Sunday, February 28, 2016

Road to Denali, part 7: Mt. Meeker

Derek and I needed a break from long drives and overnight weekends, so we planned to climb a local mountain. We haven’t had a lot of success on the high peaks so far this winter, with weather and boot problems slowing us down. I decided we weren’t quite ready for Longs yet and the mountain just one notch down is its neighbor: Mt. Meeker. One of Colorado’s Centennial  Peaks, Mt. Meeker is 13,950 feet. It rises to the south of the Loft while Longs is to the north. From the Longs Peak Trailhead, the roundtrip requires about 4700 vertical feet of climbing via a pretty steep couloir and then a heads-up traverse above a big drop.

Our plan was to be hiking at first light, around 6:15 a.m. so we agreed on a 4:45 departure time. We had all our gear ready the night before, as we always do, so I set my alarm for 4:30, planning to eat on the drive. Derek got up at 4 a.m. and was fully dressed and ready to go before I even woke up.

The drive went smooth and the parking lot was quiet when we arrived. A couple more cars pulled before we headed up the trail, but, unsurprisingly, we hiked alone. We went in our mountain boots, of course, though, as you’ll see, that isn’t required for some people. We each carried crampons, an axe, 40 ounces of liquid and some food. Derek took the lead and set a nice, sustainable pace. We went up the winter shortcut, but was barely tracked. Above, at the Lightning Bridge, we had to put in the track ourselves. Mostly we could find the previous path underneath the untracked snow, but sometimes we made a mistake and plunged in. We had to do some postholing to get to the junction with the regular trail and then it was packed or blown off. 

It was quite windy and would stay that way pretty much all day. Mostly it was manageable, probably 20-30 mph, but it took energy to get through it. We passed a party of two heading for Martha’s on the traverse into the eastern cirque from Chasm Cutoff. The steep snowfield was very hard and at first just had a single set of ski tracks before the footsteps could be found. We went across in just our Microspikes and poles, but were very careful.

I donned another layer before we started up the Loft couloir and we got a bit to drink and eat. Derek thought he saw a pair of climbers ahead of us, but I doubt that now, as we never saw them. We looked back towards the traverse at this point and saw a solitary climber coming across if fast. Ridiculously fast. He wasn’t running, but his stride was long, strong, and purposeful. I used to do stuff like that. Now I specialize in knowing people that do. I figured I must know this person and wondered if they were headed for Longs or Meeker and if he came by us. After studying the gait a bit more, I guessed it was Anton Krupicka, not realizing that he was at the Power of Four SkiMo race that day.

Derek and turned to the task at hand: gaining 2000 feet up the continually steepening Loft couloir. The wind was tolerable and the snow conditions were really good and firm. Actually a bit too firm. It got to be a bit dicey in Microspikes so we made our way over to the rocks and put on our crampons. Derek’s hands got really cold here and he switched to his big mittens (I was already wearing mine). We continued up the slope in our much more secure crampons, still just using our poles, our axes still strapped to our packs. We got up to the traverse around the headwall and a short ways out we stopped to take a break to eat and drink. Derek was really feeling the effort. I knew not to ask if he wanted to continue. If he isn’t in physical pain, he always wants to continue. He doesn’t quit from fatigue. Ever.

A few moments after we sat down a solitary climber appeared on this way down. I immediately knew it must have been the speedster we saw earlier. Before I could recognize him, he recognized me. It was Cordis Hall - a definite speedster. Not quite at Anton’s level, but he’s sure headed that direction. He was in his Sportiva Crossovers. I was pretty amazed, but I guess at the speed he moves, his feet stay warm. Even in my double boots, I was having a bit of trouble with my right foot feeling cold. He didn’t have any traction on and said it was relatively snow free from there to the top. We told him about the hard snow below and as he put on his crampons, we pulled ours off.

Derek and I moved steadily up to the saddle and then up the trail that gains three hundred feet from the saddle up the shoulder on Meeker. Derek led the way and did this stretch without stopping. He’s definitely getting stronger. Above, on the talus, Derek is getting more agile and surefooted in his big mountain boots. It was really windy up here so we didn’t linger on the summit, as to take some photos, but we stopped just below to linger. Derek felt he deserved a “victory break”. I pointed out all the peaks surrounding us and he soaked it all up. 

