An account of my May 2011 trip to Mt. McKinley (Denali).
This is based on the journal I kept (on my iPad) during the expedition. This is a departure from the pen-and-paper method I employed during the previous two trips (2008, 2009). I'll add pictures into the daily journal entries as time allows.
- Table of Contents
Day 0: Sat May 07 (packing; still in Atlanta)
Day 1: Sun May 08 (traveling to Anchorage)
Day 2: Mon May 09 (traveling to Talkeetna)
Day 3: Tue May 10 (ranger orientation, base camp, camp 1)
Day 4: Wed May 11 (stuck at camp 1)
Day 5: Thu May 12 (cache at 10,000)
Day 6: Fri May 13 (camp 1 to camp 3)
Day 7: Sat May 14 (back carry from 10,000)
Day 8: Sun May 15 (cache at 13,500)
Day 9: Mon May 16 (camp 3 to camp 4)
Day 10: Tue May 17 (rest, build walls / kitchen / crapper)
Day 11: Wed May 18 (back carry from 13,500, rest)
Day 12: Thu May 19 (rest)
Day 13: Fri May 20 (rest)
Day 14: Sat May 21 (acclimatize at 15,300, rest)
Day 15: Sun May 22 (rest)
Day 16: Mon May 23 (camp 4 to camp 5)
Day 17: Tue May 24 (rest)
Day 18: Wed May 25 (rest)
Day 19: Thu May 26 (rest)
Day 20: Fri May 27 (summit day)
Day 21: Sat May 28 (camp 5 to camp 3)
Day 22: Sun May 29 (Camp 3 to Base Camp, Talkeetna)
Day 23: Mon May 30 (Talkeetna to Anchorage)
- The Team
- This May 2011 expedition of Mt. McKinley (Denali), the highest peak in North America (at 20,320'), was self-guided. The team consisted of:
- Day 0: Sat May 07
- Packing; still in Atlanta
Got a haircut yesterday. During my 2008 Denali trip I learned the importance of short hair: if your hair is going to become really gross (due to a month of hygiene neglect), it's best to have as little of it as possible.
I'm packing today. Packing everything. And grocery shopping. We'll stop in Wasilla (on Monday) to get some groceries but we'll bring as much as we can with us to avoid a prolonged shopping trip once we're there.
Wes thought we could shoot for 80 pounds of gear and food each, but I don't think that's possible. Considering that twenty (or more) pounds will be devoted just to lunch snacks, I'll be happy if I can just stay south of one hundred. Dreamers will dream.
I finished up and submitted a cheesy sleep-aid iPhone app ($1.99) this evening. I'm confident that I'll return in June and learn that I'm a millionaire. Or not.
- Day 1: Sun May 08
- Atlanta to Anchorage
09:00 - I ran through the gear check list one more time and found a few things I had neglected to pack. And I noticed the two-way radio, lying forgotten on the floor; it would have sucked to leave without having that particular item.
It's going to be a struggle to pay attention during the two-hour church service this morning, knowing that I'm going straight from here to the airport and then to freakin' ALASKA.
15:00 - Aimee and Jake escorted me to the airport and then took my car back home. I don't usually take advantage of curb-side check in, but with two 60+ pound duffel bags hanging precariously from my shoulders (plus my backpack), it seemed worth the obligatory tip money.
18:00 - The flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis was a breeze. The free first class upgrade might have had something to do with that. I'm sixteenth in line (for zero available first class seats) for the 2nd (five and a half hour) leg of this journey. My flight is finally boarding.
I heard from Wes via SMS. He is totally not willing to do Foraker, so it looks like we're definitely doing the West Buttress of Denali again; a 3rd time for both of us. We're basically veterans. I haven't yet told Wes that I intend to bail on his Cho Oyu trip in favor of a West Rib trip with Eric. I think I'll wait until we're on the glacier and there's no turning back.
22:00 - I've got a window seat in an exit row. Theoretically, this is a prime place to be seated if I'm not going to be in first class. In practice this sucks though. First, there's no arm rest on the fuselage side of my seat. Well, there is, but it's more aptly placed for my knee than my elbow. Second, a poster child for childhood obesity is seated next to me, and he seems to have an upper respiratory thing going on that requires lots coughing and sneezing into his tent-sized t-shirt. Suddenly I'm concerned with becoming sick right before this expedition. That'd suck. Just five more hours of this.... Maybe I can hold my breath.
- Day 2: Mon May 09
- Atlanta to Talkeetna; gear checks; packing
03:00 - Our over night stay at the Mariott Anchorage Downtown was pleasant. We strolled around the city late at night after spending most of the day in planes and airports. There really isn't any point or purpose to Anchorage as far as I can tell ... except that it serves as the entry point for my Apple products when they ship directly from China.
13:00 - Denali Overland picked us up on-time and ushered us (and two French climbers - Pierre and some L-name that I couldn't understand, much less pronounce or spell) to Wasilla for some final grocery shopping at Fred-Meyers. We grabbed bacon bits, salmon, butter, ramen, ear plugs, toilet paper - the necessities.
14:00 - Our ground transportation concluded at the Sheldon airplane hangar and we started gear sorting and packing. Wes' delusions of sub-80 pound loads were a distant memory. Unexplainably, our respective gear weighed in at nearly the same amount - just over one hundred pounds each, not counting the three gallons (twenty-four pounds) of fuel we'll gradually burn for the sake of hot water. We'll each carry some forty-six pounds of food; enough for us to eat two pounds a day for more than twenty days. That's a lot of food.
16:00 - Alaska Mountaineering School has a gear shop in Talkeetna and we paid them a visit; not a overly expensive visit, suprisingly. We each replaced our duffel bags with new thin, light-weight duffels that aren't water proof, but also aren't six pounds. My Mountain Hardwear duffel is designed to withstand the rigors of airport travel (the most brutal test of baggage strength known to man) and that's way over-kill for glaciers and mountaineering.
18:00 - Dinner this evening was at Mountain High Pizza. Desert (berry cobbler -sort of - and ice cream) was from the Roadhouse Cafe. It rained briefly. The moquitos were out in force. The merlot was good despite being Yellowtail. I am looking forward to the post-climb pizza, wine and cobbler. I think I just climb to eat. And I know Wes just climbs to eat. He speaks of it regularly.
Sheldon Air put us up at the most conveniently located hostel ever - House of the Seven Trees - which is next door to the pizza place, across the street from the cafe and two doors down from the bar. Food and liquor has never been so accessible. Although in early season, like now, those ammenities lack a certain abundance. The town seems very dead compared to years passed. Things were much more lively by this point in '08 and '09.
Breakfast tomorrow - which is always an important topic for us, the night before - will be at the Roadhouse. The "standard half" for both of us, I expect. Following that delicious and filling meal, we'll spend an hour or more being lectured - for a third time - about the perils of mountaineering. The lecture will include a slideshow, which should be rated "R", consisting largely of frost bite pictures and otherwise very sad looking people who apparently chose not to heed the lectures delivered to them.
Following the small but inevitable bout with depression and anxiety that follows that lecture, and with CMC, climbing permit and "Big Test Icicles" cache stickers in-hand, we'll traipse across town to the airport, change clothes, toss our extra crap in the storage room, and eagerly jump onto the plane, somehow managing to ignore the pain we know awaits us.
Talkeetna ... a quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem.
- Day 3: Tue May 10
- Ranger orientation; Talkeetna to base camp to camp 1
06:45 - The day started with entirely unnecessary showers followed by a delicious breakfast at the Roadhouse.
08:00 - We trekked on over to the ranger station and got the orientation lecture about not pooping everywhere. There were other aspects to the instruction, I'm told. I don't recall the details.
09:45 - Dave, the pilot, picked us up (in a pickup truck - I rode in the back), and whisked us on over to the airport. We changed clothes, finished some packing, paid our tab and flew off to base camp along with a German duo in the Beaver.
11:00 - The winds at base camp picked up while we were en route and we nearly turned around, but they suddenly died down and Dave made a perfect landing.
11:45 - It took us an hour or two to rig up the sleds, gear up and rope up. The conditions were okay (but not great). The wind really picked up as soon as we started up the Kahiltna and it never stopped. It was mostly a head wind, and a bitterly cold one at that. Wes actually dawned his balaclava.
18:00 - At Camp 1, we found an abandoned kitchen area and pillaged it's walls for our tent wall. Wes courageously determined to cook, even though the temperatures kept dropping and the wind kept increasing. Mashed potatoes, cheese, broccoli, bacon bits. Half a gallon of it. We didn't finish it. We're pathetic.
Along the way to Camp 1 we passed an American Alpine Institute guided group. The stopped to take a break ... without even stepping six inches off the trail. Hopefully this isn't a sign of things to come.
