Monday, June 13, 2016

Denali - Part 2: The Ascent - Basecamp to 14,000 feet

Tuesday, June 7th: Ski to Camp I (7,800 feet)Strava - Day 1

The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest in Denali National Park, or at least in the running. Some sources call the Muldrow Glacier (route of the first ascent) the longest. Either way, the Kahiltna is a big glacier, stretching 44 miles or so from Kahiltna Pass at 10,300 feet all the way down to an elevation of 1,000 feet where it gives rise to the Kahiltna River. It runs almost directly south, so as we climbed up it, we were headed due north.

But before we could turn north, we had to descend a mile west, down Heartbreak Hill. With our heavily loaded sleds attached to us with flexible cord, this proved quite a challenge. The sleds had minds of their own and would run up against our bindings and sometimes release them. Or they'd hit us in the boots or try to run on by us along our flanks. Derek had some peculiar trouble as the biners connecting him to the sled kept coming unclipped. We solved that problem with locking carabiners. I have sleds with rigid PVC poles and they work great. Derek and I trained with them. I didn't bring my sleds because of the bulk of packing them, but I think this was a mistake and I'd bring them if I went up there again. These poles completely eliminate most of the problems we had with sleds.

Despite being on a glacier and Derek just reading Minus 148, where a member of the team died in a crevasse fall on the exact terrain, we did not rope up. Colin Haley does the entire mountain unroped and just assumes that "heavier people than me, carrying heavier loads have not fallen into a crevasse, so I think my chances are pretty low." Of course, as the season goes on snow bridges over hidden crevasses weaken and more crevasses open. Most other climbers were proceeding unroped and we did likewise, which makes moving with the sleds easier, especially when Tom and Charlie are carrying the ropes.

Once down the challenging Heartbreak Hill, we turned north and bent to the task of pulling 125 pounds of gear per person up the gentle but relentless slopes of the Kahiltna. We only had to go 5.5 miles to Camp I, but miles and vertical don't tell the whole story when you are dealing with this much weight. It was a serious chore. I was in front and just kept chugging along, hoping to get most of it done before we took a break, when the others told me it was break time. I tend to go too long between breaks. I just like to get the work done, but you don't want to go so long that you're fading. There is no point to that, especially here, where daylight is never an issue.

We bought 100 wands from TAT so that we could mark the route and our caches. This proved to be about 90 more than we needed. Inexperienced we were and wanted to be prepared to mark the climbing route if we needed. The rangers told us in our orientation that we are responsible for removing any wands we place on our way down. Yet, the entire route seems pretty well wanded and we never placed a wand to mark the route and used them only to mark our caches.

Before leaving Colorado I ordered Colorado BUFFs for the entire team. We wore them religiously, everyday, to protect ourselves from the brutal sunshine. Derek and I wore these in a variety of configurations, but mostly around our necks and over the lower parts of our faces. Before Derek made us duct-tape nose guards for our glacier glasses, I wore them up over my nose as much as I could bear. It was harder to breathe like this and it made the BUFF damp, which in turn chapped my lips pretty severely, but I avoided sunburn. In general, we did a very good job of protecting ourselves from the sun. Other teams on the mountain would get to know us because of these BUFFs and we'd frequently hear, "Hey, Colorado!"

Our kitchen at Camp I
After our break we moved on up the glacier at a slower pace and soon arrived at Camp I. The jaw-dropping views as we proceeded up the glacier caused Tom to ask, "Who put up the movie set?" Indeed the mountains are so extraordinary, so humbling, and so beyond anything that I'd ever seen, in person, before. Somewhat surprising, though, was that Denali wasn't the dominating mountain. It was too big to dominate. Sort of like the Earth is way, way bigger than Mt. Everest, but when you look at Everest you are awed and don't even notice the Earth. Denali is so much bigger that we can't see much of it since we're on it. But Mt. Crosson, Mt. Foraker, and Mt. Hunter were 5-10,000 feet above us and dominated our views.

We passed up the first few sites and found a great place to camp with pre-built walls around two sites and the start of a "kitchen". A kitchen is an area built with benches to sit and a counter top for cooking, all made out of snow, of course. Then we'd pitch Charlie's Megamid over the top of the kitchen as our roof. This was a great place for all of us to hang out, cook, and eat together. We'd use this at every camp except Camp IV.