We reversed our selfs back to our crampons and strapped them back on. We also pulled out our axes and stowed our poles. The descent down the couloir was a joy compared to the ascent with the gentle tug of gravity easing along instead of the immense weight holding us back on the way up. It was a too firm to glissade and we just hiked down. Once down to the meadow we switched back to Microspikes, mainly for the traverse back to Chasm View, and stripped off some clothes. 

The rest of the descent went smoothly and quickly, with a couple of incidents. Derek loves the shortcuts and it makes the descent fast and easy. On one shortcuts, with Derek leading the way, he slipped and fell. This should have been a warning to me, but I repeated the fall and even broke my pole in the process. Ugh. Further down, at the start of the last shortcut, there wasn’t a track. Derek headed down through the woods and continued a bit to see if I could find a track, before doubling back to join him. When I caught him a little ways down he was with a woman snowshoer. She had descended all the way down there to pee in private. Derek said we were looking for the shortcut and she said, “This leads down into a different drainage where people have been lots for days.” When I arrived and went right on by, she repeated that it was the wrong way. I knew she meant well. She was trying to save us from being lots. But she knew not to whom she spoke. I just said, “We’ll be fine.” Ten minutes later we walked into the parking lot.

My Garmin watch, for the second time completely lost the track. And then it locked up. I have a love/hate relationship with Garmin products. When they work, they work great. And generally the hardware is awesome. But their software is the most unbelievable crap (this coming from a software developer who knows of what he speaks) as to be astounding. Maybe it was a conscious business decision to just test software for 80% of the cases and deal with the frustration,support issues, and lost customers. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Road to Denali, part 6: Ski Practice at Breckenridge

Last week I met with my buddy Ken Leiden. I hadn’t seen him in years, but he took part in the very first race I ever ran in the Flatirons. We raced from Chautauqua Park to the top of the Third Flatiron and back. We’d heard that Gerry Roach had done it under and hour and wanted to see if that was bullshit or not. That was the seed which would eventually grow into Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club and the 12-year-running Tour de Flatirons. 

Ken and I and others also got in the mountains doing some winter 14er ascents. Like Derek and I now, he used them to train for Denali. He and his partner Eric summited and he called it “the adventure of a lifetime.” He heard about my plans and generously offered all his advice and gear. I’m constantly amazed at the generosity of my friends. I’m a very lucky guy. Ken brought me $1000 of clothing that he “never uses anymore.” Yes, this is speciality gear. Denali, with its 40-below temperatures and 100 mph winds is a unique environment. Still, to lend out gear with that value is something. And not just lend it, but offer it, and demand that I take it. 

Ken gave me lots of great advice about the mountain and surviving on it and he really emphasized how happy he was to have used skis on the mountain. He said the skiing was relatively easy - not tight trees where you can’t control your speed, anyway. Treeline in the Denali area is around 2000 feet. We’ll land on the glacier about 5000 feet above treeline. That’s funny. We’ll start our climb 5000 feet above treeline, while in Colorado you can only get 3000 feet above treeline on the our tallest summits. Even starting that high, we’ll have to gain over 13,000 feet - the equivalent of climbing three Colorado 14ers stacked on top of each other (from the trailhead, obviously). Denali is huge. Beyond huge. There are taller mountains, but few on earth rival the sheer size of this Arctic behemoth. 

Back to skis and skiing. Derek still needs to gain skills and experience on skis in order to be comfortable and efficient and safe on Denali. Others might give up and just go with snowshoes, but Derek isn’t much of a quitter and we’re staying with the ski plan until it isn’t impossible. Derek needed a better learning environment than the icy, narrow, backcountry trails we’d been doing. He needed to learn how to control a ski in a soft mountaineering boot vs. a downhill ski boot or an AT boot or even a big, plastic telemark boot. Skiing in mountaineering boots is more like nordic skiing than any of the above. It requires much better balance when you don’t have a rigid plastic boot to bail you out. Of course, crappy backcountry snow and a heavy pack also make things much more difficult, as nearly any loss of balance will take you down. So, to build skills and confidence, we headed up to Breckenridge.

