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.

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