Denali - Trip Report - Part 15

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Thursday, May 22:

There was a certain sameness to the days at the 14,300' camp. Again, there was wind and snow overnight, and again I was up early, and again I had to shovel out my (and Bruno's) tent from the drifts that almost covered half of it. We had breakfast in the cook tent, which we first had to shovel off--at night, the guides would put most of the stuff like stoves into duffel bags and then take down the center pole. The weather was too crummy to move in the morning, so there was more hanging out, either in my tent, or outside, or in the cook tent, all punctuated by trips to the distant latrines, off in the snowy tundra a little below the campsite area.

It got very warm and sunny by mid-morning, and at about 1 PM we ate our lunch of cold food while hanging out in the sun and snapping photos. A long line of ant-like climbers could be seen heading up the path and going up the fixed lines, and we started wondering why we were hanging out--the plan for today was to carry a load of stuff up to the top of the fixed lines at 16,300' and make a cache. The guides, though, were doing some housekeeping and organizing--they moved their tent over to an empty site nearby, leaving us more room inside our main compound, and they got out the gear we would need to go up the fixed lines. They were probably waiting for the wind to die down a bit, and for the huge crowd of climbers heading up to dissipate so we would not encounter a bottleneck at the fixed lines.

So far we had been given virtually no mountaineering instruction on our trip--no self-arrest practice, no crevasse rescue practice, or anything of the sort. This was perhaps due to the guide's confidence in us as a strong and experienced group, confidence I shared. However, this afternoon Steve and Mike set up some pickets in the snow near our camp and made us practice using a jumar to ascend a fixed line and also clipping a carabiner in to a running belay--the fixed lines we would be ascended today, and the running belay would be used later, on summit day.

It was 3 PM before we were finished with practice and roped up for our carry. We no longer used sleds, since the terrain was now too steep, so we jammed huge food bags into our packs, making them very heavy and bulky. I was third on Mike's rope team, following Luis and ahead of Bruno, and, needless to say, we were the slow team. Luis called out for rests as we made out way up the 1000 vertical feet of moderate angle snow to the fixed lines, and we arrived there well behind Steve's team. I continued to worry about him and his chances for making the summit.

The fixed lines ascended about 800 vertical feet of ice that averaged about 45 or 50 degrees, which was pretty steep. They were two long, parallel lines of twisted nylon rope anchored into the ice solidly with bombproof pickets, and the two ropes were about twenty feet apart--one was for going up and the other for descending. The idea was for one or more climbers from each rope team to use a jumar--a ratchet device that could be slid up the rope but caught and held when pushed down--as a safety catch in case of a slip on the steep ice. The hardest part of the whole pitch was at the very bottom, where a twenty-foot high vertical ice cliff had to be scaled. This cliff was called "the bergschrund", although I thought that bergschrunds were usually crevasses, not cliffs.

On our teams only the guide and the second guy on the rope would use jumars, and the rest of us would just use carabiners clipped into the rope. I was third, behind Mike and Luis, so they fastened their jumars and went on up, and when I got to the rope, just below the cliff, I slipped a biner on and attached it to my harness with a daisy chain. The cliff had some footholds cut into it, and it was not that hard, but we all still swung our axes up high to help pull ourselves up for this short section. Luis, despite the problems he was having with nausea and exhaustion, was an excellent technical climber, and he was truly in his element on the steep ice. He expertly made his way up the cliff, and his French technique on the remainder of the slope was excellent. I was a little uncomfortable on the steep ice above the cliff, but eventually got into a groove where I was holding on to the rope for balance and security while pointing my feet downhill, getting all of my points into the icy, crusty snow as I climbed uphill.

No one fell in our group on the fixed lines, and my main problem was that I got tired and thirsty, since resting was not really possible. Whenever someone reached a picket holding the lines in--they were about a hundred or more feet apart--we all had to stop while the jumar or biner was taken off and put back on the new rope section, and this provided some short halts, but standing with my ankles ramped severely on the steep slope was not very restful. I was happy when I saw the rocks to either side of the fixed lines get closer, and soon we were cresting the steep slope and emerging atop the West Buttress ridge.

