Monday, June 16, 2014

Ultra Adventure Denali Style

All of my adventures in running and in the mountains seem to build on each other and grow in difficulty and potential for risk each time.  For example: Top-Rope Climbing ->Sport -> Trad -> Ice.   5/10k's -> Marathons -> Ultras.  The Grand Teton -> Gannet -> Rainier -> Orizaba -> Denali. I know that a big reason for this is a deep fascination (obsession) with finding my limits and pushing them as far as I can, ...safely.  
Attempting to climb Denali (Mount McKinley) is definitely the largest, hardest, and riskiest undertaking I have ever attempted.  The short is that our expedition saw few good weather days, and the notorious Storms of Denali did not allow us access to the summit, though much epic-ness ensued.

Upon arriving in Talkeetna Alaska, Jack, Brooks, John, and I spent almost 4 days waiting at a bunkhouse for a break in the weather to land on the glacier.  It is not too uncommon to wait for a flight out on to the glacier at the base of Denali, but 4 days was more than the usual.  On Sunday June 1, we got word that a landing might be possible and in what seemed like minutes we were in the air and soon landed on the scorching ice field know as the Kahiltna Base camp (7200 ft) .  With-in a couple of hours I was slowly at the head of our rope team moving up the glacier with over 125 lbs of food and gear! With about 50 lbs on my back and 75 lbs pulled on a sled behind me. Day 1 ended with melting snow and fortifying snow walls at Camp 1 (7800 ft) with probably 100 other summit hopefulls.  4 hrs, 1100 ft V+ and 5.5 miles.
Killing time in Talkeetna

Day 2: 
We continued the slog up the Kahiltna through a section dubbed Ski Hill.  Imagine a bunny hill for miles, but going up (on snowshoes) with 125 lbs of gear.  The scorching sun turned into a white out blizzard and with high headwinds.  After hours and hours we made it to Camp 2 @ 9700 ft.  Only 4 other people dug a camp in the snow near us. Our whole group was completely  sapped mentally and physically and eager to get in our tents. I finally climbed into my bag, right after digging a flat spot, building walls, melting water, cooking food and throwing a snowball at Brooks,(Who was a easy target because I knew he would always be stationary on the NPS provided poop-bucket.)  Even down this low I already had on my megga-puffer Mtn-Hardware Down Jacket.  5 hrs, 1900 ft V+, 2.5 miles.  

Day 3:
We woke up tired then slogged up to 11,200 ft camp at the Base of Motorcycle hill.  This camp is like a small town dug into the mountain between a mountain of ice fall debri on one side and a huge crevasse on the other side.  A 14 year veteran guide said that a Japanese woman fell in the crevasse last year then managed to climb out on her own using her spoon...or was it her chapstick lid....
Here at 11,200 it hit me what a gathering of the nations this mountain is.  I made a list of all of the countries from which I met people on the whole mtn.
1. Japan
2. Mongolia
3. Russia
4. Australia (John!)
5. Latvia
6. Canada
7. Slovenia
8. Ukraine
9. Austria
10. France
11. Spain
12. Italy
13. Wales
14. Scotland
15. England
16. Brazil
17. Poland
18. Germany
19. United Arab Emerits 

3.5 hours, 1700 V+, 1.5 miles for the 3rd day. 

Day 4-5: 
As the slopes get steeper it is necessary to advance supplies up ahead and then camp down lower.  On Day 4, Three of us went as high as 13,500 ft to bury food and gear in the snow.  Day 5 we spent recovering in a snow storm in our Camp 3 tents (at 11,200 ft)  One of the interesting things about camp is how close everyone is to each other.  Going to the bathroom is far from private.  Here at 11,200 camp we met back up for the third time with some friends we made in Talkeetna and 9,700 camp, a group of 3 with 2 Mountian Trip Guides.  Awesome guys who lets us play cards and share hot drink under their cook tarp.  2 miles, 2000 V+

Day 6:  
We stashed some extra food, unused gear (errggg), 3 of 4 sleds and then headed up to what you could call Advanced Base Camp (aka 14 or Basin Camp or Camp 4) at 14,200 ft.  If 11,200 was a town than Basin Camp is a city.  The slog up there was long and slow. Temps around zero F, but still hiking in just a base layer due to the level of exertion.  We were lucky to snag a pre-dug out and fortified spot (again) for our 2 tents to fit next to each other.  Here at 14,200 is were I first started to feel the altitude. My slight headache quickly went away with an Excedrin.  Temps at night were well below zero and I found it difficult to keep frozen breath off of everything in my tent. I often could not sleep because I would be short of breath and often sucking air at odd times. 2.75 miles 2,800 V+

BAD WEATHER!!!!!!!!!!

