The Great One: Going Home

Previous posts on our trip, in order:

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

4, Move’n On Up                                5, Goodbye to the Kahiltna                    6, Now We Start to Climb

7, Feeling the Altitude                        8, Rest and Weather                             9, The Most Spectacular of Days

10, 20,320                                         11, Coming Down

July 2.  Day 18 on the mountain.

We got up very early in the morning at 1:30 am.  The plan was to get breakfast and get going down the glacier.  While packing up we saw a couple of teams already moving down the trail.  So, as early as we were, others were beating us on the trail.  Initially, the weather was a bit foggy, but by 3:30 am the sky cleared up and it turned into a very clear, crisp morning.  It was warming up as well.  The reason for our early morning departure was to try to get off the glacier before it warmed up too much and weakened the ice bridges we would be crossing over.

We didn’t take many breaks on the glacier.  Vern was obviously in a hurry.  I think we stopped twice for actual breaks.  We had other stops, but that was mainly due to people falling into crevasses.  We had two really bad punch throughs on the descent.  Ryan fell in over his head, but got stuck in the hole he fell into so it wasn’t worse and Lauren had her two sleds fall in behind her nearly dragging her over the ledge.  She was pinned to the snow for about 15 minutes with her heavy sleds pulling her down into the snow by her harness.  The rope team kept tension forward so she wouldn’t fall in but she was essentially trapped in place.  Climbers from the rope team behind us were able to help pull her up far enough she could reach back around and pull up her 2 heavy sleds from the crevasse.

When we first started out, there wasn’t many people on the trail with us.  There were two groups ahead of us, and a few behind us, but everyone was pretty spread out.  The photo below shows us on our first break.  Roger was directly behind me on the rope and he was pulling up the rear of our rope.  We were both on Vern’s rope.  Vern was leading our two teams down the trail.

As you can see, the clouds lifted and the morning really turned into a nice day.  I didn’t take any written notes or audio notes during the descent, but I seem to recall this photo was taken about 90 minutes into the day.  You can see the dark shadows in the glacier along the sides of the photo.  Those are tell-tale signs of a hole or crevasse.  Also notice how there really isn’t many people around us.  That would change soon.

We were making quick time on the way down.  We eventually passed the team ahead of us.  I heard later they had someone fall into a hole or crevasse and that slowed them down quite a bit.  They were using a probe to “feel” their way down the trail, which slowed them way down.  Vern just marched us right by them.  Vern seemed to have some type of sonar built-in that showed him the path.  It was still very early in the morning and still cold and the glacier seemed firm, but you could see the signs of holes and crevasses all around us.

After about 2 1/2 hours, the terrain began to change dramatically.

Paul was the second person in line on Lauren’s rope team with Shelley in front of him.  As we made our way down lower, our progress began to slow as Vern became more deliberate about his route.  The trail was no longer well defined, at least to my untrained eye, and it was no longer very straight.  It became very serpentine as we moved around crevasses.

The other thing we had to deal with was our sleds.  They didn’t exactly track perfectly behind us.  If we made a sharp turn to work around a crevasse, the sled would take the shorter route over the crevasse.  As we moved along, you had to turn and guide your sled around the edges as well.  For those of us in the middle of the rope this wasn’t so hard since the climbing rope was threaded through the sled.  But for Roger, at the end of the rope, he had a harder time.  Sometimes it looked like the sled would make it, only to just take off on the ice and head for a crack in the glacier.  Roger had his sled slide in twice.  The first time he didn’t see it coming, after all he was new at this as well.  It took three of us to pull his sled back out as the rope cut into the edge of the lip.  He saw it coming the second time and kept the sled from falling all the way in like the first time and he was able to pull it out by himself.  Knowing that you’re tied into a 50 pound weight going over a crevasse can be a bit nerve racking.

Here’s a photo from Paul as the traffic jam of climbers began to stack up around us.  Lauren’s team was three teams behind Vern’s team.  By this time Vern had passed everyone and was leading everyone down the glacier.  Behind us on Vern’s team was the Chinese team (from our summit day).  Behind them was Richard Parks and Matt Parkes (from our summit day), then Lauren’s team.  (An editor’s note here:  I never learned of Matt’s name until we found this article about Richard’s crevasse fall.  I apologize for not naming him earlier).  In this photo, that’s Richard and Matt directly in front of Shelley.  Richard had a serious fall into a crevasse on the way up the mountain and wanted to be embedded in between our groups for added safety.  Since they were just a 2-man rope team they wanted the added safety of having other teams around them.

