Sunday, July 5, 2015

Climbing Denali with RMI Expeditions

[ed note: this is old and unfinished, I'm just finally posting it now as is, on the two-year anniversary of summiting Denali July 5 2013]
On June 18 2013, I flew to Alaska for an expedition to North America's highest peak, 20,320 foot (6,194 meter) Denali (officially Mt. McKinley). In total, we spent 20 days on the mountain, and about 5 minutes at the actual summit. It was filled with challenges, both mental and physical; I lost both my big toenails; it took a while to get over the cough I acquired at 17,000 feet; I am quite psyched to tick this one off of my list.
After great previous trips with RMI Expeditions on Rainier (a summit climb in 2009, and a winter seminar in February), I didn't even consider climbing with anyone else, even though I had never met the guides. The lead guide for my trip was Pete Van Deventer, along with Geoff Schellens and Robby Young. Along with them and six other clients, none of whom I had ever met in person (I connected with the guides and one other climber via Facebook), we had a great trip; we got along pretty well as a team.
I already posted some articles on specific aspects of this climb, starting with the training and gear, also about the weather. I had ideas for several more articles, but I lost momentum on this whole project; I just had too many adventures the following summer, most notably climbing Granite Peak in Montana and a return trip to Mt. Rainier. What follows is the day-to-day of the trip, notes taken during evenings and rest days on the mountain, some fleshed out after returning home.

Day -1, June 18: Austin to Talkeetna.
I really wanted to finish up my Ironman Texas report before starting another adventure. So I stayed up all night writing, finishing up around 4 am, almost the time I would have had to get up for my flight. I already knew that my flight was delayed (because the crew came in late the night before, FAA rules forced them to leave later), so I wasn't panicked that it took way longer for my cab ride to pick me up than it should have. It seemed as though there would still be enough time to make my connection in LA. The first pain in my rear of the day was that even though I was flying Alaskan Airlines, it was a codeshare with American, and I had to check in with them. Then American couldn't give me a boarding pass for my connecting flight. I didn't realize it at the time, but they also messed up my checked duffel bag. I had a couple of breakfast tacos, got to my gate, and crashed. I'm not entirely sure how I even wound up making in onto the plane, but somehow I woke up long enough to get to my seat and fall back to sleep. I have no idea what time we finally took off, but I had the impression that it was even later than the original delay. When we finally got on the ground at LAX, it was getting perilously close to my 10:15 connection. It would have been almost impossible to make the connection, but I shoved people and ran to get to... a shuttle to another terminal that only runs every 10 minutes. The flight already left before I even got on the bus. I got to the gate my flight just left from and spoke with the agent, who had just arrived and had no idea what plane just left. The first thing they can put me on leaves LAX at 3:10 and gets to Anchorage at 10. I begged and pleaded, but there was nothing sooner. It's not so much that I was worried about getting to Anchorage, it's that I was supposed to meet the whole team at the airport at 4:30 and we would ride together to Talkeetna. I called up RMI, hoping they could help me or at least let Pete know I was going to miss them in Anchorage. They got Pete just before he got on his plane in Seattle, and also got a hold of Denali Overland, the transportation company we were all using for a ride. It turned out they were already making a trip from Anchorage to Talkeetna for a guy coming in at 8, and they were willing to wait for me. It was a crappy situation, but it was such a relief to know that I would get to Talkeetna that night and be able to meet the team the next morning. I killed time at a bar in the Alaska terminal. I finally got on my plane, and slept most of the way to Seattle. I had a tight connection there, but it was like 5 gates away, so I got off one plane, rushed over to another gate, and got on another plane. When I got to Anchorage, I got my first taste of the world above the 60th parallel (well, refresher, really, I did spend two weeks in Fairbanks many years ago), as it was bright sun at 10pm. I waited at the carousel for my bag. And waited, until there were no more bags. My bag still hadn't come off, so I went over to file a claim for it. The agent there noticed that my tag showed my bag going on a later flight direct from LAX to Anchorage, that didn't get in for another hour. I didn't want to stick around, and the driver and other guy didn't want to wait around for another hour after being there for two hours already. Alaska said they would drive my bag up to me in Talkeetna the next day. It was 11 by the time we left the airport, and the sun was just starting to dip below the horizon, but it sure took its sweet time. I slept a little in the van- when there was pavement. The other guy was a guide with Alpine Ascents, he got dropped off first at their place back down some gravel roads by an airstrip. When we got to the Talkeetna Motel (aka The TeePee), I was rather confused, because the office is also a bar. Apparently there was a power outage in town, and they were one of the few places open, running on generator power. I checked in with Pam, who told me which room, and that I would be sharing it with Joe Horiskey's nephew (Joe is in charge of RMI's Alaska program). When I got in the room, I woke him up, and we had a brief interaction that went something like "Michael?" "Yeah." "Wyatt." He went back to sleep, while I used the restroom and got settled a little. I barely slept that night, however, as the room was way too hot, and somehow mosquitoes were getting in, and I kept getting bitten.

