Sunday, April 24, 2016

Road to Denali, part 14: Return to Training

Tom exiting the top of Martha's Couloir. Hey, what's the face in the background?!

I wasn’t supposed to be able to climb this weekend, but my doctor gave me the go-ahead so I was planning to join Derek and Tom to climb Martha’s couloir on Mount Lady Washington. Derek and were all set and packed the night before and Derek went to bed early to be fully rested. At 4 a.m. the next morning Derek looked at his phone and saw that he got a text the night before about a mandatory presentation for his Senior Research Seminar class at 9 a.m. that morning. He had spaced it out. He couldn’t go. So it was just me that met Tom at the Bus Stop at 5 a.m.

This was my first outing with Tom in a long time, as he was concentrating on the Grand Traverse ski race up until a few weeks ago. We’d climbed many mountains together, though, and had been partners for over 25 years. We were hiking out of the Longs Peak parking lot a little before 6 a.m. One minute up the trail we passed a party of two heading for Kiener’s Route. They were already shedding clothes. Further up the trail we passed a team of two heading for Dream Weaver. Then, just above treeline, we passed a couple of guys descending, telling us, “It’s pretty windy up there.” “Pretty windy” is a relative term and to an experienced winter-Longs-Peak-climber this was a light breeze. I didn’t even need to put on my shell.
Snow galore!

When we hit treeline I was mildly surprised to see how much snow was up there. Tons. The trail, usually quite visible all winter long because of the high winds blowing the snow off, was completely buried and the track leading upwards wasn’t anywhere near it. To go off this track meant plunging in to your knees or deeper. We followed this track to Chasm Cut-off and then followed what looked like a single set of posthole tracks across the steep slopes of Mount Lady Washington. We could see climbers heading up the Loft and figured they must have put int eh track. It must have been grueling and they must be experiencing the same snow conditions over there, but they turned around just above the privy. We never saw the Dreamweaver team and figured they bailed as well.

Tom and I took the high traverse to Chasm Lake, forging our own track. This was very physical, as the snow conditions were about as frustrating as possible. I was breaking trail here and I step onto the crust of the snow and then nearly step up before breaking through and plunging in to my knees. Hence, each step I had to gain the elevation twice. So, the three hundred feet of climbing to Chasm felt like 600 feet, through knee-deep snow. I led us up to the base of Martha’s, as Tom had never climbed it before. He’d do the leading today, as I wasn’t supposed to be jarring my eye, so he was about to take over the bulk of the work.
Tom approaching the bottom of Martha's
We geared up at the base and I drank I drank the rest of my 20-bottle. We had stopped at treeline to drink a bit and eat a bit, but I only ate two bloks and forgot to eat here as well. I wouldn't eat again until we were done with the climb, a thousand feet higher, and I was seriously bonking.
The lower crux
At the start of the couloir it appeared to be mostly snow, so we continued up unroped. We immediately found it be ice underneath about an inch of snow, but it was more neve, then water ice. We discussed things, briefly, and decided to continue unroped anyway, as the angle was 40-50 degrees and we could easily stomp or chop out a step if we wanted to rest.

We continued upwards on this really moderate and really fun climbing for about 600 feet, when we encountered our first water ice section. This was the same location where Charlie, Jason, and I got out the rope last June. This time it wasn't dripping, steep rock, though, it was ice. Thinking it would be a short section or that we'd simul-climb the rest of the way, I had Tom tie into both ends of the rope, so that I'd only be 100 feet below him at maximum. This turned out to be not my best idea.

Tom led upwards and I was treated to a steady raining of ice chunks. I cowered under my helmet and hunched my shoulders to bring up my pack and protect my neck. I thought, "maybe this wasn't what my eye surgeon was thinking when he gave me the okay to hike at altitude..." When I had paid out all the rope, I started up after Tom. 
Tom at the crux. I'm hiding under this boulder.

