Saturday, May 28, 2016

Road to Denali, part 18: Final Gear Shakedown on James Peak tells me that St. Mary’s Glacier isn’t a glacier any longer. Oh well. It certainly hasn’t hurt it’s popularity any. I thought there were a lot of cars in the parking lot when we arrived at 7:45 a.m. but that was nothing compared to the lot when we got back down. It was a beautiful, warm day…down low. My new Mars mountaineering boots hadn’t been in my skis yet and I had a new pair of skins that needed a test run, so I opted for the gentle slopes of James Peak. I figured we could ski clear to the summit and get in a good test. We’d also get another weekend above 13,000 feet as James tops out at 13,300.
Beautiful in the parking lot.
We had to carry our skis up to the glacier, so that meant that I had to carry my boots too, as they don’t rocks. We do crampons. We do skis. Maybe we do some snow, but we do NOT do rocks.  Ah, the trials of speciality, high-strung, flighty gear…

As we booted up (well, Derek booted up) and strapped on our skis to the packs I listened to a Sierra Club outing leader talking to his charges. He asked them to each name their favorite mountain which they’d climbed. The leader said his favorite was the Maroon Bells. Nice choice. The next guy said…Denali! He immediately added that he didn’t summit, but just “hiked on it.” I thought calling the lower parts of Denali “hiking” was pretty modest of this guy. He also mentioned that he’d climbed Hallet Peak recently and did lots of “off trail” stuff. Needless to say I was anxious to chat with him and when we caught their group I asked him about it. It was immediately apparent that he had just hiked a bit in Denali National Park, but, heck, if you’re heading uphill in that park, you probably are hiking on the lower slopes of that beast. Now that we’re on the verge of heading there, we seem to run into so many Denali climbers. I view that as a good sign.
Skinning up the glacier
We got to the top of the “glacier”, at the lake and I booted up and we both clipped into our skis. The snow conditions were just perfect - firm corn. When we topped the glacier we could finally see James Peak. Well some of it. The top 1000 feet or so was shrouded in clouds. I had been telling Derek about how James Peak is infamous for white-out conditions across the flat tundra connecting the top of the glacier with the start of the steeper slopes on James. That section was clear, but the upper part was not. I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad. I was very disappointed.

On the plus side, we’ve had two back-to-back weekends of complete white-out conditions. We’ll get more tired on Denali. Experience colder temperatures and higher winds. But I guarantee you we will not find more pure white-out conditions. As that would be impossible. These conditions, coupled with being on skis and unfamiliar with the area, caused Derek a lot of stress. He had been motoring up the mountain, with me trailing behind, but now he was concerned. He stopped. I urged him on, telling him I was confident I could get us to the summit and back down just using my GPS watch. I did exactly that.
On the summit...we think.
We met two skiers near the top and they gave up on the summit just 200 feet below it. I told them how close it was, but they were freaked out, talking about vertigo, and maybe were more skiers than climbers. Derek hesitated again, but I know how strong his drive for the top is. I have a bit of that myself. Last night when I was making plans, I emphasized that I really just wanted to try out my boots in my skis and then I said, “We don’t need to make the summit.” I was saying that more to assure Derek that it wouldn’t be a long day, as I very much wanted him to join me. I should be way over worry about this. This kid craves adventure and mountains, despite not driving it. He never turns down my suggestions though. Anyway, when I said that about the summit my wife Sheri just burst out laughing, “Yeah, right. You don’t need to reach the summit…” She rolled her eyes, confident that she knows me well. Better than I know myself sometimes, as I was also saying it for myself - to make sure I could turn around if I…what?
Skiing down the lower section, where we can see.
So we headed into the monochromatic world of snow and clouds. I just concentrated on trying to go uphill. Every once in awhile I’d get a glimpse of some rocks to my right and was thankful for the perspective. We hit the top of the Shooting Star couloir and then it was a short bit to the summit make by a rock ring and a metal pole. We stripped off skins and locked down our heels. Both of our hands were very cold at this point and switched to my down mitts. Derek didn’t have his, despite me urging him to throw in the mitts. Maybe he still has a thing or two to learn from me… He’s one tough kid, though. I thought about giving him my mitts, but he’s tougher than me.
Olympus Mons seem to ski just fine.
Derek was worried about the descent, specifically that he’d lose me and be lost, as I’m still a considerably better skier. We traversed and kick-turned our way down, never getting more than thirty feet apart. Heck, if we got 70 feet apart, we’d be out of sight of each other. It was going fine and Derek relaxed, knowing he could follow me down and that I was staying with him. Eight hundred feet down, we could finally see again. Now we could make real turns and Derek made a few, but then took a face-plant fall and that shattered his confidence. He wasn’t hurt, but restricted himself to kick-turns for most of the rest of the descent. This frustrated him and I don’t blame him. I tried to urge more practice, as we were warm and could see now. That was about as helpful as you might imagine advice would be from a day to his 18-year-old son who is already frustrated.
Hiking back to the car by noon.
I enjoyed the ski back down and Derek tolerated it. I’m sure he enjoyed the nice glide across the tundra, versus the trudge everyone else was doing, but he kept any joy strictly to himself. Once we had the skis off and back on our packs, his spirits brightened and we motored the 0.6 miles back to the car, passing, no exaggeration, hundreds of people and scores of dogs. I love seeing people out enjoying our wonderful mountains. We met a guy on the way up who had just moved to Denver from Seattle. This was his first try at a Colorado mountain and he didn’t make it. He wisely turned back when he couldn’t see anything. We talked to him again on our way down.

