Previous posts on our trip, in order:
June 30. Day 16 on the mountain.
After descending from the summit early in the morning, we had breakfast and crashed out in our tents by 8:30 am. Vern woke us all up at 11:30 am to start breaking down camp and get down from Camp 5. I don’t remember how long it took to break down camp, but I’m sure it was pretty close to 2 hours. Maybe a little longer.
When we climbed up to Camp 5 we only brought with us the cook tent and one other tent. Lauren carried her own tent. On the previous trip Vern made this season, he left two more tents cached at Camp 5. So when we packed up to head back down, we had to take these two tents with us. That added a little weight to everyone’s pack. We also didn’t have the luxury of carrying our food down in two moves like we did coming up. Remember, we back-carried from 16,200 feet to our cache the day after we arrived at Camp 5. Going back down we had to carry all that food at one time. This doesn’t sound like much, but when your pack is around 60 lbs going up and then you add half a tent and food and fuel, well, you’re adding 15 lbs to your pack. Luckily we were going down and the weather was beautiful.
The descent down the ridge to the top of the fixed lines went pretty well. No one had any issues. Everyone was tired and the heavy packs began to take their toll, but there were no real issues outside of that.
The fixed lines were another issue.
At first it was pretty straight forward on the way down. Towards the bottom, near where the crevasse was, Shelley had one of her legs spasm on her. She had to stop for a bit to try to shake things out, but that really didn’t work. I think it was just simply a combination of a really heavy pack, a lack of rest and a really steep, difficult descent on the fixed lines. When you descend the fixed lines you do so facing down hill. She couldn’t get her leg to work that way and so, at Lauren’s recommendation, she turned around and descended down the fixed lines backwards. This worked out better for her, but it took time to figure out this plan. This caused those of us above her to slow down or stop. My ankles couldn’t take it. My legs were fine, but my ankles were starting to give out. They just weren’t strong enough to continue to hold me in place on that steep slope. I ended up having to rest them by kneeling down, facing into the slope. You’re not supposed to do this either. Vern was telling me to get turned around and face down hill, but my ankles couldn’t support me any more. I wasn’t going to keep myself upright if I stayed that way and so I gave in and kneeled down. I think Vern realized that I was doing this because I had to. I just had to give my ankles a rest. I also knew that the only person getting me down the fixed lines was going to be me and the only way I was going to do that was by getting a short break while Shelley figured out her problem. Remember, we didn’t know what was wrong farther down the rope. We just knew we weren’t moving.
Once Shelley got things worked out, she started making good time again. Once I was able to start moving, things went better. That last couple hundred feet was really exhausting. By the time we got off the fixed lines and onto the trail, my legs were done. We moved into our break stop on the Headwall, a few hundred feet below the fixed lines, and that was a huge relief. I had to get off my feet. Here we are taking our last break before arriving at Camp 4 below us.
The rest of the move back down to Camp 4 was uneventful.
The plan had been to try to move all the way down to Camp 3 this day, but that wasn’t happening. We were exhausted from only 3 hours of sleep over the last 33 hours. So we decided to stay the night at Camp 4.
While at Camp 4 we met up with two other AAI teams that were there and looking at moving up to Camp 5 later. Each of these two teams had one climber that needed to go back down. So our team of 8 increased to 10. We also dug up our cache that we left at Camp 4 as we would be taking some more gear down with us that we left behind. Our sleds would be rejoining us for the remainder of the descent as well. My legs would love that as it meant less weight on my back.
This experience was a very odd one for me. My back never really hurt during the descent from Camp 5. My legs and feet never had any issues. It was my ankles. The slope on the fixed lines is so steep that I guess my ankles just had a hard time being abused like that trying to hold myself up at such a steep angle. I don’t know. That’s just a guess. I had never experienced that before. But it was a good sign, to me at least, that I didn’t have any other issues with my pack or my body on this descent. I guess my training and preparations paid off once again.
We had a hearty dinner this night and went to bed early. We knew the next day was going to be a long one and we were behind on our rest. The plan would be to move all the way down to Camp 1 tomorrow.
July 1. Day 17 on the mountain.
We woke early on July 1. We had breakfast and broke camp down in a couple of hours and got loaded up for our descent to Camp 3. There would now be four climbers and a guide on each rope. Between word spreading around Camp 4 of the various teams succeeding the day before and the break in the weather, there was a huge traffic jam going up the fixed lines this morning.
It felt good to be going down. We were moving faster and it wasn’t nearly as difficult. We moved down to our cache just above Windy Corner and dug that small cache up as we went by. This was a short stop as not much was here but our helmets. But we took a quick 5 minute stop just the same.
The only issue we had on the move to Camp 3 was at Windy Corner. Just above Windy Corner, maybe technically on the corner itself, Scott threw a crampon. Scott was on the lead rope team, Lauren’s Purple Team. They were ahead of me on Vern’s Orange Team. So everyone was stuck on the trail. Shelley was out front and had a pretty nice view while she waited patiently. Paul was just behind her and took this photo.
