Denali - Trip Report - Part 13

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Tuesday, May 20:

Today we moved our camp from 11,000' to 14,300'. Since digging a campsite was such hard work, and abandoned campsites saved so much of that work, we really wanted to get to 14,300' fast and claim an old campsite before they were gone. So, taking a page from Rodrigo's book, the guides asked for volunteers who were willing to go fast for an "A" team, led by Steve, that would try to get up to 14,300' quickly and snag a site. The others, in Mike's team, would stay behind to finish packing up camp and take their time getting uphill.

It was obvious that Luis was to be on the slow team, given the struggles he was having, and Greg W, although a very strong climber, would probably be happy to stay on the slow team with his longtime climbing partner. I knew I was strong enough to be on the "A" team, but I was feeling bad about all the sled/snowshoe/harness/clothing adjustment rests I seemed to need, so I let Andy, Bill, and Bruno volunteer to be on the fast team. They were all strong hikers, and, besides, I didn't mind being a bit slow and relaxed now and then.

Actually, there was some debate as to whether or not we would go at all this morning. It was pretty cloudy and windy, and we could not see the nearby peaks very well through the blowing snow. Still, we were low enough on the mountain that it wouldn't get too bad, or so we hoped. Anyway, after breakfast the "A" team took their share of gear and headed on up Motorcycle Hill, and we in the "B" team took down the cook tent, put everyone's snowshoes and other stuff in a cache hole, and did other chores before we were saddled up and ready to go. Mike took the bag full of human waste from our latrine and put it on his sled, and at the first crevasse on Motorcycle Hill he heaved it in. We made jokes about him "hauling all this shit around" and the like, of course. He was followed by Luis, me, and Greg W.

The route was exactly the same as two days ago: up steep Motorcycle Hill; across the nasty, steep traverses of Squirrel Hill; the flat, bare ice above; and the long ascending traverse to Windy Corner. This time, though, the weather was far worse, with harsh winds blasting us the whole time. It was worse the higher up we got, and I needed to put on my balaclava and goggles to keep blowing snow from blinding me on Squirrel Hill. However, while getting the complex arrangement of sunglasses, balaclava, goggles, hat, and hood all set up, my green fuzzy baseball cap with ear flaps blew away while I was holding it under my arm. I figured it was gone, given the strength of the wind, and was happy that I had a wool balaclava that would double as a hat. However, in an amazing stroke of luck, the hat had blown directly to Greg W behind me on the rope, and he had caught it. Mike, who had stopped the rope team for me, was watching this scene, and he was not amused. I was glad that at least I wasn't holding up the "A" team with this stuff.

The wind ripped us ferociously on the bare ice atop Squirrel Hill, but we heard rumors that it wasn't as bad at Windy Corner. Amazingly, they were correct--it was still very, very windy, and the blowing snow made visibility a big problem, but somehow we managed OK. Luis was slow, but since he was right behind Mike he could directly tell him to slow the pace down or that he needed a short break. Once around the corner on the nasty traverses we were in a thick fog, but the wind died down a bit. We took a rest near where we had made our cache, and then we followed the beaten-down path uphill for an hour or so. I got really tired on this stretch, because the wind was still blasting me, my water bottle on my pack had frozen so I could not drink, and the endless uphill in a white-out was discouraging. Luis was really ailing as we approached 14,300', and he often asked for halts so he could catch his breath. Secretly, I was glad for these halts, too.

At long last I saw a series of dark shapes in the whiteness above, and as they got closer they morphed into tents. Dead to the world, Mike, Luis, Greg W and I stumbled into the densely clustered series of campsites, reminiscent of a Neolithic adobe village, and somehow found the campsite Steve, Andy, Bill, and Bruno had claimed for us. It was right in the middle of things, but it looked well sheltered. There was a tent set up, and the four of us who had just arrived all went inside and sat down on Crazy Creek chairs to eat a late lunch--the conditions on our climb up had been so bad we had never stopped to eat. Lunch was some canned brown bread, frozen cream cheese we ate in chunks, and candy bars. Most importantly, we drank lots of water. We heard about a minor incident on the other rope team--apparently Bruno fell into a crevasse near Windy Corner. His goggles had fogged up, and he was following the rope in front of him instead of the beaten-down path in the snow, and he punched through. He didn't go in far, and he was able to climb out, unhurt, easily.

