Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Denali - Part 1: Getting There

Denali, the highest mountain in North America, is the third most prominent mountain in the world, the most northern peak over 6000 meters, and the biggest peak in the world that is entirely above sea level (Mauna Kea, mostly under water, is the largest). It is also considered one of the coldest mountains on earth and this is why it is almost entirely climbed in only the months of May and June. Because of its extreme northern latitude, nearly inside the Arctic Circle, its elevation of 20,310 feet is more comparable to a 23,000-foot mountain in the Himalayas. In the Athabaskan language, Denali means "the High One" and indeed it is.

It's a long, expensive journey to get to this mountain and so time-consuming and logistically difficult to climb it from its true base at 2000 feet of elevation, that it is almost always accessed by a ski plane that lands on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at around 7200 feet. This is the approach we took.

Our team met Saturday afternoon at DIA with a titanic mass of gear - enough food, clothing, and shelter to keep us alive for twenty days. Charlie and Tom helped Derek and I carry the gear into the departure counter and we bid farewell to Sheri. Derek and I checked five total bags - all within a few ounces of 50 pounds each. We flew to Seattle where Charlie exhibited one of his three defining personality quirks: coffee obsession. Charlie needs a direct caffeine infusion every few hours. His other characteristics? Making funny faces and trying to get his teammates to join in on ridiculous stunts.

With Charlie properly medicated, we got some dinner before boarding our flight to Anchorage. On the plane Derek busied himself reading Art Davidson's Minus 148, about the first winter ascent of Denali in 1967. He buzzed through the entire book before we flew into the glacier and then started and finished Miracle in the Andes on our climb. At least he was well prepared to survive just about anything. Thankfully starvation wouldn't be one of our problems, as we brought a sizable fraction of a ton of food.
VRBO in Anchorage at 11 p.m. at night with no lights in the room.

We arrived in Anchorage at 9:30 p.m. and had no trouble getting our bags or meeting our shuttle driver, also named Bill. Bill had a 14-passenger van towing a covered trailer. We put all our gear in the trailer and had tons of room for ourselves. We sort of screwed up here in our planning and got a VRBO condo in Anchorage instead of going straight to Talkeetna. When we realized what we'd done it was too late to cancel it. Oh well, it gave us a nice rest between traveling. Tom got even with the VRBO people by inadvertently swiping a napkin, complete with ring, from their table. We're still dumbfounded as to how this occurred, but my money's on Chuck Charlie (C. Charlie Nuttelman).

This was my first experience with perpetual light. It never got dark while we were in Alaska. Never. It made it difficult for C. Charlie Nuttelman to sleep, but Derek and I were working hard enough each day to nod off anyway. We end up caching our headlamps at 11,000 feet on the mountain since you never need them. You could read a book at 2 a.m. in your tent without a light.

Bill, our driver, crashed somewhere that night but was back to pick us up at 7 a.m. and we headed north. We stopped in Wasilla for some last minute groceries (cheese, bagels, and tortillas) and what we hoped was our last hearty breakfast before flying into the glacier (wrong!). We continued directly to Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) to check in.  While dropping off our gear at "The Pavillon" I met a fit looking climber packing up his gear and cooking a meal on his stove. He'd just come out from the Kahiltna. I'd talk with him more later. Then Bill took us to the ranger station for our mandatory pre-climb meeting with the rangers. This was only about a mile away and we frequently made the walk to/from TAT into downtown Talkeetna.
TAT offices

We registered our team and noticed the low success rate for climbers on Denali so far this year. May had been a rough month, weather wise. I felt that was a good sign. There was no way they'd have two months in a row of bad weather, right? In fact, they had just had a pretty good stretch and we listened in as six Austrians were interviewed about their successful ascent.

