Previous posts on our trip, in order:
We had been making steady progress up the mountain for the last 9 days. Some where not all that difficult, but now that we were getting high and the climbing days longer, everyone needed a nice day off. We all felt strong and no one was really suffering, but no one was going to complain about a day off either. But before we could get a good rest in, we had one more hard day to work and put us in a position for the summit.
June 24. Day 10 on the mountain.
After a nice half day on June 23, I felt much better on the morning of June 24. The diamox was doing its job and I got a great night of sleep. Today we would be climbing the fixed lines up to 16,200 feet to bury our cache for camp 5. These food and equipment items would be our supplies for our time at camp 5. Neither Shelley nor I had ever climbed a set of fixed lines, outside of a training course that is. Even during this training course we didn’t climb with big backs and we weren’t at 15,000 feet. It would be a bit different to say the least.
The fixed lines on Denali are actually the first of two sets of lines going up to camp 5. The second fixed line is higher up around Washburn’s Thumb and is shorter, maybe about 300 feet. These fixed lines (the more famous of the two) are closer to 800 feet. There are also two lines. An up line and a down line. The trail around the fixed lines can get crowded and they are very long and exposed, so there is a line for those descending and a line for those ascending. This reduces the traffic jams on the line, but not on the trail. Also, the fixed lines cover the last 800 feet or so of a section referred to as “The Headwall.” The headwall is about 2,000 feet high. It begins right outside camp 4 and ascends gradually at first, then steepens considerably to the base of the fixed lines.
After breakfast we got onto the rope and started moving up the headwall. We needed about 2 1/2 hours to reach the base of the fixed lines. We took two breaks on the way up. This is a really good photo taken by Ryan looking back down on camp 4 from the lower portion of the headwall. Our camp site is in the lower right corner of camp 4. You can see the long, red tent that is our cook tent. To the left of the cook tent are five tents. Four yellow tents forming the four corners of a square around a small green tent in the middle. Shelley and my tent is the yellow one at the top right corner of that square. The small green one is Lauren’s. The small cluster of tents off by themselves to the left are the ranger and medical tents.
Ryan took these next two pictures at the bottom of the fixed lines. The first one is looking back down on camp 4 and the second is looking up the fixed lines. In that second one, Vern is in the blue standing next to Roger. Farther up the rope is Shelley with Lauren at the front of the rope. There is another team ahead of us clipped into the fixed line moving up. And yes, there was a crevasse running right across the fixed lines that you can see in the photo as well. To make it more interesting, there was only one place you could cross that crevasse whether you were going up or down. We took a break here just before clipping into the fixed line. Our two rope teams moved off, just to the left, of the trail. You can see Vern standing on the trail itself. I don’t remember anyone going buy us while we were taking this break.
Going up the fixed lines was far more tiring than I had expected. The big problem was that there was no place to stop and rest. Since we are all roped together and then clipped into another rope, you just can’t stop. There are pauses, but no chance to catch a rest. This is normally not a problem when traveling on a rope because you’re not working that hard. But on the lines you are working hard, carrying a heavy load and you don’t have much time to catch your breath. On top of that the wind had picked up on the slope and the temperature really dropped. So it was cold too. I found it very hard. We both made it okay, but it was hard work. This is where our training really paid off. There just isn’t anyway you can really train for this unless you live somewhere where you can install your own fixed line. But even then, you can’t simulate the altitude and weather. But the long training days in the foothills really helped boost our cardio. And you’ll need that on the fixed lines.
Oh, and to top it all off…………….one of Shelley’s crampons came off halfway up the fixed line. Lauren had to descend back down to her and help her get it back on. I mean, really?
It was hard work.
Once at the top we took a much-needed break and got something to eat. We emptied our packs and got our cache buried. We were on top of the ridge for about 45 minutes. The weather had really turned by now. It was really cold now and we weren’t moving much as we were taking a break and getting the cache buried. The wind really picked up while we were up there.
Ryan took this photo looking back down on camp 4. Notice the crevasse field to the right of camp 4? Those are the crevasses we had to weave through when we came up to camp 4 on June 22. Also, you can see the lower Kahiltna glacier beyond the crevasse field too. What a great shot.
On the descent back down the fixed lines I had a small stumble. For some reason the down line is actually shorter than the up line. About 30 feet shorter. So it ends about 30 feet above where the up line begins. I’m not sure why. My guess is that it keeps people coming up from clipping into the down line by accident, but I really have no idea. So, when I got to the bottom of the down line, I unclipped but was still tied into the climbing rope with Vern who was above me. Ryan was just below me. The section here is still very steep. Before I unclipped I pulled my ice axe out to help stabilize me on the slope and just in case I slipped. Which I did. I only slipped about 5 – 7 feet and did get my ice axe in, but I think being tied into Vern, who was clipped into the fixed line did more to stop me than my ice axe. What I should have done was unclip from the down line and then clip into the up line and descend on that line. Because it was so late in the day, no one was coming up so I wouldn’t have interfered with anyone. No one on our team clipped into the up line. We all talked about it later that night during dinner though and agreed we would do that on our descent from camp 5.
The descent back down was quick. We took just one break on the lower portion of the headwall before coming back into camp 4 about 6 1/2 hours after we left. What a day. Each day we finished climbing since arriving at camp 3 we thought, “That was the hardest day so far.” Then the next day would come and THAT day would become the hardest day so far. Today was another newest of the hardest days so far.
Dinner that night was pizza. Both Vern and Lauren really set up the dinners well. After hard days we always had really good dinners.
