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Friday, November 26, 2010

Climbing Mt. McKinley (Denali) in May, 2005 - Part 6

May 16th   

Climbing the Denali Headwall

After a day of cloudy weather we had blue skies and no wind in the morning. Then everyone who planned a summit attempt stampeded to get their gear carried up to 16k or even go higher up to the 17k camp. The 2000+ foot climb gets to a 55 degree angle, is icy and has crevasses. This is one place where commercial guide outfits will install fixed ropes but everyone wants to use them, leading to major traffic jams. Using  mechanical ascenders is necessary on these ropes

Looking back at the 14K camp

Heading up! The blues skies did not last long.

Weather is alreading getting bad.

Getting much steeper.

There were two sets of ropes; one for ascending and one for descending. On the uphill side we were held up by folks who were having various troubles getting up the ropes with their heavy loads. You can see that there were some morons who tried passing them by going up the rope that returning climbers needed to descend upon. This only made things worse and caused a traffic jam as the weather grew worse.

Up at 16K feet.

When we finally made it up we found a good spot to cache the extra fuel and food that would be our lifeline if weather at 17K became too bad for a summit attempt and also preventing us from descending to the 14K camp.

I really enjoyed going up the headwall despite all of the issues with the other climbers. I was feeling stronger and I was at a "highwater" (high ice?) mark in my climbing career at 2000 feet higher than anywhere I had been. Suddenly we were much closer to actually reaching the summit!

May 17th

We rested all day after the steep headwall climb and anxiously watched as the weather had turned worse. The radio forecasts were predicting a storm but on such a high mountain they could prove unreliable. We sought out Ranger Gordy and asked his advice. Gordy has been on the mountain for years and has the rare status of being a permanent climbing ranger. Most other rangers work on a seasonal as-needed basis.
Gordy looked at the cloudy sky, kicked the snow and thought for a moment. He asked if we had already cached at 16k and how we were feeling as a team. He then said that he felt that we would have a small window of opportunity before a big storm kicked in above 16k feet. He advised that the next morning we haul butt up to the high camp at 17k and get rested up. Then on the 19th get up and look for clear skies, wait for the sun to hit Denali Pass and raise the temps a bit and then go for the summit. He also advised us to not linger at 17k camp but get back down to 14k before the storm trapped us.

His advice was the road map to our success.

May 18th

Heading up the ridge route between the top of the headwall and the 17K camp.

This was the most spectacular climbing to date, both rugged and challenging.  That big rock up ahead is called Washburn's Thumb, named for the man who pioneered modern climbing on the West Buttress route.  That huge rock marks the halfway point to the 17k camp.

Sheer drops of 3000' or more are hidden by the clouds.

17 thousand foot camp! The Ice Rubes have arrived!

Here is a view of the camp's location and the route to the summit. The white arrows indicate potential avalanche zones.

This camp is a bleak outpost with ever thinner air, extreme temperatures and where every hard task takes more and more effort than the lower camps. We barely built protective walls, instead saving our energy for a 3000 foot climb to the summit. But look at those clear skies. A very good omen.

Our minimalist camp site. Those silver cannisters are the Clean Mountain Cans; heavy and bulky and we hauled them with us since the beginning. If you leave human waste up there the rangers will fine each person $100/day. Andy deployed his Himalayan prayer flags, anything worth giving us just a little more luck for a safe climb.

Denali Pass in the background, a daunting 1,000 feet higher than our lonely camp.

Our Dutch friends had run out of time and had to head down. I am on the left and Kerisi on the far right.

Will we summit the next day or will we head back down into the approaching storm?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Climbing Mt. McKinley (Denali) in May, 2005 - Part 5

May 14th

This was the hardest day for me even though we had cached a lot of food and fuel up past Windy Corner the day before. I had trouble sleeping at night, feeling as if I was suffocating. This was due to a low heart rate while asleep and not getting enough oxygen into the body (APNEA). The drug Diamox helps with this by speeding up the heart rate.

