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


Ava Holliday said...

what's the bigger accomplishment: getting to the summit or finishing these blog posts?

Josh said...

Getting to the summit was fun. Writing this comprehensive report took substantially more determination. Simply reading all three is a feat in itself, so congratulations to all who complete them!