The boots worked well. The skins held fast. That’s it. We’re done with training. The hay is in the barn. It’s time to start packing our gear. Game on, Denali.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Road to Denali, part 17: Mt. Rainier

In order to be as prepared as possible for our trip to Denali, this past weekend Derek and I practiced flying into Seattle, as we’ll connect there en route to Denali via Anchorage and Talkeetna. Actually, we bought tickets a month ago for a quick shot at climbing Rainier as a final tune-up for the High One. The day before we left the weather report was dismal and would stay that way throughout the weekend. We were sure, well 95% sure, that we wouldn’t go above Camp Muir at 10,200 feet and probably not get that far.

Mt. Rainier is an awe-inspiring mountain. It’s absolutely massive. There is nothing remotely close to this mountain in Colorado or anywhere else in the lower 48 states. It harbors more glaciers than the rest of the country, minus Alaska, combined. The highest you can drive on this mountain is Paradise at 5400 feet. Rainier is 14,410 feet high. Mount Rainier has a prominence of 13,211 ft.  This makes it the most prominent peak in the contiguous United States, and the 21st most prominent peak in the world, beating out K2.

Despite all this, Rainier is a baby brother to Denali. Denali is the 3rd most prominent peak in the world, behind only Everest and Aconcagua. Denali almost beyond imagining, but Rainier offers similar climbing, albeit on a smaller, lower scale. But the mountains and the weather decide who gains the top, much more so than the climbers themselves, and we appeared to be out of luck.

It wasn’t just the allure of Rainier, though. We had an ace in the hole: The Loobster. My longtime partner lived in Portland just 2.5 hours south of Rainier and he was game to act as our chauffeur  and guide. The fact that the Loobster was just a couple days short of 73 years old didn’t concern us in the slightest. As you’ll see, if you don’t already know, the Loobster is a bad ass.

I’ve been climbing with the Loobster for nearly 30 years. He was in my wedding. I love this guy. Many of my most significant climbs have been with him and certainly many of my favorite outings. He’s unflappable, always positive, and a great story teller. Most of all, he embodies what I value most in a partner: he’s all about the team. Once you leave the car, there is no “your food” or “my water”. Everything is ours. Everything. If a team member has screwed up and not brought enough food or clothes, that sucks and he can be chided, but now the team has less food or clothes, not that member.

The day before we flew out was Derek’s high school graduation. Derek graduated summa cum laude with a GPA of 4.7 and was voted Male Athlete of the Year. His sport? Tennis. Here's the text of the Athletic Director's announcement at the award ceremony:
I get the honor of announcing our next award: The Female and Male Monarch Athletes of The Year. This award goes to the seniors who had excellent senior seasons, exceptional athletic accomplishments while at Monarch combined a high level of integrity and strong academic achievement. This award is voted on by the head coaches from our 23 athletic programs. Our Male Athlete of the Year was named a National Merit Finalist and Boettcher scholarship semifinalist this year. He is a 4 year varsity tennis letter winner and a four time state tennis tournament qualifier. Competing at the very tough #1 singles position he finished in the top 6 at state and earned 1st team all league honors his senior season. He earned 1st Team All State All Academic honors his sophomore, junior and senior seasons plus was named Most Valuable Player by the tennis team his sophomore, junior and senior years. He is a member of the National Honor Society and was awarded the prestigious Freemason Best Junior Scholar Award. He will graduate with a glaring 4.7 GPA and attend the University of Colorado in the Fall. Our 2016 Male Athlete of the Year is Derek Wright.
The Athletic Director/Assistant Principal also wrote us this email:
I was thrilled that Derek won this award. You have done a great job raising such a wonderful young man. He is a just the type of student athlete we love representing our school and community. 