After caching some emergency provisions at the 11K camp site, we had to haul all remaining gear up to the 14k' camp, packs and sleds loaded up. It was a 7 hour slog and upon arrival we immediately started work on building a strong camp. At this camp the winds can easily exceed 80 MPH and inexpensive tents (Sierra Designs) are rapidly shredded. Even with a good tent a well-built wall of snow blocks adds a lot of protection.

The climbing rangers Gordy and Brian as well as some of the French team came over and helped us build a camp in record time. In mountaineering it is really good "karma" to pitch in to help others as you never know when the winds of fortune will change. 

Gordy and Brian brought over two very slick snow saws for cutting ice blocks, much better than what we had! It is all about having the right tools.

In this camp we built a deluxe kitchen area to shelter us from the elements yet provide plenty of room for cooking and company. We did this by digging a pit with snow benches and using the snow blocks to create walls. Then we set up the Megamid tent to be a roof.

It seems a bit small from the outside...

...but inside it was very roomy and the trapped heat from the stoves made it very cozy

May 15th 

One week on the Mountain!

We slept late, ate and then went to 13,500' to retrieve the cache of food and gear. On the 16th we planned to carry food and fuel up to 16k and cache it as backup for our summit attempt.
Life at 14k is pretty interesting considering that you are about as high as most other big mountains in the US (Rainier, Shasta, Whitney, etc.)

The view from my tent

Hackysack at altitude!!

Llama rescue helicopter evacuating a climber with HAPE, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema

Climbing Mt. McKinley (Denali) in May, 2005 - Part 4

May 12th Journal Entry

This was a rest day and I slept until 8 AM. I read a book and enjoyed sliced almonds. Bad weather kept all climbers to this camp. I helped a Dutch couple build snow walls for their kitchen. Lunch is always a do-it-yourself affair based on personal food carried along. We had company over in our kitchen: Silke and Alex from Germany, Delan and Wynia from Holland and a fireman from Virginia. We talked from late afternoon until 10 PM

May 13th Journal Entry

This was a day to haul a cache of food up to 13,500 feet past the point on the map called "Windy Corner" and bury it for later recovery to take to 14k'. Getting up "Motorcycle Hill" was slow as it was clogged with all of the guided groups. What should have been a 4 hour round trip was almost 7!! It was a hard ascent and the most technical so far.

Leaving 11k camp

Now much higher above the 11K site.

Gotta get up this hill to get to Windy Corner

Made it up! All hot and sweaty. Like the cool blue nose protector?

Getting cold so it's time to bundle up. Note the silver colored water bottle insulator on my belt. They were made by Outdoor Research and worked great. Look at that view!!!

Climbing Mt. McKinley (Denali) in May, 2005 - Part 3.1

Excerpt from my journal on the mountain:

5-11  Day 4
Another long haul day, full pack and sled. Left at 11:26 AM and arrived at 2:10 PM. Beat the guided groups again! Built a great camp, including Megamid (tent) for cook tent. Talked with rangers again. French climbers were here too.    11,180'    
Heard Llama rescue helicopter. Rangers monitor FRS (channel) 1-0. Great dinner of potato soup with clams, bread and butter and chocolate pudding. We are expecting a storm but planned to rest here.
10:18 PM  Will go to sleep soon. Still bright.
PS: two climbers died on Denali Pass today. No details yet.

Later I found the news article about the accident.

AP/Seattle Times -
Twins die in fall on Alaska's Mount McKinley

The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE -- Twin brothers who likely reached the summit of North America's highest mountain died in a fall, a Denali National Park and Preserve official said yesterday. It is believed that 55-year-old brothers Jerry and Terry Humphrey of Negley, Ohio, reached the Mount McKinley summit and were descending when one of them fell, perhaps falling into the other, said spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin.

The deaths were the first of the 2005 climbing season on the 20,320-foot mountain.

The brothers were not roped together, McLaughlin said. The bodies were found at 17,300 feet, just below Denali Pass. The brothers fell approximately 1,000 feet. Weather probably was not a factor as skies overnight were clear and winds were moderate. Conditions were not overly icy.

