Denali - Trip Report - Part 9

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Friday, May 16:

Today we moved our camp from 7800' to 11,000'. Barry, my tentmate, had been pretty sick again all night--he would wake up and dry-heave out into the vestibule, and by morning he was pretty out of it. At 39 he was the oldest guy in our group, but he seemed to be in great shape and have a great attitude. We all hoped he would soon get over whatever was ailing him.

As usual, I was the first one in our whole group out of the tents--somehow, I never slept very well, and if I felt like it was about time to be getting up, I hated just lying in my sleeping bag awake. So even though I truly hated the fifteen-minute process of getting out of the bag, getting my clothes on, and getting out of the tent, ironically I was almost always the first one out. This morning at 6:30 AM I went over to the cook tent and I was surprised to see a man in a sleeping bag cocooned on the floor there. Then I remembered noises I had heard in the middle of the night--voices and a stove burning--and remembered something the guides had said about another AAI guide who would be joining us for a couple days. A few minutes later Mike appeared to start up the stoves, and he roused the guy there, who was introduced to me as Joe DeMarsh.

Joe, a senior AAI guide, was a crusty old character, jovial and profane. He had just been escorting a client down the mountain who had gotten sick and couldn't go on, and now he was headed back up to rejoin his party at the 14,300' camp. Yesterday he had hiked from 11,000' down to the airstrip with the client, and then back up to us at 7800' alone. Today he would join our party for the march up to 11,000'.

Again, it took us a while to eat breakfast and get everything broken down and packed up, and we hit the trail at 9 AM, just after Rodrigo's rope team went by our camp. We had heavy packs today, with our tents and sleeping bags in them, but our sled loads were very light. Remembering the pain of sled poles jamming into my sides, I hooked my sled harness around my pack instead of myself, a system that actually worked very well today. The rope teams were rearranged, too--I was on Mike's team today: Mike, Bruno, me, Greg W, and Joe. We were the faster rope, too, since Mike was now into climbing shape after a couple of tough days and we didn't have the ailing Barry on the rope with us.

It surprised me that we always left our prusik loops on the rope each evening, and when they re-arranged the rope teams the next morning you often found yourself with someone else's prusiks. I had carefully measured out my prusiks to my height, but I might find myself tying in with Bruno's, and vice- versa, and Bruno was almost a foot shorter than I was. The guides didn't seem concerned about this, and no one else questioned the practice. It did save time each evening and morning, since we didn't have to untie and then tie the loops again and again, but it still seemed odd and a little unsafe to me.

We plodded up Ski Hill, resting a couple times, as the fine, clear weather of morning deteriorated--lenticular caps formed on the summits, and the wind picked up. We ate lunch and rested at our cache site at 9400', but we didn't take anything from it except the shovels sticking out before heading upward across more expansive, rolling glacier humps. We discovered that it was further than we thought to the 10,000' area, where we had planned to put the cache, making us glad we had stopped where we had yesterday.

By the time we were below Kahiltna Pass at 10,000' the wind was very strong, to the point where it was hard to yell over to my ropemates and it was blowing thick clouds of spindrift around our feet. Visibility was still OK, though, as Mike started traversing uphill, making a broad right turn to head up a steeper but broad slope that was the unnamed upper reaches of the Kahiltna. We had been hiking without snowshoes all day so far, but I started having more and more problems postholing up to my knee into the windslab snow-- I was perhaps the heaviest person in the group, making me more susceptible to this horrible affliction. Finally I had to call the rope team to a halt and put on my snowshoes, time-consuming under the best of circumstances but harder now with the whole pack/sled/rope/prusik mess tied around me and the wind howling.

We got going again up the steep hill, where we discovered the joy of hauling sleds while sidehilling or traversing--they tended to slide downhill at an angle below you. I was carrying the green latrine bucket on my sled, a last minute addition as camp was being broken down, and somewhere here it fell off the sled, but, still tied on, it flopped to the side, scooping up increasing quantities of snow that made the sled harder and harder to haul. I finally noticed this, and had to halt the rope team to try to re-tie the bucket on, not winning any friends among my ropemates in the process. By this time Steve's slower rope team was caught up to us, and when the bucket flopped off again Steve was able to re-tie it.

Despite all these miserable equipment hassles, and increasingly windy and snowy weather, we made good progress up the broad slope, past some campsites at about 10,500', and, finally, into the compact little city of campsites at 11,000'. This was the last flat area before the huge rise of Motorcycle Hill, and a logical, sheltered camping spot, so it was popular and crowded. Our group had been pretty slow on the trail today, so there were no good abandoned campsites for us to occupy. There was a large pit big enough for two tents with no one it, so Steve told us to grab it, since it would save us at least some work. Rodrigo had apparently taken his strongest clients on his rope and gotten to camp faster, and he was able to find a pre-made campsite--we were jealous of his plan.

So we were pretty tired from our 3200 vertical foot climb, and the weather was horribly windy and snowy, but now we had to dig. I mean really dig. There were enough shovels for all of us, and we traded off the grain scoops among ourselves, but it still took a couple hours to shovel out an expansion of the existing pit, plus the whole cook tent hole. Our pit was eventually about twenty feet by ten feet, and three feet deep. The snow we shoveled out we piled up into walls around the pit, and at the end of our Herculean labor we had a cozy, protected site big enough for our four tents, plus the cook tent alcove at one end of the pit.

Barry had arrived at camp dazed and blown out, and he just sat down while the rest of us started shoveling. No one noticed him until Joe went over and found him possibly hypothermic, and he quickly dug out some down clothing, food, and water to help him out. He was OK, and after an hour or so we were finally ready to put up a tent, and Barry crashed out inside, dead to the world. The opposite extreme was the indefatigable Andy, who happily shoveled for hours, and then even helped make snow blocks to build a high wall around the pyramidal cook tent.

Eventually the stoves were set up, and Steve cooked up a huge pot full of steaming pasta with meat and vegetables mixed in. Again, with no tomato sauce I found it to be very good. Our cook tent was crowded, since Joe made us a party of 10, but Barry only made a token appearance--the guides mostly brought stuff over to his sleep tent. The ferocious wind howled all evening, blowing fine snow particles everywhere, especially through the cook tent's door, a zippered seam in the pyramid that didn't entirely cover the opening. After dinner, some trips to the latrine I had set up twenty feet up from camp, and battening down all of our gear, we all retired to our tents to sleep.

I was with Barry again, and he seemed alert and OK, but he was worried about the way he was responding to the altitude and the exertion of the trip, and he felt like he was holding everyone else back. I told him he'd probably get better, but neither of us knew how the guides dealt with these kinds of situations. We drifted off to sleep, but the wind was blowing all night long, making the tent flap despite all of our campsite digging.

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