Denali: Waiting at High Camp and the return journey.

This is part 4 in series of blogs that i have written for my denali experience. main page can be found here.

July 9th

It was a beautiful day and we could have made a summit attempt but it was a scheduled rest day and rightly so. Everyone including me was pretty beat up from the move yesterday we needed a rest day. Initially the plan was to go back down to the ridge and pick up our cache but everyone was so tired that we decided against it. The guides could have gone down and retrieved all of our cache but then they also needed rest and had to be on top of their game for the summit attempt tomorrow.

Not all of us were feeling comfortable with the amount of snack food we had for the summit attempt specially me and Becky. I thought to myself that i would be totally ok if we had to go down and bring our cache even if it mean’t that we had to take a rest day tomorrow and postpone our summit attempt. Dennis raided some abandoned cache and we found a lot of goodies in there which we distributed among ourselves so that our snack bag was looking really good for the summit attempt.

Everyone was feeling great and looking forward to the summit attempt tomorrow but as always mother nature had the final word.

Later in the evening a storm rolled in and it started snowing. It was pretty windy outside and i went to bed thinking that there was no way we were going to make a summit bid with the wind being so bad and indeed as it turns our i was right.

Jun 10th

It was windy and still snowing when we got up so as expected there wasn’t going to be a summit bid. Me and Konrad decided to build some walls around our tent and got to work. I felt much better than yesterday and figured building those walls would be a good exercise for acclimatization. It was hard work but i was happy to do it and felt good while doing it too.

our tent in the background with walls in front.

Our guides teamed up with another group of guides to retrieve our cache today and i was united again with all the protein bars and shot blocks that i had carried. I immediately consumed a protein bar and my body did not like it, it was processed within 10 mins and i had to go use the CMC. I was little bit worried but then for my next bar i decided not overwhelm my body with protein and slowly munch on it which worked way better. I had read that at high altitude its hard for your body to process fat and protein and i learnt it the hard way. 🙂

I was feeling great but for some reason my O2 saturation level was hovering only at around 70 even after two days at altitude, i wasn’t too concerned by it but Dennis was and it was something in the back of my head. Leslie, who is a doctor, wanted to listen to my breathing but a stethoscope wasn’t available, it would have been really interesting to see what she would have found. I wasn’t planning on taking Diamox or any other drug to help me with altitude sickness since i wanted to see how far i could push myself and i never took it.

We tried to go the edge of the ridge to get in some views of the mountains nearby but it was pretty overcast. Rest of the day was spent inside our tent playing cards and i was regretting a tad bit not carrying kindle with me to kill some time. Its funny that while writing this blog i am trying to recollect how exactly did i spend my time in the tent and i can’t even though its just over a week. We spent so much time just basically doing nothing inside the tent that its not remotely surprising that i am unable to recollect it.

In the evening it cleared up a bit and we could see the autobahn which we had to cross to get to Denali pass and it wasn’t a pretty sight. It was loaded with snow and the avalanche danger had increased exponentially, guides from every team were worried about it and Dennis explained to us that it would take at least 24-48 hours for snow to settle down or a slide for it clear so that we could even think about crossing it.

The route was wind loaded.

At that moment i knew it in my heart that it was over, some of the folks had extra time on their hands and were planning to stay or some still had a glimmer of hope of making a summit bid but i came to realization that it wasn’t going to happen for me. I had to get back to work and didn’t really want to deal with cancellation/change of flights which cost an arm and a leg along with other expensive logistics.

I was at peace with my decision and wouldn’t have any regrets or issues if we decided to head back down tomorrow itself instead of waiting one more day for snow to settle/slide so that a summit bid could be made. I went to bed that night thinking that i would let Dennis know in the morning that i was ok with us leaving tomorrow itself but then my mind played lot of tricks on me. I couldn’t sleep at all and was going through so many emotions that night, so many dreams, expectations, all that training time, effort and money put into the climb and it came down to this. At one point i was on verge of tears and badly wanted a hug from someone, it was crazy feeling so many different emotions in such a short time.

Finally i told myself that i had nothing to loose by staying one extra day and was fretting over nothing and somehow managed to go to bed at around 3am. In retrospect it was kind of silly of me thinking too much about all this but i couldn’t help it.

July 11th

We woke up to a clear sunny but windy day and could see that the autobahn was completely wind loaded, it felt that traveling across it would certainly trigger an avalanche. The wind was depositing more snow on it and we could see the wind drifts over the entire ridge.

