October 21, 2010

Denali V3.0 - 12 Days at 14K

Day 5
We spent our fifth day on the mountain and first day at 14K actively acclimating.  And by actively acclimating, I mean sitting around, eating, drinking, and sleeping.  We did go on a short, flat ski over to the Edge of the World and back.  The Edge of the World is simply the abrupt transition from the flat basin that contains Basin Camp to the steep ruggedness that is most of the mountain.

The Edge of the World
After enjoying the views for a while, we realized we could see Camp I down at 7,800 feet, 6,300 feet almost directly beneath us.

View of Foraker and the Kahiltna Glacier from The Edge of the World
We also spent part of this day familiarizing ourselves with Basin Camp.  There were close to 150 people here for the entirety of our stay at 14K, including a simi-permanent National Park Service ranger camp.  As far as I could tell, the purpose of the ranger presence is to help ensure that climbers are following the rules (mainly waste disposal related), maintain the shitters, and coordinate rescues.  They also post a weather report every day, which is highly unreliable at best, but nonetheless nice to have.

Weather Board

One of two shitters (note that there's a high traffic trail right about where this picture is taken from).  Modesty has no place here.
Our plan for the next day was to head up the West Rib a ways and scout the route we hoped to take to the summit.  Fresh snow and a little weather changed our plans.

Day 6
Instead of heading right out of camp toward the West Rib, we opted to ski left toward the fixed lines that mark the standard route up the mountain, the West Buttress.  We went up the fixed lines to 16,200 feet where the ridge of the West Buttress is officially gained, then hiked along the ridge to 17,200 feet where most parties climbing the West Buttress route set up their final camp before making a summit attempt.  From here, the Rescue Gully leads straight down to Basin Camp in a short, steep, 3,000 foot drop.  We figured this would be a good trial run for the lines of the Messner Couloir and the Oreint Express that we hoped to ski down from near the summit later in the trip.

Skinning up to the base of the fixed lines on the West Buttress route

Looking at 14K from the base of the fixed lines, Mt. Hunter in the background
Dane leading the ridge from 16,2 to 17,2
The ridge from 16,200' to 17,200' is by far the neatest part of the West Buttress route.  It's the only stretch that feels more like climbing than hiking and the feeling of walking on a sidewalk dissipates.  The guided parties have placed and left protection along this stretch, which was nice to clip into on the way up but not entirely necessary.

Looking down the ridge at about 16,800'
We learned a lot by skiing the Rescue Gully.  First, the steepness at the top emphasized the seriousness of skiing the bigger lines above 14K.  Second, the spots that looked like blue ice from Basin Camp really were blue ice and impossible to hold an edge on.  We received good reports from parties who had recently climbed the gully regarding a lack of blue ice that was so prevalent on the rest of the visible aspects from 14K.  This turned out to be mostly true, with a couple of exceptions.

The top of Rescue Gully (picture taken on day 14)
Long story short, our experience on a 3,000' descent with very little blue ice caused us to reevaluate our ambitions for skiing either of the two main lines off the summit plateau, which would be 5,000' descents with substantially more blue ice.  Overall, it was a fun acclimatization day with some exciting skiing that I don't regret doing.

Day 7
Our seventh day on the mountain consisted of a scouting/acclimatization trip to 16,200 feet on the West Rib and setting up our cook tent.  Clouds moved in when we were about half way up to the rib, making the scouting trip almost useless.  Once we gained the rib, the visibility ranged from none to mediocre.  During one of the mediocre times we were able to make out the first part of the climb on the ridge proper, which we decided was good enough for our scouting purposes.  We proceeded to ski down most of the way to camp in a whiteout, which we referred to as braille skiing since we were forced to feel our way down via our skin track because everything else was equally white.  Finally, about 700 vertical feet before reaching camp, the clouds lifted to provide us with several turns of amazing powder!

Route from 14K to the Upper West Rib on the skyline
Upon returning to camp, all the clouds lifted, revealing our pathetic ski tracks.  It was obvious looking at our tracks where we became able to see.  We spent the remainder of the day setting up our cook tent and building protective walls with snow blocks around it.  For the rest of our stay at 14K we would have a relatively warm and windless place to cook our meals.