Day 0: K2 Aviation/Talkeetna
The first day was pretty loose. There were things we needed to get done, but we had all day to do them, so there was never any kind of rush. The plan was to start with breakfast at 8 and the Roadhouse. In what would be a recurring theme, Wyatt and I were there early, the first ones to arrive. The rest of the group trickled in over the next 10-20 minutes, and I got to meet them one or two at a time. The order they arrived was more or less: Derek (a forester/wilderness firefighter in Wisconsin), Robby (who lives in Park City, Utah when not on Rainier), Pete (Aspen, Colorado when not on Rainier), Tom (a pilot and entrepreneur from Long Island, New York), Gail (a school administrator in the process of moving from the island of Maui in Hawaii to Seattle), Lindsay (an ER doctor who just finished residency in Grand Rapids, Michigan), Geoff (I'm not sure where he stays when not on Rainier), and last to join was Gil (a vascular surgeon in upstate New York). We ate a hearty breakfast and started to get to know each other. None of the clients had ever met before this trip. Of course the guides knew each other well; Tom had climbed with Pete and Geoff previously; Wyatt knew the guides to some extent through his uncle. After breakfast we got our stuff and went over to the K2 Aviation hangar at the airport. We each picked a section of the large room that we pretty much had to ourselves, and started going through gear. Since I still didn't have my duffel bag, I didn't have much to do. Everyone else had everything and they were sorting out what to bring, what to leave, based on advice from the guides. The guides also went through the gear list checking that everyone had everything they needed. Around 1, we went over to Mountain High for pizza for lunch. I ordered an entire pie for myself; I ate half then and bagged up the other half to eat on the mountain. When we got back to the hangar, my bag had been delivered by the airline. I finally started sorting, and got checked off. We all started getting our lunch food together. The guides recommended 18-20 pounds, more or less. Because everyone else had stopped at a grocery store on the way to town, they were flush with food; pretty much everyone started with about 25 pounds of food and then started paring down. I only had the food I brought with me (mostly bars and gels), which came to about 10 pounds. Everyone else offered me their cast offs; I got cheese, crackers, and bagels from the guides, almonds from Lindsay, mango slices from Gail, graham crackers from Wyatt, possibly a few other things. I was still light, so I got what I could from the general store in town: sliced ham, chocolate and other candies, crackers, and a large drink (that would double as a pee jug when finished). I just barely had 20 pounds of food; I hoped it would be enough. With the gear pretty well sorted as far as what goes, what stays and what goes in the duffel, what goes in the backpack, we practiced setting up our tents. We went out on the grass in front of the hangar and set up the four tents we would be using; also we needed to make sure all the parts and pieces were there and in good order. This included a lesson on anchoring, using a trucker's hitch. Late in the afternoon, when everything seemed to be pretty well dialed in, we had to weigh everything (including ourselves). A K2 employee recorded everything; some math was done to get the loads on the two planes we would be flying on more or less balanced. Most of the clients went back to the motel or wherever; I stuck around the hangar a little longer with the guides to go through things again. They were tying loops of webbing around their packs to haul a sled (we were supposed to do this as a group, but skipped over it somehow), which I did as well. The loop was pretty simple: thread the webbing around the bottom of the pack, tie a water knot, then an overhand knot for a carabiner to the sled. A little later in the evening, we all met up for dinner at the West Rib. A lot of people had burgers; I had a halibut sandwich. I slept much better that night- the room was a lot cooler, and Wyatt had the great idea to stuff magazines in the open space between the door and the jamb, which kept the mosquitoes out.

Day 1: Fly on to glacier, Base Camp @ 7000 ft elevation
We once again all met for breakfast at the Roadhouse on Wednesday the 19th. After a good solid meal we went over to the hangar to check the flight status. The weather was clear, so we were on for a 9am departure. We all got in our last minutes of the luxuries of civilization- phone signal, internet, readily available power for electronics, and of course flush toilets. We loaded up the planes, and before long the planes were fired up and we were on our way to the glacier. We flew in two Otters, a relatively large single-engine plane with wheels for the runway and skis for the glacier. The interior is arranged with a pilot and one passenger up front; three passengers on one side between the bulkhead and the door and netting for gear on the other side; two seats on either side of the plane behind the door; room for gear behind them in the tail. Also flying on with us were TJ (an RMI guide) and his fiancee Laura, on their own personal trip, to fill all 12 available seats. I flew on with Pete, Robby, Gail, Lindsay, and Laura. When the pilot asked who wanted to ride shotgun, nobody jumped in the first two seconds, so I said I would. Taking off was kind of weird. I hadn't considered that the plane is a tail dragger, and the tail was the first thing to come up as we gained lift. We quickly climbed enough that we could see the Alaska Range. It was kind of funny- considering that on a clear day Denali can be seen from Anchorage or Fairbanks, I had hadn't really thought about how close we actually were in Talkeetna; I never had a view of the mountain from town.
As we approached the mountain, the landscape changed from lush green forests to rock and ice. As we followed the giant river of ice that is the Kahiltna Glacier from its moraine, it turned to mostly snow and ice with patches of rock. The sky was mostly clear; there were wisps of clouds in the range and a lenticular cloud over Mt. Foraker. I knew we would be landing on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna, a "tributary" of the main glacier, somewhere to our right, but I had no idea where exactly. We eventually made a turn, but at first I had no idea if we were actually heading for the landing strip; I couldn't see anything below. As we got closer, I could make out a little dot (which turned out to be base camp). As we got even closer, I could see a group of people standing at the top of the hill. A moment later we touched down on the glacier and bounced around a bit before coming to a stop, the pilot having spun the plane around so that it was facing back down the glacier.
We unloaded the plane, stacking the gear up out of the way. The second plane with the rest of the team landed a few minutes later. There was another RMI team waiting to fly off; after our guides and their guides chatted, they loaded up and flew off. We chose our own sleds from the piles of plastic children's sleds that are standard for hauling gear on Denali. Pete gave a demonstration on how to use our cordelette to rig them up for hauling. Fortunately for me he used my sled and cord, so mine was ready to go while everyone else rigged theirs. We strapped our duffels to the sleds and hiked down to base camp. This was the first and last time we moved on the glacier without being roped together. The brake (a knotted bungee cord) worked pretty well on my sled, so it wasn't trying to knock my feet out; I did what I could to keep Gail's out of her feet, but it didn't work so well. When we got down to base camp, there was a pretty good tent platform already there we could use, we just had to level it a little and extend it a little. We set up the two tents we had with us at that point while two of the guides went back up to the upper landing strip to get some more of the gear. They were on skis, so it didn't take them long to get up and back. We set up the other two tents while the guides made one last trip up for the rest of the gear. It soon came time to figure out who would sleep where. It was already set that the ladies would share a 3-man tent and the guides would take a 4-man, us 5 guys just had to work out the rest. I hadn't minded bunking with Wyatt for two nights, so I asked him "Hey, want to take the 3-man?" He agreed, and we were moving in before the other 3 guys knew what had happened. In a camp arrangement that would not be repeated, all 4 tents were set up on a single huge platform one next to the other.
The ladies were on the west end, then me and Wyatt, Derek, Tom, and Gil, and the guides' tent to the east. We had rest time for most of the afternoon. It was pretty warm outside in the sun, so most people were in their tents reading, napping, or whatever. Dinner was not exactly elaborate, possibly to set the bar low for the rest of the trip: Cup-o-Soup and Dinty Moore. Also unusual compared to the rest of the trip was that they gave out group loads that evening after dinner. The group loads consisted of 10 piles of food, fuel, kitchen gear, etc, of roughly equal weight. Each person then picked whichever load they thought would work best for them, or just whatever was left. I guess they gave the loads to us earlier the first time so we would have a little more time to figure out what to do with them. Pete went over a few things on rope travel and pulling sleds, as well as safety on the glacier (the Kahiltna has so many crevasses that it's one of the more dangerous parts of the trip, even though it's not technical or particularly strenuous). We all sacked out at 8:30. I had a great night's sleep- I woke up once at 11:15 to pee, but otherwise I was dead to the world.

