While you read these entries about our Denali Prep course, remember that this course is designed to introduce new climbers to an expedition to Denali. A trip to the summit of Mt. Rainier was in the schedule but not an expectation. If the weather gave us the chance, then great, but that was not the goal of the course. Both Shelley and I wanted to use this course to gauge our ability to handle living in winter conditions for an extended period of time; to be able to carry heavy loads in our packs and pull a sled of equipment; and learn the skills necessary to be successful on a Denali expedition. But this course is just one test in the process. Later this summer we will be climbing Mt. Rainier via the Emmons Glacier. That is an intermediate climb similar to what we can expect from Denali, but without the sled.
Day 1, Saturday May 1, started out at Alpine Ascents’ office for our gear check. Shelley and I have both been purchasing our own gear for the last year so we only needed to rent boots, a duffel bag and avalanche transponders. Items that are pretty expensive on their own so we just rent them as we go. We have everything else. We brought our packs and three bags of food. Since this was not an expedition, Alpine Ascents did not provide food. Normally, they provide a hot breakfast and dinner for each day, but since this was a training course, they did not cook for us. That was fine, really.
Here is one of our guides, Ben Jones, teaching us how to pack our backpacks. He was a real good instructor. Very detailed and explained things clearly. The girl in the frame is Jenn (one of the climbers in our group, she was from Brooklyn) and behind her is Bruce, another climber. He was from Colorado and had climbed a number of 14k peaks already. The guy in the background is our lead guide, JP Prudhomme. Also in the background, on the floor under the photos, are the sleds, tents and fuel bottles. These items were all part of the “group gear” that was spread out among all the climbers. Other group items included shovels, pickets (otherwise referred to as protection), rope and other various spare parts and repair kits.
After listening to Ben we packed our packs and organized our gear. Here’s Shelley ready to go. Grant, another climber in our group, is in the back ground. Is he checking out my wife? I think he is.
Gear check and packing took about 4 hours. We loaded up and headed to Mt. Rainier around 11:00 am. We made a short stop in Eatonville for a short coffee and snack break. We got to Paradise and it was covered in snow. In fact, JP ended up jack knifing the van and trailer trying to maneuver in the parking lot.
We got all the gear out of the van and trailer and once it was lighter, a snow plow came over and gave the van a little push and got the jack knife cleared. While that was going on, we carried our gear into the restroom area where we changed out of our street clothes and into our climbing gear.
After changing we got our packs on and hooked up our sleds and headed up to our base camp. The time was now about 4:15 pm.
It was a pretty short hike to our camp site at about 6,500′. This location was chosen because we were at the treeline and this offered some protection from the wind and weather. Paradise is at 5,400′. It took just over an hour to get to the camp site. Visibility was really bad. Maybe a few hundred feet. It was snowing and winds were steady at around 20 – 30 mph. Setting up the tents in that condition was a challenge. We got the tents up and unpacked our packs and set up dinner for the night. After dinner we had a short meeting and then turned in for our first night at around 10:00 pm. We were a little late because our stove malfunctioned and would not light. We practiced with the stove the night before and it worked fine. For some reason, it choose this night to clog. We borrowed Bruce and Jenn’s stove once they were done with dinner. Hence, we got to bed a bit later then everyone else. It was too dark to try and repair the stove this night. That would have to wait till morning.
Interestingly, the wind actually died down over night. Both of us slept pretty good that first night. I would be my last good night sleep for the next few days.
On the morning of day 2, the weather had not really changed much. The wind that had died down overnight, came back in the morning. Wake up was 7:30 am and our first task was to get our stove repaired. This took a little time, but we got it fired up after about 30 minutes or so and had a decent, warm breakfast of oatmeal, pop tarts and hot coco or tea. The morning was spent improving our tent. Here, Shelley took a photo of me as I dug out our vestibule in the entrance to our tent. This vestibule is a great idea. You can dig it down pretty deep so you can actually stand up in your vestibule to take off or put on your hard shell outer clothing or just sit in your tent with your feet hanging into the dug out hole like you’re sitting on a chair. Makes it easy to put on or take off your boots, too. In order to get down into that hole, you need to dig out stairs as well. That’s what I’m doing in this photo.
We knew we were going to be hit with a winter storm later that afternoon or evening so the rest of the day was spent improving our tent. This came to be known as “tent maintenance.” We did a lot of tent maintenance over the next three days. Lots of tent maintenance.
Step one was to build a wind wall. These are very common on Denali. Usually towards the end of the climbing season on Denali, you can make your camp where the previous climbers built their wind walls. Usually they need a little maintenance to improve them, but that’s better then building them from scratch. Ben showed us how to prep the snow then used a snow saw to cut out blocks of snow, like building an igloo.
