Sunday, February 14, 2016

Road to Denali, part 5: Winter Camping and Grays Peak

We were supposed to do this camping trip last weekend, but Derek was sick an entire week. This past week was a bit rough as well, though he did go to school. I wasn't sure he'd be able to go until Friday morning, but he was feeling up to it. We had just received our new Hilleberg tent the day before and Derek set it up in the backyard. It seemed great - roomy and solid, with lots of guy lines. We packed it up and readied it for the real test the next day.

Our main goal was to practice winter camping, but the location I chose wasn't random. I decided that skinning up the 4WD road from I-70 to the summer trailhead for Grays and Torreys would be perfect. The ski into there was gentle enough to be good practice for Derek, the distance wasn't too great (3 miles), the trailhead offered reasonable camping spots (the flat parking lot and other summer sites), and it offered the prospect of a winter 14er ascent.

For additional practice, and to lighten the loads on our backs, we pulled a sled. I packed most of the heavier things (tent, stove, fuel, food, ice axe, shovel, snowshoes, etc.) into a third pack and strapped it onto my sled. I made up this sled at least 25 years ago and have used it sparingly since. It is a $10 kids' sled with some slots cut into the sides for two straps to go across it. The harness is made out of PVC pipes that can break down to just three feet long.

We had everything packed up on Friday night and hit the road at 6 a.m. Saturday. We parked just off I-70 at the base of the road and booted up. We were skinning up the road by 8 a.m. Derek had been having blister problems with his heels, but thought he had it solved via some boot fitting at Neptune's. Unfortunately the last time he was in there to make the modifications to his boots permanent, they changed things. I was skeptical at the time and, sure enough, he once again had bad blisters again.
Derek pulling the sled into camp
We traded off pulling the sled up to the summer trailhead. Once there it didn't take me long before I decided that the best spot would be in the corner of the parking lot. There we'd have fences on two sides of the tent to which we could secure guy lines. Derek wasn't feeling that great and while he emptied out his stomach, I dug us a nice flat platform. We set up the camp, securing it to the fence and also to Derek's skis and even to a couple of the poles from the sled. We emptied most of our gear into the tent and then decided to go for the summit.

We headed up with just a bit of water, food, our shells and big down jackets. Derek switched to snowshoes, as the skiing above here is much more difficult to descend. We headed up the gully where the creek lies, as it is the safest way to traverse around Kelso Mountain, though avalanche danger was only moderate and seemed quite safe. The snow was hard wind-pack and I'm not sure floatation was even necessary. Thirty minute up, Derek was moving slow and stopping often. I thought it was because he was still weak from sickness, but he said it was heel pain. Dang it. We need to solve that problem for good. I was worried about the same thing with my boots, as I got blisters on our first ski with our mountaineering boots. In fact, I was so worried about it that I didn't use my mountaineering boots and instead went in my backcountry Nordic NNN gear.
Bulletproof, wind-blown snow
With Derek in no shape, foot-wise, to go for the summit, I continued alone. There were a number of other parties up here. A few groups of skiers on AT gear, though none going for the summit. I met a party of six descending and I asked the first guy if he made the summit and he said, "Yes, up Kelso!" Obviously pretty pleased with himself, and rightfully so. I asked if he tagged Grays as well and he seemed a bit shocked at the question, like hadn't he done enough already. He said, "No... I've climbed it before." He seemed to imply that if you've climbed it before, what's the point? That might be a reasonable take on things, but when I asked about conditions, he said I should talk to the leader of this group. The leader, and all the climbers, were very nice and friendly. I asked if an ice axe was necessary and he said it felt good to have one in a couple of spots. Then he said, "That ascent finished the grid for me on Kelso Ridge!" This meant that he'd climbed Kelso Ridge every month of the year. "Congratulations!" I said. "That's quite an accomplishment." To myself, I was thinking about his partners comment about having already climbed Grays. I couldn't help mentioning that my buddy Homie is working on the 14er grid and was roughly halfway there. The leader said he was working on the seasonal 14er grid and was about halfway there also.

