown in to get rid of the last half of the sled. We said our goodbyes to the Swedes, and pulled out of camp about 4:30pm.

The sleds were an instant problem. Loaded down with gear, they proved unwieldy and frustrating on the downhill. Sled brakes didn’t seem to help much, especially on the sidehills. I was skiing with mine on the hill beneath me, steering it by means of some sort of  reins. I tried riding it and steering with my skis as an ersatz snowmachine. Blue ice around Squirrel Hill was terrifying. Grant was pissed at his, which reflected the awful situation: all that excellent ski terrain, powder even, and we were stuck with these stupid sea anchors to make it a bunch of work.

Grant fights his sled above Motorcycle Hill:

My sled reins. Giddyup:

At 11,000ft, we pulled our cache, and descended into a full on whiteout. Nearly a foot of fresh snow covered the trail, so I was skiing straight downhill, linking wand to wand. Otherwise, there was no contrast or visibility.

Once or twice a tent appeared and then we ghosted off into the fog. By 8000ft, it was mush—heavy slop that would grab my sled and flip it. Cracks had also opened up with the heat. Where things had been solid earlier we found ourselves momentarily glimpsing the black depths of the glacier under our skis.

7,800ft camp was deserted. Several lonely tents testified to the socked in weather; not many groups had been able to get in. We ate some Cheezits, emptied our CMC for the last time, and took off across the Kahiltna while it got darker.

Ski Hill:

It felt like a bit of a warp. More cracks, fog, wind biting down the non-frozen surface, and skinning just as fast as the promise of being done would allow. I was living in the little bubble of my hood—just keep pushing along. Our late travel was a good thing, as the surface outside the packed path was still mush—a ski pole basket would easily slide in up to the grip. Other groups would later tell us that they all punched through in various places, but our skis kept us joyfully on the top. Eventually, we put both sleds on the rope behind me, because the gentle slope of the glacier caused Grant’s to hit him from behind.

That day alone, we’d dropped almost 7,000 ft. Almost 12,000ft lower than the summit from five days before. Once reaching Heartbreak Hill, the last mile uphill into camp, we felt like the gods of acclimatization. Practically ran up that hill. The oodles of oxygen in the dense air was like swimming. In honor of the Cheezits we’d scarfed at 7800ft, we renamed it Heartburn Hill.

One am saw us pull into base camp, set up the tent next to Kurt and Craig, and once again, fall asleep.

There was talk of getting up early to be first in line at the Base Camp manager’s tent come morning. We managed to oversleep, which wasn’t an issue, given that we spent most of the day listening to stories about how everyone had been stuck in camp for the last four days. The Army boys, who had arrived early Monday morning, were still there in the Wednesday half-sun. Not happy about it either. Apparently, eleven planes had been able to get in the day before, but that still hadn’t cleared up the backlog of climbers needing their lift back to hamburgers and springtime. I went down around 10am and let the manager know we were back—which meant we were twenty-something deep on the list for TAT.

They call it the Kahiltna Hang. It’s a tenuous balance of nearly-dozing in the tent, most of the gear packed, and the rest ready to go in a few minutes in case you hear an airplane. Those climbers who had been there for days had been swapping reading material, as they had all finished their books. It’s strange being so close to being off the mountain and having it totally out of your hands. Sometime around 3pm a frenzy of activity in camp caused us to pack our gear and wait down below.

Moving stuff to the terminal:

Each party sits there, staring at the edge of the arm that terminates over by Foraker, hoping that the plane from their air taxi company (of which there are three: Talkeetna Air Taxi, K2 Aviation, and Don Sheldon Air Service) is the one that’s going to swing into sight.

To make things worse, all of the air taxis also run flightseeing trips that will land on the glacier. To see a turbo Otter bounce up the runway with all the potential of getting us out of there only to disgorge a pile of people in running shoes with cameras is a bit discouraging. I can only imagine that the sunburned, crusty folks sitting there with their skis and stupid piles of gear look like aliens to the glacier-landing tourists.

To pass time, we chatted with the Army boys. Eventually, I started did some batting practice with my avie shovel and snowballs.

As the clouds came in, so did our plane. The group previous hustled off, we loaded up, and just cleared the snow as the fog reclaimed the runway for the evening.

One more plane was en route from Talkeetna, and had to turn around. That’s how close it was. We’d lucked out again.

As the mountains passed, getting smaller this time, we realized how green it had become. Rivers that had been ice were now the massive braided versions for which Alaska is famous.