These next photos are a combination of mine and Paul’s.  We were the only two taking pictures during the descent down the glacier.  The dark areas are all danger spots on the glacier.

The bottom photo of the two above is a look back up at the summit.  Windy corner, the areas around Camp 4 and Camp 5 are all visible.

Here’s a photo I took shortly after Lauren’s sleds fell in.  Way back in the background is where Lauren is laying on the glacier when she was knocked down by her two sleds weighing on her while they hung in a crevasse hole.  The first photo shows the wagon train of climbers heading down behind us (this is looking up the glacier towards the rear of the line).  The second photo is a close up but was taken after they got Lauren’s sleds out.  In the foreground you see the three members of the Chinese team, then Richard and Matt’s team, then Shelley at the front of Lauren’s rope team.

I don’t remember if Ryan went in before or after Lauren’s sleds.  Watching Ryan go in was pretty scary as one moment he’s walking along and the next moment, poof!  He disappears.  I could hear him yelling for help and could see the top of his pack, so I was happy that he wasn’t down too far.  Vern dropped his pack and went back to Ryan and called up Dorsing from the Chinese team behind us to help.  When Dorsing got up to Ryan, they stood on both sides of the hole and just lifted him back out like taking a cork out of a bottle.  Ryan told us later that the he just plugged the hole he fell in.  Just luck that it was big enough to allow him to fall in and small enough to allow his size (with his pack) to wedge him in from falling farther.  Ryan took this photo of the hole after he got pulled out.

Near the bottom of our descent, where we come off the Kahiltna and climb back up a side glacier to base camp, we took our second and final break.  This last stretch is called Heartbreak Hill.  Named because after descending down the from the summit you have about another 45  to 60 minutes of climbing up hill to base camp.  So, we took a break here.  It was about 7:30 am.  A huge sigh of relief came over a number of us about this time as we thought the worst was behind us now.  It was, but there was still crevasse dangers ahead of us, but not nearly has harrowing.

I remember a of couple scary times coming down this climb.  There were numerous times where we would stop because one or more of Vern’s sleds flipped over due to the rolling landscape you can see in the photos.  The sleds would just flip.  We would have to stop and you’d have to flip it back over and continue.  Doesn’t take long, but you’re stuck where you’re stuck when you stop.  The stops were short enough that I couldn’t get any photos or videos, but long enough to look around and realize how precarious your situation was.  One of these times I looked left and could see the open gap of a crevasse stretching out to my left hundreds of feet and only stopping about 10 feet to my left.  Then looking right and seeing the crevasse starting again about 10 feet or so to my right and stretching out again hundreds of feet.  There I am, standing there on an ice bridge with 70 – 80 lbs of gear in my pack and sled, knowing I’m over a deep crevasse.

This made for some tough decisions.  You didn’t want to stop on a bridge, but you couldn’t move forward to get off as you would create slack in the line for the guy in front of you.  This would allow him to fall much farther then otherwise if you kept the slack tight.  I chose to keep the slack tight and figure if I’m standing there and it hadn’t broke yet, maybe it would hold.

On numerous other times I’d be moving along and see a bridge coming up and just as you arrive at it to cross, you notice a foot print where the person in front you punched through, but didn’t fall in.  Obviously that was a weak spot and it was right in the middle of the path.  So, do you step to the right of that hole and hope it doesn’t break, or do you step to the left of that hole and hope it doesn’t break.  There were dozens of these moments for me coming down.  And I was the fourth person in line.  How would you like to be Shelley (10th in line) or any of those other teams farther behind and be the 30th person to step on that bridge?

So, while sitting there on our last break I reflected on this and enjoyed my little snack knowing that the worst was behind us with no one getting hurt.  During our break, one of the Chinese climbers was a bit anxious to get to base camp and was yelling at Vern that he wanted to get moving.  Vern, sitting there on his pack with his leg crossed and eating a little snack just yelled back at him, “You want to go first?  Go ahead!” and waved his arm forward in a windmill motion.  The Chinese climber sat down.  No one wanted to go first.  That moment, more than any other moment, is a perfect example of just how harrowing this descent was.  It also shows just how experienced and confident  (crazy?) Vern was.

After a nice long break, we took off up Heartbreak Hill.  It wasn’t that much of a climb, but it just sucks going up hill one last time.  Way back on day 3 on the mountain we heard an update over the radio that basecamp was moving further up the glacier due to softening and crevasse conditions where we landed.  Although Lisa’s tent was still in the same spot, the landing strip had moved up the hill about 1/4 mile or so.

