Monday, July 29, 2013

Denali: Climate

I really don't know what the ambient air temperature was during my time on Denali, but it's largely irrelevant. The weather report may say 25 or 40 or whatever, but the actual temperature felt, at least during the daytime, is entirely dependent upon the sun and wind. You could pretty much count on it being cold in the early morning and late evening, when there wasn't direct sunlight (it doesn't get completely dark at this latitude in mid-summer, the sun just goes below the horizon a little ways for a little while; it's still light enough to read at 3am), but with more intense sun at this latitude and altitude, along with the reflection from the snow, it can get blazingly hot in the afternoons. Then, if clouds rolled in or the wind picked up, the temperature would drop quite a bit. If you were out of your tent for a while (ie dinner), you'd need to bring an extra layer in case it got cold while you were out.
Because of the intensity of the sun, protection from it is a must. Sunscreen must be applied constantly. Sunglasses (specifically glacier glasses, with a heavy tint and protection on the sides and bottoms) are worn almost all the time, even in the tent when it's super intense. Snowing? Wear glasses. 4am leaving camp? Better at least have your glasses at the ready, but may as well put them on. Typically glacier glasses are polarized, so they help you make out features in the snow, so it never hurts to wear them.
The afternoon heat also make for poor travel, when the snow gets soft and slushy. On the Kahiltna, which is already one of the most dangerous parts of the trip, soft snow increases the risk of falling into a crevasse. This is why we did that portion at night, giving the snow a chance to refreeze. The afternoon melt also affected camp life, making things icy in the late evening and early morning. This is why it was not recommended to walk around camp in boot liners or booties.
We had snow numerous days on the mountain, only once did it get more than a couple of inches of accumulation. Snow, by itself, did not stop us; it was more wind or low visibility that caused us to hole up in camp. It was high winds along the West Buttress that forced us to spend an extra day at 17,000 camp. The following day, it was snowing, but the winds were much lower; we also wanted to get down before snow accumulation caused avalanche danger. That was the one storm that made for real accumulation; it forced Dave Hahn's team (the RMI team that flew on a week after we did) to wait at 14,000 for the avy danger to come down (by melting and otherwise consolidating). There was about a foot of fresh powder on motorcycle hill when we descended to 11,000 camp from that storm.
The strangest storm by far, not just for our trip but for the Alaska Range in general, was when we first got to 14,000 camp. After we set up camp and were resting, there was some rumbling. This didn't seem unusual at first, there's constant rock and ice fall (close enough to hear, far enough to not be a danger). But then it was too frequent, and it became clear that a thunderstorm was rolling in. For us it wasn't that big of a deal, we were safely in our tents, but it was a very big deal for the teams that were high on the mountain making their summit bids. There were reports of skis and pickets arcing. Everyone that was up high had to hunker down and retreat to high camp. Some ended their trips after that, others waited and made another summit attempt. Mike Haugen's team (the RMI team that flew on a week before we did) retreated in the storm, rested a day at high camp, and then successfully summited the next day.
While being stuck in a tent on a weather day can be mentally challenging (boring, frustrating), by far the worst weather delay was in flying off the mountain. Because the bush planes fly visually and have a 10,000-foot ceiling, they can't fly through clouds. For us, sitting at the landing strip, we had no idea if there were clouds in town or anywhere between here and there, we just saw that it was clear and sunny on the glacier. It would have been worse being Haugen's team and being stuck for 6 days, but at least the weather was crappy everywhere, so they knew they weren't about to be picked up. To add insult, not only was it nice on the glacier, tourist flights from another plane company were landing. We kind of felt like the animals in a zoo (and probably smelled about the same after 20 days without showering).
Basically, if you've ever been somewhere that they say "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes," they have nothing on being on a glacier in the Alaska Range. It can go from sunny and 80 degrees to snowing (and still sunny) to cloudy, windy, and 50 degrees in a few minutes.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Denali: Gear & Clothes

The gear and clothes needed to climb Denali start with what's needed for Rainier - harness, parka, ice axe, mountaineering boots, etc - and add layers and technical gear. The equipment list specifies more insulation layers, plus super-cold gear, namely overboots and heavy mitts.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Couples Triathlon

Less than 48 hours after getting back from Alaska, where I spent 20 days on snow and ice climbing to North America's highest point, having stood at 20,320 feet elevation on July 5, I raced in the fourth event of the Texas Tri Series, Couples Tri. The event is meant to pair two people (friends, strangers, couples) and combine their times. Since I wasn't 100% sure I'd be back, I didn't pair up with anyone and went in the Individual category. I was quite curious how this event would go, as sort of a "Nature versus Nurture" experiment to see if three weeks at altitude could make up for not swimming, cycling, or running during that time. While it was rather unscientific, basically the answer was no. Having never done this race, my overall time of 1:23:20 can't be compared to a prior time, but it was slower than two friends who I normally beat. Comparing the bike split to the Rookie Tri, which is the same course, somehow my power was higher but my time was a minute and a half slower. Not too surprisingly, in the swim swim, which is so dependent on form, my mile pace was about a minute slower the other races in the series. My run pace was off of par as well, but at least some of that could be attributed to having killed my big toe nails coming down Denali.

Denali: Training

My physical training to climb Denali specifically was limited to roughly three weeks after Ironman Texas before leaving for Alaska (after a week to recover). Ironman covered the cardio and endurance needed for the climb (and the leg strength), I just needed to refamiliarize myself with carrying a heavy backpack. I did this by doing laps up and down "the hill of life," a roughly 200 foot vertical rocky trail near my office. It is the most vertical gain within a distance feasible for making two or three trips a week. I did about an hour of repeats per visit. I started with 40 pounds of old textbooks, and added 5 pounds each time I went back. When the pack was lighter, I managed to do 4 times down and up (starting from the top); when it got to 70 pounds, I only did 3 laps in the one hour. I found it fun carrying a heavy pack and passing people with either a light pack or nothing at all.
The technical training for this trip was done in February on Mt. Rainier, and since then just trying to practice some of the skills. I didn't find a way to practice crevasse rescue, but I did practice ascending a rope using prusiks and a mechanical ascender in the rock gym. Climbing Denali (at least by the standard route) doesn't require rock climbing, I just did some for fun.