I talked with Dennis and told him that i would be ok with leaving today but he said that no was moving on the mountain today because of avalanche danger so we had to stay put and in retrospect i am glad that we did because we were offered some spectacular views of the mountains nearby

We were playing cards in the tent when Mark stopped by and announced that it was very clear outside and the views were outstanding. I got my camera and headed to the edge and the rock formation known as diving board and indeed it was amazing. I snapped some cool pics and then got creative trying to capture reflections on people’s goggles. Mark asked Dennis if we could go and stand on the edge of the diving board so he belayed us while each of us went and stood on the diving board. Becky took the prize for the best pose by doing a yoga pose on the diving board.

Konrad and his goggles.

The Diving Board

Best pose.

After we were done, Dennis wanted to take a group picture and at that point i realized that it was truly over. There wasn’t an official announcement but it made sense and i was ok with it. Later in the evening an official announcement was made that the 3 person team of chinese folks along with Konrad accompanied by Dennis would be staying little longer to see if the weather would improve for a summit bid while the rest of us would descend in the morning.

Our Team

I had no intentions of staying longer since i had to be at work on monday and didn’t really want to deal with change of flights etc. Some other folks would have liked to stay longer as well but Dennis told that unless something drastically changed the chances were way less than 50% of even making an attempt. Knowing the fact that the expedition was officially over i slept lot better that night.

July 12th

When we woke up it was probably the coldest day we had encountered, it was sunny but the wind was blowing at over 20 mph consistently and it was really cold. We some how managed to pack our stuff, take all the group gear and got going.

When we got moving as always in the beginning i had problem catching my breath but it lasted less than a minute and i soon regained my composure on the ridge where a single misstep could prove fatal. It was a very clear day, the clearest that we had so far, no i still couldn’t see Russia, which was great because we could experience the fun of descending on the ridge and how exposed it was on either side.

The steep drops on the either side made the whole descend really fun and thrilling, i was really able to appreciate the route and the rangers had mentioned that this was the best part of the climb and i could see why. Yesterday we had heard about couple of russian guys slogging through all the snow and because they had to track the snow it took them about 12 hours to get to the base of fixed lines from the 14k camp and they spent the night at the bottom of Washburn’s thumb where we met them. They admitted to being stupid and desperate, hopefully they made it to the summit.

Washburn’s Thumb on the ridge.

We took a break just before the fixed lines and descending the fixed lines wasn’t a problem but then what followed next wasn’t fun at all. It had snowed more than a foot and all that wet snow was sticking to the crampons, the anti balling plates weren’t working at all so we had to hit our crampons every couple of steps. It felt that i was back in Rainier where my crampons didn’t have any anti balling plates and i had ended up with more than 6 inches of snow sticking on my crampons.

I tried glissading but with my backpack and no so steep slope it didn’t work that well so we had no choice but to go through that entire section slowly, slipping every now and then and just cursing in general. It took us over 2 hours to get 14k camp just from the bottom of the fixed lines. For a change we were looking forward to put on the snow shoes which were cached at 14k camp.

When we got to 14k camp it had a deserted feeling, the NPS station was all wrapped up and there were only 4-5 tents along with couple of other teams who were descending with us from the high camp. It certainly was the end of climbing season on Denali and you could tell.

It was now time to put our sleds and if you have read everything till now you know how happy i get when i have to drag those god damn sleds. When we dug up our cache i was more concerned about my 70-200 lens which was wrapped in multiple layers of plastic and it seemed fine which was a relief. It was an extended break at this camp, I was still in mood to go to the edge of the world but no one else wanted to plus initially the plan was to sleep at camp 1 at base of ski hill for few hours and then go to the base camp but everyone else wanted to get to base camp as soon as possible. I didn’t blame them for thinking that way but i do love my sleep, i had no choice and it was going to be death march right from high camp all the way to base camp.

We put on our sleds and got going from 14k camp, I was in the middle with Becky leading our rope team and Lauren in the back. So going downhill i had to control Becky’s sled so that it wouldn’t hit her and Lauren would have to worry about my sled and hers. It was an absolute nightmare getting to windy corner.

I kept on getting pulled by the weight of Becky’s sled in front of me and had to really hurry and the fact that we had to rush to get to windy corner and out of the rock fall zone didn’t help. I had to ask Becky multiple times to slow down and yet i kept on getting pulled, it wasn’t her fault and she couldn’t help it either since the system is such that the sled was going to keep on pulling me.

