Trip report from the Denali climbing team "Rednecks on Ice" comprised of Pete Alderson, Dru Hall, Ashley Kinsey, Ryland Moore, and Norm Fox. As submitted by Norm Fox
We got perfect weather and 3 out of 5 summitted two weeks after we left Seattle. (I was unfortunately not among the 3; more on that later). We arrived in Talkeetna at 4:00 AM Friday 5/16 by noon we were off loading our plane on the Kahiltna at the 7200 base camp. We threw up the tents and got to work sorting our gear and loading up our packs and sleds.
We awoke early the next morning and were off like a herd of turtles with 160 -170 lbs strapped to our bodies. This would be the only single carry of the trip. 500 feet down from the SE arm to the Main Kahiltna then roughly 5 miles, 1100 feet, and 11 hours later we pulled into the 7800 foot camp.
We carried all but 5 days of our food along with all of our high altitude clothing up to 10,200 feet where we buried it and then had a stellar ski with light packs and empty sleds (or in my case light sled and no pack) in about 6 inches of powder (from the day before we arrived) all the way back to the 7800 foot camp. I should take this point to mention that skies were clear, day time temps were shirt-sleeves weather and night time temps were only about 15 degrees F.
We broke camp and moved up the Kahiltna to the 11,200 foot camp. More sun, some wind and another long day but at least thanks to the carry the loads were down closer to 100 pounds. We were spent by the time we pulled into camp but still needed to dig out tent platforms, built wind walls and otherwise set up our camp (we had managed to move into preexisting sites lower down). We did notice that we had wound up right next to a fun group from Tucson whom we’d been chatting with during rest breaks during the day
More sun and a good ski in good powdery snow down to the cash which we promptly retrieved and moved back up to camp and spent the afternoon lounging about and getting to know some of the folks climbing around us including a group from CascadeClimbers.com organized by Erden, who’d who'd ridden his bike from Seattle and hiked the whole way in from Talkeetna. We also ran into Biff and Bill a Virginian and a Talkeetna local who we’d met the day we landed on the glacier (we scammed their tent platform just as they were departing from base camp). WE would definitely depart from this place with new friendships established. Sled races down "Main Street" were the highlight of the evening.
With the threat of weather moving in and a desire to get to 14,000 to start acclimating we pushed our rest day off and carried a load of food and gear to 13,500. The route changes drastically above 11,000 feet skis were swapped for crampons and while we used sleds, but they were as much of a hindrance on the icy black diamond (35 degree) steep slopes we were now ascending as they were a help. This was the first day that I begin to feel the effects of altitude, although it was due in a large extent to the fact that I had gotten dehydrated. Knowing this would be a big day and wanting to get it over with we had opted for an early start. This meant that we were roped up and moving out of camp before the sun came up over the ridge. Translation: it was cold. Well about 1/3 of the way up "Motorcycle Hill" (roughly 1000 vertical feet high and one of the aforementioned steep slopes) the sun popped over the ridge, and the temperature shot up. Not wanting to stop and deal with all the heavy gear on a steep slope we trudged on up. The wind at the top was brisk enough to keep up moving to the next obstacle (squirrel hill a steeper, icier, but shorter hill which we ascended in a climbing traverse), which was of course wind protected. At any rate by the time we topped out I was hurting and moving pretty slow. When we stopped for a break near windy corner, I downed 2 quarts of fluid and felt OK for the rest of the day. We buried the cash around "Windy Corner" at roughly 13,500 and uneventfully descended back to the 11,200 camp.
We didn't do squat. OK so we got to know the group from Tucson quite well. Good folks. But we pretty much sat on our butts all day eating, drinking, talking, and recuperating. It started snowing in the early evening. We did have a serious discussion about weight and gear and pared down what we were hauling a bit.
