Denali: Surviving the Storm and getting to High Camp 17k ft.

This is part 3 in series of blogs that i have written for my denali experience. main page can be found here.

Jun 30th

It was 5am and we decided to take a short nap before waking up at 9am to have pizza for dinner. The wind had really picked up and we were getting some of the weather that denali is famous for. Our plan of doing a carry up beyond windy corner seemed to be in danger but at the same time we needed some cold temps and snow since the rock fall past windy corner was getting really bad and one of the teams decided to call it quits after staying at 11k for 6 days since they thought the rock fall danger was too much and there was nothing but hot weather predicted.

Few hours later we woke up to find that it was snowing and really windy. It was time to get to work and build some snow walls around our sleeping tents and the kitchen tent.

Walls around our tents.

One of things that i wanted to learn out of this adventure was how to build snow walls and i feel it is an important skill to have. The process is not complicated but nevertheless it was nice to experience using the snow saw to chop ice blocks for the wall and building it.

Our plans of carrying load to 14k camp were put on hold and there is nothing we could about it. The gusts were as strong as 60-70 mph with snow. We had some hot drinks and gritz after working for almost 4hrs to build the walls. I wasn’t too interested in eating the gritz so went to bed. For a change we were going to sleep at somewhat of a normal time of 2 am.

For the entire night our tent would shake violently whenever a strong gust would hit but that didn’t prevent me from getting a good nights rest and my sore back felt much better at the end of it. When I woke up the conditions didn’t change much so after having another round of hot drinks n spaghetti for dinner it was time to get back into our tents and hope that the weather improved. We had gotten over a foot of fresh snow so far too bad i didn’t have my skis to enjoy some fresh alaskan powder.

The wind had subsided but it was snowing continuously and we had to do some digging around the tent whenever we got out. After couple days of the same routine, i had lost track of days as the only time we got out of our tents was to have hot drinks and breakfast or dinner. We were still on night schedule and dinners were eaten early in morning and breakfast at nights.

Tent covered in Snow

This wait for weather to improve was really frustrating and chewing into our spare days but there is nothing we could do about it. Our packs, boots and whatever gear that was left outside was frozen and i didn’t even want to entertain the thought of putting on my shoes unless they were heated with warmth of sunshine. The whiteout conditions outside made it impossible to see more than 20 ft, sometimes even less so there was no point in moving and our guides didn’t want to think how windy would it have been at windy corner. Windy corner is a feature on the route where a funnel is created, so when the weather gets bad its even worse at windy corner and travel is not all advisable.

On the bright side we were at relatively low altitude so the storm wasn’t as worse as it was higher up on the mountain and we were eating our spare food so that would mean less stuff to carry. The rock fall danger which prevented one of the teams to climb higher than 11k camp was also minimized due to this snowfall and the crevasses and snow bridges will get better and hopefully on the way back we won’t have to do crazy route finding across the crevasse fields.

Another day passed by with little improvement in the conditions. the storm was supposed to pass by today, i totally lost track of days, but so far it didn’t look like it but once in a while the sun will still try to peek through. Our window of summit was not closed yet, it would just mean days of continous slogging instead taking some of the rest/easy days that we had planned.

In case you are wondering, let me tell you that pooping in that weather was not fun. Its bad enough that you have to sit down butt naked on the cmc but the worse was when you have to wipe. Hands got stone cold rolling up the toilet paper which was wet to begin with and then you have to wipe multiple times. I think this would make for a great torture method, get someone butt naked in the cold and then blow really cold air on them.

July 3rd

It seemed like tomorrow we would be able to make a move and gain independence from 11k camp. We played corn hole, the competition got intense but our team prevailed to take the final game in the series. During breakfast we made plans to move tomorrow and get back on day schedule since the heat was no longer a concern. The plan was to wake up early, have breakfast and then get going as soon as possible. Everyone seemed thrilled but mother nature had the final word.

We had to find ways to kill time.

July 4th.

I wasn’t able to sleep until 3 am and all that while it seemed that the weather had only gotten worse, the wind had picked up and it was snowing. I didn’t think that we would be able to go anywhere. I was right we didn’t gain our independence from 11k camp on 4th july, it was spent playing cards, corn hole and relaxing. The next day looked promising and indeed it was.

July 5th.

I had a good night’s sleep and did dream that all the other groups had left the 11k camp and we were the only ones remaining which was almost the case after breakfast. We were the last group to leave and it wasn’t helped by the fact that Becky lost her ice axe and we had to borrow it from “the old goat” Tom.

