Alaska : Denali (Mt. Mckinley) Expedition
With unfinished business from my 2014 expedition on Denali I booked a second attempt with my favorite tour company RMI. I purposefully selected the expedition lead by Hannah Smith as I though she did an incredible job getting me and my team to the summit of Aconcagua, elevation 23,000 ft, the highest mountain in South America located in Argentina in February 2019. I’m writing this as I go along and am currently at basecamp at 7,300 ft but I already see that her knowledge, skills and leadership will result in another memorable adventure. Summit or not. Hopefully the former since every RMI team ahead of us has successfully done so this climbing season.
Denali, also known by its former name of Mt McKinley, is the highest mountain peak of North America with a summit elevation of 20,310 ft (6,190 m) above sea level. With a topographical prominence of 20,194 ft (6,155 m) and topographic isolation of 4,621 miles (7,436 km) Denali is the third most prominent and third most isolated peak on Earth. After Mount Everest and Mount Aconcagua. Located in the Alaska Mountain Range in the interior of the State of Alaska, Denali is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve. (Wikipedia)
I booked my flight to Anchorage Alaska for a day earlier than the official start date in order to account for delays and/or lost luggage. Fortunately I dealt with neither and had an extra day to recover from jet lag and the 4 hour time difference from the east coast.
I stayed at the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel which sits on the shore of Lake Hood, the largest and busiest sea plane base in the world. I couldn’t resist to sign up for a tour on one of the float planes. Fortunately I found an available seat last minute and enjoyed a 90 minute flight over the US’s final frontier and some of the breathtaking Alaskan Mountain Range. Flying over a glacier really got the heart pumping about what was coming up in a couple of days.
The following morning I visited Alaska Mountaineering to pick up a pair of puffy down summit pants which were required for the climb and I couldn’t find in my gear stash nor in stores near me. The store was a 2 mile walk from the hotel and I enjoyed the brisk chilly trek.
While I was in the store I found a pair of gloves/mittens rated for -40* F and since my fingers run cold I couldn’t resist getting them too. An inflatable seating pad for the eating tent which would be carved out of ice…sure why not?!? Then I noticed foot warmers that I also forgot to pack and got the entire box. The pocket knife display proved pretty attractive too and I figured a multi tool may come in handy. Drained of a few hundred bucks and with a bag full of more cool gear I walked back to the hotel happy that I was going to get in over 10,000 steps for the day.
Both mornings in the hotel started with some yoga and weight lifting to complete the training plan for this expedition. Most of my plan consisted of long stair master sessions or hikes on mountain biking trails with a 45 lb (20 kg) pack on. Longest session was 2 hours on the stairs master and 5 miles at a time on a hilly trail. As I write this I pray that was enough. Only time will tell.
On Tuesday morning as I was waiting for the shuttle bus to take me to the airport where the team was meant to meet I’m not sure how or why I realized that I forgot to pack a hard shell jacket. I checked my gear twice at home and twice in the hotel room and still managed to overlook this super important layer. After a momentary panic attack I realized that I had some extra time so I called a taxi to run me back to the store and take me to the group meeting place from there.
The New Yorker in me got really nervous leaving all my gear in his cab while I went into the store so I took a pic of his medallion before I got out. It only took me a few minutes to correct my $750 mistake. Arc’teryx is crazy expensive but considered some of the best gear on the market. I felt guilty when of course he was right outside waiting for me so I tipped him really well when he dropped me off.
I got to the airport meeting place around 1 PM and met my new team for the 1st time. Hannah’s assistant guides where Dustin and Devin and as with all RMI guides I was sure would be excellent to climb with. Others included a young couple from Ireland named Shane and Holly, they moved to Manhattan for 3 years and now live outside Seattle, a father and son from Cincinnati named Brian and Gabe, a young Colorado college student from Miami named Julia, a guy from Guadalajara Mexico who is living in upstate New York named Hector and two other guys from Colorado named Mike and Byron. Took me all of two seconds to realize I was going to be the oldest one on this crew. That self consciousness aside, initial impressions were really positive and I predicted it would be fun socially with them as long as I could keep up physically with these younglings and not be the weakest link.
Our shuttle van arrived at 1:30 with a gear trailer. We loaded up and started the 1 hour ride to a town called Wasilla where the guides purchased group food for the trip and we topped off our personal stash of lunches and snacks that was recommended to be 20 lbs (9 kg) worth per person. After that short stop it was off to Talkeetna Alaska, our expedition launching point.
First order of business was to drop all our gear off in a hangar at K2 Aviation. They would later give us a quick 40 minute air lift to basecamp on their trusty Turbine Otter. Then we checked in at the Swiss Alaska Inn and got together for our first team meal. First impressions were holding up and we all seamed to get along.
The plan for the next day was to spend it going through details about the expedition, receiving a briefing from a Park Ranger (Denali is a national park) and perform a detailed gear check to ensure everyone was 100% equipped for the challenges to come. We weren’t going to attempt to fly onto the Kahiltna Glacier and base camp until the next day but we got word there may be a weather window we should try and take advantage of.
When Denali gives you a weather window, you take it! Folks have been stuck for days waiting for safe flying conditions just to start their adventure. We hustled back to the hotel, packed up our personal clothes, checked out and it was back to the hangar to arrange and rearrange gear and wait for a green light. It was a valiant effort but proved futile as the go ahead never came and we were checked back into the hotel at 6 PM and got together for another meal at sea level.
The next morning we got super lucky and got our Uber to basecamp before more bad weather moved in and basecamp once again closed for a day or two for teams both arriving fresh and departing anxious to get home. Upon landing we quickly formed a fire line and got about 1,500 lbs (680 kg) of gear off our two air chariots.
Unlike last time I was here where we arranged our packs and sleds and took off up the glacier almost immediately the plan this time was to set up camp, receive a skills refresher, have an early dinner and prepare for an early morning departure up the mountain. Like 1 AM early! The snow and ice are more solid and stable at that hour on this glacier and chances of falling into a crevasse are decreased. It doesn’t get dark this time of the year so there would be no issues with light.
We found a camp spot that was recently vacated by another team, did some shovel and boot stomping work to flatten it out further and then set up our tents. Our guides picked a spot a little downhill from us for their tent, so we wouldn’t hear them talking about us and making bets on who would make it and who wouldn’t. A spot in between would serve as a sitting and dining area carved out of snow and ice.
After a couple of hours it became extremely hot in the tents even though it was consistently snowing outside so we slowly starting coming out of them and talked about how to kill time.
Before the guides exited their tent to fire up the stoves for dinner our new Irish friends taught us how to play a card game called DipShit. We took advantage of our newly created sitting area which featured a center island. Fancy!
We used wood heat pads to shield the cards from the ice below and we put a sled up on two water jugs so they wouldn’t get wet from the falling snow. The next hour or so was spent learning and playing this game until someone lost and was crowned our first official DipShit. I had a feeling we would be playing a lot of this.
Friday June 11
As promised we were woken up at 1 AM and told to start getting ready. The stoves were fired up and we got hot water for our favorite morning beverage of choice. On the menu this morning were hot bagels with cream cheese and bacon. Hold the bacon on mine please. Instead of getting seconds which was in the rations for today our guides suggested that rather than having our bodies deal with two bagels at this crazy hour that we save the 2nd helping for when we arrive at our destination for today and enjoy a 2nd breakfast at 10 AM. Brilliant idea!
As this was our first time divvying group gear, packing up camp and rigging up sleds to be towed it took a good while and we finally departed basecamp at 4 AM. The first day carrying a 75 lb (34 kg) pack with a 50 lb (22 kg) sled attached to it on 4 person rope teams proved to be quite challenging. I would be lying if I said I had an easy go of it but no one said mountaineering is easy.