21:00 - My hand is going numb, so I think I'll stop now. I'm trying not to think about my need to pee. I don't want to go outside. That one liter pee bottle is looking very small right now. Wes brought a 96 ounce nalgene pee bottle. It seemed excessive once, but I see the wisdom of it now.
- Day 4: Wed May 11
- Stuck at Camp 1
13:00 - It was continuously windy last night. Aside for these brief lulls it just kept going. We started this trip with about forty-seven pounds of food each, and when the wind wouldn't relent today we determined to just hang out, reinforce walls, dig a deep kitchen, eat and drink.
Tomorrow, or whenever the wind let's up (the weather reports keep promising a high pressure system), we're thinking of skipping Camp 2 (9,600 feet) and caching somewhere above that; maybe all the way at Camp 3 (11,200 feet) if we're feeling good. And then, when the weather permits again, we'll move up to Camp 3.
During the ranger orientation I asked about the feasibility of acclimatizing up at 16,500 feet on the upper West Rib instead of at the top of the Head Wall. The ranger emphatically encouraged that, saying that the rangers do the same thing. As conversation on this topic continued, it was decided that we would summit via the upper West Rib, too, thus eliminating an ascent of the Head Wall and fixed lines altogether. In deed, we'll descend the West Buttress (and the Head Wall), but that's so much less annoying that the ascent.
With this logistical change, I don't even kind of regret not being able to climb Sultana Ridge.
I ventured out into the wind and dug a deep kitchen. The wind-facing wall did an excellent job of detouring the wind. I could stand up inside without my head rising above the wall. I crafted a couple benches and two stairs for stepping down into it.
And them I got the CMC and used the new kitchen as a crapper. Nothing is sacred out here. Some snow gets used for honorable use, and other snow not so much.
The AAI group that we passed up on the way to Camp 1 yesterday strolled into camp (yesterday), set up their tents and retired. Their camp lacked walls, and their tents we're just getting hammered by the wind. As I was finishing up kitchen wall construction, they assembled to begin their own camp wall construction, and they did a very decent job for a small team of four.
Time to eat more goldfish.
16:00 - After a very refreshing and comfortably warm nap, we heard the strange sounds of a German couple near by. Like a champ, Wes stuck his head out into the harsh wind and found them moving their tent into our kitchen/crapper. Wes has decided to go outside and build us another. My suggestion was to use our CMC next to their tent. Of the two of us, he evidently brings maturity to the team.
I joined him outside (along with my helmet cam), to help him build walls. That's not a metaphor. Now, when I'm asked, "just how windy was it?", I'll have a video with which to answer.
The wall-building AAI team just suited up, apparently for a carry, and started their way up Ski Hill towards Camp 2. It's 17:30 right now, and they're probably still hours away. And then they have to turn around and make their way back here, tonight. And for what? The weather is only predicted to get better. They're a day ahead, but miserable. Whatever. More power to 'em. I suppose the guides effectively earn more money if they finish sooner.
Dinner tonight is ramen, chicken and broccoli. Mmm.
20:00 - I don't know what happened to that high pressure system Lisa was hyping. Tomorrow is supposed to feature 30mph winds. We've decided that if it looks a little better than today, they we'll go ahead and cache at Camp 3.
When that sun sets, the temperature drops so fast. An hour ago I was out in a t-shirt and now I need a sleeping bag.
- Day 5: Thu May 12
- Cache at 10,000
09:00 - We woke up gradually this morning. The inside of the tent was coated with a fair bit of ice, but my hand crafted sleeping bag cover kept the moisture out.
Wes cooked up butter-toasted, cheese-covered bagels for breakfast. They were delicious but ultimately inadequate and we supplemented them with some cinnamon rolls. Mmm.
12:00 - All packed up, we hauled everything we wouldn't need in the next day up the mountain towards Camp 3 (11,200 feet), but ended up stopping at 10k when Pierre and the other Frenchman we rode with from Anchorage waved us down. We talked, and decided to make a cache right there. I listened to This American Life the entire time. It really helped the time pass.
There was a German couple (the same couple who set up their tent in my freshly dug kitchen) who stopped at 10,000' at the same time and the lady proceeded to starting puking. Not a good sign. We're hoping they don't decide to push on to 11k. That'd be stupid.
19:30 - Back at Camp 1 it was still warm out, and not even the slightest breeze to disrupt that warmth. We got stuff drying out and Wes commenced with replenishing our water. I noticed a new group in camp with four Trango tents and a cook tent - distinctives of an RMI team - but they turned out to be Mountain Trips.
20:00 - The weather report indicates more good weather tomorrow and clouds on Saturday. So far, Lisa's weather reports haven't particularly jived with reality. We are considering the implications of moving past our cache, up to Camp 3 tomorrow, and then getting stuck there in bad weather. We have enough snacks to be content for two days, maybe, and also a pound of cheese. We might just stop at 10k. We'll see.
Time for the pre-bed trip to the pee hole.
- Day 6: Fri May 13
- Camp 1 to Camp 3
Friday the Thirteenth! Too bad I didn't bring that movie.
09:00 - Wes burst out of bed like we were tragically late for something. I asked if the tent was on fire. He said, "if the tent were on fire, I'd be OUTSIDE yelling at you to get out." What a fireman. We enjoyed more bagels and cheese for breakfast and started packing up camp.
Mountain Trips (a team of nine, including guides), passed by our tent on their way to Camp 3. However, instead of caching and moving with light loads, they were doing a single carry the entire way. And once they arrive at 11,200 feet, they still have to dig out a camp and set everything up. Their guide is insane ... unless his goal is to avoid having any clients who care to push all the way to the summit. It probably makes financial sense for the guides.
12:15 - We leisurely made our way out of Camp 1 and up Ski Hill on our way to Camp 3. Several teams on skis were right in front of us and they stopped, right in the middle of the trail every minute or two for no apparent reason - other than to disrupt the flow of traffic. We passed them.
15:45 - Rockin' a very respectable pace, we arrived at our 10,000' cache from the previous day. We snacked and hydrated and decided to leave the cache for tomorrow.
17:15 - The haul up the last hill that lands you at Camp 3 wasn't half the hill I remember from years past. No thanks to Wes though. Once he spotted the Mountain Trips team on the final stretch to Camp 3, he put it into high gear and started hauling it up there. In the end it didn't matter since there were many camp sites ready to go. We had three very decent ones to choose from.
We crossed the camp of the puking lady from the afternoon before, set up around 10,800'. They were surprisingly smart not to push any farther. There were no sounds of active puking going on.
Tomorrow we'll back carry from 10,000' (weather permitting) which should take about two hours, and then spend the rest of the day relaxing in the sun and eating junk food.
- Day 7: Sat May 14
- Back carry from 10,000 to Camp 3
12:00 - We back carried from 10k, which was a good thing since we were down to just a few snacks remaining. It took about 25 minutes on snowshoes to get down to the cache and maybe 1.25 hours to get back to our 11k camp.
Pukilicious (the Gerrman lady who puked at 10,000' the other day) and the other half of her team moved up to 14k camp. She is so going to die.
18:00 - Wes prepared a delicious (but not so visually appealing) dinner of bean burritos with plenty of fixings.
While sending a spot message this afternoon, the software started behaving strangely. In an effort to "reset" it, I hit the rather prominent "logout" button. The app then prompted me for my password and announced that login could not succeed without an Internet connection. And thus I will not be sending any further spot messages. Awesome. I can't wait to yell at them.
- Day 8: Sun May 15
- Cache at 13,500
09:45 - Like clockwork Wes awoke with a powerful need to make water and cook breakfast. More power to him. When I shortly later became uncomfortably warm in my sleeping bag (due to the sun heating up the tent), I gradually emerged and joined him.
After breakfast (freeze dried scrambled eggs and half a pound of real bacon) we started sorting supplies for the cache. I championed the notion of not lugging sleds. Wes agreed. We each ended up with some fifty pounds of food, supplies and warm clothes destined for the 13,500' cache.
13:15 - Suitably late in the day, with the sun beating down on us in full, we started the slog up Motorcycle Hill, finally wearing crampons. Snowshoes are a thing of the past.
The snow volume on Motorcycle Hill, Squirrel Hill and Windy Hill was ideal. No blue ice, just nice firm steps the whole way up.
16:45 - We rolled into the cache site 3.5 hours later and got to use an existing cache hole. That saved some effort. We took a nice long break afterwards and chatted with a guy from Iceland (team name: Iceland) who was doing a back carry by himself for his two man team. His teammate had apparently fallen asleep, so he set off lugging a 45kg pack back up to camp. Slowly. Very slowly.
He did this thing he called an Airforce Lift to get himself into a standing position with the pack. First, the pack is on the ground with the shoulder straps facing up. He lies down on the pack and straps himself to it. Next, he rolls himself and the pack over so the pack is on top of him and he is face down in the snow. Lastly, he does a push up of sorts, gets his feet under him and carefully stands up. Impressive.
