The Great One: The Lower Kahiltna

If you’re just starting to read these posts chronically our expedition to Denali, please read the first two installments first;  Our arrival in Talkeetna and Basecamp Opens.

June 15.  Day 1 on the mountain.

The 45 minute flight into basecamp was uneventful, at least from a pilots point of view.  From a tourists point of view it was spectacular, even with the low clouds.  Our flight took us over the Talkeetna River.

From there we flew over a short set of hills (or mountains if you’re from Iowa).  Eventually, we ended up over the Kahiltna and followed the glacier all the way into basecamp.

Ryan was the lucky climber to get a seat in the front of the plane next to the pilot.  He shot this great video of our landing at basecamp.  One thing to note, you’ll see as the plane reaches the runway a group of climbers off to the left.  That’s a rope team just arriving at basecamp.  They are also at the top of Heartbreak Hill.  On the right of the runway are sleds put out as markers for the pilots to show them where the crevasse danger lies.  We are, after all, landing on a glacier which means there are crevasses about, even at basecamp.

Here is another perspective of our landing at basecamp.  This was shot by me while landing.  The roughness of the landing surprised me a bit so I wasn’t able to keep the camera as stabilized as I had hoped.

Basecamp was crazy busy.  But there was a choreograph to it all by Lisa and the pilots that kept things smooth.  There were so many people waiting to get out, as you can see, that dozens of planes were in the air and on the ground trying to get in and out as fast, and as safely, as possible.  As you can see in this next video I took.  It starts with another TAT plane in the middle of the screen off in the distance coming in for a landing.

As soon as we landed and the prop stopped spinning we were out of the aircraft and unloading our gear.  The funny part was that Lisa was hollering for the next team that was flying out on our plane to prepare to load.  While we were unloading, they were standing by waiting to load.  Southwest Airlines would have been impressed with the turn-around time for the aircraft.

While we got our gear organized and staged to leave basecamp, Vern and Lauren went out into camp looking for teams that had just come down the Kahiltna that morning.  They where looking for information on the condition of the glacier.  What they learned was not good.  Teams were reporting multiple punch throughs into crevasses all down the glacier.  One team stated they had over 25 punch throughs.  A punch through is defined by a climber punching through with at least a leg into a crevasse.  The climber may not have gone in beyond the one leg and maybe not past their thigh, but they punched through an ice bridge none-the-less.  Teams also reported a couple of people went in over their heads as well.  So the conditions on the lower glacier were beginning to soften up in the early afternoon heat.  This meant we would not be making a run for Camp 1 this afternoon.  Instead, we would set up camp at basecamp and leave early the next morning.  We wanted to get to our first camp before things began to warm up and soften up the glacier.  This would be the strategy for our entire time on the Kahiltna.

So, we set up our tents and Vern’s tent, which doubled as our cook tent and socializing tent and got ready for dinner.

Dinner was very surprising.  I never would have expected to have hamburgers on Denali.  They were so good.  Here’s the team waiting patiently while Lauren prepared the burgers.

At dinner, Vern filled us in on what his climbing plan was going to be for us for the next few weeks.  Originally, the plan was to fly into basecamp on June 12 and move to half-camp (after a day of skill refreshers) on June 14.  This would be done in one move, no double carry.  Then move to Camp 1 on June 15 in one carry.  On June 16 we would carry our first load up to Camp 2.  Well, today was June 15 and we were sitting at basecamp.  That put us three days behind schedule.  But all wasn’t as bad as it may seem.  Because we did our skills in Talkeetna, we were only two days behind schedule.  Vern figured a way to cut another day off and get us to be only one day behind schedule.

He decided that tomorrow, June 16, we would move up to 3/4 Camp, otherwise known as Camp Ferine as it was right at the base of Point Ferine.  Then bypass Camp 1 all together and carry up to Camp 2 on June 17.  That would put us just one day behind schedule, even though we were three days late getting into basecamp.  If the weather would hold for us, we’d be in a great position at that point.

We went to bed shortly after dinner.  The plan was to get up early around 1:00 am, eat breakfast, take down camp and be on the ropes by 3:00 am.  We were so relieved to finally be on the glacier.  That’s all we wanted.  Just get on the glacier and get a shot at moving up the mountain.  Well, that’s where we found ourselves and with Vern’s 33 years of climbing Denali we all felt pretty good about our chances.

June 16.  Day 2 on the mountain.