Again, luckily, Windy Corner was mild for us and we just hung out checking out the view while Lauren helped Scott get his crampon back on. Once that was fixed, we took off again.
We ran into a bit of fog just above Camp 3. Visibility was pretty bad and I had a hard time picking out landmarks. When we made the left turn at the top of Motorcycle Hill to start the descent I was thinking we must be close, but I couldn’t see any of the rocks around us. Visibility was probably just a few dozen feet or so. It wasn’t until we were half way down Motorcycle Hill that Camp 3 started to come into view. Here’s a photo from Paul as Shelley lead our way into Camp 3.
Camp 3 had changed considerably. Nothing seemed to be where it was when we had been there. The wind walls were all different and this made it difficult to even start to try to figure out where our cache was. We finally figured it out after about 30 minutes of digging at different caches. We also had to dig up two other caches belonging to the two new guys who joined our team. Once everyone got their gear dug up and packed up, we had some time to have some drinks and food. Another AAI team was at Camp 3 when we arrived. They had hot water ready and shared it with us. We filled up our bottles and moved off to Camp 1. All in all, we were at Camp 3 for about 2 hours. By the time we left, the weather was clearing up and the sun came out for our remaining hike down to Camp 1.
Again, here’s another one from Paul. Vern’s Orange Team left Camp 3 first and is visible in the background as both teams approach the Kahiltna glacier at Kahiltna Pass.
The final descent to Camp 1 was pretty quick. Once we moved out onto the Kahiltna, the slope leveled out some and the visibility improved. It turned into a very nice stroll really. We started running into crevasses just below Camp 2. We ran into one that nearly crossed the entire width of the Kahiltna. We had to traverse from the middle of the glacier quite a ways over to the side to get around this one. It was really big. That crevasse wasn’t there when we came up over a week earlier. Here’s a photo that Ryan took as we traversed around the glacier, and below that is the crevasse we went around.
Shelley was still out in front leading our way down. Somewhere just below this large crevasse she finally punched through an ice bridge. Now, there are different levels of falling into a crevasse. The most mild form is just a simple punch through. This is when one leg breaks through, lets say, up to your knee or thigh. It can be a bit scary, but it’s harmless and you just step your way out of the hole. The worst is a full-blown, in over your head, dangling by your climbing rope fall. So, with Shelley punching through, we knew it was starting to get a big dangerous. The fact she punched through up on the upper Kahiltna was scary too. We weren’t even out on the lower Kahiltna yet.
Here’s a little bit from Shelley’s perspective:
It was wonderful to be the first climber out front. I felt like I was the only one out there with all the beautiful scenery in front of me. Kinda like flying. Quite amazing. Until… we reached the glacier fields. Then it feels like you are ‘that guy’ or the ‘red shirt’ that gets to feel out the mine field. The crevasses were everywhere. While the rest were relatively unaware, Paul and I were punching through crevasses quite often. Usually just a foot, sometimes a leg all the way thru with a struggle to get back out. Of course, Vern’s description of how deep these crevasses are was always in the back of your mind. He mentioned that walking across the lower Kahiltna is like walking from roof top to roof top over small ice bridges in New York, with the crevasses being the streets down below. It was not a nice image to think of while leading along. Finally after both Paul and I punched through again and the snow was really getting soft, we asked Vern if it was ok to put on snow shoes so we could disperse our weight a little better. He agreed. It was easier going from there. But, my nerves were shot by the time we got to Camp 1.
We descended down Ski Hill and into Camp 1 around 8:30 pm. As you may remember, we didn’t stay at Camp 1 on our way up. There was only two teams here when we arrived and both teams were sleeping. No one was about. We moved into a camp site that had a dug out hole where a Posh tent had once been. This would be our dining room for the night. Vern and Lauren set up the kitchen here.
Vern made the recommendation to all of us not to set up tents. This would take time to set up and time to break down in the morning. Being it was so late, this would take away from our sleep. So we tossed out our closed, cell-foam pads and sleeping bags and slept out under the stars. It really wasn’t that cold. Maybe around 25 or 30 degrees. It was pretty comfortable actually. So, as long as it didn’t snow much over night, sleeping out wouldn’t be that bad. Here’s Shelley giving us her best “Hot Women of the Kahiltna” pose.
After dinner, Vern called in our last cybercast. Everyone’s spirits were pretty high. We were going to get up early the next morning, to avoid the warmer weather on the lower Kahiltna that would weaken the bridges over the crevasses, and hopefully pull into basecamp and catch a plane home. One more night. One more wake up then we would be back in Talkeetna. Yeah, everyone was pretty excited.
It was 10:30 pm when we crawled into a sleeping bags.
It was 1:30 am when Vern woke us up the next morning.