Setting up the cook tent
Day 8
We'd yet to have a full rest day where we didn't do anything active, and Dane was fairly insistent that we do this.  Thinking we might make a summit attempt the following day, we rested, ate, drank, and did a little work fortifying the walls for out cook tent.

Rest Day
We had heard conflicting weather reports from two equally unreliable sources about the next couple of days.  We were trying to remain optimistic about the weather, but the lenticular cloud sitting on top of the mountain that evening made this difficult.  We felt that we were now acclimated well enough to reach the summit, but we would also need some cooperation from the weather gods.

Day 9
When our alarm went off at 3:00 am, we looked outside our tent to find clouds engulfing the Upper West Rib.  We opted to sleep in as we had many days of food left to wait for a more ideal weather window.  We skied halfway up to the West Rib to get our legs moving once again and had yet another braille ski down for about 1,200 vertical feet.

Switching into downhill mode in the whiteout
That evening, the updated weather forecast for the following day looked much more promising.

Day 10
Similar to the day before, we set our alarms for 4:00 am.  Upon looking out of the tent, we saw clear skies in most directions with the exception of the West Rib, our intended summit route.  I convinced Dane that this was similar to the weather the previous day where it just got nicer all day long, so we started preparing to make our move.  By 5:45 we were kicking steps in ankle to shin deep snow towards the West Rib.  We didn't bring skis as we had previously decided not to attempt a summit ski descent, and we would be descending the West Buttress, thereby not passing by our stashed skis had we chosen to approach with them.

Looking toward the West Rib from camp in the early morning of Day 10
The farther we went, the deeper the snow got.  Wallowing our way up to the West Rib made us appreciate how much easier all our traveling on skis had been.  We took turns breaking trail / kicking steps in about 1 hour cycles for the majority of the day.  The ridge was breezy when we reached it, and the sun had not yet hit so things got cold fast.  For the first time all trip, I put on my super warm mittens, which I found to be extremely warm and extremely difficult to function in.  After adding some layers, Dane took the lead as we began up the most technical (only technical) part of the climb from about 16,200' to 17,000'.  The views during this section were beautiful and often airy.

Dane leading up after gaining the West Rib

Looking down after climbing a couple hundred feet up the ridge
After this fun bit, we proceeded to wallow another 2,500' to gain the summit plateau, the top of the Upper West Rib route, where we joined the West Buttress route at an area known as the football field.  Wallowing from 17,000' to 19,500' up 40 to 45 degree snow was exhausting to say the least.  It took us just over 13 hours to reach this point, making it 7:00 pm.

We spent an hour huddling in the inescapable wind and cold on the football field, trying to eat and drink enough to recover from our previous 13 hour ascent.  We weren't sure when we reached the football field if we would continue to the summit or immediately descend the standard route 5,300' back to camp.  After eating, drinking, and assessing the route and our situation, I decided I felt good enough to make the summit, 800' above us, and still have enough reserves to make it back to our camp at 14K.  Dane, having less of a peak bagging drive than me, decided he'd rather go down.  Since we were now on the main route, traveling solo seemed prudent enough, so I went up while Dane went down, with the intentions of stopping when he got out of the wind so we could continue the descent together once I caught up to him.

Classic arms length summit shot

At 9:15 pm on May 30th, I stood on the summit of Denali at 20,320'.  I was all alone and for probably the first and only time on the entire trip, I couldn't see a single other person.  I took a few pictures but didn't waste too much time as it was already late and I knew Dane was huddled in the cold somewhere waiting for me.

View from the top of North America

Proof that I really was there
I had taken three Advil after gaining the West Rib at about 16,500', which seemed to keep altitude sickness at bay.  This is not to say that I didn't feel any effects of altitude, or perhaps altitude combined with exhaustion.  As I neared the summit, my level of apparent tiredness receded.  I was stoked to finally be at the summit, knowing that it was all downhill from here.