Once landed, we were that much more ridiculous in our ski boots—the trees had green leaves.

All the gear, again:

It took us until about ten to get to eating, but I think that might be the best calzone I’ve ever inhaled. For about a week, I’d been dreaming of salad. That delivered too.

The next day, we got breakfast at the Roadhouse, and a ride to Anchorage with my buddy Landis. Grant changed his ticket and flew south, while I rode out the next ten days in Homer and Seward with family.

Roadhouse pancakes:

Sign on the way to the airport:

As I type this out, it’s almost two months to the day since Grant and I stood on the summit. Given how much I think of and relate back to those sixteen days, it was certainly a life changing experience. For further evidence, I’d have you ask the friends who’ve had to endure repeated, tangential trips back to the glacier in otherwise normal conversations.

The sunburns healed. Our godlike acclimation disappeared. Our gear still stunk, but we didn’t have to live in it. I found myself profoundly grateful for everything that had happened on the hill—our setbacks, our decisions, the fact that we’d proved to ourselves that two skiers could make it happen, the people we’d met in the process. Grateful to have a buddy like Grant who was there with me through all of it, and stoked that we’d followed through on his idea from those years before. So happy to go home to all the people that had helped us out, worried, prayed, and sat there thinking of us while we did our thing.

To me, freedom comes with being seeing personal horizons expand. Mountaineering presents an arena to challenge what I think I can do in measured, reasonably safe ways that still hold real, unadulterated risk. There’s the notion that I’m capable of a certain amount; to see that there’s more is liberating and gratifying. I take no truck with anybody who uses antagonistic language to describe their outside pursuits. The mountains aren’t actively working against those who climb them; there’s no conquering or winning against the mountain involved. Instead, I see it as a way to reframe who I am and what I’m capable of—my fears, my limits, what I can look forward to. I conquered my own estimations of myself on Denali. The mountains prove a potent and spectacular vehicle for imagination, easily the best I’ve ever found. What better way to know your own mettle than to see it frozen, sunburned, tired, losing weight, and still smiling?

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.

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!

We’re back!

Hello again, internet. Nice to see you all here again.

First of all, I’m stoked to report that Grant and I made it safely off Denali. On June 1st, we skied from the summit at about 8:00pm down the West Buttress route. Expect the Denali doing series of posts on our trip to start soon. For now, here’s our summit shot.

A week ago, we flew off the Kahiltna on one of the two last planes before the fog set in. Some Talkeetna feasting followed, and the next day Grant bumped his flight up and  headed for Seattle. I spent a little time around Anchorage with my buddy Landis (check out his amazing medium format photoblog here) and then came south to see family in Homer. We’ve been up to some adventures, have a few more planned, and I fly back to Seattle in the wee hours of the 17th.

My cousin with a near-dead Bering Wolffish we found on the south side of Kachemak Bay.

Yours truly with a brittle star.

More gorgeous mountains and water and trees and stuff.

Earlier this evening, I realized I haven’t slept in a proper bed in almost two months. I’ve got mosquito bites from being under the stars. The one tshirt and pants I brought (assuming I wouldn’t be hanging around) finally got washed today. Pretty sure that I smell. And in a serious Alaskan faux pas, I left my Xtra Tuffs in Washington. So I’m ready to be home.

I’ve seen some amazing natural things on this trip. Immense, unnamed glaciers. Twenty-five foot tides. Mt. Foraker in alpenglow above a bed of clouds. But most of all, I’m supremely grateful for all the friends and family that have helped out. Getting to summit Denali was incredible, and the folks that helped with gear, gave me a place to sleep, fed me, or shared a laugh are the reason that I could make it up there. From the bottom of my heart, thanks for cheering us on. Thanks for believing. Thanks for caring. Cant’t wait to tell you all the stories.

And if you made it this far, here’s a little token. Taken from 7,800ft camp.

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.

Denali dreaming: Rudolph’s Acolytes

As part of the registration process for our Denali permits, Grant and I had to choose an expedition name. Of course, we wanted something that would properly represent our love of epic poetry, silliness, and general nerd-dom. So we spent a couple weeks kicking half-hearted ideas about in our heads. We took courage in that the search was like marriage—once you find the one you want, you’ll know.

On the day that we put in for the permits, the idea of Rudolph’s Acolytes slid into my head. Didn’t fit the criteria I’d made, but it made sense. Grant was down. So we put typed it into the form and sent that thing off to the Park Service.