We rolled into 7,800 | 2,377m camp at 10 AM and after a short break unrigged our sleds and stomped out a flat area with our snow shoes still on. This would be the foundation for our tents. While on our mission to get tents back up, our guides built a cooking station and got to work on their promise for a second breakfast. Hot bagels on a brisk morning after hiking uphill for 5 miles with heavy loads…yum!!!
Afterwards we all settled in to our temporary new homes and judging by the lack of sound all went back to sleep. The guides continued to erect our dining hall called the Posh Tent and bathroom facility for which we were all very appreciative.
As the afternoon progressed it became too hot to stay in tents and even the outdoor temps were uncomfortably warm. When there is minimal to no cloud cover, living on a glacier surrounded by snow the “feels like” temps get way up there.
Soon it was time for a couple more games of DipShit before dinner of chicken and rice burritos. For dessert we had a second helping of the same. Not only are these guides good but boy can they cook!
We got word that there may be a light storm coming in the morning. If not we’ll move up the mountain fully loaded again on a steep section called Ski Hill. If the forecast holds true we’ll just bring half our gear up higher, cache it and spend another night in this cozy camp. In mountaineering jargon that’s called a carry day.
Oh, we also got our first glimpse of why we’re here. Behind the clouds we could see the top of this incredible mountain. Spirits are high as we settle in for music listening, reading and never ending snacking AKA sports eating.
Saturday June 12
Our wake up call came at 2:30 AM. The weather was fine for a complete camp move to 9,600 | 2,926m. As this was our 2nd time we accomplished getting breakfast, packing up the entire camp and getting rigged up to rope teams in only 2 hours.
It was quite organized. Wake up, get out of the sleeping bag and roll it into a stuff sack, deflate air pad and roll it up, fold up your foam insulating pad, get all personal stuff into your pack or duffel and hit the toilet tent. While we where doing this, the guides were firing up the stoves and melting snow for water for the day and hot water for drinks. Breakfast today was granola with powdered milk.
After the quick meal we took down and packed up our tents, secured our duffels to the sleds and away we went up steep Ski Hill. The temperature went way down and the exertion went way up. After about 2 and a half hours we found ourselves at our next camp site and repeated everything from yesterday.
After waking from my first nap of the day I came out to see Brian and Gabe digging out and shaping a card playing table. It was a great idea and really well done! I contributed by digging in stairs and making a railing out of trekking poles and climbing rope. That was for looks and pics only but added to the ambiance of our new card room which we called Club Cincinnati.
After others emerged from their slumber we got to business with many more fun card games. I was corrected that we were playing Shit Head and not DipShit. Tomato Tomatow!! Devin brought us over a 10 liter bag of freshly melted snow for our Nalgene water bottles. What classy card club doesn’t have bottle service ?!?
Dinner was awesome as always. The guides cooked up rice and some chicken and boiled several Tasty Bites to chose from to add to it. I chose Indian Vindaloo to add some fire and spice to our icy venue.
Sunday June 13
The first effect of altitude hit me a little at 2 AM when I awoke with a mild headache. Fortunately it was gone by the time we were awoken at 4. That headache was an early sign that altitude would not be my friend today. We packed up camp with even greater efficiency and headed up towards our next stop at 11,200 | 3,414m. I added my swanky new 3rd layer as I was a bit too cold climbing in only a base layer and a fleece yesterday.
Today’s climb simply sucked for me. I felt really bad that I needed to stop my rope team 3 times just so I could catch my breath. Anyone that knows me knows I hate being the weakest link. This is by far no competition but it is a team sport and being “that guy” just drives me mad. Can’t help it. I was considering asking the guides to add me to an RMI team that was going back down to base camp and calling it quits so that I wouldn’t slow anyone down.
I was hurting something awful to the point my mind continued with all the wrong thoughts. “Why are you doing this? You should cancel the next climbs you have coming up. Time to call it quits on Ironman”. Yep, it got pretty dark and any attempt to think about all the positivity about being in such a unique place failed miserably.
To put an exclamation point on how bad I was when I finally stumbled into camp and joined the others in starting to flatten out a spot for our tents, because I couldn’t NOT contribute, my Garmin watch’s Emergency Alert went off. This feature allows you to set up to 3 emergency contacts and if it detects a fall or bike crash or something similar it connects to your phone and alerts your designated contacts that you’ve had an incident and it provides GPS coordinates. Fortunately my phone had no service and I was able to cancel the alert. I didn’t actually fall and I’m not sure how it detected an emergency but even technology can vouch for my miserable condition today.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t my heavy pack nor the heavy sled nor the steep terrain. It was basically anything I did with even the smallest level of exertion left me breathless. Classic effect of lack of sufficient acclimatization. Above 10,000 | 3,000m is where these systems rear their ugly head. Fortunately all the young’ns were just fine. I spoke to Hannah and she said that everyone has a bad day and not to let it get to me. “We’ll rest up and acclimatize further and take it from there. Hang in there.”
I couldn’t wait for our tent to be complete so that I could move in and crash. Fortunately, after as little as 30 minutes of no actual “work” to do I started feeling better and had the best long nap ever.
When I awoke around noon the sun was out in full force and it was getting too hot in the tent again. There is no shade in the mountains so you have to make your own. I followed Team Cincinnati’s creativity and used my sled to get out of the sun’s glaring rays to continue reading my kindle.
At dinner I was happy to hear that tomorrow would be a rest day. No ungodly hour wake up, no packing up camp and most importantly no heavy pack nor sled further up Denali. Basically this was our last day with full loads. Yippi!! Weather permitting, on Tuesday we’ll take half our gear and move it up the mountain and return to this camp for one last night before moving up to 14,200 | 4,328m camp.
Monday June 14th
It sure felt good to be able to sleep in a bit today. During breakfast burritos we were assigned our task for today which was to divide up our personal gear so that we move about half our stuff up the mountain to cache it at 13,500 ft tomorrow and then return down to 11,000 camp for one more night before moving camp up the mountain the following day. We were also each given a portion of the group gear to add to our packs and sleds.
The other task was to rest as much as possible and stay out of the strong sun. Cincinnati and son did not disappoint with their creativity today and constructed two personal blacked out movie theaters for themselves in the ice. I don’t blame them because between noon and 3 it was unbearably warm in the tents.
At around 4 o’clock we heard one of nature’s fiercest sounds. It was an avalanche to our left. I’ve never seen 12 people jump out of their tents so fast to capture a glimpse of this ever recurring natural phenomenon. We were never in any danger and I managed to catch a shot of the tail end of the snow cloud created off in the distance. While on this topic… we will each be wearing avalanche transceivers going forward so we can be found in the rubble if heaven forbid we got stuck in one. Safety first!
At 4:30 a guide took us through a crampon drill. The main intent was to see if we all remembered how to attach crampons onto our boots. She then reminded us about the various walking techniques in them. She then insisted on us taking them off before coming back to our tents as they can reap havoc on nylon and anything else in their path other than snow or ice.
On a personal note my breathing has become less labored throughout the day. Many hours in a horizontal position while napping, snacking and hydrating helped for sure. I’m optimistic about tomorrow’s carry day as weight will be less than half and I’m feeling better. It will be a 5 to 6 hour round trip. I’m hopeful that it will go well. Fingers crossed!