This next bit will sound overly dramatic and cliche, but I'll try to explain what I was feeling anyway.  On the way down, I remember feeling like there was a separation between my mind and body.  Like my mind knew exactly what I needed to do (get down the mountain to my sleeping bag), and it forced my body to comply with its wishes.  Like my body cared that I was really tired but my mind was unsympathetic.  I'm not sure how else to better describe it, but after descending about 1,000 feet from the summit, as my summit "high" wore off, this is how I felt the rest of the way down.

I met up with Dane at Denali Pass (18,200') on the West Buttress route.  The route was very well wanded, easy to follow, and non-technical.  When I found him, he was wearing all of his clothes and curled in a ball like an Alaskan sled dog, sound asleep.  Unable to escape the wind, he had just curled up behind a small rock and let the spindrift blow in around him.  When I woke him, he cleared the snow that had accumulated between his eyes and his glacier glasses and we descended together.

We made good time on the way down until we got to the base of the fixed lines, only about 1,200 feet above camp.  At this point, I was so tired I could only walk for a few minutes before needing to rest.  I remember counting 100 steps, resting, and repeating.  Dane wasn't moving a whole lot faster.  We ended up reaching Basin Camp at 1:30 am, just under 20 hours after leaving.  Although we experienced nice weather the whole time we were gone, we found the tent covered in 8 inches of snow when we returned.  I'd never before experienced fatigue like this.  I needed food, water, and sleep.  Sleep won, as I promptly crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out.  I think Dane managed to eat something before joining me.

Day 11
So excited for a rest day!  Dane could not resist the urge to ski the fresh powder that accumulated during the previous day, so he went up toward the West Rib and got a few turns in.  I was still too tired to join him and my legs too sore.

Celebratory whiskey and cards - what rest days are all about
Day 12
The last rest day felt so good, we decided to have another to celebrate the first day of June.  It snowed off and on all day, but we still went out for a short ski toward the fixed lines.  It was good to get the legs moving again, and I felt better than I thought I would.

Day 13
Best powder day of the trip!  We skied two laps for a total of about 3,000 feet up toward the fixed lines and my legs felt great.  The morning was noticeably colder than previous mornings, which probably just made the powder that much better.  Dane is feeling good and has decided he might regret returning home without tagging the summit.  The weather looks good for tomorrow, so we set the alarm for another early start.

Good morning Dane.  Your cheesy fried bagel with sausage fried in bacon grease is ready.

Yes, we ate well.  In true NOLS fashion, we alternated cooking on a dinner-breakfast schedule so we always cooked two meals in a row but never two in the same day.  The bacon grease made everyone downwind from us jealous.

Dane shredding the gnar

Me, almost needing a snorkel
Day 14
I got up around 7:00 to make Dane a hearty breakfast before he made a solo summit bid from our 14K camp.  By 8:30, he was off at a brisk pace, beating the hoards of people to the base of the fixed lines on the West Buttress route.  Since we had descended the entire route the previous day, we knew it was safe enough and within Dane's ability to solo to the summit and back.

Dane looks like a little spec as he races toward the fixed lines.

As Dane moved rapidly up the West Buttress, I went back to sleep.  A few hours later, I got up and began ascending to 17,200', where I planned to meet up with Dane on his way down.  It was a real nice day until about 3:30, when the anvil shaped clouds that had been threatening all day finally engulfed me in fog and light snow.  Up higher, as Dane later reported, the weather was still clear.  I waited at the 17,200' camp where a few dozen climbers were camped for 3.5 hours before Dane showed up at 6:15 pm.

Clouds chasing me up the ridge from 16,2 to 17,2

Dane's summit shot!

Looking down the summit ridge

After refueling at 17,200' we descended back to 14K, arriving at 8:00 pm, giving Dane an official and respectable round trip time of 11.5 hours to summit from 14K.

When we returned to camp, we noticed that the Lou Dawson crew had moved in next door.  Lou is a well known ski mountaineer in Colorado.  He had been to Denali once before and failed to reach the summit.  This time he was back with his son and a slew of great young skiers from the Aspen area in attempt to ski off the summit.  I knew they were going to be up there, so it was great to meet them all before we left.  Several days after we left, most/all of them climbed and skied down all the skiable parts of the West Buttress route.  Even with some additional snow, the more coveted lines off the summit plateau were still out of condition for them.

