Monday, January 17, 2011

Denali: Background and Another Snow Session

By the comments and questions I received, I realized that I didn’t set up my Denali Planning leoralore very well. . . I got the most “grief” from my uncle who told me of his surprise that I would be “climbing” a Denali (Chevrolet Sports Utility Vehicle) or an Expedition (a Ford SUV). Although he was kidding me, I went back and read that missive and noticed that not once did I ever refer to it as a mountain! So, let me introduce Denali, properly!

Denali is also known as Mt. McKinley. It’s located in Alaska, and it’s the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet (6193 meters). Being the tallest, it’s also a magnet for people all over the world who want to summit the tallest mountains on each continent. So, there will be a lot of us on the mountain. . . For us, the plan is to start our trip sometime in May of 2011, and finish sometime in June, reserving an entire 4 weeks to do the trip, including taking all of the flights. The expedition starts at 7,200ft (2195m) on the Kahiltna Glacier, where we’ll be dropped off by a small plane that has us and our gear. We then plan on climbing the 15 miles (24 kilometers), with about 13,120ft (4000m) elevation gain, to the summit via the most common route, the West Buttress. If we’re lucky, the entire time on the mountain will be around 16 days, but if there are storms or what not, it could take longer, hence the reservation of 4 weeks. . .

So, that’s the background information. In November, we did a snow session practice on Mt. Hood with four of the six of us. Both Oleg and Tom were on international trips, so couldn’t join us. Candi and I went on snow shoes, and Denis and David went on skis.

Here is Candi gearing up. Her and my snowshoes are at her feet, and she’s putting the finishing touches on getting her backpack ready, while mine is lying behind her:

Denis and David were able to hustle up much faster than Candi and I were:

Candi is the obvious person in the picture, and Denis and David are the two dots dead center in the picture, near one of the ski lift pylons. Our visibility came and went throughout the afternoon. Mostly, it went. . . However, it cleared up as we set up camp, giving spectacular sunset views:

And the top of the mountain became visible:

Soon after this picture (that’s the back of Candi’s head), we had dug out platforms in the snow for our tents, tied them down, and had gotten started melting snow for water, when the moon came up in the east and the sun went down in the west at the same time! I took pictures, but they didn’t come out, well, so imagination is probably better than lousy pictures. . .

With the weather looking so great, and the snowpack looking pretty great, we decided to try to make it to the summit the next day. We were camped at about 8,650ft, which seemed so low to me, that I didn’t bother to make sure that I was properly hydrated. I just wanted to get to bed and make sure that I got enough sleep before attempting to climb early (5am) the next morning (everyone wanted to get back home, early, so we had to get up early to do the climb to make it back down in time).

Both Denis and David woke up before 1am and took in the fact that there was a full moon and clear skies. They also noted that it was quite cold, but knew that it wouldn’t get much warmer and decided to make the move to summit, then, instead of going back to sleep to get up at the previously agreed upon time. I was feeling like crap, so I was thinking more sleep would be nice, but I had been cold (a 40-below sleeping bag just doesn’t seem to do it for me, unless I also have an inner bag!) all night, and didn’t think that it would get much better, so, yeah, what the hey – I decided to give it a shot, then, too. Candi agreed. We all started up, and I was as slow as molasses. Candi stayed back with me, and Denis and David skied steadily up and out of sight. When I got to around 9600ft (2926m), I threw up! I thought of Joe, who’d gotten ill just around this elevation a couple of years ago, and the 3 of us who were climbing “with” him, not noticing and trundling on up. . . At the time, I couldn’t believe that he’d gotten Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) at such a low elevation – yes, it’s certainly POSSIBLE, but I’d never known anyone who did – at LEAST make it to 10,000 ft (3048m) before succumbing to AMS if you want to call yourself a climber, for Pete’s sake!!!! Anyway, here I was at 9600ft, and retching. I was pretty sure that there was nothing that I could do to make myself better enough to keep climbing, so I called up to Candi and told her that I was turning around. She told me she’d join me, even though she was feeling very strong. I ran down about 100ft just because I thought it would help me not to retch, anymore, and used my cell phone to leave David a message that we were turning around (fortunately, the cell phone SOMEtimes works on the south side, and it appeared to be working, then). I had no more AMS issues, and by the time Candi and I arrived back at camp, the sun was rising:

We took a “Cure JM” (Cure Juvenile Myositis – the disease for which we are hoping to raise research funds with the Denali climb) picture to the east. Yes, that’s a sea of clouds, below us, in the distance behind Candi. And Candi is quite bundled up because we judged it to be around 14F (-10C), or possibly colder.

The guys turned around at the Hogsback due to super-deep snow, and met us just as Candi and I were leaving camp. Since their trip down was going to be faster on skis, we took off, doing some gear exchange with them when they passed us on their way down.

As a practice session, it wasn’t the best, since we pretty much didn’t practice anything that we would need to do on Denali, except deal with cold and melt snow for water. If I needed a reminder, which, apparently, I did, that hydration is important, I definitely got it. But it was ok that we didn’t practice any of the other stuff that we’d need to do on Denali, since we intended to have other sessions later in the 2010 year, and in 2011, including everyone. However, as what happens with expeditions many times, things change. Our December session didn’t happen, because Denis dropped out (an expected change in jobs wasn’t going to be conducive to taking a month off), David and Tom got busy, and Candi sprained her back.

Soon after, David and Tom dropped out, deciding that they would go, instead, with a professionally guided group. This increases the chance of success of the climb, so it’s quite understandable. However, it’s not the type of climb that I’m interested in. I told Candi about this newest development, thinking that she would still insist on 6 people for the team, and I was ready with a bunch of ideas about how to obtain the additional 3, but to my surprise, she’d already thought about just doing a 3 person climb, and was now ok with the idea. Three people climbs are a HECK of a lot easier to arrange, plan, practice for, etc. On the actual climb, we won’t have the added security of having an additional team to help haul out us out of a crevasse, should one of us fall in, and we won’t have as many options if one of us gets ill, but the coordination and preparation, which are a pretty huge part of the expedition, will get much, much easier.

However, Candi still has a sprained back.

So, are we going, or not? Well, we don’t know. We’ve decided to give it until the end of January. If her back is fine at that time, then we will go as originally planned. If it’s not, then we’ll be forced to put off the climb for a year.

There are advantages for me, personally, either way, so I’ll just wait until the end of January for that decision, and meanwhile, continue the planning and getting ready, as if I were to go, since some things need to be done whether it will be this year, or next year.

May your dreams come true!