Tuesday, July 31, 2012

There's no place like home...

It's good to be back in the high desert. There was a time in my life that I didn't think that I could honestly say that... I thought that life in Colorado was the be-all and end-all of what a mountain-oriented person would want to find.

I was wrong, and I'm reminded of that every time I return home from a mountaineering trip.

I just got back from Alaska and an attempt on Denali. I was fortunate enough to climb that peak in 2003, and swore then that that trip wouldn't be my last time there. As I am now in my 50th year, I figured that I probably shouldn't put it off for much longer and so have been spending a lot of time these last eight months training for a very big climb. While it's nice to have a gym, it's nicer to have the Rubies in one's back yard. And when I got back, I switched out the stuff in my backpack and headed with my husband to Liberty Lake. I am lucky to live here, and I am blessed to have someone in my life who loves these mountains, too.


Mt. Foraker from Denali's 14,000' camp.
This isn't a Denali blog but I'm going to post pictures from the trip here anyway so that I can share them with my friends and family. A lot of folks who don't know me read this blog, too... sorry for the interruption in our regularly scheduled program and I'll get back to Ruby Mountain blogging in the next little while.


I started training for this trip last September, as I'd allowed myself to get into pretty terrible shape. Several years worth of injury and the ensuing loss of physical confidence had really worked a number on my body and my mental strength, and part of the whole point of committing to this trip was an effort to reverse the process. FWIW, it worked. ;)

Quite a few of the hikes highlighted on this blog for the past few months, as well as on my ski blog, were training trips for Denali.

I signed up to go with a guided group from the Alaska Mountaineering School. It has been years since I did a climb with guides, as I've been fortunate to have friends and a husband who can usually be enticed into all kinds of adventures. I couldn't put a group together for this one, though, and so signed on with a Talkeetna-based outfit that came highly recommended by the last guide I worked with.

We flew out of Talkeetna on June 27th, along with several other groups that had been stuck in Talkeetna for several days due to weather. It made this trip quite different from my previous one, in that there were a lot more people on the mountain, moving on schedules very similar to ours. Sometimes we looked like (and I felt like) the Chain of Fools.

We carried a metric shitload of gear up there.

Here's Barry, an absolutely delightful gentleman from Ireland via Dubai. Great guy to travel with and to share a rope with. He was pretty stoked about the Roadhouse sweet rolls planned for our first breakfast on the mountain.

Noah, one of the guides. Noah is an absolute hoot - a ski patroller at Big Sky when he's not working for AMS and for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. He's also a cellist and a very accomplished whistler... a fount of laughter who was wonderful to climb with.

The flight in to Denali Base Camp is utterly spectacular.

Base camp from the air.

We got onto the mountain quite late in the day, and so had just about enough time for a quick dinner and a nap before heading out again at 1AM or so. Smart climbers walk at night on the lower glacier in order to avoid soft snow bridges over crevasses. It never really gets dark on Denali in the summer, though, so the walking is pretty pleasant.

We got to our first camp at 7800' at around 9AM. It was hotter than Hades and we spent a big chunk of the day trying to get out of the sun.

Here is Elyse, digging out our first kitchen tent with Noah. Elyse is a wonder - very young, a recent West Point grad, hugely strong and full of energy. She had no problem at all walking all day carrying and/or pulling a huge percentage of her body weight, and then grabbing a shovel for the biggest camp chores immediately upon arrival.

We spent a lot of time on the lower glacier hiding from the sun. I'm pretty sure it's Laura under all of this stuff. Laura works for AMS in the office and is a hugely adventurous ski-jorer who tackles massive chunks of the Iditarod trail every winter. She is also my age, which was pretty darned nice when you consider that almost everyone else on the team was in their 20's. Yikes!

We did a carry up to 10,200' the next morning, allowing us to enjoy absolutely beautiful color on the peaks.

Looking down the Kahiltna glacier during the carry.

