Wednesday, October 1, 2014

SKI DENALI - PART 3 (Skiing Rescue Gully and West Rib/Orient Express)

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Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!"
-Oh The Places You'll Go, Dr. Seuss

On my mountain.
On my mountain.

Ski Denali - Part 3: Camp 14

Planning and patience - key elements for a successful ski-mountaineering expedition.  Up to this point, our entire time climbing Denali had involved storms with short windows of clear weather.  This pattern only continued upon our arrival at Camp 14.  The storminess was a double edged sword.  It simultaneously made the lines we wanted to ski both skiable and un-skiable.  The lines needed snow to cover the glacial ice, but we could not ski the lines (or get to them) while it was snowing.

Retrieving our deeply buried cache at Windy Corner.
Retrieving our deeply buried cache
at Windy Corner.
After some discussion about logistics and timing, Josh and I planned to wait for weather windows and take advantage of them even if they were small.  This required flexibility, preparedness to leave at a moment's notice and a willingness to turn around if conditions changed.

But, first things first.  Before we could do any skiing missions on the upper mountain we needed the rest of our food from the cache near Windy Corner.  On our second full day at Camp 14, cache retrieval was our primary objective.

Things went smoothly.  Even at a leisurely pace and with an extra-deep burial (thanks to all the new snow) our cache retrieval took a mere hour and 30 minutes, round-trip.  We returned to Camp 14 feeling strong and eager to make a plan for skiing missions.  We were acclimatizing well and hopeful to get on Denali's higher reaches as soon as possible.

For the remainder of the day we spent a lot of time talking to others about conditions above 14000'.  Josh knew many of the guides who were leading groups on the mountain, and he spoke with several of them.  In particular, Tyler Jones was a huge help.  He gave us advice for different descents, how to approach them and what to look out for.  During our entire time at Camp 14 he was a great resource and friend to us.  We owe him many thanks.

I was fortunate enough to meet Kilian Jornet and his crew.  It was a pleasure to shake hands with the man who had set the new speed record for ascent and descent of Denali a few days prior.  He and his whole crew had been skiing the upper mountain for the past week and were a willing source of helpful information.  A few hours before our meeting they had finished skiing part of the West Rib and Orient Express.  They highly recommended it, reporting the snow to be soft and more than ample to cover the ice.

Reports of good snow I was getting excited.

They had also skied Rescue Gully during Kilian's record setting ascent/descent and gave the impression that the snow was adequate, meaning sufficient enough to cover the glacier ice.  Since then it had snowed quite a bit more, so Rescue Gully's snow was likely in good shape, too.

Potential for a second line with good snow...I could feel my heart race with enthusiasm.

After all this good news I was feeling optimistic when I asked them if they knew about conditions in the Messner Couloir.  The Messner is a massive, steep, and consistent line that aesthetically plunges from above 19000' directly into Camp 14.  It is the marquee ski descent on Denali, and it had been several years since anyone had reportedly skied it.  When Kilian's crew told me they turned around at the Messner's entrance because of icy conditions my heart sank a little.

For years I had stared at pictures of the Messner Couloir, imagining what it would be like to ski its enormous, committing fall-line.  I pictured myself arcing turns from its entrance to the choke, weaving my way through the choke and finishing my signature by racing down its apron towards Camp 14.  Our expedition could be a success without skiing the Messner, but the Messner was truly the dream.

I was thankful that snow was filling in other ski routes, but I was literally praying for snow to fill the Messner.

Ski Denali - Part 3: West Rib/Orient Express

After 2 days of acclimatization and sitting in storms, we were ready to do some training on the upper mountain above Camp 14.  We planned our first training day to be a climb up the lower part of the Orient Express towards the West Rib, climbing the West Rib until it reconnected with a higher part of the Orient Express, and descending from there.  This would give us an opportunity to test our lungs, get a feel for timing, determine how much food we would need for a summit attempt, and get a quality ski descent.

This heavy beast was my light pack.
This heavy best was my light back.
We kept our eyes on the weather all morning, seeing clouds roll in and out with no significant storming.  After lunch we felt confident enough in the weather and decided to head out.  I got my "light pack" ready for our ski-mountaineering mission, and it made me chuckle.  There seems to be no way around hauling a lot of weight when one is skiing Denali.

Once we got out of camp and on the Orient Express, we moved relatively swiftly to the West Rib despite having to navigate several tricky crevassed sections.  Our swift pace was largely due to Josh.  In the winter, Josh spends most of his ski days guiding on glaciers in Canada.  Although I have plenty of experience on glaciers, I do not navigate them nearly as often as my good friend. Josh's experience, knowledge and ability to quickly "read the glacier" with tremendous accuracy was a huge boon for us.