I created the following two photos from our GPS data.  I carried a GPS unit with us the entire trip.  There were a couple legs of the climb I didn’t gather data for various reasons, but overall I got data from about 80% of the trip.  The yellow line in the first picture is our route from base camp to Camp Ferine.  In all these photos from the GPS data, Camp Ferine is shown as 3/4 Camp because I didn’t know how to spell Ferine.  The second photo is the climb’s slope profile indicating mileage at the bottom and elevation on the left side.

We woke up around 1:00 am on our second day on the mountain.  There were not many days on the mountain that I remember where we were in a rush in the mornings.  So most mornings we got dressed, ate, broke down camp and got on the ropes in about two hours.  Somedays a little slower, maybe 2 1/2 hours.  This day was pretty quick since we never really got settled into our camp too much.

The climb out to Camp Ferine started with a descent down Heartbreak Hill and out onto the lower Kahiltna.  It wasn’t too cold, maybe around 20F.  The sun was just rising over Denali, but the glacier was still in the shadow.  I don’t recall much wind either.  It was really quite a pleasant morning.

Once on the glacier itself, the snow was pretty firm.  We didn’t need to your snowshoes, but had them handy on top of our sleds just in case.  The climbing was pretty straight forward and although we had much more weight in our sled this day then we ever did while training, it was much easier to pull across the snow then across the dirt road.  I really think that training on Shaw Mountain Road really paid off with our sleds.

We only needed two break stops on our way up to Camp Ferine.  My notes for this climb said, “Not a terribly difficult climb.”  I remember feeling pretty good once we got into camp.  We did have heavy loads.  I’d say at least 125lbs between the sled and the pack.  We never trained with more than 115lbs, but yet we felt really good.  Again, I think that was due to the sleds gliding along the snow so easily.  I think we got a little lucky with our weight too.  I’ve read of people carrying 140lbs on this first day.  Not sure how it got that heavy, but I know we weren’t close to that.  I’d say 125lbs was pretty accurate.  The climb wasn’t steep either.  My notes said it was a pretty shallow climb.

We did get a good lesson on sled loading.  My sled had too much weight towards the back which caused it to jerk on me all the way up to Camp Ferine.  We didn’t train with our harness on either.  So this was the first day we climbed with all of our carabiners, ropes and pack.  My waist strap for my pack had some issues, or I guess I should say I had issues, in the way the pack was sitting on top of my harness and equipment.  Just another newbie problem that I would have to correct for the next move.

Okay, enough talking…..pictures!

This first one shows Mt Foraker in the background as the sun is just rising over Denali.  Denali would be to my immediate right in this photo and slightly behind us.  The lower Kahiltna is out beyond the runway.  The two ropes you see in front are ours.  There is an orange rope and a purple rope.  Hence, an Orange Team and a Purple Team.  Vern was always the guide on the Orange Team and Lauren for the Purple Team.  We could clip into any rope and any position on those ropes.  We weren’t assigned to a team.  Each team had one guide and three clients.

Shelley and I tried to be on opposite teams each day but in the same position on those teams.  So, if she was in position 2 on the Purple Team, I would get the second position on the Orange Team.  This would allow us to sit next to each other and talk during our break stops.  We also talked about this before our trip even started.  We wanted to try to avoid being on the same rope team in the event of a major disaster.

Each rope is 60 meters long.  They each have four knots in them evenly spaced out at 15 meters.  The ropes you see here are what is called, “flaked out.”  That is, they are loosely set out on the snow in coils with each knot separate from the coils.  This way team members can easily get to the knot, clip it into your carabiners on your harness but be close enough to your next climber so you can “buddy check” you buddy’s harness and rigging.  This helped ensure that someone didn’t forget to double back their harness strap or forget to completely lock in their carabiner.  I only mention these things so as I refer to them in future posts you’ll know what I’m talking about.

In the picture above you start to get an idea of how vast this glacier is.  You can also see some darker areas of the glacier right in the middle of the photo, to the right of the rope team.  These are potential areas of danger.  Sometimes they were dips in the surface, like a pot hole.  They potentially indicate a thinner part of the surface and could lead to a crevasse.  So we tried to avoid these darker areas.

The above photo is a good example of what I was talking about as far as our positions on the rope team.  In this case Shelley is in the second position on the Purple Team, so I’m in the second position on the Orange Team.  Thus, at a break stop like this one, we can visit.  Cause we didn’t get to see enough of each other over the course of this climb.