The next morning, after we moved our camp to 11,000', we enjoyed an awesome pancake breakfast courtesy of lead guide Rob Gowler. I have to say that the food on this trip was the best I've enjoyed on one of these little jaunts.

Rob is a pretty amazing guy with whom to share climbing time. The more you talk to him the more you realize how much... life... this guy has fit into the time he's spent on earth. In addition to being a key guy for AMS, he also guides for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and on Aconcagua, is an accomplished backcountry skier, ice climber, mountain biker and surfer, works in the movie industry doing rigging and other specialized chores, and has refurbished a "short bus" school bus into a lovely living space. I'm probably leaving about half of it out.

The next day we picked up the cache we'd left at 10,300', and the following day we made the first of several trips around Windy Corner. On my 2003 trip, Windy Corner was anything but. It made up for it with a vengance this time around - the wind just howled. We would "enjoy" the conditions on Windy Corner a total of four times during the trip.

Here's Mike, topping Motorcycle Hill on the day we moved to the 14,000' camp. Mike was the team enthusiasm committee - it takes a lot to get this guy down. He was using his climb to raise money - $10,000 worth - for the group Summit for Someone. Very cool.

Charles topping Motorcycle Hill. Charles is a native of France living and working in San Diego. He is a little on the quiet side, and between everybody on the trip hardly got a word in edgewise! It was fun, though... as the trip went on his accent got more and more pronounced, and listening to him and our Irishman Barry talk gave the trip an enjoyable sound.

Heading up Squirrel Hill in a windstorm, on our way to camp at 14,000'.

The 14,000' camp on Denali is a beautiful place, with lots of ghost camps from old expeditions.

We spent a lot of time watching the wind tear on the 16 ridge and at the 17,000' camp. When we got to 14, there were several teams that had been trapped at 17,000' for days by the wind... not safe to go up or down.

View of Mt. Hunter from the 14,000' camp at about 11:30 pm.

After a couple of days of waiting for the wind to settle down, we were able to carry food and equipment to a cache at 16,400'. It was a gloriously beautiful day to enjoy some actual climbing (as opposed to slogging!)

View from our cache down the 16 ridge.

Unfortunately, that was our last shot at good climbing weather during the trip. We got about 2' of snow that night, which wasn't that big of a deal - until you also factored in the massive wind on the ridge. The transported snow created absolutely terrifying avalanche conditions, prohibiting a move up.

We killed a lot of time at the 14 camp waiting for the conditions to stabilize.

On the third day after the storm, the guides from the three groups that hadn't yet thrown in the towel very cautiously tiptoed up the route to see if the snowpack had stabilized. After carefully moving up, listening for whumps and digging pits, they agreed that things were finally safe enough to move up. We were going to get a shot!

Or so we thought.

The next day "dawned", if you can call it that, with more snow and more wind. The unstable snow cycle had started again, and at that point we were out of food and time. The mountain had the last laugh, and we were forced to call it quits for the trip. We, and the rest of the teams up there, had to walk away from our high caches and leave our lonely posessions to occupy the ridge until next spring. One team from Norway even had to walk away from four beautiful pairs of skis. Pretty harsh decision to have to make, but not worth risking one's life for.

We walked down in yet another wind storm and set up camp at 11000' in a blizzard.

Luckily, though, the mountain did opt to give us a beautiful day to walk down to base camp.

Here's Sean, the final member of our team, hanging out while we waited at base camp for the planes that would fly us out. Sean was an intern at AMS, getting experience with hopes of eventually becoming an Alaskan ski guide. He's an absolutely marvelous young man to travel with, and should do well in his chosen career.

Once we got a runway stomped out at Base Camp, the Talkeetna Air Taxi planes started to arrive to ferry us all out. On a few occasions, we had to help them turn around in the soft snow. Not often that you get to push an airplane into place for its takeoff.

So long Kahiltna Glacier! Don't know if I'll see you again. You are beautiful and fickle, and I've enjoyed spending time with you. Be kind to the people who attempt Denali, and thank you for welcoming us.