Denali - Trip Report - Part 5

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Monday, May 12:

I woke up in my car to see that, as usual, the windows had fogged up totally. It was early, 6:30 AM, but I got up anyway and took a shower in the K2 bunkhouse and then hung out a little bit and ate. It was drizzling, sort of, and very overcast out, so I was not too optimistic about flying to the glacier anytime soon. Eventually my expedition-mates were all up, and we wandered over to the Roadhouse, where we had the house special--blueberry pancakes--for breakfast with Steve and Mike, who had come over from their friend Sheila's house.

After breakfast I got a copy of the equipment shack key and drove south 15 miles to Talkeetna Junction, where I bought a $35 grain scoop and some repair wire at the hardware store and made copies of the key. Back in Talkeetna at 9:30 AM, I hung out at the K2 office as it continued to rain outside, listening to the desk staff there turn away disappointed tourists by telling them that even if the weather cleared, their planes would be full for a day or more flying in the backlog of climbers. I just sat in a chair and wrote in my journal.

Eventually I got bored and walked back to the bunkhouse, traversing Talkeetna's tiny main street for about the 30th time, where others in my group were hanging out. We were all frustrated by the weather delay--we had a strong group, we were all ready to go, and our vacation time was vanishing right in front of out eyes. Steve showed up at the bunkhouse with some more expedition food: bread, cheese, candy bars, and other assorted cold food. From 2 to 3 PM I walked around outside some more, stopping at the town historical museum, which featured a huge scale model of Mt. McKinley.

Somehow the word went out that we were all to meet at K2 at 4 PM, and somehow all 9 of us appeared there to once again drag our mountain of gear out of the shed next to the taxiway and organize it once again. This time we broke out the ropes, put on our sit harnesses, and practiced roping up in the way the guides wanted us to--middlepersons on the rope were to use a figure eight loop attached to two locking carabiners, an arrangement that was taboo in the Mountaineers courses I taught.

The skies started to look clear, and Steve and Mike told me to take my car over to the bunkhouse to get everyone's sleeping bags and stuff in case we had to suddenly fly, and once I had driven the 1/2 mile back to K2 there was more random runway organization. Suddenly, at 5 PM, the word came in that we were flying! We had been seeing planes from other aviation companies taking off, with climbers on board, so we had been wondering what was up with K2 and why there were so slow on the uptake. Hurriedly we all changed into glacier clothing, basically Gore-Tex and our heavy boots; I made sure my car was secured in its out-of-the way parking spot in the hidden side lot next to the K2 complex; we stashed our civilian luggage in a cloth tent behind the K2 office; and we gave our wallets and (except for me) plane tickets to the K2 people for safekeeping.

The nine of us were to go in three planes, three each per Cessna 185, plus one more plane with just gear in it. Bill, Bruno, and I were slotted into the second plane, piloted by Tom, a guy we knew pretty well because he lived in his VW Westfalia camper at the K2 bunkhouse. We loaded our packs plus what extra group gear would fit into the tail of the plane, then maneuvered ourselves into the tiny seats. As the heaviest person I was told to sit up front, but I had constant problems with the co-pilot's yoke and foot petals being in my way--either my knees hit the yoke or my feet went on the petals, and my huge plastic boots didn't help in this regard. Somehow I uncomfortably survived, and after watching the plane with Steve, Greg W, and Luis take off, we taxied past all the hangars and were soon airborne.

The flight was pretty smooth and also scenic, passing over muskeg, taiga, braided rivers, and low, barren hills. The mountains of the Denali massif were shrouded in clouds, but Tom knew his way--he was headed for a pass called Second Shot. We could see a few icy, rocky ramparts shrouded in mist, but still had no idea of the lay of the land. Tom was following a more senior pilot named Tommy, but as we got closer to the mountain the weather reports were increasingly pessimistic. We could hear all radio communication on the headphones we all wore, and eventually Tommy, ahead of us, called off the landings on the glacier--he felt it was too cloudy and, in his word, "spooky". Tom decided to follow Tommy's lead, and he, too, turned around, flew back out the Second Shot pass, and back to Talkeetna.

However, the third plane, piloted by a guy named Rico and carrying Mike, Andy, and Barry, did try for a landing, and actually succeeded. Immediately after landing and unloading on the glacier, though, clouds rolled back in and Rico couldn't take off, trapping him on the glacier for the night. Back in Talkeetna it was pouring rain, and after we landed we got word from Annie at basecamp that things were shut down there for the night. Discouraged, the six of us back at the airport got changed back into our jeans and T-shirts and got our gear ready for another night at the K2 bunkhouse.

So now not only was I still not on the mountain yet, but our team was fragmented, with Mike, Barry, and Andy all alone on the Kahiltna with only one tent. Ironically, Mike had wanted to be in the last plane so if his plane didn't make it, he could make one last call to his new girlfriend, but now he was the guide on the mountain while Steve, who had been in the first plane, was in civilization. Rico, like all bush pilots, apparently always traveled with spare food and a sleeping bag in his plane, and spent the night in Annie's quonset hut on the glacier or in his plane.

The remaining six of us went to the bunkhouse, I traversing Talkeetna in my car with people's gear for the fifth time. We ate out at the McKinley Deli, where I overheard a conversation at the table next to me about Merrill Sterler, who I knew owned a farm in Iowa that contained that state's highest point. Aha, I said to myself, state high-point peak baggers, and I went over and introduced myself. It turned out that they were clients of Alaska-Denali Guiding, the service that I had almost signed up with, and that some of them were indeed high-pointers and knew Janine Clarke, a friend I had made while on Gannett Peak in Wyoming (on a trip led by Mark Newcomb--the mountaineering community is actually pretty small). I talked for a while to a bearded guy from Michigan named Chuck Bonning, then wished him luck, said I'd see him on the mountain, and returned to my group's table. Sitting there was a woman named Nina, a Olympic champion cross-country skier who somehow knew Steve, and she was talking about how she wanted to set the McKinley ascent speed record by skating up the West Buttress.

At 9 PM we went back to the bunkhouse, where I wrote in my journal, and I also wrote a postcard, which I then mailed by walking over to the post office. I decided to brave sleeping in the bunkhouse again, and despite the snoring I slept fairly well. It rained all night, and the noise on the roof and widow was kind of soothing.

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