Day 15
It was looking like the mediocre weather that moved in yesterday was around to stay for a while, so we decided to spend one final day at 14K before descending back to the landing strip.  We spent a bunch of time in the Dawson party's big cook tent, sharing stories, listening to music, and drinking the rest of our whiskey.  We ended up giving most of our extra food and fuel to them as well to avoid carrying it down the mountain.

Day 16
We woke up to find Dawson's party tent flattened by about a foot of fresh snow.  Later, this new snow would fuel and avalanche starting in the Messner Couloir and running straight towards the crowded Basin Camp, stopping plenty early but creating a bit of a scare nonetheless.  We spent the morning packing up and getting rid of the last of our extra food.  Dane was not looking forward to snowboarding down with a sled, so he strapped everything to his pack in epic junkshow fashion.  I stacked his sled in mine and skied down using the  "bad dog" technique, which worked wonderfully.

In a couple hours we descended from 14,200 feet to Camp I at 7,800 feet.  Shortly before reaching Camp I, we ran into a NOLS group heading up the mountain.  Dane knew one (or perhaps both) of the instructors who were taking about 8 members of the Indian Air Force up the West Buttress route.  The route from Camp I to Kahiltna International Airport was back on the massive/flat expanse of the Kahiltna Glacier, which had been actively melting for the last 16 days.  This made traveling on the glacier much more suspect with large, sagging areas in the snow that indicated enormous (100' wide) snow bridges.  Observing this, we roped up and put our skins on, which slowed us down considerably.  We encountered people heading up who were not roped up nor wearing skis, and we thought they had a death wish.  We confirmed with the base camp rangers that several people had been "popping through" these snow bridges, some of them with skis on, so we're confident we made the right decision.

After charging up Heartbreak Hill, the section of the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier that is uphill on the way back, I think we were looking at a 6 to 7 hour descent from 14K.  I once again began to feel bad for the poor people on snowshoes, but then reminded myself that it was their own fault for not skiing.

Back at KIA
We inquired with the climbing rangers at KIA about conditions on Mt. Hunter, which we hoped to climb if both the weather and climbing conditions looked good.  After hearing about all the avalanches coming down our intended route due to the recent warm temperatures and getting a strong recommendation not to climb, we went to talk to the base camp manager about getting a ride back to Talkeetna.

Due to the weather, climbers had been stacked up waiting for a flight out for the last three days.  This was the first day of flyable weather, so there was a whole slew of flights earlier in the day.  By the time we got there at about 7:00 pm, everyone was cleared out and we were on a plane in less than an hour.

Day 17 and Beyond
With several extra days before our scheduled flight back to Denver, we decided to hitchhike around Alaska after spending a day in Talkeetna taking care of our gear.  First, we went up to Fairbanks to visit a friend of mine from Boulder who grew up there and happened to be home visiting his parents.  We then made it down to Homer, where we spent a bunch of time relaxing and met up with the Fry's at their Bear Creek Winery.  Several logistical complexities later, we were at the airport in Anchorage with all of our gear, ready to fly back to the lower 48.

Summit Shot, courtesy of Nancy Holliday

October 20, 2010

Denali V2.0 - Getting to High Camp (14,200')

The Kahiltna International Airport (KIA) on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier is a small landing strip next to a small and temporary tent city.  Staffed by NPS rangers and a basecamp manager during the climbing season, the airport runs smoothly with knowledgeable people to answer questions from the ill-prepared, of which there are many.  TAT works with the basecamp manager to avoid flying fuel and sleds in on every flight.  Consequently, upon arrival we were issued the fuel and sleds that we had ordered and paid for through TAT.

Many parties choose to spend their first day and night on the mountain at KIA in order to begin acclimating to the altitude.  Since Dane and I had spent the previous month in Colorado at over 9,000 feet, there was no reason for us to waste perfectly good weather.  So, as soon as we got our sleds, we loaded them up and began our slog toward the summit of the highest point in North America.

