Denali - Trip Report - Part 19

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Monday, May 26:

Mike, in the tent with Bruno and me, woke up early by himself without an alarm, got dressed, and went out to wake everyone else up and start breakfast. I got myself together as soon as he was gone, and when I got out I could see it was a beautiful day. It was quite cold with the sun not yet shining on us, but the sky was clear and there was no wind at our camp and only minor wisps blowing off the West Buttress ridge 2,000' above us. I was very happy that for the first time in six nights at the 14,300' camp the tent Bruno and I shared was not drifted in. Bruno gave me a "told you so" because of my agitation to move the tent the past few days, and although it wouldn't have helped last night, it might have saved us a lot of shoveling if we had done it a few days earlier. It was clear that we were finally moving today from 14,300', a prospect that made us happy--we had begun to feel trapped. We hurriedly ate some cereal and energy bars for breakfast and started breaking down our tents. Since I had volunteered for the "A" team yesterday, I felt pressure to get ready quickly-- the group was depending on Steve, Andy, Bill, and me to get up to the 17,150' camp quickly to nab a pre-built campsite, saving us hours of digging. Bruno and I had a hard time taking down our tent, though, since the previous five nights of drifting had buried many stakes and especially the rear vestibule. We had to shovel and hack with an ice axe quite a bit to extract it from all the snow.

Out tent was getting cached, too, so once it was packed up I had to carry it and other stuff over to the cache hole I had helped dig yesterday, and then get a set of tent poles from someone else to carry. Then I had to get my boots on--I had been doing my chores in booties and overboots to keep my feet loose and warm--and the whole boot/overboot/crampon thing took a while. I was the last person on the "A" team to get ready, a few minutes behind Bill and Andy, and I apologized for the delay as I carried my pack over to where we had flaked out the rope. Steve supervised our final packing, giving us some pickets and group gear and telling us where to tie in. I was second on the team, behind Steve, so I was to use a jumar on the fixed lines.

We set off at about 7:30 or 8 AM, I think, leaving behind Mike, Luis, Greg W, and Bruno to take down the cook tent, bury the cached stuff in the cache hole, and do other chores. They would then hopefully follow us. I was a little worried about being too slow for the "A" team, but my fears were totally unfounded, as I had no trouble keeping up with Steve's pace all day. We were in the shade as we climbed steeply uphill from the 14,300' camp and then started a long uphill traverse to the fixed lines, but the exertion got me nice and warmed up quickly. My toes were toasty, and waiting until the last minute to put on my boots was a big help with this, I think.

Near the bottom of the fixed lines we came out into the sun, and after a rest we started up the 45 degree ice slopes. The footing was a little softer than our previous trip up the 800 vertical-foot slope, but still not soft enough to kick steps, so more awkward duck-footed French technique was the order of the day. I really enjoyed having a jumar this time, too, since it gave me a good, solid thing to hold on to as I ratcheted it up the fixed line. Our early start was paying off, too, since there was no one ahead of us on the fixed line, but a long line of climbers below us snaking up the path, one of the groups presumably Mike's team.

The fixed lines were not really that hard, but at the top I was tired, thirsty, and mentally exhausted from the concentration the slope had required. We took a short rest here, happy that the wind atop the West Buttress ridge wasn't too bad at all, and then did the short, steep, icy hike up to the campsite/cache area at 16,300'. Here Steve, Andy, Bill, and I took a long rest and went through all the stuff in the two AAI tents that Vince's party had left here for us. Since the four of us already had two complete tents in our packs, we were only to take whatever food, fuel, shovels, and other stuff we could take, and let Mike's team take the tents and what we couldn't take.

Steve sorted through the mess of stuff there and gave us all way too much stuff to carry, but we had no choice but to cram it all in our packs or tie it on the back. The result was comically huge and heavy packs, probably well over 70 pounds each. After eating a quick and early lunch, shouldering up the loads, and taking some pictures of ourselves, we set off up the West Buttress into terrain we had not yet been up.

The next hour or so was the most picturesque and exciting part of the whole trip, as we stayed on the very crest of the sharp, almost knife-edged West Buttress, crenellated with rocky gendarmes and offering truly sweeping views of the central Alaskan terrain below. All the glaciers and peaks seemed incredibly far away below us, and even Mt. Foraker now was at our level. The climbing was initially on steep, icy slopes with vestigial footsteps in them, then on a short section of crummy fixed lines that led up the steep snow slopes to the left of a huge rock gendarme called Washburn's Thumb, then along a very narrow and exposed ridgecrest that was largely flat and easy. This last section was my favorite of the whole trip--awesome views, a true feeling of being on top of the world, a well defined ridge with exhilarating exposure, but easy, practically level hiking with easy footing. We had it to ourselves, too, due to our early start, and only a couple parties headed downhill passed us.

