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!

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