Day 13 - Waiting for Flight at Basecamp
The next morning the sky was still clear, but it was windy and colder. The ascent window had closed, just after we'd gone through it. We saw one party gear up and start up by our camp, but got less than a hundred yards before rethinking their decision. They were about to enter the shade of the Autobahn and were likely already cold. We were. My hands and feet got a bit cold while packing up and then waiting for Tom to finish his packing.
Both Tom and Charlie carried smaller packs to high camp. That allowed them to go lighter on summit day but made packing up all their gear a challenge. Tom was having lots of trouble fitting the gear in his pack and had tons of gear strapped to the outside. It reminded me of one of our earliest adventures together. Tom and I, along with my girlfriend-to-be-wife Sheri, hiked into the Palisades over Memorial Day. It was way too early and the backcountry was covered in snow. Back then Tom didn't have much gear but never let that stop him from a good adventure. Hiking into camp back then he probably had more gear strapped onto the outside of his pack than he had in it. It was swinging and bounced around so that he looked like a homeless hobo scooting along to catch a ride in an open boxcar. I offered a couple of times to take some of his gear, but he wouldn't allow it. Derek and I crouched in the lee of our snow walls and tried to stay warm.
Roped, with Charlie leading, we headed down the ridge. The winds continued to increase and our descent was tense. Charlie clipped into the fixed protection with his biners and, bringing up the rear, I cleaned them. Derek was in third position and I belayed him down the steepest sections, the ones protected by fixed lines. We stopped once on the descent when Charlie ran out of biners. I took the lead, since I was on the other end of the rope and had all the biners, and led us down to the fixed lines.
Going down the fixed lines while roped was a bit frustrating. After reading Derek's report, I knew I wasn't the only one. In front, I tried to be careful not to pull on Derek, as no one wants to be pulled downhill. I tried to stop immediately if I felt tension in the rope. At times when I was switching to the next line the rope would pool up at my feet and drop below me as Derek kept descending. Now that rope was a danger to me tripping. I know Derek had the same problem and I assume Tom did as well. No one bitched or complained, though. We all just tried to do our best to be safe and efficient.
Once off the fixed lines, we were all thankful to unrope. I coiled the rope, put it in my pack and we switched from ice axes to ski poles. From there we moved off at our own pace. Charlie headed down first. He was having some blister trouble. Tom and I were the last to start down. I soon caught up to Derek. Unfortunately, his knee was acting up. This is a problem that has plagued him for a couple of years. It doesn't usually bother him but has flared up a number of times. This was the first occurrence on the climb. I moved on by, letting him go at his pace. I caught Charlie and just kept plowing down eager to dump my pack at Camp III.
At Camp III we dug up our cache and took a break to melt more snow, eat, and pack our sleds, because we were determined to continue down to Camp II. We re-occupied our kitchen site and chatted with the skiers. They had made their ascent from here, at 14,200 feet. They had skinned up a lot of the climb and skied down everything but the ridge between Camp IV and the top of the headwall. I fired up my stove and started cooking pancakes for the entire team and then for anyone nearby.
While serving up pancakes to the skiers and the Argentines, I chatted with Tyler (the 6'5" ponytailed skier) and he told me that their original plan was to ski the Messner Couloir, but that it wasn't in condition and unless a lot of new snow came, they wouldn't attempt it. This was wise. I don't know if they knew it or not, but a Czech skier had already died trying to ski the Messner this season. Here's a brief report.
Charlie loaded up a sled with food and fuel that we didn't want to carry down. It was now our turn try and lighten our loads. Charlie was mostly successful, but couldn't give all the food away. We wondered if this was okay to dump into the crapvasse. I argued that food could be considered pre-poop and hence probably okay to dump.
By the time we were packed up and were ready to descend, the weather had turned. Visibility was rapidly shutting down and the wind was picking up, not what you want when headed toward something called Windy Corner.
We descended easily for a bit, all roped together and pulling our sleds, but once we hit Windy Corner everything went to hell. In the rush to get going I did a poor job securing my duffle to my sled and when we hit the sidehill section, my sled tipped over and the duffel fell off the sled. It was still clipped to the guidelines on the sled or I'd have the lost it completely, but it didn't drag well along with the overturned sled. The winds were howling as I struggled to get back to my sled and put it together. We were in a precarious spot. If I fell here I could pull the rest of the team with me. Tom realized the danger and dropped into an axe-boot belay, sinking his ice axe shaft to the hilt.
I ended up just clipping the duffel back to me and pulling it along with just my arm. This was brutally tiring, but I wanted to get us around the corner and off this dangerous slope as soon as possible. Once around the corner the weather continued to be cold, windy and miserable. Now the CMC fell off the sled and I just clipped it to my harness. I looked like a homeless guy with all my possessions either on my back, attached to my ass, or being dragged along. I'm thankful that no one took any photos here, for I'm sure I looked like I didn't know what I was doing. I was just desperate to get someplace else. Anywhere but where I was currently.
