Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Denali Slideshow

I have uploaded the presentation we gave at the Mazamas ICS Intro Night on September 27th. Click here to view the PDF.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Denali Report: Episode 3

After procrastinating all summer, here is the third and final episode of the Denali Report...

After arriving in camp 4 on Wednesday we took another rest day Thursday. We made a second trip out the Edge of the World and wandered around camp talking with the other groups there. A group of 4 from Colorado moved in next to us and I was able to borrow their satellite phone for the second time to call home with updates.

Friday we made a carry up the fixed lines on the Kalhiltna headwall and put in a cache at 16,200. It was my first experience with fixed lines (other than in practice) and it was a lot of fun. The headwall was probably a 50 degree icy slope. You climbed it mostly on the front points of your crampons balancing yourself with your ice ax. The fixed lines were just for safety in case you fell. Once above the fixed lines we moved a couple of hundred feet further up the ridge to put in our cache then returned back to camp 4.

That night we had the only major mishap of our trip. We had been melting snow and heating water with two MSR XGK stoves. Because melting snow takes so much time, we constantly had them going and they required refueling every day. Anyway, while one was running the other was being refueled. I'm not sure what exactly happened because I was in my tent, but suddenly I hear Jim and Shawn yelling Fire! Fire! and a lot of commotion in the Megamid. It turns out the fuel bottle overflowed and the whole stove caught on fire, severely melting several parts of the fuel pump. After making sure everyone was OK and a brief moment of "what do we do now with one stove" I was able to fix the fuel pump enough to get it working. I guess it's a testament to just how rugged the MSR stoves are.

Saturday we had another rest day. It was very warm and sunny so we took the opportunity to dry out everything and get ready for the big push to high camp the next day. Even though we cached several days of food and fuel above the fixed lines at 16,200, moving from 14,200 to 17,200 on Sunday was by far the hardest day on the mountain yet. By now our loads were no longer a 50-50 split between the carries and the moves. Our packs seems oppressively heavy as we climbed the last thousand feet along the ridge into high camp.

The ridge itself was a lot of fun to climb - some of the best climbing on the whole route. It has substantial drop offs on both sides as you weave in and out of rock outcroppings along the ridge. Unfortunately, as we started on the ridge a cloud moved over us and obscured the views.

High camp was situated on a small flat spot with a bird's eye view down to basin camp and the lower Kalhiltna Glacier. The couple of weeks before we arrived at high camp, was some of the worse weather of the season (we experienced some of it as rain while in base camp). We had heard from the rangers that one point more than a 180 people stuck at high camp waiting for a break in the weather for a summit attempt. Some of them waited 10 days before retreating. We had been listening to the nightly weather forecasts on the radio reporting temperatures 40 below and winds in excess of 60 mph.

Fortunately for us we did not experience the worse Denali could offer. Daytime temperatures at high camp were in the teens, with nighttime temperatures only 10 to 20 below. As long as you got in the tent before the sun went behind the ridge you were fine and we had almost no wind at all. Best of all, after spending so many weekends on Mount Hood building snow walls we arrived at our final camp with a perfect setup all ready in place. Building snow walls from scratch can easily take 6 hours or more and is more work than the climbing itself.

Monday was a beautiful day and as much as it pained us we took another rest day. The nightly forecasts were calling for another storm moving in toward the end of the week. We only had a couple of days of food with us at high camp, but had more in the cache at 16,200 so we could have waited. However, no one relished the idea of doing a back carry to retrieve our cache only to sit at high camp in bad weather for a week or longer. Tuesday would be our summit day.

Because it's so cold on the summit of Denali, there's no need for an alpine start. So we stayed in the warmth of our sleeping bags until 7am, then made breakfast and got ready to go. Around 10am we left high camp for the summit.

Right out of high camp the route does a traversing ascent up to Denali Pass. Despite being relatively easy this is the site of the most deaths on the West Buttress. On descent climbers are just too wiped out, trip and fall. If they're not roped up and using the fixed pro for a running belay often they slide out of control down the slope into one of many crevasses. We started the ascent in sunlight but quickly moved into the shadows as we go closer to the pass. Moving slow because of the running belay made it probably the coldest part of the climb.