Once in camp, both teams swung into action to prepare our sites and pitch our tents. Derek and I would get into a regular routine of doing this. Derek was our primary tent man and he'd direct the pitching of the tent. First, we'd shovel for 15 or more minutes to smooth and level the area. Then we'd stake it, put in the poles and get it up. We had a 3-person Hilleberg tent and found it to be very bomber. This tent uses four stakes and eight additional guy lines and we used snow stakes for each one. These stakes require digging a small trench in order to place them. We did this fastidiously at each site. It takes some time, much longer than Charlie and Tom took setting up their VE-25 dome tent, but we thought it was worth it for complete confidence.
Moving north on the Kahiltna Glacier on day one, with 125 pounds each.
After resting a bit, we gathered in the kitchen. I researched what was good food to bring on Denali and read about a team that brought a skillet and pancake batter. That sounded delicious to Derek and me, so I bought a lightweight skillet with a folding handle and we brought tons of "just add water" pancake batter. I meant to try this out on one of our overnight training trips, but we only did three overnight trips in our training and I got the skillet too late. So, this was our first test. I wondered how our blowtorch MSR XGK stove would work cooking pancakes. The first thing I cooked on Denali was a pancake and it was perfect! These turned out to be a huge hit and we had them often and it was the only item of food that we completely consumed on the climb.

After our pancake appetizer, I cooked up the first of our Mountain House freeze-dried meals. Before leaving town, Derek had carefully packaged up a daily ration of food for both of us in 2-gallon Ziplock bags. This made picking food to cache easy and selecting a bag had us set for an entire day. Derek tried to make the bag contain 3500-4500 calories per person. Charlie I think planned for 5000-6000 calories per day. Climbing days on Denali are not that long, at least for most climbers. If you only go from camp to camp or up to a higher camp and back, you are only moving 4-6 hours per day. Sure, there is some work in camp, digging platforms, repairing snow walls, erecting your tent, etc., but the total caloric output isn't huge. If you were climbing the Cassin Ridge, alpine style, and climbing for 12+ hours per day or longer then you'd need 6-8,000 calories per day. I don't think Derek and I ever ate all the food that was in a bag in one day. That said, we were here to climb the mountain, even if it took us three weeks or longer. We weren't going to go home with any excuses about running out of food or fuel.

After some dessert, Derek and I retired to our tent to watch a movie on our iPad. I carried a number of USB power bricks and Charlie had a solar panel, so we had plenty of power. Derek and I had selected a number of movies to watch on the trip, including the Hobbit, the Social Network, and Steve Jobs. We didn't have a good way to hold the iPad though. I tried to find something that would suspend it in the tent, but our fancy tent has absolutely no rigging at all along the top. The manufacturer claims that will hurt the integrity of the tent. That's a drawback to our tent, but the only one we found. We loved how bomber and spacious it was. Derek would mostly just hold the iPad, but this could get quite cold, as the iPod is metal and, well, we were on Denali. After the movie, we'd listen to our audible book (Lord of the Rings) on our iPhone. We set the book to go off in 15 minutes and we'd usually be asleep before then, despite the bright sun.

Wednesday, June 8th: Carry to Camp II (11,000 feet)Strava - Day 2

It's so light out all the time that is doesn't give you a very good indication of the time of day. Normally, if I ever wake up and it's light out, I immediately think I've overslept. For at least the past ten years and maybe the past twenty years, I've never slept until it is light out. Except here. If I was always awake in the light here, I'd never sleep. That first night I awoke and saw how bright it was and figured it was time to get up. Thankfully before I moved too much I checked my watch: 1:30 a.m. Since the climbing that needs to be done each day is short, there isn't much of an incentive to get up early. The earliest I got out of my bag on this trip was 6:30 a.m. For an alpinist, that just seems fundamentally wrong. But this is no ordinary mountain. At least this route, in this style, was so very different from any other mountain I'd climbed before.

I got up around 7 a.m. and was usually the first one up, though Tom sometimes beat me. I'd immediately start the stove and make a cup hot chocolate, with a shot of coffee in it. A half hour later Charlie would join us and we'd have another cup. Around 8 a.m. I'd take a hot cup of chocolate over to Derek to try and get him moving. He'd say that, while that was nice of me, the cocoa just trapped him in the tent, since he couldn't get out until he had finished it and it was so hot that it took a while to consume. I figured it would at least ensure that he was doing something, even if it was just holding the mug and sipping occasionally.

After a breakfast of pancakes, we decided to take Colin Haley's advice and immediately start in with the double carries. This meant that we'd be spending another night at Camp I and not have to break down our tents. The steep slope right above camp was an added incentive. We took roughly half our weight up to Camp II and stashed it. Seeing some other climbers go by, hauling all their gear on a sled that was clipped to their climbing harnesses, we elected to try that. This seemed good at first, but it didn't work out well for me, as my harness dug too deeply into my hips.
We flew the CU Buffs flag at each campsite

Bringing a skillet and pancake mix was a great decision. It was our favorite food on the mountain.

