Sunday, June 26, 2016

Denali - Derek's Report

Here is Derek's well-written report. I love his honesty, though it pains me a bit to read how many things I did wrong and how little I did right, in his eyes, anyway, and maybe in the eyes of Charlie and Tom as well. I have a lot to improve on. Maybe I'll convince some of my partners to join me on future adventures. Hopefully Derek will be one of them...

Denali had been a far-off dream of mine for some time. It supplied a major peak and some great experience in the world of mountaineering, and it was the nearest popularly significant peak to me, being in the US (by popularly I mean widely known. Canadian peaks are lauded and difficult, Rainier is very significant, but Denali, if mentioned to the common person, would without question create an immediate sense of awe and impression). 

It really wasn't until my dad offered the graduation gift of a climbing trip anywhere I wanted that I thought it would actually come to realization. I knew in my life I would probably get around to it, but this soon surprised even me, I think. It still wasn't very real after I chose the trip. It was so significant in my mind that it took awhile for me to actually wrap my brain around it as something actually do-able. 

At first the preparation was simply digging around in my dad's multitudinous collection of guidebooks and finding the many he already had on expedition climbing, Alaska and Denali specifically. These books were to reside in my room for the next year. I went through phases of wild exuberance where I couldn't get enough of the reading material in my room, and then I had low points of interest where my mind wandered. But it was always there, on the floor of my room, lurking. 

Fast forward to the first training attempt. My dad had been repeating the LPP with Charlie Nuttelman, his newest partner/protégé. His December and final ascent was Keplinger's Couloir, the longest route up Longs, and in a winter month. I hadn't done any real fitness/endurance/mountain training in a long time, but with Denali on the horizon, I was excited to give it a go, and Pops was excited to have me tag along.

To summarize, the trip didn't go well for me, for numerous reasons, not least of which was fitness, but also intimidation, equipment, sickness, tiredness from early wake up call, etc. I didn't have it in me to even get to the couloir and turned around only when I was a liability to my dad's attempt, his last attempt in this big project and on a day where eight or so of his friends came out to do it and finish it with him. Nutty friends... On a side note I totally injured my knee that day and probably torqued my MCL somehow with the unfamiliar equipment, because I limped and was in pain for about a week afterwards.

Well, rough start. 

After that eye-opening outing, we decided to start small -- really small. We got me some new gear including boots that I would fit and tinker with to mold them to my feet (I have always had blister-prone heels). We did Estes Cone, a tiny hike (maybe 2000 vertical feet or something small, maybe 6 miles roundtrip). But in the snow and with these new bulky boots, even that was a challenge for me, and I even bonked. Food consumption would be a major theme and deterrent during my training, something so essential but still I had trouble getting calories down. 

I'll skip past all our training outings, as they are colorfully chronicled elsewhere, but each outing got better and I kept getting stronger and more comfortable. Our last big training session was Rainier, which inspired a ton of confidence in me because that's as close as we could get to Denali in the lower 48 states, and how successful we were. I ate well and felt I may have been the strongest on our summit day, though I must have been carrying less weight than my dad because my pack broke. 

Since we started training, I had set my phone background picture to Denali. I bought Denali deodorant from Old Spice and kept the book on surviving Denali positioned on my floor so I'd see it every morning. So it was constantly on my mind, but even two weeks out, it seemed far away. Even when we started packing our food supplies, it seemed far away. Even when we had Charlie and Tom over for a final meeting and discussion, it seemed far away. The morning of our flight, however, it hit me: we were going. We were really going. To Alaska. To Denali. It was happening. 

Being so inexperienced with big mountains, I had little to no idea what to expect and there w,000ere many trepidations. I think I might have been saved from panic attacks because even when we got to Alaska, and to Talkeetna, we could never see the monster we were trying to face. It wasn't completely crystallized in reality for me. 

We knew, of course, that weather would be a determining factor for our attempt. Weather can easily and swiftly shut down what we had worked for the past 6 months in a single 7-day storm, which aren't uncommon on this beast. 

So when we got to Talkeetna and were forced to immediately wait two days for weather, there were some uneasy feelings about what the mountain would unleash while we were there. Especially given the scant 18% success rate in May, we were worried about ultimate success. We did well to keep our minds mostly off of Denali while in Talkeetna, though, spending lazy time wandering the town, spending hours on end in the TAT offices, or the Roadhouse, or the ranger station, getting refill after refill of coffee and reading our books (I started and finished Minus 148 starting on the plane to Alaska until the day before we left for the glacier). While waiting we got a taste of the never-ending daylight offered this far north, and adjusted our sleeping selves accordingly. 

Because I was nervous, I don't think I minded spending some lazy tourist time in Talkeetna, being lazy and care-free. So when all of a sudden, on the second morning there, we heard "rally the troops," we needed a follow-up "you're the troops!" from the friendly TAT employees before we hastily sprung into action and our glacier clothes and got out to the airstrip. We had 500+ pounds of gear, and piled up on the ATV we used to carry it 100 yards to the plane. There were definitely thoughts of "how the heck are we gonna carry all that stuff up a mountain?"