Tom and his group of 3 had got to 11k camp yesterday and he had just been the oldest person to summit Denali at ripe age of 78. They had done multiple carries on the mountain and today was their 42nd day of the expedition. Awesome dedication and commitment, i am not sure if i would be able to spend 42 days and counting on Denali.

We got going at around noon and it seemed like we were traveling in the same bad weather that had prevented us from moving during last few days but higher up that wasn’t the case. It was a tough slog with the sleds, i hate them to my guts. i had about 30-35lbs in the sled and about 50lbs in my pack. It was slow going over motor cycle and squirrel hill. Luckily it wasn’t icy and Dennis didn’t have to use the ice screws for additional protection.

Motorcycle hill is where the actual mountaineering on west buttress starts so to speak, the early part of the route can be considered as just plain hiking on the snow but once past the 11k the real fun begins, falls get serious with some serious run outs and the overall steepness of the climb increases considerably.

The weather had improved a lot and going through windy corner we didn’t have to put on all of our puffy layers and not leave any part of skin exposed. I had a really hard time dragging the sled, getting to windy corner i had to ask Lauren to stop once in a while so that i could catch my breath. I was pretty beat up and was going really slow at a snail’s pace or maybe even slower. When we got to Windy Corner, Dennis took out the group gear from my sled which helped me a lot and i felt much better.

We had two more hours to go and the next half hour was the worst in terms of rockfall danger so we had to move really quickly through that section but i started cramping up which was annoying but somehow i managed to get to the next rest stop. I have to admit waiting out the storm for so long made me lazy in terms of taking care of myself, i wasn’t hydrating as much in the last couple of days.

I gulped in more than a liter of water with nuun electrolytes and then had some corn nuts for salt. I figured that would be enough to get me to the 14k camp and indeed it was more than enough. We setup camp and then after having some soup and pasta it was time for bed.

As soon as we got to the camp the light on Mt Hunter was teasing me to take picture with the zoom lens but i wanted to take care of myself first rather than having to worry about taking a picture. However at the end of day i was presented with a much better opportunity and i took full advantage of it. Everyone was pretty beat up from the hike so we weren’t sure whether it was going to be a rest day tomorrow or we would be doing a carry above fixed lines on the ridge.

Twilight on Mt Hunter

July 6th

In the morning we learned that it was going to be carry day to 16200ft on the ridge just above the fixed lines. The guides were also concerned by how much time it took us to carry from 11k camp and how it would factor into actual climb. They asked us to be honest with ourselves and the NPS was going to pack up so we would be one of the last teams on the mountain, a rescue would be really difficult if something were to go wrong.

We all had one on one with the guides and i told them that sled was a big issue for me and i would be fine now since they no longer were used. Lauren had concerns about me having to stop to catch my breath yesterday but i wasn’t too worried since i was confident in my abilities and i knew it was the damn sled that was causing issues for me. My legs and hips are way stronger than lower back and in the last hour of climb yesterday after the cramps i was doing great. i told them that i would do the carry and then depending on how it went make a decision accordingly.

We went over the use of ascenders and my old school ascender even though inoperable by just one hand worked fine. I shed all the extra weight and only took the bare minimum that i needed along with the group gear. The climb to the ridge is fairly steep and the final section has fixed ropes which you have to ascend using an ascender.

After the first break i had a small headache but it disappeared quickly once i drank some water. Now it was time to jump on the fixed lines and after first few steps i got hang of it and it turned out to be pretty fun. I was enjoying hanging on to the ascender and taking a break while others clipped in and out of the rope.

We got at the top of the ridge and went little further up to place our cache. It wasn’t too windy but quite overcast so we got good views of our surroundings only once in a while. When it was time to leave the wind picked up and i thought that i left my beanie behind in camp but it was with me all the time. It was really slow going on the fixed lines since it was windy and me sans the beanie was starting to get a headache because of the cold.

We didn’t stop until we reached camp and i decided to drug myself after dinner to try to get rid of the headache. Tomorrow was going to be a rest day and i was hoping that we could make it out to the edge of the world to see some amazing views of the mountains. i was planning to cache my 70-200 lens at 14k camp so it would hve been good to put it to some use before that.

