This is the second part of a series chronicling our Denali expedition. You may want to read the first installment, Our Arrival in Talkeetna, before continuing with this one.
After another breakfast made by Tom and Hobbs at Fireweed, we headed over to TAT to check on the weather conditions. Fog and snow still continued to keep basecamp closed. It seems that when the weather at basecamp is questionable, it usually is worst in the mornings. I don’t know if that’s always the case, but it seemed that all our chances at flying would occur in the afternoons, not in the mornings.
TAT is owned by a man named Paul Roderick and Vern has known him for decades. In fact, when Vern soloed Denali in the winter of 1988, it was Paul that flew onto the glacier to pick him up after he got back down the mountain. Paul’s sister (I don’t know if he has more than one) is Lisa. Lisa is the basecamp manager at Denali. She lives at basecamp for most of the climbing season and makes the call as to whether basecamp is open for flying or not.
Since they are siblings, Paul usually finds out that basecamp is open before any of the other flight services. (After receiving Lisa’s reply in the comments I realized that sentence appears to be written like a statement of fact. That was my error. I should have written it to better reflect our own personal conversations that were more in jest then in fact. Sorry for the poor editing.) Paul is also a phenomenal pilot, as we would learn in a few weeks. According to Vern, Paul hired Lisa as basecamp manager to ensure that he wouldn’t do anything too reckless in flying into basecamp. Although he owns the company, she’s in charge of whether he flies or not. And as we would learn on this day, he listens to her. I think they make a pretty good team.
This is TAT’s office in Talkeetna. You can see one of their two aircraft in the background through the trees.
TAT’s two biggest planes are the de Havilland DHC-3 Otter. The aircraft seats nine people, including the pilot, plus all of our gear. This allowed our entire team to fly in on one aircraft. When we loaded up our bags the day before at AAI’s hanger, every bag had to be weighed and marked so the pilot would know how much weight the aircraft was getting. Even our sleds, which were stacked and tied up together, were weighed and tagged. All of TAT’s aircraft are equipped with skis for glacier landings. I’m using Ryan’s photo of the Otter below.
On our original schedule we were to fly onto the glacier on June 12 and then spend June 13 (this day I’m writing about) at basecamp going over technical skills. These skills included crevasse rescue, sled rigging, setting protection and anchors, learning about leverage and glacier travel. We would then spend the night of June 13 at basecamp and move to half-camp on the morning of June 14. In keeping with that schedule, we spent most of the morning and afternoon at TAT going over these technical skills. In this way, once we made it onto the glacier we wouldn’t be too far behind (if at all) in our schedule. TAT had a little hut called a Mongolian Gur, which is similar to a yurt. Using the gur and the grassy areas around the tarmac we worked on our skills.
In this first photo, Lauren is representing a climber in a crevasse and we are practicing our leverage techniques with our rope and carabiners to pull her out.
We got our packs out and rigged up our harnesses as well. Then we rigged our sleds and discussed glacier travel with sleds. We rigged everything up just like it would be done on the glacier then walked around in a big circle. Everyone on the team had some experience with sleds. Albeit minor, but it wasn’t anything totally new to us. Likewise, we all had glacier travel experience as well, but nothing like what we would be experiencing once we got onto the mountain. But again, it wasn’t anything totally new. This was a big bonus for our team I think. We all gelled pretty well and everyone knew what they were doing, which made life much easier and allowed us to work really well together.
You might notice that we are not wearing our climbing clothes during these skill practice sessions. Everyone is wearing jeans and tennis shoes. We had a couple different bags set aside during this trip. All of our climbing equipment was in our backpacks and duffel bags. Then we had our suitcases that we left behind at AAI’s hanger. Then lastly, we had a small personal clothing bag. This small clothing bag is what contained our climbing boots and clothes that we would fly onto the glacier wearing. In turn, we would pack our street clothes into the clothing bag and leave it at TAT so when we got back we would do the reverse and have a set of clean street clothes waiting for us. Our valuables like cell phones, rings, etc would be stored in a safe at TAT in small zip lock baggies.
We worked on skills pretty much all morning and after lunch. Once we finished up, there wasn’t much to do but hang out.
At some point in the day we went back into town and hung out. Mainly to get out of TAT’s hair. Bored climbers hanging out on their porch starts to annoy them after a while. After all, they are running a sightseeing flying business too with paying customers coming and going. Having a bunch of antsy, bored climbers clogging up their parking lot isn’t good for business. While we were in town Lauren received a phone call from TAT advising that the weather over basecamp was breaking up and we needed to get back and be ready to fly. So we drove back to TAT, got ourselves changed into our climbing clothes and started to load up the plane. But we had to hurry. The weather can be fickle and it can close up as fast as it opened up. If we don’t get off the ground before it closes up, we’re grounded. TAT will not take off unless they have a green light at basecamp. And Lisa is the only person who can give that green light.
