Denali: Getting to 11K Camp

This is part 2 in series of blogs that i have written for my denali experience. main page can be found here.

As the day of departure came close i was feeling really confident and wanted to make sure that i had everything booked and taken care of. To my surprise i found that i had overpaid for the room at Alaska Backpackers Inn. I used hotels.com for booking and it charged me 30-40$ more than what it would have been had i booked directly through ABI website. I don’t remember what happened when i was booking the room few months ago, whatever it may have been i am never using hotels.com again.

I got dropped off by a co-worker to the airport and TSA didn’t like me carrying the poles as carry on even though i had done it couple of year ago. Luckily i got to the airport way ahead of time so that i could go back and check them in.

My flight was uneventful and i spent most of it reading Backcountry Skiing book and then at anchorage airport i almost derailed my expedition. I had carried all the gear in primarily two backpacks so when one of them arrived at the carousel i picked it up only to later to be told that it belonged to someone else. That person came up to me and asked for it, otherwise i would have easily taken his backpack and he would be stuck with mine which had my plastic boots, snow shoes and some other gear.

We both had the same REI Mars 80 backpack and the thought of someone else having the same backpack never occurred to me, apparently i am not special enough. Crisis averted and then when i reached the offices of the Inn i found that there was no one there. I was perplexed, their office hours are up to 4am in the morning but there was no one to be found and i was stranded outside. I tried calling to no avail but luckily after 5 mins or so someone showed up, though it seemed like an eternity.

Upon checking out my room i was further disappointed with hotels.com and i couldn’t believe that i was paying a pretty penny for that room. ABI is a low budget inn with dorms and hostel type environment and they don’t charge much for that room, it was hotels.com that scammed me. It was 2am in the morning and i had to get my sleep.

Woke up, got ready and had breakfast at Sizzle cafe which was a block away and really enjoyed their eggs benedict. After watching the dish couple of times on Masterchef i have always wanted to try it and it didn’t disappoint. I went back to the Inn, checked out and stored my luggage there. My shuttle for Talkeetna was going to pick me up in the evening at around 5pm.

I had few hours to kill in anchorage so i asked the receptionist about things to do and she asked me what i was interested in and i mentioned it to her that i wanted to see some wildlife and she mentioned about anchorage zoo to me. I almost smacked my head on the desk, i am here in alaska which is famous for all the wildlife roaming around and this chick points me out to the zoo. I politely refused and asked what my other options were and she mentioned about a farmers market in downtown which was only a 15 min walk. Perfect, i could go there and spend some time.

While going to the market i came across a bike rental shop but i initially didn’t show any interest in biking but then at the market they had a booth which highlighted the coastal bike trail and it immediately caught my fancy. I went back to the bike rental, got the map and headed out for the 24ish mile bike ride. I was told that i should be able to see moose on the trail, i was excited for it and kept a lookout.

Soon enough as i got on the trail i was enjoying the bike ride and it was fairly busy. I realized that it would have been much better to take my telephoto lens along with me on this trail, specially when i came across a mama moose and her baby. I was planning to ride the loop and have lunch by Lake Hood at the Millennium Hotel patio but i totally forgot about that and went past it.

Sea Planes

It was cool watching all the sea planes take off and land at Lake Hood sea plane base which is the busiest in the world. It took almost 3 hours for the entire bike ride and my stomach was grumbling. After lunch at the mall, i called my shuttle and found that i had another couple of hours to kill. I spent rest of the time at ABI and was picked up by the shuttle at around 5pm.

Met with Becky, Leslie, Mark and Konrad in the shuttle and found out that i wasn’t the only vegetarian in the group. It was nice to know that Becky was vegan, Mark had other dietary restrictions but lets not get into that.

We stopped at Wasilla to get groceries and then reached Fireweed Station Inn at Talkeetna just in time for dinner. The whole road was really beautiful we couldn’t see Russia but our driver told us about the russian immigrants living in Alaska and the influence it has with the culture.

As soon as we got to Talkeetna we were greeted by mosquitoes, they were everywhere. We met David at the Fireweed who had taken the bus to get to Talkeetna. I loved the setup of Fireweed Station Inn, it was a pity that those damn mosquitoes didn’t allow to roam outside. We had chick pea burgers for dinner and i was stuffed.

Our lead guide Dennis stopped by to say hello and we were planning to leave super early at 7. Dennis mentioned that part of our group who were from China were lost and he was trying to get in touch with them. There could be a remote possibility that we would only be 6 people instead of 9 and i wouldn’t be the one complaining if that happened.

June 23rd

Breakfast was at 6am so got up early, we were joined by the rest of the guides Lauren and Steve. We then headed out to pick our chinese team, Dennis managed to get in touch with them and after picking them up we headed over to AAI hangar to do our gear check and get out food sorted out.

AAI Hangar

We had to carry about 15-20 lbs of lunch snacks and i had only about 10 lbs so i grabbed some of the stuff that looked interesting. I wasn’t planning on eating any cheese for lunch since it would increase chances of me coughing up a storm so i grabbed some nuts and dried fruit stuff along with few packs of corn nuts which turned out to be life saver. From the gear check it was determined that i had to get a pair of intermediate gloves since i bought my mitts for that and they didn’t provide have enough dexterity for doing some of the tasks. It was 10.30 and we had to head over to the National park service for our registration and team briefing.