The sun went down, actually behind the ridge, around 8:45 pm and the temperature dropped rapidly. We usually went to bed right around this ridge-induced sunset. The weather had really started to deteriorate this evening. The plan was to take a rest day tomorrow and then move up to camp 5 the day after. Weather permitting.
It wasn’t going to permit.
June 25 and 26. Day 11 and 12 on the mountain.
We enjoyed a real Denali winter storm on June 25. The weather deteriorated to a complete blizzard by the morning of June 25. I got up sometime around 2:00 a.m. on June 25 to shovel the tent out. There was an easy 18″ of snow surrounding the tent. In fact, I couldn’t get out of the tent’s vestibule. We knew a snow storm was coming before we went to bed, so we placed the shovel close by and I had to unzip the vestibule and dig myself out of the tent first. It probably took about an hour or so to dig out the tent. By the time I went around once, there would be a couple of inches built up where I had started. I went around and cleaned it up as best I could but it was a hopeless battle that I couldn’t win. So after cleaning things up I crawled back into my sleeping bag.
By the morning, around 7:00 am, the tent was buried again and we had to dig out of the vestibule. We worked on that first thing then had breakfast. We certainly timed our rest day well because we weren’t going anywhere today. The winds were steady at around 40 mph with gusts hitting 60 mph. It was crazy and fun at the same time. Some guys walked over to the ranger tent and walked around camp just to check the area out. Some of us hung out in our tents and read or napped. But everyone at one time or another hung out outside just checking out the storm.
The most impressive aspect of the storm was looking up, high above us, to the plateau where camp 5 was located. Camp 5 was getting hammered. You could watch the clouds blowing over the top of the mountain, crashing down onto camp 5 and the spin drift blowing off the plateau. The ridge from 16,200 leading up to camp 5 was being hit hard too. Spin drift was blowing off that ridge something fierce. As bad as we had it at camp 4, all of us were glad we weren’t at camp 5.
Here’s a short video of Shelley digging out the tent on the morning of June 25. For those reading this that are planning on doing a big expedition, there’s a good lesson in this video regarding tent placement and windwalls. For those experienced at this sort of thing, I don’t mind if you laugh at us. We knew better and screwed this up. The lesson is: Never build your windwalls close to your tent. Or, if using a pre-existing tent site (like what we did for this one), find one much bigger than your tent. That screwup, more than anything, led to our tent constantly being buried all day. When we arrived at camp 4, we were tired and just took the first tent platform that didn’t need much maintenance to move into. That cost us during this storm. After this video was made, we spent quite a bit of time carving out a wider swath around our tent in anticipation of more snow over night.
When we arrived at camp 4, there was a bathroom, I should call it a pee hole, near by our tent. It was walled on three sides and we had been using it since our arrival. The walls were about 4 feet high and it was maybe 21 square feet. By the afternoon of June 25, it was full of snow and unusable. Just remember, as much snow as we got, camp 5 got double. We learned later that camp 5 received over five feet of snow during this short, two-ish day storm and had gusts hitting 80 mph.
The next morning the sun broke out but the winds were still pretty high and blowing snow across camp 4. But other than that, it was quite beautiful.
This next video was taken on the morning of June 26. Remember, Shelley is about 5′ 4″. You’ll see, compared to that first video above, how much more room we carved out of the walls surrounding our tent. This helped quite a bit, but the walls are still too close to the tent. Also, compare the height of the walls in that first video with this one. We got just bit of snow. At the beginning of the video, it begins to pan left. You’ll see a couple of wands sticking up in the air on top of the pile of snow where Shelley is shoveling the snow she is clearing off our tent. That is the pee hole I was referring too. You can see it’s totally filled in. Also in the video you’ll see Lauren shoveling around her tent and piling it up on top of her windwall to make it taller. The video then pans up to camp 5. It’s hard to realize what you’re seeing, but the storm is still raging up on the ridge leading to camp 5 and at camp 5. Those aren’t all clouds you’re seeing on the ridge. Most of that is the wind blowing the snow off the ridge and plateau where camp 5 sits.
One of the luxury items I decided to carry with me on this trip was a solar panel, a rechargeable battery and two battery chargers. One battery charger was for camera batteries and the other for AA or AAA batteries. This allowed me to keep our camera and GPS batteries charged up for the entire trip. It also allowed me to keep everyone else’s camera batteries charged up. In this photo, taken in the afternoon, I have the solar panel hanging on the fly over our tent’s vestibule. The total weight of my luxury items was just 2 lbs.
The storm was beginning to subside by the afternoon of June 26. Although the sun is out in the video, it was still windy and blowing snow. But by the afternoon, things really started to calm down. It was also Scott’s birthday today. Before celebrating Scott’s birthday with more ice cream, Scott, Paul and Vern hiked up the headwall with a sled. After getting up there pretty high, they all came down on their sleds for the ultimate sledding experience. Paul went first and I didn’t get his run. You’ll hear us talking at the start of the video about who was who. Scott is the first to go, regardless of what you hear us say. We just couldn’t tell who was who until the end. Scott said later he thought about trying to turn, but he was afraid if he tried he’d crash and roll, so he just pointed the sled straight down and let it go! Boy did he. Most of those climbers you see going up are actually skiers hiking up to get some great powder runs in.
With the weather breaking for us in the afternoon, plans were made to get up early on June 27 and move up to camp 5. The problem was, we weren’t the only team looking to move up to camp 5 in the morning. There were five other teams wanting to go as well. And we all couldn’t go at the same time.