Jerry Humphrey's son, Jeremy, 25, was on a solo climb on McKinley when the accident occurred. He told park rangers he spoke to the pair at about 10 p.m. Tuesday while they were descending from the summit. They were at about 18,600 feet when he last talked to them. Denali Pass, where the accident likely occurred, is at approximately 18,000 feet. A guided expedition camped at 17,200 feet notified park rangers yesterday morning that two climbers were overdue from an overnight summit attempt. Members of the guided climbing party found the climbers' bodies just below Denali Pass, about a mile from the summit.

A rescue team from the Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron, who were also camped at 17,200 feet, traversed to the bodies and prepared them to be taken off the mountain. A high-altitude helicopter brought the bodies to base camp.

The son was flown off the mountain yesterday.

Climbing Mt. McKinley (Denali) in May, 2005 - Part 3

May 8th

We flew onto the mountain mid day to the 7200' landing zone. Our plan was to get off the mountain somewhere around the 29th and we had the food and fuel planned for 3 weeks.
We had to sign in with the climbing Ranger and set up our first camp to spend the night there. As part of the plan we had pre-paid for fuel on the mountain as well as the sleds that we rented.
Here is our first camp site. Really nice temps, blue skies and no winds. We were blessed with the right weather at the right time. Most folks plan on a three week expedition because of possible bad weather. Note in the background how very few other folks are there in early May. The area was quite empty!

Andy and Kerisi in our "kitchen" which is out of the winds and offers luxurious bench seating.

This is the ranger's fuel depot that we picked up our white gas from.

Climbers are not allowed to bring any fuel on the airplanes so you pre-arrange to buy it and pick it up at the 7200' base camp.

After staying one night we planned to get an early start to the 7800' camp because it is a long hard trek. Although we buried some emergency gear at the 7200' camp, we would have extremely heavy loads the first day. The trek involved going down to about 6500' and then back up to 7800' over a 5 mile distance. This was the biggest stretch of open glacier and the highest potential for falling into a crevasse.

The overall plan was to try for as rapid an ascent as was possible but to be wary of altitude sickness. One way to condition the body is to "carry high and sleep low".  At certain points we would camp a night, get up early and carry a load of food and gear up to the next point, bury it and mark it with wands. Then you return to camp, rest overnight, break camp and move up to the next point.

The gear needs to be buried  at least a meter deep as the ravens will dig in the snow and tear into your gear. It has to be marked with a 6 to 9 foot marked wand as new snowfall can obliterate shorter wands. One Italian climber lost his passport, flight tickets and money as 4 feet of snowfall hid his 3 foot wand. The markings allow you and the rangers to identify hidden caches. Teams are fined for abandoning gear so you need to dig it all up as you descend the mountain!

Here is a different route map. Our plan was to camp at 7800', 9600', 11k', 14k' and 17k' as we made out way up the route.

May 9th

All packed up and getting ready to head out of the 7200' base camp. Look at those smiles! We just can't wait to begin the adventure!

Many hours later......  here is our beautiful 7800' camp. All alone in the great Alaska outdoors with stunning views and endless silence.

Bad News on May 9th, 7800' Camp

The slog up to this camp was long and hard for the "old guys" (me included!). The 20-somethings (Andy and Kerisi) and 40-something Jimmy buzzed steadily ahead and got there first. I was not doing too badly but Dick was suffering under the heavy load and Duane did his best to help and encourage his father. At 70 he was the oldest and once we reached the camp site he had a long talk with Duane. Later that day it was discussed that Duane would escort his dad back to the 7200' camp and fly with him off of the mountain. The remaining four of us worked really hard on Duane to try to get him to come back after that. We even volunteered to bury most of the gear and go back to 7200' and wait for him to fly back in.

We could see it in Duane's eyes that it would be tough to make sure that his dad made it safely back to Anchorage and not be worried about him. We sadly saw him off the morning of the 10th and later that day decided to push up to 9600' and stay there a night in hopes that Duane might hook up with another group and come back up. This created a mini-nightmare in figuring out how to divide up food and gear for seperate 2-man and 4-man teams as there was group gear as well as combined food menu items.

May 10th

We arrived at 9700' to set up our next camp.

Notice the fact that we are virtually alone up there. Truly wide open spaces! The views give you shivers and goosebumps.

