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.

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