Sunday, May 30, 2010

May 17 - Mt Frances Upper Basin Camp, 8241 feet, 5:06 pm

Watch for links to video below.

We woke this morning in Kahiltna Base Camp to beautiful sunny weather, and the news that we’d break camp and move up the glacier for a few days. Our goal was to establish a high camp from which we could strike for what we found out will be tomorrow’s objective: the summit of ~11,000-foot Mt. Frances.

The camp move would allow us to cut about three hours of glacier walking time from summit day in an already long 10-12 hour commitment. Exhilarating to ponder.

Then, early tomorrow, we’ll pack light and go crampons-only up a steep snow ramp to gain a narrow saddle, and from there, access to the summit from a beautiful line up the long east ridge of the mountain. The guides say there will be challenging terrain and lots of hard climbing: just what I was hoping for, and my head started going nuts with imaginings.

As for today’s plan, we stripped down everything we don’t need for the next 3 days, put it all in bags, and cached it in the snow under an extra tent Tyler pitched to stake out our camp location for when we return. (We’ll move back into this camp when we get back down the mountain.)

Then we loaded the remaining gak and group gear into sleds—yuck, but necessary—(which we rigged successfully to our packs, lashed, and weighted properly, based on Tyler’s training the day before), and departed up the glacier in three 3-man rope teams. And let’s just say that with Dennis’s departure the day before, it uncomplicated lots of things… :-D

The tip of one of the most aesthetic and beautiful mountains in the area, the Kahiltna Queen (just up the glacier from Hunter) was just visible through a notch between the Radio Tower and the unnamed subpeak next to it. It was then that I realized ever since Tyler pointed it out to me a few days ago, that it had induced Queen’s “Killer Queen” into an endless loop in my head, on permanent repeat ever since, mutating into endless variations: orchestral, swing, rock… and it was coming out in my whistling, too. Weird.

After a few breaks and about 90 minutes of climbing in sweltering heat on the glacier, we crested a final steep-ish rise that terminates in the uppermost headwall of this arm of the Kahiltna. (Never mind that the ambient air temperature was 29 degrees; we were all getting scorched from the intense sun bouncing off every surface on all sides, blasting us with UV radiation from every angle.)

At the top of the glacier, w found ourselves in a vast and deeply crevassed cirque, flanked on all sides by towering, steep cliffs swathed in huge chunks of ice. On our left was the lower portion of Frances, and on the right ,the north ridge of Mt Hunter that we could only partly see below was now fully revealed: sheer, near-vertical walls plunging from near 13,000-feet to the glacier floor.

The guides became all business at this stage: “Nobody move until we say it’s OK,” was the general edict—and it made perfect sense. We were in fresh, untracked snow that they knew were full of potentially big crevasses. And in Alaska, they pointed out, a crevasse isn’t just a little dinky10-15-footer across like you might find on Rainier. No, in Alaska, they can be more like 40-60 feet across; a gaping maw with overhung ice in the interior lip, waiting to swallow you if you step in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They might even “trapdoor” on you sometimes… where the snow bridge across it is stable for most of the way, but suddenly gives way in a small square only beneath your feet, plunging you downward into thin air below and digging the rope into the overhanging snow bridge.
We’d been crossing snow bridges over such crevasses all the way here, but now it was time for them to locate a suitable camp location on stable ground, safe from threat below and avalanche hazard above. Quite an art, blended with science and pure experience. To watch them was electrifying.
All three guides set about probing the area, and after about 20 minutes of watching this very serious and mesmerizing ritual, they began marking off the area with willow wands around a perimeter they deemed safe.

They’d have quick, hushed discussions, then move one or two of the wands, or the line of them. When they’d finished, they cleared us to enter the safe zone and start leveling a platform for the tents, drop our loads and set up camp—but under NO circumstances were we to walk outside the lines marked off by the wands.
We got to work. Clearing a platform for tents on a slope is a matter of grabbing a shovel and moving snow from about 5 feet uphill from you to 5 feet downhill from you. As with many things in mountaineering, the concept is simple: don’t work too hard by shoveling and chucking large chunks of snow like you’re clearing a driveway. Instead, move it by sweeping it only as far as you need to bring down the level of the uphill side and bring up the level of the downhill side, so that eventually (after the group stomps it all down into a reasonably flat space) they meet at level, and yhou have a nice flat space upon which to pitch your tents.