Due to the latitude and the phenomenon of atmospheric squish, altitudes on Denali are effectively about 2,000 feet higher than the equivalent elevation closer to the equator.  The landing strip is at 7,200', so in effect, our trip began with the same level of oxygen in the air that we had accustomed ourselves to for the last month.

Feeling quite awkward with the sled
After caching three days worth of food (in case we had to wait to fly out due to weather) and some technical gear (for a possible ascent of Mt. Hunter) near the landing strip, our loads were down to about 120 pounds each.  With food and fuel in the sleds and the rest of our gear on our backs, this divided pretty evenly.  So, as we began our march down the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna and then up the main Kahiltna, we both carried 60 pound packs while pulling 60 pound sleds.

The sleds were quite awkward at first (going slightly downhill), until I figured out how to employ the "Bad Dog" technique described to us by a stoner guide who was on a personal trip.  This technique basically entails short leashing your sled with your hand so that it has no choice but to stay right at your side, nestled against your ski boot as you slide.  Add to this the fact that both Dane and I had to go the same pace (we were roped together) and the slight rolling nature of the terrain, and we quickly discovered why people tell such horror stories about dragging sleds around Denali.  Even so, it beat making two trips and carrying everything on your back.  By the time we finished the downhill portion of the trip to our first camp, the sleds became more of an asset than a liability.

Shortly after turning the corner and beginning our gradual ascent up the main Kahiltna Glacier, we got our first views of Denali from the ground.  Five and a half miles of glacier slogging later, we found ourselves at the base of Ski Hill (7,800'), the first of three camps we would set up.  There were around 75 people camped here, very few of them speaking English.

Approaching Camp I
We set up camp and ate dinner before deciding that we should continue taking advantage of the fantastic weather.  So we carried a load of food, fuel, and extra clothes up to about 9,000' before burying it, marking it well with wands, and skiing back down to camp.  We finished this by 10:00 pm and it was still plenty light out.  As it turns out, the sun goes behind the mountain for a good portion of the day, but it barely drops below the horizon, so it never gets dark.  Knowing this ahead of time, we opted not to bring headlamps and never regretted that decision.

Camp I at 9,800', Bottom of Ski Hill

Clouds were building that evening, and we'd heard rumors of a mild storm coming the next day.  However, advice I had received from numerous Denali veterans was that you'd never make it to the top if you refused to move camp in a little weather, so we planned to get up the next morning and more camp as high as 11,000 feet.

Leaving Camp I on the morning of Day 2

The morning of our second day on the mountain arrived to reveal another day of good weather, so we packed up camp and started up Ski Hill for the second time.  We made good time up to our Cache at 9,000', unburied our sleds full of gear, and continued up the mountain with them in tow.  Thin cloud layers came and went along with a little wind throughout the day as we skied through Kahiltna Pass on our way to Camp II.  At 3:00 pm, 6 hours after leaving Camp I, we had gained 3,200 feet in elevation and arrived at the base of Motorcycle Hill (11,000') with all of our food and gear.

Dane on his way through Kahiltna Pass with Denali's West Buttress proper in the background

Camp II at the base of Motorcycle Hill (11,000')
We had been going pretty hard since we landed on the mountain 28 hours prior to arriving at 11,000', so we decided to set up camp and rest.  I remember feeling the altitude for the first time at Camp II, but only in the form of slightly labored breathing.

The route above 11,000' gets a little steeper, so we decided to call and end to our liberal use of the single carry method.  On day three, during yet another beautiful day, we carried a load of extra food, fuel, and clothes to 13,500', a place known as Around Windy Corner since it's just past the notorious Windy Corner.  About half way there, we encountered the first section of the sidewalk-like trail that we couldn't ski up.  This was due to the combination of steepness and iciness, requiring us to don our crampons for the first time of the trip.  After gaining about 300' in crampons, we were able to switch back to skis and continue up, through, and around Windy Corner.  This was by far the windiest section of the route thus far, but we knew the 30 mph winds we encountered were nothing compared to the 60-100 mph winds that are frequently reported there.

