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Denali - Trip Report - Part 6

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Tuesday, May 13:

We woke up at the K2 bunkhouse to pouring rain, thoroughly depressing us--it was just about the hardest rain we had seen yet in Talkeetna, and we were pessimistic about flying to the mountain anytime soon and worried about Mike, Barry, and Andy in a possible blizzard. I was sick of breakfasts at the Roadhouse, so I just went to Nagely's store and bough some Apple Jacks and soda for breakfast, which I ate back at the bunkhouse. I started reading a book I had brought, Tokein's Silmarillion, but after a while I was bored of that and went for a walk in the rain to the railroad trestle, across it to the other side on a pedestrian sidewalk, then back along the tracks to the airport, where I hung out in the K2 office reading Washburn's coffee-table book on McKinley. There were some Spaniards there, and I gave my rusty Spanish a workout by chatting with them for a while--they were attempting the Cassin Ridge, but, like us, were temporarily held up.

After a while it was back into town for an ice-cream cone and then to the bunkhouse, and, since it had stopped raining and the skies actually looked like a definite clearing trend was happening, Steve told me to ferry everyone's sleeping bags back to the airport. I did, but no one showed up at K2 for a while as I sat and read some more. About 2:30 PM, though, Rico came back from his unplanned night on the glacier--somehow he had been able to take off, and apparently things were now in flying shape. Indeed, other air services--Geeting, Hudson, Talkeetna Air Taxi--started loading up climbers, and K2 seemed to be the last to get moving once again.

I walked into town, and ran into everyone but Steve on Main Street, where I told them the news about Rico. I had missed a group lunch at the Deli waiting at the airport, so I ordered a burger and fries at Sparky's corner fast-food shack. I had just started to eat when Steve walked by, telling me and the others that we were ready to fly, and to get to the airport. I ate my food on the run as I walked back to the airport, and by 3:45 we were all changing into mountain-climbing clothes once again, storing valuables, and everything else. Bill, Bruno, and I piled gear into our plane, and Tom got in and tried to start the engine. However, it wouldn't turn over, and he kept turning the key again and again as it made sputtering sounds. We were all excited and joking a bit, but suddenly Tom saw smoke coming out of the plane's engine and he turned to us and said, very seriously and authoritatively, "Please exit the aircraft immediately."

We did, as quickly as our heavily-clothed bodies could squeeze out between the seats. We then hung out as the took of the engine cowling and mechanics started fiddling with our plane. Steve, from the other plane, was not happy at this development, and he and Bill spearheaded an effort to get us into another plane. They succeeded, so we moved all of our gear out of Tom's plane and into Rico's, got a solid safety lecture from Rico (in contrast to the more laid-back Tom), and soon Rico was piloting Bill, Bruno, and myself out across the taiga and towards McKinley, behind the plane with Steve, Greg W, and Luis.

Our route was the "Round Robin" way, all the way up the Kahiltna Glacier from its very foot, avoiding the passes, which were still socked in. It was a longer route, almost an hour in the plane, but scenic. The sun was almost coming out, and we all tried taking pictures, but it was hard in the cramped plane. I had the best views, sitting in the front right next to the pilot. Rico's plane had no co-pilot controls, so it was a more comfortable ride for me than yesterday's.

Finally, the landing strip stomped-out on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna came into view, with a motley collection of tents next to it. I fired off one last picture, then the plane approached and landed facing uphill on the moderate snow slope, using the skis the pilot had lowered on the plane. After slipping and sliding uphill after landing, the plane did a U-turn at the top of the "runway", sputtered downhill a few yards, and stopped. Ours was the last plane to arrive, and Steve and others were right there to help us get gear out of the plane quickly and move it away from the landing area. After a few frenzied minutes the plane was empty and Rico climbed back in and took off, using the downhill slope of the glacier to pick up speed on his plane's skis so he could take off.

Since Mike, Barry, and Andy had already been there a night, they had a campsite all dug out and set up for us, and since Steve, Greg W, and Luis had arrived about fifteen minutes in front of us, most gear was already carried the hundred yards, past several other campsites, up to our site. I helped ferry the remaining gear, and when I finally arrived at our area, all the tents had already been set up. I helped out with other camp chores, like making piles of food and gear, general organizing, miscellaneous shoveling, and setting up the cook tent.

Our expedition's basic camp set up was four yellow and tan Wild Country/Terra Nova tents, each capable of holding two people comfortably or three in a tight squeeze. Since there were nine of us, the plan was to rotate so the people enduring a three-man tent wouldn't have to do it every night. We also had a large red and gray pyramid cook tent, which was raised over a circular pit dug into the snow. This pit was ringed with seats for people to sit and a counter in the middle for stoves, pots, pans, mugs, and other cooking stuff. The cook tent was a great place for the whole group to gather, out of the weather, to sit, stand, socialize, and eat. On McKinley a group will often spend many days holed up in camp, waiting out storms, and a place to hang out with more space than the usual cramped backpacking tent was a welcome and very nice luxury.

All tents and especially the fragile, floorless cook tent had to have their sites shoveled out and leveled, and the ideal site was dug down into the snow for wind shelter. Also, walls of snow blocks around the pits were often made, making for establishing a camp a backbreaking task of endless shoveling. We had about eight shovels with us, including two massive grain scoops for moving huge amounts of powder snow at once, and to make our job easier we always looked to use a recently abandoned campsite where a lot of excavation had already been done. At the camp at the airstrip I don't know what Mike, Barry, and Andy had found, but I assume they had modified an existing campsite and whiled away the day they waited for us by shoveling a bit.

By the time the plane had left us off it was 5 PM, and the guides felt it was too late to move anywhere today, although us clients were antsy to get moving after our forced delay in Talkeetna. So after getting camp in order the guides got out the stoves and cooked up dinner in the cook tent, although Steve was not happy with the way Mike had shoveled out the pit, with seats all around and an island counter in the middle--he preferred a counter connected to the outside walls. The guides did all the cooking, snow melting, and stove operation on the trip, which was part of the deal when we clients had paid our fees. Dinner was some soup and then some pasta, served to us in our individual mugs and bowls. There was always water for hot tea, coffee, and cocoa, plus plenty of water for our water bottles--the guides were obsessed with keeping us well hydrated, and with six MSR XGK-II stoves and two huge pots for melting snow, there was always a steady supply of water available as long as we heard the roar of the stoves.

The weather that evening was not that great--an hour or two after the planes left it got socked in again, sparing us the incredible noise of the constant stream of planes. We hung out as it alternately snowed lightly and cleared, and set off to do various chores. Bruno and I went to dig a cache hole where we would leave some emergency food in case we were stranded here waiting to fly out in a few weeks, and we all attended to other miscellaneous business. Annie and a National Park Service volunteer came by our camp to introduce themselves, but, since we had Steve and Mike, we didn't get any real safety lectures or inspections.

The latrines were wooden boxes with seats supplied by the NPS for this busy area, and after a couple trips there we all were pretty much in bed by 10 PM. I was in the triple tent for the night, with Greg W and Luis, and in the middle, to boot. I didn't sleep too well, wedged firmly between two guys, and Luis snored a little bit, too, right in my face. Still, I was excited to be finally on the mountain.



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