Getting camp set up didn’t take long, and soon we were chilling out in our tents on the advice of our guides once more: hydrate and stay out of the sun for a while.

Oh, and this morning I noticed my shorts were finally getting a little ripe. Yuck. Haha My plan was to change them after I finish writing this, though. :-)

9:11 pm

We just finished dinner and a briefing for tomorrow’s climb. Before dinner, we’d been advised by our guides to just kinda hide out from the sun in our tents to help us recover from today’s hike up the glacier and hydrate for tomorrow’s climb, so Denis and I did just that. We ate, cracked a lot of jokes, and generally goofed off until about 6:30, at which point we were called into the posh house—the camp kitchen/group tent—for avalanche training.

Tyler, as always, was chock full of interesting information, but he sometimes rambles, so I think that one ran a little longer than in needed to :-) Still… I found it fascinating. Actually, it’s not so much that it was too long… it’s just that I really really REALLY had to crap and pee during the entire thing, so that didn’t help matters much. LOL

Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to just get up in the middle of the discussion and disappear for a while haha Besides, at that point, we hadn’t finished digging the igloo for the latrine, and every time I tried to go pee before that, the ENTIRE camp of people would keep walking around me immediately adjacent to the pee hole to see an avalanche, to goof off… whatever. ARGH! I must have tried to pee 5 different times, but nothing goin on down there with such a crowd around haha

Anyway, after that, Tyler briefed us on how the trip up the 55-degree approach slope to the saddle and ridge of Mt. Frances was going to go down tomorrow: we’d be using running belays off of pickets. Without us realizing it, Jason and Mike had departed camp an hour or so earlier and climbed that very slope toward the ridge to put in a trail, cut bootlines and platforms into the ice and snow, as well as set anchor pickets so we’ll have better footing and more solid, work-hardened anchors that have had a chance to freeze in overnight by the time we actually attempt the slope in the morning.

This is serious business, and I can’t BELIEVE how stoked and excited I am to attempt something so ambitious and completely outside any box I’ve ever imagined. Just utterly… beyond words. Must… sleep…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May 16, 2010: Kahiltna Base Camp / Radio Control Tower – 5:30 pm

Watch for links to video below.

About an hour ago, we all walked back into camp from a successful climb of the 8700-foot Radio Control Tower. We woke early (after loading up our packs and prepping last night), shoveled down some breakfast, chatted about the day’s plan, discussed the route a bit, and then tied into the ropes.

For a while, we walked the route up the glacier that we’d blazed two days ago—Frances looming large and triangular and black against the morning sky on our left, the Control Tower standing proudly on our right at the end of a long ridgeline—like the prow of a mighty ship plowing through uncharted, choppy white waters.

As we walked, mists around the mountains came and went, like phantoms that forever haunt the blue hallways of the frozen icefalls, rising from unfathomable blue-ice depths to see the sun, only to be banished again by its warmth.

For a while, we wove a twisting trail through gaping crevasses freshly rounded off—or in some cases covered over treacherously by a few feet of the purest glistening white snow, fluffy and dry as sugar. This time, though, we bore left instead of straight on, and followed a track made an hour or two earlier by an Alpine Ascents team out for a morning climb.

We had a few rest and water breaks, and made transitions from warmer layers to cooler ones as brilliant sunshine finally broke overhead like an incoming tide, turning what started as a bitterly cold (but bright) morning into a blazing hot afternoon crunching through vast sparkling white fields of crystalline untracked snow. I saw the spot where we'd done our first ice climbing and steep terrain training on the 14th, far away and up the glacier. Everything seems so close, but it's not. It's like Vegas... but wayyyy better. :-)

Pretty soon, our path turned steep, and took us sharply upward directly beneath a huge overhanging cliff of fractured ice, and my imagination flared to sickly life as I wondered how one of those building-sized masses of tumbling ice might look if the cliff spat out a chunk and sent it crashing down the steep slope beneath, directly where we stood.
Unfortunately, we were forced to stop in this spot for longer than we’d hoped to help one of our team members catch his breath, as he already seemed out of gas and might have needed to turn back to camp . Shortly, though, the guides came up with a solution and got him moving again so they could get all the rope teams out from under threat of hazard as quickly as possible.