We got to windy corner and i asked Lauren there had to be better way, she said that we will turn our sleds upside down on Squirrel and Motorcycle hill so that it won’t pull on me that much and putting the brakes down on the sled could also help. So moving forward during the steep sections of descend we would put the brakes down on the sleds and then take them off on the flat sections. It worked great along with turning the sleds upside down, there was only one section on motorcycle hill where because of a traverse on motorcycle hill i got pinned by the rope and weight of the sleds but it wasn’t that bad.

We got to the 11k camp and took another extended break and almost everyone was out of water so we melted some snow. I picked up significant weight in my sled when i decided to haul the spare 2 person tent which was cached at the camp. I was finally getting over my hatred of the sled and feeling great so didn’t hesitate in taking the extra weight. The sun was also setting and it presented with a really nice pink/orange glow on the neighboring peaks which was cool.

We got going and it definitely seemed like we would get to camp 1 in a single push which was fine with me but then as it was twilight the light on Mt Hunter was simply exceptional. I badly wanted to take out my telephoto lens and shoot but at the same time didn’t want to stop the momentum and not to mention the lens was buried somewhere inside my backpack so it would take some time to get it out.

When we got little closer i asked Becky if she could go any faster but she was having blisters issues of her own so the answer was negative. Oh well, i didn’t really say anything and we kept on going at the pace we were. As soon as we got to the camp i took out the lens and fired few shots, the light had changed and it wasn’t the same but i tried my best. Now it was time to attend to the blisters on my foot, luckily it wasn’t anything too severe and with change of socks i felt that it would be fine. It was a solid couple of hours push from 11k camp to camp 1 and it felt really good doing it without any breaks.

Mt Hunter

It was now time for the final push to the base camp and the upper air strip which involves the dreaded heartbreak hill. Lauren was now leading our rope team and once she gets going there is no stopping her and that was indeed the case. We just kept on going at our steady pace and soon enough we were at the base of heartbreak hill where we stopped to take a small break.

I couldn’t believe it was 8am by the time we started climbing Heartbreak Hill, just over 19 hours ago we were at high camp and now we were almost back to base camp. It was really slow going on the heartbreak hill and i had to use every single muscle in my legs to drag that heavy sled up it. Finally after couple of hours we were back at the upper air strip which is additional half hour hike from the traditional base camp.

The first order of business was to dig up our cache and retrieve those beers. As soon as we started having those lovely bitter refreshments we heard a plane buzzing, oh no we were not ready for it. Not only did we wanted to know our beers but our gear was also not packed properly. We let the other group go in the first flight and after throughly enjoying our well earned beers we caught the second flight out.

Enjoying brews after a 21hr push.

Once we got back to Talkeetna, it was time to get everything in order. I had a scare that i somehow misplaced my camera but luckily it was in my backpack, i was petrified at the thought of losing it. We first got a nice lunch, followed by ice cream and then it was time to sort out all the group gear at the AAI hangar.

By the time we got to Fireweed it was already 4pm and we had made plans to go out for a night of partying at 9.30 so there wasn’t much time to take a nap. After a nice long shower i tried to take a nap but between calling friends and family it was already 6ish and dinner was going to be at 7pm. I tried to nap for a bit but couldn’t so just laid around and tried to transfer the pictures to my laptop but the battery hadn’t been charged for a long time hence it was in deep slumber.

We had dinner and by the time we were done it was already 8.45 and the guides were going to pick us up at 9 to go out in town. Hurriedly we got ready and since there were no mosquitoes this time around i was able to take walk around the inn and it was nice.

Steve and Lauren showed up at around 9.45 and we headed out into town for a night of drinking and partying, what happens in Talkeetna stays in Talkeetna and we got back at around 4am, so yes it was an absolutely fun night of drinking and partying. 🙂

Took the shuttle next day back to anchorage where we met up with David and had lunch together and after a red eye flight to Los Angeles i was back to work on Monday July 15th.

Overall it was a great experience and i enjoyed every minute of it, the group made the experience even better. We all gelled so well as a team that the guides and everyone else was surprised. Reaching the summit would have been icing on the cake specially after all the waiting that we had to do at the 11k camp and 17k camp.

I absolutely had no regrets at the end of the trip, well not going to edge of world could count as one since i really wanted to get a good view of the cassin’s ridge, it is something that i plan to attempt in 2015 if all goes well.

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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