Three weeks before our Alaskan departure, I got cold feet. Literally. I had huge down mitts and chemical heaters for my hands. I had a monstrous down jacket and even down bibs. I was confident I could keep everything warm, except my feet. My feet are a problem. They have the toughness of a first grade girl. Yet, I needed them to take me to the summit of Denali. In my panic I decided to buy the La Sportiva Olympus Mons - widely considered the warmest mountaineering boots on the planet. Actually, the solar system, since they are named after the highest peak in the solar system - the 70,000-foot giant volcano of Mars, where it gets to -200 degrees. Heck, if they can protect climbers on Olympus Mons they should be able to take care of my sissy feet in mere -40 temperatures. Right? I’m sure I’m not drawing incorrect conclusions from the name of the boot. In fact, I think Matt Damon was wearing these in his latest movie.
Learning how to set up a 3:1 pulley
These boots have one very significant drawback (besides their exorbitant cost). In order to keep the boot warm and light, they have very soft soles. So soft that they cannot be used on rocks. They need to have a crampon or a ski on the bottom of the boot. This makes it a very impractical boot for most of the climbing I do in Colorado, even in winter. Alas, I wanted the extra insurance on Denali. La Sportiva was kind enough to give me a deal on the boots, but I needed to test them out before heading to Alaska. Where can you do that?

Driving to Rainier
Loobster picked us up at the Sea-Tac airport and, after getting a humungous breakfast at McDonald's, we drove out to Mt. Rainier National Park. The weather on the drive and at the park was overcast and drizzling. Rainier once held the record for most snow in a 12-month period, 97 feet! You don't get that much snow and have many clear days. The weather report at the climbing ranger station was just as bleak as we expected. Motivation was pretty low for slogging around in the fog and not climbing anything, but that isn't a surprise. I'm never very motivated for that.

We decided to practice our crevasse rescue techniques and, using this great book, we worked things out in the lobby of the visitor center. We were quite the sight with our ropes, pulleys, ascenders, prussiks. We "anchored" our rope to a table leg and tried to hoist a chair across the floor. Once we thought we knew what we were doing we geared up and headed out into the mist and snow.

In order to get at least some exercise I decided we'd randomly hike up 1000 feet before trying our techniques. We wouldn't be on a glacier and just be out in the snow, but at least we'd have our gloves on, using a full-length rope, and our pickets. We "belayed" ourselves with our ascenders as we moved up to prepare the lip of the crevasse and set up our 3:1 pulley system. I ran through it a couple of times and then Derek did as well. Sufficiently wet and hungry, we packed up and headed down the mountain, just making it to the cafeteria there before it closed.

Afterwards we were going to put up a tent in the rain in the soggy campground, but it just didn't appeal to us. We decided to head to the Whittacker Bunkhouse outside the park, but then, on the spur of the moment, stopped at the lodge directly outside the park boundary. They had a room for us with two beds, a big TV, wifi, etc. We stopped there and relaxed. Our plan was to go up to Camp Muir tomorrow and just get in some exercise. Loobster was even more tired than Derek and I and he went to bed at 7:30 p.m.. I fell asleep around 8:30 and Derek at 9:30.

The next morning we were up at 5 a.m. and packing for Camp Muir. We had some coffee and breakfast in the room, packed the car, and headed back into the Park. At the ranger station we learned that it was blue skis above 10,000 feet at Camp Muir and we decided to buy climbing passes ($46/each to go above Camp Muir) just in case it was nice the following day as well. Heavily loaded, we headed up into the soup around 8 a.m.
Heading up to Camp Muir
We followed a heavily beaten track of footprints in the snow. I was in the lead, though the Loobster should have been for after an hour or so, we seemed to be lost. The tracks headed off to the left and down, but there was a couple of crossed wands that seemed to indicate that wasn't the way. A couple of young guys had passed a bit earlier and they stopped here, as confused as us. Loobster consulted his GPS and said we were already too far to the left. We followed tracks that went steeply uphill and then disappeared, probably because they came back down, like we did. We had two choices reverse further or follow the tracks left and down. We chose the latter and it was wrong and it sucked to descend.
A rare instant when we could see some rocks.
Pretty soon, though, we came across a huge group of climbers with all their ropes laid out. It was the RMG (Rainier Mountain Guides) mountaineering training class. They were about to head out onto the Nisqually Glacier and practice crevasse rescue. They pointed us toward the steep snow covered ridge back to our right. We caught a glimpse of it before we were enveloped is a 100% pure white-out. The only indication I had that I was going uphill was effort. It was disorienting. I'd been in those conditions before, but maybe only once is such a pure white-out. There was no change in whiteness from sky to snow. We could see each other and our boots, but absolutely nothing else.
Inside the public hut
We tromped up the long climb and eventually hit the ridge. We saw some rocks here, which helped orient us. Then we found a wand and another and another and then nothing. There were no tracks here, but there were the wands. Did wind and snow obliterate the tracks. I stayed at one wand while Derek and Loobster forged ahead looking for the next one. Just then a big group of skiers caught us. They seemed to know the way and we fell in with them for the rest of the way to Camp Muir. Visibility occasionally was better, but it was mostly done in near white-out conditions.
When I showed this photo to my wife she started laughing. I look like a hobbit between these two, despite being the tallest
The skiers were all from the CU alpine club. They were led by a "Big Mountain Skier" coach. They were doing a training day and then would do glacier school and then head up Rainier. We chatted with them quite a bit. The guide had done Denali! Cool.