This next photo shows the condition of the trail we were following.  We weren’t breaking trail by any stretch.  It was well traveled and went up the middle of the glacier.  I’m not an expert glacier traveler by any stretch, but I believe the glaciers are safer out in the middle since the crevasses tend to form near the edges, over humps in the land under them or near curves in the valley.  They can form anywhere, but out in the middle they are less prominent.  Ryan took a nice photo looking back down the Kahiltna towards basecamp.  You also walk out in the middle to avoid avalanches.

Another feature of the lower Kahiltna we experience over these first few days were avalanches.  Lots and lots of avalanches.  Just on this climb to Camp Ferine we watched two break free like the one pictured above.  Every day we would hear or see two or three avalanches on either side of this valley.  It was really cool to watch.  I was also really glad they were way over there.

Another interesting aspect to that photo above is it shows where Camp 4 and Windy Corner are located.  If you start at Vern’s head and go straight up to the horizontal edge of the middle ridge, that is the Edge of the World.  Just beyond that cliff, out of sight, is the plateau that Camp 4 is located on.  If you move left along that cliff and just above the chute the avalanche came down, you’ll see a knife edge of the mountain pointed right at the camera.  That’s Windy Corner.  Also to add some perspective we are standing at about 7,600 feet.  Windy corner is at 13,400 feet.  Give or take 100 feet or so.

We arrived at Camp Ferine late in the morning.  This was a camp that AAI had used in the past.  You could tell someone had been here before.  Camp Ferine is about 45 minutes short of the true Camp 1 which is at the base of Ski Hill.  One nice advantage of stopping here, besides making up a day, was we were all by ourselves.  No one else was camping around us.  Since this camp had not been used for some time and because it was off the trail, we had to stomp it out to make sure we weren’t camping on an ice bridge.  So, how do you stomp it out?  Well the first person on the first rope team, mine, turns 90 degrees off the trail and walks about 20 meters.  Then the second person walks off that first person’s line about 5 feet and the next person walks off the second person’s line by 5 feet, etc.  As you’re walking you’re actually stomping on the ground.  Almost jumping up and down as you walk.  The idea being that if you don’t break through by doing this while carrying a pack, you probably won’t break through when you’re walking around camp.  If you break through you pull the person out and go find another spot for your camp.

In this photo, my rope team (the Orange Team) has already stomped out our area and Shelley’s team, the Purple Team is now stomping out their area of camp.

Once camp is stomped out, we could drop our gear and start setting up camp.  Each pair of climbers set up their tent.  Then helped with other camp chores like helping Vern with his tent, establishing a bathroom spot for the CMC can, flaking out the ropes for the next day and just random house cleaning around camp.  When we flaked out the ropes, we put the ropes up on tripods made out of our ski poles.  This keeps the ropes off the snow.  If it snows over night they won’t get buried and they won’t freeze in the snow either.  Scott took a picture of how we set up the ropes each day with an avalanche in the background.

And here’s the finished product.

While we were setting up camp, Lauren was gathering snow and melting it for water, hot drinks and dinner.  She’s doing this outside because the cook tent wasn’t finished yet.

After camp was set and we had lunch it was time to rest.  We really didn’t get much sleep the night before and we wouldn’t be eating dinner for a few hours.  So, everyone crashed out for a bit of nap time.

Thus ended day two on Denali.  We were both feeling pretty good about this move.  We had heavier loads than what we had trained with and we both felt really good doing it.  We gained a lot of confidence in our abilities at this point.  We did realize that it wasn’t very steep and things would become harder as we moved up, but getting this first push under our belts felt good.  We were moving and making progress.  It was a good day.  The next morning our double carries would begin as we started to climb higher up the Kahiltna.

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8 Responses to “The Great One: The Lower Kahiltna”

  1. The Great One: Now We Start to Climb « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 3, The Lower Kahiltna                        4, Move’n On Up […]

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  2. The Great One: Feeling the Altitude « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 3, The Lower Kahiltna                        4, Move’n On Up […]

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  3. The Great One: Rest and Weather « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 1, Our arrival in Talkeetna                  2, Basecamp Opens                              3, The Lower Kahiltna […]

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  4. The Great One: 20,320 « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 1, Our arrival in Talkeetna                  2, Basecamp Opens                              3, The Lower Kahiltna […]

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  5. The Great One: Coming Down « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 1, Our arrival in Talkeetna                  2, Basecamp Opens                              3, The Lower Kahiltna […]

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  6. The Great One: Going Home « News From Summit Ridge Says:

    […] 1, Our arrival in Talkeetna                  2, Basecamp Opens                              3, The Lower Kahiltna […]

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