Tuesday June 15th
It’s 2:30 PM and I’m laying here in my warm tent with my celebratory bagel. This one with Bumblebee Wild Caught Tuna with Spicy Thai Chili and Original Pringles washed down with a liter of freshly melted snow with Vega Sport electrolytes added to it. It’s messy eating horizontally in your tent but you just can’t beat this view! Plus, no one comments nor minds!!
With my pack and sled half as heavy today, an extra day of acclimatization and me finally getting the rest step / pressure breathing technique correct I had no issues pulling my weight today up sections called Motorcycle Hill, Squirrel Hill, Polo Fields and Windy Corner. I only had to stop my rope teams once and it was for a technical crampon issue and not due to any exhaustion. Celebrate all small wins!
We got to 13,500 ft and the guides started digging a 6 foot hole in the ice and snow while the rest of use baked for 45 minutes in the sun reflecting it’s mighty power all around us. No one minded the long break after a pretty steep several hour long approach.
The cache needs to be deep because it may be there for up to 6 days and snow will melt off this time of year and ravens sometimes do fly this high and can potentially get to it if it’s not buried deep enough.
With the cache secured and marked for our retrieval in a couple/few days it was time to head back to 11,000 camp. Of course downhill is easier than up, and we had almost no weight to carry but walking on ice/snow on steep downhills in crampons comes with its own challenges. Not to mention the blazing sun which was out in full force.
We made it down in less than half the time it took us to ascend and I was soaked to the bone. I was not alone. Our camp now looks like an old European village with clothes hanging and laying everywhere to dry from the sweat. Folks are nursing blisters, snacking and resting up for our big move to 14,200 camp tomorrow. The forecast has a storm coming in so it will probably be an early start. I hope it doesn’t arrive too early forcing us to wait it out.
I’m exhausted but am hopeful that today’s performance will be repeated even in potentially bad weather and slightly heavier loads. The sites and views so far have been nothing short of spectacular. They will only get better from higher up. I’m optimistic about the rest of this adventure even though the thoughts of increased exertion at higher altitudes with less oxygen and colder temps lurk in my mind.
From a book I’m reading: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see it’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Wednesday June 16th
Our daily wake up calls come in the form of one of our guides coming up to our tents and giving us the time and ETA for hot water being ready and estimated time for today’s departure. You can stand outside all 3 tents and not even have to raise your voice to be heard. This has been our routine signal to start packing up.
Today’s announcement went something like “Good morning all it’s 5:30, it’s snowing and visibility is not good. Hot water and breakfast will be ready soon so finish your packing but don’t take down the tents, not sure if we’re heading up the mountain today”.
We did what needed to be done and headed to the Posh Tent. Cereal with powdered milk and fig bars were on the menu. With hot apple cider to wash it down. While we were eating to the sound of snow hitting the tent two guides went outside for a look around. No one said a word as we awaited our fait for today.
Today’s move was either going to be called off or most likely we would be told to get back in our tents and hurry up and wait for conditions to improve. The orders were neither….”Looks like it’s clearing up towards the direction of 14 camp, finish up breakfast, pack up your tents and be ready at 7:30 to start.”
After waking up a little sore from yesterday and really starting to feel it during breakfast I took this news with mixed emotions. I really wanted us to get to 14,000 camp which is the precursor to a summit bid but my body definitely would not have minded another rest day. Since I knew we would have at least two more of those later this week I had no choice but to suck it up.
Today’s uphill travel was harder than yesterday’s. Loads were heavier because we were moving the rest of camp, it either snowed or was too hot most of the time and I personally was still sore from yesterday. Despite this, I surprised myself by doing just fine for the first few hours of the day. All positive thoughts today!!
As we got higher and the air got thinner it became harder and harder for me. The only consolation was how much more incredible the scenery was getting. We couldn’t see it all today because of how hard it was snowing but we did see some massive crevasses. We literally passed on snow bridges right over them. Hence the need for being roped up to a team. Simply Incredible. When you look down into one you see snow and ice for a few meters and then nothing but black abyss. Some of these go down thousands of feet. That kept my exhaustion in check. It could be worse!
I was totally spent by the time my rope team rolled into camp where the other two teams were already busy with foundation flattening duty. I celebrated the hard fought accomplishment and slowly joined in. If I didn’t help set up my tent there would be no where to crash as it was near white out conditions outside.
When I finally got myself in a horizontal position on my puffy sleeping bag I felt that I needed some nutrients before conking out for a couple hours and I knew exactly what I wanted. Prior servings of tuna fish or salmon had sporks in the container itself. The one I randomly selected out of my goody bag did not. Not thinking straight to grab another, I had no strength to get up to my pack and find utensils so I used my sunglasses to dig out the yummy 32 grams of protein onto my carb loaded everything bagel. Cutlery is a luxury item in the mountains and improvisation is needed!
After snickers for dessert I was over tired and decide that finishing my second book of the trip would knock me out for sure. It was about Arctic Exploring of course and this line hit home…
“You are sitting on a large white plate, looking out to the edge, and I would draw myself back up into the sky and into space and look down and think of myself as this atom on an ice cube in the middle of nowhere.” The White Darkness by David Gran about Henry Worsley‘s Antarctica Expedition with many references to Henry’s hero Ernest Shakelton.
Now it’s time for this little atom to get some rest before dinner. Hope I can get a Lyft to the Posh Tent. Snow is coming down HARD!
Thursday June 17th
All of a sudden I went from chilly but comfy in my sleeping bag to wooah who turned the heat on?!?? The sun burned off some of the cloud layers and we’re now in the middle of this incredible sun-snow shower.
It’s significantly improved from this morning when we woke to about a foot of snow that fell overnight and no sun in sight. Being that we would be grounded for the day the guides took their time and made us a leisurely breakfast of fresh blue berry pancakes. They were SOO good and having them on a snowy day at 14,200 ft. made them taste even better. Especially with hot chocolate.
If it wasn’t for a freak batter accident we would have had four each but two proved to be more than enough. Some of us kept our bowls busy with Cinnamon Toast Crunch in between servings. We didn’t dig a posh tent from scratch upon arrival at this camp yesterday. The guides opted for reusing an exiting one which proved to be a tad bit tight. Let’s just say dinner and breakfast were much cozier and warmer than the last few days. No one is complaining and we’re thankful for the great food and service we’re receiving.
It’s tough to sleep at altitude. Especially before your body acclimatizes. As tired as I was and even with a minimal nap upon tent set up yesterday I wasn’t able to fall asleep until 11 PM and still got up every hour. That Pee bottle is a life saver! I would have hurt myself looking for our toilet facilities in the storm. Several of us awoke with headaches too which is also normal as your body is hypoxic and getting less oxygen. They go away quickly after a few pressure breaths or any activity that gets your blood flowing.
We’re still totally on schedule and may find a weather window to go down to 13,500 and retrieve our cache later today or tomorrow. The forecast has two major systems coming in back to back so it looks like 14 camp will be home for a bit. Dejavu may be setting in soon. Fingers crossed and back to Mr. Kindle for the rest of today.
Friday June 18th
Last night was the coldest yet and the near zero temps lasted into the morning. I had my head in the sleeping bag hoody and zipped up fully exposing only nose and lips to breath. No one wanted to leave the tents this morning. Even though they were all totally filled with condensation inside.
At dinner yesterday, much to everyone’s surprise, Team Cincinnati informed us that they are calling it quits. We are all very sad to see them leave at this point in the adventure. Now the guides have a logistical challenge on their hands. One guide alone can’t take them to base camp, it has to be two so that they can return back to the group safely over glaciers together. But there is bad weather below and timing of their return would be questionable. The other option is to have Brian and Gabe join a team tomorrow coming down from a summit attempt today that are heading back to basecamp.
