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Denali - Trip Report - Part 21

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Wednesday, May 28:

We all slept in, until at least 10 AM. I was dozing intermittently by this time, and eventually I heard the guides firing up the stoves in the vestibule of their tent, right next to ours. I hadn't dressed by the time Mike appeared in the doorway of our tent with a pot of hot water and some powdered cocoa, but I was out soon. Breakfast was more of the god-awful energy bars--by this time I was truly sick of PowerBars, Clif Bars, Stoker bars, Carnation breakfast bars, and Nutri-Grain bars, and even now the thought of eating another one sort of grosses me out.

It was another beautiful day, the nicest one so far, with clear skies and, most importantly, no wind. A good line of climbers could be seen heading up towards Denali Pass and the summit. We were glad we had good weather for the descent--no one wanted to be pinned down by a storm at 17,150', no matter if they had already summited or not. It took us a long while to get ready to leave, for obvious reasons, and it probably wasn't until noon or later that everyone had gone to the latrine, taken down the tents, and jammed all of their gear into their overflowing packs. Steve made a long hike out to a crevasse to dump all of the human waste we had generated, the group gear was sorted into piles, and eventually we were all ready to go.

At some point during the morning Glenn Morrison came by to chat--we exchanged congratulations, and Glenn confirmed that Shawn had been seriously ailing yesterday. He even said that he thought Shawn had pulmonary edema, since he was coughing up blood, and he almost came over to our camp to see about using our radio to call for help. Somehow, though, Glenn, a M.D., determined that it was not HAPE and that Shawn would be OK with some rest. When I later told this to Steve, he was relieved, since having to deal with some guy with HAPE who wasn't even a client was not his idea of fun. Steve had complained to Mike about the lack of carabiners on the pickets on the descent, and Mike said they were gone when he came down, too, and for some reason he didn't leave the ones his team put on. Steve wasn't mad at Mike, but at whoever had stolen his nice, brand-new clip-gate biners. They blamed some guy who had no clue as to mountain etiquette.

I was on Steve's rope team again, with Bill again, but Greg W instead of Bruno. I can imagine Steve telling Mike that he, Bill, and I had suffered enough with Bruno on the summit day, and that we three needed a break from dealing with him in his current state. I was first on the rope, followed by Greg W, Bill, and finally Steve, more in control on the downhill at the rear. Mike, though, went first on his team--I guess he just preferred things that way.

Steve's team set off first, which meant that I was leading the whole group. We hiked over to the hollow nearby that held most of the other campsites, then I led away up a low rise that led to the knife-edge section of the West Buttress ridge. Steve had me halt, though, halfway up the hill, and he yelled out to the various climbers milling about there tents, asking if anyone had taken his carabiners yesterday. There was silence from the various campsites, until one guy mumbled something about most of the people who had come down yesterday having already left.

I led off, and I had a great time heading on down the Buttress. Going first gave me the illusion of being alone on the mountain, since there was no omnipresent ropemate ahead of me, nice on the ridge that was the most scenic and spectacular part of the route. My pace was too fast for Greg W and Bill, and I was told to slow down a couple times, but I didn't mind. Eventually we started encountering a whole bunch of ascending climbers, and it was sometimes tricky to pass each other on the narrow ridgecrest, but not too bad. One of the ascending climbers was Chuck, the state highpointer I had met in Talkeetna, climbing with the ADG group. We exchanged a couple sentences while passing--he congratulated me on completing all 50 state highpoints, and I wished him luck. As it later turned out, he needed it.

Near here Glenn, Shawn, and Julie passed us headed downhill. I was happy to see that they were OK, and this was the last time we crossed paths on the mountain. Later I heard that they all got home all right--they were behind us the next day and didn't fly out of Talkeetna until Friday.

The fixed lines at Washburn's Thumb were a bit of a jam-up--we had to wait at the top to use them, and there were several climbers waiting to ascend once our team was down. After a couple steep snow slopes we reached the cache we had made at 16,300' a week before, but had never used. There was a lot of food and fuel here from Vince's group and from our carry, and we already had a lot since we hadn't spent much time at 17,150'. It would have been physically impossible to jam it all in our packs, so once Mike's rope team had arrived and we had eaten lunch the guides dug a cache hole in the windswept snow slope above for the extra food. The plan was to let the next AAI team know about this cache, hopefully saving them time. For lunch we had rummaged through all the food bags and extracted only the stuff we liked.