I cleared the first crux without any issues and was back on easier ground until I got to a short mixed section where I had to move to my left, across some dicey rock to reach the ice on the other side. Tom was protecting the climbing with cams and ice screws. After about three hundred feet he got to the crux of the climb, a ten-foot section of vertical ice. As he worked out this section, I was getting bombarded by ice. I asked Tom to pause so that I could climb up to a boulder that offered a modicum of protection. There was also an ice screw there and I clipped into it and belayed Tom as he climbed the crux. 

Tom struggled to clip a pin on the left and then ten feet higher he got in a good screw. He cranked over the crest and onto easier ground and soon I was climbing again. By the time I got to the crux section Tom had arrived at a small stance and set up a belay. I cleaned the sling from the pin and then got the screw out. As I climbed the vertical section, I got my heels too high and both crampons ripped out of the ice. I dropped, but not onto the rope, onto my hands which firmly gripped both tools, which were buried in solid ice. Still, my heart rated jumped and I struggled to get off my arms. With my crampons tenuously holding, I locked off my left arm and reached higher with my right and sunk the tool into solid ice. A few more moves like that and I was back on my feet, but my arms were gone and my breathing was rapid. I climbed WI3 like it's WI5+. 
Tom about to engage the vertical ice.
Above the climbing was still on ice, but a lot angle. I had to take two short breaks just to recovery my breathing before I got to Tom. He said I could clip in or just continue. After two minutes of just slumping over my axes, I continued slowly upwards on what was now crusty snow. After a hundred feet I stopped on a tiny ledge. Tom said he was fine and unroped. I coiled the rope and stuffed it in my pack. Tom grabbed the gear from me as he went by. He seemed to be quite a bit stronger at this point. I knew I was fully bonked and needed to stop and eat and drink, but my ledge was too small for the both of us and we continued upwards, looking for the good place to stop.

Last June when I climbed this route you could have stopped almost anywhere, but today the terrain was so filled in with snow that there wasn't anything flat, anywhere. We continued until we came to this conclusion and then Tom stomped out a platform for us to rest. Here I stripped off my crampons and stowed my axes. Tom kept one axe out because the terrain was still 50 degrees steep, but I figured the snow was soft enough to kick steps. Oh how right I was.

Tom finishing up the last bit of Martha's.
After eating and drinking Tom continued in the lead. Each step went through the horrible, breakable crust up to his knees. At least most steps were like that. Every tenth step or so, he'd go into mid-thigh, as he hit soft snow near a boulder. Tom grunted whenever this happened and I interpreted this sound as a mixture of effort to extract himself from the hole and frustration with the insufferable conditions. I could barely keep up in his footsteps. And I usually avoided the deep drops because I could now see where not to step. It was impossible for Tom to detect where the holes were.
Brutal postholing to the summit.
It took us 30 minutes to gain 500 feet to the summit, working very hard. We stop for ten seconds or more of rest every ten steps or so. Tom led us directly to the summit and we took another break here to eat more, strip off our harnesses and helmets. The skis were overcast, but it wasn't cold and we didn't have hardly wind on top. I ate more food and downed most of my remaining fluids. It was all downhill from here.

This was my third time climbing Martha’s and the first time that I didn’t subsequently climb both Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, via the Triple Couloir link-up. At the summit I couldn’t imagine ever being fit enough to link those three climbs. Had I lost so much fitness and so much altitude training to reduce myself to one-third of my previous capacity? I hoped not. Conditions here were much tougher than my previous ascents. I was a bit out of shape and hadn’t been at altitude. And I had bonked because we hadn’t taken the time to eat and drink. All things that I can correct before Denali in June.
Tom on the summit of Mt. Lady Washington
The descent was tedious, physical, and slow, but at least gravity was on our side now. I feared plunging in and bashing my shin on a boulder and hence moved cautiously. I led most of the descent and Tom graciously figured we split the trail breaking chores roughly evenly. Maybe…but I know without him breaking trail to the summit, I’d have taken at least 30 minutes longer. We got back to the parking lot after about 7.5 hours, but it felt more like 10 or 12 to my body. I was really tired the rest of the day. It has me motivated to start training again. I see the eye doctor on Wednesday morning and will hopefully get all exercise restrictions lifted. I had a great time climbing with Tom and he plans to join all our training events from here on out. It will be great to start gel-ing as our full team. Hopefully Charlie will join for some as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Road to Denali, part 13: Detour

