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Thursday, November 25, 2010

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.

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