Those white bags in the above photos are our food bags. You can see three of the CMC cans on the cart as well. They are the green cans with black straps. Proof we actually took them and didn’t ditch them at TAT like we wanted too. Paul was helping load the plane with our gear and we pretty much had it all loaded when we got word from Lisa that basecamp was closed again. Fog and snow had moved back over the landing strip closing it to all flights. I think this is why Paul hired Lisa. I got the impression that Paul might have tried if not for someone telling him no. Paul really wanted to get us into basecamp. So, we were all packed, loaded and dressed with nowhere to go. So we just hung out on the back porch of TAT waiting for 7:30 pm to roll around again. Yes, that is Vern with one of his many musical instruments he is talented enough to play. This is a Lapstick traveling guitar. Apparently, he takes it everywhere with him as I’ve seen pictures of him on summits with the guitar. Vern also plays the harmonica as well as the violin. He brought a harmonica, but not a violin.
Once 7:30 pm rolled around, we were a scratch for flying again. The decision was made to leave the gear on board the plane. In case we were able to fly first thing in the morning, we didn’t want to waste time reloading the plane again. So, we changed our shoes, but kept our climbing clothes with us and headed back into town for dinner yet again. This time I managed to talk the group into trying the local brewery in Talkeetna, Denali Brewing Company and Twisted Creek Restaurant. Oh my, it was good.
After dinner some of us were making new (closer?) friends on the walk back to the van for our ride back to Fireweed.
We went to bed (after more cookies) that night feeling that we had a decent chance to fly in the morning. If we could get onto the glacier in the morning and move all the way up to camp 1 (by-passing half-camp), we would be right on schedule. None of us wanted to start burning our weather/rest days in Talkeetna.
We woke early on June 14th. Vern and Lauren joined us again for breakfast at Fireweed then we headed back to TAT bright and early. Basecamp was still closed. As frustrating and demoralizing it was to hear this every day, think about those climbers who had been on the mountain for the past 18 – 21 days only to arrive at basecamp and not be able to leave. They had to sit there for days waiting. At least we were getting decent meals and showers everyday.
We were running out of things to do to keep busy. The weather in Talkeetna had started to turn rainy too. So we had to move inside the gur to work on skills. Really, the only thing we had to do was practice moving on a rope through protection. This was called a rope rodeo. Vern and Lauren set up a climbing rope in a circle and we clipped into it and walked around the circle both directions practicing clipping in and out of protection. Unfortunately, this is nothing like it would be in real life on the West Buttress of Denali. All of us had things down pretty well in the gur. Once on the mountain, we were pretty ate up. Walking around in a gur with no pack on and reaching for a carabiner at waist level is totally different then doing it with a 70lb pack and having to bend over to reach for a carabiner that is about 12″ off the ground that is being pulled every which way. But it was good practice and it killed time. Since our climbing gear was on the plane, we didn’t have all our harnesses. Ryan, seen below, made a simulated harness out of some climbing rope.
June 14th was a long, boring day. The weather sucked and the gur wasn’t that comfortable. As you can see there wasn’t any cushions and the chairs were minimal. There was a lot of nap taking going on this day. Luckily, we had iPhones to entertain us.
There was a short moment in the late afternoon again where we thought we might get to fly. We got our boots on and hung out on the porch, but we ended up being scratched yet again. To make matters worse, Team 11 arrived this afternoon and there was no room for us to stay at Fireweed. Team 11 also got the van so we were now without transportation too. Nothing is really that far from anything in Talkeetna, so it was more an inconvenience than anything else not to have the van. For accommodations, our options included getting our sleeping bags out and sleeping in the gur, getting another hotel room at a hotel in town or staying at the hostel right down the street from the airport. I didn’t like the idea of the sleeping bags as they were packed in the bottom of our backpacks on the aircraft. We were spending a bunch of extra cash on lunch and dinners in town and the room at Fireweed and, although I didn’t mind spending the money at Fireweed since it was a very nice place with breakfast, a hotel in town would not be nearly as comfortable for the price. Besides, Tom and Hobbs were knocking 20% off on our extended stay at Fireweed because they felt sorry for us. So, we opted for the $20 fee for the hostel. Lauren called the hostel and got us spots there. It was just a short two block walk from TAT too. Roger took this photo of the outside.
I don’t remember where we had dinner this night. I know it wasn’t the brewery, but I don’t recall where it was. The hostel was pretty nice. Roger, Ryan, Paul and Scott shared one room and Shelley and I shared a room with two others. Although we went to bed before everyone else, everyone was real nice and quite. Other climbing teams were starting to arrive in Talkeetna and some were staying here at the hostel with us. So everyone was kind of in the same boat.