It was a brutal, tiring slog to Camp Muir - 5000 feet of climbing with heavy packs. A thousand feet before camp, Derek broke his backpack. That sucked, but better here than on Denali in two weeks.
Just two hundred feet below Camp Muir, we burst out of the clouds into brilliant sunshine and clear skis. A slight breeze and cold temperatures kept our jackets on, but the weather was glorious and we prayed it would continue for another day. At Camp Muir there are many buildings. It's like a small town up there. You've got the gated community on the west, where the guides and their clients stay and then a public housing hut, next to the three outhouses, on the east. We found the public hut was mostly empty - everyone was heading down save for three French Canadiens: Sebastian, Leo, and Sebastian. They had summitted today in these perfect conditions and they'd soon be our saviors.

It was around 2 p.m. when we got there and we were soaked with sweat from the conditions and our effort, we all laid down in our bags soon after arriving, to rest and warm ourselves. None of us had brought a change of base layer. We got up an hour or so later and when I went to melt some snow I discovered that we didn't have a pump in our bottle. We brought our stove, but Loobster's spare bottle. We originally planned to bring two stoves and hence, I had to have my pump with me, but I just forgot it, as we keep the pump in our bottle all the time. When Loobster handed me his spare bottle when we were packing up I failed to notice that it had no pump in it. We had no way to melt snow and no therefore no way to get any liquid. We'd survive the night and could probably get down, but there was no way we could go up. At least until Sebastian came to our rescue. He graciously allowed us to use his stove for hours that evening. We ate and drank and filled every container we had, including our pot, so that we'd have enough water for the climb and the descent afterwards.
We packed up our gear for the next day, assuming it would be clear. Derek would just wear the top lid of his pack, which converts into a fanny pack. We set the alarm for 1:20 a.m. and laid down to sleep by 9 p.m. The Loobster got up first and checked the sky. When he reported stars everywhere, Derek and I started getting dressed. I made a cup of hot chocolate and we forced down some food. We fell into line behind three guided groups just after 2 a.m.
At the top of the Cathedral Gap
I thought that the guides might be gruff and possessive of this route, for they were the ones that had scouted it, beaten out the track, wanded it, and even fixed some pickets and stashed rescue rope. Yet, they were all very friendly and very accommodating. One guide told us where we could pass and we went by two of the three parties. Further up a client's crampon fell off and the guide immediately moved the team off the track so that we could easily go by. They even offered friendly advice on the right distance between us up high, even being patronizing and always being helpful.

We were roped together from the Muir Hut to the summit and back as almost all of this terrain is on heavily crevassed glaciers. We first followed a rising traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier to something called Cathedral Gap. This allowed us to breach a rock rib and gain the Ingraham Glacier. From here we climbed up and then right to a flatish area known as Ingraham Flats. This is the high camp for some climbers and indeed a couple of guided groups had camped there. We could now see them ahead of us, high on the Cleaver. The guided parties stop to take a greak here, at 11,200 feet, and they'd take two more breaks at roughly 1000-vertical-foot intervals. We'd put some distance between them, as we continued across the glacier and onto the Disappoinment Cleaver.

The Cleaver is a giant rib of rock that protrudes from the Glacier and allows safer passage up the mountain then the icefall on the Ingraham. The icefall route is called the Ingraham Direct and is frequently climbed as well. We opted to follow the heavily beaten track though.

The climbing on the Cleaver was mostly 2nd and 3rd class rock with some sections of hard snow. We moved slowly here, with too much rope out and the Loobster seemed to be fading a bit. We took a break near the top of the rock section and three guided parties went by us. We fell in behind them, now back on the glacier, and when they took a break at the crest above, we stopped briefly as well. The Loobster felt whipped and said that he was thinking of letting Derek and I continue without him. I knew the only reason he said this was because he felt he was slowing us down. If he was with his normal partners, he'd have been the strongest and stopping would have been the last thing on his mind. The weather was perfect. Conditions were perfect. There was no way we'd leave the Loobster behind.