Day 2: Move to Camp 1, 7600 ft elevation
Because the snow gets slushy once the sun hits it, and slushy snow makes for weaker snow bridges over crevasses, we wanted to move on the lower glacier at night and the morning. We were woken up sometime around 2am, but since it was our first time, it took us a long time before we got moving. After some packing and breaking down the tents, we had a breakfast of granola with powdered milk and hot water. The guides melted more snow to fill everyone's water bottles, plus enough to boil for hot drinks. When we had our packs and sleds ready to roll, we started arranging ourselves into rope teams. I generally prefer to be up front, so I jumped to the front of the line and got onto Pete's rope, right behind Gail and in front of Lindsay. Like the tent arrangements, the rope teams weren't meant to be decided right then and for the rest of the trip, but those groupings wound up being nearly permanent. There was some movement between the other two ropes, but my/Pete's rope team was the same the whole time we were moving on the mountain. That first day, Robby was behind us along with Gil and Wyatt; Geoff led the third team with Tom and Derek. When we were all tied in and ready to move, it was just before 6am. I left in my base layer and light fleece on top, climbing pants, gaiters, baseball cap and buff. The first stretch was down Heartbreak Hill, which went smoother than it sometimes does, according to Geoff. Descending with a sled can be one of the most frustrating parts of a Denali trip as the sled wants to run into your feet or flip over or otherwise misbehave. The only sled flips I noticed happened to Pete, and I think we all did a pretty good job with the rope interval to keep the sled of the person in front of us out of their feet. We made a start at the ascent of the low-angle section of the Kahiltna before taking a long break (in general on the trip we hiked for an hour between breaks). Again, since we were just getting started and figuring things out, the break was longer than would have been ideal. In the early going, when it was still early and cool, the snow was firm and travel was relatively easy. As it warmed up, the snow got softer and we started postholing, even with snowshoes. That was mostly a nuisance and slowed us down. We got to a section that was a little bit steeper and the snow was softer, and people started punching through snow bridges. It wasn't super dangerous, since we were roped together, and nobody went deeper than their waist, but it's pretty scary to fall into a crevasse. Plus it's hard to get yourself out, and potentially dangerous for someone else to help you out. After the second break, it was warm enough out that I took off my fleece. Actually, we were pretty lucky with the weather, because we had some cloud cover to keep the sun and real heat off of us. We eventually reached a bit of a plateau, where there was evidence of tent platforms. We took a break there, but Pete scouted ahead to check on ahead to a camp site a little further. We walked about a half mile further to just below Ski Hill, where there were caches and tent platforms, as well as two other teams camped. According to my watch, we spent a total of about 6 hours (including breaks) to travel about 5.5 miles, losing 400 feet elevation and gaining 1000.
There was a team coming back down Ski Hill from a carry, and at the time I thought it was kind of steep. When we came back through on the descent it looked quite insignificant. The guides scouted out a good site for us to set up. The client tents went in a big hole that looked pretty good, but turned out to be really soft and we stepped in to our knees. We set to filling in with more snow and packing it down, while the guides worked on a cook tent and a platform for their tent. Right about the time we arrived in camp, the clouds broke, and gave us our first good view of the valley we had been walking in all morning. It was really spectacular, in a way almost like something from another world. We couldn't see the summit because there were still clouds in the range, but the landscape was incredible, with big rock walls, dozens of small peaks, giant seracs, and so forth. I certainly don't have the words to describe it, and even the pictures I have don't do it justice.
With camp set up, we had some lunch (I had cheese and crackers), and then it was nap time. We really had nothing to do all afternoon, so we slept, ate, read, hung out, and other low-energy activities. For dinner we had burritos, which was my favorite meal of the trip. They were enormous, filled with rice, beans, cheese, chicken, and maybe something resembling a vegetable. Most of us had seconds as well. For me, it's not so much that I was starving (I didn't feel like I was about to burst when I finished), I more figured I could allow myself to pig out after burning calories hiking. Plus I was pretty sure I would have less appetite higher on the mountain, and I should get calories in as long as food was appealing. Some clouds rolled in later in the evening, and it was lightly snowing when we went to bed at 8.

Day 3: Move to camp 2, 9700 ft elevation
I woke up early, ~3:15. Messed around with stuff for a bit before the guides got up and started breakfast (oatmeal). Break camp, pack up. Moving right after 6. Start right up Ski Hill. Three steep pitches. The first was the longest, followed very shortly after with a second. There was some rolling terrain for a while the third steep stretch. Breaks were on the second pitch and just before the third. Took one short break at 9600 by my watch next to some tent sites. Pushed just a little farther to another site. Total time 4:45, ~4 miles. There was sort of a pit with short walls when we got there, we just needed to extend the platform and build more walls. I don't think there was a specific order to do so, but we started going down. Since all the shovels were in use, I grabbed a saw and started cutting blocks, while Tom shoveled them out. Very soon everybody was busy shoveling, hacking, building walls, setting up tents. We got three platforms for our tents, the guides set up their tent over a touch, as well as digging out a kitchen. Digging vestibules was tough, getting through a really hard layer of ice. I resorted to chopping with my ice axe. When the tents were pretty much in order, I helped a little with the guide tent and cook tent (posh). I ate my lunch in the kitchen with Derek. Nap time. Started on pad, bare feet under light puffy, got chilled and jumped in my bag. I woke up 3-ish, everyone else was still out or just quiet. I kind of stood around enjoying the scenery for a while. Derek and I chatted for a while. Dinner time: chicken noodle soup, Indian Tasty Bites with rice. We all sat in the kitchen for a while chatting. I was getting cold, so I went to bed at 8:30.