After that, they discussed, and (probably) not wanting to see him fail so early in the trip, instructed him to grab a few snacks, some water, and a puffy jacket and essentially leave everything else (including his pack) behind next to our track, where we’d pick it up on our return down the mountain. He did, and off we went again, climbing ever more sharply.

After a series of steep switchbacks, we crested out on a knife-edged ridge with high-angle exposure of a thousand feet or so off of both sides--and ran into the Alpine Ascents team coming down the track up ahead. A slight traffic jam ensued, but it was mostly orderly, and after we all got it all sorted, our teams plunged ahead for the exhilarating ridge walk that ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for many, including me.

Our next transition point was all business: snowshoes off, crampons on, and pull the trigger for the final approach to the summit. We descended sharply off that crest, then up a long steep slope, down a bit more, and then ultimately climbed the final few hundred vertical feet to a spectacular corniced overlook of the entire theater of peaks in the Kahiltna Base Camp area.

Far below was base camp, and we now had Hunter’s monolithic north buttress (along with the adjacent Moonflower and Mini Moonflower routes) right in our faces, towering menacingly over the landscape, a daunting visual for anyone who dared challenge its face--some of the most difficult terrain in the Range. Also stunning was the Kahiltna Queen, a beautiful, classic pyramid shape a little higher up the glacier.

We sat and stayed for a while, ate some food, and Tyler walked out onto the edge the check the stability of the cornice we stood on, looking for an opportunity for each of us to get out onto the edge of the overlook if possible—and it was.

After a bunch of group photo opportunities, Mike gathered the group out on the lip to talk about features of glaciers… a discussion I won’t soon forget (as he pointed out earlier haha). He used a Snickers bar as a prop, and when you illustrate something with food for me, it all makes sense. :-D It was a very interesting and (as usual) educational discussion.

After an hour or so on the summit, we roped up again and headed down. This time, my rope team was reversed: it was Tyler, me, and Ben on the way up, but now Ben led the way down. We made excellent speed back to camp, and have took some time to learn about sled rigging with Tyler, for application over the next couple of days as we prepare to move camp into the upper basin of this fork of the glacier for another summit attempt on a bigger peak.
I’ve been sharing a tent with my super-cool buddy Denis (the French Canadian one) and the “other” not-at-all cool Dennis—an American ex-military old dude whose only goal ever seems to be to go big, consequences be damned, and who (for example) stood around on today’s summit acting way too cool to snap any photos for fear of looking like he might actually be enjoying himself or something. I dunno…

His awkward influence was felt two evenings ago after dinner, when our guides put the question to us about what OUR goals were, and whether they were meeting them so far. The first (and pretty much only) one to speak up was this guy, suggesting in a derogatory kind of way that this isn’t what he was expecting, that he felt in a nutshell like it was beneath him, and that he was thinking we’d be doing more advanced stuff. Dude, did you NOT read the synopsis of this trip a million times like everyone else here has? Geez... annoying, and kind of insulting, actually. Nice enough, but totally not my kind of guy.

Anyway, he’d apparently had an upper respiratory infection that had progressively gotten worse over the last couple days, and didn’t seem like he wanted to be here anyway, so I guess I can forgive him for some issues… the guy was just trying to get well. Still, when Jason made the announcement that Dennis wanted to fly off the glacier early and go home tonight, I was glad to see the guy go.

So from that perspective, I guess today was completely RAD all the way around. I seem to have tons and tons of energy in reserve for whatever the guides decide to throw at us next, and my interest and excitement levels are at an all-time high. There’s been some discussion of what our next objectives should be, but we’ll find out for sure what the plan is in the morning! Soooo excited.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

May 15 - Kahiltna Base Camp, 10:31pm

Today's plan was to climb the Radio Control Tower, a stunning ~8500 foot spire of snow-jeweled rock adjacent to our climb route yesterday, but we woke to near-whiteout conditions with about a foot of fresh snow on the ground.