There was some concern starting to creep into everyone at this point, I think. Although we still had plenty of time for a summit attempt, we knew we just burned up one of our precious weather/rest days. If we ran into any storms of any significance while on the mountain and couldn’t move we might be in trouble for the summit. There was only a finite number of weather days built into the trip and we just wasted one in Talkeetna. On the positive side, our return flight home didn’t leave Anchorage till July 4, two days after the trip was scheduled to end. We picked this specific trip for that reason. That built in four weather/rest days into the trip instead of two. As a group, we talked about extending the trip and what everyone’s schedule was for their flights. Everyone was in agreement on this. If we had a shot at the summit, we would stay on the mountain as long as possible and deal with missing our flights when we got back to Anchorage. Vern would even let Shelley use the satellite phone to call her work from the mountain to arrange coverage with her schedule if she couldn’t get back by July 4. The only absolute deadline was Vern’s. He was scheduled to fly to Russia on July 6 to start a guided trip on Mt Elbrus on July 8. But we all knew that we wouldn’t have enough food and fuel to make it past July 6. July 3 or July 4 was the goal. With that in mind, we knew we could still have a few weather days on the mountain if we needed to extend the end of the trip to July 3 or July 4. But we had to get on the glacier. We couldn’t keep burning up our extra days in Talkeetna.
The morning of July 15th was overcast again. The rain had stopped however and we walked down to TAT to hear the news. It was the same as the previous few days. Basecamp was still closed. The team decided to walk into Talkeetna and have breakfast at the Roadhouse. The Roadhouse has the best breakfast in town and it was packed this day. We couldn’t sit together as a team so we spread out. It was really good.
The Roadhouse has a bunk house, restaurant, laundry and showers for travelers. After breakfast we hung out in the living room portion of the dinning room. It was more comfortable than the gur. We read some old dated magazines and listened to Vern play the guitar.
After an hour or so at the Roadhouse we decided to go visit the one place in Talkeetna we hadn’t been yet. The Museum. I think it was only $3.00 to get in and it was really interesting. A lot of old stuff from when Talkeetna was established. They even had a display of medical equipment.
The museum had displays and artifacts from the trapping industry and the mining days in Talkeetna. There was a big area on the flying history as well. And the history of the pioneers that founded the area was also covered. In the back of the museum they had old newspaper clippings in protected pages that you could flip through. We were looking through these clippings and there were lots of articles about Vern and other climbers on Denali. We pulled Vern over to show him and he just started reminiscing about all the stories in the newspapers and talking about the other climbers. With 33 years of mountaineering under his belt and most of them on Denali, he was a walking encyclopedia. It was kind of sad in some aspects too. We would be looking through the newspaper and he would recognize someone and talk about them a bit then say, “He was killed in a fall on Denali”. Then we would go a little farther and he would say, “He died on Everest.” And on and on. I guess in 33 years you know a lot of people, but you know a lot of people who died in the mountains too. Vern was very humble and had a lot a praise for those other climbers.
Also in the museum was a large, scale sculpture of Denali. It must have been 12′ x 12′. It took up an entire room. We ended up here and just hung out listening to Vern describe the route we would be taking and pointing out landmarks. Of course, he had stories from the history of Denali that he told as well. We hung out in there for some time wishing we were on the mountain instead of looking at a scale sculpture of it. Then around 12:30 pm, Lauren burst into the room with her phone, “Base camp is open! We’re flying!”
We high tailed it on foot back to the TAT only to find that the original Otter we were to fly on was gone and TAT had unloaded our gear from it and placed it on carts, but covered to protect it all from the weather. We checked in at the front desk and got confirmation that the weather had broken. After we changed and went out on the tarmac to load the plane, we noticed that there was a lot of activity on the ramp. TAT was preflighting a number of aircraft and the other flight services on the ramp were doing the same thing. We hadn’t seen that before. The feeling around the ramp was different then it had been on previous days.
You have to remember, there were a lot of climbers stuck at basecamp. Every flight service in town was getting every plane they owned ready so they could fly in there and help get everyone off. There was also teams of climbers in Talkeetna that were backed up waiting to get onto the glacier too. For TAT, we were first in line. But there were teams behind us waiting their turn as well. Including AAI’s Team 11 with Ben and Lhapka. They were scheduled to fly into basecamp to start their trip this same day.
We got the plane loaded and everyone wanted to get in and get started before someone came out and scratched us again. But not this time. This time it was for real. We were finally flying into basecamp. Vern told us that since we were getting in somewhat earlier in the afternoon, he was hoping to get rigged up and head straight off for camp 1 as soon as we were on the ground. If we could do that, we could get back on schedule. He wanted us to hit the ground at basecamp and start getting ready to get on the rope and we’d leave within hours of landing. The only concern would be the crevasse conditions on the lower glacier. If they were bad, we’d stay the night, but if not, we’d leave. Yes, we were all smiles now!
Since this was a commercial aircraft, we even got the same flight briefing from the pilot you get when you fly Southwest or Alaska. It was kind of humorous actually. He told us where the exits where (duh….), how to use the seatbelts (really……?) and where the two fire extinguishers were located. One under his seat and the other………..well, it was in the back of the plane behind all our gear. You could tell he thought it was pretty silly telling us all this, but FAA regulations are FAA regulations. The plane was equipped with headphones that offered hearing protection but also let everyone listen in on the plane’s radio. We couldn’t talk via the headphones, we would have to yell at each other, but it was cool that we could listen to all the aircraft traffic.
Flight time to basecamp is about 45 minutes. Our trip was finally airborne. Shortly we would be on the glacier and hopefully spending the night at camp 1.