We took a short break at the top of Denali pass before continuing up the ridge to a place called the Football Field, another flat spot before the final summit ridge. Here we ditched our packs, stuffed our pockets with snacks and water, then headed for the summit.

Despite appearing to be close enough to touch, it still took us another hour to ascend to the summit ridge. The ridge itself was the most inspiring climbing I've done, a near knife edge with overhanging cornices, that seemed to go on and on. At 6pm on Tuesday, June 19th we finally made it to the summit of the highest peak in North America, with perfect weather, no wind and only a handful of other climbers to share the summit with. After 17 days of some of the hardest work any of us had done, we spent 30 minutes taking in the views, snapping the usual summit photos, and congratulating each other.

Unlike other big mountains, we had nearly 24 hours of daylight, so getting down before sunset wasn't a concern. However, we were exhausted and didn't relish the idea of descending in the bitter cold. We made a hasty, but safe descent back to high camp. When we finally arrived I was so tired I just dropped my pack and laid on the ground, unable to do anything for quite a while. Fortunately Jim and Keith had beat us back to camp and had hot drinks and soup waiting. What a day!

We knew a weather front was on it's way in and the 8pm radio forecast confirmed that it was expected to arrive on Thursday. Typically the descent off of Denali is done in 2 days. However, we had made our summit and we were all craving a shower, clean clothes, food and beer. We decided we'd wake up Wednesday morning and make a single push all the way out, picking up what we cached on the way.

The first part of the descent back to basin camp at 14,200 was no big deal. We had clear weather for the ridge between high camp and the top of the fixed lines. It was great to see what we had climbed earlier in the week - what beautiful climbing! At basin camp we decided the snow was too soft to continue so we dug out our cache there and spent a few hours trying to pawn off extra food to climbers still going up. Kari, being in sales in marketing, did a great job at this, even getting someone heading down to take some of our food.

Later that evening we headed on down to camp 3. This was the first time we carried a load down the mountain on our sleds (having cached them at basin camp on the way up). What a hassle! Despite our best efforts to rig the sleds properly they kept careening out of control and nailing us in the back of our legs, a dangerous proposition when descending an icy slope. After some frustration we re-rigged the sleds so we could lower them in front of us rather than pulling them behind on the steeper slopes.

We arrived at camp 3 sometime around 11pm to dig out our cache there. We had left camp 3 only a week or so before but the changes had been unbelievable. Huge crevasses were beginning to open up everywhere and the snow had melted dramatically. In a hurrying we added our cache to our growing pile of gear and headed on down the ski hill.

Somewhere near the base of the Ski Hill at about 1am we hit the largest obstacle we had yet. A huge crevasse had opened and stretched all the away across the slope. A group about an hour ahead of us had punched thru the sketchy snow bridge. What was left looked so flimsy we first tried an end run around the crevasse. Neither direction turned out feasible (in fact Jim fell thru to his waist but lucky got out on his own) so we took a second look at the snow bridge. It had several holes where people had punched thru and a couple of big cracks. In addition both sides of the crevasse were undercut so it made it even more menacing. However, by now the temperature had cooled down more and we hoped that the snow might be firm enough to send someone across.

I volunteered, dropped my pack and tip toed across with a few pickets on belay. I wasn't really worried about falling, I trusted my team to catch me. It was more that I didn't want to be bothered with a fall. I was craving food and beer and wanted off the glacier. Going across the snow bridge was a bit like a movie where it's falling apart as you go across it, but I managed to avoid the cracks and gently leap to more solid ground. Once on the other side I setup an anchor and we rigged a fixed line across the snow bridge. An hour later after ferrying everyone and their gear across we continued on our way.

