Denali - Trip Report - Part 14

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Wednesday, May 21:

It was very stormy this morning--the usual McKinley condition of strong wind blowing snow everywhere, making it difficult to determine if the snow was actually falling from the sky or else just getting blown from somewhere. I emerged from the tents at 9:30 AM, late by mountain standards, to find that once again I was the first one out. I shoveled out the tent Bruno and I shared, annoyed that the narrow space between the tent and the walls of our compound were natural snow traps. The guides heard me, and again I distributed breakfast bars to our tents. After eating and some more shoveling, I retired to the tent to wait out the blizzard.

By around noon the weather had improved, and the sun was out eventually, even though it was still kind of windy. We all were up and out by early afternoon, hanging out as usual--taking pictures, talking, organizing gear, looking at the scenery. We could see where we were for the first time, and I saw that the 14,300' camp was in a huge, wide , protected bowl ringed by high mountain walls halfway around. It seemed there was plenty of room for campsites, and I wondered why they were so densely clustered. The route up form here was visible as it climbed up out of the bowl and scaled the steep upper slopes on some fixed lines installed by the park service and maintained by the various guides, and a few ant-like climbers could be seen making there way up.

At about 1:30 PM Mike and Steve announced that the weather was good enough to go down and retrieve the cache at 13,600'. However, Steve was to stay behind and erect the cook tent, and he needed an assistant--Luis, still tired from yesterday, quickly volunteered. So Mike took Greg W and Bruno on his rope, and Andy, myself, and Bill made up the other team. This was the only time anyone in our group traveled without a guide on the rope, and I think this showed that the guides had a lot of confidence in Andy as a climber, leader, and mountaineer. I also maybe thought that they might have similar feelings about me, on the other end of the rope from Andy.

Our trip down to the cache and back was a lark. We were gone for only two hours, from 2 to 4 PM, it was actually warm and sunny out, we were sheltered from the wind, and we were amazed how short a distance it was. The only hard part of the route was a snowbridge over a huge crevasse just below camp; otherwise, it was just easy, low angle glacier travel. We dug out the cache, divided the food and stuff into six piles (I was appointed auditor to make sure the piles were of equal weight), and we were soon off uphill. Andy, the hiking machine, set a brisk pace that soon left Mike's team in the dust, and Bill and I were just barely keeping up. It seemed to me that my sled load might have been the lightest, but I was glad, because I needed every advantage I could get to keep up with Andy. This uphill trip was the furthest away from guides anyone ever got on our trip.

Back at the bustling 14,300' camp we saw that Steve and Luis had dug out a nice circular pit for the cook tent, but it was not yet up. I rested back in my tent with Bruno, and after a few lazy hours the guides called for one volunteer per tent to help finally erect the cook tent. Luis, Bill, and I volunteered, not knowing what we were getting in to. Erecting the tent and getting the center pole up was pretty easy, but after that we were told to quarry some blocks to build a wall around it.

This turned into a backbreaking ordeal. There was a quarry thirty feet away from the cook tent, and Steve, Luis, Bill, and I slaved away cutting blocks, carrying them over to the campsite, and placing them in the wall. Luis was the main cutter, looking like Edward Scissorhands with the snow saws attached to his wrists, and I worked the shovel, removing the blocks he cut. I carried them to Bill, who carried them to Steve, who placed them in the wall. I now know how the pyramid builders must have felt. The snow in the quarry area was of variable quality, and the whole process took some getting used to, and we were soon sweating like pigs. It had gotten cold and windy, too, and I had to wear goggles and mittens to keep warm. After about three hours we had a very nice wall, though.

Dinner tonight was rice and beans, which I found to be pretty gross. Still, it was nice to just sit and rest in the cook tent, and, given my labor earlier, I felt safe in blowing off the usual after-dinner chores such as pot- scrubbing or compacting trash by stuffing it into used gas cans. I retired to my tent, again with Bruno, and we went to sleep. The guides' tent was still right next to ours, but I didn't hear them say anything.

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