Day 7:
My team and I went back down to the Windy Corner area at 13,500 and got our cache, then proceed to advance another cache all the way up to 16,100 at the top of the first fixed lines.  For all of us this was our most grueling and satisfying day. We handled the technical sections fine (even in strong winds) and felt prepared to make the summit, all we needed was a 2 day weather window.... which never came.  around 2 miles with 3000 V+ for the day.
Day 8-11:
Everyday we jaunted over to the NPS tents to look at the weather board.  High winds and snow daily.  We had some really cold restless days and our patience wore thin. We passed the time reading, playing 21 questions and building an epic snow cave.  I was eating but as hard as I tried I could not down more than 1200 calories a day and I knew I was losing weight. On Wednesday, with a slightly better forecast on the NPS board and after a couple of calls to our wives on the Satilete phone we decided to move up higher and hope for a window in the bad weather.  We could see the high winds blowing hard above, but just crossed our fingers and loaded up our gear.  The fixed lines were much harder with full weight packs and the winds making everything miserable. On top of that, Brooks had a somewhat MAJOR stomach incident on the vertical fixed lines, and my gut was also rumbling as we pushed on past 11 pm.  This section of the route was by far the prettiest and despite the 50 lb pack, extreme fatigue and sub -20 winds, I loved the 1000 foot drop offs and huge huge exposure.  Some sections were full on climbs with an ascender and crawling up deep snow.  Somewhere on this techincal ridge our NPS poop can broke off a pack and fell 3000 feet below to the Peters Glacier below. (costing us 75 bucks after we got off the mtn)  At near midnight we made it up to the desolate 17,200 ft High Camp in howling winds and full on exhaustion. An Austrian climber got separated from his group and stuck with us, his friend wondered into camp in the middle of the night with frost bitten wooded like fingers.  As we struggled to set up our tents in the slicing winds we watched a team of 4 slowly descend the most dangerous section of the whole climb, from High Camp up to Denali Pass at 18,000+.   I looked up from my icy poles and fingers and saw that the team descending was instantly at the bottom, after taking a massive fall and not moving.  Another group already settled-in started to make their way to assist when the Polish climbers slowly got up and continued back towards camp. As far as I know no broken bones, just bloodied faces.  John was already in his bag trying to get warm, as I stowed gear out of the wind and built snow walls around the tent.  I spent the next few hours slowly getting warmer, then having multiple bouts of the runs in the -40 temps and gusts. With only a baggie.  To my detriment I nor John did not boil water or eat any food that night.

Day 12:
We woke up very cold and haggered.  Jack and Brooks had got some more food in em the night before and done better with the cold than me and John.  The weather looked okay but not good.  We all sat in the same tent debating what to do.  Go up 6-8 hours to the summit (12 hrs round trip), get down while we still could safely, or try to wait it out for a day or two at 17,200 for better weather.  As the weather and winds got worse and worse we decided to go down in a white out.  The main factor to my vote going down was my ability to get down safely if weather continued to worsen.  Jack and Brooks had some desires to try and wait longer or go higher, but the weather only got worse and we all felt like we made the right call, despite being very disappointed.

Silver Lining:
Before arriving to the mountain I knew that one of my favorite ultra running/ski mountaineering athletes Kilian Jornet, would be on the mtn going for the speed climb record.  Several times we saw Kilian and said hi when out on runs on our days waiting in Talkeetna.  Then we ended up flying unto the glacier with his Summits of my Life team and we chatted a bit and got pictures with him.  Then up at 14K we camped right next to his team and witnessed Kilian set an amazing speed record. 5 hrs faster than the previous record. Climbing Denali in 11:40 minutes. Up and down.  wow. After descending from high camp to 14K we chatted more with his team (they were waiting to try and climb the Cassin route to the summit!) and ended up giving them lots of our extra food.  He and his team were so thankful that they asked for our emails and said they would send us one of Kilian's DVDs.  Sweet.  He is such a chill humble guy.  He already has speed records on the Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro, and Mount Blanc, and is preparing for Aconcongua in December and Everest next year. Go Kilian.

I am sad I did not get to stand on top, but I know we made the only call we could.  Despite all of our efforts the weather shut us down.  The only chance we had to maaaayyybeee summit was to have hung out at 14 camp longer before moving up.  But with forecasts not looking good then or now, we made the right decision. I may try again some day.  There are lots of things I would do different. Lots of nuances to the mountain that I learned.  But man let me tell you how good it felt to come home to a beaming Anna who latched around my neck so tight and did not let go for 5 minutes.  I am tearing up just thinking about how good it is to come home after a long expedition.  Thanks to my team, family, and friends. To those that let me borrow gear, stay at your house, share a tent and share  the same poop bag, for listening to me talk about nothing but this dang mountain for months and for my wife for understanding that mountains and adventure will always be in my DNA.

Quick lessons learned:
1. Light and fast is best but very difficult to pull off on Denali.
2. With so many opinions on gear out there it is easy to over pack.
3. Efficiency is key. In movement, in gear placement and storage, and in cooking and melting snow for water.
4. The best moments, like killer vistas, joking and suffering beside best friends, pushing harder than you thought you could, and meeting new interesting people is what it is all about.
5. Hot and cold exist in such extremes and and often at the same time on Denali. ie the worst sunburn I got was in a white or snow storm.  

Okay I am done. More pics.
Basin Camp