19:15 - Five and a half hours altogether, and we were back at camp in time to catch some final rays and the weather report (for whatever its worth) before retreating to the tent.
Wes cooked a gumbo like meal. It wasn't gumbo, but it was delicious, plentiful and warming.
The weather report said clouds tomorrow. We should both have light loads and we'll hopefully have a new camp at 14,200' (Camp 4) come tomorrow evening.
- Day 9: Mon May 16
- Camp 3 to Camp 4
09:45 - Wes fired up the stove and got the water going while I started packing things up and digging our Camp 3 cache. We're moving to Camp 4 today - along with several other teams that have a couple hour head start on us due to their willingness to emerge from their sleeping bags and tents before it's warm outside. Crazy people.
Here at Camp 3 we'll cache our snowshoes (!), sleds and a few miscellaneous other items. Our hope in taking a heavy cache load yesterday was that we'd have a relatively easy trek to Camp 4 today, which is a full hour beyond yesterday's cache location (at 13,500). It didn't work out that way. We both agreed that our packs were at least as heavy as yesterday; probably heavier. We need to eat more to get this weight down.
13:30 - Well past the "crack of noon", and well after the slowest other team had long since disappeared over Motorcycle Hill, we started slowly making our way up. It was hot. Really hot. But the clouds sporadically covered the sun, quickly turning really hot into really cold - when considering the very slight breeze. It doesn't take much when you lack direct sunlight. I decided to chance being uncomfortably cold instead of uncomfortably hot, and stripped down to a t-shirt. I didn't regret this decision.
At the top of Motocycle Hill, where we suspected it'd be windier and shadier, it was only hotter.
We spied the Angry Irishman team (our name for this this two-woman, one-man team - the one man always looks angry) cresting Squirrel Hill. They were taking a break in the Polo Field when we arrived, and we too took a break. I had a brief moment to talk with the namesake of the Angry Irishman team, and he seemed perfectly pleasant. I can't reconcile this. We got back to the ascent before they did, and as we finished the Windy Hill climb and turned Windy Corner, they fell out of sight.
I should mention that there is one thing you can count on, on this mountain: Windy Corner will always be windy and bitterly cold. It was not. It was completely still. It was snowing slightly, falling straight down. Snowflakes would land on the hair on my arm and not melt, thus attesting to the cold ambient temperature. Still, with just a t-shirt, I was baking.
A few minutes after starting the traverse from Windy Corner towards the previous day's cache point (which will be the location of our next and final break before Camp 4), we stepped up a ridge a few feet to let some down-climbers with sleds pass by. The first climber warned us quietly, "the folks behind me have no idea what they're doing", and sure enough, I don't understand how the had lasted that long. They had a running belay along this traverse, which was totally justified given how unbalanced they appeared while dragging those sleds along the slope. It took about ten minutes for the eight of them to finally pass by. The leader of the group told me that they had not summitted because they only had a total of 16 days of time for the trip. Why bother trying?
After breaking at the 13,500 cache area, we caught up with the AAI group that we saw and passed the first day. They referred to our very casual, pace as "sprinting".
On the horizon we saw the German duo that we flew onto the glacier with us. They were a ways off, but Wes was determined to overtake them, in case there was just one camp site left. And we did over take them. And there was just one camp site available. That one "little" push to over take them saved us a couple hours of camp site construction. I call that "pulling a Mike".
18:30 - While setting up camp, I saw what appeared to be Mike, strolling by. Wes shouted his name, and he came over. We chatted briefly, but the weather report was about to start and Mike had to go re-join his RMI team.
After a quick freeze dried dinner, Mike and his assistant guide (Jeff), a ranger and someone else stopped by and we talked for an hour or so. It was good catching up.
The sun had long since set and the temperature was dropping, so we all turned in.
- Day 10: Tue May 17
- Rest at Camp 4; build walls / kitchen / crapper
10:45 - Mike had told us the previous day that the sun will hit camp around 10am. I was lying in my sleeping bag, waiting. It never happened. It was over-cast and breezy. Neither Wes nor I had any desire to seriously consider a back carry.
Wes started work on a pancake breakfast, and I started fixing up our rear wall, which would be our privacy guard while using the CMC. After breakfast and another long chat with Mike, we decided to turn the rear of the camp into the kitchen/crapper. We started digging deep. Wes grabbed the yellow tarp thing and we staked it out as the roof of the kitchen. We are keeping regular shifts, making sure no Germans move their tent into it. I'm imaging a large "this is not Poland" sign.
And speaking of which, I haven't seen that German couple (Pukilicious) in a couple of days. I hope they turned around. Somehow I wouldn't be surprised if they had already pushed up to high camp. Rumor has it that they've done high altitude climbs in Nepal, so they have probably decided this mountain is short and easy; and they'll wind up dead.
Some days ago we started hearing talk of a Mountain Trips catastrophe. It's been very hush-hush so far, which is very odd for this mountain, where gossip reigns supreme. From what I've heard, the team took a spill coming down Pig Hill wherever client broke a leg, the guide screwed up his shoulder/arm and one client was left uninjured.
The guide dug a hole for the broken-legged client, knowing that he couldn't move him down to high camp himself, and left him near the Football Field. The guide and the other client proceeded to descend to high camp to get help.
As they approached the top of Denali Pass, which is rather icy, the client fell and died. The guide continued on to high camp successfully.
There are numerous unanswered questions....
- Day 11: Wed May 18
- Back carry from 13,500 to Camp 4
10:30 - We woke up late, as usual. I guess if waking up late is usual, then we woke up on time. As usual.
Like previous nights, I slept warm up until the last few hours, and then I couldn't get warm or comfortable. It's a big relief to know that we can just change our schedule if we want to.
We had our first breakfast of granola and powdered milk. I had resisted this breakfast thus far, but I was pleasantly surprised. And supposedly it's loaded with calories. Can't beat that.
13:30 - Max and Justin (Jason?) decided to climb straight up some shoot to high camp, and a Swede decided to warm up by skiing up (and back down) the Orient Express. Amazing feats, both of them.
Wes and I suited up for our back carry. We had originally intended to do so yesterday, but we collectively agreed (without a spoken word) to not. We rested. And ate. Two of my favorite things these days.
There was a slight breeze today, but it was way nicer than yesterday. The trip down to the 13,500' cache took no time at all. And with empty packs, and going downhill, you feel like a rockstar.
Wes dug up the cache, we loaded our packs and started the slow ascent back to camp 4. This load I was hauling included tens of pounds of food and all of my warm clothes. No more chilly evenings for me.
15:00 - Max and Justin had climbed past the schrund and the Swede was sprinting up the mountain on skis. We unpacked.
We made a trek over to the ranger camp to talk to them about the 16,500' high camp on the West Rib. The ranger on staff gave us a bunch of useful information, and in short, we'll acclimatize there, but there's no chance we'll try to summit via the West Rib. It's apparently very icy and Wes only has an alpine ice tool with him. And we collectively only have two ice screws. Bummer.
As we were leaving the ranger station, I heard talk of a helicopter drop-off. I didn't think much of it at the time.
16:30 - A helicopter became evident on the horizon. It was headed towards high camp. It tried three times from three different angels to overcome the wind, but it failed. It turned around and descended to Camp 4, creating quite a breeze in the process. After landing, the ranger staff unloaded what looked like hundreds of pounds of supplies. The rangers rigged up a tow line of some sort, the helicopter lifted off and returned to high camp, this time, with a lighter load, and it succeeded. Moments later it left high camp with the body of the Italian Mountain Trip climber (I think).
I've dawned my Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero puffy pants. No cold can get to me, now. :-)
19:00 - Dinner this evening is toasted tortillas with cheese and chicken. Delicious. The Swede magically reappeared after disappearing for a while. He was descending. The attention of the bulk of the populace of Camp 4 was fixed on the Orient Express. His decent was slow at first, but he eventually flew into camp and came to a rest at the ranger station. The ranger staff appeared to stand at a respectful distance so as not to crowd this demi-god on skis.
20:00 - The weather report this evening is much the same as the past few evenings: crappy, until at least Sunday. Mike's RMI team, which we talked with, is in it for the long haul. They were shocked that we (Wes and I) would return to this mountain not just once, but twice. This is number three for both of us.
Winds tonight at Camp 4 are supposed to reach a paultry 55 mph. We've spent a little bit of time reinforcing the walls of our camp, but it isn't really necessary. On the other hand, having a wall collapse, in the middle of the night, in the midst of a storm, would, well, suck.
I charged the iPod Nano off the HyperJuice battery this evening, so I intend to fall asleep tonight while listening to TAL episodes.