Taking a break on the carry up to Camp II

Skiing back down to Camp I in white-out conditions with the empty sleds on our back.
It was 4.5 miles to Camp II and gained 3200 feet (Charlie clocked it as 3500 total for the roundtrip). It would be our first real climbing and it started right outside of camp with something known as the Ski Hill. Early on I began to worry how Derek would do skiing back down. He was moving along fine and didn't seem concerned, but it continued to weigh on my mind. Before coming up here Tom and Charlie voiced concern to me about Derek's skiing skills and wondered if we should go on snowshoes instead. I assured them that Derek would be okay. I just couldn't stomach taking snowshoes on Denali, but I now wondered if I over committed Derek.

We took some turns leading and took some breaks. Derek started leading and then Tom took over. There wasn't any trail to break and the path was easy to follow, but the leader's job was to set a good pace that kept us all together. We took a break every 30-45 minutes to get a drink and a few calories and change leaders. We stayed unroped. Around halfway to Camp II Charlie's skins started to pick up tons of snow. He stopped to scrape them off, but it was no use. Then my skins started having the same trouble. Charlie had a spare set of skins (showing his Grand Traverse experience), but the rest of us did not. He stopped to switch skins and I kept going, quickly giving up on my futile attempts to try and clear the snow off. I did the last mile or so with two inches or more of snow stuck to the bottom of my skins. It was grueling.

The last mile was steep and really wore us down, wore me down, anyway. The last half mile into camp is a rather brutal hill that is steeper than you expect. Derek had been leading and continued doing a great job, when we were all starting to feel the effort. I was impressed how strong he was. He eventually called "uncle" and Tom took over for the final quarter mile into Camp II at 11,000 feet.

When we arrived at the camp, I was too tired to immediately start digging a cache. Tom and Charlie weren't, though, and bent to the task immediately. We seemed to naturally trade off the work to be done each day based on who was feeling strongest. I think each of us had days when we were the strongest and days when we were the weakest. Except for Charlie...who was always the strongest...

One curious thing about this trip was the lack of any need to secure our food at night. While we were warned about burying our food more than a meter deep to protect against ravens marauding our food, I only saw one raven the entire trip. And ravens will not go into a tent or even dig up food near a tent. The only other animals I saw on the mountain were two small birds at Basecamp. No animals live up here. None. (Actually, this isn't technically true. There are such things as ice worms that live in the glacial ice.) Small animals do visit, though, and Squirrel Point is named after a squirrel that apparently survived up there by eating food from caches. Nothing really lives here - it's too cold, too snowy, and there is no running water. So, with no animals, we left our food out in our kitchen. No need to pack it up or hang it from non-existent trees. There are no plants here either. It is entirely a land of snow, ice, and rock. Mostly snow and ice. The only colors we'd see for the next two weeks would be the fabric around us - our clothes and tents. The natural colors were limited to blue (sky), white (snow, ice, clouds), and black (rock). Throw out white and black and the only natural color is blue.

At Camp II there was a huge cluster of tents, many more than at Camp I. The advantage of climbing the West Buttress in June is that all the tent sites have been dug and most of the walls have been built. We took advantage of this at every camp. We buried our supplies, mostly food and fuel, and marked it with our wands. Each cache wand must have a sticker attached to it that identifies the team that owns the cache and a date, after which the cache can be dug up and used by others and brought down by the park service. Not that it is legal to abandon your cache. This is considered littering and I'm sure any team doing this would hear from the rangers at some point. We found a cache by rangers that had a sticker saying it was good until June 9th and then another sticker attached to the same wand that said June 26th. It was obviously one ranger team leaving some of their supplies for the next team. Rangers do 30-day tours on the mountain, meaning they stay on the mountain for 30 days, regardless. They will usually summit during their stay, but they are there for 30 days whether they do or not. That sounds like a pretty cool job. I imagine you'd get pretty acclimated after three weeks on this mountain. I suspect some rangers might summit multiple times on their tour.

Once the gear was buried, we strapped our empty sleds onto our empty backpacks to make skiing down easier. Charlie and I stripped off our skins for the descent. Charlie because he had full-on AT gear and I because I had to remove my skins with their two inches of snow. Besides Charlie, the rest of us used mountaineering boots for skiing and special mountaineering bindings on our skis. This meant that we didn't have to carry a second pair of boots, like Charlie did, but it meant we had to ski in our mountaineering boots, which is much harder than skiing in a ski boot. Derek and Tom kept their skins on in order to control their speed a bit better on the way down.