Over a frigid breakfast of Pop Tarts and Grits we were informed that Hector was throwing in the towel as well. Another disappointment to the team as we learned the other day that he was well on his way of reaching the highest 50 peaks in all 50 states. The logistics for their departure was still TBD at this point.
Considering the freezing cold outside we were told to go defrost in our tents and await instructions to suit up and get ready to go downhill to retrieve our cache from the other day. Surprisingly that go ahead didn’t take long. During the descent my leg punched through a snow bridge and down I went. It wasn’t too bad. Just one leg and the fall was stoped by my …ahem… mid section. I was able to pull out without any assistance and we continued. “That’s Denali for ya” said the guide later.
We were down by our cache by 10 AM and sweating. The temperature swings depending on where the sun is, the wind or lack there of, and clouds or lack there of is huge. It’s crazy leaving in near frost bitten toes and returning in soaked socks.
The other activity for the day was a short hike to a spot called “The End of the World”. Behind those two rocks in the pic is a 3,000 ft fall straight down. The guides secured a belaying system and roped us out for each to get their hero pic.
When we got back to camp the guides from the team above reported that they got close but failed to summit due to bad weather and a minor accident. That’s a shame as all RMI teams so far this season have summited. But that’s mountaineering for you! They will be picking up some of our crew on their way down tomorrow.
It’s a balmy 10 degrees now but feels much much better when the sun peaks out. Hoping for a warmer night and decent enough weather to carry some gear to a cache at 17,200 | 5,243m tomorrow. 100% on schedule so far but the forecast ahead is making even the guides concerned. Over dinner they asked us to mentally prepare for a week long wait at this camp before moving higher.
Saturday June 19th
Last night was cold though much better than the previous one but all the warm breathing inside the tent still made for significant condensation and everything is just sooo wet. It all dries off soon after the sun hits.
Today I bring you a drama filled episode of “As the Ice Ax Turns at Denali 14 Camp”…. While enjoying heated bagels with cream cheese and salmon for breakfast we were told that due to heavy snow on its way that we would not be carrying uphill today because it’s an 8 hour round trip and we would be caught up in it eventually.
Also, Hector has decided to stay and continue the expedition as Brian and his son Gabe, who turned 19 today, are anxious to go home. Their departure is creating a logistical nightmare for the guides.
There are many variables including our two assistant guides’ ability to take them to basecamp and return safely and return on time so that the rest of us are not unnecessarily delayed, weather windows for any mountain movement, another team up at 17,200 camp that have half their team coming down to 14 today and the rest attempting to summit again tomorrow and the use of one of their guides, Kira.
So while the plan has changed numerous times and half the other team recently arriving while the snow storm is hitting us in full force, the latest as of 2 PM is….. Dustin and Devin, our two assistant guides, will take Brian and Gabe plus the 4 members of the other team down to basecamp. They will start their trek at midnight tonight. The guide, Kira, that brought them here will join our team. Her and our main guide Hannah will lead our group of 7 now up to carry and cache tomorrow (weather permitting). Dustin and Devin should return to us at 14 camp by Monday or Tuesday and will require a rest day or two after their crazy round trip to and from basecamp. At that point we should all be more than fully acclimatized and ready for a move to 17 by Wednesday or Thursday hopefully followed by a summit bid. There is a good chance that weather will mess with these current plans. Such is mountaineering.
In the meantime… today’s activities included snaking, hydrating, eating, reading, music, and napping. I’ll call it SHERMN for short as there will be more days like these and I can conserve energy with less typing 🙂 Oh, there was also some solar charging of phones, tablets, watches and kindles before the snow storm hit. Have I mentioned there is zero cell service? This has been the most relaxing Saturday that I can remember.
As anxious as we all are to move higher we all know additional acclimatization will only make us stronger for the activities to come. Especially for this elder statesman of the group. If we carry and cache tomorrow we’re still 100% on schedule as we basically just swapped out a cary and a rest day. If I keep writing these words it will stay that way!!
Oh Denali, you entice us with your height and grandeur
You’ve brought us here to test our fait from both close and afar
We’ve trained for months and ascend up slowly to increase the odds
Of exploring all you offer and a hopeful summit to be nearer to the gods
Sunday June 20
Today was another cold morning. I was too lazy to arrange some clothes and gear last night and had to leave the tent to get to my duffel outside which was covered in a good amount of snow. It only took a few minutes but the damage was done to my toes and fingers which was hard to recover from. I just couldn’t get warm afterwards.
At breakfast we learned that our 2 guides and ex-teammates made it to basecamp. With team Cincinnati on their way to Talkeetna via air ferry, the guides made camp after a long morning (midnight to 9) and will start their climb back up the mountain at 2:30 AM.
After breakfast we went through a drill on how to ascend up fixed lines and running billets on our next section of mountain to conquer. Since it is so steep every season new lines (ropes) are attached to the hill. Each section of rope is about 100 ft long. This way if one rope rips the majority of the line is still in tact. The ropes are used by climbers for extra stability and safety.
We used what’s called mechanical ascenders which attach to the rope and are held on to or sometimes pulled against for extra torque going up. Due to a special mechanism the rope can only travel in one direction. The added challenge is to unclip the ascender at every section and reattach it to the next section. This must be done quickly to not slow down the line. Multiple teams of 2 to 4 climbers are using these fixed lines back to back and no one wants to create a traffic jam. Most pics of Everest Expeditions show a line of climbers. This is exactly what they’re doing.
While doing these drills at camp, before the sun showed itself, due to limited body movement we got colder and colder. It was quite the scene where we all marched in place, waved our hands, stomped our feet and penguined around to keep the blood flowing to our extremities. It barely helped. Everyone complained of numb toes and cold fingers.
Then Hannah came out with some news. Kira was exhausted from her descent from 17,000 ft yesterday and from being on the mountain for 20 days and may not be able to serve as 2nd guide to help us get up the mountain to carry and cache today. There were several possibilities: A) When she wakes up she may put on her big girl pants and suck it up (her words). B) Kira would go as much as possible and turn around with her rope team back to 14 if should couldn’t continue C) Hannah would take half of us up in the AM and the rest in the PM if she felt up to it. D) Hannah would take half of us up today and rest tomorrow or later in the week, weather permitting.
She was waiting on an updated weather forecast from RMI Headquarters and for Kira to wake up. We were told to go back to our tents for 30 minutes to warm up and await the plan. When we emerged Kira was in full gear waiting to give it a go. These guides are work horses and in incredible shape to pull off what they do with the weight on their back and at high altitude. Major kudos!
It was carabiner bonanza on our harnesses today. We were roped to each other, we had a sling attached to our ice ax which was then attached to us in case we dropped it and the same with the mechanical ascender and yet any other line with a carabiner that we would use to attach ourselves to the fixed line in order to break our fall if one of us accidentally oops’ed. This was by far the most technical part of the climb yet.
The sun was out over the ridge by the time we were all roped up and ready to go. Today was by far the most sustained steepness we had experienced. Even before we got to the fixed lines. With the sun out it didn’t take long for the sweat to start pouring. With this being the first day climbing at this altitude it took about 45 minutes for me to start hurting. My pack wasn’t that heavy today, maybe 30 lbs and I got super frustrated that I kept running out of breath.
With about 15 minutes to go before we got to the fixed lines I had to stop the rope team a couple of times because I couldn’t continue. I was behind boss lady Hannah this time. “Your entire team is counting on you! We can’t stop here! We’re going to have to have a summit day conversation if you don’t continue right now!” were some of the lines I remember hearing. None of the negativity from the prior day snuck into my mind and I made it to the top of the first section and the beginning of the fixed lines to a break. Using our ice ax, which was attached to us via sling and carabiner, we anchored ourselves into the hill so we could rest and hydrate and snack without the risk of sliding down hill.