Climbing in Denali National Park (DNP) is highly regulated and organized which is great. All the trash has to be packed out and there are camp sites with crevasses designated for human waste disposal. NPS provides Clean Mountain Cans (CMC) which are mandatory to use and if caught pooping out in the open without a can or a recyclable bag then you will be immediately asked to leave. NPS has a permanent station at 14k camp but its only for rescue and emergency purposes, they will assist you only if you are going to loose your life or limbs not for general medical problems or support. Once you ask for help from the rangers you are required to descend, you cannot climb any further.

The climbing stats when we began, the summit rate dropped to 68% at the end of season.

We had some delicious pizza after briefing and then went to buy gear. i did find some good ice climbing gloves which i could use during this trip and will be helpful in future. one can never have enough gloves and i think now i have like 6 pairs of them. Talkeetna Air Taxi, the flying company had some problem with their planes so there was remote posibility that we won’t be able to fly today but luckily that didn’t happen and we flew in two groups. i was in the second group.

The flight was really beautiful and as soon as you enter the park you see these huge mountains around you, too bad the flight between the mountains doesn’t last for long and soon enough it was time to descend. Because of warmer than usual temperatures we had to land on the upper air strip since the snow there was firmer than the lower air strip. We couldn’t see Denali from the upper air strip so had to wait to get moving before catching a glimpse of our goal.

View from flight.

Once we landed on the glacier the realty of the climb set in and it was game on. It was a surreal feeling at first to be surrounded by these huge mountains all around you, it makes u feel so insignificant and minuscule in the big scheme of things.

Peaks all around us.

We pitched our tents and after having some burgers for dinner it was time to go to bed. The plan for tomorrow was to travel in middle of night closer to midnight and go half way upto camp 1. Ofcourse this plan was all conditions dependent.

June 24th.

We woke up to some overcast conditions and it was raining which was bad news. It turns out that the temperatures didn’t drop below freezing overnight so it would make for some really crappy snow conditions for glacier travel and the rain was turning all the snow into mush making it worse. So our plan of moving was post poned by a day.

After breakfast we went over some skills and prepared our ice axes, backpacks and sleds for travel. I had to insulate my ice axe, add the sled loop to backpack along with a pack leash so that if I fell into a crevasse i could take the pack off and not worry about it. Rest of the day was spent lazing around and chilling in general. I am glad that i did buy kindle before leaving since i can read some books and write a rough draft of this blog at the same time.

Dinner was noodles and veggies along with potato leek soup which was tasty and then after a while it was time for bed. We had a lot of discussion about a team name and couple of names had to be vetoed by Dennis because they were too raunchy. I think after couple of days we settled on Team Crack Exposure.

Jun 25th

Tonight our first move was planned and before that we had to go over the rope teams and general rules of traveling on a glacier while being roped. So after breakfast we roped up and then went for a walk just around the camp. After we got back Dennis explained to us how the crevasse rescue would work if someone fell in. We didn’t actually practice it, he just explained using small diagrams which gave us an overall view. Our job was to hold the fall and then listen to the guides for instructions.

At around 3pm lisa the base camp manager stopped by and asked everyone to help out flatten the runway so we spent an hour doing that and getting some exercise. We all were in our snow shoes and basically just stomping around so that the flight tracks could be flattened.

I realized that my plastic boots were rubbing little too much on my shins so along with my usual blister taping i taped my shins. I taped my shins with duct tape so its not going to be fun to rip that thing out. Little did i know that it would leave nice rings on my shins which would last for ages.

We had ramen and tasty bites along wih rice for dinner at around 6.30 pm and after some more rest it was time to start packing at around 10pm. The group gear was divided and with about 45 lbs in backpack and 65 lbs in sled it was time to move to intermediate camp.

The initial part of the route was all downhill but it was harder than goin uphill because you have to put the brakes down on the sled an it makes dragging it a lot harder. We couldn’t wait to get the brakes off the sleds. This first downhill section of the route is called Heartbreak Hill or affectionately Heartbreak Hell by some because you have to go uphill on the way back for over a mile at the end of your trip.

We travessed the crevassed glacier at a steady pace and even though we were traveling at the coldest time of the day or night, it doesn’t matter since there is light 24 hours at this time of year, the snow was still soft. Even with snowshoes some folks were punching in and sinking more than a foot. We got to an uphill part and things got much harder and finally after 3hrs we got to the place where we would usually establish intermediate camp but unfortunately that area was heavily crevassed so we had to keep going.

Moving on the Glacier

The next two hours were beyond brutal for me at the end of it there wasn’t a single muscle in my body that wasn’t screaming in agony. I had prepared myself for the fact that after first day my body was going to be sore for the entre climb but didn’t imagine it would be this bad. Oh well this is what i signed up for and have to face it.

One of the reasons that it got lot harder was becasue of the fact that we were late in season and the crevasses were opening up so we had to follow a zig zag path and it was pretty bumpy which it didn’t help with the sleds. These 5 hours provided a solid foundation of me developing my hatred for those god damn sleds.

