Friday, April 06, 2012

An intense training session on Mt. Hood, for Denali

I thought that I understood how intense a snowstorm could get; however, any complacency I had on that front was dashed on our training event this past weekend, on Mt. Hood.

On my expedition to Aconcagua, in South America, we hired mules to take a lot of our gear up to base camp.  On Denali, *we* will be the “mules” taking our stuff up to base camp, using sleds.  We expect to have somewhere from 45 to 65 pounds on our backs, and somewhere between 45 and 65 pounds in the sleds.  So, in our training, we’ve been wanting to build up to that.  We checked the mountain forecast and saw winds of up to 70mph (112kph), temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18C), and about ½ foot (~15cm) of snowfall predicted.  What a fantastic weekend for checking out our gear!  While we hope that we don’t have to ever actually climb through such weather, our camp *has* to be able to endure such a storm.  So, late afternoon on Saturday, my team, consisting of Candi and Oleg, and my tent mate, Ron, headed up from Timberline Lodge at about 6,000ft (1828m) with our destination being the top of the Palmer Ski Lift at 8600ft (2621m), about 2 miles (3.2km) away from the lodge.  It’s a pretty common training ground, but we were the only ones seeking it, this particular weekend. . .

At our start, we were greeted by sunshine and mild weather.  *This* was going to be a piece of cake!!!   We roped up, mostly as we would if we were on the glacier on Denali, so that we would get practice working as a rope team, here, before we get to Denali, so that there would be fewer kinks to work out when we get to Denali, as there will be *plenty* of new kinks to work out, there! 

We made decent time up the hill, with Oleg breaking trail the entire way (if I had broken trail, we would have gone about ½ the speed, as I proved a couple of weekends ago!).  We followed the chairlift the whole way to the top of the Palmer.  It was amusing watching Oleg stop, shine his light on one of the ski-lift support structures, turn to shine his light up the hill, then shine his light at the top of the ski structure, and then forward, again.  I was wondering why he was doing that, but when he was obviously staying put, and signaled me to come up, it was clear – there wasn’t the usual flat snow cat road at the top of the Palmer - just snow - and lots and lots and lots of it!  We’re all used to seeing the cable going from the ski structure into the chairlift building, but all we could see was the top of the last ski-lift structure, and the cable going into the snow, and no building (this picture was taken the next day):

See the cable going into the ground on the left side of the picture?  The top of that structure looked like:

At the time, I was taking a picture of our equipment, and only realized, later, that I’d not taken a picture of just the structure.  We are usually looking way *up* at this part of the structure, but now, we were at the same level.

The top of Palmer, here, was our planned camping site.  By this point, the winds were pretty steady – maybe a little over 20mph (32kph), with snow coming down.  It was dark, as well – around 9:30pm, although with all of the bright snow, not pitch black dark.  With our heavy sleds and backpacks, and having to break trail the entire way, it had taken about 4 and ½ hours to get here, when, typically, when we’re climbing it with normal climbing packs, and without snow shoes, it takes about ½ that time.

We started to build a camp.  Candi and Oleg worked on theirs and Ron and I worked on ours.  We first dug out a flat place for my sled, so that we would have a safe place to keep that (I’d anchored it in, prior to this, but it was on a slope), and then scooped out enough to put the tent on a relatively flat area in the side of the hill.   We put up the tent as the winds increased, anchoring it very solidly in the back, where the wind was coming from, and the front.  We also put our packs inside of the tent to weigh it down, even before we got the tent poles up, as added insurance that the tent wouldn’t fly away.  We didn’t bother too much with all of the extra tie-down places on the tent, which we would usually anchor down so that the wind didn’t flap in the wind, but we didn’t have the anchors readily available, and neither of us were that worried about that aspect, I guess.  And maybe we were in just a little too much of a hurry to get out of the wind and snow.  When we did get into the tent, it was fine, except that with the wind blowing outside, there was no way that we were going to light a stove, which, when being started/primed, emits very high flames.  We opted for a cold “dinner” of our snack bars, and tucked in for the night at around ½ hour after midnight.  We were both quite tired.

