Denali - Trip Report - Part 11

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Sunday, May 18:

It was very clear but bone-chillingly cold this morning. As usual, I put my boots on first thing as I got out of the tent, but this morning my toes were cold as soon as I put them on, and my vapor-barrier socks, which I thought would solve this problem, were not helping. Anyway, I went to the cook tent with the others and had cold cereal sweetened with brown sugar for breakfast--it was very good, and it was a shame I spilled some of it on to the cook tent's snowy floor.

After breakfast we all milled about and got ready to do another carry. All of our stuff was now here at 11,000', and today's plan was to establish a cache of food and fuel at 13,600', beyond a place called Windy Corner. Barry had decided to bail out of our trip--he still was not feeling well, and the thought of hauling a load uphill was just too much. We were all disappointed, since Barry was well-liked and we felt sorry that he was giving up his summit dream. Steve went over to Rodrigo's camp, where the two guides discussed how to get him and some of Rodrigo's ailing clients down. Also, Joe left our group after two days, setting off uphill with Julian and his partner.

The rest of us, though, were freezing to death waiting around for all of this to happen. The sun, although out for most of the day, was always low in the sky, and it didn't shine over the steep mountains walls near our camp until 9:20 AM. My toes were really cold, and I jogged around in circles trying to warm them up. Bill, Andy, and the others were also complaining about the frigidity as we got our sleds set up and packs organized. It looked pretty cold and windy uphill from us, too, with big plumes of snow blowing off of the ridges.

Photo: Tents at the 11,000 foot camp in the snow.

The sun didn't really help when it finally came out, and shortly after that the guides told us that we were going to wait an hour before going anyway, to give them time to see Barry off and to let the wind die down a bit. I immediately returned to my tent, where I took off my boots and warmed up my feet by putting on my booties and stuffing them in my sleeping bag. While I rested Barry was getting all packed up, and we chatted while he got his gear together. Mark Newcomb, Rodrigo's junior apprentice guide, was taking two of Rodrigo's clients back to the airstrip today, and Barry was hooking up with them. I wished him well, and told him that Mark had guided me in Wyoming and was a good guy. Barry left, and was soon heading downhill. Later we heard that he had gotten to the airstrip that same afternoon and had flown out immediately to Talkeetna.

My feet were soon warmed up, and when I put my boots back on my toes were fine. In the future I tried to keep my boots warmer during the night by bringing the liners into the tent with me, and I vowed to wear my booties in the morning while eating breakfast, changing into my boots only when we were ready to go. Our expedition was now only eight strong after Barry's departure, and we got loaded up and ready to go at 10:30 AM. I was third on a rope again, still the only position I had ever been, this time behind Steve and Andy and ahead of Luis.

We started up Motorcycle Hill, the steep slope above the 11,000' camp, and the sleds became a real drag--literally. Above 11,000' the snow on McKinley was all pretty much rock-hard windslab or ice, so we would be using our crampons exclusively from here on out. The steep upper slopes of the hill demanded careful French technique, but the sleds tended to drag you down and throw you off balance as they pendulumed below you on the ice. Luis especially had problems here, and since he was last on our rope, Mike, leading the other rope, was immediately behind him, and he could help Luis out with his harness and sled problems. It looked to me like Luis had not yet discovered the trick I had for getting the sled on right, and at the next rest I told him how to do it, helping him out a lot.

We were all exhausted after cresting the last steep rise of Motorcycle Hill, and we rested briefly in the wind while gazing down a cliff to the Peters Glacier far below. This spot also provided great views of the Washburn Wall, a huge mixed face that Steve had made the first ascent of last year. Steve pointed out to Mike his route and the other Grade VI climbs he had done or wanted to do on the massive faces of the West Buttress Ridge, and the rest of us just were in awe of anyone off soloing stuff like that. From our rest stop we had to traverse a steep slope and then work our way uphill a bit next to some rocks--Steve called this area Squirrel Hill, but Randall's book claimed that was an alternate name for Motorcycle Hill. It was tiring, and the wind had really picked up, and the sleds were a total bummer as they dragged us sideways on the traverses.