I left my skis at the usual spot, where the terrain gets too rocky and too steep for skinning. I continued on foot, with Microspikes pulled over my ski boots.  1100 feet below the summit I caught a guy and a girl and their dog. The guy remarked how much harder these peaks were than Sherman in winter. It was now very windy and I had to switch to my down mitts, as my hands were getting cold. I should have done this much earlier, as I had quite a bit of trouble getting my hands warm. On the summit of Grays I balled up my hands for five minutes and still couldn't get them warm.
Derek snowshoeing above camp - which is down at treeline.
I started down the ridge toward Torreys but the wind was outrageous here. It was difficult to keep my balance in the gusts. That coupled with cold hands and Derek at camp down below convinced me to forego Torreys and head down. As difficult as the struggle against gravity was on the way up, was the ease on the way down. I made it from the summit back to camp in an hour and 15 minutes. I found Derek taking a nap in his sleeping bag.

I filled our tent stuff sack with clean snow and joined him in the tent. The snow was our water source. I didn't cook right away, though, and instead got in my bag for a bit of rest and a nap. Around 6 p.m. we were getting hungry and were lazy and lethargic. We nearly just ate our bagel sandwiches and left it at that, except that we were out of water, and need more. I couldn't get the plastic cap off my fuel canister and turned it over to Derek to give it a try. It we couldn't start the stove, we'd be okay. Thirsty, but okay, as we were only here for one night. Thankfully, Derek succeeded and we started the stove at 6:20 p.m. It ran continuously from then until 9 p.m. I was using my JetBoil stove and it's heat output was minimal in these cold conditions. I made soup and hot chocolate and boiled up lots of boiling water to fill our Nalgene bottles and put into our sleeping bags. We stayed very warm and quite comfortable. All the while we watched two movies on the iPad I brought along. We propped it up on one of my ski boots, but I need to devise a better strategy where we can hang it from the top of the tent.
Torreys from the summit of Grays
The tent performed admirable, even when severe wind gusts blasted us in the night. It was so violent that I feared the tent would collapse. What would we then do? Try to get dressed and out into the gale? In the dark and cold? Ugh. Glad we didn't have to make that decision. The tent was bomber and our guys lines were extremely secure. We did get a thin layer of frost on the inside of our vestibule, probably mostly due to the cooking we did in there. By morning we had some frost on the inside our our tent as well. Not much and really no issue, moisture wise, but something to think about. Things we need to bring next time: towel for tent, harness for iPad, and a chair of some kind. The latter is because kneeling and cooking for 2.5 hours was very uncomfortable on my knees. I wonder if there is some lightweight and/or inflatable solution that will work in snow. On Denali, I think people dig down and form benches out of the snow and I doubt I'd take the chair up a big mountain, but it sure would have been handy.

Derek drove separately up to the trailhead, because he was continuing on to Breckenridge to ski with some friends on Sunday. In order to get in a full day, he wanted to be back down at the cars by 7:30 a.m. I knew it would take Derek an hour or so to get back down, maybe 45 minutes if things went well. The reason is that Derek isn't confident or skilled enough to descend on skis without skins, but with skins on, he doesn't get enough glide. We're still building our skiing skills.
Derek sleeping in our tent
We set the alarm for 5 a.m. and I made us a couple of cups of hot chocolate and we ate some breakfast. We then started the laborious job of packing all our gear via headlamp. The wind was still very strong when we emerged from the tent and had to pack the tent by stuffing it directly into the pack. We were headed down the road a bit after 7 a.m.

Derek had a frustrating time on the descent. He either had too much or too little glide. The road was rough and icy and a challenge for an inexperienced skier in mountaineering boots. I was cruising down in my NNN gear with a heavy pack and a sled and spending some of that time looking back over my shoulder at Derek. I stopped frequently to make sure Derek was okay and to wait for him to catch up.

We got back down at 8 a.m. and quickly packed our gear into the car so that Derek could head into Breckenridge. It was an essential step for us. We proved that our sleeping bags work great, our tent is bomber, and our Jet Boil is lacking in power. I received my MSR XGK stove just the day before our trip and didn't have a chance to try it out at home. I'll be using that stove on our next camping trip.

The total stats on this trip were 14.5 miles and 4300 vertical feet.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Nice job, team! I need to get camping soon in winter... that new tent looks bomber.