Mount Fairweather - Trip Report - Part 3Click here to go to the Peak Page for Mount Fairweather
Wednesday, June 11th, 2008:
We were awakened in our motel room at 7 AM by a call from our pilot Drake--I answered the phone and he told me he had a strong hunch that today might be the day we finally get flown in to Fairweather. I groggily parted the curtains and saw the typical layer of low, leaden clouds outside, so I was skeptical, but I still told him we'd get ourselves to the airport by 8:30 AM.
We had the usual continental breakfast of muffins, bagels, and juice upstairs in the Captain's Choice Motel's kitchen room, and then we packed up our meager amount of "city clothes" and other stuff. After yet another short van ride to the Haines Airport, we were back at Drake's hanger, discussing the weather with him. It was definitely overcast, but there was some light getting through on some distant mountains to the northwest, and we hemmed and hawed for a bit before Drake finally said we should go for it. We were a bit hesitant to spend a couple hundred dollars on another aborted attempt, but he seemed strangely confident.
So Edward and Dave got dressed and packed up--they had all the gear sorted for spending a night on the mountain in case I didn't make it in the second trip. At about 9:45 I waved as the three of them took off, and I honestly thought they all would be returning shortly. I didn't even get dressed into my mountain clothes at first--I just organized gear, ate some food, and wandered around the airport area.
At 10:45, Edward's cellphone rang in my vest pocket--it was Dave, calling me from the Grand Plateau Glacier! He was using the satphone, telling me that he had just been dropped off and that Drake was now on his way back to pick me up. Finally! I quickly got dressed and moved the rest of our gear out in front of the hanger, making time to leave a quick phone message for my wife with the news that I would at last be starting my climb.
Drake showed up at 11:30 AM and was strictly no-nonsense as he taxied to the hangar, loaded me and my gear onboard his Cessna 180, shut the hangar door, fueled up, and took off. I don't think he said more than 2 sentences during this time--he wanted to make sure I joined my partners on the mountain before the weather shifted. He flew up to the cloud ceiling and started looking for holes in what was a pretty thin layer, and soon found a wispy opening and emerged into a clear-blue day, with incredible jagged peaks rising above the low clouds. For me, it was the most spectacular plane flight I had ever been on.
Once safely above the clouds, Drake chatted for a long time about his business, flying in Alaska, and other interesting topics as we cruised towards the enormous Fairweather massif. We circled over Mounts Root and Watson, and then he landed in his previous snow tracks in the middle of the vast, flat expanse of the Grand Plateau glacier at 9700 feet altitude. Dave and Edward were there, still hauling gear up to a campsite they had picked a ¼ mile away. I jumped out, grabbed my pack and duffel bags, and then we all chatted with Drake briefly about pickup times and communication. Then he took off--as on previous air-support expeditions, I felt very alone as the plane left us. For the duration of our stay in the icy majesty of the Fairweather Range, the nearest human being to us not in a boat or plane would be over 50 miles away.
We had work to do now--first, Dave, Edward, and I moved all out gear to a random spot in the snow and dug out a tent platform. We had two tents, and we pitched the smaller one here to serve as a cache tent for storing supplies we would leave in case we had to wait a few days to fly out. Plus, it would be a nice basecamp to return to, without having to do the work of digging and pitching. We even build up a snow-block wall around it. We then sorted through our gear, deciding what to leave and what to take. We had brought way too much food, so we had to leave quite a bit behind. The only serious omission we found was that Edward had inadvertently left his harness behind, so he would have to make due with a makeshift collection of runners and carabiners.
After several hours, we were ready to move out. Even though it was late in the afternoon by now, we wanted to take advantage of the good weather and the long Alaskan day and get ourselves closer to the peak. So we stuffed our packs full, and loaded up our one sled with gear, too--Edward had the smallest pack so he volunteered to pull the sled behind him. So we set out--I went first, followed by Edward, the sled, and finally Dave.
The terrain was just a giant field of snow. We could clearly see our objective--the bulk of Fairweather loomed ahead, and the valley between it and its distinct west peak was our route. There were no crevasses here on the Grand Plateau Glacier, just low, rolling humps. I tried to find the best, most level route, but unfortunately took a line that sidehilled a bit at one point, which was no good for the sled. We stopped to strap the duffel bag into the sled better, and while futzing around my eyeglasses got dropped and slid down the slope about 100 feet--Dave retrieved them without too much effort. The sled was much better with one of my straps holding the duffel bag down.
Dave led next (Edward, with his makeshift harness, was in the middle for most of our trip). We traveled until we were just below the steep part of the west valley--any further would have been hard with a sled. We were about 1.6 miles from our landing site, at an altitude of 10,700 feet, having gained about 1000 feet. Not a long day on the trail at all, but it was 6 PM and we had hours ahead of digging a tent platform, pitching our tent, cooking, melting snow, and other chores.
We were happy to get into our tent, where Dave cooked us our dinner using his hanging butane stove. Dave's tent was very roomy, and Edward volunteered to be in the middle, which was fine by the rest of us. After eating we had the usual endless organizing of stuff, and we all finally settled in for the night.
Thursday, June 12th, 2008:
We awoke in our tent at 10,700' to a windy snowstorm outside. It was pretty miserable all morning, and we lounged in our tent, going out every now and then to shovel away the snow that drifted around the tent or to go to the bathroom. We ate, dozed, chatted, or otherwise hung out. By early afternoon it was obvious that we were not going anywhere this day--Alaska mountaineering trips always involve tentbound storm days, so we were not surprised or alarmed. By afternoon, it cleared up a bit, and we could see up the west valley--our route--a little bit. But it was still windy with blowing snow, so even though it never really got 100% dark out in June in Alaska, we never took advantage of that by setting out late in the day.
For me, today was mainly an opportunity to acclimatize (I had a minor headache after suddenly being whisked to 10,000 feet from sea level) and to get back into the groove of expedition snow camping. For me, it had been 10 years since my last big snow mountain trip, and I found Dave's more recent experience to be very helpful in relearning a lot of the minor details of life in a tent on the snow. My main contribution today was to melt a couple of gallons of water from snow chunks using my MSR stove, something that took an hour or two.
Dave tried the satphone a couple of times, but even though it had worked down at the landing site, it never got a signal. We were at the northern limit of its range, and now had a big mountain wall to our south, likely blocking the satellites from view.
We went to bed in the Alaska twilight, spending our second night at 10,700' with hopes we would leave tomorrow.
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