There are no shortage of crevasses on Denali.
There are no shortage of crevasses on Denali.
Denali's West Buttress comes into view from the Orient Express.
Denali's West Buttress comes into view
from the Orient Express.

On the West Rib.
On the West Rib.
When we reached the West Rib we went from climbing on a windless glacier to climbing in the wind on mixed snow and rock.  The temperature swing was certainly noticeable but nothing that adding an extra layer didn't solve.

A windy ridge with a mix of rock and snow, the West Rib felt like climbing in the Colorado Rockies.  Unfortunately, we also encountered the snowpack that one often find's in the Colorado Rockies.  We were making great progress up the West Rib when we encountered questionable avalanche conditions near 17000'.  The wind had created a significant and fairly tender slab.  Attempts to find a suitable or worthwhile way around the hazard were fruitless.

Looking to the Southwest from the West Rib.
Looking to the southwest from the West Rib.
To put it simply, the risk of continuing was simply not worth the reward.  We both wanted to continue so we could get a larger, more glamorous descent, but our wealth of experience in the mountains has disciplined us to be self-critical and recognize our folly if we start thinking that way.  It has taken Josh and I years of practice in the mountains to be able to make these sorts of objective decisions - and make them well.  I am 100% confident that we made the wise decision when we turned around.

Josh climbing the West Rib.
Josh climbing the West Rib.

West Rib snow pit at 17000' - confirming our decision to turn around.
West Rib snow pit at 17000' - confirming
our decision to turn around.
Josh on the West Rib.
Josh on the West Rib.

After a short down climb we were skiing down the West Rib and into a soupy fog on the lower Orient Express.  The snow was fantastic and the skiing was quite fun, but the low visibility meant slow going in the heavily crevassed terrain.  Josh, again, did a wonderful job of leading the way and picking a safe route through the cracks.

We were 3-for-3 for skiing powder on Denali!

Skiing on the West Rib.
Skiing on the West Rib.
Skiing the lower Orient Express in flat light.
Skiing the lower Orient Express in flat light.

Ripping turns below the crevasse hazard on the lower Orient Express.
Ripping turns below the crevasse hazard on the lower Orient Express.

Josh and I both felt great, physically and mentally, as we skied into camp.  This had been our first venture into the higher altitudes of the mountain, and our bodies handled it well.  Furthermore, although we had to turn around a little early, morale was high because we had just finished our first training on the upper mountain and got to ski great snow.

High five for a successful training day.
High 5 for a successful training day.
Josh Smith - gourmet mountain chef.
Josh Smith - gourmet mountain chef.

The next day, while sitting in a storm, we discussed at length how the rest of the expedition may unfold.  This included how much more training we could do before making a summit attempt, what that training would be, and what kind of snow conditions we'd need in order to ski the Messner Couloir.

Ski Denali - Part 3: Rescue Gully

On our sixth day at Camp 14 we woke, as expected, to snow and wind.  Thinking the snow would last the entire day, we spent a leisurely morning in the tent eating, reading, napping and playing cards.  Although we were physically relaxed, there was certainly mental anxiety.  It had been storming so often, with more storms in the forecast, that we were unsure if we would have the opportunity to even attempt summiting.

Leaving Camp 14, heading towards The Headwall on the West Buttress Route
Leaving Camp 14, heading towards the
Headwall on the West Buttress Route.
Shortly after eating lunch Josh got out of the tent to stretch his legs.  What he saw surprised both of us; the weather had unexpectedly cleared.

We were eager to take advantage and use this window to do our final training day.  We had already determined that we would attempt to ski Rescue Gully for our final training so we quickly arranged our gear and got on route.  Rescue Gully is a steep, narrow and short couloir that opens onto a steep, glaciated face.  The entrance to the couloir is just outside of High Camp (17,200') and the bottom of the line leads directly back to Camp 14.  Because of its directness from High Camp to Camp 14 this route was once used to lower people on a sled, via an enormous cable, during rescues.  Thus, it received the monicker Rescue Gully.

Transitioning from skins to crampons at the fixed lines.
Transitioning from skins to crampons at the fixed lines.
The weather was warm and perfect for climbing.  Before we knew it we were on top of the Headwall and its fixed lines, moving along the ridge towards Washburn's Thumb and High Camp.  We were making good time until, near Washburn's Thumb, I was crippled with gastrointestinal distress. I'm not sure if it was a reaction to the altitude, something I ate, or something else, but with each step I felt like I was being kicked in the gut.  It slowed our progress significantly.  From where we were, the quickest way back to the tent was to finish the climb and ski Rescue Gully, so we continued forward.