The break wasn’t long enough for me to fully catch my breath. I was both sweating from the exertion and freezing cold from the temps. Toes still frozen, I attached my ascender to the line and made my first two steps and pulls on what must have been a 70* slope. It didn’t take long to yell out “Hannah…”. She wasn’t gonna hear it and “You can do this!” was her response. After a few more steps and pulls she proved to be totally right.
At the first re-anchoring section of course my ascender got wedged and would not release from the first section of rope. Why me!!?? After not being able to rectify the malfunction Hannah called down to the climber behind me, Julia, to climb up and help. No dice, so Hannah climbed down to my location and after a minute of futzing figured it out.
I hated being the problem child but would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the extra break. At the end of the next section the ascender hiccuped again and I couldn’t detach it from the rope. Hannah came down, again, figured it out, again, and instead of handing it to me, attached it to my harness. My startled look was met with “Just use your hands”. Great! You mean these frozen ones!??
The next 45 minutes up went better than I expected. It was super steep but we did go a bit slower. The reward as with any new height in this alpine wonderland was incredible views. Not wanting to push Kira any further past her physical limits we cached right there at the top of the ropes at 16,200 ft. We would pick it up on our move day to 17,000 ft (5,181m) camp.
During the cache break I just sat there taking in the views and thinking long and hard about continuing on or asking to be attached to the rest of the upper mountain RMI team coming down tomorrow. Then I caught a glimpse of the trail that would take us further up and that’s all it took to get my mind to YoYo back to the goal.
“The mind commands the body and it obeys. The mind orders itself and meets resistance. Yes I am meeting more resistance lately. I could use a quiet retreat by myself.” I sure picked the right books for this trip.
I started thinking of the quiet retreat coming up, AKA tomorrow’s rest day and knew I would get myself back in check. Everything worth while in life is hard. This is hard. Very hard. Harder than I ever thought it would be. Suck it up buttercup and get ‘er done.
Going down fix lines required yet another unique technique. You clip into the line with a carabiner and also wrap the line around your left hand and use that as support and a brake to descend. We were told to wear our least favorite light layer as it will get rope burn on it and possibly tear. My new spendy hard shell went back in my pack and out came something I wouldn’t mind getting the badge of rope burn on.
I almost made it all the way down without incident until my right boot became a bit untied. Being totally fine with dealing with it I didn’t say a word as camp was only 15 minutes away and I didn’t want to stop the team. Then after a few steps my left crampon got stuck in the untied lace and now both my feet were tangled during downhill momentum. My hopscotch skills came in handy as I lifted both heals to my butt, wiggled them to untangle and somehow got them down fast enough to prevent face planting. Always celebrate small wins.
Over dinner we were told that Dustin and Devin would be leaving base camp at zero dark hundred in the morning, stopping at 11,000 camp and re-joining us on Tuesday.
|That is a view of 14,200 camp from above.|
Monday June 21st
After yesterday’s up and down from 14,000 to 16,200 and back entailing 6 hours of exertion we all slept for 12 hours. Today was going to be a complete SHERMN day so it was off to the tent to get those important activities started.
At around 2:30 PM we heard some surprisingly familiar voices outside. Dustin and Devin only stopped at 11,000 camp for lunch and decided to keep going. Being that they were pretty acclimatized, had little weight on them and no clients to tow they made it from basecamp to 14,000 in under 12 hours. Beasts!! And now this team is complete again.
Today’s post would not be complete without another episode of “As the Ice Ax Turns on Denali”. During the higher team’s first summit attempt one of the climber’s crampons fell off and in the commotion he slipped and let go of the running billet (very similar to a fixed line) and was left dangling off the side of the mountain at 19,000 ft (5,791m) above sea level. As bad as this sounds he was never in real danger as his harness was still fully attached by a personal rope to the running billet and he was still attached to the rest of rope team. Each of which was attached to the billet. Many safety measures would have to had failed for him to die. Several other falls fractured a couple of ribs too. What qualifies this incident for this episode is what he said next, with his wife on the team mind you, “Cut the rope! Cut the rope and save yourselves!!!”. To conclude, he’s totally fine and was one of the 4 from that team that Justin and Devin took down yesterday. The rest of that team summited!
As of today we are still 100% on schedule as two rest days are on the agenda. Justin and Devin definitely need a rest day tomorrow after their herculean round trip so technically we’ll be 1 day behind which is nothing on a Denali expedition.
I haven’t napped yet today so I’m thinking that listening to some downloaded guided meditation will get me there. Now these days will be called SHERMMN.
Tuesday June 22nd
I fell asleep at 9:30 PM last night and was up tossing and turning by 2:00 AM. Too hot, too cold, take off a layer, put on a layer. Will we summit? Will we run out of time? Why did I have so much Chili for dinner? How cold will it be up high? What’s going on at home? Is COVID still a thing? It hasn’t been dark this entire trip. Put on my sleeping mask, take off my sleeping mask. Toss and turn.
By 2:30 AM I picked up my phone and decided I would either put on a meditation track to pause my racing mind or finish listening to one the audio books I downloaded. I opted for the later and really enjoyed it. It was totally applicable to achieving any goal.
It’s titled “Be where your feet are” by Scott O’Neil. The last chapter “Trust the Process” hit the spot and I’m going to apply it to many aspects of my life when I get back to sea level. And I’ll probably listen to it a few more times on this trip.
It’s 3:50 AM. Time for some mediation tracks and some more sleep. Busy day of SHERMMN coming up!
We didn’t get out of our tents until the sun came over the ridge at around 9 AM but it was still very cold. We were treated to blue berry pancakes again with no batter mishap this time so we had our fill. With zero on the agenda today and snow starting to come down hard we sat around for an hour in the posh on satiated stomachs before heading back to our tents in white out conditions outside.
It cleared up and warmed up a bit around 2:30 and I just went to stroll around camp and took some more photos. The cloud formations around Mt Forrester next door are ever changing and I just can’t get enough pics. I also strolled by the Ranger Station they have here. Yes there are Park Rangers around ensuring all groups are following safety protocols and Leave No Trace Behind policies. Their weather board did not look promising by forecasting zero degrees and 20 MPH winds upstairs tomorrow.
Macaroni and cheese hit the spot for dinner with Grandma’s Chocolate Chip cookies for dessert. The jovial conversation came to a halt when the daily 8 PM weather forecast came over the radio from basecamp. We need a solid 3 day weather window to attempt a summit. 1 day to retrieve our cache at 16,200 and move to 17,000 camp. 1 day for a summit bid. And 1 more day to come down from 17 to either 14 or 11. Those 3 days are not in the cards now as winds are only increasing to 40 MPH in the coming days.
Tomorrow is forecast to be almost acceptable to move but then we would need to live in super harsh conditions at even higher altitude to wait out a good summit bid opportunity. Our guides have been there done that and are suggesting we wait it out here in much more hospitable less windy 14,000 ft weather. I totally respect RMI decisions. It’s cold enough coming out of a tent to 5* weather. I can’t fathom living in 30 MPH sustained winds. We would be slaves to our sleeping bags with 4 layers of clothing on. Our guides are committed to getting us back with 10 fingers and toes in tact. Summit or not.
It’s 9 PM and the forecast is for a low of 15* tonight so it should be a good 7th night at 14,000 camp. Our bodies only continue to acclimatize more and get stronger. The summit is so so close yet so incredibly far away.