The upper part of the descent was a lot easier than I expected with soft enough snow to snow plow down the track. To make things even more exciting, we had white-out conditions for this descent. Derek experienced skiing in a complete white-out on James Peak the weekend before we came to Alaska. He did not enjoy that experience. Yet, Derek did really well. The combination of the soft snow and the skins controlled his speed so nicely that he could just stand there and glide. Charlie and I were moving much faster and were forced to make turns. Normally this is one of the great joys of skiing, but I was reluctant to go too fast and too far off our nicely wanded track. All the rationalizations that Colin Haley had mentioned to us were null and void once you ventured off the track, especially if you really craved a turn and put more pressure on the snow. Maybe it was solid glacier under that snow, but maybe you were above a hidden crevasse and the snow would give way, plunging you to your death. So, I made short, tight turns as close to the track as possible and snowplowed as much as I could. Charlie was ripping along a lot faster and was treating the wands like a slalom course.

On the flatter sections I'd come along with a lot of speed and give Derek a push on the back. I couldn't help him much on the final steep Ski Hill just above Camp I. Normally, in our training, we'd handle something like that with massive traverses and kick turns. Here, we didn't dare take a massive traverse for fear of crevasses. It was quite stressful on Derek, but he's a tough kid and got it done. Tom was having a tough time as well and he's skied a lot more than Derek. In fact, Tom is a very good telemark skier, but hasn't done really any skiing in mountaineering boots. This experience caused Tom to speak up and recommend that we don't take skis higher than Camp II. This was absolutely the right decision as the slopes get considerably steeper above Camp II and harder, making not only for much more difficult skiing but much more dangerous skiing. We all immediately agreed, even Charlie, who was the one guy with the gear to ski those slopes. This is just another instance of how much Charlie is a team player. There doesn't exist a better partner than Charlie. Or Tom for that matter.

Back at Camp I, Derek appeared emotionally down and frustrated, but later he wouldn't remember it this way, saying that he was just completely, physically and mentally, drained. He was wet with the sweat of the effort as well. Once he got changed into a fresh set of underwear he was a new kid, not that he was ever grumpy, but he was now lying down, warm, resting, and happy to have a tough day behind him. The days where we descended on skis were much tougher for Derek than the rest of us and I'd have been a better partner to have thought about this more.

Derek rested just a bit in the tent before joining us in the cook tent for dinner, despite it being just 3:30 p.m. We'd generally eat a really early dinner as that's what time we'd return to camp and be really hungry. At dinner we discussed the need to take more breaks and try not to ever get into a state where we were that tired. Derek and I ate some pancakes again. We'd put a generous amount of Nutella on our pancakes. We did this until we ran out and then switched over to peanut butter. Both of these had to be heated in water before they were soft enough to spread.

In our cook tent Derek and I had our duffle bag containing all our food. We'd sift through it each night to select the meal that sounded best. We'd also sit on it, carefully and not directly on the food, in order to insulate us from the snowy bench. Generally, we'd want to be out of our mountaineering boots, but just your liner, and even your overboots on them, wouldn't be enough to insulate your feet from the ground. Hence, we used other items to put underneath our feet when hanging out in the tent. The rest of our bodies stayed toasty warm with our huge down jackets and big mitts. My hands would get cold whenever I had to manipulate the stove, but I'd quickly stuff them into my down pockets or down mitts and they'd soon warm up.

After dinner Derek and I retired to our usual tent activities of a movie, audiobook and sleep.

Thursday, June 9th: Move to Camp II (11,000 feet) - Strava - Day 3

Flying our flag at Camp II with part of the upper mountain looming (that is not even close to the real summit)
The next morning we went about our standard morning procedure with Tom, Charlie, and I gathering in the kitchen and then me bringing Derek his wake-up hot chocolate. After breakfast (no pancakes this morning), we broke down camp and packed it all up. This takes quite awhile, especially for Derek and I because our tent has 12 guy lines and we do a very thorough job of setting anchors for those lines. The entire contents of our tent and the cook tent had to be broken down completely and packed into our packs and onto our sleds. We were caching no supplies here at Camp I. I generally handled the outside of the tent, pulling down the guy lines, while Derek would handle the final packing inside and pass gear out to me. We distributed about 60% of the weight in the sleds and 40% on our backs, since the terrain wasn't that steep.
Securing our tent's guy lines at Camp II
Derek had a tough start to the day and he'd later say that he was a bit nervous about moving up, as the day before had been so tough. Plus, he didn't get his pancakes, which were especially important to him since he has a tough time eating in the morning. He got 500 calories down before we started and was slow at the start, feeling the weight of all gear. At each break, every half-mile now, he'd make sure to eat and drink and after 1.5 miles he was back up to full strength.