On the wide, groomed slopes of a ski area, Derek would be able to safely practice a kick turn and a snowplow, plus the balance of carrying some speed and the confidence to ride things out when turning or slowing down isn’t possible. My extended family share a condo right on the slopes at Breckenridge, so we drove up Saturday night. Ever fearful of the Sunday afternoon ski traffic, our plan was to get in a few laps of skinning up the slopes and skiing back down and be on the road back home by noon. The main goal here was downhill skills.

We started up the next morning around 7:20 a.m. It was an absolutely gorgeous day - clear and with hardly any wind. It was going to get quite warm, but still only 18 degrees as we started climbing. We wore our light gloves, with the down mitts in the pack, and almost pulled them out but after 15 or 20 minutes my hands were comfortable. We skied up to the upper restaurant on Peak 8. This is two miles and about 1600 feet of climbing. Once there, I pulled off my skis and put them in the rack. It was then that I realized we didn’t have any ski straps. I said as much to Derek and he responded, “What are ski straps?” Ah, youth. He doesn’t know about the Andy Griffith show either. I said, “They are what people used to use before ski brakes.” He said, “What are ski brakes?” Clearly Derek hasn’t done much skiing. Anyway, straps or brakes are required at Colorado ski areas. I wondered if the ski patrol would fine us or make us walk down or something worse. We decided to head down at once. The area was open now and skiers were starting to fill the slopes. 

At first Derek started down with his skins on, because it was steeper. It wasn’t long before I convinced him to pull off the skins. Keeping skins on for the descent is a reasonable strategy when you are on terrain where you can’t turn or snowplow, like a narrow trail, but when you have a wide open slope, it is better to pull them off and traverse and kick-turn, as necessary.

I showed Derek a kick-turn - the absolute staple of the backcountry skier and he got to practice it about ten times. He had it down pretty well. Once the terrain got a bit less steep and with his rapidly increasing confidence, Derek started making real turns. We weren’t flying down the slopes, but we were descending many times faster than a snowshoer would. Further down, we practiced  some sustained snowplowing and Derek was looking pretty comfortable, and getting a good quad workout. 

We took a half hour break back at the condo before starting up again. It was just enough time to get a drink and a bite and for Derek to check his heels. Two days earlier he made another trip to the boot fitter at Neptune Mountaineering. He got a new fitter this time - Elaine - and she seemed to be much better than his last fitter. In fact she basically said that everything the other guy was doing was wrong. When he left there, his boots felt better than they ever had. His boots treated his heels much better on this outing, though there seems to be still some minor tweaks left to go.

On our second trip out we didn’t climb as high, for fear of the ski patrollers catching us without straps. I have straps and will bring them next time. We went up as high as we seemed prudent and then pulled off the skins and skied down to the base of the mountain. We went up to the same location one more time and skied back to the condo, getting there around 11:30, putting us right on schedule to get out of there by noon. 

We might return to the slopes of Breckenridge for more practice, but even if we don’t our next backcountry outing will be much more efficient, I’m sure. Just one more step in our preparations for Denali. 

We also got out MSR XGK stove. This baby is the standard for high-altitude mountaineering. It runs on white gas and is a lot trickier to start than just turning a knob and pressing a button like on my anemic (at least in the cold and at altitude) JetBoil. Derek and I have been practicing with pumping up the fuel canister and getting the XGK started. So far it takes us 2-4 separate pumping sessions of more than 100 pumps each. The directions say 20-30 pumps. Either we really suck at this or those directions are very optimistic. Anyway, once that baby is going it's like a jet engine. Up at 11,000 feet in the cold, we had to boil two JetBoil mugs to get a liter of boiling water and it took us more than 20 minutes. On my back porch, in warmer weather, we boiled one liter of water in a big pot in under three minutes. It isn't a fair comparison just yet, but I have high hopes for this stove.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Road to Denali, part 5: Winter Camping and Grays Peak

We were supposed to do this camping trip last weekend, but Derek was sick an entire week. This past week was a bit rough as well, though he did go to school. I wasn't sure he'd be able to go until Friday morning, but he was feeling up to it. We had just received our new Hilleberg tent the day before and Derek set it up in the backyard. It seemed great - roomy and solid, with lots of guy lines. We packed it up and readied it for the real test the next day.