Well, things were rough last weekend, as I mentioned, but it turned out that I didn't lose my glacier glasses. Derek found them in our tent after we erected it at home. Also, it turned out that I didn't have sunscreen in my eye...I had a retinal detachment. This is a bummer but it is what it is and I'm moved forward with what I thought was the best plan of action. The chances are very good (85-90%) that my eye can be fixed. My vision in that eye, the right eye, will be changed by a couple of diopters and I'll then either need to wear a contact or have Lasik surgery (again).

I discovered this on a Tuesday and had the surgery Wednesday morning at 6:45 a.m. at Porter Hospital in Denver. They don't waste any time when they discover this, as it can only get worse. I was under a general anesthesia, but it only for a little over an hour. The procedure is called a scleral buckle. The put a band completely around my eye which changes the shape of it (hence the new vision) and allows the retina (which lines the very back of the eyeball and is responsible for converting light into nerve impulses that your brain can process) to reattach to the back of the eye. They also use some freezing material and a gas bubble to help it adhere and to push the retina back against it. My mom had this same procedure done when she was 52, so I have her genes to blame, as there was nothing I did that caused it. Here's a video of what the surgery looks like.

I haven't been able to much of anything since, though I'll go back to work tomorrow. The first 24 hours I had to be nearly immobile, upright, and tilted to my left by 15 degrees so that the bubble presses up against the retinal tear. I can't even change elevation by more than 2000 feet for a couple of weeks or more  - until the gas bubble disappears. I'll be able to start doing some exercise after two weeks and should have no restrictions after four weeks. Which means this should not affect Denali at all, though I do plan to pull out the "I missed four weeks of training" excuse whenever I need one of you three strongmen to carry extra weight for me (or give me that extra piece of chocolate - I'll be sure to bring a note from my doctor for this).

On Saturday Derek got out with Sheri, Kraig, and Gabi and hiked up Bear and South Boulder Peaks for the first time in his life. That was way overdue. He carried his expedition pack and loaded it up with 35 pounds of rocks and water, which he carried to the summit of Bear. He then dropped the rocks and Sheri and he continued over to tag South Boulder, while Kraig and Gabi descended. So, Derek got in some good training. Sunday he went rock climbing in Clear Creek Canyon with his cousin Arthur.

I didn't just do nothing, though. If I couldn't work out physically, I'd do some mental studying. I am now intimately familiar with the contours on each green at the Augusta National Golf Course. I'm sure how that will help me get up Denali, but it can't hurt.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Road to Denali, part 12: Lost in the Woods

I guess we were due for a setback and we should had one. Not a lot went right on this trip. The plan was to ski into Thunder Lake (8 miles) Friday after work. Camp there and then climb Tanima and the Cleaver. Not only didn't we climb any peaks, we couldn't even find the lake. We broke a pole. We lost my glacier glasses. We had a hard time getting the stove lit. We had a bit of trouble even putting up the tent. I have huge blisters on my heels. And the worst, by far, is that I'm having trouble seeing out of my right eye.

Things started out fine. We were skiing up the trail at 5 p.m. About four miles in we saw a solo snowshoer coming down. He'd been out since Wednesday and told us that our track was about to run out. Sure enough, a bit further we were breaking trail. It wasn't much extra effort, but the lack of a track would prove problematical the next day.

At 7:30 with our light rapidly fading, my back and heels were hurting me pretty good and I changed plans to camp earlier. We had planned to just ski in the dark, right up to the cabin at Thunder Lake. This plan would have only worked if there was a track leading to that cabin. I'd been up to the area of Thunder Lake four previous times and only once found that damn lake, which is rather large. The track always seems to disappear at this tiny log crossing and the trail, which even when covered is pretty easy to follow up to here, disappears. There is no clear path anywhere. So, we camped at about 5.5 miles in.