Today the two rope teams were staying together well--Luis was slowing down Steve enough so Mike could keep pace. We arrived together at the top of Squirrel Hill, a flat ridge of blue ice, and continued on to a better resting spot. I chatted very briefly with some climbers passing us and found out they were Dutch, and we stopped for lunch a little ways behind them, after getting past the flat, windy, and icy spots on the ridge. I mentioned their nationality to Bruno, who went over to talk in his native tongue to them for a bit--it turned out he knew one of the guys, and had been in contact with him about some climbs.

From our lunch spot we could see the route, which was a long, rising traverse to the prominent Windy Corner pass, with many climbers spread out like ants along the route as it skirted below the cliffs that ended abruptly at Windy Corner. We got going again, and were soon in heads-down slog mode. Not surprisingly, given the name of the feature we were approaching, it was very windy, but clear, and the higher we went the more the views opened up. Mt. Foraker, the 17,400' giant just west of McKinley, was the dominant feature in our views for the next ten days.

Luis was lagging as we neared the pass. Earlier he had called up from his last-most spot on our rope team to slow things down, and now he started needing rests. As we climbed the steepest section of the route, the icy, bulletproof boilerplate below the pass, Luis called out "guys, I'm really struggling here". I was the only one who could hear him, so I relayed the message up the rope, and Steve called a halt for Luis to pant and recover. He claimed to have some kind of condition that had been affecting him back at home in L.A., too, where he would get nauseous after exercise. The rest of us were worried for him.

We finally reached the desolate, windswept rock and ice of the pass at Windy Corner, where we took a nice long rest--somehow the wind wasn't so bad anymore. We were right above Rodrigo's group, and Bill started asking Steve if Rodrigo was the same Rodrigo he had read about unflatteringly in a book about Aconcagua. Rodrigo actually overheard us, and he came up to defend his honor, saying that he was not the guy in the book.

The snow was way too hard to make a cache where we were, so we had no choice but to continue on despite the late hour and our tiredness. From the pass the route ascended a steep, icy slope, then traversed for a short stretch above some crevasses before plunging through a flat field of yawning slots, zigzagging around them. The snowbridges looked secure, though, and we were soon past the hazardous terrain and on a gentle, snowy slope that eventually led up to the 14,300' camp. We stopped very soon after the crevasses, though, and started digging our cache. This was hard work, since there was an icy layer of snow a couple of feet down that we had to chop away with our ice axes--Mike did most of the shoveling, helped by the rest of us when he got tired.

The summits, including McKinley itself, were encased in cloud caps, but it was actually quite a nice day by now for us down at 13,600'. When not digging we rested and took pictures, and we watched other groups making their caches nearby. Also, Joe DeMarsh came by with Julian's team, and he saw us and shouted out a tasteless and dumb joke. He kept going without stopping, and we all cracked up at his ribald humor that came right out of the blue. I was in tears at the sheer hilarious stupidity of it.

Eventually we had our cache hole dug, and we threw our heavy sled-loads of food and fuel into it. Happy now that our sleds were empty, we started downhill. Steve liked to be last when going down, so Luis led our team off, followed by me, Andy, and Steve. We quickly went on down through the crevasses, around the ice at Windy Corner, and down on towards 11,000'. Luis had utterly no problems now that he was going downhill, and we didn't stop once as we flew all the way back to camp in 50 minutes. There were some steep, icy sections, but with no weight in our sleds it wasn't so bad. My feet did begin to hurt from the downhill pounding they were getting, but that was par for the course with plastic boots that were purposely too big, I figured.

It was late when we got back to camp, and we all hung out and rested after a hard day. Steve got the stoves going and whipped up more pasta with garlic pesto sauce, and while he was cooking I walked over to visit Glenn Morrison, Shawn Parry, Julie Smith, and Ron Raff--I had seen their campsite while hiking back down into camp. They were doing OK, and I told them about the route above us, including the horror of traversing with sleds. Glenn confided to me that Shawn, who had been gung-ho for the West Rib or the Cassin back in Seattle, was kind of dragging, and that it was good he was not on one of those harder routes.

We all retired to our tents very soon after dinner. With Barry gone, we no longer had to stuff three people into a tent, and Bruno, who had been crammed in with Andy and Bill, came over into my tent. I now had Bruno as a tentmate for the entire rest of the trip; the other tents had Andy and Bill, Greg W and Luis, and Steve and Mike.

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