With staggeringly huge packs, we all set off for the fixed lines. I reached them first, as the first person on Steve's team, and clipped a biner onto the lines and started my descent--Steve alone was using a jumar. The slope was not so icy, but it still demanded careful French technique to get down the 45-degree incline. I held on to the rope for balance, which was a huge help. Unfortunately, we were stuck behind two French guys--a guide and client, I think--who were going excruciatingly slowly. I had to stop for long rests several times while waiting for them, and it took the bozo client about fifteen minutes to get himself down the bergschrund near the bottom of the fixed lines, proving that being French doesn't mean your French technique is any good. I chopped out a platform in the ice and sat down after yelling back up to our team the reason for the delay.

Once the French guys were clear, I quickly got myself down the bergschrund, went slowly to allow Greg W and Bill time to negotiate it, and was soon on the standard snow path below the fixed lines. I was able to look back and see Bruno have some trouble getting down the bergschrund, making me glad I was no longer on his team. Steve told me to go for a little longer before resting, which was a drag since I was extremely thirsty and I had to go to the bathroom real bad. A few hundred yards away from the fixed lines I pulled over and we had a nice little rest, with Mike's team resting right next to us.

From here I led us off down the easy, if occasionally steep, slopes that led down to the 14,300' camp, plainly visible below. My feet were starting to hurt here, due to all the downhill bashing my relatively new plastic boots were inflicting, but I was still able to make good time. I looked for soft snow on the sides of the beaten-down path, since it was gentler on my developing blisters and made for good plunge-stepping, but for some reason my ropemates preferred the hardpack and yelled at me when I veered too far off the trail. In any event, we were soon down at the 14,300' camp, where our cache was located right near the trail, just before we reached the bustling sea of campsites.

We shoveled out the cache, and everyone took a sled to put stuff in from their overcrowded packs. We had to divvy up the stuff in the cache, too, so our total loads actually increased quite a bit, but, amazingly, we were all actually looking forward to having a sled to help haul our stuff off the mountain. We took a long rest here, and I ministered to my worst blister by putting moleskin on my left foot. We even considered spending the night here, since it was about 5 PM or later. The Basques in the campsite next to our cache were frying up some "chorizo" meat, which smelled awfully good, and we were still tired from yesterday, but in the end we decided to head down to 11,000'.

Mike's rope team set off first, and I followed, again leading Steve's team. A short ways down from the 14,300' camp, though, Mike lost a cotter pin from his sled harness, and we passed him and his team while he fixed it--he was lucky Steve saw it in the snow and picked it up for him. I again enjoyed not having anyone in front of me as we easily buzzed on down to Windy Corner, where we first made our way through the maze of crevasses and then across the short, icy traverses where the sleds were a real nuisance. We only took very short rests as we made out way down the long traverse down from Windy Corner, across the bare blue ice of the shelf below that, down Squirrel Hill, and finally Motorcycle Hill. A couple times Greg W and Bill admonished me to keep the pace a little slower, the sleds were a royal pain in the butt on the steeper hill sections, pretty much everyone got bad blisters, and we were pretty exhausted, but overall we went very quickly and easily downhill.

Steve's rope team, which I led, arrived at the 11,000' camp first by about ten minutes, and we went directly to the cache we had made eight days earlier and got it shoveled out. It was getting late and the sun was just about to disappear behind the enclosing cliffs of the 11,000' basin. After some general milling about Mike and Bill went exploring the camp area to find an unoccupied campsite, and Mike found a huge, well-excavated hole big enough for four tents down at the bottom end of the camp area. We then carted all of our stuff over there, carrying the stuff from the cache in our hands as well as hauling sleds and carrying packs.

There was brief discussion of continuing on down through the night, with Mike being the prime advocate, but we realized that no matter what, we'd still have to camp somewhere. If we kept on going we would arrive at the airstrip at 2 or 3 AM, and we'd have to camp until 8 or 9 AM, when the planes started flying. Since we were so tired, and we had to camp somewhere, we figured it might as well be here, after descending over 6,000 feet today.

We got cold with no sun shining on us, and since we knew we'd only be staying here one night and the weather looked stable, we did a minimal amount of campsite modification, quickly throwing up our tents and throwing stoves into the already-dug kitchen area. The guides made up some hot water, soup, and stew, but I ate little, somehow just barely able to get a small cup of soup down. We did not erect the cook tent, and I retired to the tent I shared with Bruno for my last night on the mountain. I was ready to get off, too--I was seriously slacking off on my chores such as brushing my teeth, organizing my gear, keeping up my journal, and other things, all in anticipation of getting back to civilization tomorrow.



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