Denali - Trip Report - Part 7

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Wednesday, May 14:

I was the first one in our group out of the tents, at 6:30 AM--as the middle person in the three-man tent I wasn't sleeping any more anyway. Mike was out soon, and I helped him cook breakfast by filling up a duffel bag with clean, untainted snow from the camp area perimeter for melting and doing other minor chores. By 7:30 or so everyone was up on the cold, partly cloudy morning with occasional light snow, and we all ate our breakfast of oatmeal, hot cocoa, and breakfast bars. Soon planes were landing, and the huge, icy peak of Mt. Hunter was coming into view as the thick mist dissipated from time to time.

The campsite area held about twenty expeditions, all set up in tents north of the runway area. Just up from us was the ADG group with the highpointers I had met in Talkeetna, and it seems that their trip was much more tightly run-- the guides barked out orders, and their tents were perfectly set up in a line. I was told that they hung out at basecamp for an extra day to practice ice-axe arrest, glacier travel, and crevasse rescue, too, making me glad I hadn't signed up with them like I almost did.

The guides announced that today we would do a single carry to our next camp at 7800'. The landing strip on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna was at 7200', and the route first dropped 450' down to the main Kahiltna, then up the main glacier very, very gradually for five miles to the 7800' camp. Since the elevation gain was so trivial, the terrain so flat, our time so short due to the weather delay, and our group so strong and young, they thought we should load up our haul sleds with everything we had. Normally, to move camp we would make two or three carries, each time moving part of the gear.

So the guides collected all the group gear--food bags, gallon cans of white gas, stoves, shovels, wands, the cook tent, repair and first aid kits, radios, pickets, and other miscellaneous stuff--and made nine piles of roughly equal weight. We each loaded one of the approximately 100-pound piles on to a sled, which we had to haul in addition to our 50-pound packs with our personal gear and tent sections. AAI used Mountainsmith haul sleds with solid aluminum poles for traces, in contrast to most McKinley climbers, who usually used plastic children's sleds attached to the pack with cord. The solid trace models offered more control when going downhill or traversing, but were more difficult to put on--I and others had trouble fitting the sled's waistband comfortably in conjunction with the pack's waistband.

At around 10 AM we finally had everything broken down and packed up--I had helped put some emergency food into the cache hole I had helped dig yesterday. I had been randomly assigned to a rope team with Steve as the guide and leader, followed by Andy, myself, and Greg W last. We tied our prusiks onto the rope, clipped two locking biners from our harnesses into figure eight loops on the rope, then put on the sleds, shouldered up the packs, and we were off. Steve's rope team, including me, went first, a position it occupied for 80% of our time travelling.

The downhill along the Southeast Fork was easy and fun, even with sleds behind us--we were going straight down, and the solid traces and the stabilizing ropes kept them in line. Soon it got flat, though, as we made a wide right turn up the main Kahiltna, and we settled into a very slow pace across endless rolling glacier. There was a good path in the snow, beaten down by the scores of climbers who had been up just in the past day, and we didn't need snowshoes or crampons. The weather was almost a white-out, with occasional clearing and snow flurries, but the flat, easy, low-elevation terrain was easily traversed, especially by guides who knew the way. We passed some huge yawning crevasses (or "slots", in cool Alaska guide-speak), but they were not very numerous and easily avoided. The glacier actually seemed very flat and unbroken to me. My main problem was pain from the sled poles digging in the my sides under my pack hipbelt.

Our team took 3 rest stops. The first two were just water/pee/food breaks where we stayed separated, but the third was our lunch break, where Steve probed an area for hidden crevasses and we all then bunched up to eat lunch. This, and all subsequent lunches, was a cold meal of cheese, jerky, salami, crackers, pita bread, fig bars, various energy or candy bars, and other sundries. We set off again into the foggy, snowy mist, and by 4:30 PM, after six and a half hours of mostly flat but occasionally uphill slogging at very slow speeds, we came to an area of campsites at 7800', just below where the Kahiltna got steep for the first time at "Ski Hill". Steve, Andy, Greg W, and I were much faster than Mike's rope team with Luis, Barry, Bill, and Bruno on it, so Steve scoped out the area for a campsite and settled on the one furthest along the trail, a partially dug-out area next to an area that already had a tent in it. Mike and his crew arrived about fifteen minutes later, and soon we were all digging.

That evening I was introduced to the wonderful business of setting up a camp on Denali, having missed that joy at basecamp by coming in on the last plane. Basically, it meant a whole lot of shoveling. We had a huge selection of shovels with us, including two massive grain scoops, and we started enlarging and leveling an existing pit. It always helped to use an abandoned campsite whenever possible, so we didn't have to start from scratch. We got lucky this time, since while we were fixing up the existing area two climbers appeared and started packing up their tent in the area next to ours--they had been weathered off the West Rib. Once they were gone we enlarged that pit and were able to erect two tents there, in addition to the two tents in the original pit.

The reason for all the digging is that the fierce winds on McKinley are very hard on tents, sometimes blowing them away, and putting the tent in a pit or building walls around it offer additional protection. Down here the winds were not usually that bad, but the soft snow was easy to shovel and it was not too hard to make our semi-protected tent platforms. Once we had done that, we all helped make the cook tent area, shoveling out a circular area with a snow "counter" projecting into the middle. Once we had this, Steve supervised the erection of the tent, a simple floorless pyramid with a single center pole resting on the counter. Once this was up, bench seats were carved into the walls, the stoves were set up on the counter, and we had a cozy area for us to sit, eat, and relax, away from our cramped sleeping tents. The cook tent usually held seven comfortably, or eight in a pinch, including the guide who was cooking and standing up. Since there were nine of us, this was a problem. But there was usually someone who was off going to the bathroom, getting organized back in his tent, or otherwise out.

The bathroom at our 7800' camp was a toilet seat on a big green bucket with a plastic bag in it, and it actually wasn't that bad, as long as the wind wasn't blowing spindrift around. I was to sleep with Greg W and Luis again, unhappy at being cramped but happy to get my time in three-person tents over with on the lower mountain.

We were all tired after our heavy load carrying, and after eating dinner and milling around the cook tent we were all retreating to our tents to sleep. I insisted on sleeping on one of the sides of the tent, so Greg W got in the middle this time. I felt a little awkward tenting with these two climbing partners who had known each other for years, and Greg W was a quiet but smart guy that I wasn't really connecting with at all, but Luis was at least interesting and talkative. I slept better tonight, not in the middle and insulated a bit from Luis's snoring, but the usual hassles of using my pee bottle, getting a good pillow set up, and not being able to stretch out fully woke me up from time to time.

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