Day 4: Move to camp 3, aka 11,000 camp
Woke up to an inch+ of fresh snow. Later start this morning, breakfast (bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon) was ~6:30. Broke camp, we were all ready before the guides. I went over to help a little getting their tent down. It was 8? when we started out. It was mostly up, a few flattish sections. 2:35 travel time. My watch said 3 miles horizontal, but that's unlikely. Only one break. It was getting about time for another break when tents came into view. I thought maybe it was a tease and we would stop for a few minutes and push a little further, but we were at our camp for a few days. The guides looked at existing sites and chose one. The tent platform for us didn't require a lot of work, but there was a serious layer of ice right below the surface. The cook tent required some serious work, however. Pete, Robby, Derek and Gil were working on it while I sat down for some lunch with a few others. I didn't sit there too long, after some food and water I went to help out. The big problem was two layers of hard ice. Once Geoff finished sewing up the tent that got torn in the morning, he helped excavate as well. Eventually we got it finished, and it looked pretty good. We pretty just hung out the rest of the day. I'm not sure anyone even napped, we were so busy hanging around. The sun was very powerful. It was quite warm, and even five minutes after putting on sunscreen I felt like I was burning. After sitting outside too long, some of us sat in the kitchen. It was still quite warm, but at least the sun was a lot less intense. Dinner was tortellini with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes, with cookies for dessert. Since tomorrow's a rest day, nobody was in a rush to go to sleep. We watched for a while as some park rangers skinned up a hill next to camp and skied down. It was after 9 when we adjourned to our tents, and I could still hear talking past 10, much later than we had stayed up any previous night.

Day 5: Rest day at 11,000 camp
Most people slept in. I was up at 7:30, nobody else was stirring until after 9. Breakfast was burritos with western eggs, bacon, cheese, and peppers. We pretty much just sat around until mid-afternoon. They had said we would go over some stuff at 1, but we didn't do anything until 4. We were in clouds most of the afternoon with some snow flurries. It was really light, so some of us just sat outside in it. When the sun broke out, just before the crampon once-over, and brought the temp up to a boil. We got orders on packing for the next day's carry. We all started sorting, and started packing once group loads were put out. We broke for dinner, which was shells and cheese with bacon. Finished packing, and realized I wanted a couple things. I tore through everything. I did find my 'biners but not my fleece gloves. I did eventually find the gloves. It took me a while to fall asleep, some time after 10. Then the neighboring camp made a ton of noise breaking camp and woke up everyone.

Day 6: Cache at 13,200
5am wakeup. I was mostly packed, so mainly had to get dressed and have breakfast (oatmeal). Set off a little past 6. Motorcycle Hill, Squirrel Hill, Polo Field, past Windy Corner. Passed an open hole, must have been too exposed to rock fall (which caused NPS to ban rangers from the area). We all just took a long break while the guides dug a hole for the cache and collected our stuff and the group loads. Two breaks on the way up, one more on the way down. Total time was about 6 hours. It was roasting hot on the way down. Stripped off as much as possible at the break. Back to camp. Lunch. Nap time. I slept some, but mostly read. Dinner was ramen with chicken and vegetables. A bit of arranging and packing and to bed. Didn't get to sleep until after 10.

Day 7: Move to Camp 4 aka 14,000 camp.
3:30 wakeup. Actually woke me up for once. Also a bit groggy, seemed to be a common theme in camp. Raisin Bran and powdered milk, I took mine with hot water. Break camp and finish packing. Pack was as heavy as previous day, but bulkier. Just when I thought I had everything in my bag, I remembered the tent. And again with the group load. I just barely managed to shove everything in the main compartment, with poles on one side outside and my closed-cell pad on the other. Leave camp about 6. Total travel time about 5 1/2 hours. From camp to the cache was basically the same as the carry, breaks in the same spots. I felt slightly more efficient, but still far from perfect. Not too far past the cache is where it got interesting. We crested a hill, and I thought it would have bee our break spot, until I realized it was the middle of a snow bridge over a giant crevasse. We went a little ways to the other side. We stayed stretched out when we stopped. Gail somehow dropped her pack, and it slowly rolled toward the lip of the crevasse. The guides had been telling us not to run or jump to get anything that slides away. We all watched helplessly as it rolled and came to a stop in a very precarious spot close to the crevasse. Robby went over to retrieve it, and I went about the business of taking a break, assuming it was completely routine and Robby would just pick up the pack. There wasn't even any commotion but when I looked back it was clear Robby had fallen in to his waist, and the pack had disappeared. Gil and Wyatt arrested the rope while Geoff and Pete very quickly set up anchors and a pulley. Robby got out and cleared the area, and Geoff rappelled down the hole, hooked a line to the pack, climbed out, and hauled the pack up. Gail was pretty upset about the whole thing, she just sat on her pack totally still until the guides came over and said it was no big deal, and was by far the most exciting part of the trip so far. We finished the break and noticed the smell of bacon coming from 14 camp, maybe a quarter mile away still. We rolled into camp, the guides scoped out tent sites, and we got to working on them. All the ground was ice, so it was tough work, even with decent sites. It also meant getting creative with anchors- Geoff made some v-threads, we tied things around blocks of snow, whatever worked. After tents were up, I helped make a slightly more private latrine. The guides wanted us to get into tents, out of the wet snow that started falling shortly after we got into camp. Not long after I was about settled, the guides came around to the tents with quesadillas, and soon after that water bottles. It was pretty awesome. I had a headache, so took some ibuprofen. Broiling hot. Nap. While laying in the tent I heard a bit of a rumble. My first thought was that it was a TV show on someone's phone. The second rumble I thought might be rock fall. When it continued, it was clear it was a thunderstorm coming up the mountain. Thunder snow is freaky enough at home (okay, a home, not my home), to be IN it is a little scary. We were fine in our tents, but we later learned teams higher on the mountain (some close to the summit) were in great danger, even apparently arcing on anything metal such as pickets or skis, and had to run to get cover. Wound up getting 2-3 inches of good packing snow. Dinner was late, after 7, of tasty fat burritos with chicken, rice, beans and cheese. Pete had comments from the blog from family and friends. Hung out in the cook tent until after 10, didn't get to sleep until 11.