We hit camp 1 around 4am and only recognized it by the surrounding peaks. It was completely crevasse ridden and some of the caches had melted out. At this point we decided to tie our ropes together and form a single long, rope team of 5. We figured we're tired and if anyone goes in the other 4 will stop them, then pull them out.

From the remains of camp 1 to base camp was truly a death march. I only have vague memories of it. We had been on the descent for 24 hours, after summiting. The lower glacier was a totally different place from 3 weeks ago. Their were huge crevasses everywhere, sketchy snow bridges that we had to cross. Seeing all the buried crevasses we had crossed 3 weeks earlier we just knew there were more out there, with weaker snow bridges. Our paced had slowed significantly and I occasionally got the chance to peer into some of the bigger ones. They really are the land of the dead, a frozen one at that. Black and bottomless with icicles that look like teeth around some gapping mouth.

Somehow we made it through the minefield of crevasses and headed up what is called Heartbreak Hill to base camp. It is Denali's last challenge. After weeks going up the mountain, then the long descent down, the final stretch is uphill again for 800 vertical feet. Never have I moved so slow. Around 8am we started hearing the glacier planes landing and taking off at base camp and that gave us renewed energy to knock out the final rise into base camp. When we finally arrived, there was a guided group there getting ready to head up (no idea why so late in the season). We must have looked like the walking dead as we stumbled into base camp Thursday morning around 10am.

We checked in with the base camp manager who put us on the list to fly out. She informed us that a forest fire around Talkeetna was causing a delay in getting climbers off the mountain and that the approaching storm was expected to keep flights grounded starting the next day. We didn't really know if or when we'd be getting off the glacier. Oddly enough while we waited to fly out, plane loads of tourist flew in to snap photos of base camp and the climbers waiting there. After waiting most of Thursday in frustration, we finally got summoned to catch what was going to be the last flight of the day.

As we loaded our gear on the plane, the pilot told us he wasn't sure he could land back Talkeetna because of the smoke, but if not he could land on the highway and we could hitchhike back to town. Once airborne he radioed in for special clearance and we were able to land at the airstrip after circling a few times. The flight out was just as beautiful as the flight in.

Once back in Talkeetna we all had the same idea - drink beer and call home. We probably sat around at TAT for an hour in our climbing gear enjoying the taste of some ice cold Alaskan IPA. We spent the rest of the evening and well into the next day stuffing our faces with multiple meals, drinking pitcher after pitcher of beer, and trading stories with all the climbers we had met while on the mountain. The post climb celebration in Talkeetna is the perfect way finish to the whole Denali experience.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Denali Report: Episode 2

Better late than never, here is episode 2 of my Denali story...

Being stuck in a tent during a storm isn't much fun. Being stuck in tent on a glacier during a storm is even worse. When the storm breaks you can't venture far from the tent because any crevasses you knew were there before are buried and new ones may have opened. Camp 1 was just a collection of a dozen or so tents and like all our other camps had one or more crevasses running right through the middle of it.

We spent most of the day Wednesday resting from our overnight journey. That evening we emerged from our tents to a total whiteout and fresh snow. At 8pm every day the base camp manager would relay the NOAA weather forecast over the radio to everyone on the mountain. The forecast for Thursday was for more of the same so we made the decision to stay put and wait for better weather. We spent most of Thursday pacing around camp, talking with some of the other climbers also stuck there. We met a group from Belgium and another group from California, one of whom was a former Portland Mountain Rescue member. Everyone was in the same boat, chomping at the bit to move up the mountain but held up by the weather.

The Thursday night forecast predicted better weather on Friday. By now we were 4 days behind schedule and beginning to worry about our chances of summiting if we kept getting one day out of three to move. We decided it would be wise to make a couple of big pushes to at least place us above the freezing level – dry snow and cold air is easier to deal with than rain and wet snow.

Our move from base camp to camp 1 was a single carry, i.e. we carried all our gear in one single trip. Typically on a mountain like Denali you do a series of double carries to move up, i.e. carry half your gear up and cache it then return to the lower camp for the night. The next day you break camp and move the rest of your gear up to where you cached the previous day. Sometimes you'll move past your cache and later retrieve it as part of a back carry.