A couple weeks later, Grant called to check on our permit status. Surprisingly, they remembered us because of our trip name. It turns out that people are stunningly uncreative with their expedition titles. Example: there are something like three parties called “Denali Expedition 2013” and so they’ve been numbered. I can only hope we avoid confusion between them on the glacier. More than that, it’s a waste of potentially great names like “Zombie Hordes of the Kahiltna” or “Bootyshakin’ on the Buttress” or “Super Rad Tall Climb Bro Yeah.”

The significance of our name begins with Stevens Pass Ski Area, and more specifically its former marketing director, Chris Rudolph.  Both Grant and I found ourselves as skiers that Rudolph wanted at the hill. When I graduated from college, Rudolph found me a job at the hill on the park crew. Sitting next to him at the All.I.Can premiere in Seattle, he’d occasionally just start punching me in the shoulder, such was his enthusiasm and stoke. As anyone who knew or worked with him can attest, the energy that he radiated was contagious and joyful.

Along with Jim Jack and Johnny Brennan, Rudolph died in the February 19th, 2012 slide in Tunnel Creek. Since then, I’ve been searching for a project that seems fitting of his memory. To my mind, the light that he showed us is not out—it’s up to those of us to carry it forward, to keep it alive. In the Lutheran church services I grew up with, an acolyte brought a flame into the sanctuary as part of the beginning of the service. On Denali, we’re carrying the torch forward. And in the memory of our friend, we’re planning to get really, obnoxiously, seriously Rad.

Denali dreaming, part II

Going big. In every way, that’s how this Denali trip has been. More prep, more time, more money, more gear than I’ve ever sunk into one single endeavor. As much mental terra incognita as the physical glaciers and ridges we’re headed north to ski on.

From the exciting moments of reserving an air taxi or the confirmation of our permits, there’s a transition into what to do to get ready. Much like climbing or skiing, there’s plenty of decisions to make along the way. You can go it alone, use some help, or pay someone to guide your success. There are a number of Denali prep courses available—a quick survey throws the price tags between $2,500 and $1,500. Most take place in the Cascades, as spring conditions in March and April can be similar to what goes down up north. But we’re going as our own guides, and besides, it’s not like I’ve the cash to throw down on a guided trip. And it’s not like we’re doing this alone either—so many people have come together to make this all possible. Though we didn’t really plan it, the prep process, just like the way we plan to approach the mountain, has been on our own terms with lots of help, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Looking back, it seems better organized. Or at least more consciously thought through than it actually was. In my case, “training” for Denali started with a long winter of skiing, working on my skis, and traveling to ski. Not that this was really any different from what I would have been doing anyway. There’s no question that constantly being on skis develops the muscles needed to ski sastrugi with a heavy pack.

More than any other, this winter was one of touring. I got to go out skinning with my friends, and the reward came in the form of shredding more untracked, soft snow than I ever have. The planning and decision making for backcountry travel on a day trip crosses over into the expedition ski mountaineering we’ll be doing up north. Many of the days I was out saw 4,000-5,000ft of vertical gain, which isn’t any sort of record, but it kept the hiking stamina from last summer and fall mostly intact. One thing to watch out for: if your friends know you’re headed to Denali, they might let you break a bit more trail than you planned for in the name of “training.”

In mid-April, Clay Roehner and I spent three days in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. It was the first trip that really felt relevant to what Grant and I will be doing up north. Initially, Clay had been thinking about a weeklong traverse of the touring zones along the west side of the Middle Fork along US 2. As things shook out, we didn’t have time to place the caches or do the whole thing. With the weather heading towards storm after several weeks of sun, it seemed better to scale back. When I mentioned Many Glacier in the 10pm phone call the night before we left, he was down.

Meeting up at seven the next morning, the junkshow bloomed quickly. I’d left my fuel bottle in Kalispell. We went back from the gas station to grab his skins. In a moment of totally obviousness, Safeway had no white gas and the hardware store saved us. My dad left work to get us a fuel bottle from his shed. All which goes to show that flexible planning and good cheer are probably the best tools to include on these sorts of ventures.
A stop in West Glacier yielded our backcountry permit and the info that the road had been plowed. Another stop in East Glacier saw the last supply getting and arranging our packs.