I'd been leading up to this point, but I now urged the Loobster to take the lead and set our pace. He did and lead us clear to the crater rim on the summit. We got in front of the guided parties for good here, so our pace was plenty fast enough. The Loobster is an animal. I used to look up to him as inspiration for my older years - that I too could still be climbing when I was his age. As we've both gotten older, he doesn't seem to slow down, but I'm on a steady slide. I no longer think I'll be able to match is fitness and productivity when I get to his age. He climbed Rainier faster than all the guided 20-somethings and 30-somethings. I thought about this as I took the back end of the rope and knew without any doubt that I was the most medicore athlete on this team. I was humbled to be able to climb with such partners.

The climbing above was steep at times and even had to descend steeply at one point to get around a monstrous crevasse. Derek had never been in such a position before, but he was reveling in it. He wasn't intimidated in the slightest and was loving the position. As the sun started to rise we could see a solid sea of clouds below us. We could see a long way, but couldn't see much but clouds. Mt. Adams (2nd highest peak in Washington) to the south looked impressive and nearly as high as Rainier, though I knew it to be more than 2000 feet lower.
A bit chilly at this point, but it would get very warm.
We finally gained the crater rim at the top and true summit was just two hundred feet higher on the far rim. Loobster told us that most teams unrope for this section and we should have done that, but we just get going, tied together. A short ways over to the summit, the Loobster decided to untie, as he was once again worried about making us climb slower. This time we didn't resist and I led the way to the summit. As I neared the top, I could hear and feel Derek close the gap behind me. He had a lot left and wanted me to know it. I was proud of how strong he was. I couldn't have moved that fast.
Derek on the summit with Liberty Point (one of three summits over 14,000 feet) in the background
We hugged on the summit and a photo frenzy ensued. We even called Sheri and talked with her for quite awhile. My phone only worked on the summit, but it was a nice perk. The Loobster joined us and we took more photos. We coiled the rope here and carried it back down to the other rim. The Loobster laid down here to rest, eat and drink. A guided client was having altitude problems and a female guide was staying with hiim. I told her about our Denali plans and she said she was flying into the Kahiltna just a few days before we were. She also said that the Loobster was the oldest person she'd ever seen on Rainier and was duly impressed with this speed.
The team on the summit
After a good break we started down. The night before we discussed our timetable. We had a flight out that night at 8 p.m. To make that flight I figured we'd have to be driving by 3 p.m. Derek asked that night if we'd have a turn-around time, in order to ensure we made the flight. I said, "No. If the weather is good, we're climbing this peak. We'll deal with the missed flight later." But now, we'd made thes summit and the question was would we make the flight.
On the descent at Ingraham Flats
We got to the top  around 8 a.m. but didn't start down until 8:45 or later. The Loobster once again led the way. With full sun we started to get really warm. The views were so spectacular now that we could see all the crevasses more clearly. We moved steadily with only one brief break at Ingraham Flats to adjust my right boot, which was killing my lower leg. I don't know why and I still don't know why, but it appears to be better now. I'm going with the boots on Denali and will manage.

We got back to the hut at 11:40 a.m. I immediately stripped off my right boot for the pain was significant. Then we all got to work packing up our gear. It had taken us 5.5 hours to get up here and in our current state, with my boot pain, I wondered if we'd make it. We were packed and heading down by 12:25 p.m. My originally plan had us leaving here by noon. I didn't worry about the flight so much as I was more concerned about my pain.

Just a couple hundred feet below the hut, we entered the shite-out conditions once again. Derek and I were moving pretty quickly and after only fifteen minutes or so the Loobster said, "I won't be able to keep up with you two. Here, take my car keys." I responded, "Loobster, we can't see a hundred feet in this soup. We are not splitting up. We'll slow down." And we did. A bit. Derek started to have some knee pain and he descended with increasing pain, as my leg pain subsided somewhat. After an hour the Loobster said we were at 7600 feet. It seemed like we'd come down a lot less than that, so it was a great boost to our spirits. We ended up doing the descent in just under two hours and arrived at the car in the same light rain that we'd left in yesterday.

Once again we were soaked. We took our travel clothes and headed for the visitor center lobby, AKA the crevasse-rescue classroom. We stripped off our drenched layers and changed into dry street clothes. It felt glorious. We were driving out of the parking lot at 2:50 p.m. and easily made our flight.