I would not let a little bit of discomfort ruin the otherwise incredible experience I was having in such an amazing place.  I gritted my teeth, clenched my cheeks, and pushed forward with a smile on my face.

Josh at the top of the fixed lines.
Josh at the top of the fixed lines.
Ridge walking above the fixed lines.
Ridge walking above the fixed lines.

Foraker looking pretty above the clouds.
Foraker looking pretty above the clouds.

Washburn's Thumb.
Washburn's Thumb.
High Camp on the right, Denali Pass on the left, The Autobahn in between.
High Camp on the right, Denali Pass
on the left, The Autobahn in between.

As we clicked into our skis and prepared to descend Rescue Gully I was excited and singularly focused.  No longer did the pain in my abdomen bother me.  I simply couldn't allow it.  I had to focus on the task at hand...and it was an intense and enjoyable task.

Firm conditions at the entrance to Rescue Gully.
Firm conditions at the entrance to Rescue Gully.
The first bit of Rescue Gully was firm and icy.  We carefully scraped our way through a large runnel until we reached a point at which the runnel was smoothed out enough to make turns.  Shortly after that, there was an abrupt change in conditions.  We were in powder...again!

These were the sorts of ski-mountaineering conditions that people dream about.  Steep, stable and deep on a big remote line.  We were so fortunate to be in the position that we were in, and we took advantage of it.

For much of the descent Josh and I made fast turns, leaving clouds of snow in our wake.  Between deep gasps of air that fueled our oxygen-starved lungs, we let out little hoots and hollers.  There were a couple spots where ice was a concern, but we were prepared for them and managed them well.  After crossing our last major crevasse, we traversed back to the Headwall section of the West Buttress Route.  We were all high 5's and smiles.  We could hardly believe what we had just experienced.

We were now 4-for-4 for skiing powder on Denali.

Making turns at the abrupt conditions change.
Making turns at the abrupt conditions change.
Steep and soft.
Steep and soft.

Soft and steep.
Soft and steep.
Slashing a turn on Rescue Gully.
Slashing a turn on Rescue Gully.

This is Alaska skiing.
This is Alaska skiing.
Crossing a crack.
Crossing a crack.

Traversing towards the West Buttress Route.
Traversing towards the West Buttress Route.
Small people in a big place.
Small people in a big place.

High 5!
High 5!
High morale, high 5.
High morale, high 5.

Morale was high after an amazing Rescue Gully descent, but we still hoped to summit the mountain and descend via The Messner couloir.  That was our primary objective.  For the next two days we waited as more storms pounded the mountain.  We used every small break in the weather to observe and examine The Messner.  We took pictures and studied them; picking out areas of wind loading and areas of potential ice.  We discussed strategies for avoiding the hazard and what conditions would need to be like for us to "make-the-call" to ski it.  We were mentally preparing ourselves for what we hoped lay ahead.

A typical view of the weather forecast during our stay at Camp 14.
A typical view of the weather forecast
during our stay at Camp 14.
Visiting the Ranger's camp during a small break in weather.
Visiting the Ranger's camp during a
 small break in weather.

Now all we needed was a weather window.

Below are the raw journal entries from the above seven days.  I wrote these on my phone while I was on the expedition and I have not edited them at all, save for some typos.

June 13, 8:50 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

Today was a great day of rest and acclimatization at 14k Camp.  After writing last night I began to crash pretty hard.  I was dehydrated, running low on food, and tired from the slog from Motorcycle Hill Camp.  As soon as I started to go downhill it happened fast.  I got a headache, nausea, and had trouble keeping my body temp up.  After food, a bunch of water, warm clothing and some sleep I was feeling much better.  I'm very thankful to Josh for his help.

Today was spent hydrating and getting settled at 14k Camp.  It was snowing lightly all day so views were limited but we did get some glimpses at the lower parts of the upper mountain.  We're hopeful that the current snow will stick to the lower flanks of our desired ski lines.  The more the better right now.  We need the ice to be thoroughly covered if we are going to ski them.

The forecast for the next few days is for storms, so we'll likely be sticking around camp for the most part.  Hopefully it will help us get our red blood cell count up before we try for higher on the mountain.  Tomorrow we plan on going to get our cache, which won't be too strenuous but should be some enjoyable light exercise.  Plus, it will be nice to get the rest of our food, we're getting low.

