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...

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