Denali - Trip Report - Part 22

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Thursday, May 29:

The guides woke us up at about 6 AM, and, as was the custom when there was no cook tent, they brought hot water to our individual tents, making us feel like pampered clients of servile Sherpas. I had some cocoa, got dressed, and joined the usual busy milling about as we all ate breakfast, got our packs together, took down the tents, made a pile of all the common gear, sorted it into eight piles, loaded up the sleds, and got ready to go. The recent four- day spell of clear weather had left the main trail down the Kahiltna Glacier a wide, hard-packed highway for the most part, and we were glad that we wouldn't need crampons or snowshoes for the 9 miles back to the airstrip basecamp.

The weather today was actually kind of overcast, and we could see small, puffy crowns of clouds on the summits that increased as the day went on. It looked pretty windy and stormy up high by afternoon, and we were glad we were down on the glacier. I led off again as the first member of Steve's team, with Greg W, Bill, and Steve following me, and I booked on down the gentle hill below the 11,000' camp, again told to slow down and stay on the harder snow by those behind me. I meandered a bit on the wide trail, trying to find the best snow for walking, where it wasn't too icy and slippery but also not too soft so we wouldn't posthole. While doing this Mike and his team (Luis, Bruno, and Andy) passed me, and I was happy to follow them for a long while, since by following Mike, a guide, I could avoid any criticism of my routefinding or pace.

It was a long slog down the wide Kahiltna, but it never became a death march. My feet, as did just about everyone's, hurt badly, and I would have preferred more food, water and pee breaks, but overall we cruised downhill at a good clip for miles. The footing was usually OK, but there were lots of icy postholes to avoid, as well as the soft, bottomless stuff on either side of the 10-foot wide trail--we usually stayed at the margins of the path, and I found that following Andy (the last person on Mike's team) was easy and kept my mind off the trail and the best route on it.

We took a long rest at the base of Ski Hill, near our old 7800' campsite, and from there onward the slope of the glacier was very gentle, often dead flat, and sometimes uphill a little. Bill called our rope team to a halt a little beyond the 7800' level so he could minister to some very painful blisters, and during this fifteen-minute halt Mike's team got way, way ahead of us. Once we got going again I was able to pretend I was alone on the glacier, since there was no one in front of me. We passed a few other camps and climbers, but down on the huge expanse of the Kahiltna they were more spread out and not as noticeable a detraction from the solitude. There were a couple of sections of massive crevasses we went through, but the path was firm and there were no hairy areas. I was getting good at leading the team--I kept the pace just right, and I chose the right path and the correct edge of the path to hike on, for the most part.

Down at the lowest part of our whole climb, the 6750' level where the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna branched off, Mike's team had pulled over for a rest, and we on Steve's team pulled over, too. This was a good spot to relax, for the 450' climb up to the airstrip began just around the corner--the RMI team on their way down was stopped just ahead of us. We didn't eat lunch, though, so we had to make due with whatever energy bars we still had lying around in our packs. Still, it was a nice, long rest. We saw four climbers going by wearing shorts over their long johns, and Mike instantly had them pegged as Northwesterners--he said that fashion look was a dead giveaway, and, as a frequently guilty party back in the Cascades, I had to agree.

We set off for the last time on the trip, with Mike's team first and I following right behind Andy. We passed the RMI team and then started plugging up Heartbreak Hill, finding out how it got its name. Our sleds were pretty heavy, since we had everything from the whole trip in them, and although thankfully quite overcast out, it was still relatively warm, and we were soon sweating like pigs. Without stopping, though, we marched uphill until I happily saw the tents and airplanes of basecamp. We kept on going up past the tents and saw the K2 Beaver airplane up at the head of the U-shaped airstrip, so we continued, exhausted, up to near the plane and threw off our gear. It was only about noon, meaning that it had taken us two weeks to reach the summit from here, but well under 48 hours to get down.