Once we were rested the four of us emerged to help set up the rest of our camp. The tent we had been resting in was an AAI tent left by Joe's group, so we only had to pitch three of ours. Our site needed leveling and enlarging, and still the four tents were a tight fit, crammed right against the walls of the site and each other. Fortunately, the weather was improving, and the wind diminishing.

The 14,300' camp was a bustling center of activity. The National Park Service staffed a quonset hut with volunteer rangers, a helipad was set up next to that, and there were two wooden latrines. About thirty or more expeditions had set up their camps here, and many of the pits and walls were right next to each other. The snow-block walls surrounding our site also protected neighboring sites as well, since we were right in the middle of things. This made shoveling things out hard, since there was often no place to shovel the unwanted snow.

We did not set up our cook tent tonight, since we were too tired after being blown out on the trail. The guides set up the stoves in a neighboring snow-block alcove and made hot water for people, and we all stood around and had some cocoa, tea, coffee, soup and noodles that they cooked up. By late evening it was actually nice enough out to stand around, but once we had eaten we all retired to our tents quickly, tired.

Our tents were all pitched so closely together, though, that we could have conversations among ourselves while in our sleeping bags. Someone started postulating movie questions, such as "OK--the best action movie of all time" or "best comedy of all time", followed by debate on the pros and cons of various candidates. Bill, Luis, Greg W, and I had all seen a great deal of movies, and the guides were amazed at the way we knowledgeably threw out obscure flicks. This soon degenerated into a game of "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon", where we tried to link actors to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less, before we nodded off.

More interesting, though, was the conversations I overheard from Steve and Mike's tent, right next door. The wind occasionally flapped the tents, but I could definitely make out most of what they were saying. They talked about Bruno falling into a crevasse, and Mike told Steve about the way my hat had blown away. I hoped for more juicy nuggets, but then Steve started a long story about non-trip related stuff. I lost interest, and they stopped talking after a while, and we all fell asleep. It was the highest up night I had ever spent, eclipsing my record of 13,000' in a hut in Mexico in 1993.

Thoughts at 14,300':

Now that we had finally arrived at the 14,300' camp, the halfway point of the expedition, I felt like we were getting somewhere. However, I still had doubts about whether we were going to make it. I imagined that the guides might send some of us back, and that I might be considered one of the weaker expedition members. I was worried about Luis, who seemed at this point to be a real weak link, and it was easy to imagine that he would have to taken down by Mike, with maybe another climber, maybe even me. I could picture this happening, say, on our summit day.

I was doing pretty well on the expedition. I was in strong physical shape, and I was keeping up with the rope teams with no problems. In addition, I knew how to work my gear, I was sure footed, and I think my experience in the mountains was evident to the guides. My main problem was that I was too used to solo mountaineering, when I was free to drink water, eat snacks, rest a bit, take pictures, shed a layer of clothing, or admire views whenever I wanted to. Travelling on rope teams meant that I often had to suffer in silence until the next time the guide called a halt before I could do anything. I was getting better at this as the trip progressed, but I still had problems getting my gear together quickly and getting all the complex stuff--sleds, ropes, prusiks, harnesses, clothing systems, packs, etc.--just right all the time. I fervently hoped that the guides didn't deny me the summit at a critical juncture because of all this, and indeed after the blowing hat incident the only problem I had was a minor rope-entanglement thing a few days later.

The first night at 14,300' was our eighth night on the mountain, and before this trip the longest I had ever camped out was for six nights in a row, and my maximum stretch solely in tents was four nights (I used lean-tos on the longer trip). By now the whole expedition thing was getting to be a real drag--hauling loads and climbing the mountain twice was discouraging, the sleds really sucked, the weather was horrible, it was cold and windy all the time, I was terribly grungy and unwashed, going to the bathroom was a major ordeal, and no one seemed very happy. I had pretty much made up my mind by this point that this was going to be my first and last expedition, and I really wanted the summit, because I felt certain that I would never be coming back to try this kind of thing again.

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