We continued this way to the top of Squirrel Hill, which was probably the hardest part of the descent. This hill is quite steep, very hard, and a constant traverse. I pushed to my limit to hold the sled in front of me, the one attached to Tom, from pulling me off my feet. Derek was under equal stress with his bag, as he was the anchor on the rope. At one point I had to call for a rest for fear that I'd fall and take the team with me. We made it, barely, and I was wasted, as was Derek.
Before descending Motorcycle Hill we rearranged the order, moving Derek to the front to give him a rest and Charlie to the back, as he hadn't been doing any work at all descending Squirrel Hill since he had been in front. Motorcycle Hill has no sidehill aspect and things went a lot easier and we were finally out of the wind. Still, we were tired and ready to rest for the night by the time we arrived at Camp II.
Derek and I moved into the same tent site we had on the way up. Tom and Charlie had to use a different site. We didn't bother with our kitchen tent here, thinking we'd just cook in our tents (or just outside them for Charlie and Tom), since we'd continue our descent in the morning. Derek and I went through our drill of erecting our tent. We also had to dig up our cache. We'd left our skis here on the way up and we'd be using them for the rest of the descent.
Saturday, June 18th
The next morning all our gear was buried in snow. I dug it all out and Derek and I split up our gear between each other and between our sleds and packs. All of us except Charlie decided that the first slope we had to descend was too sleep for us to control our sleds on skis. Charlie had randone ski boots while the rest of us were in our mountain boots. Even walking down was difficult with our sleds as they slid into us, slid by us, or didn't slide well in front of us. I found the easiest way to descend was by making continuous circles with my sled. When it went by me on one side and then stopped, I descend past and pull it by me. It was crazy, but seemed to work best. We were obviously unroped while doing this, figuring that was easier, though it probably wasn't.
Once down the first steep hill the rest of us put on our skis, but the going was very difficult whenever the angle got steep enough where our sleds wanted to go faster than we did. Tom and Derek eventually roped up so that Tom could put both sleds between them and not have them moving uncontrolled. The last steep hill above Camp I was particularly challenging, but we got down it.
We had been descending with our skins on our skis to control our speed a bit, but now I took off my skins so that I could get more glide. None of the others did this, perhaps wanting more control. Here I was confident and would ski as fast as the sled would allow me. Derek was struggling a bit and getting frustrated. Now on easier terrain he was no longer roped to Tom and falling back a bit. I went back at one point to help him and he wouldn't even respond to me. Maybe it was silly to expect him to accept help, as he didn't really need it, but I was hoping for a better reception to my offer. I let him be and skied back down to my sled.
I was the only one without skins on and going too far off the front because of my superior glide. This was discouraging Derek. Derek had told me about this before when we climbed Longs Peak, so I knew that was possible. From then on I stopped to regroup every third of a mile and eventually just a quarter of a mile, when I stopped at the base of Heartbreak Hill. Yet, that still wasn't right. I stopped there and looked back about an eighth of a mile to the other three taking a break. I didn't do much right on this descent...
Tom skied over to me first and took the front and I fell in behind him, slowly, feeling the load on my back and my sled, as we now had to climb more than a mile back to Basecamp. I was surprised that I was able to do this entire climb without putting skins on my skis. I expected to put my skins on at the start of Heartbreak Hill then decided to just go until I was slipping too much and it never happened.
We took frequent breaks on this final section, though no sit-down breaks. We pulled into Basecamp around 4 p.m. and after dropping our loads I immediately went to go check-in with Lisa and get us on the departure schedule. She told me we were second to fly out, behind six Koreans. That would change to third group when the Japanese climbers - the ones with the fatality - descended the next day and took rightful priority over our team. The forecast didn't look good and we wouldn't get out this day, and the next day looked bad as well.
I asked Lisa if we could pitch our tent right above her shelter, on a relatively flat spot. She asked, "Are you guys quiet?" I promised we would be and she assented. Derek was very wet and quickly getting cold, so we hurriedly stomped and shoveled out a semi-level site and threw up the tent. I had Derek get in the tent as soon as it was standing and I handled all the guy lines and the organizing of the gear. I'd pass in all the sleeping gear to Derek and he'd arrange the pads, blow them up, and get out the sleeping bags. He then did a complete change of clothes and zipped up in his bag, while I got the stove going to get him hot drinks and then made him a few pancakes for dinner.
Our roundtrip time, basecamp to basecamp, was about 11.5 days. When Killian Jornet set the speed record on Denali he did the roundtrip in 11h48m (ascent time in 9h43m). He descended entirely on skis and used them for much of the ascent as well. While we are not remotely in Jornet's class, one can't really compare the two times directly. Killian spent 7 or 8 days acclimating before setting the record. Hence, he really did the roundtrip in 8-9 days. My only point here is that no one can zip up to Denali and climb it in a weekend. It's too dangerous to ascend that quickly without acclimatizing. This is what sets really high mountains apart from the mountains in Colorado. As an aside, Killian is not merely an exceptional endurance athlete. He did the roundtrip on a single liter of water and 300 calories of food! That is a highly unusual athlete. That goes against everything I've read about athletic performance and my own experiences. Your muscles can supposedly only store two hours of glycogen - the fuel needed to go fast. After that you need to start intaking glucose or you'll bonk. How's does Killian go so hard for so long on almost zero fuel? Perhaps he does it all at a low-intensity (for him) level and just burns fat. However he does it, this allows him to go ultralight. Most people attempting Denali in a day or a push would have to bring a stove and fuel and take the time to melt snow in order to have enough to drink. Hence, even a considerably fitter athlete than Killian (this person doesn't currently exist) would not be able to break this record unless that person also had a similar physiology. Jornet is truly a one-of-a-kind athlete.