23:30 - The winds are here. But Ira Glass's calming voice makes it all better. I can see the MSR decal on the tent fly appear and disappear based on the intensity of the wind. It's a little mesmerizing.
- Day 12: Thu May 19
- Rest at Camp 4
09:45 - These puffy pants are amazing. If I combined them with my parka (which is presently serving as a pillow), I could probably forego a sleeping bag entirely. It's an interesting thought. Maybe use the goretex sleeping bag cover to stay dry? Hmm.
Anyway, several times throughout the "night" (it never gets dark), I awoke WAY over heated. These puffy pants are not designed to come off with ease. The suspenders ensure they stay in place even when you would rather they not. Fortunately, they have full length side zippers, and when I unzipped them completely, and opened up the sleeping bag completely, and drank some icy water, I could finally return to sleep. These -5 (F) nights aren't what they used to be.
Wes woke up a few minutes later, and for the first time, I exited the tent first. I needed some cool air. There's a constant breeze going on, a couple inches of new powdery snow, and a lot of commotion of people reinforcing walls. Thirteen people are ascending the Head Wall to the base of the fixed lines. Good for them.
Breakfast is an art. We started out by frying half a pound of bacon. So freakin' delicious. I grabbed a couple packs of pop tarts and the stick of butter. At first we were going to just toast the pop tarts but then we decided to use the bacon fat instead of the butter. It sounded good. It tasted awful. I'm sticking with the butter in the future.
12:00 - Wes has started in on water and I walked over to the ranger station to ask about Max and Justin. Late last night we saw them cut to the left and head for some rocks. We figured they were going to hunker down for the storm. The ranger informed me that they saw two climbers descending the fixed lines late last night, and that it was probably they. I glanced around camp, but I don't remember what their tent looks like or where it was set up. If they did the full round trip to and from high camp last nigh, they're hausses.
13:30 - Max walks by and Wes and congratulates him on remaining alive. Apparently they finished the ascent, through the rocks, emptying out into high camp. They saw a group descending from Denali Pass (crazy, in this weather), and then they left high camp, descended the West Buttress, the fixed lines, the head wall, returned to their tent, consumed some ramen and water and passed out. Max has some celebrity status going on.
16:30 - We've spent most of the afternoon napping in the tent. The wind isn't terrible, but it's unrelenting. The gusts at times can be pretty bad. I've made my way through a handful of TAL episodes. I ate some more double-chocolate milanos and Oreos and raisins. It's good to have variety.
A passerby informed us the the NOAA weather report had this storm system persisting in Anchorage through Saturday and that meant one additional day here. This coincides with the weather report we've been hearing each evening (high winds and stuff through Sunday).
We've determined not to make a cache, but to make at least one acclimatization hike to 16,500. Hopefully two. It totally depends on the weather.
The pool in my neighborhood opened five days ago. I'm trying not to think about it. :-) Weather impediments aside, we only have four days left: acclimatize, move to high camp, summit, descend. Technically, we could skip the acclimatize day (I did in 2009, but I also hung out at high camp an extra day before summitting). Four days.
There's AT&T service here. Only analog through, I guess. The ranger (Dave) at the orientation made it sound like that service was disabled, but my iPad distinctly showed zero bars of AT&T. No Edge or 3G, of course. I wonder if my phone could have sent text messages. Probably not. That'd be seriously cool though.
- Day 13: Fri May 20
- Rest at Camp 4
No amazing climbs today, or rescues, or bodies being transported. Today (and all of last night) was marked by high winds and snow; we probably got a foot or more snow altogether. The high winds helped carry some of it off. A blessing and a curse.
09:45 - I filled the pee bottle over night, and I know Wes hasn't been sleeping well, and it looked like he was sleeping soundly so I held it as long as I could. I have my limits though. The wind was blowing, the sun was almost entirely obscured by clouds, and the snow drifts outside the tent were deeper than my camp booties, which made the trip to the designated pee hole a chilly endeavor as snow creeped over the edges of the booties. I emptied the bottle and then I emptied my bladder - both represented an impressive amount of liquid processing. My body is a machine.
Breakfast, which was around lunch time for normal people, was pancakes. They were great, as usual, but I'm not sure they were worth getting out of the tent and getting completely covered in snow and ice. Delicious though.
17:30 - Mostly we were in the tent today. I shoveled out camp, and then an hour later Wes re-shoveled out camp. Wind by itself isn't so bad; but when it carries snow, it just sucks.
I took a very nice (and warm) nap. Even though the wind was blowing all day, the sun managed to make an appearance and the tent very nearly dried out. It was an ice cave this morning.
20:00 - This evening has been amazing. No clouds at our elevation (lots upstairs though), bright sun, and little to no wind.
The weather report continues to claim high winds and clouds through Sunday, followed by clear skies and light winds for Monday and Tuesday.
It'd be possible to move and summit on Mon and Tue, respectively, but that wouldn't be a lot of fun. We're hoping that tomorrow or Sunday will be nice enough to allow us to run an acclimatization trip. With all the snow, it's looking less likely that we'll venture onto the upper west rib (due to avalanches). So, it's back to the headwall then. So be it.
It's bad form to start counting the days remaining so soon, but we're looking at two more tent-bound days, followed by two climbing days, and one day for the descent - for a total of sixteen days on the mountain, which would be an insanely short trip for this time of year.
- Day 14: Sat May 21
- Acclimatize at 15,300
10:00 - After a granola breakfast, we geared up and headed towards the upper west rib. We climbed to 15,300, which when viewed from back at camp hardly qualifies as an achievement. We turned around when we hit a crevasse with no obvious snow bridge. With all of the snow the past 24 hours, it wouldn't be easy to locate. Wes wanted to try jumping across, which in itself isn't that big of a risk, but I tried in vain to explain to him because we were aligned parallel to the crevasse, if he or I fell, we'd pendulum a great distance, unnecessarily. At the time I don't think he understood my concern, but later on he got it.
Last night was supposed to be stormy - high winds and all that, and yet I don't think there was any wind whatsoever. In fact the entire day was crappy until the evening and then it was perfectly calm and remained that way until this afternoon.
The winds picked up this evening. Without so much fresh snow on the ground, the wind is merely an annoyance and not so painful. Imagine the difference between a subzero fan blowing in your face vs a subzero fan with a dose of ice blowing in your face. The former almost becomes inconsequential.
The projected overnight low here at 14k camp is -5 and tomorrow's projected high is +15 (!!!). That's seriously balmy. I spent this afternoon in the sun-baked tent, lightly napping, and I think it was probably 85 - 90 degrees at times. I love that. It was difficult to stay cool. I placed my feet and arms on the tent floor, as close to the underlying ice as possible.
Summit winds on Monday are projected to be 15mph and then up to 30mph on Tuesday. We easily have enough food and fuel for another 12 to 14 days, so we're contemplating waiting until we know we'll have a larger window for summitting. Summitting in 30mph winds is not fun. And we want to have fun. We'll most likely wait until Sunday evening's weather report to make a decision.
Ever since I reacquired my puffy pants in the back carry from 13,500, I have only rarely taken them off. Sleeping at night and remaining warm is trivial. Not over heating is the greater challenge. Each night starts with fully unzipping the side zips of the puffy pants, and only sinking up to my shoulders in the sleeping bag. The biggest challenge, really, is just being comfortable enough to sleep and not needing to pee beyond the capacity of the pee bottle.
My Exped mat has formed a leak requiring daily refilling. It's really annoying to try to flip the mat over (which covers fully half the floor space of the tent), reinflate it and get all of my stuff resituated.
During consecutive stormy days I start thinking that the bulk of my purpose is to have my bladder act as a conduit between my water bottles and my pee bottle. The lemonade flavor mixture I've been using sparingly helps considerably. Water just gets so boring.
Mike, an Alpine Ascents guide who set up camp next door to us, and wisely a short distance from his clients, regularly has clients swinging by his tent yelling his name; and later, "Who knows where Mike?" and "We found his tent but there is nobody." We started yelling, "Mike is gone; go away." I think I'd seriously consider leaving them on the mountain.
- Day 15: Sun May 22
- Rest at Camp 4
Nicely timed to make it easy for me to as least partially honor the sabbath, the weather today was marginally too bad to make a move to high camp, and increasingly sucky throughout the day. We saw several teams descend from here, including Mike's Alpine Ascents team, the French duo we met on the Denali Overland ride from Anchorage to Talkeetna (who are descending after an attempted move to high camp this morning, only to turn around after they determined that their packs plus cache content was simply too heavy); and the Yeti (?) team (ie, the angry irishman), which, according to Sarah (?), was descending because one member decided he was not into mountaineering, and also something about two others. They all live in Anchorage (boring), so returning to this mountain is logistically simple for them another year.
