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.


Gayla Wright said...

Another great learning venture. You can not afford to forget anything!!! Such as down mitts. Think you two are ready. On to Danali.

Mark Oveson said...

Good luck, Bill and Derek!