By virtue of the scope of the trip, the pile of gear is large. Intricacies come along with that pile. Simple things like how to pour white gas from large cans into the narrow MSR bottles. When full, the spout is too big. It spills. What happens if you overfill? A minor problem, but still frustrating. Easily, the solution is a funnel. But what interests me is the way that these things are learned. In my case, the folks at the East Glacier mercantile had a funnel I could use. A checklist could theoretically prepare you for all the small issues like this. Make it possible to anticipate them. Personally, I’d rather go out with friends, deal with small mistakes, and write the “To Fix” issues in my Rite In The Rain.

The turnoff in Babb had snow, and Clay’s Suburban made it all the way to the gate at the foot of Lake Sherburne. Skis went on packs, packs on backs, and we saddled up on our bikes for the six mile trip to the picnic area that was to be our campsite.

I can’t really recommend riding a bike with such big bags. We managed the slush, puddles, and winds with no incident, but we’re skiers. It was a close thing. Wheels were a means to an end from which a skin track can start, in our case the picnic area north of Swiftcurrent Lake.

After avoiding death by bighorn ram near the caretaker cabin, our complaining asses rolled into the picnic area to some serious amenities. Unlocked pit toilets. Picnic tables. A fire ring to put the Whisperlite in. Bearproof food storage in the garbage containers. During the summer, this is the domain of tourists who can park and eat Fritos in the shade of some pines. Though not open for public travel, crunching across bare asphalt in ski boots didn’t quite feel like backcountry.

Without much visibility, it was hard to say what was going on in the alpine. The whole area has seen 8-12” of snow in the last week, making the snowpack we skinned into below Grinnell Point a bit of scour, refreeze, and buff atop a solid crust. Nothing moved on the mellow slopes, but we weren’t convinced. Rapid warming could quickly destabilize the new snow making for wet slabs or point release slush gushers. It seemed smart to keep expectations low. Over dinner back at the picnic tables, we decided to head up to Grinnell Lake the next day. We’d be closer to the alpine and wouldn’t see work trucks heading past.

After waking, we packed up and headed over to dodge open water patches on Lake Josephine. Navigating the creek between the head of Josephine and Grinnell pushed us up on the hillside below Grinnell Mtn, and we arrived at the head of Grinnell just as the clouds parted. Immediately, we saw point releases moving into the cirque we’d need to skin through to make it up to Grinnell Glacier. Retreating to the shelter of the big trees, we pitched camp and went for a recon skin with the argillite face of  Angel’s Wing towering above. The crust was somehow bonded to a foot of new snow, though we skied conservatively. For good measure, I alternated Clay’s tracks out the bottom for some powder eights.

Transitions while winter camping are more than just skins or goggles. Pulling into camp means going from sweaty active gear, perhaps a softshell, to down and mitts. Insulating boot liners in the toe of my bag. Insulating water so it won’t freeze. It’s not the easy luxury of summer backpacking, but then again, snow allows you to build your own kitchen.

Ours had two seats, a counter for prep and cooking, a fridge box, and sat down out of the wind. Still, lessons learned: don’t keep your glove liners off in wind. Bring extra socks just for camp, as your usual ones are sweaty.

Hauling big bags and the bike ride of the day before had tired us out. Couscous came quickly and we gulped it before it got cold. As they say, hunger is certainly the best sauce. Planning an early morning, the tent door zipped up by six pm.

I woke up to ten degrees in the tent, ice crystals all over the walls, and six am. We’d been asleep for a full twelve hours. Best of all, the clouds of the previous days were gone. Clay rallied first into the sunshine; we powered out of camp to the bottom of the headwall. Just after layering down, I had to race back to the tent for my beacon. Lesson: put that thing on first. Then, we headed up the ramp towards the glacial basin. Summer sees this area as a set of cliffs with waterfalls running down them, so cutting a track through windbuff atop the crust required kicking in at nearly every step. Lesson: use the ski crampons I subsequently purchased.

Though hard, we made it up the first bench. Clay lead the second and popped out into the scoured steps of the glacial basin with a whoop.  Our route went up to the moraines above the pond, to the left, and we skinned through the flats between the Wing and Mt. Gould and up to the summit of Angel’s Wing.

Dropping off the summit, we milked crust that became the first true powder that either of us has skied in a few weeks.

A lower bowl was even deeper. Stoke was very high. Sounds of joy were being yodeled. As it was getting close to eleven am, we leapfrogged our way down through the headwall and reached camp congratulating each other on a safe descent.

After packing up camp, we headed back down the lakes.

Reaching the bikes, we caught a ride out with a service truck. Good thing, too—there’s a likely chance our flatish tires wouldn’t have survived the trip back to the ‘burban.