The flight in is supposed to be the most spectacular thing ever, as we heard from multiple sources, but it was quite cloudy on our way in, though we could see the tops of the three major peaks in the Alaskan range, and though we did a cool flyover of a pass on Mt. Hunter. 

The dumping of us onto the glacier was rather unceremonious. All our stuff was thrown out and piled up and all of a sudden we were alone. Other climbers at base camp looked hurried to get the heck out of there and no one noticed the new arrivals -- fresh meat. Slowly we gather our stuff by our sleds, got our 4 gallons of fuel, and started packing up. What else was there to do? It all happened so quickly and now we were here. There was time spent looking all around us to huge alpine walls and slopes that looked reachable after maybe 15 minutes of walking, but in reality were many miles away. Everything is huge. Mt. Hunter towers over base camp, and the math didn't seem to add up: how can our mountain be SIX THOUSAND feet higher than THAT!? We rigged our sleds any which way and meandered out of camp onto the 5.5-mile track to camp I. There was no send-offs or good lucks from other climbers. Everyone was either packing up themselves, setting up a camp, or waiting to get out. Everyone had an agenda and we were no different to the other 500 or so climbers on the mountain at the same time as us. 

The downhill start, called Heartbreak Hill, served as a tough introduction to our glacier travel. My sled kept sliding past me and either unclipping my ski from my boot or unclipping itself out of the double carabiner set up I had rigged (the biners would get under the sled and somehow pushed into the snow to unlock it, allowing the cord to slip right on out). I moved to a locking biner, and even then I would check it and the lock would be twisted down somewhat. These sleds did NOT want to be tamed by aspiring climbers. 

Our first break came after 3.5 miles. We quickly chimed in that that was too long a time without a break and some water and food. Tom and Charlie were great about making frequent, quick stops for fuel and liquids. While Pops' philosophy is generally to get the work done, and then recover, the correct philosophy for this type of thing is to be eating/drinking CONSTANTLY. You have to be fueled on this mountain. You can't bonk. You can't be destroyed or drained or whipped out of your mind. You have to always be ready and nourished enough to burn a lot of calories quickly. 

Our first night was spent at 7800 feet, where we had nice spots already made for us, and a new discovery: a kitchen. We brought, rather, Charlie did, a cook tent that would be our social area, but I for one didn't know how excavated kitchen spots would be: more work was put into the one we found at 7800 than the tent sites! Anyway we had nice benches and counters and shelves for all we needed - all carved out of the snow, and we cooked and chatted and hung out in there the first night, when temperatures were mild and appetites were high. 

The next day we carried about half our weight (we started with ~125 pounds per person) to 11,000-foot camp II. This was another little wake-up call, for me at least, because the 4.5 miles and 3200 vertical feet that might on paper seem trivial was by no means that. It was a long and hard day -- harder and longer than I would've thought. It was whited out near 10,000 and we weren't familiar enough with the route to know when we could finally stop. We got our butts kicked on the final hill into camp, but despite the tough day, I felt pretty strong and even led a good amount, taking most of the last 2 miles or so, including some trail-breaking duties (Tom had much of this job earlier in the day). 

After caching, we strapped our empty sleds onto our mostly-empty packs and got to slide down on skis. Pops was a bit worried about me going up because many of the hills are quite steep and he wondered how I would handle them on the way down. This is how: there was a good amount of powder off the packed trail, and I left my skins on. This turned out to be great because for the first hills, at least, I could basically point my skis straight down and go a comfortable and efficient pace! The route rolls though and there are flat and even uphill sections on the way down. That's where skins aren't as handy. Pops came along and pushed me along the flats sometimes (thanks, Pops) while Charlie was zipping along in his ultra-light Dynafit skis and bindings and boots.

Nearer the bottom the powder left us (it doesn't get nearly as whited out as near Kahiltna pass and therefore there is less precipitation and powder), and the skiing became a lot more mentally taxing. I can't really make real turns with my mountaineering boots on these skis, and I also don't want to traverse and kick turn too widely because off the track there is crevasse danger, and we weren't roped or anything going down. I got down fine and even gained a little confidence near the end, but it was pretty slow going for me and when I got down I was spent. The descent really took it out of me and I needed some rest time in the tent before I joined the others in the social cook tent for dinner. "Dinner" was usually around 4ish, and we'd have second dinner around 7 or 8. Time really blurs on the glacier because it's always light and you really have to eat whenever you can to stay fueled. So traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner didn't really exist while on the climb. 

The day was so tough that I was already thinking about a rest day, keeping in mind that tomorrow would be just as tough, but this time I had the added weight of knowing what we were getting into. 