We arrived thinking we had 5% chance of climbing this mountain and left with the summit. We were elated. At least Derek can say he's climbed Rainier when the climbing rangers on Denali ask about his experience. We leave in twelve days.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Road to Denali, part 16: Notch Couloir

It was time to get back to altitude, especially for Derek. The last time he'd been above 10,000 feet was more than a month ago when we skied Bierstadt. We also wanted to get out with our Denali teammate Tom Karpeichik. Derek had been fighting a cold and I wasn't sure he'd be up for such a big adventure. When I asked him, he responded, "Definitely!" He's supremely motivated to climb and have big experiences.

We met in north Boulder, in a dense fog, at 4 a.m. The drive to the trailhead was maybe the toughest I've ever done. Visibility was severely hampered and the poor conditions persisted to the parking lot. It was 31 degrees and a damp mist hung all around us. We all decided to wear our shells after debating which would make us wetter: the mist or sweating in our shells. In the parking lot was a group of three headed to Dreamweaver. Tom knew one of them, Christian. When we stopped, only minutes into the approach, to strip off our shells, they went by, but when we caught them, they yielded the lead. We never saw them again and wondered if they bailed.

We hiked to treeline and found a tracked path to Chasm Cut-off. Above the fog now, we could clearly see our daunting objective before us. Behind and below us was a solid sea of clouds. We followed a boot pack across the snow on the slopes of Mount Lady Washington. A faint track led up the rise to Chasm Lake, but mostly it was obliterated by the wind.

I was surprised we could walk directly across Chasm Lake, but there is tons of snow up on Longs still. We had some sun here and the temps were quite comfortable. We stopped on the far side to eat, drink, don harnesses and crampons and pull out our axes. Derek took a turn leading up Lambs Slide and then I did a small turn before Tom took over and kick steps clear to Broadway. Here Derek really started to feel the altitude and could only do a few steps before needing to pause for some breathing. He was really congested as well. A lesser kid would have thrown in the towel, but Derek isn't afraid of long, hard days. He was committed to the summit, no matter how long it would take.

Once we hit Broadway we stopped to eat and drink again. I took some weight out of Derek's pack and flaked the rope. Tom took the first lead of Broadway and did three quarters of the traverse before running out of gear and belaying. This traverse, when covered in snow, is always the crux of the Notch Couloir (not counting the optional Stepladder finish). The snow was really sticky here and was balling heavily on our crampons, making things even more tenuous.

Tom led behind the massive flake midway across the traverse and this involved down climbing a vertical snow chimney. Beyond was a very steep snowfield. This is exciting climbing, knowing there is a thousand-foot wall below you. We made sure to plunge our axes securely before moving our feet. A fall here would be serious.

I took over the lead and finished the traverse, crossing one incredibly thin section with hardly any snow. I could see the very edge of the ledge that I've walked across in summer and delicately stepped onto the snow, knowing if it gave way I could hopefully stop when I hit the ledge a couple of feet lower down. The snow held but it was freaky. I couldn't place any solid gear until at least fifty feet further right. I placed another solid piece and when I arrived at the Notch, I set up a bomber belay instead of continuing, knowing that if either Tom or Derek fell, they'd both be dangling over the Diagonal Wall.

I thought Derek might be more daunted by the position, but he seemed blase´ if anything. Derek has always been very comfortable with exposure. When he was really young, before he learned how to rappel, I'd lower Derek off hundred-foot cliffs. He wouldn't even pause or double-check with me when I said he could start down. He'd lean back over the precipice as if he was stepping off a curb. But he'd never been in such a position like this before. We had a short conference here. I was lobbying for finishing on Kiener's Route - opting for more rock and less sticky, deep snow and an easier finish. I deferred to Tom, though, who had the next lead. If the snow was better, we'd continue up the Notch.

Tom, I think, had memories of difficult climbing on Kiener's from our January 1, 2000 ascent, so might have been biased against it, but he found acceptable snow conditions and up the couloir we went. Tom led out for 300 feet or so and then stopped to belay. Derek and I followed with me on the end of the rope and Derek just twenty feet in front of me. This is the arrangement we used for the entire climb. I took over the lead and continued clear to the top of the Notch, in one massive 700-foot stretch.

I actually fell on this lead. Going through a narrow section at the very exit of the couloir, the snow was really thin and I rushed. The snow gave way and I fell down about five nerve-wreaking feet before I stopped myself. I had placed a piece about twenty feet down, anticipating this tricky section. I continued more carefully, especially in another tricky, rock section.