After couple of hours we found a good spot to establish camp and it was already around 6 in morning. We had traveled for almost 5 n half hours instead of the planned 3. I was dead tired and after getting everything sorted, establishing camp etc i snuck into my sleeping bag at around 7am and didn’t come out of it until 5.30 pm.

The clouds were moving in and it looked pretty ominous so we had quick breakfast at 6.30 pm and went inside our tents. yes you read it right brekfast at 6.30 pm thats the nature of the sport. On crevassed glacier you travel in the coldest part of the day which is night time so that the snow bridges are frozen and you can pass over them lot easily. So on the lower part of the mountain we were on a night schedule.

Jun 26th

Tonight we were going to move to the usual camp 1 and it was going to be a short move. We didn’t eat dinner at our intermediate camp since we would make it to camp 1 in about an hour.

We started at around 2am and within an hour we were at camp 1 and soon enough we had the camp established i.e. pitching th tents and digging holes in vestibule area, moving snow around to make a good platform for the tents was more work than the hike itself.

Moon had risen over Mt Hunter and i wanted to wait till it was exactly over it to get a good shot but unfortunately the clouds moved in and i didn’t get the perfect shot that i had envisioned however the morning sun did present some good light on Mt Hunter and i was happy with it.

Mt Hunter with moon over it.

We had bean and rice burritos for dinner and it was time for bed, we initially thought about doing a carry to 10k but decided against it since we didn’t really had a proper meal since the establishing intermediate camp yesterday. In last 24 hours we only had a breakfast and some snack food.

I didn’t sleep that well as yesterday because i suppose i wasn’t as tired, later in the evening it was nice to get out in the sun. We built ourselves nice sitting platform and relaxed there. The plan tonight was to do a load carry and cache the gear not too far from the traditional camp 3 and then do a back carry to retrieve the cache once we occupy camp 3 which is the same as 11k camp.

Relaxing at camp 1.

Jun 27th

This was going to be our first significant elevation gain and i was little worried about my calf muscles since my snow shoes didn’t have heel lifters for steeper slopes. It turned out that it wasn’t a big deal at all and i did just fine.

We had breakfast at around 8pm and then after a couple hours of nap at around 1am it was time to get moving. We were trudging along at our gentle pace and it wasn’t that bad at all. The slopes were quite gentle except for couple of small steep sections, one of them being the hill called Ski Hill which would qualify as being a green slope or blue at best at most of the ski resorts.

We made good progress and after 4 hrs we were at our cache location. It was quite overcast and on the way back it was whiteout conditions but with the help of our previous tracks and the wands we didn’t have any problems finding our way back.

The snow had gotten quite slushy and i was really enjoying sliding down the hill with snow shoes, it wasn’t like skiing but i was having fun. The thought of removing the snow shoes did occur to me since the idea of punching in with heel seemed fun but i didn’t even bother to ask the guides about it and it was a good thing since there were tracks of someone sinking into the snow more than a feet all along.

We had some noodles and black bean soup for dinner for which i didn’t care much but the cheesecake that was a different story. I could have easily finished off half or maybe the entire thing myself, some really good sugary deliciousness at 7800ft in middle of nowhere you can’t beat that.

It was now time for a long nap to prepare for the move to camp 3. i slept for a solid 10hrs and felt less sore than earlier.

Jun 28th

We had our breakfast and at 1am we got going for camp 3 which is located at 11600ft. It was slow going at a gentle pace and after 4 hours we reached our cache location at 10k ft. We had another hour and half to go before to camp 3 and getting there the slope was a tad steeper than before.

The hike wasn’t too bad and the snow had also frozen which was a good sign. We established camp and as always after dinner at around 9am it was time for bed. We had noodles again but with a different sauce, it was also the first time we stepped off kahiltna glacier and were now on the Denali massif.

When we got to camp the snow was quite hard so we didn’t bother building any platforms like we did at earlier camp but later in afternoon when the snow softened up we built a massage table and our cards table was a work in progress. Steve, one of the guides worked as a masseuse so he offered to give us massages, i was looking forwed to that but unfortunately the time never came.

Jun 29th

We had a relatively easy day ahead of us since we were going to do a back carry i.e. go down to 10k and retrieve our cache and bring it back to camp. We left little early and it took us about 3 hr to descend and get back.

On the way up i found the pace to be little slow and i was taking 10 steps or so at my own pace and stopping for a bit to reduce the slack in the rope. It is the nature of traveling in rope teams, the leader sets the pace and everyone has to follow it nothing you can do about it. i was doing what felt comfortable to me and there weren’t any crevasses on the way up so i could give the rope some slack without worrying too much.

After we got back we decided to do some crampon work, Dennis went over the basics of walking with crampons and how to walk wih pole and an ice axe. I had to shorten my poles to be more efficient while walking on the steeper part of the mountain.

High Resolution pics from the entire climb can be viewed here. you can also prints from this site if you wish. Entire collection is posted on facebook, if you are interested in obtaining high resolution of some picture then let me know.

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