I'm retiring a little early tonight in hopes to get my body back in tip-top shape.

June 14, 8:15 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

The weather today could not make up its mind.  It never got sunny, but it bounced back and forth between snowing and not snowing, and hot and cold.  Thankfully it wasn't windy (knock on wood!).

Our big activity of the day was the retrieval of our cache by Windy Corner.  Even though we were moving at a casual pace it only took us 1.5 hours, which I was pretty pleased with.  It also felt really good to get out of the tent and get some exercise, albeit mild.  I felt quite good and I think I'm acclimatizing well so far.  Hopefully the weather breaks soon and we can start making trips to the upper part of the mountain.

Speaking of future weather, it looks like we are in another string of storm days.  That's kind of good because hopefully it will put snow on our desired ski routes (covering the glacial ice).  But, this snow may not be sticking to the ice, or it might not be snowing above us, in which case these weather days are eating into our schedule without a whole lot of benefit.  Having all of our food with us now (because of retrieving the cache) will certainly give us an idea of how much time we have left to attempt summiting.

I'm praying for the wisdom to make wise decisions, given the conditions and other factors, that hopefully lead to our having a successful trip and returning home happy.

June 15, 11:00 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

Today was our first day being able to get out and do some training on the upper mountain.  The forecast from the NPS given last night was for snow and clouds today, so we didn't wake up early.  When we did wake, however, we saw blue skies above us and decided it was a good opportunity to take advantage of training on the upper mountain.

We leisurely got ready and were out of camp by 2:45 pm.  Our plan was to climb the Orient Express to the West Rib and then descend where the two routes reconnect at around 17,000'.  The issue we rand into upon leaving was that our visibility, which was clear 15 minutes before departure, was no socked in the clouds.

Due to the low visibility we got off trail early, but made our way back on trail, basically where we started from, at roughly 3:30 pm.  From there it was pretty smooth sailing.  We climbed up the lower portions of the Orient Express with relative ease, crossing a few stomach curbing crevasses and made it to the West Rib at roughly 16,300'.  The whole way to the West Rib was pretty cloudy with only short glimpses of the mountain and routes that were around us.  When we reached the West Rib we got lucky for about 5 minutes.  Many clouds parted and we were able to see back down to camp, the West Buttress, some of the upper sections of Denali and some burly peaks to our south...terribly beautiful.

We enjoyed the views briefly before the clouds rolled back in and then got moving uphill again, scrambling over rock, snow and some ice on the West Rib.  At this point we were in a stiff and cold wind climbing along a ridge.  Just shy of 17,000', where the West Rib reconnects with the Orient Express, we encountered a very concerning wind slab.  We dug in the snow for a while and talked about the likelihood of an avalanche and decided that it was not worth continuing.  We couldn't really find a route up from where we were that wouldn't be effected if the slab avalanched.

So, we down climbed the route we had come up and got to a place along the West Rib where we could get our skis on.  When we pushed off for our ski descent it was 8:30 pm.  We made our way from the West Rib to the lower flanks of the Orient Express in very low visibility.  If visibility had been good this would have been rather casual.  But, given the visibility we were constantly trying to make out where our next crevasse crossing would be.  Fortunately, everything went without incident and we even got to enjoy some soft powder turns.

When we rolled back into camp at 9:15 pm we were thrilled with how the day went - we had a good training on the upper mountain making it almost to 17,000', via a somewhat difficult route, in 5 hours (with down climbing) and we bot felt healthy and energetic.

We ate dinner upon our return and now I'm settling in for a much earned night of sleep.

June 16, 7:45 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

Today was a weather and rest day.  It has given us a lot of time to recover and reflect on how the trip has gone.  It has also given us a lot of time to plan and think of the future of our expedition.  We are 2/3 of the way through our planned amount of time on the mountain.  The weather has been really variable with lots of storms and small weather windows for moving.  From reports that we heard today it looks like the rest of the trip might be the same - more storms and short periods suitable for travel.

With incoming storms and short weather windows we will not have the luxury of being able to do many more training trips or be able to check out the conditions of the lines we'd like to ski.  Our biggest concern is thin layers of snow on top of glacial ice.  The lines we'd like to ski are very much "within the box" if the snow conditions are right on them.  Everything hinges on conditions.  If the conditions are not proper then the lines become much more dangerous.  One slip on glacial ice can mean a fall several thousand feet and landing at the bottom of a crevasse.  Many of the lines around here only come into condition every once in a while, and it is hard to know exactly when they are in proper condition unless you are on them.