In our tent, we got into a routine of watching a movie and then falling asleep to The Lord of the Rings audiobook. It was nice. I would hold the iPad for us usually (our rigging of a movie theater failed with our portable storage unit), although it got much harder the higher we went because temps dropped and holding metal is not warm... Even in the tent. 

The next day I felt rather refreshed and was ready to get the move to Camp II done. I'm not very good at getting up in the morning and eating. For one, it's warm and cozy in my tent in my sleeping bag, and it's cold and snowy outside -- always. Who wants to go out there? Another problem is that my stomach never seems ready to eat when I wake up. I have puked up many a breakfast just because I don't want any food in the morning, but I know I need it. I did get something like 700-800 calories down before we got going though. I'm a big fan of GU when exercising, and they became a staple of my breakfasts as well. 

We got going and we resolved to stop for a quick fuel break every half mile, and also switch leaders. Pops started and got the nice flats before we started up Ski Hill, a pretty steep and long hill right out of camp. He didn't get much of that hill before I took over for the brunt of it, and my half mile was much slower. I wasn't feeling as strong and just tried to keep a sustainable pace. I looked back every once in awhile, hoping my followers would be back a little bit so I could slow up, but they never were. They were right on my tail. We had some strong guys on our team... Rats. 

When Charlie took over next I got really hot. I was working hard (harder than the others? I don't know) and the sun was out on the glacier. I dropped back a bit (now that I had rotated to the back) to unzip my bibs (zips that go down my leg to open up that layer and cool me down), which is quite tedious for me, because I have to zip through my pack buckles and my harness on both sides. The others quickly gapped me by a long shot and while Charlie was way off the front listening to music going strong, and Pops was in third position listening to music just following Tom, Tom noticed the missing member and kindly waited up a bit for me. I caught up ok and I think I started to feel better. Every half mile switch I was drinking a bit and having either a GU (100 cals) or a Honey Stinger chew package (160 cals), so I'm sure these quick calories were starting to kick in. Charlie stopped at his half mile and Tom took over. 

Tom went a really nice and consistent pace, and he turned out to be our best, most conservative and steady pace-setter, which really helped the team as a whole I think. We stayed together here and then I felt really good by the time Pops took over. A white-out had rolled in by this point, and it was getting colder and was snowing a bit, but I was still in just my base-layer shirt because of how hot it had been earlier. At this point though, it was pretty unreasonable to continue like this, and probably a bit dangerous, so Pops spoke up and urged me to shell up, to which I obliged. He had another sort of flatter section and we cruised it. Then I took over again and felt good. I tried to go pretty consistently, but after a while of grooving (which is sort of like a slow motion runner's high for me -- just finding a rhythm and keeping it going) Tom behind me had to call up to stop me. Charlie, I think, had stopped to put on another layer and the team was pretty spread out. We weren't roped at this point so it's definitely better to stay closer. Thanks for keeping us safe, Tom!

The whiteout persisted the rest of the way to camp (the last half mile was Pops', but it's so tough that he took a quarter mile and then I took over again to finish out in pretty deep snow and trail breaking from the recent snowfall. 

Moving camp is always a much more stressful time than carrying or caching or even making a summit attempt, for the simple reason that you don't have a shelter set up during this time period. You're exposed. If things go bad, and things can go very bad very quickly on Denali, you can be in trouble. So it felt good and relieving to get our spots picked and our tent up in white-out conditions (visibility was better by now, but not great still). We found another kitchen site and set up our lounge area. Had our two dinners, watched a movie and fell asleep to tales of Frodo. 

Again I had been thinking of a rest day, but the determination of the team didn't waver, and the next day we went right into carrying to 14,200-foot camp, our advanced base camp for the route. We brought 20 days of food for this climb, left two at base camp, and planned to leave two more at 11, plus the meals we ate already -- that still leaves at least 12 days that we'd haul to 14 camp (we had extra from the days waiting in Talkeetna). We'd have THIRTEEN days to try to figure out a way to get to the top of this sucker. If we did that, and we did that as quickly as possible, we'd be feeling pretty good. 

Right out of Camp II is Motorcycle Hill, a very steep hill named as it is because of the steep hills motorcycles try to climb for sport -- and usually fail. This is where most people leave their flotation (in our case skis) and switch to crampons. It's also the point where sleds become less efficient given how steep the route is from here on up (this leg from 11,000 to 14,200 is only ~3 miles with 3200 vertical feet -- so twice as steep as our last leg). I opted to bring a sled but not put a whole bunch of weight on it as that's the convention (on flatter ground, more weight on the sled; on steeper ground, more weight on the back). Charlie would be bringing a sled as well with about 2/3 his total weight, meaning his move day to 14 would be easier in theory. Pops and Tom were not carrying sleds, so we put them on the ends of the rope and the two sled guys in the middle.