First you stomp out an area of snow to compress it and harden it. Then you need to let it consolidate for a few minutes before cutting it out. Once your “quarry” is established you can begin to cut out the blocks and place them around your tent. Ideally, you want the wall to be about 5′ away from the sides of you tent. That way you have room to maneuver around your tent to shovel out the snow that will accumulate. We didn’t have an ideal camp location and the walls were too close to our tent.
Here is Shelley working in her quarry using the snow saw to cut out a block. You can see three sticks poking up out of the snow around Shelley with yellow and red flags on them. These are called “wands.” They are used to mark areas around the camp site. In this case, they are marking the edge of the quarry. When visibility deteriorates, the ground becomes blurry and the contours become hard to see. So these wands warn you to stay out of this area as you are walking around the camp site. Wands are also used to mark locations. For instance, if you bury something and want to find it later after it has snowed 12″ or 20″, you can.
The block has now been pulled out with the shovel (photo on the left) and Shelley is ready to carry it over to our tent.
You may notice that even in such bad weather, Shelley is wearing her glacier glasses. It is surprising how much glare there is on a snow field even if visibility is only a few hundred feet, it’s snowing and the wind is blowing. There is so much ambient light that you just can’t see without glacier glasses. I found this out on day four when I failed to maintain sunscreen on my face. More on that later.
Here, Shelley is placing the block. Our tent is the second from the right (photo on left). Tyler and Grant, two friends from Houston, were in the tent on the end (on the right) and Bruce and Jenn were in the tent third from the right. Cory and Jeff were on the far left. Jeff ended up going back after aggravating an old knee injury. Bruce and Jenn had never met before this course. Just for a clear understanding, these walls are not sufficient for Denali. They are too close to the tents and are only half as tall as they need to be. Again, this was training and a learning experience.
In the photo on the right, you can see a white and blue tent being put up. This is a Posh tent. On Denali, the Posh tent is the meeting place, dining hall, classroom and kitchen. It’s not really a tent though. It’s more of a cover with a single pole in the middle and tie-downs around the edge. The idea is you dig a big, round hole in the snow about 10′ feet deep. As you dig, you cut out seats in the snow to sit on. You want this hole deep so the tent’s exposure to the wind is minimal. The way it was explained to us, is you want it flat against the snow so there is no exposure at all. The biggest problem with the Posh tent is that it’s not very strong. It’s not designed to withstand high winds or heavy snow loads. We put it up and used it as a classroom this night, but ended up taking it down because of the heavy snow we were expecting over night. But it does provide a decent get-away from the weather and when you have eight people inside, it’s quite warm. Well, it’s warm on Mt. Rainier.
In our case, we only dug it out to about 6′. In the photo above, you can see the ledges cut out for seating.
That evening we learned knot tying. We learned the Figure 8, the Double Figure 8, a Figure 8 on a Bite, the Double Fisherman, the Slip Knot, the Flemish Bend, and the Bowline. We also learned to tie hitches. The Clover hitch, the Muntor, the Trucker’s hitch and others. Lastly, we tied some prusiks that will be needed while on a rope team. We had to bring 40′ of 6mm rope with us and we cut this rope up into various prusiks and other rope segments we will need later. The two most important prusiks we made were the Foot Prusik and the Waist Prusik. These are both used for ascending a rope if you fall into a crevasse. We also set up some rescue lines that we would use later in the week during crevasse rescue as well as a back pack leash. It’s funny how everything seems to have a leash of some sort to attach to you. Lastly, we made a rope assembly for our ascender. Yes, this too has a leash attached to it so you can attach it to you. If it wasn’t already, it was becoming apparent that dropping things was bad.
Here’s a photo of the guides’ tents. The two in the distance were guides who were staying up on the mountain for some unknown reasons (we didn’t work with them during our stay) and the one nearest the Posh tent is our guides’ tent. The Posh tent is also up and ready for use. You can see that Ben and JP didn’t get their wind wall up very high either by the end of the evening.
After a long day at work on the camp site and the tents, it was time for dinner and a little time to relax as we prepared to go to sleep. I took this photo of the two of us as we prepared to go to sleep. Shelley worked really hard all day building the wind wall and buttoning up the tent. I think it shows a little on her expression. She’s smiling, but we are both pretty tired. It’s really easy to work hard and not realize it right away when it’s cold. You’re not really sweating (at least you don’t feel it) and you’re not walking great distances or lifting heavy objects. But it’s still hard work doing all that manual labor in those conditions. It sort of sneaks up on you. Once again, a good learning experience to show how you have to pace yourself no matter what it is you’re doing.
We ate dinner a bit early and ended up sacking out around 8:00 pm as the winter storm we had been expecting was due to hit sometime between 8:00 pm and midnight. It didn’t wake me up till 2:30 am. Little did I know at that time that I would only be getting a few hours of sleep over the next 32 hours.