I gained the top of the Notch and setup a belay against the rock wall on right, at the start of the Stepladder pitch. Two hundred feet later, Tom and Derek joined me. We were all committed to the Stepladder finish. It's way more aesthetic and a lot less snow. The pitch is hard, though, and committing. I'd done it three times before in similar conditions and offered to take the lead. Tom would have none of that. I wasn't surprised. Tom's a strong, safe, experienced climber. Better than me. I described the details of the pitch, specifically to avoid the seemingly easier wide crack on the left.

Tom moved steadily up the pitch, protecting it as best he could. He put Derek and I on belay and we started moving. There was a tricky traverse early in the pitch, to get into the main weakness. Tom had hand traversed a crack, fearful of the thin snow on the slab. Derek tried the slab and fell. Tom caught him nicely and Derek soon regained the pitch. The crux is a steep slab with only a few places to place your crampons. Tom warned us to pull off our mitts for this section, but Derek amazingly climbed it in his mitts and with his axe. I pulled off my mitts, stowed my axe, and barely scraped up it, thankful for Tom's very tight belay.

There was one hard section to go and I led it with a couple of solid cams, pulling mightily on the top one. I continued until I hit the ridge and a solid place to belay. Derek and Tom climbed it quickly and joined me. Tom led up the last section, turning a blocky, steep headwall, to the top of the ridge. I coiled the rope while Derek led the way to the summit. We ate and drank here and celebrated a hard-won ascent. It has taken us nine and a half hours to gain the summit. I was tired.

I led the way down the North Face. Descending was easier than normal because of the tremendous amounts of snow on it, but route finding was difficult, as all signs of the route were buried. All my landmarks were buried. I paused a number of times and let the mountain and my vast experience (probably nearly forty descents) to speak to me. I felt pressure to lead us down safely. How could I not find the way down? I traversed a ways, stopped, scanned, listened. I did it again and again. Then, I started down steep snow, reverse front-pointing. I looked over my shoulder numerous times, straining to find the iron eyebolt. Finally, I spotted it. Relief rushed over me. I doubt either of my companions were worried in the slightest. Derek, because he trusted me completely to find the way down. Tom, maybe because he thought it was easy to find the way down.

It was at this time that I noticed Derek was having trouble and looked to be in considerable pain. He complained of serious chest pain and said he felt like he had a collapsed lung. He was scared and confused why this was happening. At that time I just felt he needed to get lower. I rappelled to the next eyebolt and waited for Derek. It took him a very long time to get on rappel. Tom was watching him and making sure he was setup correctly, but now I was more concerned. Derek rappelled to me and I clipped him in and took off his rappel device. I noticed that the rope would barely make the snow below, as there was so much snow that it buried the bottom of the pitch. I told Tom to rappel past us to the snow, which he did. I pulled the rope, threaded one end through the eyebolt and clipped it to Derek. I then lowered him 200 feet down to Tom, who unclipped Derek and they started descending immediately. I pulled up the rope, rappelled and quickly caught up to them.

When I caught Derek he was still in serious distress. He couldn't breathe. I sat him down in the snow and tried to get him to relax. It wasn't a panic attack. Derek doesn't panic. But his stress of the pain and difficulty in breathing was making it even more difficult to breathe. We sat there and he tried to get more oxygen into his lungs. I took off his pack, his harness, and his crampons, as the snow was now soft enough to glissade. I told Derek to slide down the slope as soon as he felt he had the breathe for it. I packed up the rest of his gear and followed him down with both packs.

Once down at the rocks, Tom stripped off his gear and repacked his pack. He gave a ski pole to Derek and he carried an axe in his hand and two on this pack. I took the rest of Derek's gear and was contemplating the best way to carry both packs, when Derek picked up my, at this point, lighter pack and put it on. Even in his state of distress and pain, he wanted to do his part. I didn't take it from him, thinking I'd just take it when he was struggling. I told Tom and Derek to get started and I'd catch them. I never did.

We did regroup, but only because they waited for me. I wasn't running, but I was pushing my pace more than a normal hike, yet I was losing ground to them. Walking in Derek's footprints, I notice his long stride, a bit too long for me. We're about the same height, but it seems like his legs are six inches longer. Normally, I'd be dismayed at not being able to keep up, but in these circumstances, after how I saw Derek, I was elated that Derek was doing so well. I watched them move and they didn't seem to be hurrying or really pushing, yet I couldn't catch them. It seems as if I was walking and they were rolling,. They moved over the tricky terrain so fluidly, while I proceeded at wildly varying speeds, with occasional stumbles.

The weather moved in on us and it got to nearly a white out. I was worried for a bit that it might be hard to find the way down. I was somewhat comforted that I had my GPS watch with me and I could use it to navigate, as I have before. Alas, it was short lived and we had no trouble navigating. The rest of the descent went smoothly, albeit tiring.