Tom took the lead again and did a masterful job pacing. He was also finding the best tracks up and even breaking some fresh snow for us behind. Lot of work for him. I felt pretty good up Motorcycle hill and onto Squirrel Hill (steep sidehill right after Motorcycle Hill named after an infamous squirrel that had managed to set up shop on the point the hill skirts, called Squirrel Point), mostly because of Tom I think. We ate and drank at the top of Motorcycle Hill and Pops was feeling really good, because he offered to take my position pulling the sled and felt bad going last, the easiest position because he had the best track to follow. 

It got to be quite windy up Squirrel Hill, which was long and tough, so Tom led us over the top of it, over some crevasses and onto the Polo Field, the flat expanse leading up to Windy Corner, before we stopped. Pops needed to switch into his down mitts as the wind made it quite cold, and I donned another layer, my shell. I got quite pooped after Squirrel Hill, so moving up Windy Corner was pretty tough and slow for me, but we couldn't really stop, because as the name suggests, this was the most windy part of our route so far. I would sneak in little 10-second rests, until Tom would pull on me, and I'd have to start up again. 

Right around Windy Corner is a cache site at 13,500 feet, and this wasn't windy at all! All the wind is funneled through that corner but once around it conditions were nice and warm again -- we quickly had to shed layers. I know I was tired, and I hoped the others were too, but we were still resolved to go all the way to 14,200 feet to cache, which took us another 90 minutes going quite slow over much less steep terrain. I was the weakest at this point, holding up Tom and trying to sneak (and failing) little breaks in as often as possible. But we got to camp III and cached a ton of stuff, so that felt good. We descended with no difficulties and decreased winds. 

Back at 11,000 feet my body had taken a toll up to now. The forces of the pack and the sled I had been hauling really loaded on my hips, as pulling there is more sustainable than tugging and jerking and straining my shoulders. So now I had these weird raised bruises on each hip and running my fingers over them produced weird bumpy feelings. It didn't hurt but it didn't feel good. It was somewhere in the middle. With no more sled pulling, though, they were looking forward to some recovery time. 

That night I didn't think about a rest day. Instead I wanted to move to Camp III and really get settled there. Then a lot of stress would be behind us and we can really get primed for a summit bid. The one day I didn't want a rest day... I got one. 

Charlie hadn't been sleeping well at all, and while he had been super strong moving, when resting he would get a cough and felt some fluid in his lungs. At 11,000, it feels more like 13,000, so even though we have 9000 feet of vertical to go to the summit, altitude can still getcha. We took a rest day and he tried to catch up on sleep and get better. I did the same. We tried to eat and drink a bunch and we got to sleep pretty early hoping we were all ready to move to Camp III the next day. 

Sure enough, Charlie felt better the next day and we packed up and started the move. This time Pops and Tom had the sleds and Charlie and I were the ends of the rope. I was leading, but going up Motorcycle Hill I felt good and rested and also liberated without my sled, while two of my partners did have sleds. So even what I thought was pretty slow and steady up Motorcycle Hill was too fast for the group. Tom, and Charlie, let me know at the top of the hill and I was glad to get the feedback. I think I was still in the mindset of proving to these other strongmen that I could hang with them. So I didn't want to go too slow for them and frustrate them. To this Tom said: "no such thing as too slow," which made me feel good, and I went much more conservatively from then on. We went all the way up Squirrel Hill to the start of the Polo Field before we stopped again, though this time it was totally calm (good call waiting out the wind at Camp II, Charlie!!). We took a nice break and Tom expressed some concerns about over heating. Yup, so far on this mountain we've been more worried about heat stroke than anything close to frostbite. We still expected plenty of opportunity for that above, though. 

I tried to keep the pace slow, but when we caught a party that was going at a weird cadence (not smooth, very jerky, with maybe a few rests back to back, and then a long, too long section of go, then a longer break, etc), I wanted to get by them so I'm sure I went faster in order to do that... After Windy Corner we stopped again as Tom was overheated because of too many pant layers, which are tougher to regulate, especially since he didn't have those leg zips I was talking about earlier. 

We got passed by that troublesome party here and just had to pass them again, which was sort of annoying and made me feel bad being the leader of our party for this leg. We went slowly to 14,000 feet again and when we got there I felt good. Since I was going a slower pace for the sledders, I felt like I wasn't working at all for each step. It compounded by the end, but I definitely felt the freshest I had all trip. We dug up our cache and got to work finding and building our sites. Camp III is a big camp as many people congregate here, including a permanent park ranger camp a little bit separated from the main camp. They give daily weather updates and often launch rescue efforts from there. We spent some time finding two spots near each other plus a kitchen site, and eventually got a good one right next to the trail out of camp towards the headwall. 

The next day we took four days of food, a shovel, and the two Bothy bivy sacs we had for emergency to 16,200, just at the end of the fixed lines. It is very steep for the first 1500 and then finally you need fixed lines for the last 500 feet of 45-55 degree stuff. On this outing I looked back and at our surroundings, which include just awe-inspiring views of both Sultana and Begguya and was literally brought to tears. We were really here. We have seen the pictures but something about being physically in this vast landscape of unmeasurable beauty just overcame me at this moment, this first moment I really took it all in at about 15,000 feet. Today was also significant in that I broke my altitude record of Mt. Elbert, and I broke it by almost 2,000 feet! 