Day 8: Pick up cache
Late start. I wander around camp a little at 8:30. Breakfast was hash browns and eggs, huge portions, finish after 11. Most of us other than Wyatt participate in a Stanford research project, which consists of pulsox reading, ultrasound of a major blood vessel, then as many laps as possible in 6 minutes around a ~400-foot course, then another pulsox reading and urine sample. The theory is to see how hydration and oxygen saturation relate to how high on the mountain you get. Naturally, the course, no running allowed became a bit of a competition. Pete won, Derek was second, Geoff and Robby were close behind, then me. We all did more than 4 laps, well behind the best. Tom, Gail and Lindsay did 3+, Gil was right at 3 laps. I was a little wiped by it, got a touch of a headache after. About an hour after everyone finished, we left to pick up the cache. 20 minutes down. Guides dig stuff out. Load up, head up. The wind was blowing when we started, so many of us left two layers on. The wind didn't last, and there was no cloud cover, so we all got pretty hot. Brief pause before getting back to take off helmets. Back, 50 minutes up. Change of plans: move rope travel to tomorrow and call it an active rest day, along with wall building. We enjoy some delicacies from our caches, then nap. Dinner- Dinty Moore with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy. Sleep after 10.

Day 9: Active Rest at 14,000
Another poor night's sleep. Nose was stuffed up. Smell breakfast around 9, but it's not ours. Eat after 10, bagels with cream cheese and bacon. Rigging ascenders, axes. Fixed line ascending/descending, running belays. Lunch. Wall building. Serious walls, serious effort. Good thing it was cloudy, even so everyone stripped down to base layers. Gloves and most everything else wet. Earlier dinner than previous days- couscous with veggies and chicken, and bonus pine nuts from another team looking to ditch some food. Orders for next day's cache at 16,000: puffy pants, overboots, 4 days lunch food. Sorting and packing, in bed at 8:30.

Day 10: Carry to 16,800, Washburn's Thumb
Slept better last night, I think because I flipped my sleeping bag so that my head wasn't in a hole, lower than my body. Late wakeup. Oatmeal for breakfast. Moving after 8. My watch pretty much ran out of battery, plus I took it off before descending the fixed lines, but we were out 9 hours, ~2500 ft vertical gained and lost. The slope felt kind of steep, until we got to the fixed lines, where it was super steep (thus the need for the lines), and a icy in some spots. I thought it was pretty cool, especially when I got a chance to sit back on the ascender, mostly when someone else was passing an anchor. The hardest part mentally was probably crossing the bergschrund. Gail whimpered a little up the fixed lines, but moved well. At the top of the fixed lines, we were on the West Buttress, and higher than anywhere in the continental US. When we took a break there, the other RMI team was descending (including Katie Bono, a guide on my February skills seminar). I was not surprised when our break went a little long with the guides talking shop. It was still fairly steep on the ridge. Pete often ran ahead and belayed us (Gail, myself, Lindsay, with a short rope interval) using a rock or an anchor. Geoff and Robby did the same for their ropes. There were some spectacular views, particularly seeing 14 camp and how high we were above it. We saw a chopper land at 14 camp while we were on the buttress. We made it to our cache site, just below the thumb. The guides dug and buried our gear. We had to wait a bit for three ropes to come up to where we were, picking up their caches while moving to 17,000. The descent wasn't as treacherous as I thought it might be. Following Lindsay might have been better than leading, but I could have handled it. Gail was doing okay, just a few minor freakouts, until we got on the fixed lines. It wasn't terrible in general, we just had to slow our pace a little. The real bottleneck was a tricky bit where Pete had us cross over the line. Lindsay had some trouble because of a knot. I must say it was one of my less gracious transitions. Gail had a much harder time. In general, she was much less trusting of the equipment than most of us; at that anchor she was terrified to let go of the rope, even with Pete holding her from falling. I will admit I was sweating profusely coming down the line, and it wasn't just because it was warm. At the end of the fixed lines we retrieved our trekking poles and stretched out the rope interval. We moved quickly, and at that point I was sweating because it was hot. We finally made a full break a little ways down. I stripped what I could; Pete even let us not wear gloves. We booked it back to camp from there. I took off all my gear immediately; my boots were still steaming 15 minutes later. The sun was still out, but there was just enough of a wisp of a cloud to make it slightly cool, especially with sweaty clothes on. Wyatt, Lindsay and I chatted by our tents; Lindsay and I split most of a tube of Pringles. We moved to the Posh and hung out with Derek, Gail, and the guides until dinner (Mac & cheese with bacon). I think everyone was pretty tired from a big day, and even though the next day was declared a rest day, everyone was in their tent by 9.

Day 11: Rest day at 14,000
Stuffed up nose again, didn't sleep well. Awake at 6:30, stayed in bed and read, tried to get back to sleep. Got up to pee at 9. Laid in the tent a little while longer reading. Breakfast after 10, bagels with cream cheese and salmon. Sat in the posh chatting for hours with TJ and Laura. Picked up some meat and cheese from them ate some of it for lunch with my Ritz at 3 when the "party" broke up. Nap. It had been a little windy, mostly gusts all day, since 9am. It started snowing, with more sustained winds around 5. We hunkered down in tents until dinner, at 7 (Indian Tasty Bites with rice). We helped build a wall around the guides' tent after (and me a little before) dinner. Nearly froze my left hand using the CMC before jumping into the sleeping bag.