Charlie and I were listening to tunes on the way up and this really helped me, but the drawback is that you can't hear other people that well. I mean, you can hear if people talk to you, but you don't pick up on the noise of their skis and sleds. I'd listen to about seven songs before we'd get a half-mile done and then it would be time for a break and to switch leaders. We were rotating like in a cycling pace line. I led the first half-mile and then went to the back. Derek led the next half-mile and then went to the back behind me. When Charlie was leading the third half-mile, Derek fell far behind. He fell back because he was tired but also because he was super hot, being overdressed, and took time to strip down.

Charlie went well off the front. Tom was dropping me a bit as well, though not so much because I couldn't keep the pace. I didn't want to get too wet with sweat. Derek and I were both wearing our super comfy Merino wool long underwear, and this stuff, as nice as it feels, takes forever to dry. We kept it in our sleeping bags, but after three days it still wasn't completely dry. In fact, we didn't get it to dry until we could drape it over our tent in the sun. I know it keeps you warm when it's wet, but it feels terrible. I don't think I'll use it again on such a mountain, except purely to change into for the night but then back out of it before climbing again.

Once I knew Derek was having a tougher time, I'd check on him every song and make sure we closed ranks. When Tom took over the lead the conditions deteriorated considerably with snow, wind, and white-out conditions. Derek did this entire half mile with just a single shirt on. At the end of that half mile I forced Derek to put on a shell. It just was too windy and too snowy. He did that on purpose, somewhat to dry his shirt, but, heck, we're on Denali and it's snowing. Put on some clothes, kid!

The closer we got to Camp II the worse the weather became. Our white-out training on Mt. Rainier and on James Peak served us well, though here the route was marked better. Still, it was a struggle for the lead person to see the next flag. When I was in front I could barely see the next wand. In fact, sometimes I couldn't see the next wand and just looked straight down (like we had to do on Rainier) and try to follow the track, which was difficult to see, until I could spot the next wand.

Today I had put some wax on my skins so that the snow would not stick to it. I was in the lead on the final steep section, breaking trail in 6-7" of snow. I tried to push on to camp, but eventually turned over the lead to Derek, who took us into camp. I was feeling much stronger at camp this time, since I didn't have the snow problem as the day before. We immediately found a great site for our tent and then Tom and Charlie found their site a bit further away, near a pre-dug kitchen site. We immediately dug up our cache and set about erecting camp. This is a considerable amount of work, especially for Charlie and Tom at this site, since they had to build some walls from snow blocks. This was the only time we used our snow saw.

Moving camp is always a bit stressful as you don't have a ready shelter to which you can bolt. The white-out conditions into camp didn't help matters, but once there we set about our work in reasonable conditions. It was snowing but not real hard and we were warm enough. Once the tents were up, we stationed our CMC down by our pee hole and our bathroom was set up. These pee holes are unique things. They are six to eight inches across and seem to be bottomless. Each time I visited one, I feared I'd drop a glove into it. Each team has their own CMC, of course, and mostly their own pee hole. Anyone can use any pee hole, but you cannot poop in another team's CMC, as that makes them your janitor. One guy mistakenly did this to us at Camp II. Only at basecamp is there one community pee hole and, generally, if you need to do number two, you'd carry your CMC to that spot. On this entire climb I was never really aware of Derek using the CMC, though I know he must have. When it's really cold out, dropping your bibs isn't a fun chore. My regular bibs, the ones I used every day save the summit day, did not have a drop seat. So, I had to take off my jacket, take my bibs off my shoulders, and put my jacket back on before I could do my business. Luckily I only had to do this a couple of times in very cold weather.

At Camp II we met one team of Navy Seals and another of Air Force guys. I figured that Denali would be a piece of cake for a Seal, but they weren't immune from the rigors of the climb either. At each camp we'd see our Argentinian friends. Even with their lighter loads, they were moving up the mountain at the same pace as ourselves. The need to acclimate is really the driving factor in the speed of your ascent.