Wednesday June 23rd
The mood was much chipper in the Posh Tent this morning when Hannah told us that Dustin and Devin would be going up to move some of our cache from 16,200 to 17,000. They would also be getting some of their higher altitude acclimatization done at the same time. We would then wait out the snow storm coming in tonight into tomorrow and the high winds into Friday and would have a possibility to move to high camp by this weekend with a summit bid following the move some time.
All the summit talk made the hot oatmeal with granola bars taste that much better on this cold morning. She did warn us that even if we do move we may end up spending some extra nights up there before attempting a summit. Summit days are usually +/- 12 hours and she won’t go for it if winds are over 30 MPH. Extra nights up there would delay our overall trip length but I don’t think anybody minds.
The rest of the day was uneventful and a page turner I’m reading called Minds Eye (Nick Hall Book 1) took up most of it. I should have downloaded the entire series as I’ll be done with it during the storm tomorrow and we still have more days left up here.
Wonder twins Dustin & Devin returned from their carry to 17,000 camp just in time for dinner of broccoli & cheddar rice with chicken. They reported brutal conditions up there. Looks like they’ve brought it down with them as the winds are increasing. We’ve all double checked our tent anchors and secured all loose items. We’re anticipating over a foot of fresh snow overnight and cold temps.
Hot apple cider and my favorite Reese’s Peanut Butter cups from the comfort of my -20* rated sleeping bag is my night cap and then it’s back to the page tuner.
Thursday June 24th
What a miserable night. 25 MPH wind gusts sure do break the peaceful silence of the night. The outer layer of the tent, called the fly, is totally secured to the main tent body but is plenty loose to wobble in the wind and make a lot of noise. That plus the constant titter tatter of snow fall resulted in waking up every 30-45 minutes.
When I awoke for good around 7 and wanted to read some I was sad to see my rookie mistake of leaving my kindle out for the night. It froze and wound not function normally until I put it in my sleeping bag for it to defrost. The battery also drained more then normal in the cold. Anything in the tent not put into a sleeping bag will freeze overnight. Anything not in a stuff sack or other container will be very wet in the morning from the condensation.
The other surprise of the morning was opening the tent and seeing my boots in the vestibule covered in snow inside and out while my tent mate’s boots were just fine. They must have been in just the wrong spot where the snow that came down most of the night drifted under the flap onto and into them. My dumb luck! Good thing we’re not going anywhere today. If the sun doesn’t grace us with its presence today I’ll have to take out the liners and sleep with them in my bag to dry them off tonight.
Breakfast was a filling double serving of eggs and hash browns. With Sriracha sauce for added flavor. No words were needed to describe today’s agenda. It was totally understood. Still white out and very windy outside and more snow on its way all day and tonight. Mountaineering is as much about patience as it is about climbing.
A Posh Tent tradition is solving complex riddles. Today’s was an oldie but goody: There is a room with three light bulbs. Outside the door to the room there are three light switches. Only one of them turns on all three lights. The door is closed. You can toggle the switches all you want in any order as long as you want. Afterwards you can only open the door ONE time to see the light bulbs. How do you figure out which switch turns on all 3 bulbs?
The next one was a little easier: A large group gets stranded on an island. Some of the crew assume cooking duties. For a full year this one man has been served albatross soup. They finally get rescued and he goes to a restaurant and orders a bowl of albatross soup. After the first spoon he feels really sick and throws up, goes home and commits suicide. Why?
It’s week 3 of the expedition and the gear list called for 3 pairs of underwear and 3 pairs of socks. Time to take appropriate action! Yup, just another aspect of mountaineering. Love it or hate it.
By dinner time the conditions have become the worse we’ve seen yet. Heavy snow coming down and being blown around by 25 MPH winds. Tortellini with pesto is good in any weather and the cold really worked up my appetite so I had 2 and a half servings. Good thing the posh tent is a judgement free zone.
The forecast over the radio called for more of the same overnight at 14 and “inhospitable conditions” at high camp. Highs of -10* and 40 mph winds. So we’re staying put tomorrow AGAIN and hoping that the weekend brings some better news. So much for my 100% on schedule comments. Oh well. This could have been a 16 day adventure and I could have surprised my family by coming home a few days early. At this point looks like we’re sticking it out until we run out of food. Latest move to 17 if we have a good 3 day window would be Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
The 8PM forecast over the radio usually ends with some trivia but today they joined the riddle train… You’re hiking in the woods and are lost and freezing and finally come across a cabin. Inside it has a fireplace, a stove, a candle and only 1 match. Which do you light first?
Friday June 25
The howling winds finally stopped around 1 AM and I was able to get about 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. This was long enough for significant condensation to build up on the inner layer of the tent so that when the winds picked up again around 5 it started drizzling inside the tent with every gust for the next couple of hours.
Funny how passages in books I’m reading really hit home. “Consider experiences like playing chess on the beach or walking in the woods with a friend discussing philosophy. Contrast this with running around like headless chickens juggling multiple electronic gadgets at once. Multitasking way beyond any humans ability to multitask. Are you happier under this scenario or more stressed out? Is technology truly indispensable, truly the source of happiness? Or is getting back to your human, spiritual roots the key?”
While I’m clearly using technology to journal this adventure daily and to read books, I am tremendously enjoying being completely disconnected and off the grid. No email, no texts, no social media, no news, no internet. Zero distractions from being present. While I miss my family and friend immensely I’m glad I didn’t buy a gadget and service from Garmin called inReach which would have allowed me to text via satellite. This experience would have been very different had I been getting the play by play from home. I trust and pray all are well despite some inevitable drama. I’m sure I’ll be caught up in it soon enough. I hope everyone that is following the RMI blog is enjoying Hanna’s nightly updates on our progress (and lack there of).
Since we have two less mouths to feed some group meals have been accumulating and we were treated to a nice Friday Brunch Buffet of hash browns, pancakes, cream of wheat, oat meal and granola. As if that wasn’t a good enough start to another lazy day in alpine wonderland Hannah informed us that Sunday may be our day to move to high camp and prepare for a summit bid. Woohoo!!
I filled up my thermos with hot chocolate and enjoyed it back in my sleeping bag with half of my new favorite chocolate bar, Ritter Sport Milk Chocolate with Hazelnut. It’s like Nutella in candy bar form with real nuts. Delish!!
Now that I’ve finished documenting this morning’s thoughts and activities it’s off to Douglas Richards’ other book on my Kindle, “The Enigma Cube”. I’m sure I’ll find something interesting to quote from it later on.
To add to this smorgasbord of a Friday, at 2 PM we hear “Who wants left over Ramen ?!??”. Count me in!! Boy did I nap well after that.
Saturday June 26th
Another crappy night at 14,200. I think I’ve had enough of being cold! Unfortunately it’s only going to get worse up high. I’m sure the excessive napping yesterday contributed to it being hard to sleep. It was also one of those stupid thoughts nights which just drive me crazy because I’m normally very positive. Home sickness which has been mild is really creeping in.
I tried to kill the time by reading but it was too cold to keep my hands outside the sleeping bag to control the kindle. I ended up putting on my gloves and flipping pages with my nose. Yep that works! Tossing and turning really got to my hips and I ended up waking up to the breakfast of champions…Advil.
When the sun started warming up the plateau we’ve been calling home for over a week and there was no clouds in site my mood completely shifted to being very positive and enthusiastic about hopefully our last day at 14,200 before moving to high camp.