In our ranger meeting they talked about the regulations and strategies that would keep our team safe. They told us that only 10% of the teams that try to summit from 14,000 feet make it. This didn't kill our thoughts of doing this, but it sure sobered them up a bit. The main thrust of the talk was about sanitation. With 1000 climbers per year, 90% of them attempting the West Buttress Route (our route), handling human waste is a big concern. This is much more of an issue than elsewhere because all of our water is obtained by melting snow. Climbers must localize their excretions. At camp on the mountain we'd have to designate for ourselves a single bathroom area. There we'd all pee in exactly the same spot. For us, we'd always re-use an existing campsite and re-use an existing "bathroom." The bathroom would always have at least some semblance of a snow wall around it for a bit of privacy, but at most that would come up to about chest height.
Low success rate upon arrival.

For poop, we had to carry a Clean Mountain Can (CMC). Every time a climber goes poop on this mountain, they do it into one of these cans, with one exception. Above Camp IV at 17,200 feet climbers don't have to carry this can. Ideally, they were supposed to poop in a bag and carry it back down to their can. We did spot a few transgressions above Camp IV, but this mountain is amazingly clean, especially considering the density of climbers. We didn't have to carry all our poop for the entire trip, though. There were three places on the route - at Camps I, II, and III where there was a designated crevasse where you could throw away your poop. These were very deep holes in the glacier, which is hundreds to thousands of feet thick. We designated these crapvasses.

Charlie putting a pin on the map designating where he's from. Most are from the USA, but tons are from Europe, South Korea, and Japan.
We walked back to TAT, hoping to fly in, and got the bad news that it was highly unlikely. We went back over the Pavillon to organize our gear a bit and the same climber was still there. This time I noticed his name written on all his gear boxes: Colin Haley. Cool. Colin was a member of the climbing team that did the first Torre Traverse in Patagonia. In fact, that traverse has now been done three times, all by Colin Haley and another partner. He's done it in both directions, including in a single day with Alex Honnold. He was in Alaska to solo the Infinite Spur on Sultana (AKA Mt. Foraker - 17,400 feet). The Infinite Spur is rated WI4/M5/5.9 and is 9000 feet long. That's right - 9000 feet long! Three times the height of El Cap. It hadn't been climbed in seven years or so and had never seen a solo ascent. Colin first did it with his partner in 18 hours ('schrund to summit) and then came back and did it in 12.5 hours solo. He experienced the most desperate epic of his climbing career on the descent and wrote a great piece on it here. I got my photo with him. :-) Colin told us that he never ropes up on the West Buttress route and he never buries his caches - he just sets them next to other climbers' tents. He also does a lot of double carries, so that he isn't carrying huge loads. He said, "That just makes for more climbing and more vertical, which is a good thing."

Me with Colin Haley after his dual blitz of the Infinite Spur.
All gear flying had to be weighed. The base fee gives each climber 125 pounds of gear and our total was 505 pounds, so we had to pay an extra fee of $5 ($1/pound). The next day a pair of Argentines checked in with an astounding total weight of 151 pounds - 75.5 pounds each. We became friends with these guys and saw them a lot on the mountain.

We went back into town to check out the climber hostel provided by TAT, which we didn't like, and elected to stay at the Pavilion, which was only a two-story structure with no light, electricity, or water. Scratch that. It did have light, since it had a couple of uncovered windows, which meant it had light 24-hours a day. We ate a pizza dinner in town before returning to sleep. We kept our phones with us in case the weather cleared. It did not.

 The next morning, Monday, I was up around 6:30 and went over to the TAT office to check on things. The weather didn't look good and they didn't think we'd be flying that day. I hung out and had numerous cups of coffee and ate the snacks they had in the office. Charlie soon joined me for his fix of coffee and then Tom. We were there so long that Derek did eventually get up. He didn't know where we were and didn't call or text me. Instead he headed into town, didn't find us, came back to the Pavilion and read his book. When I went to go get him, that's where I found him. We headed into town for breakfast at the jack-of-all-trades eatery called The Roadhouse, which made Derek and I think of the Family Guy take on the movie Road House.