After dinner Derek and I watched a movie and went to sleep.
Sunday, June 17th
The next day we stayed in tent until after 1:30 p.m. It was snowing steadily, as it had been all night, and it was wet snow and not very inviting. We ate all the peanuts and then started in on the peanut butter. I eventually had to get out to shovel off the tent. We got 18 inches of snow over the time we spent in Basecamp.
I went over to take a tour of the Kahilton that Tom and Charlie built. This was a really cool, two-level complex they built. You walk down into the sunken kitchen area and the sleeping quarters were accessed via some snow steps up into a loft area. It was pretty incredible and kept these guys busy. We ate, drank, and just hung out.
Later that day, at 4 p.m., Lisa got everyone in basecamp to put on their skis or snowshoes and walk up and down the runway twice, This was to pack it out so that planes could take off after landing. Not much needed to be done to the landing area, as the extra snow would just serve to slow the plane down even more. Taking off was a different story, though, and they needed it as firm as we could get it.
Monday, June 17th
The next day was more of the same - time spent hanging out in the Kahilton - but then the weather started to break. Lisa had us re-packing the runway at noon. Afterwards a Korean and I built a big snowman together. He didn't speak English and my Korean was a bit rusty, but apparently the art of snowman building crosses international boundaries.
The planes came that afternoon and we lifted off the Kahiltna Glacier at 4 p.m., leaving behind Denali, Foraker, and Mt. Hunter. We were already thinking of coming back for those other two.
Back in Talkeenta, we immediately headed for the ranger station, to check back in and drop off our CMC. It felt great to walk in there and answer yes to the question, "Did you guys summit?". We went from there to the Roadhouse (where else?) for showers. We had calzones right across the street for dinner. I think Charlie had two. We went back to the Roadhouse for dessert and then walked back to TAT to crash once again at the Pavillon.
A co-worker looked at my photos as asked, "Were any parts of that climb technical?" My immediate reaction was of defense. I thought he was belittling our climb as a mere hike. He told me that he had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, which actually is just a hike and now I felt my climb was being belittled by someone who isn't even a climber. But he wasn't belittling it, he was just ignorant about climbing, though he didn't know it. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing...
But I tempered my reaction and said, "It depends on what you call 'technical'". And it does. Does it require ropes to be technical? If so, we used them, but Colin Haley did not. Alex Honnold has climbed El Cap without a rope. Does that make El Cap non-technical?
In the happy path (a software-development term), climbing Denali doesn't require any technical skills at all. Zero. You do need one single piece of technical gear, one piece that every single climber uses: crampons. Crampons are just spikes that you strap onto your boots. Once on, you just walk. That's it. There are steep sections, but you just walk up steeply and most use an ice axe to help them ascend, though it is mainly there to arrest a fall. You don't even need to be super fit, though that helps greatly. On no day do you never need to cover a lot of miles or a lot of vertical feet. If you go slow enough, you'll acclimate to the altitude and be able to perform well enough to summit. There is a lot of work involved to carry all the gear and food, but you can take multiple trips and you have plenty of time to rest and recover.
What it mostly comes down to is winter camping and taking care of yourself. It doesn't sound very heroic that way, but it's true. I don't mean to unnecessarily diminish the accomplishment. In fact, climbing Everest in a guided team, with fixed ropes and fixed camps, is exactly the same: a long, high walk. That is, if everything goes right...
If things go wrong, Denali can be deadly and a lot of things can go wrong. And that's the difference between a hike and climbing Denali. Unless you are willing to roll the dice on a perfect ascent, you need technicals skills to get yourself out of trouble and you need technical gear and the knowledge of their use to keep you alive.
All that said, if you have the desire to climb Denali, any reasonably fit person can do it. The key is having the desire. That's true of most things in life.
Another co-worker said to me, "I'll bet the view of the stars up there was really something!" My immediate reaction was to think, "Yeah, that far from any city lights it should have been...yet I don't recall that at all. How could I fail to marvel at this?" But after just a moment or two I remember and said, "Nope. You can't see any stars at all because it's never remotely dark. You can't see any stars at all in the middle of the most remote desert on earth either...during the day. We were in Alaska for 2.5 weeks and never once experienced a night.
Many people have asked me "What's next?" I'm surprised how quickly that comes up. I've got lots of ideas and am even making some preliminary plans. I have a long bucket list and am currently working off the assumption that I won't live forever. I don't want to leave this world with too many regrets...
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