All night we could hear huge avalanches roaring down Mt. Hunter across the glacier, and from the towering steeples and spires of Mt. Foraker that looms across the valley. Just before bed last night, in fact, it was still clear out, and we were all hobnobbing outside our tents as my tentmate Denis spotted--and then we all heard a big slide avalanche racing down Mt Hunter's imposing north buttress that towers majestically across the glacier from us.

It was so close, the booming thunder of it took center stage for a few minutes as we all gaped in awe at the sheer size of the blooming snow cloud that spread out, reaching its cold tendrils toward us and blossoming before our eyes into a gargantuan, boiling airborne sea of white water. Utterly spectacular--and even a little scary as they continued to crash menacingly throughout the night. But I digress...

Conditions today were miserable enough for climbing that we instead voted to do a morning of skills training and see what the weather held for us later in the afternoon. (The weather got only only slightly better by late afternoon, but by then, it was too late to undertake the 6-hour roundtrip to the Control Tower anyway).

We gathered in the posh house after breakfast with snow still falling outside and the wind kicking up spindrift as we learned a bunch of knots and hitches and discussed their various purposes. Interestingly, no bowline, but we did the butterfly, the double fisherman for prusik and other uses, clove hitches, Munter hitches, figure 8, figure 8 on a bight, figure 9, a few overhand variants, and the like. Much discussion and demonstration, along with scenarios and practice followed. That was led by Jason, and after that, Mike took us outside to teach us about anchors and their importance. We learned a lot, including the various types, their strengths and weaknesses, uses for each, and more scenarios for setting and equalizing multiple anchor setups.

After a lunch break, we dove headlong into "crack rescue"--crevasse rescue training--led by the insanely knowledgeable Tyler, and for the next few hours, we walked step by step through two methods for extracting a member of your rope team from a crevasse they might have fallen into for whatever reason (and there were TONS of those haha). Fascinating and complex stuff that involves levers, fulcrums, gearing ratios, mechanical advantage of several levels, and LOTS more. My brain is exhausted from it, actually haha but that's not all!

From there, we split up into teams to practice all we had just learned. With such an overwhelming volume of information over the course of the day, though, I must admit I was a bit frazzled and didn't remember everything like I thought I would.

BUT, this being my first EVER exposure to building a 3:1 pulley system using only rope and a few carabiners (and maybe an ascender) all while keeping the "victim" safe from further fall, helping the arresting member of the team to transfer the load of the hanging climber and his gear onto the anchors that we set and equalized ourselves and then hauling him out--I think I did OK. HAHA

Dinner was good... chicken and broccoli in a cream sauce with soup and lots of hot beverages. (Dunno why I wrote that haha)

--and it cleared up enough outside to snap a few really dramatic pictures...

...before it clouded over again. The weather report for tomorrow is promising, and if all pans out like we're hoping, we'll head out for the summit of the Radio Control Tower when we wake. I can still hear the soft ticking of light snowfall on our tent wall, though... but fingers crossed...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May 14, 2010 - Kahiltna Base Camp, Alaska 7336 feet, 1:06 pm

Watch for links to videos below.

All bundled in my fluffy, warm, poofy down sleeping bag at the end of a mentally demanding day, I can now reflect peacefully on one of the most—if not THE most—epic day of my outdoor life.

We woke this morning to a somewhat grey day, but the incredible, vertical rock and ice landscape around me was spiked with patchwork sunshine blazing off every surface, bouncing wildly like pinballs off every angular surface , careening off rocks and snow alike, with no regard for wind, flesh, or conscience that might live—even if only temporarily—in the bottomless neon-blue ice-filled gorges of the Southeast fork of the Kahiltna glacier in which I now find myself.

It was colllllllld. :-) We had some breakfast, but interestingly—and somewhat mysteriously—we didn’t talk much about the plan for the day. Jason, Tyler and Mike just told us to get our gear, and when we reconvened, we walked through some basic training skills: ice axe self-arrest and team arrest to stop falls from pulling the entire team off a mountain; the rest step for conserving the most energy possible while still moving up the mountain at a reasonable pace; pressure breathing for simulating lower altitudes right in the lungs; and a quick primer on gear for the day.

Then it was into our harnesses (I fought with mine a little bit, having only put it on a few times at home before the trip), gathered the clothes we’d need for the day (huge puffy jacket, softshell jacket, hardshell pants and jacket, heavy mittens as a backup in case of a lost glove) plus enough snack food and water to get us through the next several hours. We loaded the packs, strapped on helmets, climbed(struggled) into our (accursed) snowshoes, clipped in to 3 rope teams, and up the glacier we went.