Altitude-wise I still felt good -- a little too good. I kept waiting for the headaches and other minor symptoms of altitude at 14,000 feet, where 90% of climbers feel symptoms of AMS within the first 24 hours, but they didn't come. At 16,200, though I dragged a bit because the fixed lines, while easier because you now have the use of two legs an two arms, were more aerobic for me and I didn't want to push my breathing at this new altitude. I felt good to go all the way to 17,200 high camp. This was Pops' idea because he too was feeling great: really strong and not affected too much by altitude. But Charlie and Tom, as the stalwarts of safety and reason, convinced us it was more prudent to cache and go back down. We still needed to acclimatize to 14,000 feet let alone 17,000 and this was a good trip to get there. So we cached and descended back to camp, where we could relax, eat and drink. 

The next day was a planned rest day. We were told before we came to the mountain (by everybody basically, but most notably by Colin Haley) not to rush up it. The mountain forces you to be patient and we were trying to heed the mountain and respect it. After a lazy morning Pops couldn't just do nothing, so he geared up for a jaunt up to the fixed lines. After some more discussing and consulting of the weather report, the idea of trying for the summit the next day popped up. A storm was supposed to move in this day, a Tuesday and then clear off by Wednesday, giving us a window to try for it. We all were feeling good with no altitude trouble, and we were all on board. Still Pops wanted to do something that day and now that I was excited for a 6,000-foot summit day, I wanted to go up and get some vertical in as well. So we went up super casually to 15,700, the base of the fixed lines with basically nothing on our backs, no harnesses, just poles. We went up in 1 hour at 19 min, going at what I thought, leading, was about as slow as I could, considering I felt stronger and I wasn't carrying anything. We descended in a mere twenty minutes and were back with the boys.

It was a clear and calm day down at 14,000 feet, and we were hoping that meanwhile the storm was blowing itself out up higher. Still, we took advantage of our weather and went to see the Edge of the World, the edge of the 14,000-foot plateau that camp lies on, and the 5000-foot vertical dropping all the way down the the northwest fork of the upper Kahiltna glacier. We paused there and took a whole bunch of pictures, and then went back to camp to relax and eat and rest for the big day we had in just a few hours. 

The next day we awoke at 6:30 to malevolent wind with gusts of probably something like 40 mph. The boys had to lock down the camp (cook tent mainly) while we cowered in our nice shelter. Pretty quickly, after convening in our nice Hilleberg vestibule, we nixed the summit attempt. The weather report for today from the day before said winds diminishing from 50-25mph on the upper mountain, and Carl, a guide we met initially at TAT and whom we'd see many times moving up and down on the mountain, said that anything over 20mph is messing with frostbite. And we had no intentions of messing with frostbite. 

So we got some more sleep and ate and drank until later we decided to break camp and move to 17,200-foot camp and hopefully have a summit window in the next day or two. We broke camp and to our dismay, our packs didn't seem very light. We were brining no food, as we'd cached it at 16,200, but just our camp supplies were good enough to weigh us down significantly. 

At this time many, many, many people were going up with some of the same thoughts as us, and while some would likely just be carrying or making acclimatization trips, many would be moving into Camp IV and taking our spots! 

We started up and when we got a good ways up (maybe 1000 vert) Pops made a comment along the lines of "we timed it perfectly for the fixed lines! It'll be clear of traffic!" To which I responded "I don't think you should get your hopes up..."

There was a big group approaching the top of the lines, we had just passed another group, and only a group of three that were nearing the fixed lines were in the vicinity in front of us. 

When we got to the base of the lines, that group of three were still breaking before the lines and the last guy asked Charlie, leading at the time, if we wanted to go by. I don't know if he meant to pass them or just to go by to rest like them, but we refused as we figured we'd rest a bit and they'd get well up. But they rested even more and only started up before us by like 3 minutes. We instantly caught them and proceeded to spend a ridiculous amount of time inching our way up the lines behind these guys. They were so slow, I could've built a snow cave in each foot-step we used on this stretch. I could've contracted skin cancer (it was quite sunny at this time) and died before we made it up. We were moving for maybe the same amount of time we were standing still. I got a stomach ache from going so slow (for me, coming to a sudden halt of exercise after exercising hard gives me a stomach ache). So... We ALMOST timed it perfectly. In hindsight we should've passed them, because I'm sure they delayed us upwards of 45 minutes for this 500-600 foot stretch of route... Frustrating...

At the cache we discovered our trash bag containing all our food to be completely torn open and some of our food was strewn about and lost. None of the food was eaten. So we suspect another climber had shoveled into it and littered the mountain with our stuff, losing much in the process. Lame. 