I spent most of the day reading and some snacking with only a short nap so not to repeat another sleepless night. At dinner we were told that we’re most probably going up tomorrow but the final decision would be made at 5 AM. We were also told the move to 17,000 camp would be a big individual test for a summit bid. Anyone not carrying their weight or slowing down the team would probably not be permitted to attempt a summit as that day will be significantly harder and colder than the move. No pressure!
We all carbo loaded with a hefty macaroni and cheese dinner with freshly cooked cheese cake for dessert and ready for tomorrow’s challenge. Hoping we get the green light in the AM. I’m super excited but a bit nervous too. I’m hopeful all these rest days have helped and I’m ready to give it my all in the AM.
Sunday June 27th
What a day! Not sure I have enough words to describe it. We did get the green light via a wake up call at 5 AM to pack up camp, have breakfast and head up town. There was a bit of nervous energy about and we were heading up hill by 7 AM. It was quite cold and we weren’t expecting the benefit of the sun for a couple of hours.
I thought I did well on the first section and proudly told Justin the same. He replied with, “Well there was a bit of tugging on the line for about 40% of the time”. I thought it was more like 36% but who am I to argue. When it came time to do the fixed lines again my percentage went up to 60%. I blamed it on not having a mechanical ascender and having to use cold hands again.
Don’t know what it was this time. Too many rest days and losing some fitness? Or plane old this just wasn’t going to be my trip? Our first task was to retrieve our cache at the top of the fixed lines at 16,200 ft from what seamed like an eternity ago. 10 more pounds in my pack was not going to make the next section any easier. While we were packing up our pack to get going my snack bag for the day got loose and went for a downhill ride and off a cliff. Hope the crows enjoy the protein bars, M&Ms, trail mix and what ever else I had in there. At least my Nutella sandwich was in another bag and was still safe.
Last time we were at this spot I was excited by seeing the ongoing trail above and the prospect of climbing it. Be careful what you ask for as you just may get it proved very true. Pictures don’t do it justice but here are a few.
Single file up snow, rock and ice. I’m pretty sure there were more fixed lines there but I don’t remember. “Not my trip” kicked in full force and my performance simply sucked. It was steep, cold, my pack was over 50 lbs and I was simply miserable but I stuck it out until the next break. By this time the two rope teams ahead of us had finished their break so it was just Justin, me and Mike.
I think Justin and I came to the same conclusion at the same time. My potential summit bid was over as summit day would be 12 hours of this and much more demanding. Clearly I wasn’t keeping up with this team of millennials that all trained hard at altitude and have lungs 20 years my junior.
He asked if I thought I could make it to 17,000 camp. Not wanting to inconvenience the team and also wanting to see as much more incredible sights as possible I felt that I could persevere. I did put my head between my hands and shed a few tears when I realized 17 camp may be the high point me for. Then I quickly snapped out if it and asked if he can take a few pics and he happily obliged. Might as well get some hero pics if I’m not going to get to very top.
I got more than I bargained for in terms of awesome and unique terrain as well as outstanding views. While walking on a ridge with thousands of feet of free fall on both sides what I also got was to experience 30 MPH sustained winds and the opportunity to be colder than I’ve ever been in my life while begging my body not to stop like it so desperately wanted to.
We were never in any real danger as we were tied to running billets and I was never really scared but this was truly harrowing. What made it worse was having to stop every 20 yards or so to unclip and re-clip to the next section. This was probably the longest 15 minutes of my life.
When we rolled into camp my lungs were an inferno. I was unable to jump in and assist with camp set up similar to a tardy arrival in the past. This one was actually more work as the harsh winds up here didn’t leave adequate snow & wind walls so what was there needed to be fortified.
I walked around in a fog for a few minutes. Unable to snack due to nausea. Unable to drink as my remaining water froze over the last 90 minutes. I finally attempted to carry an ice block 20 feet to the wall and felt like I had just ran a quarter mile at full speed.
Next I tried to get my crampons off but failed miserably because I wouldn’t take my gloves off to undo the straps. I attempted to put on puffy pants which come with more zippers and velcro than I care to explain but that was an exercise in futility as well. I tried to apologize to the team for not helping out but no words were necessary.
I definitely looked out of sorts as Devin came up to me and immediately went into guide mode. “Tell me everything that you’re feeling and we’ll fix it”. She got my puffy pants sorted, I got my crampons and climbing harness off and she gave me a Gu and some water just so I get at least 100 calories on board. Then she instructed me to march around camp just to keep the blood flowing until tents were up. Yes Mam! Thank you mam! It helped a lot.
It seamed like an eternity before I was able to collapse in my sleeping bag. The accommodations at this camp was 3 in one tent and 4 in the other. The three large guys were spared the four-some. Byron, Mike and I instantly fell sleep. Our REM was short lived as a variety of Mountain Houses (just add hot water) selections were brought around and shorty there after delivered steaming hot to the tent. What service!! There would be no Posh Tent at this altitude as there we no plans to stay long. Though we had 6 days of food in case we got socked in with weather.
After dinner Hannah came around to set expectations for tomorrow. If the forecast held up,-5* to 5* with winds 10 to 15 MPH a summit bid would be attempted starting at 9 AM. If winds were higher then there would be a rest day and another attempt on Tuesday.
That’s all my crazy mind needed to hear. Feeling totally recovered besides my never ending cramping toes and fingers I am seriously considering discussing giving it a go with her if Tuesday or later is the day. We’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll change my mind or she’ll say absolutely not or maybe they’ll go tomorrow and I have no intention of doing that to my body on back to back days so the point may become moot.
It’s 11 PM and difficulty sleeping at altitude has me wide awake. With less higher mountain ranges for the sun to hide behind it’s as bright as noon. Time for my sleeping mask and some more meditation tracks as it’s getting too cold to keep typing.
Monday June 28
Boy did it get frigid around 1 AM. I got out of my sleeping bag to put on a puffy jacket and got back in. I finally fell asleep at 4 and slept through the morning roll call. When Hannah was done telling everyone to get ready for breakfast and dress up for a summit bid the rustling in my tent woke me up and I was filled in. Well I guess my summit fait is sealed. Oh well.
After everyone came up to the guide’s tent to get their hot water and breakfast mix the instructions were to return to the tents and stay warm and wait for a Go/NoGo decision as conditions were not ideal. At 11:30 Hannah came out and said it was a NoGo for today and that we would try again tomorrow.
I jumped on that opportunity and came out of my tent to speak with her privately. I asked that since we’re resting today and I feel much better if she would give me a shot tomorrow? I wasn’t optimistic about her answer but was hopeful for some hesitation in her response so that I can plead my case a bit.
Unfortunately it was an unequivocal NO. She reminded me that yesterday was a test and I failed. She said it much nicer than that. She said that I had the stamina to give it a go but I would most likely give myself HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and she wanted to spare me and my family a trip to the hospital. I couldn’t argue with that and completely respected her decision. Even though looking at the final 3,000 vertical foot stretch I couldn’t help but feel I could suck it up and somehow make it.
What followed was a long day of nothingness. 17 camp is not as conductive to exiting the tent and hanging out. Just too cold and windy and everyone’s hypoxic body just wants to be in a sleeping bag up here. The conversation in my tent centered around the forecast of a 5 day high pressure system coming in and why even try to wait this out.
I caught up on some sleep, finished my book, snacked (a lot) and only came out of my tent once all day. By the time “bed time” rolled around I tried for an hour but couldn’t sleep for the life of me. I really had a hard time breathing and gave up trying (to sleep not breath) at around 10 and went to another book on my kindle and then listened to more meditation tracks like Intention, Purpose, Fear and Soul.