Friday morning we carried half our gear 2.5 miles/1,900 feet up the Ski Hill and cached it at camp 2 then returned to camp 1 around 1pm. We had good weather - partly cloudy, little wind and no precipitation. For the first time since moving to camp 1 we had some pretty good views down the Kalhiltna Glacier.

Saturday morning we broke camp and moved 4.0 miles/3,200 feet all the way up to camp 3, skipping camp 2. It was a long, hot day and a couple of us were showing signs of heat exhaustion by the time we arrived at camp 3. The last stretch into camp 3 was in the blistering sun with no wind. It was all we could do just to setup our tents and melt snow to rehydrate. Sunday we had a short day as we went back down to camp 2 to retrieve our cache and bring it up to camp 3.

Camp 3 was at 11,000 feet and in a spot fairly well protected from the wind. It was a good spot to recoup, sort gear and get ready to move further up the mountain. There were some extreme back country skiers also in camp making crazy lines down through ices seracs and crevasses on nearby slopes. The weather in camp 3 was good and we had some pretty amazing sunset views.

Monday morning we carried 12 days of food, 2 gallons of fuel and all our heavy down 2.75 miles/3200 feet up to camp 4 aka basin camp at 14,200. This was our first real climbing on the mountain, requiring us to break out our crampons and ice axes. Up to this point we had simply been snowshoeing along with heavy packs on relatively easy slopes. Above camp 3 is Motorcycle Hill a fairly steep section to climb considering the weight we were carrying. Beyond that was Windy Corner, sometimes called the crux of the lower mountain because of the high winds (80+ mph) it can have. Fortunately for us it was dead calm when we went around it, although we did run into some snow and whiteout conditions on the other side. Once around Windy Corner we zigzagged around some huge crevasses and arrived at camp 4. After caching our gear and briefly talking with the rangers stationed there we descended back to camp 3.

Tuesday we had a rest day in camp 3. We spent most of the time sleep, reading, listening to our MP3 players, etc. We sorted the rest of our gear and decided what to leave behind in camp 3 for our return trip down the mountain. A guided group from Alpine Ascents had setup camp next to us. Their dining tent was literally 10 feet from our tent. That evening they cooked pizza for their clients. Not only could we smell the aroma or fresh pizza but we could hear them talking about pepperoni and fresh mozzarella cheese. It was pure torture so we convinced Kari to head next door and score us a slice of pizza. After a week of dried food it was some of the best pizza ever.

Wednesday morning we broke camp and moved up to camp 4. Again it was dead calm as we rounded Windy Corner, but this time we had clear blue skies. The sun was beating on us so hard we would have welcomed some wind to cool us down. We arrived at camp 4 and established our camp. Basin camp is sometimes called the real base camp. It's a sprawling city of snow walls, tents and igloos. There are a couple of NPS rangers stationed there, along with a couple of medics. They have their own compound with solar panels and a yurt. Helicopters can fly into camp 4 to resupply the rangers and retrieve injured climbers. That evening Jim, Shawn and I took a stroll out to the Edge of the World - a view point above a sheer, half mile drop to the glacier below.

I'll try to be more speedy with episode 3....

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Denali Report: Episode 1

First, I'd like to thank everyone who visited our expedition website and sent their best wishes. We really had a great time on our adventure and seriously lucked out with perfect weather. Everyone on the team got along fine and we only had a few minor mishaps with equipment. Our summit day was perfect – windless, cloudless and views that were unparalleled. Anyway, without further ado here is our story...

After 14 months of planning, training and stressing out, the 5 of us rendezvoused in Anchorage, Alaska on Saturday, June 2nd. We chartered a shuttle to take us overland to Talkeetna, near the eastern edge of Denali National Park. We arrived late in the afternoon, checked in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) and then went for pizza and beer at Mountain High Pizza. The weather that evening was scattered showers and we went to sleep hoping for a break in the rain the next day so we could fly to base camp.