I had a nice, warm sleep, until Ron woke me up, telling me that the snow was piling up on the tent.  I rolled over and told him that if he wanted me to do something about it, to let me know, as otherwise, I was going back to sleep.  He let me know.   Probably because the snow was collapsing his side of the tent, it entered his brain that it was serious well before it entered my brain.  He told me that we really needed to relieve the pressure of the snow on the tent, and so he was going to go out and do something about it.  The wind was absolutely howling.  I realized that I needed to pee, so suggested that I should go out, since I needed to pee, anyway, and put on my boots, and my balaclava and great big down jacket – I already had on my wind pants and layers of long underwear, which I’d been sleeping in.  I couldn’t find my headlamp, but it was so light, with all of the snow, that I didn’t think that it would matter much.  I put on one of my warm pair of mittens, and unzipped the door on my side of the tent, and the whole tent shifted! There was no way that I could zip it back up – Ron would just have to deal with the wind racing by.  Fortunately, the wind hadn’t shifted, so the entrance was still pointing downwind.  The first thing I noticed, besides being blown by snow and wind, was that everything in the front of the tent was completely buried in snow.  I couldn’t see Ron’s shovel, which I thought we’d left at the front of the tent, so I made my way to the back of the tent, and found my shovel, picked it up, and almost lost it to the wind!  The wind practically ripped it out of my hand- and catching it before it flew away cost me a sprained thumb, but, at least I had the shovel.  I noticed that the sled in back of the tent was completely buried under about 1 to 1.5 feet (1/2meter) of snow, and started digging, there, thinking that I would dig there, and then on Ron’s side of the tent, from the back of the tent, so that I was always facing downwind.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get to the bulk of the snow that was weighing down primarily the front of the tent, so I moved around to the front, and had to face into the wind to shovel.  I shoveled for a while, and was just getting hammered in my face, so decided to take a breather, and stuck my head into the tent.  Ron gasped when he saw me – he told me that there were all sorts of “ornaments” hanging down in front of my face.  I reached up, and realized that all my frizzy hair had collected over an inch of snow, so that it was as if I had a hairdo of tennis balls hanging down, everywhere. 

Ron said that the snow on the tent situation was a little better, because he could now move the side of the tent a bit.  He told me that he couldn’t find his boots, though, which had been in the front of the tent.  I looked around, and couldn’t find them, either – they were buried, inside of the tent, with that part of the tent completely covered in snow.  Ron warned me to be super careful that I didn’t rip the tent with the shovel.  I went out, again, and worked some more on it.  I was really proud of myself for getting some really large chunks off of the tent, and then, wait a minute!  Where’s the tent?  I yelled at Ron that I needed his light (to be shining through the tent).  I didn’t know whether he heard, but I couldn’t see the tent.  But I was right next to it!  I was sure of it!  I stretched my arms out, feeling around for it, and finally felt it, and then had to continue feeling around it to find the entrance way.  It was getting smaller, as the wind started drifting the snow both in front of, and curled around into the tent!  

The storm was dumping more snow, even as I’d moved so much away from the tent.  Ron told me that we needed to get Oleg and Candi’s help.  With the memory of standing next to the tent and not being able to find it, freshly in my head, I told him that there was no way that I could go over there.  I was remembering their tent as being about 40ft away.  I was quite worried about getting lost on the way there, even if I went on my hands and knees!  I’d never been in such blinding snow, before.   Ron noticed that I wasn’t wearing goggles, so offered me his, but I couldn’t get them small enough to fit on my head (why I didn’t just go and get mine is a mystery to me!), and something happened to the strap of his headlamp, when he tried to give that to me, so I just when back out and tried harder to get rid of the snow.   I did try to go over to Candi and Oleg’s tent, but got scared of getting lost as soon as I cleared my tent.  I screamed their names, but there was no way that they could possibly hear me, even if they’d been 5 ft away.

I started shoveling the snow that was piled up around the front of the tent, and thought that I’d found Ron’s shovel, so I dug even more vigorously, and then felt with my mittens – oops – that wasn’t a shovel, that was his helmet, which I knew was *inside* the tent, and so I knew that I’d likely damaged the tent, just what Ron had been warning me *not* to do.  I couldn’t do anything about it, at that point, though, and just tried to move more snow away.  I finally dove back into the tent, and asked Ron if maybe he could use *my* boots?  He told me that he’d been wondering the same thing.  He told me that he’d need the parka and some mittens, as well, since all of his stuff was still buried.  He was able to use my boot shells with his inner boots, miraculously, even though they are about 2 sizes too small for him.  I gave him my parka and my warmest mittens, and then he went out. 

He worked a while and made tremendous progress.  He put his head in long enough to tell me that Candi and Oleg were up, as he could see their lights.  He went over there to check on them, and came back with the report that they were “doing the same thing” – dealing with snow around their tent.  I was able to find my headlamp, and while Ron did more shoveling, pushed out the tent from under the snow, and I was able to find his boots and the rest of his gear.  I was also able to finally close the tent, but before I did so, I shoved out all of the snow that had accumulated – huge chunks of it.  The next morning, Ron discovered that I’d managed to shovel out one pair of my fleece pants with all of the snow, and it neither got buried, nor blew away.

After greatly relieving all of the stresses on the tent, Ron returned.  The inside of the tent was wet.  Snow was coming in through the vents that I hadn’t remembered had some additional zippers for complete closure.  Our sleeping bags were wet, and my down compressor jacket was wet.  I went into my sleeping bag, anyway.  After a couple of hours, it started to get light, and I asked Ron if he’d slept at all.  He hadn’t.  We’d both been lying there, shivering the whole time. 