Windy Corner

We skied the entire way back after caching our load at 13,500 feet.  Most of it was icy and/or crusty, but the final pitch down Motorcycle Hill back to our camp was covered with a few inches of amazing powder!  I felt really bad for all the people doing what we were doing who didn't have skis.  While we played our way back down to camp in a matter of minutes, they endured a nice three-hour march.

Motorcycle Hill from 11,000' Camp.  The farthest right (skiers left) tracks are ours.
We spent a second night at Camp II.  I remember noting the extreme difference between being in the sun and shade at this camp, a phenomenon that would only get more dramatic as we went higher.  While a t-shirt would be sufficient while hanging out in camp in the sun, someone 10 feet away in the shade would be comfortable in a down suit.

Our fourth day on the mountain, we moved camp from 11,000 feet to 14,200 feet (aka Camp III, aka Basin Camp) in wonderful weather yet again.  As it turned out, this is the third and final location we would set up our tent.  This time, with ski crampons, we were able to leave our skis on for the entire ascent up to and past Windy Corner.

Looking down at Camp II from high up on Motorcycle Hill

Taking a break at Windy Corner with Mt. Foraker in the background
After setting up camp, eating a hot meal, and drinking hot drinks, I convinced Dane to head back down to 13,500' to retrieve our cache from the day before.  We had a fun 700 vertical foot ski back down and a necessary 700 foot slog back up.  I was glad we did it though, because it felt really good to go to sleep knowing that we had all of our gear up at the camp we would call home for the next 12 days.  Getting from Kahiltna International Airport to 14,200' in 3.5 days would not have been possible without our pre-trip acclimatization, nor without the amazing weather cooperation!

Camp III, Basin Camp, 14,200'

October 19, 2010

Denali V1.0 - Traveling to the Mountain

I have no more excuses.  This daunting task is now at hand.  To give myself the illusion that this is a manageable task, I've decided to break the trip into three sections:

1) V1.0 Traveling to the Mountain
2) V2.0 Getting to High Camp (14,200')
3) V3.0 12 Days at 14K

I make no promises, but I hope I get these all done before leaving for the Grand Canyon!

After making some final preparations in Boulder on May 19, we began our journey to the mountain by taking the bus to the Denver airport.  We arrived at the Anchorage airport at 1:30 am on May 20 and slept for a few hours next to a giant stuffed brown bear, presumably designed to deter tourists from wandering too far into the bush before they ever get a chance to leave the confines of the airport.  At 6:00 am we took a taxi to the Railroad Station in downtown Anchorage in order to meet up with a NOLS shuttle that was transporting a group of students from there to the NOLS branch in Palmer, AK, about two hours away.

It's always fun to visit new branch offices, and since neither Dane nor I had never been to Palmer, we took a branch tour before getting down to business.  The business we had planned was to procure the last of our needed supplies (free rental for instructors) and collect our rations for 23 days on the mountain.  We took some cooking gear and wands before bagging the food that we had predetermined, separated into three ration periods.  This all went pretty smoothly, and we managed to acquire all the food we would need for the trip for about $120 per person.

We had prearranged to meet a van from Denali Overland for a ride from Wasilla to Talkeetna, and we managed to finish up in Palmer in plenty of time to have the wonderful people at the branch drive us 20 miles in to Wasilla to meet up with this next leg of transportation.  In Wasilla we joined a group of four climbers from Seattle (Boeing employees) who were heading up on a private trip to climb the West Buttress route.  After about three hours in the van, we arrived in Talkeetna, the jumping off point for nearly all climbs in the Alaska Range.

Once in Talkeetna, we checked in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), which is a multi-functional company that caters to climbers while also running sight seeing flights for tourists.  TAT would eventually help us with in town logistics, supply us with a bunkhouse for the nights immediately before and after our stay on the mountain, as well as fly us to and from the Kahiltna International Airport on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at the base of Denali.