Our guides, we found out later, were not aloof about our destination for the day because they didn’t want us to know where we were going. Rather, it was because the flexibility of this trip allows us to go out and figure those questions out as conditions dictate, to find things somewhat opportunistically, and they themselves were looking for a cool place to take us. And boy, did they find one.

They’d apparently spotted what looked like some good practice terrain up the glacier and to the right, but wanted to get us glacier walking for a few miles so we could get comfortable with the new ice axe and rope travel skills we’d just learned--and probably so they could observe our hiking skills and various fitness levels, as well to see what the overall team strength was like.

We walked and walked, and with ever wider eyes, I watched the terrain develop around us, as though I was an unwitting participant in a gargantuan real-life full-motion Polaroid; and as we walked, objects mammoth and small drifted out of the haze and into full, towering view before my eyes.

I have to say at this point that none of the stories I ever heard before going, none of the pictures I’ve ever seen of the Alaska Range can ever do justice to the sheer scale of everything in it. In such an incomprehensibly vertical setting, stretches of many horizontal miles are reduced to what looks like a mere few hundred yards; and yet the objects whose true distances those many miles mask still consume your entire field of vision, looming over the landscapes that spread before their great feet.

As I lost myself in these thoughts and continued walking, I began to see where we were going: straight toward—and then skirting up and into—a huge icefall of ethereally neon blue and white seracs. Jason, our lead guide, was picking the route, probing expertly for crevasses and potentially unstable snow bridges over them, expertly correcting the route carefully for any new condition he didn’t like.

The canyon narrowed, and it quickly became apparent as we walked into a field of seracs that we were going to wind our way through it. Mike, my rope team guide, was awesome with the occasional look back over his shoulder with gentle reminders, new and interesting information, and general coaching.

Upward we went, twisting this way and that, and as we passed a gargantuan blue glacier ice wall on our uphill left, the real objective became clear. I was in the third rope team, so I could already see the others ascending into an ever more vertical and narrowing canyon full of angular and stilted hallways of glittering ice, jagged, crooked, tilted, crazy funhouse walls lit bright blue from within, some of which looked to my inexperienced eyes as though they might calve away from the glacier and go crashing down the steep slope.

I spotted the groups ahead with packs off, and as we arrived, I looked up—way up—at our next objective: a 50-degree snow slope in perfect condition for steep terrain practice in crampons. Awesome!

Snowshoes off, crampons on, and in minutes, the first rope team headed straight up it, zigging occasionally to avoid hazard or obstacle. Our turn soon came, and up we went, too. Steeper it got, each step lofting us further up and into this insanely beautiful, crystalline blue and white world. To be honest, I had what I believed to be some scary moments when the guy in front of me plunged through the hard snow crust in the most steeply treacherous places, wobbling precariously under the light weight of his pack. I dunno… just didn’t seem like he was paying attention to some of the details Mike kept warning him about. Instead, he lurched frequently, and my heart jumped more than once as he teetered under even the light 20 lb packs we wore. (We later learned that the snow conditions were PERFECT here and hazard from avalanche, serac fall, or crevasse was absolutely minimal or we wouldn’t be here in the first place, but had he made a mistake, he was nevertheless on quite a steep slope and was quite a lot of weight for me as the rope team member immediately below him to stop.) Not fully knowing what to expect coming in, it was scary as hell for a newbie like me, in places.

Anyway, by this time, Tyler, trailing his rope team behind him (including my new buddy, roomie and tentmate Denis) had gained a crest on the wall of ice and snow upon which we stood, and suddenly found any further upward path blocked by a huge, gaping crevasse. At that point, he stopped liking what he was seeing, and later, we learned there were several things that were changing for him in the conditions of that space, and so instead of pushing further, he exercised the very skill I came to develop: he turned his team back.