(We could tell from down on the Kahiltna that it was no day to be up high, due to the clouds and wind we could see on the summits. Still, apparently several groups tried for it, including the ADG group with Chuck and the other highpointers. That group was caught at 19,000' this evening in a bad storm, forcing a bivouac overnight, and when they finally got down three of them had to be evacuated by helicopter with severe frostbite. Chuck had to have some fingertips amputated, and his teammates lost fingers and toes. I can't understand why the supposedly experienced guides of ADG would allow themselves to be caught like that--it is universally acknowledged that a bivvy above 17,000' is the worst thing you can possibly do on McKinley. At least they fared better than two British climbers caught in the same storm, who blundered off-route and fell 3,000' down the Messner Couloir, killing one of them.)

It was lucky that the big K2 Beaver plane was there at the airstrip, and it was empty after having flown an expedition in to the glacier. It was ready to take four of us back off, so we very, very quickly got our gear organized and decided who was going out first. Mike and Andy obviously had dibs, since they had spent an extra night on the mountain early on, and Bill and Bruno volunteered first to fill out the planeload. Steve drafted me to go with him to extract the cache that Bruno and I had made our first night on the mountain, and that was hard shoveling that exhausted me, so shortly after our long hike. We finally got out the big duffel bag full of emergency food and other stuff, and it was so heavy that both Steve and I had to really grunt and sweat to haul it back to the landing strip. I told Steve as we carried the bag between us that this was the last work I was doing on this trip--if he needed any more shoveling, carrying, organizing, fetching, or anything else done, don't come looking for me.

We got back to the plane as it was getting loaded up--it had much more cargo capacity than the smaller Cessna 185s--and then Mike, Andy, Bill, and Bruno piled in and were soon airborne. Steve, Luis, Greg W, and myself got all the remaining stuff together at the top of the U-shaped landing strip to wait for another K2 plane to come and get us.

It was actually quite pleasant waiting. It was now very cloudy out, and therefore not so hot, and the mountain scenery drifting in and out of the high clouds was still awesome. We noticed that we could see out breaths, meaning it was probably in the 30s, but to us that was quite balmy. Steve went over to schmooze and fraternize with Annie and other climbers he knew for a long while--he seemed to know everyone--and Luis, Greg W, and I just sat and talked. Steve brought back three beers from some guy he knew that had flown in a whole cooler full of them, one for everyone but me. However, despite how relaxed we were, we started worrying about getting off the mountain as time dragged on. We wondered what the hell was up with K2 and why they didn't send another plane for us, since we saw several other planes from other air services land and take off, throwing temporary clouds of spindrift on us.

Finally, after a hour and a half of waiting, the K2 Beaver reappeared and landed--I guess they decided to send the one big plane instead of two small ones for us, and we had been waiting for their only Beaver, a slow flier, to make a whole round trip. The first planeload had taken most of our stuff, so we didn't have much to throw in the back, and then we piled in. Luis claimed the front seat, and Steve, Greg W, and I went into the back seat, with Greg W in the middle. I stared out the left side of the plane as we made the 40 minute flight back to Talkeetna, by the standard "One Shot" route, I think. On the plane ride the scenery was, as usual, awesome. Halfway back to Talkeetna it started raining heavily as we crossed the taiga near the Susitna River, and the plane was buffeted a bit by high winds, but I didn't get sick. We landed at Talkeetna at about 2 PM or so, glad to be off the mountain.

Thoughts, Post-Expedition:

I had climbed to the summit of Mt. McKinley, and come off the mountain in good health. However, I realized that I was lucky on several fronts: lucky that I picked a good guide service, lucky that I had exceptionally competent and professional guides in Steve and Mike, lucky that my team members were strong and experienced, and, above, all, lucky with the weather. The month of May had been one of the worst on record for the mountain, with high winds and storms keeping practically everyone off of the summit except for a three or four day window late in the month. Fortunately, our group was at just the right place to take advantage of this window, and our guides knew just how to use it to get us up and back.

When I got off the mountain the statistics for climbers were pretty grim; less than a quarter of those attempting the summit had made it--basically, those who had gotten up during May 26-28. However, June must have been an exceptionally good weather month, since by the end of the climbing season the overall success rate was 51%, with 567 out of the total 1109 climbers having summited. This success rate is about average, historically. The British climber who died on May 29th was the only fatality on the mountain this season, not counting a climber who died while crossing a river in the lowlands on his hike out in July. Only one death on McKinley is below the recent average of about three per year.

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