Doing the Talkeetna Hang.
At the Roadhouse we got a huge breakfast - The Standard - which included endless cups of coffee (see: what makes C. Charlie Nuttelman happy). We stayed there for four hours, moving from our table to the couches and chairs to read and jam on the community acoustic guitar, thus fulfilling one of Tom's dreams of playing guitar in a coffee house. We then walked around town a bit, seeing the Tokositna and Talkeetna rivers and generally doing what is known as the "Talkeetna Hang", where you wait for the weather to fly into the mountains.

On the way back we checked out the planes at the airfield, at least before they kicked us off. Turns out they don't like you walking around the tarmac at the airport. Once again inside the TAT offices we had a pull-up contest on their hangboard. I barely made the podium in third place (10), with Charlie taking the silver (12), and Tom the title (15). Derek was a conscientious objector.
The inside of our plane.

Our planes are equipped to land/take-off on either tarmac or glaciers.

The outside of our plane - a Canadian-built DeHavilland Otter

Charlie displaying one of his vast repertoire of funny faces.

Derek showing Tom some of the finer points of shredding and Travis picking at the Roadhouse.

Charlie...oh, Charlie...
 We had burgers for dinner and went to bed hopeful for better weather. The next morning I repeated my routine and headed to the TAT office for some coffee. Things were looking much better and after the pilot's meeting at 9 a.m. we were told to "get dressed", which means get into your mountain climbing clothes. An hour later, we were loading the plane with three other climbers.
Dressed for the glacier and taking our gear over to the plane.

The plane, packed with 1000 pounds of gear, ready to load people.
 I got the co-pilot seat on the flight into the range and was thankful for the generosity of the others. We flew in a Canadian-built DeHavilland Otter and one of the defining characteristics of this plane is its ability to take-off and land with very short runways. Hence, it is an ideal bush and glacier plane, though the biggest buyers of this plane (and its smaller predecessor, the Beaver) was the US military. I hadn't flown in a small plane for a long time and when it lifted off the runway at 65 mph I thought we were doing about 30 mph. It just floated on up into the air as if it was filled with helium instead of eight people and a 1000 pounds of gear.

For safety reasons, I was unanimously elected co-pilot by our passengers.

Charlie and Derek ready to accept any instructions from the co-pilot.
 The views were surreal at the start, with only a few peaks seen above a sea of clouds. Denali dominated the scene, of course, being 3000 feet higher than the second highest peak (Foraker) and 6000 feet higher than the third highest peak (Hunter). The views became truly spectacular as we approached and then flew over the Kahiltna glacier. These mountains are awesome, especially to a climber's eye.
Heading up the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to land. Dead ahead is Denali with Mt. Hunter on the right and Mt. Frances on the left.
 We lined up for a landing on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. We approached the landing and when we touched down I was amazed how slow we were moving. It hardly felt like anything when we landed and we stopped just moments afterwards. Our pilot, Clay, told me that this plane can take off and land at 45 mph.

As soon as we landed, we hopped out and formed a fire brigade to get all the gear out of the plane and off the runway. As we moved our gear towards camp, others frantically pulled their gear towards the plane. When the weather is good here, the moving of people and gear onto and off of the Kahiltna is serious business.
Our landing field is on the right - only two hundred feet long. The take-off is about 1000 feet long. The path is the start of the West Buttress route.
 Lisa, the basecamp manager, was fully occupied organizing the teams leaving, but we found a stack of TAT sleds - we had rented them for the expedition - and got our four gallons of white gas from one of Lisa's assistants. We had pre-purchased our fuel from TAT as well.
Our pilot Clay and C. Charlie Nuttelman.
 We dug a cache and stowed our ski bag and two days worth of food, in case we got stuck waiting for a flight out. We then loaded up our sleds with our duffel bags, clipped into our skis and were soon heading toward Camp I. Our climb had finally started.
Basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier with Mt. Crosson in the background.


Charlie said...

Nice, looking forward to reading Parts 2 and 3!

Gayla Wright said...

Really enjoyed the write-up. Anxiously awaiting the next installment. The NaƱa