Gearing up in Talkeetna
The flight to the glacier is notorious for stranding people in Talkeetna for several days before the weather is good enough to fly.  However, we had beautiful weather on our journey to Talkeetna and a terrific forecast for the next few days.  So, we spent that evening exploding and organizing gear for the glacier flight and bumped our mandatory meeting with the Park Rangers up to first thing in the morning.

When we felt sufficiently organized, we ate dinner at the Denali Brewery (average and overpriced), then bought a couple beers which we drank at the park while talking with a bad ass Polish guy who had just come off the mountain.  Once in Talkeetna, everything is within walking distance which made our brief stay there very convenient.

The next morning we met at 8:00 with a ranger for the national park service.  While we chatted with Ranger Kevin and watched a slideshow, a woman from the local radio station sat in on our conversation.  She was apparently working on a series of short radio programs to inform non-climbers of what goes on during the climbing season on Denali.  The report from our briefing is about 4 minutes long and can be heard here.  Immediately after the briefing, we went to the TAT office and got ready to fly out.

Our plane in Talkeetna, ready to fly to the glacier
Although you get on the plane in Talkeetna, you get off on a glacier at 7,000', so we flew wearing our climbing gear and ski boots.  Our official gear weight (which is taken seriously with these small planes) was 275 pounds, or just over 135 pounds per person.  We ended up flying in with the Boeing group and left Talkeetna around 10:30 am.  With beautiful, cloudless weather, views of the Alaska Range during the flight in were most spectacular.

The amazing Alaska Range
Vertical granite of the Ruth Gorge
Mt. Huntington
We landed on the glacier at 11:00 on May 21 in perfect weather, about 40 hours after leaving Colorado.  This rapid transportation time helped us make the most of our pre-trip acclimation by spending less than two days below 7,000'.

The plane and all our gear, landed on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier

October 13, 2010

Elk Huntin'

After my last NOLS course, I managed to catch the last 3.5 days of the month long archery season for elk in Oregon.  Jake already got his elk this year, so he was more than happy to take me into the Snake River Unit in the northeast corner of the state and show me the ropes.

Jake had been to this area once before while bear hunting.  He saw some elk on that trip and thought it might be a good place to go during elk season.  Turns out he was right.

Trying to blend in
After driving from Seattle, meeting up with Jake in Eugene, and driving to the remote corners of Oregon, past the town of Imnaha, we arrived at the spot where we would leave the truck.  Jake's plan was to backpack around, chasing elk, either until the end of the season or until I shot a bull.  We ended up being away from the truck that entire time, seeing bulls every day.

Jake and I have been accused of being the same person many times before.  With similar personalities and the exact same tuxedo measurements (with the exception of his neck being 1/4 inch bigger than mine), this perspective has merit.  However, hunting with Jake for these few days helped me realize that in some ways we are quite different and each have our own specialties.  Jake's happens to be elk hunting, and I was very impressed and honored to hunt with and learn from such an expert.  From his ability to spot the elk to knowing how they will react to everything we could possibly do, Jake must be part elk.

One of the many bulls we saw as seen through the spotting scope
After hiking in a few miles on the first day, Jake spotted a small herd of elk up on the ridge where we planned to go the next day.  Shortly after this, he spotted another elk skylined on the ridge as the sun was setting.  The silhouette of this large 350 bull was quite impressive, and from that point on I was super motivated to learn how to outsmart these magnificent creatures.  For this one, however, it was too late and too far away to hunt.

At the end of the following day, Jake spotted another small herd on a ridge about a mile away.  He put the spotting scope on them and told me to watch while he looked around for more.  Shortly after setting up behind the scope, I saw the tips of two antlers begin to rise over the ridge, following the small herd.  The antlers gradually got bigger and bigger.  I kept thinking that I would see fur any second, but the antlers just kept coming into view over the horizon of the ridge as the big bull slowly fed up the back side of the hill.  I think I was too excited to anything very coherent, but I remember saying something to Jake to the effect of "Jake.  There's a bull.  It's big."  When Jake looked over with his binoculars, he became even more enamored than I was.  He said the bull would have scored about 365-370, which would make it one of the largest elk in Oregon, much larger than anything Jake had ever killed in his 15 or so years of elk hunting.