We got back to the trailhead 13 hours and 8 minutes after we had left. Originally I was hoping to do this trip in around ten hours. For the last two hours I had been fantasizing about a hot shower, a big burrito, and a comfy bed. I found all three as soon as I got home.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Road to Denali, part 15: Skyline Traverse

On top of Green Mountain. What a view!

Bad weather and an Ultimate Frisbee tournament combined to squelch our plans for a high-altitude weekend. We didn't let the weekend go to waste, though. We did some food training! Actually, taste testing, but still, an important job. We sampled a few freeze-dried meals to see how we liked them. We both gave big thumbs up to the Chicken & Rice and the Spaghetti and Meat Sauce. I also tried out our new skillet for making pancakes on Denali. It worked great on my stove! :-)

But we didn't just eat. Feeling guilty about not getting up high, we decided to do the 17-mile, 6300-vertical feet of the Skyline Traverse - a traverse of the major peaks above Boulder. When I made that plan, I figured the snow would stop and we'd be cruising along on either dry, damp, or packed snow-covered trails. Instead we ended up breaking trail for ten of the miles we did, mostly not too deep, but at times the snow was above our knees.

Once I made the plan, I recruited Homie. A month ago he did the double Skyline and he's running a 108-mile race in Georgia in eleven days. While this would be a huge outing for Derek and I, it was, literally (and I know that word is overused), barely a warm-up for Homie. We picked him up early and the three of us set out from the South Mesa Trail at 6:10 a.m.

Homie said we had to summit the 4th-class Red Rocks summit above the Hogsback, so that made a total of six peaks, along with the usual South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, Flagstaff Mountain, and Mt. Sanitas. Our goal was to average an hour per peak and we traded off leading the way on each one. I got the first one, SBP, and it was a long, hard slog. Above the saddle I couldn't even find where the trail went, at least in sections, and I've been up that trail nearly two hundred times! We all wore Gortex shells and I wore my down mitts and was happy to have them on SBP. My companions were tougher and didn't need as much protection, though Homie, in shorts and running shoes without gaiters, did admit to having cold feet.
On the summit of Red Rocks, above the Hogsback
We struggled to the summit in 1h37m. We knew we'd be behind schedule here, as we'd gain nearly 3000 feet on this first summit, but I thought 1h20m was reasonable and it would have been if we weren't postholing through snow. Derek took over the lead and nearly got us back on track - 2h02m to Bear. Homie took the lead on the brutally deep West Ridge of Bear Peak. When his bare knees and thighs were covered in snow I feared he'd get frostbite. I offered to take the lead. He would have none of that. Later I noticed his bare ankles covered in snow and he at least stopped to pull up his socks.
Homie downclimbing the scramble up to the Red Rocks' summit.
We got to Green Mountain's summit after 3h22m. We called Sheri and checked in. She had just finished the Green Mountain loop herself. We were all impressed that she broke trail on this loop all by herself. She thinks it was her first time putting in the track. Nice.

I led us down the slippery descent and up to the summit of Flagstaff (3h55m). We saw some friends on their way up as we descended. Homie then led up down the 2000-foot descent to Eben G. Fine park and up to the summit of Red Rocks (fun scrambling!) - 4h48m.

Derek and I were hurting pretty good at this point and we decided there would be no more running. This wasn't much of a sacrifice, as we only had Sanitas left. We started up at 4h54m and Derek took over the pacing. We hit the summit at 5h26m. I really want to sit down and rest, but I feared my legs would lock up. We started down right away, slow and easy...

But then Derek asked if we'd break six hours. I assured him it was in the bag. Then he wanted to get back down before noon, meaning we'd have to break 5h50m. Crazy kid. Where he gets such crazy ideas, I don't know. This obsession with breaking this time and that time. I just shake my head and grudgingly put up with it, not wanting to alienate my son.

On the descent, I was leading with Derek behind me and Homie in the back. Halfway down or so, Homie says, "Bill, we're in trouble." I knew exactly what he meant, even with zero context, except for the fact that we were running down. I was stumbling down like a knee-capped rhino with a torn Achilles. Derek, even with his shin-splint pain, was dancing into and out of rocky gaps, leaping over roots and down drop-offs. Even Homie marveled at his agility. Eighteen-year-old legs attached to great overall athlete is a powerful combination.
So glad to be heading to pancakes and a chair!
We made it back to the parking lot, where Sheri was waiting to pick us up and drive us to iHop, at 11:58 a.m. We had been moving for 5h49m. This was Derek's longest trail "run" and it was done in very tough conditions. I was pretty impressed with his endurance and his toughness. It was a great day out with two great companions.