Photo: Washburn's Thumb on the West Buttress.

After a few short uphills the ridge seemed to be leading directly towards Denali Pass, the prominent notch between the dark black rock of the North Peak and the snowy, lighter-colored South Peak. Steve told us during a short photo break that it was all level from here to the camp, and we were glad, since the easy uphills were still exhausting us at 17,000'. Shortly, the ridge disappeared into a big hump, and once over that we were at the 17,150' camp area, a wide, rolling plateau of widely dispersed campsites, not at all like the concentrated cities at 11,000' and 14,300'. Steve led us down a short hill to a broad gully where several camps had been made, but, not seeing anything, he continued up a broad slope and along it a bit. I had never been here, and the dispersed nature of the campsites was confusing, and the altitude had gotten to me a little bit, so I just followed him blindly.

At an isolated spot on this far slope Steve suddenly saw an unoccupied campsite, and we made a quick beeline for it. We all knew immediately that we had made a big score--it was a large area with good, solid snow block walls around it, big enough for all of our tents and needing little modification. Up here the snow was icy hard and windblasted, making digging a deep pit very difficult, so snow block walls were the only way to protect tents. After my first-hand experience with quarrying snow blocks down at 14,300', I was very happy to see the three or four foot high snow block walls already in place.

We all dumped our packs and started doing a little leveling and modification. There was a hole in the middle of the enclosure that needed filling, a few bumps here and there, some snow that had drifted in to the north end of the compound, and some weird "rooms" in front that we had no use for. Andy re-arranged snow blocks from these extra rooms to shore up the main wall and make it higher, Steve undid the drifted snow by quarrying it into more blocks, and Bill and I, more tired and altitude-affected, leveled the inside and filled the holes. This was trivial work, especially compared to having to make the whole site from scratch, but I was still beat from the minor exertion. At 17,150', I was exactly as high up as my previous record high point, on Popocatepetl in Mexico in 1993.

Once Bill and I had the area level we set about pitching tents, but we were so out of it that it took us almost half an hour to pitch one tent instead of the usual five minutes. Steve, quarrying blocks next to us, got so frustrated watching us stupidly attempt to thread poles through sleeves in the wind that he came over to help. Still, I wasn't too bad--in 1993 I was really sick at this altitude, and I actually felt strong and OK for the most part. It was very windy and cold, too, and I was very fumble-fisted in my heavy mittens.

Steve, Andy, Bill, and I had our two tents up, the walls almost complete, and were starting to get the stoves out when Mike, Luis, Greg W, and Bruno appeared, about an hour and a half behind us. They approved of the campsite the "A" team had snagged, which became more bustling as they unpacked and we set up their two tents. I still had Bruno as a tentmate, and we got stuck in the last tent, closest to the "door" of the snow-block enclosure. Having already set up tents, I was half-hearted while helping Bruno set up ours, and tired when I was finally able to throw my stuff inside.

The 17,150' camp area was bleak and desolate. The thin air, the cold, the intense wind, and the wind-blasted rocks and snow gave it a lifeless, depressing look, and there were no other campsites right near ours, accentuating the feeling of loneliness. We didn't bring our cook tent, so the guides fired up the stoves in the lee of the wall and made water, soup, and pasta for us. We ate in our tents to stay out of the wind, and the guides brought the food around to us.

Before and after this I was out and about, though, organizing gear, getting snow for melting for the guides (using one of my trash bags for a snow bag), and constructing a latrine, because I was the first one who had to go. The park service did set up a latrine down in the hollow towards the other campsites, but we had passed it and it was, literally, full of crap and very gross. So I dug a hole just outside our wall, put a bag in it, and we had a squat toilet--this was the final devolution and nadir of the toilet situation. It was very unpleasant. At least the weather looked nice and stable, with not a cloud in the dark-blue high-altitude sky and the high winds the only concern.

After the inevitable chores--filling water bottles, going to the bathroom, getting my outside gear as organized as possible, getting in to the tent, organizing the gear there, taking off my clothes, setting up a pillow, and crawling into my sleeping bag--I tried to go to sleep. However, this was difficult. Bruno and I had been careless in setting up and staking down our tent, and it flapped in the wind badly, especially since it was right in front of the open door to our enclosure. I was scared that the tent would blow away, or that it would be too windy tomorrow to go for the summit, or that the weather would deteriorate. Also, it was very cold, probably the coldest night we spent on the mountain.

Today had been Memorial Day, but no one had mentioned this or thought of this fact in any way, since we had all pretty much lost track of days of the week, dates, holidays, and other mundane matters.

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