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.

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