Ben, the third guy on his rope team who was nearly all the way up the slope didn’t seem to be feeling to comfortable with the descent because his glasses were fogged, so with teams spread out all over the slope, the guides moved to help coach him back into a place of mental confidence so he could kickstep it back down this imposing face. With much coaching, he eventually got back down, but the bottom line is that this was a GREAT learning experience, and it served an excellent purpose for me, because Tyler frequently referred back to this moment throughout the rest of our training, using it as a perfect example of turning back when things just don’t feel right. That special “Spidey Sense”, he calls it.

At any rate, we descended a bit more and made our way over to a small snow and ice wall at the edge of the seracs, where the guides set up an ice climbing route on a sheer wall to start giving us something more vertical and icy to scale and train on. It was AWESOME. I went second, eager to learn, and I reached the top shortly, where they clipped me into a rappel back down the other side. Super educational and thrilling beyond description for me, going steep and vertical on day one. I LOVED it, and my trust in our guides’ skill at this point was already solidified.
Everyone cycled through the route twice, and we got some more verbal instruction on techniques and things to watch out for when chosing a route before heading back to camp for cheeseburgers on *gasp!* a mini bbq! How awesome is that!

After some relaxation and rehydration time, we even got some avalanche entertainment. This one was triggered by overhanging icefall from near the top of Mount Hunter, adjacent to Kahiltna Base Camp.

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 13, 2010 - Talkeetna Alaska, 1:30 pm

Click the pictures below for larger images, and watch for links to video.

What a whirlwind getting from yesterday to this point has been.

Up until today, it's been what seems like an endless wait. 5 months ago, I decided out of the blue that I wanted to do this thing, and I've sorta had it in my head that "it's so far off." Hardly.

In the intervening time, all the training, the imagining, the wondering, and the dreams of big mountains were always in the back of my head--perhaps to the annoyance of everyone around me.There's been lots and lots of time to dial and re-dial my fitness regimen, my gear selections -- even my thinking on how to best prepare for such an endeavor. 

But actual departure, it seemed, was always impossibly far into the future, an unknowable enigma waiting to be discovered, but perpetually distant, always just out of grasp. It only ever peripherally occurred to me that one day, THE day would actually arrive -- but yesterday it at last crossed the ephemeral boundary that exists between dream and reality.

And then, like a gunshot projectile, I find the plans I've so carefully laid no longer sitting before me, but instead now hurling me deep into a colossal void of unknown with a huge smile on my face; a void in which I'm willing--and perhaps more importantly--able to meet whatever challenges await head-on, and do it with newfound knowledge, newfound skill, and a renewed energy to find yet another experiential angle from which to view the meandering path of my life. Every new vantage point I achieve, it seems, reveals in the wake of its discovery an incredible volume of overwhelming nuances, indescribable beauties, stunning realizations about the world I live in, and how I exist within it.

Perhaps it's the large part of my father in me that allows me to see things his way: with wonder, with passion for living, with the same appreciation for even the smallest of things, and for that I'm forever grateful. Yeah, it might also mean I'm easily entertained, easily amazed--but I'll tell you one thing for sure: I'm never bored. HAHA

The world, for me, is an endless source of learning, a bottomless well of knowlegde I try to drink deeply from, a place packed full of penetrating white highs and deep black lows of such emotional, spiritual, and even physical contrast that it makes it more pssible to pay more attention to even the so-called "lesser" stuff in between: the mundane details that make up large portions of our lives. All of them are important, but without the punctuation marks of contrast as roadsigns along the way, I'm not sure I'd be able to decipher the sentences and structure of my life, to read the grammar of living.

So as our erstwhile climbing team sits here in the shadow of the K2 Aviation hangar in Talkeetna, AK waiting for Kahiltna Base Camp weather to clear and nothing but a welcome (if brief) stretch of nothing ahead of me for another hour or so, I find myself reflecting on the last 24 epic hours.

I parked at PayPal, and took a cab to the airport from there--I had a sort of bizarro experience in the cab, too. My flight from San Jose was early but uneventful, from Seattle to Anchorage even less so.

But I caught myself grinning wildly from ear to ear as the lower mountains of the Alaska Range crawled into view over the grey horizon--cackling wildly (even if only in my head) as I met our newly forged climbing team, loosely constructed from a mix of strangers in all walks of life bound together by a common interest.

As I met our team of mountain guides, the adventure officially clicked  into gear from what (until now) has been a perpetually running motor with no drive mechanism. It was really starting, and here I sit, smack in the middle.