Day 12: Weather day at 14,000
Wind was gusty overnight. Barely slept, each tent-rattling gust woke me up. Also snowed. Hard to tell a total, because it was quite drifty; some spots (such as our vestibule) had over a foot, other spots were a dusting over ice. When I finally got up to pee at 9, I just put on my boot liners, since they had been in the tent, and my outer boots had been in the vestibule and gotten buried in snow. I nearly slipped on the ice a couple of places. The posh was torn to pieces from the weight of snow, so the guides were boiling water in their vestibule. Around 10, we went over to get vessels filled with hot water for oatmeal and drinks. Read my magazine some before falling asleep for a little while. Woke up at 1 and had some more lunch- I finished my crackers and the meat from TJ, only made a dent in the cheese. Second nap. Schizophrenic weather- sunny and warm to windy and cool in an instant. Legs still sore, probably should have had more water yesterday. Snowed pretty much all day, stayed in the tent most of the time. It was kind of nice to get out for a few minutes a few times, even if the weather was crappy. At least the wind died down by the evening. Dinner was burritos, delivered, Oreos for dessert. Finished my magazine, Lindsay read my book from this morning, passed it on to Derek. Had trouble getting to sleep, listened to music until midnight, eventually fell asleep.

Day 13: U-Turn
Woke up at 5, had to pee; didn't get out of bed until 5:30. Guides were up, stoves burning in their vestibule. I started getting ready for us to move to 17,000. It had snowed a little more overnight, and was snowing lightly while we were getting packed. Breakfast was oatmeal squares with powdered milk, hot drinks, and a bar. It took a while to pack up camp, and it was cold. We were stamping, walking back and forth, wiggling toes, swinging arms to stay warm. Not sure when we finally left or how long we were gone (9, 2.5 hours according to Gil). I was wearing light long johns, base, fleece, and soft shell. After a bit of walking, I was mostly warm- a few fingers and my right toes were cold. At the first break, it was cold, snowing, and visibility was low. At the start of the fixed lines, the weather was worse; the decision was made to turn around. We had a bit of a clearing, and could see a lot of people coming up from 14 camp. We waited for 10 more minutes before we started down. A group that had left camp about an hour before us were just getting on the fixed lines, and seemed to have some technical issues to work on. They were making progress by the time we left, we might have still caught them. We got back to camp, unburied the cache, and set our tents back up. I felt exhausted, mentally drained from turning around, as well as the exertion and lack of sleep. After a bagel and some cheese, I slept most of the afternoon until 5. Weather at 14 seemed to be mostly sunny, with occasional snow showers. Oh well. The forecast was saying Wednesday was going to have the best weather this week, then getting worse, with another window of good weather next week. If we were able to move to 17 tomorrow, and summit Thursday, it would be a hard few days, but being in camp for that much longer could be harder mentally, especially if I don't get something else to read. My supply of lunch food is getting low. The good stuff is all at Washburn's Thumb, and I need all the snack stuff I have left here for the move up to 17.
Dinner was around 7, couscous with rooster sauce. Derek and I visited with the ladies until 9 and enjoyed our hot drinks. It sucks not having the posh for a social space, we don't see nearly as much of each other. Pete came by, we're planning to go up to 17 tomorrow, fingers crossed for a 4th of July summit. Took a while to get to sleep, slept for like a minute at a time between 11 and 12, fell asleep for real after midnight.

Day 14: Move to 17,000
Woke up at 6:30 for good. Peed, laid back in bed. Wake up call was about 7:30-8. Get up, organize a little, breakfast- mixed bag of oatmeal and cereal. Wyatt is anxious to break the tent down, I tried to stall a little, since the big tent wasn't anywhere close to being ready to move. I also didn't want a repeat of the previous day, where he and I (and the ladies) were ready to go, freezing our asses off. It wasn't as cold this morning, and we started later, but it was still pretty chilly. At least it seemed so sitting in camp. When we finally moved, some time after 10, I was wearing three layers (swapping my soft shell for my light puffy), and was roasting at the first break. I pulled off the puffy, and was again super hot when we stopped below the fixed lines. I initially pulled off my fleece, but it was a little windy and cool, so I put it back on before walking again. Boy was I ever glad I did. The wind kicked up higher on the face, and it was pretty cool. When we crested the ridge and the wind hit full-on, I was freezing. I put my puffy back on (plus my parka for the break) and never regretted it. There may have been a few moments I was warm, when the wind died a little or was blocked, but it was pretty chilly on that ridge. After stopping to pick up the cache, we had to wait a but for a team slowly descending the fixed lines below the thumb. Further along the ridge toward camp, it got kind of dicey. A lot of it was knife-edge, with no protection. The rocky bits were not reassuring, to say the least. There were at least two times I felt myself losing balance, and it was terrifying. Between the exertion, adrenaline, and high altitude, my breath was ragged. I was so grateful when Pete stopped for a moment, such as to see where the other rope teams were behind us, for a chance to catch my breath a little. By the time we got to camp, I felt like I was poisoned by adrenaline. The guides scoped out tent sites, I just sat there feeling worthless. Even when we got our location, I could barely help anchor the tent. It was a completely different tent than the ones we were used to (a Hilleberg versus the Trangos), so Geoff had to hold our hands through setting it up anyway. Once it was all set up it was 6:30. We stayed in the tent pretty much the whole evening, only leaving to pee and pick up dinner (Mountain House) and hot drinks. We prepped our gear for a summit run the next morning, bringing most of it into our sleeping bags with us, so it wouldn't be frozen in the morning. I had gotten a little chilled sitting in the vestibule and outside, when I got in the bag with the cold gear, I was freezing and shivering. I eventually warmed up and got to sleep some time after 11. Woke up at 1 and really had to pee. I didn't really want to use my pee bottle, but it didn't seem possible to go out- my outer boots were at everyone's heads, and didn't want to re-freeze my inner boots. I was at least going to go in the vestibule, but I couldn't find the zipper pull to get out of the sleeping compartment, so I peed in my bottle at the foot of my sleeping bag. I couldn't really get back to sleep, every time I dozed off, my respiration rate went down to where I wasn't getting enough oxygen, and woke right up, panting to catch my breath. Apparently this is not uncommon and is similar to Cheyne-Stokes, but my diagnosis is that it was sleep apnea.