The tent was twisted up a bit with some lines wrapped around each other and it took us awhile to understand what was wrong. Our hands were rapidly getting very cold and it was getting darker and darker. We had stomped out a nice platform and once the tent was up we even dug a footwell in the vestibule. We'd seen this on a video of how to erect our tent in the snow. This is really nice thing to do, as it gives you a lot more room in the vestibule and a place to sit.

We then had a terrible trouble getting our XKG started. I pumped and pumped and couldn't get any liquid to come out. I'd open the value and we'd hear gas escaping. There wasn't supposed to be any gas at this point. Normally you have to burn the liquid to heat up the tube that will turn the liquid to gas. We couldn't understand it. we tighten all the connections and kept trying. I gave up at one point and figured we'd just have to head out in the morning, out of liquids. I gave it one more try and got it going, thankfully. It wasn't kicking ass boiling the water, though. It was taking a long time, but we kept it going until 11 p.m. We both ate pretty heartily and then went to sleep.

The next morning we were moving slowly. I asked Derek to give a try with the stove, but he wasn't interested. We didn't need to get it going, as we had more than enough water from the night before. I'd forgotten the hot chocolate, but didn't bring some coffee concentrate, but we passed on it. To get an early start? No! To stay in our warm bags and rest some more. I finally got up and put on my boots at 7 a.m. - later than we had hoped to start from the lake, though we were at least 90 minutes below the lake

We were skiing up the trail around 7:30 a.m. I'd eaten some breakfast and continued to eat. Derek did not. This is something we need to fix. I stopped after less than 30 minutes to shed, as I was too warm. We both had on our big mitts, but switched to lighter gloves when we pulled off a layer. The wind howled above us, but we were nicely sheltered in the trees. Derek took over the lead here and our pace was very slow. When we passed the tiny log bridge, I took over the lead to horrible results. We wandered around in the woods and I was completely baffled by the surrounding mountains, what I could see of them at least. We are still in dense woods here and it is difficult to get a feel of exactly where you are. I had loaded the maps onto my phone and put in a waypoint for Thunder Lake and then left my phone in the car.

Heels hurting, wind howling, lost, motivation dropped to zero at the 8.5-mile mark. We'd find out later that we had gone by the lake to the north and were considerably above it. I knew you had to descend to the lake, but I thought you didn't do that until you had gone closer to 8 miles. This was wrong. I hadn't been up there in years and forgot the necessary landmarks.

We turned around and headed for home. It was really sunny and when I went to put on my glacier glasses I found out that I'd left them at the tent. We kept the skins on until we regained the highpoint of the trail, after 1.5 miles or so. The snow was sticking in giant globs to our skins and I couldn't stand it any longer and pulled off the skins. When I caught and passed Derek, he decided to do the same thing. I continued down to the tent, thinking I'd get a jump on the packing and that Derek would be fine. Derek was fine, but he didn't break a pole trying to knock snow off the bottom of his skis. Coming down with one pole is considerably harder.

He joined me at the tent and we finished packing up. In the packing, I apparently left my glacier glasses behind, as I can't find them. Dang it. I gave Derek my poles and skied out with his single pole. This was a huge challenge, not only in the fast, tight turning descent, but also in the sections where poling in the primary form of propulsion. My pack weighed a ton and it was a huge chore getting out of there.

There is a short, two-switchback climb on the way out and I took off my skis and walked this section, as it isn't really possible to climb it without skins on. At the top, in the bright sun, I sat down to wait for Derek. I ate and drank and put on some sunscreen. I must have got some sunscreen in my right eye, as I immediately had trouble seeing clearly out of it and now, the next day, it is even worse - like I'm looking through a film. I sure hope this can be fixed. I'll see if I can get in and see an eye doctor to figure out how to clear it up

Ugh. An epic failure. We have some things to correct. I did 18 miles on skis in my boots last weekend with no blister trouble. I thought that problem was corrected. I don't know what was different this time. Hopefully Neptune will replace the pole that is just two weeks old... If not, serves me right for not buying at REI.

I sure hope they have that trail up Denali well marked or we might end up climbing Foraker instead. At least there are fewer trees up there...