We packed up what was left, taking most of Tom's food as well since he was overheated and feeling it again. We got stuck behind a guided group pretty quickly on the ridge, which has fixed gear and a fixed line on it, and so we were in the movie theater line once again. The ridge was actually really cool, but being stuck behind other groups is frustrating. 

We arrived at camp IV around 7:50 pm. I only know this because after looking around for a site (many of the pre-dug sites were already taken, but we found one down the route a little bit, which turned out great because it was really close to the start of the route above there), we had to (well, Tom had to) find another party and listen into their radio, as we forgot to bring one up. The report called for low winds and clouds for the next day. With a max of 15 mph winds, we had to go for it. 

We planned to be moving at around 11:30 am the next day because the road to Denali Pass, the Autobahn, is in the shade in the morning and very cold, one of, if not the, coldest places on the route. We dug in and cooked (in our vestibules this time, as we didn't bring the cook tent). We watched a movie and went to sleep, or tried to. At this elevation, sleep is quite hard to come by. Down lower I hadn't been sleeping that well either, but that was in large part due to the fact the Pops would go to sleep within seconds of turning off the iPad or turning on our audiobook, and began the snoring. That paired with how bright it is in the tent made it difficult. But up here Pops was having more trouble sleeping, and there were only short sprees of snoring before I assumed he woke up again. Because of this, I probably got better sleep at 17,000 than I did at 14,000! 

In the morning, it was calm and relatively warm. Getting antsy, we decided to get going earlier than all the other parties. That was at 7:30. At 9, when we were ready, 22 people were on the route and climbing. We waited a bit more, because even if we did start we'd just be standing behind someone else... We waited in the sun with another party before a third party came up behind wanting to pass. Uh, why'd you want to do that? Once you pass us, you're just gonna be waiting behind another group... No. But still, we felt pressured and started up into the shade. A hundred yards later we were stopped again, and looking back, we could see the two groups behind us now waiting in the sun! Wth? Pressure us up into the cold while you do exactly what we were doing in the sun? Even Charlie was a little upset at this (he doesn't get angry very often). So we went very slowly and all our feet but Tom's got cold standing, and occasionally moving, on the route. 

They turned out not to be that slow and we hit Denali Pass (18,200 feet) after 2 hours and 15 minutes. We wanted to get by so we went above them and rested until they started coming up again. So we hurried in front but pretty soon Charlie stopped again, correctly assessing that we needed a longer break to fuel up. We hadn't had much of an opportunity on the steep, thin track of the Autobahn, so we got passed again by the guided group, but that was ok. This guided group was led by the same guides we saw on Rainier. Jake was cool in the front and reiterated that we are all on the same team and need to keep moving efficiently, always. The girl guide didn't remember us at first, but she'd remember us on the summit ridge. 

We passed them at their next stop, right around the time I was finding my groove. The calories were kicking in and at around 18,500 I felt good! I took over the lead after we unroped (Charlie was carrying the rope now) and just kept plugging at a slow, very slow, continuous pace. We wrapped around Archdeacons tower and we're looking forward to the crest of the Football Field, but it seemed to never come! It was well further than we hoped, and even had a descent on the other side. We left the rope here, as we had read nothing that would warrant one higher than this. Just a grunt of Pig Hill and a nice ridge finish

At this point, we could see the Football Field, Pig Hill, the summit ridge, and oh so tantalizing -- the summit. When we looked at the vertical wall, AKA Pig Hill, we'd have to climb to get there, though, we were daunted. It didn't look like just the formality that we thought it would be; it looked like the biggest challenge of the route! 

We took a good sit-down break to psych up and then started. It quickly got very steep and we would go 25 steps before resting for 10 breaths, then 20 steps, then 15... This is where Pops started really feeling it and dropped back a little. I was still in the lead feeling very tired, but strong still. Charlie was behind me and then Tom. It got so steep where a fall would take you a long ways, and Charlie called out that it was a no-fall zone. Tom and Charlie were so good at advocating safety, and made sure I was plunging my axe in as much as a could, because that is my only protection. 

When we finally hit the ridge at a little shoulder, we were whipped. I wasn't feeling the altitude that much, other than the fact that my max speed was 0.0000002 miles per hour. I still felt strong and my breathing was in check the whole time. No headaches. No nausea. No problems. The last group ahead of us was another guided group, who told us we had another 30-40 minutes before the summit. Dang. We thought it was a short, 10-minute thing. Pops and Tom, who was staying back with him making sure he was good and healthy and safe, caught up, and he asked how I was doing. I said good and asked him the same. He said, "I'll make it." We took a bunch of photos and started the ridge. 

Charlie was in the lead now, as the ridge, too, looked dangerous! At the shoulder, without our rope, Tom even mentioned that we might not do it and come back the next day with a rope. I don't know if I could do that, but when we asked the guide of the group of three at the shoulder as well he said it was fine ("better with a rope!" he teased) but you had to stay focused. We had to go around a large precipitous cornice and then switch to the other side of the ridge and follow a skinny track. Falls of either side would mean likely death. And we had left out rope... Stupid us... But we kept our heads about us and went cautiously. 