Sunday morning we woke up and had a HUGE breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse then returned to TAT to begin sorting and repacking our gear for the flight onto the glacier. Even though we tried to packed efficiently before we left home, we were shocked to find that we had a total of 692 lbs of gear among the 5 of us, almost 140 lbs per person. After eliminating everything we could do without we checked in with TAT again but they were still not making glacier landings due to bad visibility at base camp. With nothing else to do but wait we headed off to the West Rib Pub for some burgers and beer. After spending most of Sunday afternoon wandering around Talkeetna we finally got the call to return to TAT and flew to base camp around 6pm.

The flight itself was a real ride. Our group was split between two planes. Keith and Jim in the first plane with a couple of guys from Finland. The rest of us in a second plane with a soloist from the United States. The planes were 1940's era de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers. After taking out the back seat to make room for our gear the planes barely fit 5 people including the pilot. After a brief intro from the pilot we climbed aboard and took off. About 30 minutes later we were skimming over rugged mountain tops and snow corniced ridges, making sharp turns in front of thousand foot rock walls, then circled over base camp and eventually landed on the Kalhiltna Glacier.

Base camp was a good introduction to the scale of what we were about to embark on. It's located on the southeast fork of the Kalhlitna Glacier. You can catch a glimpse of Denali far to the north and Mount Hunter is just looming to the south. The were crevasses everywhere. Constant rock and snow avalanches on the surrounding peaks reminded us of how alive this place is. There was a NPS ranger stationed there as well as a base camp manager to coordinate all the air taxi services. On a busy day they can fly in and out approximately 100 climbers and their gear.

Originally we had planned to spend only one night at base camp and leave early the next day for camp 1 at the base of the Ski Hill. However, Monday morning we woke to rain and wet, heavy snow. The day before in base camp we had met an Irish duo, a couple of guided groups, and the Fins we flew in with. Nobody was moving anywhere so we decided to stay put ourselves. We spent most of Monday hunkered down in our tent. It was some of the wettest snow I've experienced. The next morning, the weather cleared enough for us to think about a move to camp 1. By Tuesday afternoon we had blue skies overhead and I was able to take some phenomenal photos of base camp. Tuesday evening we divided up the group gear, packed everything into our backpacks and sleds, then around 11pm we set out for camp 1.

Crossing the lower Kalhiltna on the way up was uneventful, although we did see several large holes where climbers had obviously busted through into a hidden crevasse. Later on we found out that one of those holes right before camp 1 involved a rope team of 2. One climber fell 60 feet into a crevasse and the other was barely able to arrest the fall. Unable to extract his partner from the crevasse by himself he had to use a satellite phone to call for help. Traveling at night was definitely a requirement on the lower glacier. It was the only time the snow bridges froze up enough to support our weight. We had plenty of light as we never saw darkness the entire trip. Sunset was sometime around midnight and sunrise was sometime between 3-4am. In fact, most of us ended up leaving our headlamps behind, joking that we'd only need them if we fell into a crevasse.

We arrived at camp 1 in the early morning, pitched our tents, ate breakfast then went to sleep to the sounds on another storm approaching...

Be sure to check back next week for Episode 2!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

For all my fans chomping at the bit...

... here is the link to my Denali photos. For those more patient my trip report will be posted shortly...

- Chuck

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Off the mountain...

Just talked to Chuck... and I'm sure some of you have heard from the group by now... they are safely off the mountain and in Talkeetna. Looking forward to a shower (and shave please!), pizza and beer. They will figure out return plans tomorrow after a good night of sleep. Sounds like good stories and even better pictures. Thank you all for your support!
- Kerry

Multimedia message

After 19 days on the mountain we're back in Talkeetna. All 5 of us had a perfect summit day on June 19th - blue skies, no wind, breathtaking views. It's too bad a lack of cell service kept me from sending regular updates, but stay tuned for our photos and trip reports when we get home. It has been a great adventure and we're all looking to coming home!
- Chuck