We arrived at Lisa’s tent at approximately 8:30 am.  When we arrived we learned why it’s important to be first to Lisa’s tent.  The first one to arrive gets their name on the fly list first.  So, since our team got to her first, we get the first plane out of basecamp.  The Chinese were second and Richard was third.  The weather at basecamp was pretty nice when we arrived.  However, Lisa informed us that the weather back at Talkeetna was not so nice.  In fact, no one was flying.  So although basecamp was open, no one could get out of Talkeetna.  It was just the opposite conditions from when we took off 18 days earlier.  Now there was a good chance that we would be stuck at basecamp waiting for the weather to clear in Talkeetna.  Crazy.

So, we dug up our small cache we left back here upon our arrival.  This didn’t consist of a lot of stuff for the team.  But Vern had a large cache consisting of a large plastic tote that he left here all season since he spends so much time on the mountain each year.  So, we got our names on the fly list and moved on up the last 1/4 mile to the landing strip.  Once we got to the landing strip it was time to blow off some steam and relax.  Richard had left a 5th of Maker’s Mark in his cache at basecamp and soon broke the bottle out and started passing it around.  Everyone took a shot or two.  Our nerves were frayed after the crevasse field.   We just sat around and talked for a little while and started to unwind.

We had a lot of work to get done before we could fly.  Our bags had to be consolidated, weighed and tagged for the flight.  We had to stack all our sleds and tie them together.  We had to consolidate all our food bags into fewer bags.  We spent a couple of hours weighing, packing and organizing everything for the plane.  All the while watching as our sunny morning slowly turned overcast as the clouds moved in and lower on top of basecamp.  It began to look like basecamp would end up closing.

Many of those at basecamp knew they weren’t going home this day.  Those that arrived near the back of the pack had a pretty good idea they were stuck there and began setting up their tents and settling in as comfortably as they could.  After a few hours Vern and Lauren decided we needed to set up the cook tent to give us a place to lay down.  Then it started to rain.  Oh man.  The mood changed pretty quickly.  After spending three days in Talkeetna just trying to get here, now we were looking at extra days here just trying to get home.  Here’s a photo Ryan took of basecamp before we got our cook tent set up.  That’s all our gear in the foreground and the low clouds in the background.

There was nothing for us to do but wait.  We had a small chance of getting a plane in so we couldn’t unpack our sleeping bags or tents.  So we crawled into the cook tent with our closed cell-foam pads and took a nap.  One rule to mountaineering is to remember that the summit is the half way point.  You still need to come down.  I think our team was pretty focused during the descent.  No one really let up during the descent.  No one mentally or physically “crashed” after the summit.  But now that we were at basecamp, at the bottom, all the adrenalin that was still left vanished.  We only got 3 hours of sleep on the 30th, maybe 6 hours on the 1st and just 3 hours the night before.  Now that we knew we were “done”, we really were done.  We were all exhausted.

The hours passed and Vern, who was checking in with Lisa via the radio every hour or so, came in and told us Paul was going to try to fly in.  But we needed to prep the landing strip first so it was safer for him to land.  So, everyone at basecamp came out of the tents, put on their snowshoes and lined up on the airstrip to “stomp out” the landing strip.  We would walk up and down the landing strip trying to stomp down the huge ruts in the snow that could cause the skis on the plane issues.

While stomping out the landing strip we heard that Paul was, in fact, in the air on his way to basecamp.  If the low clouds could hold back, eight of us would be on that flight.  The eight would include Scott, Paul, Ryan, Roger, Shelley and I.  We were the first team to arrive at basecamp.  But Vern and Lauren would not be coming home on that flight with us.  Two military combat wounded veterans from Iraq were in basecamp too.  They were part of a mountaineering program for wounded veterans.  I never learned the name of the organization.  Vern and Lauren would be giving up their two seats to the two veterans and would take the next flight out.  If there was a next flight.

While we waited for Paul’s plane we took our team photos.

Ryan took this photo of himself with Richard (on the left) and Matt.  If you haven’t already, head over to Richard’s 737 Challenge website and check out his accomplishment.

The clouds held off and Paul did make it into basecamp.  His first approach was a touch and go.  My guess is he just wanted to test the landing strip and make sure he could take off once he did land.  After he did his touch and go he radioed to Lisa that the strip was good and she relayed that to Vern who told us all he was going to come in and get us loaded up.  We were going home.