After a while I stopped and looked back. Tom was leading Pops a little ways back. I waited and took some photos, Charlie came back to me, and said he thought the summit was just a couple hundred feet ahead. He asked, "who should be the first to summit?" I don't think we cared that much, but I now know that Pops had wanted him and me to be the first, as it was in large part our journey as father and son that led us here. But he was sucking in air, and so Charlie answered himself: "I think it should be the father and son!" 

Pops put a hand at my back, urging me forward, but I said "no way" and in turn pushed his shoulder forward. He led us and pretty soon we were at the top of North America. No words were spoken initially, we just looked at each other and embraced with a cut-off laugh of emotion. We were both crying and we exchanged I-love-yous. We stood there for a couple minutes while our partners were just below, allowing us this extremely meaningful moment. We recovered, got some photos, then Charlie joined us for hugs and fist bumps and more photos (with the CU flag), and we even got Tom up there for a summit photo from the guide that was just a bit behind us. 

We turned out to be the first party to summit that day, out of something like 80-100! It was 6/16/16, the date I wanted to summit while packing our food bags back in our Superior basement. We'd come a long way. And we succeeded. We put a lot of work into it, and thanks in large part to timing with the weather, we stood in no wind on a clear day at 20,310 feet, taking it all in. 

We didn't stay very long, because we knew there would be tons of people behind us on that skinny little ridge. We passed our Argentinian friends going back, took their picture and took another break at the shoulder for pics and more celebrations. Charlie reminded us that 90% of accidents happen on the way down, and Tom reasserted the need to go slow and cautiously. 

We got tons of congrats from everyone we passed, them knowing that we were the first party to summit since we were coming down! Tons of parties knew us (probably by our awesome Buffs) and said, "Hey Colorado!" We even got our Bothy back from Carl's partner. Going up the hill from the Football Field, we took little, funny breaks every 20 or so feet. We summited Denali, we can take our time going up this hill!! 

The descent went smooth and I found some summit rocks at ~19,000 or so. We roped up near 18,600 and descended back over the Autobahn, where this time around it was scorching hot and quite uncomfortable. We were in only our base layer, pile layer, and shell layer because even going up it was so warm we didn't need our big parkas. When we got down I took off my jackets and laid on the snow for a bit. Then I took off both bibs I was wearing and was down to my skivvies at 17,200 feet on Denali! Crazy. 

Pops was destroyed and went to the tent immediately. I was left to take care of him and so I unpacked some things, collected some snow, got the stove going, cooked him some soup and some dinner and we celebrated a successful day, trip, and six months of planning and training. 

The next day it was windy and cold. I had my worst headache so far on the trip and wasn't doing so good. I didn't eat anything and didn't drink as much as I should've. We packed up camp because we had to get down. The mountain and the elevation were catching up to us, so we had to keep moving. 

Tom had brought his summit pack to this camp, and struggled mightily with trying to fit in everything. I huddled near the snow walls to get out of the very cold wind, but pretty soon we were moving. I thought I'd warm up when we started moving and, hence, was only in my orange down/wind layer, but I didn't, and at a break I put on my shell. My hands also went numb in my down mitts along the ridge as the wind whipped snow around and there was no shelter. 

Things got better near the fixed lines and I started warming up. Going down the fixed lines, you couldn't say I was bonking, because I never really had anything in me, but I was bonked and wanting to move slower to stay safe, but Pops was pulling me in the lead and Tom was dropping rope at my feet from behind, so I was clearly slowing them down, and this two-front rope management problem made me stress more, and I almost tripped a couple times from the rope at my feet and it took a lot out of me. Off the lines I went much slower than Pops and Charlie, and here also my knee flared up a bit. This had been common before coming to Alaska on downhill things and I was bummed it lasted so long but not the whole way. I initially thought Tom was staying back to look after me but he was apparently taking perspective shots and videos of this incredible view we having coming down to 14,000-foot camp.

We went slowly and I was lumbering along looking for softer snow for my knee when I planted my pole and slid my thigh right into it, breaking it. A little piece popped out and I gathered it, but it was broken... Dang. Our third broken pole on the Road to (and down) Denali.

At 14,000-foot camp we found our old site unclaimed and set up shop. We didn't set up camp but we dug up our cache, started cooking and packed up sleds and packs. We made a whole bunch of pancakes with syrup and gave them out to the skiers we met and the Argentinians who had recently got down as well. Tom loved them too! We fueled up, but didn't make any water because of a failed juice-melting project that turned disastrous. We started down right as the wind and weather moved in. We would've possibly stayed here at 14,000 feet for a night, but we knew that Windy Corner could trap people both above and below it, so we wanted to at least get beyond the lower crux of the West Buttress today.