Part of our routine, whenever moving camp, was to immediately hop into the tent and rest a bit. We might change clothes, read or nap. After a rest we'd meet in the cook tent to eat and hang out. We brought a ridiculous amount of Gatorade with us but wanted to drink those calories each day and stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is a key part in acclimatizing and the high altitude makes for very dry air, which means just breathing up here dehydrates you. Our freeze-dried meals were working out real well also. We fine-tuned the amount of water to put in them and they were quite tasty. We'd also toast up a tortilla and put a little cheese on it for a Denali Quesadilla.
Moving up to Camp II in tough weather conditions

In the Camp II kitchen tent, warm and dry in our giant down jackets

Friday, June 10th: Carry to Camp III (14,200 feet) - Strava - Day 4

We were quite excited to see the upper mountain. So, the next morning we decided to immediately do a carry up to Camp III. We took our time getting going, though, as this was our first really cold morning. Cooking breakfast was a chore and my hands and feet got cold. Here we ditched the skis and switched to crampons for the rest of the climb. By the time we got started, it was warmer and I was in my smaller gloves though Derek was in his down mitts.

We started roping up here as well. I took the food up in my pack, but Derek pulled a sled, where he put most of his weight. He still wore a pack, as it is more comfortable to pull a sled from a cushy pack's waist belt compared to a harness. Charlie carried up two thirds of his weight but we carried probably less than half. Tom led the way, then Derek, then Charlie, and I took up the rear. Being last on a roped team is an easy position. All I need to do was to make sure I didn't step on the rope in front of me. Yet, I even screwed this up. I'd climb too close to Charlie, allowing too much slack between us. I had this tendency to allow me to move more at my preferred pace and to allow for longer breaks if I "banked" some rope. But this isn't safe. If either of us were to fall into a crevasse we'd free fall until the rope came tight and then shock loaded the other, likely pulling him into the crevasse as well. Charlie admonished me for moving up on him and I behaved better for the rest of the carry, though still not perfectly.

Right out of camp is a very steep 750-foot slope called Motorcycle Hill. Near the bottom of this hill is a crevasse that we had to step right over. The Seals told us that they attempted a carry to Camp III the day before and had to turn around at the top of this hill because of brutal winds. The snow was so hard up there that they couldn't even dig a cache and had to carry their supplies back to camp. I sure didn't want to carry the tremendous load on my back back down to Camp II and hence was already scoping out spots to cache the gear.

At the top of Motorcycle Hill we took a break to eat and drink and steel ourselves for the even tougher Squirrel Hill. What makes this next hill so hard is that it traverses, but it's also longer and more serious, as a fall here would plunge you down a huge face, instead of right back to camp. We struggled up this slope and the weather deteriorated. We were all hoping for a break at the top of the hill, but the weather was so nasty that Tom continued on, probably because we'd get too cold if we stopped. Thinking of the Seals experience and that our chances of making it clear to Camp III were slim and dropping, I began looking around for other places to cache. Thankfully, I saw the wands of other caches, meaning the snow was soft enough to dig a cache.

I had contemplated switching to my down mitts at the top of Motorcycle Hill and should have. Derek started in his mitts, but I figured I'd switch at the top of Squirrel Hill. Then we didn't stop at the top. The wind was only getting stronger and my hands were rapidly freezing. I called ahead for a quick stop and switched into my mitts before my hands got into too much trouble. Fifteen minutes after switching into the mitts, my hands were okay again. Another fifteen minutes and Tom was forced to take a break. The wind hadn't relented, but we needed food and liquids.

Above us was the crux of the lower part of the West Buttress: Windy Corner. This point is aptly named and frequently becomes impassable, up or down, when it's really blowing. I doubted we'd get by it unless conditions changed. We continued, nonetheless. We were now crossing a section called the Polo Fields - gently angled terrain before things gradually got steeper up to the corner itself. We noticed that no one was retreating yet, so things must still go. Or maybe the conditions, ironically, were better higher up.

At one point Derek found himself struggling mightily to make it up the hill to Windy Corner. His head was bent over to avoid the wind, as everyone's head was. He felt he was getting really sapped and when he looked back, he discovered that his sled had tipped over and he was dragging it along upside down. Charlie turned it rightside up and he continued a bit easier.

Conditions around Windy Corner were tough, but not any worse than conditions below it, so we continued right around it, finally gaining flatter terrain around the corner. The sun came out and we stopped to rest. My pack was killing me, as I didn't pack it well. I had a gallon can of gas biting me in the back. I should have stopped to repack but didn't. I could only get relief by bending completely over so that my back was parallel to the ground. Other than that, I felt really strong.

It was an endless trudge up to Camp III and we couldn't see it until we were practically in it. Once there, we didn't bother to venture very far and instead just dug a cache. This time I had plenty of energy and immediately bent to the task. We quickly had things stowed and headed down. This time I led, Tom second, Derek third, and Charlie on the end. We headed down with empty packs and I felt like I could have jogged on down. Tom called out that we should pull out our axes, because if anyone fell, how were we going to self-arrest? Especially all roped together. We'd come up with just our poles, but it was probably more likely to fall on the descent. Tom was right here and I was encouraged that we had such a safe team - one that wouldn't allow me to cut corners and make things more dangerous than they needed to be.