Day 15: Holding Pattern, aka weather day at 17,000
Still didn't sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. Weather overnight was a little snow and gusts of wind. Wake up call was at 9, no surprise we were in no rush to get going. Pete held out at least a slim hope of moving by 11 if the weather cleared. It was still blowing, low visibility, so we went into rest day mode. After some chatting and business matters, as well as 4th of July crazy bundled up pictures, we laid back for some quiet and potential napping. I was pretty psyched to get some sleep, even if it was only for a little while. Most of the day was in the tent, the weather was so crappy. Dinner was couscous, which was not the most delicious thing, especially without Sriracha. We ate in our tents, but there was a bit of a break not long after, and we milled around the guide tent until the wind whipped up again. It was quite nice out when I went for one last pee for the evening, around 9:30. I actually managed to sleep... for a little while. Woke up at some point, and suddenly a sleeping bag filled with junk wasn't so comfortable. When I did finally get somewhat comfortable, including taking off my down pants, the apnea was back.

Day 16: Summit Day
I did get some more sleep, but woke up with a headache at 7:45. I took some ibuprofen, which helped. The guides came by for a wakeup a little before 8, saying we were going to go up. Breakfast was oatmeal with pop tarts. I wasn't that hungry, especially after the oatmeal, so saved the pop tarts for the climb. We got rolling at 10:20. The first stretch, the Autobahn, wasn't too bad, but it was long. Because of the number of running belays, there's really no stopping until you get to Denali Pass, and let's just say it looks a lot closer from camp than it felt doing it. The stretch from there to the football field was pretty steep. This is where I really started to feel short of breath. I wasn't entirely sure I would make it, at least not at the pace we were going. After the mostly flat football field came the wickedly steep Pig Hill to the summit ridge. At that point I at least had a bit of rhythm to my breathing, even if it was "pressure panting"/hyperventilating. Finally we were on the summit ridge, with only a traverse with a little gain (and loss) to go. It was quite windy and cold on that ridge, and it was not any less so when we got to just below the summit, around 6:30. I would have liked to get a bunch of pictures of myself on the summit, but it was so nasty I just took some panorama shots and of the survey marker; Pete took a picture of the ladies and I. There wasn't a full group picture, and because of the weather we weren't really interacting that much.
My hands were frozen, so I swapped to my mittens for the descent. It started out okay, our rope lagged the other two for some reason. When we got to the first break, on the football field, my brain checked out. It's as if it said "We made it to the summit, we can rest now," not realizing that we still had a ways to go to get back to camp. This is most likely due to dehydration and insufficient caloric intake (1 liter water, a Snickers, a bag of peanut M&M's, and the aforementioned pop tarts). I felt like everything was surreal, like I was somewhere between reality and a dream. It was small consolation, but at least when my higher brain functions checked out, it left enough to function. I wasn't entirely aware of this all as we left the break, I just went along with everyone else. When we got across the football field and closer to real terrain, I stopped us and told Pete what was going on (it seemed potentially quite dangerous to continue in the state I was in). He said we were really close to a break spot and asked if I thought I could keep walking. I somehow thought that was reasonable, and we resumed walking. When we did stop, I was fully a robot, even more than during the Ironman. I wasn't even thinking for myself, really, I was just responding to external stimuli and some programming. Pete shoved a gel in my mouth and told me to drink; I drank the (now cold) cocoa from the morning, spilling a bunch of it on myself like an infant. We stopped again just above the autobahn. I told Pete I felt like a robot, to which he said, "you pretty much are." We actually were pretty tight with the teams in front of us for a while. I had basically no awareness of it at the time, but Gail was having bad stomach pain, which slowed us down. I think I was doing a reasonable job of moving and clipping around the anchors. Somehow the nerdy writing part of my brain was active enough to compose the code that was governing my actions on the descent:
prime_directive="Get back to camp without injuring yourself or others" ;
while(location != "17,000 camp") { 
  set t1= tension(rope.segments.ahead); 
  set t2= tension(rope.segments.behind); 
  if ($t1>$min_tension && $t2<$max_rension) { 
    walk_on_rope_team(crampons, descending); 
  } else { 
  if (approaching_anchor()) { 
  set potential_command= probe(aural_sensor); 
  if (is_direct_stimulus( $potential_command)) { 
  } elsif (is_relevant($potential_command)) { 
  standing_orders { 
  idle_processes { 
    play_music("Ozzy Osbourne"); 
This left no provisions for the pain in my toe (I'm probably going to lose that right big toenail that still hasn't grown all the way back in after the February Rainier seminar) or for overheating, from still wearing every layer I own.
When we did finally get back to camp, around 10:30, I acted under the orders of Dr. Lindsay: Take off your crampons and get in bed; Eat your gummy bears; Drink water; Eat more of your ramen. Eventually I was feeling a little better, but still slightly disembodied. In the end, it was a pretty nasty descent, and I am highly indebted to Pete and Lindsay, but I can take some consolation that I made it down under my own power, with no drugs, and without being short-roped.

Day 17: Holding Pattern at 17,000
Other than a few coughing jags, I slept reasonably well, and I didn't feel bad in the morning. We were in no hurry to get out of camp, and I was in no hurry to get out of bed. I ate the leftover gummies and a bar I ate two bites of at the summit, dozed off for a bit, then some grits for second breakfast. We slowly organized our gear, then broke camp. We were heading out of camp around 1:30, down to lower elevation, when we were smacked by a fierce wind on the west buttress. Two climbers were heading back to camp after attempting to descend. We turned around and went back to camp, with the plan to sit out for an hour and see if the winds died down. After an hour watching the ridge, the guides came back and said it still wasn't good, and we weren't doing ourselves any favors sitting outside in the cold. So the plan was to set up the tents and wait a few more hours, ready to move quickly. Around 5, the guides woke us from napping to "take our temperature," so to speak, about moving down to 14,000. I would have liked to get lower, but at that point, I could have gone either way. The guides came back with the decision to spend one more night at 17,000 and get up early the next morning and go down to 9600. Dinner was Mountain House, I got beef stroganoff, which was decent, but far from what I'm craving once we get back to civilization.