The wind hadn’t abated, but the snow seemed not to be accumulating as much.  We started talking about how to pack everything up, while staying sheltered, and how to get the tent packed, as a final move.  I’d never been able to pee, so I was now getting desperate.  While I’d practiced several of the various techniques for peeing inside of the tent, I’d given up on them all in favor of just going outside.  But, then, I’d never experienced a storm like this one, and realized that I couldn’t bare all in these driving winds.  I rearranged my water supplies (which we fortunately had plenty, so that we didn’t *have* to melt snow) so that I could have a “pee” bottle.  Ron didn’t want to hang around for some reason, so he got up and conferred with Candi and Oleg while I emptied my bladder into the bottle.  When he returned, he graciously emptied the bottle for me.  And since everyone always asks me about this – no, I didn’t use one of those funnels, although I have one, and Candi swears by them.

Oleg and Candi had suggested that we wait about 3 hours to see if the wind would die down.  It was a sensible idea.  Ron and I decided to eat food.  We still didn’t want to light a stove inside of the tent, so we finished off whatever we had, which for me happened to be a lot of candy, as well as a granola bar.  Yum.  Black licorice and Hot Tamales (a cinnamon candy) for breakfast!!!  Nutritious!

We started packing.  In the light, I noticed the zippers for the vents, and finally closed them, so that it stopped snowing inside of the tent.  Ron noticed the shredding I’d done to the front of the tent, and tried to accept some of the blame for it, thinking that he’d contributed to it on our previous outing; but, I remembered that one of the two of us had put crampon points in the ground cloth at that time, but that the tent, itself, had been fine.  No, I’d managed to shred the tent all by myself, thinking that I was unearthing Ron’s shovel.   Good thing the tent was mine, and I had only myself to blame!

We finished up the packing, stuffing the tent and ground cloth into my bag on the sled, and then worked on getting the sleds all configured.  While going up the hill, it wasn’t necessary from a sled control point of view, to be roped together, but while going down, it was quite necessary, because the person *behind* the sled winds up actually controlling it, and preventing it from passing the person to whom it is attached.  We elected to rope up quite near each other, just so that it would be easier to communicate, and also easier to control the sled in front of us, even though we wouldn’t be able to do that on the glacier. 

We had a lot of troubles with the sled that Candi was pulling, and had to stop a couple of times to rearrange it.  I snapped this picture after one of those times:

Candi (green blob) is in front, with her sled (red blob with black bag) behind her. Oleg (orange blob) is right next to her sled, with his sled (blue blob) behind him and right next to Ron (big blue blob), with his sled (red blob with black bag on top) behind him.  The rope from that sled is leading to me.  There was still a driving, snowy wind, but compared to the previous night, this was *nothing*!  

Before this whole weekend started, Oleg didn’t like the weather forecast and had apparently decided not to join us!  However, Candi had no way to reach us to tell us not to show up at her house, so she decided, what the heck, she would just go with Ron and me.  Somehow, Oleg’s mind was changed in the process, so I was shocked that, on the way down, Oleg was positively smiling!  When we were in the parking lot, he said something like “Wow! That was FUN!!”  I could only think of Mark Twight’s famous (to climbers) quote “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.”  However, as I was later to learn, Candi and Oleg’s night was nowhere near as eventful as Ron’s and mine was.  Their tent held up just fine.  All of their clothes and their sleeping bags, pads, etc. were *dry*.  The only complaint that they had was that their outside vestibule got snowed in.  I had a hard time sympathizing.  They had even boiled some water the previous night, inside that outside vestibule, so that they could eat a “nice” dinner.

I’ve heard stories about Denali’s storms, and I’d been worried about not having an external vestibule for cooking, but this Mt. Hood storm convinced me that I absolutely need another style of tent (it’s on order – FYI, climbers, I’m buying a Trango 3.1 to take, instead of the EV3).  It also convinced me that I need to have a pee bottle, just in case. . . 

In analyzing the snow on the tent situation, we decided that our big problem was not leaving enough space between Ron’s side of the tent and the snow wall that we put the tent next to.  We should have left at *least* 2 feet, and then, likely, the 2 foot gap would have been filled, and even if we still had snow on the tent, it likely would not have been as bad as it was.  And to get from my tent to Candi and Oleg’s, during the night, even if I couldn’t see, I could have used the rope as a safety line.  It turned out that their tent was more like 10 or 15 ft away from mine, but in that storm, it seemed so much farther!  Ron, who actually went over there, told me that he was surprised to see how close the tents actually were, in the daylight!

Ron suffered severe windburn on his face, which has only just now cleared up (it took a week).

One thing that didn’t go as forecast – the temperature must have been around freezing, and not around 0F/-18C, or all of our stuff wouldn’t have gotten so danged wet.  Where is the cold when you need it, eh?

So, I’m thankful that I am living in a place where we can experience harsh conditions in order to ready ourselves for potentially harsher conditions!  I wish you all “helper” experiences on the way to your great experiences!