When we saw the big bull, the sun was about a half hour from the horizon.  And we were about 2 miles from the elk via the path we would have to approach them.  Jake asked me what I wanted to do, but having no experience, I asked what he would do.  He said he would be very aggressive and run until he got about 300 yards from the elk, using terrain features to keep us out of view while we approached.  After that, he would continue at a slightly slower pace, getting as close to the animals as possible.  This is exactly what we did, and  just after sunset, we were within 100 to 150 yards of the herd.  A spike (young bull) was hanging near the herd, but not with it.  This presented problems as we had to try not to spook elk that were in multiple places.  We actually thought I might get a shot at the spike before nearing the rest of the herd, which I would have been happy to do as I was not trophy hunting.  We slowly poked our heads over the rise, thinking we would see the spike within range.  Turns out the spike had moved since we last saw it and was on the other side of the ridge top.  He moved into such an unfavorable position, he winded us and started acting weird.  When we saw him, he was 90 yards away, looking right at us.  We couldn't see the rest of the herd at this point, but it was clear that the rest of the herd was wondering why the spike was acting funny.  In attempt to get to the bottom of the young spike's odd behavior, the big bull came walking back towards us!  We were concealed by a small rock outcropping which also prevented us from seeing things very well.  Then Jake saw the massive antlers slowly begin to appear beyond the rock, about 50 yards from us.  The direction it was moving, it was about six steps from being broadside to us at 40 yards.  Jake told me to get ready to shoot.  At about that same time, the big bull winded us, smelling the same scent picked up by the spike, and promptly ran away.  So, at the end of the first full day of hunting, I was six steps and one good shot from killing the largest bull I had ever seen!  The kind of excitement involved was unlike anything I experience while climbing or skiing.

We didn't spot any bulls close enough to be worth chasing the next day, but on our third and final day we found the canyon where the majority of the elk were hanging out.  We heard a faint bugle, ran down into a canyon and up the other side to where we thought we heard it, heard it again yet another canyon over, ran down the next canyon and up the other side, seeing about 40 elk spread out all over the canyon, some as close as about 250 yards.  We couldn't try to move closer to any of them because one would inevitably see us.  So we just sat there and listened to them talk and interact.  Jake, being fluent in Elk, translated what they were saying.  For the rest of the day, we chased around various groups of elk, trying to get withing 30 yards of a bull.  With limited tree cover, closing the last 70 yards or so proved to be quite difficult.

Towards the end of the evening, we spotted a herd we chased earlier in the day about 800 yards away with a nice 325 bull in it.  Jake told me that I had learned enough by this point that there was no reason he should go with me.  Two people stalking a herd of elk just doubles the chance that one of them will see, hear, or smell you.  As soon as they all went over a small rise I began running at them, trying to make it to the spot where they disappeared before they had moved very far away.  I got to the rise and didn't see them.  They were feeding away from me the last time I saw them, so this wasn't very surprising.  I went to the next rise, and the next, all the while with very limited sight distance.  I started thinking to myself, "Where the hell are they?  They have to be right about here!"  Just after saying that to myself, I peered around the corner of a small cliff and say the bull about 80 yards from me, casually feeding away from my position.  Perfect!  The wind was blowing uphill, and the bull was across the hill, so he couldn't smell me.  After composing myself, I started to look around and assess the terrain features in order to figure out how I was going to get 50 yards closer.  As I peaked above the cliff I was standing under, I saw the cows!  The bitches had doubled back on me, completely changing directions.  They were now above me and it would only be a matter of seconds before they winded me and ran away.  Five seconds later, the entire herd was running up and over the next ridge, never to be seen again.  They disappeared over the last ridge in about a minute and a half.  It would have taken me a half hour to cover the same distance.

The hike back to the truck after that was not a sad one, and I felt no sense of failure.  I learned a lot about elk and now respect them even more, not to mention having a wonderful and exhilarating time chasing them around all day up and down the canyons.  The combination of skill and luck involved in a successful archery hunt makes it an addicting endeavor.  I can't wait for next September!