It had taken us four and a half hours to get up to Camp III, where we spent about 30 minutes stashing our gear. The descent only took us an hour and twenty minutes, but it was now 5 p.m., which was late for us. We still took our tent break before dinner and we almost didn't get out of the tent for dinner. I set an alarm for us to get out of the tent at 7:30 to make sure. That night Derek and I had spaghetti, Charlie probably had some of us special gulash and Tom had some vegetarian thing.

Each night at 8 p.m. there is a radio broadcast about the weather conditions. For this reason we brought a couple of radios. We never actually used them to communicate between ourselves. At the end of the weather report there was always a trivia question and our team did very well answering these. Derek got this one: "What St. Elias mountain was seen and ironically named by Captain Cook?" He had just been reading about it in Minus 148: Mt. Fairweather. One that I got wrong was the elevation of Talkeetna. I knew that you could hike into Denali from a trailhead at 2000 feet and figured the surrounding area was near that. I think guessed 1500 feet. The real answer is 347 feet! Yet you can see Denali (on a clear day) from there.

Saturday, June 11th: Rest Day at Camp II (11,000 feet)

I awoke this morning thinking that we'd be moving up to Camp III, but at breakfast Tom told me that Charlie wasn't feeling well and thought he had some fluid in his lungs. It was immediately decided to take a rest day and I informed Derek when I brought him his hot chocolate. Charlie said he didn't want to let down the team, but we quickly squelched those thoughts. We were a team and we wouldn't be leaving anyone behind. Certainly not this early in our climb. Instead we relaxed and rested and read our books.

Each morning before setting out, we'd turn on our SPOT locator beacons. Charlie, Tom, and I all carried one and, with the tracking service, it allows others to track your location via a website. I knew that Sheri was avidly watching the SPOT page each day and I often wondered what she was thinking about our movements. I wondered what she'd think when today we didn't turn them on at all. I figured she'd assume that we were taking the rest day that we did. Sheri was posting updates on her Facebook account every day and these were avidly followed by all my friends and family. Sheri did an amazing job of coming up with some sort of narrative for every day, even though she had no contact with us besides our SPOT readout. She'd scan the web for an appropriate photo to post and talk about where we were and what was next for us and what we likely did each day. I read all this when I got home and I was quite impressed. My work colleagues were also watching the SPOT page and they were a bit more confused about our up and down movement, as they weren't as versed in our plans.

Tom had been getting up a couple of times each night to pee. This is a royal pain the butt. You have to get our of your cozy bag, put on enough clothes to stay warm, get some footwear on, and wander over to the pee hole. Because this can be so unpleasant in nasty conditions, each tent had a pee bottle.  This is a specially marked bottle that we can pee into inside the tent and just empty the next morning. No one had used one as yet though. I'd just hold my pee for a ridiculously long time. This certainly contributed to me getting up the earliest in the morning, as I really had to pee. I don't know how Derek can stay in the tent so long without peeing. Maybe he's ideally suited for mountaineering with an unusually big bladder.

At 6 a.m. that morning I heard the terrifying crash of a monstrous avalanche. I hurried to unzip the tent and the vestibule to catch a glimpse of the destruction. I caught the tail end of a huge serac falling down the slope directly across from camp. It didn't threaten to come into camp, though avalanches have struck Camp II before. I'd notice these seracs the day before and knew they couldn't stay up there indefinitely. It was a sobering reminder of the dangers all around us.

This day we decided on what we'd be leaving behind. As already discussed, we'd be leaving our skis behind. We also decided to leave our helmets behind. We decided that keeping our heads warm was more important. There isn't much chance of rock or ice fall on this route, besides the one short section going around Windy Corner, so we felt it was a reasonable decision. We also cached two more days of food and left behind our Merino wool clothes and our third pair of socks.

It snowed most of the day, though not very hard. I dug out our steps to the bathroom and around our tent. I explored Camp II a bit and found the crapvasse where we'd dump our CMC the next morning before moving up to Camp III. I visited Julian and Juan - our friends from Argentina and chatted with them a bit. They seem to always be a half an hour behind us. We'd get to a camp and then 30 minutes later they'd arrive. Many of the groups up here are guided groups. Carl was the leader of one of these groups and he was a cool guy, though it was a member of his group that I caught taking a dump into our CMC. The Seals and Air Force guys were being guided. I thanked them for their service and they responded by thanking me for paying (tax payer) for their climb up Denali.