Our main goal was to practice winter camping, but the location I chose wasn't random. I decided that skinning up the 4WD road from I-70 to the summer trailhead for Grays and Torreys would be perfect. The ski into there was gentle enough to be good practice for Derek, the distance wasn't too great (3 miles), the trailhead offered reasonable camping spots (the flat parking lot and other summer sites), and it offered the prospect of a winter 14er ascent.

For additional practice, and to lighten the loads on our backs, we pulled a sled. I packed most of the heavier things (tent, stove, fuel, food, ice axe, shovel, snowshoes, etc.) into a third pack and strapped it onto my sled. I made up this sled at least 25 years ago and have used it sparingly since. It is a $10 kids' sled with some slots cut into the sides for two straps to go across it. The harness is made out of PVC pipes that can break down to just three feet long.

We had everything packed up on Friday night and hit the road at 6 a.m. Saturday. We parked just off I-70 at the base of the road and booted up. We were skinning up the road by 8 a.m. Derek had been having blister problems with his heels, but thought he had it solved via some boot fitting at Neptune's. Unfortunately the last time he was in there to make the modifications to his boots permanent, they changed things. I was skeptical at the time and, sure enough, he once again had bad blisters again.
Derek pulling the sled into camp
We traded off pulling the sled up to the summer trailhead. Once there it didn't take me long before I decided that the best spot would be in the corner of the parking lot. There we'd have fences on two sides of the tent to which we could secure guy lines. Derek wasn't feeling that great and while he emptied out his stomach, I dug us a nice flat platform. We set up the camp, securing it to the fence and also to Derek's skis and even to a couple of the poles from the sled. We emptied most of our gear into the tent and then decided to go for the summit.

We headed up with just a bit of water, food, our shells and big down jackets. Derek switched to snowshoes, as the skiing above here is much more difficult to descend. We headed up the gully where the creek lies, as it is the safest way to traverse around Kelso Mountain, though avalanche danger was only moderate and seemed quite safe. The snow was hard wind-pack and I'm not sure floatation was even necessary. Thirty minute up, Derek was moving slow and stopping often. I thought it was because he was still weak from sickness, but he said it was heel pain. Dang it. We need to solve that problem for good. I was worried about the same thing with my boots, as I got blisters on our first ski with our mountaineering boots. In fact, I was so worried about it that I didn't use my mountaineering boots and instead went in my backcountry Nordic NNN gear.
Bulletproof, wind-blown snow
With Derek in no shape, foot-wise, to go for the summit, I continued alone. There were a number of other parties up here. A few groups of skiers on AT gear, though none going for the summit. I met a party of six descending and I asked the first guy if he made the summit and he said, "Yes, up Kelso!" Obviously pretty pleased with himself, and rightfully so. I asked if he tagged Grays as well and he seemed a bit shocked at the question, like hadn't he done enough already. He said, "No... I've climbed it before." He seemed to imply that if you've climbed it before, what's the point? That might be a reasonable take on things, but when I asked about conditions, he said I should talk to the leader of this group. The leader, and all the climbers, were very nice and friendly. I asked if an ice axe was necessary and he said it felt good to have one in a couple of spots. Then he said, "That ascent finished the grid for me on Kelso Ridge!" This meant that he'd climbed Kelso Ridge every month of the year. "Congratulations!" I said. "That's quite an accomplishment." To myself, I was thinking about his partners comment about having already climbed Grays. I couldn't help mentioning that my buddy Homie is working on the 14er grid and was roughly halfway there. The leader said he was working on the seasonal 14er grid and was about halfway there also.

