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....

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