Then we went through our usual dinner and tent entertainment actives that night.

Sunday, June 12th: Move to Camp III (14,200 feet) - Strava - Day 6

The next morning we made the move to Camp III. We had great weather all the way up, with no wind, even at Windy Corner. Derek led most of the way and was going a bit too fast for Tom, who had to tell Derek to slow down. Tom was dressed heavily and overheating massively. This put him into difficulty and was the main reason he had Derek slow down.

It wasn't that Derek was trying to go so fast, but we caught another team with a strange cadence of going fast and then stopping to rest and then going fast and stopping. Getting by them I think caused Derek to up the pace a bit and it wasn't to Tom's liking. I defended Derek's pace here, since it was consistent with what we had been doing before. We didn't know until Tom spoke up how much trouble he was having. Tom isn't one to complain and maybe that was why it took him too long to speak up and when he did it wasn't as friendly as it could have been. It was quickly resolved and soon forgotten.

When roped together, pace is the overriding issue. No one wants to hold up the team, but no one wants to be tugged on either. No one wants the rope pooling up at their feet. Your pace and your teammates' pace nearly completely occupy your thoughts and this pace is the source of all tension in the team.

Once into Camp III we wandered around a bit. At one point we moved all our gear into a large area, thinking it was going to be our camp, but then Tom or Charlie found a better spot, near a partially made kitchen and hence we moved. Finding the kitchen is the key to a good tent location, as making one of these from scratch would involve a tremendous amount of work. Right next to the kitchen were two nice spots for our tents, one that seemed to be tailor made for our Hillelberg tent, with a pre-dug footwell. Our tent was a very popular model on Denali. Digging a footwell, inside the vestibule and just outside the inner tent was key. This made putting on boots much easier and cooking in the vestibule much easier, though we only cooked in the tent at Camp IV and at Basecamp. Another advantage of the footwell is that the cold air descends into there, making the rest of the tent a bit warmer.

Shortly after we set up camp, two girls came by towing a sled full of food and fuel behind them. They were part of a guided group that was headed down. Since you can't abandon any gear or food on the mountain, this food had to either be carried back down the mountain (a difficult job as we'd find out later) or given away. We poured over the contents and despite having more than enough food still found some delicacies that we didn't bring, like chips, cheese, Oreos, maple syrup for our pancakes (frozen solid). We also took a gallon of fuel from a Russian team, even though we didn't need that. I didn't want to conserve fuel at all, since heating up one-liter water bottles with boiling water and putting them in your sleeping bag was one of the greatest joys on this mountain. They stayed warm in your bag for hours and provided you with unfrozen drinking water in the morning. I wanted to be able to do this each night.

We heard a lot of success stories here. It looked like the weather had turned for the better and people were starting to climb this mountain in increasing numbers. We wandered over to the ranger tents which are put a ways off from the other tents so that their radio chatter doesn't bother other climbers. They had the weather report posted on a small whiteboard just before their tents. I was surprised how cold the board reported. 5 degrees on Denali seemed so much warmer than 5 degrees in Colorado, but that had to be due to all the clothes were were wearing, right? Or the constant sun? But even when we weren't clothed that heavily, I felt pretty warm. Sometimes I'd feel hot. Yet, we never saw melting snow. It had to constantly be below freezing, yet it felt warm. I was encouraged by this, as my greatest fear in coming to this mountain was the cold. My hands and feet do not handle the cold very well.

While it was gorgeous this day, and we suspected that many climbers summitted that day, the weather report wasn't great for next three days. Starting the next night the projection was for 50 mph winds at 17,000 feet and higher above for next couple of days. With the current report we figured the earliest we could move up the mountain was going to be Wednesday. We knew that getting to 14,000-foot camp was really about staging yourself for a 2-day summit push. Here we'd have to wait for a weather window, but we had tons of food and fuel and were prepared to hang out for as long as necessary.

Above us was the upper crux of the mountain: the Headwall. This is a 1000-foot wall that is 50 degrees. The upper part is fixed with 600-feet of rope. Since the winds weren't projected until the evening, our plan was to carry four days of food up the lines and cache it. We were just excited to check out the lines. Also, Derek would be setting a personal altitude record the following day, as the highest he'd ever been was the top of Mt. Elbert in Colorado at 14,439 feet. I wouldn't set personal altitude records until the summit day and Tom and Charlie had already been higher than the summit.

We relaxed that night, knowing that tomorrow should be short day and we'd likely be getting a couple more rest days after it.

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