Controlling the sleds was quite difficult, and starting around Windy Corner, our sled tipped and the duffel bag fell off. It was still attached but this was scary. We couldn't really get it back on and so we just started dragging the duffel on the snow and the two sleds we had were loose and being tossed around by the wind a bunch. The white duffel was super heavy because we only brought one duffel up to Camp III and my job of trying to control it going down hills was super physical and tiring. I think maybe if it was on the sled it would've been easier, as there is less friction with a sled. Going down here was also very steep and my knees were in a lot of pain. But we were roped together and I had to keep up with the team, so I suffered. 

We struggled down in very, very windy conditions all the way to the top of motorcycle hill, where I collapsed from working so hard. I switched to Charlie's position at the first front and didn't have to really do anything but point out a crevasse going down to Camp II. 

In Camp II we found our same old campsite unclaimed and set up shop fully! Tom's and Charlie's spot was taken though, so they went on the other side of the track. We dug up our other cache (which included skis) and settled in. 

It was warm again way down at 11,000 feet, and our tent didn't even frost over inside from our breathing! The next morning we packed up our duffels and rigged up our sleds. We packed our skis on there as well because we had nothing to control our sleds and it would just be crazy for me to try. Charlie tried tho and had a pretty good rigging. He did well all the way to 7,800 feet. The rest of us, however...was a different story. 

I needed to use the sled's brake cord to attach my duffel, because we didn't have all that many slings to do the job. So my sled was going all over the place. I'd employ a strategy for a time, and it would work surprisingly well, but then the hill would turn steeper or less steep and the sled wouldn't do what I wanted. So I'd switch strategies, but that wouldn't last, and eventually I got pretty frustrated and Tom offered to rope it up and he'd control the fall of the sled, because his was behaving well. 

That worked pretty well, but I felt bad because now I wasn't really doing much. In fact I'm sure I was a detriment at times. I didn't know what was happening all the time behind me and so sometimes Tom would want me to pull hard ("manhandle it") to guide the sled but other times he was trying to pull back when I was pulling. So I'm sure he was frustrated by me, but I just didn't know what to do. On the flats and little hills, I'd pull it, which reintroduced me to how much weight I was carrying! 

We got down to 7,800 feet and stopped short of where Charlie was waiting for us because we were frustrated and wanted to get off our rope and on our skis. We rigged up and I drank a bit. Then we headed off sliding a bit and much more comfortable. 

Just past Camp I, there's a decent hill and I was doing pretty well with my sled sliding right beside me and me trying to tug it this way and that to keep it going. It usually ended up just turning into me and going over my skis. But I was making progress. Even so, the other three were way ahead and apparently I was so behind that Pops came back and offered to take my sled. Take my sled for 300 feet and then give it back? I was moving at the time so I said no thanks and tried to stay resolved and keep moving. He passed me back all mad. He didn't hear me so he was peeved that he had come back for me. 

From there on I wanted to go leisurely, since I knew that the sled could frustrate the living daylights out of me. I wanted the de-approach to be smooth and care-free since, hello!!!, we climbed Denali. The others were more content to go faster so I would lag behind. Tom insisted on taking the rear to try to keep the team closer together, but I just felt like he felt he needed to keep an eye on me. Thats very nice l, but that's not what I came on this trip to have done. If anyone did that, I should've been my dad, but he was fine yo-yo-ing out front. I was fine, of course, so I wanted him to go his pace or at least be slowed by me by waiting, not by going behind me. At one point I was going slow and he ran into me, breaking a skin. Man did I feel bad. I insisted again he go in front, I'm just going leisurely, but he said it was his fault and stayed back. After another regrouping, I made sure to stay at the back, even when Charlie and Tom stopped for a while to eat. 

Heartbreak Hill wasn't a heartbreak, but it was longer than we wanted! It was whited out and snowing pretty good when we got into base camp. We sat on our packs for a bit, then dug out our cache. Pops talked to Lisa and got us on the list, and learned that they were going to wait 90 minutes before they called off the planes for the night. But it didn't look good, so we asked Lisa if we could put up our tent right behind her tent and she said yes as long as we were quiet. 

I was pretty miserable with how wet I was and was getting cold, surprising at only 7200 feet. So Pops took care of me this night and cooked me pancakes for dessert. 

We ended up waiting all day the next day for weather. We had the last of the pancakes for breakfast, and I snacked for a good part of the day. The only real time I came out of the tent was to pack the runway for the planes. There was something like 1.5 feet of new snow! 

I couldn't eat any more freeze-dried meals that night so I just snacked. 

The next day we thought would be the same thing, but things started to clear early on. At noon we packed the runway and then I stayed out. Pops built a snowman with PJ the Korean, and I checked out the Kahilton, Tom and Charlie's cook tent /sleep tent combination. We ended up packing up casually (we were on the second plane out) until Lisa said three otters were coming! We rushed to pack up and flew out!

Great trip, great gift. Thanks, Pops!

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