I set an intention to come to Denali with the purpose of summiting as that would do good for my soul but I fear my chance on this trip will not materialize.
By midnight you could have heard a pin drop. There was zero wind and not a single sound around. It was by far the most peaceful and quiet night of the entire trip. It was so incredibly bright in the tent and outside. I really wanted to get up and walk around but all the zipping and unzipping would have disturbed my tent mates and neighbors. They need their sleep for tomorrow’s potential summit push. The sleeplessness gave me more time to make one final argument to Hannah to let me rope up and give it a go in the morning.
Tuesday June 29th
When the sun went for its 6 hour temporary hiatus at 2 AM the temps plummeted again and the wind picked up. I had my puffy at the ready and on it went. Breathing got a little bit easier and I think I finally fell asleep listening to music around 3 AM.
Our fearless leader came out at 7:30 and said today was the day to summit this puppy. Everyone started doing their thing to get ready. Not that there was much to do as many sleep in most of the needed clothing layers and camp doesn’t need to be packed up but there are biological needs that don’t fit in a pee bottle.
When my tent mates retuned they both had pretty discouraging looks on their faces. “Why are we even trying this?!?” was my interpretation. I finally got up to get some hot water for my thermos and the below zero windchill erased any lines I had rehearsed to ask to join today’s attempt. Also, getting minimal sleep and having trouble breathing convinced me that it just wasn’t worth it.
Like yesterday, the team was told to go back to the tents and stay as warm as possible while we wait for the winds to diminish a bit. At 10:15 they got the go ahead to come out, put on crampons and rope up. It was 3 teams of one guide + 2 each. I came out and gave everyone a good luck fist pump and wished them god’s speed. “See you in about 12 hours!” were Hannah’s parting words and off they went.
At 11:30 the masseuse and pedicurist that I ordered for this contingency showed up via Heli. It wasn’t the best service I’ve had but beggars can’t be choosers at 17,000 ft above sea level. They offered me a lift back to base camp but I couldn’t just leave my team behind so I politely declined while asking them to have a hair dresser available for next time.
Next order of business was to figure out what I was going to eat until my crew’s estimated arrival time of 10:30 PM. I was pleasantly surprised to find my Nutella Bagel zip-locked in my jacket pocket so I started with that and then set out Kosher Beef Jerky, Wild Caught Salmon, and Santa Fe Black Beens and Rice as meals for the day. Have to finish the M&Ms as well so there is less weight to carry down!
Now I get to lay back, nap and read while I wait like a nervous Jewish mother for the kleiner to come home safely. It’s super windy and cold here at 17.000 camp. It looks much worse up higher but there is some sun today. I do pray they’re staying warm and safe up there!
With absolutely nothing to do, pretty tired from lack of sleep and a belly full of nosh I fell asleep around noon. The noise of 20 to 40 MPH winds woke me at around 3:30. I dreaded going outside but needed to pee so I ventured out. It was really bad out but also crazy unique so I explored a bit. I really felt for the team that was climbing up above in this weather.
I went back in my tent to put on more layers and continued to explore around and take more pics. Not sure when I’ll be back here so why not. Besides the incredible views the most epic thing I saw was an igloo toilet hut. Now that’s cool!! Our’s was completely snowed in with the drifting snow.
I looked up the trail towards the summit and saw a group coming down. Oh no I thought. I was pretty bundled up so I waited to see who was coming down and unfortunately it was one of our crew with Dustin and a few from another team. He called it at about 18,000 feet and couldn’t continue. A few hours later the rest of our crew came down too. They made it to 19,500 and the conditions became too dangerous so Hannah called it and they turned around. On the way down one of them fell off the trail but his fall was arrested by the running billet after about 10-15 feet and fortunately there was no injury.
No one was happy and I wasn’t going to pry for details but from the few details I got from my tent mates it was a complete shit show with too many teams going at once, folks being clueless about mountaineering, traffic jams on fixed lines and billets, accelerated pace making it even harder on some and ever deteriorating conditions.
Everyone is safe and sound and warming up in their sleeping bags. The team sure did give it a valiant effort but Denali just didn’t allow a summit today.
I’ve described weather several times as progressively getting worse. Well today takes the cake! It’s blowing outside like nothing I’ve ever seen. Snow is even accumulating in the tent vestibules and between the tent and the fly. Dustin has already been around once to shovel away the accumulation as the tent walls are being compressed making for an even tighter fit.
We haven’t heard anything regarding a forecast nor exit plan but I’m confident the guides are working on it. We’re pretty sure there will not be another summit attempt as everyone is ready to get down to basecamp and out of here.
|Found out later it was an emergency evacuation for someone with appendicitis. Ouch!|
Wednesday June 30th
Every word util this point was written day by day. It’s now two months later and I’ve just spent many hours today adding daily pics and final edits trying to wrap this up so I can post. The journey down was a super sprint compared to an ultra marathon going up. I’ll probably revisit this post add more color on the less than 2 days it took to get back to base camp from 17,000 and to fly back to Talkeetna.
Thursday June 31st
|We cached beer at basecamp to celebrate our return.|
|It was so cold waiting for our plane we needed sleeping bags.|
Back at sea level
Clockwise from bottom left: Me, Devin, Hector, Byron, Holly, Julia, Shane, Dustin, Hannah
Tips & Tricks
- Batteries last shorter in the cold.
- Bring a good battery pack. The sun may not be out every day for solar charging.
- Bring a large variety of snacks so you don’t get bored eating the same thing often.
- Each layer, top and bottom, mentioned in the gear list is very important.
- You will learn to hate carrying and pulling weight and will regret bringing anything extra.
- Download more movies, shows, music and books then you think you’ll need.
- Mentally be prepared to have nothing to do on weather and rest days.
- Mentally prepare to possibly have 10 weather days (majority trips don’t, but possible)
- Mentally prepare to be very hot and sweaty on some days.
- Mentally prepare to be very cold, freezing, near numb on some days.
- Anything not in your sleeping bag overnight will freeze (toothpaste, sun block, peanut butter, contact lenses, wet wipes, creams, water bottles, etc…)
- Pooping in a team bucket will not kill you.
- Never make eye contact with someone having to go #1 or #2 on a rope team.
- Use hand sanitizer often. Prepare for it to make your hands very cold.
- Apply sunblock as often as possible when you’re out of the tent, even when it’s cloudy and snowing.
- Licking your plate and spork clean after a meal is totally acceptable. If you don’t get it 100% clean from the previous meal. Don’t sweat it.
- Drink at least 2 liters of water a day. Add a drink mix or electrolyte mix to it to make it more flavorful.
- Bring a sleeping mask unless you’re 100% sure you can sleep with the lights on. There is zero darkness.
- Bring ear plugs. Wind storms are noisy and so is everyone else’s chatter in camp and possibly your tent mate’s snoring and farting.
- You and your clothes may smell a little or a lot, it’s fine, everyone else does too.
- Swallowing toothpaste after you brush is not bad for you.
- Get comfortable using a pee bottle. Going out in the middle of the night is brutal and unnecessary. Holding it in will hinder your sleep.
- Bring glacier sun glasses. Suns rays will bounce off snow and hurt your eye from the sides of regular sunglasses. Always wear them outside. Snow blindness is real and will result in an expensive helicopter medical evacuation.
- Be comfortable with oily hair. Everyone else’s is too.
- Don’t buy/rent a satellite communication device unless 100% needed. Enjoy this time away. In a real emergency at home you will be found.
- Bring nail clippers. 3-4 weeks is a long time. Finger nails are easy to byte off. Toe nails?!? Depends on your tent mate.