09:00 - Possibly our earliest rising time, it was mostly calm outside, or so we thought, but that turned out to be mostly a result of the tent being covered in snow. We spent the morning shoveling snow and staring longingly at the West Buttress, which was just getting hammered by wind. More than a few teams made their move to high camp, driven by reports of decent weather for summitting on Monday and (to a lesser extent) Tuesday. That trip to high camp couldn't be any fun.
Breakfast this "morning" was the last of our pancakes and bacon. It's a fine combination. Despite the blowing snow, the direct sunlight moderately baked the tent, which served to thaw the aforementioned bacon. In later conversation with the Army Ranger group (which team is situated next door to our right), one of them complained of the smell of pancakes and bacon, "again". I heartily confessed and explained that it was the last of both, so there'd be no more such smells.
19:45 - The weather has deteriorated all day. It was almost nice in comparison, this morning. High camp and the rest of the upper mountain is completely shrouded in clouds and we can hear the wind at times. The brief breaks in the blowing snow are marked by intense calm and sunlight. I know that mere consistency wouldn't really be preferable, but maybe if just the bad weather was grouped together for a few constant hours followed by the good weather in like duration. As it is, conversation is marked by everyone suddenly turning to face the same direction (backs to the wind) while the gust blows by, and then everything resumes - until the next gust. It's convenient being able to see the gusts coming due to the snow content.
Mike Walter's team is on day 12 here at camp 4. They ran up the fixed lines with Billy's team. I'm not sure why. If they plan to move tomorrow, that's an excellent way to make sure everyone is wiped out beforehand.
The Mountain Trips client who has made an art of ice letter carving, made an obelisk today. Two weird Russians (?) posed next to it with ice tools in hand - as though getting to Camp 4 were somehow like summitting. Wes grabbed a picture of them.
- Day 16: Mon May 23
- Camp 4 to Camp 5
09:30 - Despite moderately high winds all night, this morning was bright and clear. Mike's team was already resting part way up the headwall when we first looked out of the tent. We aren't the early birds in any sense.
I broke out clean underwear, socks, shirt and beanie. Of course, it's the same old dirty me, but it feels (and smells) good to have some clean clothes on.
Breakfast was granola. Lots of it.
13:30 - It took forever to tear down camp, and the small Russian group that made camp beside us yesterday asked, in very broken English if they could move into our very well fortified camp.
Max dropped by to wish us farewell. He and Justin are planning on moving up to high camp tomorrow. He also said that they sent out tons of letters to various companies looking for sponsorships for this trip. One that they heard back from explained that they're just a small local cheese company and can't afford a cash sponsorship, but they could have thirty pounds of cheese. They got sharp cheddar. Thirty pounds of it. And they brought it all with them. We thanked Max for the offer of some cheese, but we already had enough.
We had delusions of thirty or thirty-five pound packs the previous night. That didn't work out quite as imagined. My pack was easily mid-fifties.
As we started up the headwall, and I tried not to think about the hours and hours of climbing left, it seemed impossible that we would ever arrive at high camp. The weather was amazing though, and that helped. I just had my t-shirt (my clean t-shirt!) on all the way to the top of the headwall. It was very reminiscent of the move to Camp 4.
As we ascended the fixed lines we ran into a group that was descending. What I put together was this: thirty-five days on the mountain, they went up the Muldrow. After summitting they got caught in a storm and were stranded (with all their stuff) at Denali Pass. When the weather broke (a bit) they abandoned their sleds and most of their food and made the trek down to high camp, where they got stuck again. The amount of ice clinging to their facial hair, when I saw them, was impressive. They, "just wanted off the mountain", the one guy said.
Along the buttress, nearing high camp, we spied a camp (at high camp) that was a perfect square with walls at least four feet high. It was castle looking. And way off on it's own. A lot of work went into that place. I'll have to find out who it belongs to.
19:30 - I counted some nearly seventy people ascending the fixed lines while they were in view. However, when we arrived at high camp there were no more than thirty-ish people; apparently most of those people were caching. Maybe they'll move tomorrow.
We stopped at a place to build camp where we could share an existing wall, and it turned out to be next to Mike's tent. We designed a duplex and eliminated the need for one wall, such that we only had to build two. And we got right to it. Wes leveled the area and I started sawing and shoveling at an existing, near-by quarry.
22:30 - The tent is set up, anchored and moved into. My Exped mat is doing the same crap it did near the beginning of the trip where the pump wouldn't inflate and it took like ten minutes to inflate. I need to call them and find out what's going on with it, when I get back.
The walls are built pretty high. I dug large blocks.
The weather report indicates low winds tomorrow, so despite having just moved to high camp, we might summit tomorrow. And then the trip will be over.... That's a bummer in one sense.
I'm having a freeze dried breakfast skillet for dinner. It was very difficult to eat. I stopped three times and just waited.
Time to sleep.
- Day 17: Tue May 24
- Rest at Camp 5
09:00 - Gusts of wind are hitting the tent. Shockingly, I think the weather report last night may have been inaccurate. Gasp. Today is definitely a rest day.
Mike said that the 3am weather report (?) claimed that there would be 35 mph winds tonight and 15 mph winds tomorrow. That'd make for a very decent summit day. So, today we eat, drink, pee and poo.
12:45 - Ten people in four groups are ascending the autobahn to Denali Pass. A fog is rolling in and there are visible winds at the top. Spin drifts are descending right onto the climbers. That can't be any fun. Maybe they're on a tight schedule. There's no other good reason to try to summit today.
A couple we met on the climb up the West Buttress, who set up camp next to us here, turned around and descended today because of a memorial service for a 99 year old relative; and mostly because of the flak they'd catch from some other relatives if they didn't show up. If I were on day 15 of 17 and could return just a single day late, I think I would. It can't be easy to get to high camp and then turn around when the summit is nearly in sight and only a day away.
I went over to meet the makers of the castle I saw yesterday. It turned out to be four guys from Alex's US Army Rsngers group. The rest of the group is moving up today.
14:00 - I jumped out of the tent to pee - a sign that I'm hydrating. Good for me. I witnessed a skier wiping out near the base of the autobahn. He stood up a moment later and brushed himself off. No one at camp looked particularly concerned for his well being. And I was just thinking about emptying my bladder so that I could get back to my nap.
The projected high today at high camp is -5. Be it thickening blood, numbed nerves or the intense sunlight, I had to strip down to long underwear and a t-shirt to be comfortable in the tent. It's a different story once you step outside and get hit by a thirty second gust of blowing snow.
Being situated at high camp I am simultaneously eager to see the conclusion of the trip (and the showers (plural) and shave that will immediately follow it) and sad that after one more day of climbing, I'll see no more of this landscape for at least a year. I've been thinking more and more of the 2012 West Rib trip. It's very comforting.
I tried to eat a freeze dried beef stew meal. I got through a spoonful of it before declaring it inedible. A 3 Musketeers candy bar stood in, in it's place.
Back to napping / TAL.
16:30 - No change really. Increasing winds as predicted. I'm trying to force myself to eat candy bars, peppermints, mixed nuts with chocolate, pringles. I'm probably not hitting 2,000 calories today much less the 4-6,000 I should be aiming for. Good food is heavy. Light food is bad.
Billy and company should be moving into Camp 5 today. They may already be here. I've been basking in the warmth of the tent. Back to basking.
20:30 - Billy's group pulled into camp today and constructed a very fair looking set of walls, including a crapper that is spacious in size. Mike invited us to make use of it as long as we are clean and use pee bottles. Does he think we're barbarians?
The weather report from Lisa this evening disagrees with the weather report that Mike gave us. Lisa said to expect 20 mph summit winds instead of 15. She also said to expect 25 mph winds today and they were WAY higher. Fortune cookie weather reports.
We'll wait and get an update from Mike's secret weather source tomorrow morning and make a decision. It's pretty unlikely that we'll be interested in a 2nd summit attempt if the first attempt fails. We haven't yet even cracked open our gallon container of fuel, so it's more an issue of patience than provisions.
- Day 18: Wed May 25
- Rest at High Camp
01:00 - I haven't slept at all. My mattress is flat and it's killing me. Inflating the mat really requires the participation of both people in the tent and I'd rather not do that right now.
03:00 - I folded over part of the mat to decrease the volume of the mat and, besides making the mat shorter, it did increase the air pressure enough that I could sleep-ish.
Until Mike woke up Jeff. I guess they're going for the summit today. I'm glad I'm not in that guided group. They just fired up their stoves. I guess Mike's secret 3am weather report had something good to say.
I should have used the CMC last night. I haven't used it since the morning we left 14k camp. I haven't been drinking much this night as a result and I have a serious headache. Great.
09:00 - Wes poked his head out the door and reported the autobahn is shrouded in clouds and we're seeing some pretty decent gusts of wind. Going back to sleep ... just as soon as I use the CMC so that I can start drinking in earnest and get rid of this headache.