What a relief it was to be airborne.  Everyone was pretty excited and at the same time pretty sad that Vern and Lauren couldn’t come with us.  The 45 minute flight back to Talkeetna was uneventful.  We were tied into the plane’s intercom and Paul was telling us how the weather had really deteriorated between the time he took off and now when he was going back.  He was concerned he would have to fly pretty far south to get around the low clouds so he could descend below them.  He told everyone to keep their eyes open for a hole in the clouds.  When he finally found one he corkscrewed the plane right down through the opening and below the cloud layer.  That was pretty fun.  Even Shelley enjoyed it.

We arrived in Talkeetna to rain.

We collected our clothes from our bags we left behind and Shelley and I took an impromptu face bath in the sink of TAT’s bathroom.  We put on some jeans, delayered our climbing clothes and got out of our boots and socks just to get comfortable.  We still had showers waiting for us back at Fireweed Station.  I’m not sure how it was arranged, but we also had a van waiting for us at TAT.  I think Vern called back to Willi and had Willi arrange a ride for us.  The van would take us where ever we wanted to go to get something to eat in Talkeetna.  We chose this, of course.

We ate and we drank and we toasted Vern and Lauren.  Willie and his wife eventually showed up with another van and our bags.  They joined us at our table and put no pressure on us to leave.  They just hung out with us till we were good and ready to leave.  We were there for a while.  Willie also brought with him the official news that Vern and Lauren were not getting out of basecamp this day.  The weather had socked in on basecamp after we left.

After we got our fill of food and beer, we piled into the van and moved over to AAI’s hanger where we turned in our rental gear and tossed out our trash and extra food we didn’t eat and/or didn’t want.  They took these food scraps and gave them to a local pig farmer.

We got back to Fireweed a bit late.  We took our showers and packed our bags for tomorrow’s flight.  Then all of us hung out together for a few hours in the living room.  We were so glad to be where we were.  But none of us could help but think about Vern and Lauren still stuck at basecamp in a tent and sleeping bag while we were clean and warm in a comfortable bed.  It just didn’t feel fair after doing everything together as a team for the last three weeks.

July 3.  Day 1 off the mountain.

The next morning we had breakfast made by Tom and Hobbs and our van arrived early to take us to the airport.  Shelley and I had chosen a flight that didn’t leave till July 4.  This was just in case we needed an extra day on the mountain or another emergency.  We were unable to change our flight, so we spent the day in Anchorage.  We found a decent hotel downtown, near the airport and had dinner at the Glacier BrewHouse.  That was pretty nice.  Shelley had her wallet fall out of her jacket pocket here too, but didn’t notice it till the next morning when we were leaving for the airport.  Of course, at that time of the morning the restaurant wasn’t open.  She didn’t have any credit card or ID with her and we needed to catch a plane.  Luckily, the TSA people at the gate were super nice.  They had a process for these sorts of things and separated the two of us while they confirmed her identity.  After a short 15 minute delay, they let her pass through the checkpoint.  However, once we got to Seattle, none of the restaurants in the airport would serve her alcohol or even let her in the bar area because she didn’t have ID.  The restaurants did not have a process in place for this.  However, I had my ID and my Leavenworth Whistling Pig Hefeweizen was very good.

The Glacier BrewHouse eventually got Shelley’s message she left and called her back.  Her wallet had been turned in and they were going to mail it back to her.  We ran into a lot of different people up in Alaska, both in Anchorage and Talkeetna.  Everyone was really nice and helpful no matter what the questions or problems we had.  The wallet was returned safe and sound and completely intact (even though I had told them to take out $40 for their trouble).

Our family had set up a welcome home party for the Fourth of July.  I think Shelley and I were still a little exhausted from the flight back from Alaska as well as the entire expedition.  Shelley and I were watching AAIs website for updates on Vern and Lauren during our travel home.  By the time of our party, Vern and Lauren were still stuck at basecamp.  We couldn’t help but think about how they got us down the mountain on July 1 and through that crevasse field to get us to Lisa’s tent first.  How close did we come to sitting in the snow at basecamp for the last couple of days.  Instead we were sitting on our deck at home in the 90 degree weather of Boise at a barbecue.  They would finally get out on the afternoon of July 4th, but we wouldn’t learn that till the next day.

Shelley went back to work on July 5th.  I took a couple more days off, just for fun.

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