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.


Tom Bender said...

Wow, now that's one awesome day. Thanks for sharing!

Gayla Wright said...

This was a bit too exciting for me. Between your fall and Derek's chest pains, all made me nervous. Happy you were all so confident and overcame all adversary. it is the unforeseen/unexpected occurrences that worry me. Love you all so and just want you to be safe. NaƱa

Mrs. Koski said...

It hurts my stomach to see the pictures. Can't imagine how it would be to actually be out there. You guys are amazing. How scary about Derek and his breathing. Do you think that was just because he was sick or what? Are you bringing oxygen on Denail? Makes me so scared.