12:45 - Time to wake up, I guess. The headache is gone. Wes jumped out to get more snow for water and I got the mat reinflated. The gusts of wind persist. Maybe Mike and his team are above the weather we're seeing.
18:30 - I persevered and managed to stay in the tent all day except for a couple pee bottle emptying needs.
Mike's team returned exactly twelve hours after they departed. The clients looked wiped, Jeff got his first summit, and Mike looked bored as he sauntered into camp (for his eighth summit?) at the end of the rope team.
20:00 - Lisa read off the same weather report, again. We're looking at 20 mph summit winds tomorrow and mild weather the following couple of days (as we descend), and snow on Sunday (and we intend to be in Talkeetna well before then).
So, we're planning on heading up by 10 am tomorrow morning, and we'll hopefully be back by 8pm with a couple hours of sunlight remaining. Billy and his group intend to summit tomorrow as well.
- Day 19: Thu May 26
- Rest at High Camp
02:00 - A rescue is in progress. Someone saw a team fall from the top of the autobahn (~1,500 feet) shortly ago. The very top. High camp is partially populated by one team of a dozen or so men of Dutch military, German military, US PJs and some other; and another team consisting entirely of US Army Rangers.
Within minutes of the first call for a rescue, a small team set out down into the bowl where the fallen team of four had come to a rest - tangled up completely in their rope. Meanwhile, other teams prepared and departed similarly. One guy found that his overboots didn't fit his boots and he was encouraged to remain behind and make water. That's gotta sting.
Camp became very quiet for a while.
05:45 - A rescue helicopter just departed from high camp. The two dead team members (a woman who was the Alpine Ascents guide and a client) were left below the autobahn. A severely injured man (head, neck and spine trauma), and an uninjured (!) man were brought back to camp.
How often does one get into a jam and find 20+ military personnel staged minutes away, intending to train in high altitude mountain warfare and rescue? Damn lucky for the two survivors.
Counting these two deaths (and probably a third, if the injured man hasn't already died, as the rescuers expect him to), there have been at least four deaths on this stretch of the mountain since we arrived. And a broken leg.
Time to try to get some more sleep.
10:00 - Wes has declared this our summit day.
11:00 - Wes has declared this no longer our summit day. He also said something mean about Lisa and her weather reports that I don't care to repeat.
13:30 - Mike, Jeff and team, which summitted yesterday are packing up for the descent today. The wind here is gnarly. I'm not the least bit jealous.
They've unloaded a fair bit of food on us - including a bagel, salami, beef jerky, life savers, cup-o-noodles, lots of Gu, and other stuff. This additional food will supplement our ample fuel supply very nicely. Wes was becoming worried I think. So, now we have supplies adequate to hang around a few more days while waiting for that elusive summit day weather window.
Meanwhile, my iPod nano is running on it's last leg. I don't know what to do. I guess there's really nothing that can be done.
I need to use the CMC. It's windy outside though. I can wait.
20:10 - Let's see; what has happened this afternoon? Mostly I baked in the tent. Ate. Drank. Managed to use the CMC very successfully. Very successfulky. Chowed down on a Snickers (how do people eat these things regularly?). I day dreamed of Talkeetna having a barber that does straight edge razor shaves (they don't have any barber at all).
I got some clarification on the accident that occurred around the time we flew onto the glacier: a Mountain Trips team of at least three took a spill descending Pig Hill (shortly below the summit). One client broke a leg; the guide injured his arm or shoulder or something. They dug a small shelter for the broken-legged client and then the guide and the other client continued their descent towards high camp. Shortly above the autobahn, on the ice slopes, the other client took a spill and died. The guide managed to make it to high camp without further injury. The broken legged client was subsequently rescued and may have lost his feet and hands to frost bite. I'm reminded of the Mountain Trips team in 2009 that had a client die of "natural causes" (a heart attack) after they climbed well above the obvious limit of the client. I think the National Park Service needs to publish mortality and injury statistics on a per guide organization basis.
Lisa's weather report has changed slightly from her script the past couple weeks: 15 mph summit winds, continued high pressure over the mountain (?!), mostly sunny for the next few days (which is good for our descent) and a chance of snow on Monday evening.
I listened in on Billy's conversation with Brent Okita. Billy intends to summit tomorrow. That's a good sign for our summit attempt. Billy I'd fairly conservative despite having been trained by Mike, who is a but bolder when it comes to summit weather.
Time to have some freeze dried garlic mashed potatoes, finish the 2nd half of this Snickers and try to get some sleep. Summit day tomorrow?
- Day 20: Fri May 27
- Summit Day
08:15 - Wes has got the stove going and snow melting. There's a light breeze, clear skies; it's definitely a summit day.
10:30 - We're on the road. There are at least a few teams above us on the autobahn leading up to Denali Pass, including Billy's team of six. I've got my mitts on, as is recommended when climbing into the shadow of Denali Pass, but not my parka. There's an occasional breeze, but otherwise it's very still. This is the first time Wes or I have climbed the new route defined by the rangers. It's way steep. I don't understand why they changed it. I suppose that was one of those details they went over during orientation that I didn't pay attention to due to the frost bite pictures.
12:30 - Despite the lung pounding nature of the ascent from high camp to Denali Pass, we are slowed down by a couple of groups, including one oriental duo, on their way down, for whom we step high off the trail to let them pass and they sort of take a break while not yet having passed us. It's not like I have plans for the strength in my legs today....
Unlike the ascent to Denali pass, once on top of the pass, it is rather windy. Probably 25 mph. Lisa claimed 10 - 15 mph winds today. Thanks Lisa. We take our first break of the day while getting hammered by wind that seems to come from every direction.
We run into a Japanese (?) team of four or five, who, after a failed summit attempt from high camp some days ago, returned to 14k camp, found this weather window, and decided to try to summit from 14k. Bold. They look strong though. I bet they'll make it even though it's a 6,000'+ ascent followed by the same descent.
Xx:xx - Our second break. Wes doesn't care for stopping periodically, so I really needed this one. We've been accosted by winds ever since our first break. My face feels so-so, which is good, because I don't want to stop and put on goggles and all that. Memories of Jerry flash through my mind.
I break off a section of a frozen 3 Musketeers candy bar. Mmm. Not so mmm, actually.
At this break, I break out my parka for the first time during the trip. It is warm, of course, but it's completely impossible to do anything while wearing it.
A team of three pulls up along side us and the third guy on the rope proceeds to yark, and again, and again. And them there's some spitting. Not good. He forms an impressive pile of puke in the snow and ice. I fully expect to see him take a break and then continue on up, like a moron.
This other team which includes the gabbiest woman you've ever seen is on their way down, and, well, she starts to gab with everyone taking a break here - the Japs summitting from 14k, Team Yark, etc. In a fit of wisdom rarely seem, the namesake of Team Yark clips into Team Gabby's rope and heads down. Amazing. One life spared today.
Xx:xx - The football field. It is calm as always. I can see the trail up Pig Hill and line of folks ascending and descending the summit ridge. It doesn't look like an 1,100 foot ascent from here, but I know it'll feel like one. Or more.
Having ingested half a candy bar and some water, we pack up and get in line to ascend Pig Hill - a line brought about by yet another new route definition by the rangers, and it now includes a single section of fixed lines over the steeper part. They could just switch-back the route as in previous years, thereby making it less steep, right? I don't understand their thinking.
Team Yark is right behind me, and we start talking. It is a private Mountain Trip team with two guides and a single client. After finishing Denali, the client need only do Elbrus to complete his Seven Summits. Pretty impressive. What's also impressive is that the client is wearing a full down suit. I'd be dying in there of heat exhaustion.
The traverse across the summit ridge is just as amazing as I remember it from 2008 and 2009; definitely the best part of the whole climb.
There are maybe ten people hanging out on the summit when we finaly arrive. On the summit proper (the very highest point), I have Wes take a picture of me with the g-form case and another with the iPad. Someone else takes a picture of us. I take a couple standard summit shots of Wes and then we move down a few feet so someone else can take pictures.
Wes pulls out his sat phone (excellent service up here as one might expect considering the unobstructed nature of our location) and calls his wife and parents (in that order). I take the opportunity to call Aimee, but she never answers calls from numbers she doesn't recognize, so I leave a voicemail. I hope she is happy with herself; once in a freakin' lifetime phone call and she let's it go to voicemail. Uggh.
After about 15 minutes on the summit, we start the descent. There's no wind, bright sun light, and the visible clouds are thousands of feet below us. Still, a safe descent is a slow descent. Most everyone who gets hurt on this mountain does so during the descent. I set a very deliberate and steady pace.
We stop in the football field for more food and water. My water is freezing over. My thoughts turn to my iPad. I hope this abuse is forgiven of me.
