Tuesday, May 25, 2010
May 14, 2010 - Kahiltna Base Camp, Alaska 7336 feet, 1:06 pm
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.