Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The High One

Immediately after I returned from my trip to the Revelations, it was time to start repacking for Denali. As I washed my clothes and drank a cool beer, I was struck with a sense of trepidation. This would be my first time on Denali, but I felt like I already knew every step of the route. Years of studying and reading about it had given me a sort of third party insight to every aspect of the West Buttress and the
lifestyle on the mountain.

It wasn't the height or the weather that had me less than excited about the trip, it was the hoards. Having come from the Revelations, a place almost no one had ever even heard of, the West Buttress of Denali was a complete polar opposite. Regardless, I knew it was going to be an adventure, just not a 'wilderness adventure.'

This was going to be my third year working with Rainier Mountaineering Inc., a guide service out of Ashford, WA. I had spent the past two summers guiding on 14,411' Mount Rainier, and had earned a spot working on Denali.

As Jay Hudson of Hudson Air dropped our crew off at basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, the anticipation and excitement grew with the height of the surrounding mountains. Immediately I ran into Alaskan hardman Mark Westman. A quick hello was all we had time for, but he had just completed the fourth ascent of the Isis Face on Denali as well as a new route near the Mini-Moonflower. Hearing about his climbing adventures already whetted my appetite for something other than a three-week slog.

Looking into the Valley of Death from the lower Kahiltna Glacier.

11k Camp with Foraker in the background

Our team was incredibly strong, the personalities unique yet comparable. As we moved higher up the West Buttress, the weather seemed to be holding stable. It looked as though we would complete a relatively fast trip, if only the weather would hold.

We ran into Steve House at 11K camp. He and his client Richard were acclimatizing for the Cassin Ridge. We would run into them many more times throughout the trip and it was neat to pick his brain about various climbs around the world.
At one point he stopped to talk to us and I somehow held his Grivel ice tool. "Grant me some of your power, Great White Hope!" I remember thinking. Perhaps I thought by touching a tool that had seen so many premiere ascents, some of Steve's innate ability would osmosisize into me. I'm not sure it worked, but it was worth a try.

Winds at 14k Camp

Life at 14,400'

Foraker and 14k camp from the edge of the world at 17k camp

A panorama video from 17K

...And then this happened...for several days...and it sucked!

A week of bad weather at 17K and three trips to Denali Pass at 18,300' had worn us out. Finally on the third attempt two guides and two clients made it to the top in less than ideal weather. We made it down and out in 19 days. It was super nice to get back down to the green forests and blooming flowers. Plus, I made it down just in time for a very special birthday party...

Cloud walkers: Climbers on the ridge just below 17k camp

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dishwater Drainage - Volume Two

The Revelations trip was coming up in a matter of days and I had yet to get my massive cache from Dishwater. So, instead of studying for school finals, I decided to go pick it up and go climbing for the weekend.

This time, it was Ricardo Baranowski, his friend Paul and me who would be going out there. It was so warm on the hike out that we didn't even wear our shirts for much of the time. Once again, Kaupo and Nene accompanied us in and helped carry some weight.

One the first night we enjoyed a beautiful sunset followed by seemingly eternal alpenglow. These are the moments I think most define my passion for being in the mountains. You don't get views like this in the hustle-bustle city!

Richard's snowcave was huge!

We got started early in the morning and hiked to the head of the cirque. There we found a narrow gash that appeared to lead to the summit of Nantina Point. Richard took the first lead up and over a short little rock step, then belayed Paul and me up.

I got the next lead up the steepening gash and found incredibly unconsolidated snow over bad rock with little pro. When I was able to get a piece in, it was with really small gear, like a #00 C3 camalot or #3 stopper.

Leads were taking a while due to the poor snow conditions. Richard took the next lead over a short little snice and rock step, then across a really exposed and scary traverse to another couloir.

By this time, I realized that the route was going to take far longer than we had expected. I had class at 8:30 in the morning and still had to hike out. Too many days climbing had pissed off my teacher and I was out of absences. Still, we continued up as the sun fell lower in the sky. Sometimes it is hard to stop when the momentum is pushing upward.

As we got higher, the summit seemed like it was so close. Pitch after pitch kept proving that it was farther than we had anticipated, yet we still climbed. A large chunk of simul-climbing ate up a lot of elevation in a short amount of time. The sun set as we neared the summit, and I realized I had forgotten my headlamp. I was pretty mad at myself for forgetting such a key piece of gear.

The last few pitches were devoid of gear placements. Paul and I were not at all motivated, but Richard was keen for the summit. He led all of the upper pitches including the last one. To break onto the summit Richard had to climb through a nasty cornice with almost no pro under him for an entire ropelength.

We pulled up on the summit just as the sun went down and didn't stay long. Paul and I were anxious to get down, and I still had to hike out. By this time, I knew I was cutting it close.

Paul coming up through the cornice
The look on my face says it all

As we rappelled through the night, I realized there was no way we were going to be able to make it back in time for me to make my class at 8:30 in the morning. It was a chilly night and we all had our down parkas on as we descended in 200' chunks. Towards the bottom of the route we could see the boulder where our snowcave was. All of a sudden we saw what looked like a headlamp down there. It turns out Richard's girlfriend Natalia had hiked up to help carry some of my stuff down because I was going to be hiking down alone otherwise with a lot of gear. I thought that was super nice of her!

We finally got to camp at about 3:30 in the morning. I knew there was no way I could make it back in time, so I decided to just say "screw it" and passed out in the snow cave. In the morning Natalia and I hiked out under beautiful skies.

Despite my pleas, my professor showed me no sympathy and failed my ass for missing one too many classes. Needless to say I wasn't pleased. Oh well, I learned a lesson...Don't take 8:30 AM Monday classes.

Perhaps when I'm retaking the class again in the Fall I'll be able to decide if it was worth it just to make the first ascent of the north face of Nantina Point.