Day 18: Move down to 11,000
Twitchy legs. Wind. Touch of precip. The weather looked a little better when I had to take a crap at 5am than it did when we got up at 7. It was cold, snowing, but not super windy. My toes were frozen most of the morning. When they warmed up some, the big toes were really painful. I knew they were dead and there was nothing I could do about it. No real issues on the ridge or coming down the fixed lines. Stopped at 14,000 where Dave Hahn had some hot water ready for us and soup packets. I was quite warm when we rolled in, but still enjoyed a little soup. The impossible task of cramming 80 pounds of gear in a 60-pound pack. Windy once we came around Windy Corner, across polo fields. Lindsay breaking trail down Squirrel Hill and Motorcycle Hill to 11,000 camp. There was about 2 feet of powder on motorcycle. It felt a lot better for me, because I could plunge step and put the weight on my heels, instead of the destroyed toes like the harder sections. It was 5 or so, not surprised at all the guides said to set up camp. At first they made it sound like they were going to set up the tents for us, which sounded awesome to me at that point, but we pitched in (I did very little, mostly hobbled about). My feet, the right especially, looked terrible. After dinner of Tasty Bites, Gil performed surgery, drilling holes in the big toe nails with a needle and draining the blood. It hurt a little, when he was squeezing out the blood, but they looked so much better after.

Day 19: Move to Base Camp
A team comes through in the night to dig up their cache. 3-ish wakeup. Breakfast of cheese grits. Break camp. Sleds and snowshoes. Missing 9600 cache (it was just trash so no big deal). Reconfigure at 7600 camp. Weaving through the lower Kahiltna. When doglegging around what Pete determined to be too weak of a bridge, I was being pulled by the rope, and lost track of where the crevasse was, and wound up stepping right on the bridge, breaking through. I went in to my right knee. I tried to put as much of my weight forward and just step out. Because of the snowshoe, I had to wiggle my foot a little to get it out. I looked back and saw the big hole where my shoe was, but I couldn't see into the crevasse. We made our last break at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill. I was already broiling in just a base layer, uphill was brutal in the sun and no wind. I was so glad when Gail dropped a pole, because it gave me a chance to reach down and grab a chunk of snow to cool myself with a little. We get up to the upper runway, and there are 5 planes waiting! And the 4 K2 planes are already full with people who have been waiting as much as 2 days. A couple more TAT planes come to finish taking their people off. Leaves us and the SAS plane that couldn't leave due to conditions and low fuel for the night. Old guy [Tom Choate, who had just become the oldest person to summit Denali, at age 78], guy sleeping on sleds, other guy, pilot. Tortellini for dinner. I had been missing our dinners together since the death of the posh, so I started to fashion a seating area for everyone to eat together. With some help, it came together and it was really nice to sit together and share some stories. Bed at 11.

Day 20: Off the mountain
Slept pretty well. By some peculiarity of the weather and flying rules, while our K2 planes couldn't come and pick us up, TAT was landing tourist flights. We felt very much like zoo animals. With a few exceptions, everyone that got off the scenic flights walked around a little, took some photos, and flew off, not showing any interest or understanding of what we had done. SAS's clients go with TAT, Sheldon gets off. "Brunch" of burritos noon-ish. 4 off on a Beaver- Gil, Geoff, Derek, Wyatt. Call at 4, nothing in the air. Pete and Robby skin up for a couple turns. A TAT plane does a fly-by. K2 Otter lands. We load up super quickly. Take off. Pica Pass. Green! Land. The smells. Motel. Shower! Dinner at Twister Creek. More drinks at Fairview. Being in Talkeetna after three weeks on the mountain was one of the most surreal things ever for me- after seeing only fit climbers for that time it was bizarre to see mostly "typical American tourists" in town (ie overweight). Some of the townspeople immediately recognized us as climbers by our sunburnt and perhaps a bit gaunt faces. (Actually a TSA agent asked me how the climb went just before I flew out.)

Wake up at 10:30, missed breakfast. Roadhouse for pancake and sausage. I wanted anything other than boots to wear on my feet, and was very glad to buy a pair of flip flops at the gear shop in town; I wore nothing else until days after returning home. Airport. Check out. Airport. Pizza. Van to Anchorage. First off at Guesthouse. Dinner at Glacier Brewhouse. Facebook message from Gail. Run to Bear Tooth Grill. Happy times with Gail, Derek, and Lindsay.

Breakfast with folks. They head on, I check out and wander around downtown Anchorage.
Overnight flight back home
One of the strangest things coming back home after three weeks in Alaska was that it was dark at night. The first few nights I woke up some time in the night, and was terribly confused as to why it was dark. It was terribly disorienting.

[epilogue July 2015]
Since this trip, I have continued working on the state highpoints, and now stand at 43. Most of those have been documented on this blog. I have climbed twice with Geoff and RMI- February 2014 in Mexico and January 2015 ice climbing in Ouray Colorado (I haven't posted reports of either of those trips). Now that I've been to the #1 and #3 tallest mountains in North America (Mexico's highest, Pico de Orizaba, is #3 in NA) with Geoff, I've been trying to convince RMI they need to start a program to Canada's highest, and #2 in NA, Mt. Logan, led by Geoff Schellens.

1 comment:

The Former PK said...

Hi! Just enjoyed reading through your blog post about Denali. My husband is on the mountain right now with Pete & Robby with RMI. They have been stuck at 14K this whole week because of weather. Today is day 17 and we are all hoping the weather breaks for them to move up and summit. Anyway, just thought I'd say hi.