Sadly, the descent isn't all a descent. You have to climb something less than a hundred feet to get out of the football field. It's not much but it still sucks.
We've been right behind a three-man Mountain Trip team since Pig Hill, where the front most client managed to take a small spill that was arrested by the guide, in the back. At the top of the autobahn we take a break. We're ready to go moments before the Mountain Trip team, and the guide gestures for us to go first.
Before leaving, Wes gives me all of our biners in case some biners are missing from the pickets. A lot are missing. I place biners, Wes cleans them. Clockwork. Until ... the Mountain Trip team starts yelling at us, from a distance, about stealing their biners ... which makes perfect sense, because who wouldn't want to carry extra weight down the autobahn?
We try to explain, yelling back at them, that we're doing no such thing, but that we'll leave our biners in place for them, if they'll clean them on the way down. We might not have enough to make it all the way down. We try yelling this. I'm not sure we're getting through.
A few minutes and a few anchors later, a group way in front of us yells, "look behind you!" I spin around and see two of the three in the Mountain Trip team dangling off the autobahn in pretty much the same location the Alpine Ascent team "bought-it" just a few days before. I point it out to Wes, and we start a rapid ascent back up. The guide is perched on the trail, holding the clients up. Both of the clients are in arrest position, below him.
By the time we get to him, the 7-summits Mountain Trip team has descended to him, and the perched guide encourages us to "go down and take our biners with us." Yeah, he is blaming the lack of biners on us, and the fall on the lack of biners. Awesome. We explain we have prusiks, pickets, etc., and can assist. He says the same thing again and the other guide starts setting up an anchor. They ask the two clients to climb up several feet so they can put then on belay, and then their gradual ascent begins. We hang around until we're sure everything looks good and then start our descent all over again. The sun has set. It's getting dark. Thankfully there's no wind. Perfect weather really.
After unpacking our gear and marveling in the feel of walking around without a pack, boots or crampons (it's like floating), Wes takes our collective left-over water (about a liter and a half) and warms it up. We mix it with cup-o-noodles and crash. Way dehydrated. But that's a problem for tomorrow.
- Day 21: Sat May 28
- Camp 5 to Camp 3
09:00 - Wes wakes up, by alarm, and calls his wife. Maybe this is why I'm not married, but I wouldn't have done this.
11:00 - We wake up again. The tent has no ice build up. I'm guessing that has something to do with a complete lack of proper hydration on our part. So, I guess there is one benefit to that.
I'm looking forward to being down from high camp, but the amount of walking is a bit daunting.
15:30 - We're on our way down from high camp (which actually starts with going up), and as fate would have it, we're immediately behind Adam's Mountain Trip group - the same group of three that peeled off of the autobahn right behind us yesterday and refused our help. And accused us of stealing their biners.
There's a heavy whiteout which has been increasing from this morning's blue skies. The air is nearly perfectly still and snow flakes are sticking to my arms. Yeah, I'm wearing a t-shirt while descending from high camp. This doesn't make any sense, but cold I am not. This weather is weird.
The first time we come to a stop behind Adam, he asks me with all the self-righteousness entitled to a "guide" who nearly killed his entire team to save face could possibly muster, "are you planning on stealing our biners again?" I barely answer him and we pass him on the far side of Washburn's thumb and don't see him again for the rest of the trip. Good riddance.
The remainder of the trek down the Buttress is uneventful. The snow pack, weather and crowds are all in our favor. We descend the fixed lines after a brief stop at the top of the headwall; no one else is on the fixed lines, which is a rare treat. I stow the ice tool and grab trekking poles for the slog down and through the snow to 14k camp, which is now considerably larger than it was when we last saw it.
After finding a couple landmarks we're able to locate our old camp and our cache. Or camp is occupied and they've maintained our kitchen - food on the shelves, a stove on the counter. No tarp roof though.
Wes digs up the cache and we start the tedious process of sorting through these things we chose to leave behind - extra food to give away, food for the down climb, garbage to haul down, camp booties (how I've missed them; these socks are really starting to smell), .... Our packs are already really heavy and we have so much more crap from this cache to add to the load.
With the food sorted, we proceed to walk around camp, pimping these free calories. The first group we come to, a group of two, has only been at 14k for an hour, has not yet retrieved their 13,500 cache, and takes nearly half the food. Another four or five stops and our bags of undesirable food are nearly empty.
The CMC, however, is very, very full.
I've binered and strapped and tied a duffel bag to the back of my pack along with the tent. This weight far exceeds the designed comfort level of this Mountain Hardwear South Col pack. We only have to deal with it from here to Camp 3, at which point we can retrieve our sleds and only a little more weight. In the mean time, we stop just a few minutes outside of Camp 4 and chuck the CMC bags into their final, peaceful, and calm resting place. That's not a crevasse anyone should hope to fall into.
20:30 - Its a perfect day for a descent. It always is. Since the weather below is often better than the weather above, I guess it always seems to be a good day for a descent.
We cruise by the 13,500 cache. That was a long time ago.
The traverse around the bend to Windy Corner is so stepped out that it resembles a narrow sidewalk. Even those retards who couldn't manage their sleds and had the awkward running belay would feel secure here. I'm more concerned with the landscape, which I'm quickly leaving behind, than I am my footing. This is crazy.
Windy Corner is perfectly calm. Of course. Thick clouds wait for us below. The stepped in path from hundreds of other climbers descends Windy Hill and abruptly disappears into the clouds. Complete whiteout.
It's not easy to navigate the Polo Fields even with the crampon marks and occasional wands. The ground is white. The sky is white. The air seems white. Everything around us is white. It's hard to say what visibility is because there's nothing to be seen. We trod on.
Eventually the casual trodding turns steep as we approach Squirrel Hill, but with all of the recent snow, the once icy steps are now packed snow, and the ice tool I'm holding now, instead of a 2nd trekking pole proves unnecessary. Unlike Windy Hill and Motorcycle Hill, from which a fall would, beyond scaring you, just land you at your desired destination a bit faster, Squirrel Hill slopes away from your destination, away from camp, and away from everyone. And in a whiteout, one could expect to be unseen for a long time. I miss the 2nd trekking pole, but it's nice to know that I wouldn't fall far.
Squirell Hill and Motorcycle Hill go by fast. There's a cigarette butt at the top of Motorcycle Hill and a small pile of ash. Stupid. I've seen more smokers on this one trip than in both previous years combined. Far more in fact. The US Army Rangers guy, Alex, was more often smoking than not. He hand rolled his own cigarettes though, and this one was clearly store bought.
22:00 - Camp 3 is smaller than Camp 4, but it has changed more. And the average age of climber is way younger than when we were last here. There's a kid wearing knee pads. Why? He complains to us that his friends suggested a single carry from Camp 1 to Camp 3 (which he also wanted), but now they're not feeling well. Waiting around and just enjoying the place doesn't occur to him, and he thinks the trip is pretty much over. He has 20+ days of food and they probably won't touch even 7 due to an inability to be patient and wait until the team is ready to move.
We eventually find our cache with the help of the GPS. Or old camp is completely run down. Our sleds are lying down on top of the cache, and our snow shoes are still buried. Someone dug up the sleds and then set them back? I don't get it.
23:30 - One of the few food items I hauled down from Camp 4 is nearly a pound of smoked Alaskan salmon. It accounts for around 1,500 very tasty calories. After Wes has topped off our water, we thaw the salmon and mix it in with some oriental flavored ramen. The combination of the fish, ramen and heat from the water is thoroughly rejuvenating. I'm still hesitant to commit to walking all the way back to base camp tonight, but it doesn't seem entirely out of the question now.
- Day 22: Sun May 29
- Camp 3 to Base Camp to Talkeetna
01:30 - It had briefly started to snow while we were eating, and our fine, fine meal was consumed from under the protective covering of Wes' tarp, held up by our trekking poles. It was a simple but effective shelter, and with the stove running, it was noticeably a few degrees warmer than the outside air.
The ground was hard and icy, and I was looking forward to avoiding snowshoes, so I stuck with my crampons, for which it seemed these ground conditions were designed. You can't just wear boots coming out of Camp 3 because the descent is too steep. I tried that last year and fell on my butt within a few steps. Managing the weight of a pack and a sled on a slope requires some stepping grip, it seems.
We quickly descended past our 10k cache location and down to Camp 2. It seemed impossibly quick and I wonder why people bother setting up camp here, especially considering how frequently it gets blasted with wind.
03:30 - A few hills later and Camp 1 is in sight. Considering that June is nearly here, night time is nearly as bright as day time when you consider that you aren't weaing sunglasses. The glow from the sun can be seen beyond the mountain ridges behind us.