We cashed a bunch of the extra gear we were carrying along with a few days of food and fuel for the ski out. We also decided that given the loads we were carrying that we couldn't justify lugging the skis to 14K just to play around so we cashed them as well. This time we waited until it had warmed up to move out and were all properly dressed for the climb up. The winds were also calmer making it more pleasant to stop, eat, hydrate and take pictures. We cruised around windy corner and took a quick break where we had buried our cash. Much to my chagrin the winds were blowing through the flats and a reasonable rest was not to be had. We pushed on for the final 800 vertical feet to the 14K camp (actually at 14,200). Pulling into camp I felt as if I'd been hit by a train. No one was felling particularly chipper and it took a group effort to make dinner let along all the strength we had to get camp set up. Fortunately we managed to move into a vacated tent site albeit with crumbling walls.
Weather still clear. We went back down to 13,500 to retrieve our cash. Back up to camp, where modifications to the site commenced. More walls were built; the area was expanded to accommodate the mega-mid (floorless, one pole, nylon shelter that we took as a cook tent); the tents were properly guyed out; etc. With all of this completed and all of our food in camp it was time to sit down relax and look forward to resting the next day.
Slept in. At this point it's worth noting that camp life revolves around the sun. It's cold at night (like -20 F, put on a hat and fully zip up the bag cold). If you're going to hang out in the tent to read much after the sun drops behind the ridge (8:05PM) you're going to need gloves (but no head lamp), and aside from scraping all the frost feathers off of the interior of the tent it makes no sense what so ever to do anything before the sun hits the tent (9:55 AM). This also goes for working days. On our rest day I'm fairly certain we were out of the tents by noon, but I won't swear by it. Light exercise is the best way to acclimatize so we decided to build an Igloo. This would also give us some extra room, since we had 5 people crammed into two 3 person tents (where a person is defined as no more than 5'6" 150lbs. I'm sure these numbers come from the same group which determines the number of servings listed on the back labels of boxed food). At any rate others came over to help out with the Igloo. Dru did a phenomenal job with the block placement, while the rest of us cut blocks, and yours truly dug the below ground entrance to hold in the heat. Fun job on a warm day. The weather was still good, but the forecast called for a big storm to start moving in the next day. The call was to try and take a 6 day cash of food and fuel up to preferably the col at 16,200 with the bergshrund at the bottom of the fixed lines as a back up spot if the weather at the col looked too nasty. I was secretly pleased about the storm as my headache had not subsided (despite starting on Diamox, better climbing through chemistry :^) and was hoping for more time at 14 to better acclimate.
Weather unsettled, but not too much spin drift spilling out off of the ridge top. We figured we'd see out how high we'd get once we got up there. At any rate we headed out to do the in the early afternoon. At this point the weather was schizophrenically switching from calm, sunny and warm, to windy and cold and sideways snow. We pushed out of camp and headed up the ever steepining slope which lead to the base of the fixed lines. About 500 feet above camp my head started to feel like it was going to explode, I sucked it up and kept on moving, a little higher the dry heaves started. We were on a steepish (35+ degrees, double black diamond) slope where stopping was not the best of ideas so I kept up until we hit a slight bench where I mentioned that I needed to go down. Dru caught up and hitch a ride with another rope team, Pete and I passed our gear of to Ryland and Ash who were coming up behind us and went back to camp. I dove into the tent harness, crampons and all (feet hanging out in the vestibule), and crashed for a good hour or so. I decided that although I didn't feel great I felt well enough to stay at 14. Now I was really hoping the storm raged for days. The storm hit with full force that night, but thanks to our efforts the day before the wind only scraped the tops of the tents and we only had to dig them out once during the night (thanks Dru).
The mega-mid is now worth every ounce. Outside the wind is blowing the snow around like crazy, inside it's downright balmy. And best of all we can sit, lounge, and eat as a group no splitting the stoves up between tents using both to make water and having to wait to cook food. We had several visitors that day and invited our new friends from Tuscan to join us and cook in our shelter. A good relaxing day as the weather was going ballistic on other parts of the mountain. The 14 camp is actually in fairly sheltered location. One several occasions the wind in camp was little more than a stiff breeze while it sounded like a freight train roaring both from the ridge above and around windy corner below.