As we prepared to load the van yesterday, Tyler, Jason, and Mike (our guides) began introductions all the way around, provided us all with some information about what we're all about to experience, and with every sentence that passed, the excitement--but moreso the heretofore unrealized REALITY of it all began to slot into place in my head like levers that engage  the drive wheels on a locomotive: slow at first, then gaining speed and noise.

We drove, we chatted, and bonds began to form, and the discussion continued. During the course, it became clear that this was to be an all-out experience unique not just to a group of relative newcomers to a sport, but also in terms of mountaineering itself, which is often defined in terms of a single objective at a time: a major summit, a difficult route, a successful ascent in challenging conditions, and so on.

We stopped at the biggest Fred Meyer on the planet for last minute food items, and then headed for a gear drop in Talkeetna, our jumping off point to the glacier, at the airfield so our stuff would be waiting for us when we arrived for a gear check in the morning. Then it was dinner at the West Rib (so named for a climbing route on Denali). We all chatted, shared information about ourselves and our goals, my new French-Canadian buddy Denis and I played some pool, and we all laughed and chatted over huge-ass burgers as we all got to know each other.

We have an interesting mix of guys: a doctor, an EMT, a software engineer, a financial analyst, me, and several other interesting backgrounds. Today, (after an OK night's sleep, despite there being a monster in one of our closets that woke me and Denis both up every time it kicked on) was hurry hurry HURRY! Get up at 6!

Be at the Roadhouse at 7 am sharp so we can get out first thing! Ben (pictured) was there first, then the rest of us -- where we were promptly ganked by a larger RMI team that kept us waiting on our own food for over 45 minutes. Haha Good thing we got up so early, right? Hurry up and wait! Then off to K2! Be there and start laying out your gear!

And so we did... Repack this, strip off that, shave some weight here, make a substitution there -- for a tinkerer like me, this was heaven. I felt like I was already fully prepared and organized in such a way that I was able to find, repack, and repurpose everything quickly, methodically, and lose 20 lbs of gear that would be left behind when we fly.

We were all later commended by Tyler as being the fastest, most efficient seminar group for this stage: no major problems or things missing from anyone's kit. Logistics and recordkeeping followed, after which we changed into our climbing gear, weighed ourselves and the crap we intend to take to the glacier, pile up all the sharps, label,... and then sit.  And sit.

But even as I write this, the group ahead of us, also waiting for the weather to clear, appears to be boarding a plane. I think the wait may be over. Fingers crossed...

Sure enough, our time came, and even though there was a brief delay, the K2 people sent out a probe plane to check the weather, while Tyler and Jason began our training on the grass outside the hangar. We learned how to pitch the Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1 expedition tents -- and then suddenly, our time came. We quickly loaded our gear into large-wheeled carts, whizzed them across the tarmac to a waiting plane, loaded it all up, and climbed in.

"Who wants to ride in front?" was the question from the pilot, and you know how new groups are around each other... not wanting to speak up too soon or too loudly, but I have no such problem. I treated it like a 4-way stop sign in California: everyone else waits too long, and I'll go first, regardless of the order :-) I climbed into the copilot seat, and off we went.

There really aren't words to express the grandeur, the colossality, the magnitude of our destination as the enormous peaks and endless jagged snow-capped teeth of the Alaska Range rolled into sight ahead, brightly lit by dramatic swaths of sunlight streaking back and forth across it's more dominant peaks, leaving the lesser ones in icy shadow. Our pilot guided us up and into a black stormcloud for what I thought was gonna be a crazy ride, even.

Deeper and deeper into the Range we flew--and Denali finally rolled into view, towering above everything else at 20,000+ feet--and then just like that, our plane planted its skis on the Kahiltna glacier, and we were down. Then it was hurry hurry hurry again.

We loaded the gear into sleds and carried it up to a safe, crevasse-free location Jason scouted for us on top of a hill overlooking the glacier in several directions, with the highest plunging face of Mount Frances, a distant Denali, the Radio Control Tower, Foraker and Hunter as our backdrop.

We pitched camp, the guides excavated a beautiful kitchen, we all ate, and we then set about laying plans for tomorrow in a bitterly cold, mindbendingly beautiful setting. More to come...