My throat is seriously dry when we come to a stop just on the close side of Camp 1. Climbers can be seen ascending to Camp 1 from base camp They obviously don't want to get baked on the glacier. Smart. It requires some will power to get up and pack up in the middle of the night.
I power down some M&M's, frozen raisins and finish off one liter of water, with one remaining. And like five miles remaining. The slog to base camp begins. We don't even discuss the possibility of setting up camp. The weather is perfect. We feel good. And this near t-shirt weather is far preferable to being cooked by the sun.
07:30 - The final left turn to Heartbreak Hill comes sooner than expected. A full turn sooner. It must be the ground conditions. It's like a sidewalk of hard ice, which is just rough enough for boots. It's difficult not to start picking up the pace, but hard double-boots and long distances were not made for each other, and I'm entertaining thoughts of returning to Talkeetna without any serious foot damage. This'll be a first.
08:02 - We're here and it's all done. Lisa is gone (back to Talkeetna for a shower?), and some other lady has taken her place. The US Army Rangers hauled it down to base camp the day before, arriving at 20:47, missing the window to fly out by forty-seven minutes. They're tearing down camp. They had to sleep here last night as a result. I'm surprised to see that Alex isn't smoking. He's always smoking.
I drop my pack and the rope and head straight for the lady with the important looking clipboard and annouce, "Curtis Jones. Big Test Icicles. Two people. Sheldon Air. Ready to go. What else should I tell you?" A few minutes later she informs us that Dave (of Sheldon Air) will be in the air shortly. In the mean time, we weigh our bags, estimate our own weight and sum these numbers on a not very official looking scrap of paper. 419. That's some seventy pounds of food and twenty four pounds of fuel lighter than when we started. And we weigh a little less ourselves, too.
09:15 - We're in the air. The Rangers are still standing there. I resist the urge to wave. Not much more than an hour after we pull into camp, we're flying away from camp. They'd been stuck there for thirteen hours. Sheldon Air, ftw. K2 and TAT had long lines. I don't understand that, either. They'd been waiting since the night before, and either airline could potentially have landed right at 8am. The underdog was seriously working in our favor this time. Dave rocks.
I fall asleep on the duffel bag which is on the seat beside me as we clear the mountain range and start flying over the tundra. I knew I'd only be able to sleep for a short while, but the minutes are important when you've been awake and climbing since the morning of the day before.
10:00 - Back in Talkeetna, Lisa hands me the ziplock bag containing our phones and wallets. Our "valuables", they called them, when asking for them before the trip. My iPad was with me the whole time though, and my laptop was stored in their attic, along with everything else I didn't bring, in a duffel bag. It's an arbitrary distinction based only on size.
Due to our early-morning return time, there's not yet any room in the 7 Trees hostel. Lisa asks us if we'd care to have breakfast first. I heartily decline. Shower first. Nothing else. Just a shower. I don't care if I never eat again. I have my grocery bag of clean clothes and toiletries in-hand. I can feel the stuff on my teeth. I don't understand why the lack of a room at the hostel is a relevant detail when the showers are separate from the rooms. Whatever. After a couple quick phone calls, we're set up with bunks at the Roadhouse and access to their showers, which you can apparently buy for just a few dollars (showers, that is).
You know how showering in a new location is always slightly awkward? Combine that with simply being out of practice when it comes to showering, and there I am. I nearly step in the shower three times before backing up, throwing on the stinky clothes, walking back past the large family eating lunch, back to the bunk room, and returning with some other article - a razor, a wash cloth, a towel. Fortunately, the shampoo and soap come from dispensers in the shower, otherwise there would have been two other trips, both causing a brief but memorable waft of "ripe" air to wash over that one family's lunch. I try not to take delight in that thought. I don't have anything against them. The location of a shower on one side of that dining room and the bunk on the other is amusing though.
It takes a lot of effort, but my razor finally prevails in liberating my face from three weeks of unnecessary callory expenditure in the form of facial hair growth. What a waste. I stopped half way in the shaving process and rinsed out my hair and threw in another load of shampoo. Once is definitely not enough. Twice just sort of gets the grime out.
11:00 - The Roadhouse restaurant is packed. We take the final two seats, which are rocking chairs out front. They're chained to the wall, so my first attempt to move the seats to the table fail and we end up moving the table to the seats, which conveniently enough isn't chained to anything.
One's first meal back in Talkeetna is very important, which makes the lack of attentiveness of our waiter severely annoying. We're actually looking at our breakfast some forty-five minutes later. He only drops by again to deliver the check at which point Wes also orders desert. Another twenty minutes of waiting.
We use the extra time to change flight itineraries and make hotel reservations in Anchorage. Delta's customer reps answer my call and address me by name when I use my FF number and the special medallion phone number. It's an easy trick, but the little details count a lot.
12:30 - We're a lot closer to the ranger station than the air field, so we swing by the ranger station first to "check out". Yes, we summitted. No, we didn't get hurt. Yes, we saw some problem spots - some garbage, the cigarettes. Yes, we left some gear behind because of Adam Smith with Mountain Trip, who apparently decided not to clean those biners for us and return them to us. The ranger board shows 55 successful summits and some 6xx people on the mountain right now out of nearly 1,200 registrations. 34 percent summit success. I think that's low even for early season climbing.
An older, tourist couple asks us if we climbed McKinley. I always manage to work in the fact that it was a 3rd time for us. "What was it like?" "Pretty much the same as the last two times." It doesn't answer their question at all, I know. They take pictures of us and jot down our names, impressed with our three-time feat.
13:00 - We each have two large duffel bags and a back pack at the Sheldon Air hangar, in need of repacking in preparation for tomorrow's departure. We fill a garbage can with wrappers, zip locks and uneaten food. Wes declines all of my offers of baggies of raisins, M&M's, protein bars, etc. Once valuable food is now "gross".
14:00 - We finally have room arrangements at 7 Trees and Jaque gives us a ride over there after we say hi to Billy over at RMI's new airline partner. Wes has the CMC, all bagged up.
After settling into the Aspen room at the hostel, the same room we stayed in the front end of the trip, we walk over to the rangers again, this time delivering the CMC into the caged area outside, and we go inside so that Wes can wash his hands. It's the thought that counts when touching anything that touches the CMC. There's a video playing inside about McKinley.
Wes wants to do some gift shopping for his nieces and nephews. I want some pizza. We part ways, I realize, for the first time in three weeks.
Mountain High Pizza is bustling, but there's plenty of seating. They hand me a menu and tell me to sit anywhere. That's the way it works pretty much every where in Talkeetna.
There are several kids playing some variant of horse shoes that involves buckets sitting in a hoola hoop and small bags filled with sand. Restaurants here are a little different than other places.
Thirty minutes later my head is resting in my arms. I can't stay awake. I'm thirsty but no waiter has been by to take a drink order, or my pizza order for that matter. I call it quits and walk out. Thankfully, the hostel is next door. During that thirty second walk, I cross paths with Wes and I explain that the restaurant has exceeded their capacity to serve people and that I'm going to sleep.
Back in the Aspen room, I crank the window open all the way. I can hear the kids next door still playing. This window looks down on where I had just been sitting. I lie down in bed and drift to sleep almost immediately. Precious sleep.
18:00 - Wes' booming voice announces, "it's so hot in here. I don't see how you can sleep." And yet I was. So very asleep. And thank you for waking me up and pointing out the heat. He keeps on talking and doesn't stop. Apparently my fate is to go eat now. I give in. If he hadn't shown up for another ten hours, I probably still wouldn't have caught up on sleep.
We each have some quarter slices of pizza and some wine. I stop by the Roadhouse, across the street, to secure some cobbler and ice cream. There is a fresh black berry pie instead. It won't be cool for an hour. I return in an hour. It won't be cool for another hour. It obviously wasn't meant to be. I head back to the hostel for the night. We determine to wake up at 7am and get breakfast before meeting up with Bill of Denali Overland who is going to drive us back to Anchorage at 8am.
- Day 23: Mon May 30
- Talkeetna to Anchorage
07:00 - When the alarm starts blaring it's difficult to choose breakfast over another hour of sleep, but we do; a Standard Half breakfast with orange juice. Wes just gets a giant pastry of some sort.
There's a trio of people sitting near us. They keep glancing our way. Finally one lady announces that the iPad case I'm toting (by G-Form) is a design by her material science professor and that she had not yet actually seen one in public. I explain how I had come across it. She took a picture (of me and it) and that was that. Her social demeanor made it obvious that she was an engineer.
Outside, Bill was waiting for us. We grabbed our bags from the hostel, got a ride over to the Sheldon Air hangar and then to various other places as various other people loaded in along with their heavy baggage.
And then it was off to Anchorage and the Historic Anchorage Hotel for me and Wes.
Shortly thereafter we flew home and the trip was concluded.
The pictures are here.