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'

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