For the first time on the expedition I felt like we were really up on a mountain instead of trudging around on the lower glaciers. The top of the fixed lines was at about 16,200', and on a well-defined, narrow ridge that provided awesome views down in almost all directions--the distant mountain ranges, glacier, and tundra stretched off into infinity. It was very windy and cold, though, and as we rested we all put on balaclavas and down jackets. Luis's competence on the ice had brought our team to right behind Steve, Andy, Bill, and Greg W, but we needed more time to rest and so they took off first.

The plan was to leave all of the stuff we were carrying in two AAI tents that were in a campsite a hundred vertical feet above us. The tents were being used by the other AAI West Buttress team on the mountain, one being led by Vince Langmann. Joe DeMarsh had been the other guide on this trip, but he was now back down at basecamp, since at some point--I don't know when--he had to escort some other members of this group off the mountain. Today Vince and the four or so climbers left in this group were making their desperate last summit bid, using the 16,300' camp as their last camp because it had been too windy for them to go further along the ridge to 17,150' and set up camp.

Steve and Mike had been in contact with Vince on the CB radio, and they had come up with a complex plan to save us both some work. Basically, Vince would descend to 14,300' tomorrow, after his summit bid today, but leave behind the two tents and some food. We would leave some more food today, doing our normal, planned, carry. When Vince got to 14,300', we would give him two of our five tents (we had five because we had a tent Joe had left us). Then, we'd cram the 8 of us into three tents for a night or two at 14,300', cache a tent, only carry two tents up the fixed lines, and then pick up the two at 16,300' so we would have four tents at 17,150' for our high camp. Got all that?

Also, the cache we were making today was only to be used in case we all got stranded at 17,150' feet for a few days, and I think we were making today's trip mainly as an acclimatization exercise. The plan was to move ourselves from 14,300' to 17,150' one day and go for the summit the next day, and only if we were pinned down for more than a couple days would we return down to pick up the food in the 16,300' cache. This seemed a little strange to me, but I guess it is a plan that had worked in the past.

Anyway, Mike, Luis, Bruno, and I climbed the short, steep, icy slope from the minor col at the top of the fixed lines up to the campsite area, a bleak and windy spot beneath some rocks with snow-block walls protecting a few forlorn tents. Steve's team was leaving when we arrived, and we quickly unloaded all the food in our packs and threw it into Vince's two tents. The wind was ripping across the ridge, and after eating some snacks and taking some pictures we were ready to descend. We were all emotional and excited about having come up this far, looking down to the low clouds thousands of feet below us covering most of the tundra. Luis yelled through the wind to Mike, asking "is this as far as I'm going to make it?" Mike shouted "no way", but I had my doubts.

It was late, and we had a steep and treacherous 2000 vertical feet to descend back to camp. We got back down to the fixed lines, and Bruno went first, followed by me, Luis, and Mike, the latter two again with the jumars. This was easier than ascending--I slid my mittens along the rope, and ramping my feet downhill while going that way was easier than coming up. It was still very tricky cramponing, demanding careful technique, but it seemed to go very fast. The foot sockets in the bergschrund made even that pretty easy.

Below the fixed lines we had an easy downhill snow slog to the 14,300' camp, plainly visible below. By myself, it would have taken me about twenty minutes to buzz on down. But Luis was totally blown out and beat, and even on the downhill he needed frequent rests. It seemed like he could barely move at times, or was on the verge of collapse, and it took us over an hour to get back into camp.

At some point during the next couple days I privately voiced my concerns to Steve and/or Mike about Luis, casually mentioning that he had really been hurting during the last few carries. I was assured, though, that Luis was actually a pretty typical client, and the rest of us were exceptionally fit and strong, making him look bad by comparison. "If Luis doesn't make it, then none of us will", I was told. I didn't say anything more to anyone, and, as it turned out, the guides knew exactly what they were talking about.

We arrived back at 9 PM, and although still bright out, the sun had gone behind a steep mountain wall. Steve, having arrived a hour ahead of us, had the stoves roaring in the cook tent, and we all ate dinner, shoveled a little bit, and then crashed out big time, dead tired.

While falling asleep I heard voices and commotion outside, and I guessed it was yet another AAI team on the mountain, a West Rib expedition with Angela Hawse and Eli Helmuth as guides. I had heard that they might come join us for a night on their way down the mountain.

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