As we put on shoes and stowed our gear, I reflected on my sunburn. On the trip, and how it had become a learning experience. A tip here, an idea there. Not “training” in some sort of artificial, detached way, but an adventure in its own right. Good times had. Powder skied. Most importantly, safe decisions made that got us up and back to the car. My kind of fun.

Thanks again to Clay for his photos and company.

Denali dreaming, part 1

There’s an expectation, totally my own, that the words that I write about places are supposed to be equal to the places themselves. A theory that if this silly primate body I wander around in is barely able, maybe the words it strings together can compensate for sunburnable flesh and blistery toes. Ironically and obviously, it goes without saying that it’s hard to fulfill. Being a big mountain, certainly the largest I’ve ever sought to play on, Denali puts extra weight on that wish.

Grant Domer and I fly north to Anchorage on May 17th. A short trip to Talkeetna, a flight onto the Kahiltna, and we’ll be wandering up the West Buttress until we fly back to Seattle on June 17th. Grant’s been thinking of this trip since the summer of 2011, when we skied Mt. Baker.

Grant checking out a map on Rainier.

He envisioned building up to this climb two years later. At the time, it seemed about a lifetime and bunch of money I didn’t have into the future. Occasionally the thought would play through my head, but it didn’t feel serious–I’d wandered back to Montana and working through the summer didn’t leave much time for getting out on the volcanos.

A skinning day with Woody Dixon in the Cascades.

A phone call this last December got me back in the game. Grant was still on the chase, as excited as that climb a few years back. Plane tickets were the commitment to launch a several month scramble (on my part) to catch up.  Now, we’re less than three weeks away from flying north, and here’s the first part of some reflections on the process.

Most the climbing I’ve done in Glacier Park has been guided by J. Gordon Edwards’ quirky classic, <u>A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park</u>. Despite Grant’s guidance and general idea about what we were getting into, I was looking for a guidebook. Colby Coombs’ guide to the West Buttress has awesome route information and a solid section on gear to bring. There’s a lot of time devoted to common ailments from altitude and cold, both bountiful on Denali.

To add to the guidebook, there’s required reading to even get your permit from the Park Service. In the PDF is a code necessary for registration. I read through all of Wildsnow’s blog posts related to their trip from 2010 to get a more comprehensive idea of skiing the thing. Going on a tip from my father, I read an account of the first winter ascent of Denali,  -148 Degrees.

Most of the official tone talks of self sufficiency and preparation. Nothing promises an easy climb. Within the first few days of their trip, the winter ascent lost a member to a crevasse fall. The accident reporting from Denali last year does not flinch at the number of dead climbers. Between the vertical relief (13,000ft) between base camp and the summit, the latitude decreasing oxygen and making the mountain feel higher (more along the lines of 23,000ft near the Equator), and the timing of our trip seeing more spring weather, a serious tone is valid.

Still, I really enjoyed the moments of levity in what I read. These are mountaineers after all. A passage from Coombs:

“Perhaps the oddest animal encounter was with a red squirrel begging for food at 12,500ft. This is no less than 15 miles and over 10,000ft in elevation from the nearest spruce grove. Did the little mammal arrive on the glacier in someone’s duffel in a gorp-induced coma?”

Beyond all that I’ve learned on my own, I’ve been once again reminded of why mountain communities are the best ones. Conversations about my spring plans, once I mention Denali, have become a great outpouring of support for our trip. People have offered me their expedition weight long johns, mentioned friends who went before, connected through email to folks with experience, offered gear hookups, and in the case of my sponsors, pulled out all the stops to help with gear. In the piles of details and accumulating gear, the generosity of the people in my life is still the largest heap in sight. Thank you.

A few worthy specifics:
-To Grant. For spearheading this, helping with gear, and especially the booties. Arabianistas!
-To the family. To Mom and Dad for encouraging me, starting me on this path, and enduring the worry. To my grandparents for their support and employment. To my uncles  for their words of wisdom about avoiding chaffing and offers of loaned gear.
-Massive thanks to Woody Dixon  and Mountain Equipment for being onboard with the trip from the beginning. His help with clothing, equipment, and a new sleepsack made the difference between a cost prohibitive trip and a possible one.
-Thanks to Scott Andrus, Sam Caylor, and Rowen Tych at ON3P for keeping me in skis. The 186 Vicik Tours that I just mounted up will be perfect for spring assaults and slogging up the Kahiltna.
-Green thanks to SDot for transporting us in AK. Super stoked to see you.