We've spent a good portion of the day trying to decide how we will spend the next few days and how we will make go/no-go decisions on our desired lines when the time comes.

I'm praying for wisdom and guidance to make wise decisions that will allow me to get home safely to my wife and daughter.  I miss them greatly.

June 17, 8:40 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

Today was what it's all about.  The forecast for the day was for storms and wind.  When I woke and got out of the tent at 9:00 am it was certainly snowing hard (6" had already fallen) and windy.  We had a leisurely morning in the tent, ate breakfast and hung out a bit.  Then, Josh got out to go to the bathroom and noticed that things had changed significantly.  We had clear skies all above 14,000' and the wind was gentle.  We decided to get our stuff together and make use of the weather while we had it.

We left camp at 2:30 pm and made our way up the West Buttress route along with what seemed like the entire population of 14k Camp.  Everyone was surprised at how different the weather was from the forecast.

Our plan was to head to High Camp at about 17,200' and ski a line called The Rescue Gully - a steep chute that opens onto a large, crevassed glacier and drains back to 14k Camp.

We made good time from camp up The Headwall to the bottom of the fixed lines.  We took a few extended breaks because the weather was actually scorching hot during the periods of sunshine.  At the fixed lines we transferred from skinning to booting.  We would boot the rest of the way to High Camp.

Shortly after reaching the top of The Headwall and making our way along the ridge to Washburns Thumb I started having some gastro-intestinal distress.  Usually I find this sort of thing amusing (mature, I know) but this was actually very painful.  It slowed me down a lot even though I felt like I had plenty of strength in my legs and lungs.

When we reached High Camp and transitioned to our skis it was 7:30 pm.  We had some food and water and by the time we dropped in it was 8:00 pm on the nose.  As we got to the entrance of The Rescue Gully the clouds parted and we had beautiful light.

The entrance to The Rescue Gulley was firm, narrow and steep.  But, once past the entrance we were able to rip powder turns down nearly the entire face.  It was a legit line with good pitch and exposure.  We were weary of glacial ice that might be buried just below the surface, but I only hit two very small patches that were of no consequence.

Josh, as usual, did a fantastic job of navigating the crevasses.  I appreciate it a tremendous amount.  Living in Colorado I simply don't have the opportunity to deal with crevasses/glaciers often and he does it on an almost daily basis living in British Columbia and working on Mount Rainier.  I'm happy to defer to his judgement - there is no place for my ego up here.

We skied back into camp elated.  That is the type of skiing we came here for!  I took care of my gastrointestinal issues while Josh looked for his ice axe that went missing somewhere on the lower part of The Headwall (he found it).

What a day.  I'll sleep well tonight.

June 18,  8:00 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

We are listening to the weather forecast that is broadcast by the NPS over the radio right now, but it feels like we're doing it in vain.  Since we've arrived here the NPS broadcast forecast has been laughably bad.  For instance, today was supposed to be snowing 6-12" with high winds, but it has been sunny and still.  Today was a rest day for us because of yesterday's adventures, but it definitely could have been a summit day for us if we had planned differently.  It is starting to frustrate us.

Right now we are planning to do our summit attempt on the 20th.  As of now the forecast is calling for a chance of snow and minimal wind.  Wind and visibility are going to be extremely important for us.  We have our fingers crossed that it will work out on the 20th.  It will likely be our only shot, but we might be able to do a second attempt if we don't make it on the 20th.

I still battled with a bit of gastro-intestinal problems today and I'm recovering well.  It definitely dehydrated me and exhausted me a bit.  Even small sickness in this environment is no joke.  I'm optimistic that by the 20th I'll be in tip-top shape for a summit bid.  Hydrating, eating well and sleeping well between now and then are going to be key for a successful summit day.

On that note, time for some food and water.

June 19, 2:45 pm: 14k Camp, 14,200'

We've decided that we will, in fact, attempt to summit Denali tomorrow.  So, today has been spent and will continue to be spent doing 4 things; (1) resting, (2) stretching, (3) eating/drinking and (4) packing.

I'm making plenty of water right now so we can hydrate well.  We want to get everything ready for a fast and efficient departure in the early morning, too.  I've planned out my food for tomorrow, packed most of my outerwear, packed a stove and will get everything else ready for tomorrow before going to sleep.  We're planning on turning in shortly after 8:00 pm tonight.

I hope I can sleep, tomorrow's going to be a big day!

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