We as it was once pointed out it's a forecast not a promise. There's not a cloud in the sky and the winds are dead calm. No spin drift what so ever can be seen coming of the ridge. The initial discussion is to attempt to move the cash to 16,200 come back down and head for the summit later. (I should now mention that climbing mentality for the remainder of the mountain would become less of a siege mentality. From 14K a small camp is generally established at 17K with an attempt on the summit being made one or two days later, followed by a quick return to 14.) A discussion with the rangers revealed that the forecast had changed and mild temperatures with calm winds were predicted to hold until late Friday (it's Wednesday for those not keeping score). After much debate it was decided that the rest of the group felt strong enough to make the push. I was feeling better but was not confident that I wouldn't get sick again, which would mean someone else would have to abandon the climb to come back down with me. I opted to stay behind, continue to acclimatize and see what happened in a few days. We made some arrangements with the folks from Tucson. One of their teammates had been forced to retreat from 14K (due to the altitude affecting his vision) and they had extra room in their tent. (Their teammate had hitched a ride down on another rope team). This allowed us to leave one tent for me to crash in at 14K. The guys headed up and I pulled out a book.
Sunny and calm no spindrift coming off the ridge at all. This bodes well for the guys. I read and walked around camp. I'd quit taking the diamox and was walking around camp trying to acclimatize.
Sunny but not so calm, clouds and spin drift can be seen around the summit. By noon folks can be seen coming down from the ridge line. A group from South Dakota who we had camped near at 11K came down and reported seeing our group on the way to the summit as they were coming down the day before. A few hours later there was a report of commotion on the fixed lines. Pete, and Dru are the first ones back to camp. My report of their report is as follows:
They made it to 17K around 11PM on Wed all dragging and feeling lethargic. Pete stayed up until 2AM making water. They lay there until 6AM when they got up and slowly made there way to the summit. Dru was not feeling well and opted to stay in camp. The worst of it was reported to be a team of non English speaking climbers who would take three fast steps, stop for a length, then repeat the whole way up, but would not step out to let other teams pass. Along with Ryland starting to exhibit HAPE symptoms on the summit, which fortunately subsided by the time they returned to 17K camp some 12 or so hours later.
The folks from Tucson rolled in followed by Ry and Ash. It turns out that the commotion on the fixed lines was a climber who was following too close to Ash on the fixed lines when he slipped and slid right into Ash. The business end of his crampons made first contact with Ash's leg knocking Ash down just as he passed his clip beyond the next piece of pro in the line. This sent Ash into Ryland who fortunately got tangled up in the fixed line as he fell and stopped short of the end of that rope. The result was this. Ryland got his ax in, untangled from the rope and was fine. Ash stopped at the next picket and had a busted leg that he could still walk on, albeit in a fair amount of pain. He limped into camp. I moved packs around, passed out water I'd been making all day and got started on dinner. We'd quickly decided to stay at 14 that night and would evaluate Ashley's ability to go out in the morning. After dinner Ashley did hobble over to the med tent to get checked out.
Weather's unsettled and reports from folks coming down the ridge were that most folks heading for the summit on Friday turned around due to high winds. Ashley's knee is the size of a grapefruit, his thigh is black and blue and has a nice puncture wound in the middle of it. I finally feel great. Ash was with the paramedic and the rangers discussing his leg and the likelihood that he would need to be flown off the mountain. I walked around and talked to some of the folks who I'd met on the mountain, felt comfortable tying in with, and hadn't summited. I was looking for perspective partners to head up with in a few days. They were all headed down.