July 7th

I had a good nights sleep but we woke up to an overcast day and it didn’t seem like we would be able to take the trip to edge of the world. It was snowing and windy, it was kind of day where we wouldn’t be able to travel so i was happy that it was a rest day.

Our campsite at 14k.

It was shocking to find out in the morning that David had decided to call it quits and was planning on descending with another AAI team which had just returned from high camp. He lost battle with the cold and was always having a hard time sleeping and not getting enough rest otherwise he was in great shape. The entire team was really sad to see him leave, if i had to pick one person on whom my money would be to make it to the summit it would have been David.

The day was spent just relaxing, playing cards, sleeping in and trying to get rid of the headache i had picked up earlier. Tomorrow was going to be a huge day since we had to move to the high camp as well as pick up our cache on the way up.

July 8th

With the previous day being stormy i was hoping that today would be clear and indeed that was the case. It would have been a perfect day to go to the edge of the world but we had to move higher. Our plan was to get going at 9am but by the time we got going it was almost noon. Dennis wasn’t happy about it along with the fact that some folks were complaining about the weight of their packs. I was surprised since on Denali you are expected to lug 60 lbs backpacks.

On the carry couple of days ago i didn’t take my camera with me so i told Lauren that we should be the last rope team so that i could chill on the fixed lines and take some pictures. We ended up chilling little too much on the fixed lines unfortunately.

It was a fairly warm day and i had put on my technical base layer which was the only thing i was wearing when we started but when we got to the base of fixed lines it got little windy so i put on my windbreaker. There was another rope team in front of us which was moving really slowly and we went past them before getting to fixed lines.

When we were resting at the base of fixed lines and about to get started they caught up with us, two of our rope teams had started moving and they were about to jump on fixed lines so it would have been convenient for us to follow them and make the other team wait behind us. But being the nice considerate folks that we are, we let them get between our rope teams.

We waited for another 15 mins at the base of fixed lines before we could get moving and then when finally we got on the fixed lines i had all the time in the world to take pictures. The team before us was crawling and with the wind dying down i was starting to sweat like a pig under my windbreaker. It was sucking the life out of me and the pace was so slow that we could have easily taken a nice long nap on the ropes. It was really annoying and frustrating to wait on the fixed lines, we would take one step and then wait for 5 minutes.

Waiting on fixed lines on the Headwall.

We could see our team’s other two rope teams in the front getting to the top while we were still stuck less than half way. Finally after an hour or so, though it seemed like eternity, the leader of group in front of us moved his team to the fixed lines used for descending so that we could get in front of them. It was nice of him but it came little too late, we hurried up to get to the top of fixed lines and i was spent.

We were planning to take a break at our cache location which was 15-20 mins further along the ridge but as soon as i got on top of fixed lines i had to get out of my windbreaker and drink some water. I wasn’t too far off from completely collapsing from exhaustion. We saw Dennis on the ridge trying to see what was going on since we took so long to get to top of fixed lines but it wasn’t our fault.

At the bottom of fixed lines i was feeling amazing, i even entertained the idea of carrying some group gear and my personal cache to the high camp and then possibly trying a summit attempt the next day instead of taking the planned rest day at high camp. But this whole fixed lines fiasco sucked the life out of me and totally knocked the wind out of my sails. I was a shadow of my former self and i slowly trudged along to our cache site.

We took another break at the base of Washburn’s thumb which has a small section of fixed lines but they are not as fun as the ones on the headwall. As we were walking along the ridge it was pretty overcast so we didn’t really get any good views but at the same time i was so tired that i could care less.

I just put my head down and was taking it one step at a time, often asking Lauren to slow down. I was trying to think what went wrong in past couple of hours when we got stuck on the fixed lines and i was feeling so great. We made it past the ridge and saw Dennis taking a break with his rope team. I wanted to take a break as well but Lauren mentioned that the campsite was only 20 mins away.

I was like f*** it and we continued on and soon enough we could see the camp site. It was little cruel path where we had to descend about 50 ft and then hike back up, i wasn’t happy. Finally when we made it to the camp, i immediately took my thermrest, sat down and started hydrating.

We still had to establish our camp i.e. pitch the tents and with David gone it was just me and Konrad. Everything was going on in slow motion, every step, every action was so slow. It just wasn’t me but i think everyone was definitely feeling the altitude, we were at 17,200 ft. I also realized that i hadn’t really consumed too many calories in past couple of days which might be adding to my fatigue so i wanted to make sure that i did eat well before crashing in the tent.

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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