Later that day two NPS climbing rangers, Gordy and Brian came into the area and set up camp near us. They seemed to be unduly concerned about our welfare, as if we were already in over our heads. After talking about it at length they came to realize that we were indeed quite experienced. So we finally got them to 'fess up. It turns out that on our application for the climbing permit that we listed Duane as "Team Leader". When the NPS saw that he was checking off of the mountain with his dad they were worried that he was "abandoning" the four of us to potential injury or death. Gordy and Brian were on their way up to the 14k camp to work with the other rangers there and they decided to swing by and check us out.

This event proved fortuitous as we really liked those two rangers and later received key advice from Gordy at 14k feet. He is one of the few climbing rangers paid year round to be on the NPS staff.

May 11th

After spending the night we talked to the rangers and they radioed in to HQ to see if Duane was back on the mountain. They were able to verify that he had to leave for Anchorage with his dad. With that news we decided to get back on course and head up to the 11k camp. Here is Kerisi with a typically overloaded sled and pack. Probably well over 120 pounds combined weight. The pain of hauling those things has succumbed to the rosy glow of the years that have passed.

Climbing Mt. McKinley (Denali) in May, 2005 - Part 2

The climb starts at 7200' feet after a fantastic ride in a specially equipped plane that lands on the glacier. The plane from Talkeetna Air Taxi was built in 1951, a DeHavilland Beaver rotary piston engine "tank" of a flying machine. To this day I still love looking at the machine that flew me to the mountain.

You can see that I already have on the first few layers of light thermals, softshell pants and Koflach brand climbing boots. They are similar to ski boots with a hard plastic shell, rubber Vibram hiking soles and super warm inner liners. I am also wearing ultra thin liner socks, light hiking socks and heavy expedition socks over them. Note the snow on the ground at the Talkeetna airport. Do I look excited or what??!

The Route Up The Mountain

I am often asked "How many miles did you hike to get to the top?" and I don't have an answer. There may be some estimates out there but we measured time and distance in terms of reaching good spots to shelter at certain altitudes.

The Gear We Needed

It takes a lot of gear to survive the weeks on Denali. Once you are up there you cannot go back for the forgotten gloves or a missing carabiner. It makes you sort of paranoid about losing things because your very life may depend on that one item. You have to carry all of it in a pack and in a sled you tow behind you. We had no guides, no sherpas, no porters, no sled dogs, no snowmobiles. Just our own human power.

Here is a lot of expensive gear!

Loaded onto these wagons, it is ready to roll out and load on the plane!

How will it all fit?

It actually took two flights to haul us up there. If you ever get a chance to take a flight-seeing tour up there by all means go! The beauty of the glacier clad mountains is beyond description.

Be sure to fly up there via the company called Talkeetna Air. Great people and a company that a climbing expedition can stake their lives on.

When our team got the first batch of gear loaded I was lucky enough to go. I'll tell you, when I looked out the window it was really "living the dream" as the view was even better than all of the Alaska documentaries I ever saw!

The heavily loaded plane climbed steadily higher and labored towards the "Kahiltna International Airport" on Kahiltna Glacier.

It is jokingly called "international" because of climbers from all over the world setting foot there.

Here are a few of the many types of bush planes with skis. Note the large belly pod for cargo in this one.

A turboprop from K-2 Aviation

This is our our plane on ice; note that the skis have been hydraulically lowered below the rubber landing wheels

During the planning process we had to fill out a form for the Denali Rangers where we listed our climbing experience and expedition plans. It also asked for the name of our "team". Being the flippant type I fused together thoughts of naive beginners from the countryside (American Gothic painting of husband and wife) and what happens to folks who make fatal errors in mountaineering (frozen dead bodies). After kicking around some names we came up with something a little whimsical from the Oxford Climber's Dictionary:


n. Slang
An unsophisticated country person

ice rube

n. inexperienced climber
A frozen climber
a.k.a. Human Ice Cube or "Corpsicle"

Instead of Human Ice Cubes we were now Team Ice Rubes!

"Houston, the Ice Rubes have landed on Denali!!"