The rangers came over with Ashley to give us the news. Ashley could walk although likely not with much weight, the chopper was involved on the other side of the mountain and with more unsettled weather predicted of the near future it didn't look like it would get into 14K camp any time soon. Their preference was that we take Ashley's gear and slowly work our way down. We had a CB radio, which we could reach them on if we got stuck and couldn't continue. They asked that we give them a call at the end of the day to let them know where we were, how Ash was doing and if we could continue. So we said OK and got to packing up camp. Since I was fresh from sitting around I took the lion's share of Ashley's gear along with all of my own. This was by far the heaviest pack I've ever put on (easily 125 lbs if not more). I had to sort of toss it up and slide under it to get it on. I also had Ashley's sled with a good 50 + lbs in it. So even after giving away all but 4 days of food I still started down with more weight than I had heading up. We rolled out of camp around 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Going down was brutal. I fell up to my waist in a crevasse coming down from windy corner. I got my ax in but either my but or the pack was too big to go in any farther. I rolled out the down hill side unclipped from the pack, got myself resituated and continued down. The whole way down squirrel hill I felt as if the sled was going to rip around the side and pull me off the mountain. I hit the wall going down motorcycle hill, which was now hard icy snow. We finally made it to 11K and the cash there. Given that the route down from 11K was much less technical and that the movement combined with the anti-inflammatories had Ashley knee feeling better. He took his sled back along with a fair amount of his gear. He also felt that while he could keep moving he did not know if he "would be able to walk in the morning". We decided to push the whole way to base camp. Ash could walk but he couldn't ski. Matt and Denelle (the folks from Tucson) were there with us, wanted to go out in a single push as well, and were on snowshoes, so Ash tied in with them. The rest of us put on our skis.
The snow was well "educational". From 11 to just below 10 it was stratugi and breakable wind crust, below 10 breakable sun crust on top of mashed potatoes. Combined with a full pack and a full sled this made for tough, slow going. Everyone's sled (except Ryland's) broke (the ridged stay system was the point of failure) during this stretch. I zip tied mine back together others just tied some rope onto it and trudged on down. We all regrouped at 7800. At this point the predicted storm started to move in and visibility was lost. The rest of the way out was mostly flat plus that last 500' of uphill at the end. We passed around some food, drank the last of most of our water, put the skins on the skis and headed back out. Ash could shuffle along with the skins well enough and this was preferable to the postholing in the boot pack so he tied back in with us and headed out. A brief attempt to kick and glide our way out was halted by the bum knee. The weather deteriorated and we trudged on stopping only to deal with the rope management issues that crop up when a team is beyond tiered and still moving. The storm was in full force the wind wasn't too bad, but the vis was nil and the tracks from the two groups a few minutes ahead of us going out of camp were completely covered. I was up front and keeping a slight eye on the compass and altimeter, but mostly just picking out the edges of the up track out from under the blown in snow. This route sees so much traffic that the boot pack is actually raised up above the rest of the glacier and can be made out even in winter. I spotted the turn for the SE fork of the Kahiltna and the climb to base camp. At this point we'd been out for a while like 11 or so hours and I was getting dehydrated. Actually to the point I found myself mumbling out loud. I'd been so focused on tracking the route I hadn't thought about anything else. I was also beginning to hit the wall. Ash and Ry produced a bottle with a little bit of fluid. Pete came up from behind with a little more maybe 1/2 liter in all. It was enough for me to at least begin speaking clearly. We ground out the last little bit to camp tossed some tents up. I quickly unpacked my pads, bag and pee bottle and dove into the tent. As I climbed into my bag I looked at my watch it was after 3AM. Ryland and Ash climbed in the tent right after me. Pete stuck his head in the tent with a full liter of water a little later and said good night.
Despite the long day and late night before, we were up and at the base camp manager's tent by 8AM where were informed her that we were ready top go. We were first on Doug Geeting's list and the pilots were going to try to fly that day. We when back to our camp and started packing up and moving things down to the landing strip. We spotted PJ in Geeting's orange plane coming over the notch by Mt Hunter and circle around to land. Two and gear was the word. Ash and Ry were first to go out. We heard that the cross winds were getting worse and the planes were needing to take off lighter so Pete Dru and I sat around and did the best we could to lighten our load of the Glenlivet we'd buried at base camp when we arrived. Joch showed up and Pete, myself, and very little gear flew back to Talkeetna. Upon our arrival we changed into shorts, sandals and t-shirts and headed of for a burger and a beer. Dru flew in a few hours later with some of our gear. More would come out on a later flight that day and the last a day later. Much beer and food was consumed in our first 16 hours back in town, but that's another story for another day.