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…

1 comment:

  1. Inspirational dood. It's nice to escape to another world.