I left my skis at the usual spot, where the terrain gets too rocky and too steep for skinning. I continued on foot, with Microspikes pulled over my ski boots.  1100 feet below the summit I caught a guy and a girl and their dog. The guy remarked how much harder these peaks were than Sherman in winter. It was now very windy and I had to switch to my down mitts, as my hands were getting cold. I should have done this much earlier, as I had quite a bit of trouble getting my hands warm. On the summit of Grays I balled up my hands for five minutes and still couldn't get them warm.
Derek snowshoeing above camp - which is down at treeline.
I started down the ridge toward Torreys but the wind was outrageous here. It was difficult to keep my balance in the gusts. That coupled with cold hands and Derek at camp down below convinced me to forego Torreys and head down. As difficult as the struggle against gravity was on the way up, was the ease on the way down. I made it from the summit back to camp in an hour and 15 minutes. I found Derek taking a nap in his sleeping bag.

I filled our tent stuff sack with clean snow and joined him in the tent. The snow was our water source. I didn't cook right away, though, and instead got in my bag for a bit of rest and a nap. Around 6 p.m. we were getting hungry and were lazy and lethargic. We nearly just ate our bagel sandwiches and left it at that, except that we were out of water, and need more. I couldn't get the plastic cap off my fuel canister and turned it over to Derek to give it a try. It we couldn't start the stove, we'd be okay. Thirsty, but okay, as we were only here for one night. Thankfully, Derek succeeded and we started the stove at 6:20 p.m. It ran continuously from then until 9 p.m. I was using my JetBoil stove and it's heat output was minimal in these cold conditions. I made soup and hot chocolate and boiled up lots of boiling water to fill our Nalgene bottles and put into our sleeping bags. We stayed very warm and quite comfortable. All the while we watched two movies on the iPad I brought along. We propped it up on one of my ski boots, but I need to devise a better strategy where we can hang it from the top of the tent.
Torreys from the summit of Grays
The tent performed admirable, even when severe wind gusts blasted us in the night. It was so violent that I feared the tent would collapse. What would we then do? Try to get dressed and out into the gale? In the dark and cold? Ugh. Glad we didn't have to make that decision. The tent was bomber and our guys lines were extremely secure. We did get a thin layer of frost on the inside of our vestibule, probably mostly due to the cooking we did in there. By morning we had some frost on the inside our our tent as well. Not much and really no issue, moisture wise, but something to think about. Things we need to bring next time: towel for tent, harness for iPad, and a chair of some kind. The latter is because kneeling and cooking for 2.5 hours was very uncomfortable on my knees. I wonder if there is some lightweight and/or inflatable solution that will work in snow. On Denali, I think people dig down and form benches out of the snow and I doubt I'd take the chair up a big mountain, but it sure would have been handy.

Derek drove separately up to the trailhead, because he was continuing on to Breckenridge to ski with some friends on Sunday. In order to get in a full day, he wanted to be back down at the cars by 7:30 a.m. I knew it would take Derek an hour or so to get back down, maybe 45 minutes if things went well. The reason is that Derek isn't confident or skilled enough to descend on skis without skins, but with skins on, he doesn't get enough glide. We're still building our skiing skills.
Derek sleeping in our tent
We set the alarm for 5 a.m. and I made us a couple of cups of hot chocolate and we ate some breakfast. We then started the laborious job of packing all our gear via headlamp. The wind was still very strong when we emerged from the tent and had to pack the tent by stuffing it directly into the pack. We were headed down the road a bit after 7 a.m.

Derek had a frustrating time on the descent. He either had too much or too little glide. The road was rough and icy and a challenge for an inexperienced skier in mountaineering boots. I was cruising down in my NNN gear with a heavy pack and a sled and spending some of that time looking back over my shoulder at Derek. I stopped frequently to make sure Derek was okay and to wait for him to catch up.

We got back down at 8 a.m. and quickly packed our gear into the car so that Derek could head into Breckenridge. It was an essential step for us. We proved that our sleeping bags work great, our tent is bomber, and our Jet Boil is lacking in power. I received my MSR XGK stove just the day before our trip and didn't have a chance to try it out at home. I'll be using that stove on our next camping trip.

The total stats on this trip were 14.5 miles and 4300 vertical feet.