Thursday, August 12, 2010

Epilogue: Talkeetna, AK - May 22, 2010

Watch for links to video below, and click on pics for larger versions.

I woke this morning with a pretty good headache, and I look (and sorta feel) like death haha. Too much partying last night, I guess haha. I didn't get to bed until deeeeeeep into the morning hours... people kept buying round after round and slamming 6-ers on the table! What's a boy supposed to do? Sheesh. I think Denis and I were some of the last few people left in the Fairview Inn at closing time.

Luckily, some extra special anti-hangover medicine was made available at the table, and actual food included another pair of those mindblowing cinnamon rolls from the Talkeetna Roadhouse. After that, we all went back to the TeePee to get our crap and met in a back alleyway behind Denali Overland Transport--a weird combination of gift shop and shuttle service--to load up the van for the drive back to Anchorage. And already I longed for just one more look at the terrifying ridges of Mt. Hunter that I'd been staring at all week long.

It was a long drive. Or so it seemed to me, anyway. Reason is, I've had to PEEEE all morning, and I keep forgetting (this entry seens to be generally rather bathroom heavy hahaha).

Along the way, we stopped for coffee at a great little roadside stand in Wasilla for some excellent espresso, and then, like an idiot, I managed to get back in the van, sit down, and enjoy my espresso long enough to oops... realize I hadn't take a leak as the van started to move again for the next leg of our journey. Doh!

Aside from that, however, one of the things I learned on the drive back -- once again from Tyler -- was that the first big mountain range we'd driven through on the way in from the Anchorage airport to Talkeetna 10 days ago was the Chugach Range. He also informed me that it was visible from the Anchorage airport. I didn't even realize I was taking pictures of 10 days ago... (!) AWESOME!

But why is this really cool? Because the Chugach Range is very high on my list of places under consideration for my first heli-ski trip. Tyler mentioned an especially interesting fact about the Chugach that actually explains why it's such a good place to heli-ski: although the summit elevations of most of the mountains in it are rather unimpressive with numbers around 8,000 and 9,000 feet, the lowest points of the range pretty much dip into the sea, which means almost ALL of their 8,000 or 9,000 feet height is prominence--meaning exposed and skiable (or climbable).

On another mountain, your base camp might sit at, say, 5,000 feet above sea level, and you might climb from there to an 8k or 9k summit--only 4,000 vertical feet of prominence. A 9,000 foot Chugach peak, by contrast, is almost two vertical miles to its summit from where you start climbing (or skiing down, as the case may be). Many of the biggest mountains in the world have far less prominence than most of the peaks in the Chugach Range--an incredible fact, but such is the scale of things in Alaska.

Arriving at the Anchorage airport was uneventful (other than I finally BOLTED to the bathroom hahahaha) but then, after we all rescheduled our plane tickets, we were left with many many MANY hours of a whole lot of nothing to do--with my fellow climbers (Denis, Jeff, and Paul shown here).

I think I had something like 13 hours to sit in the airport and do nothing but think about how much I wanted to just sleeeeeeeep. Once again, I spent a lot of time hanging out at the same bar I sat at on the way IN (but this time with my climbing compadres).

The pizza at that place truly suuuuuucked... especially after such a good one at Mountain High Pizza Pie in Talkeetna the day before. Also, the  garlic knots suuuuucked big balls. Actually, so did the salads--and now that I think about it, pretty  much everything else, too, except the beers. The cheese sticks weren't bad, I guess. Hard to screw up deep fried cheese.

We spent some time wandering the hallways, shopping, goofing off, eating, and eventually, I became extremely bored and apparently rather easily entertained by... the floor...? Hours later, it got no better, and I became STUPENDOUSLY bored.

But the time passed, and as I watched each of my climbing compatriots peel off one by one, each headed back to their own worlds, the lives they left behind, I couldn't help but feel a little sad that it was coming to an end. All I trained for, all I worked for now behind me, and nothing but incredible memories now. And as they left, I became the last remaining RMI AK Seminar 2010 team member in Alaska, left to wander the marble hallways of the concourse for hours on end, a sunburnt ghost of an experience past.

Absolutely, completely, utterly, amazingly, mind-bendingly, incredibly, and ultimately magnificent... and here endeth my first Alaskan saga. Glad to be home safe and sound.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

May 21, 2010, Kahiltna Glacier and Talkeetna, AK

Watch for links to video below, and click on pics for larger versions.

On a glistening, crystalline morning as beautiful as today, it's sort of a shame that an unfortunate misinterpretation of our plane's arrival time on the glacier turned into another full-on hurry up and wait kind of day again. Also a bit comical... you shoulda seen us move. HAHA

Still tucked in our fluffy warm down bags at around 6am, we all heard Tyler head noisily down toward Kahiltna Base Camp to have a chat with Lisa, the Kahiltna Base Camp manager--and then heard him running back into camp shouting a rabble rousing call to wake us all up. "Get up! Get your stuff together! Pack up! Let's GOOOO!!!!"

Obligingly, we all bolted out of our tents, and now, having moved camp three times, we were able to  pack up camp, get loaded and moving all our packs and bags on sleds out of camp down the snowy trail to "Kahiltna International Airport" in short order, and in a surprisingly organized fashion--only to find once we reached the runway, out of breath and breakfastless, that the misinterpretation had itself been misinterpreted, and that we ACTUALLY had another hour before our plane was set to touch down on the glacier. Doh!
So here we were, standing around in the snow next to the NPS tent, wishing we were all back in our poofy down bags for another hour--or having breakfast--or something. Sooo funny how these crazy things go down out here. :-)

Anyway, NOW there's time to stand around the airstrip, and enjoy the serenely and strikingly beautiful sunrise coming up behind the Radio Control Tower peak we'd climbed several days before, pick our noses, put on  more sunscreen, and... wait a minute... is that Jason about to make coffee on the runway? HAHAHA Awesome!

But then... wouldn't ya know it... just as our heartrates came down and we'd all relaxed, and I'd unpacked the remaining food from one of my stuffsacks into a messy pile of Ziploc bags in the snow to rummage for a tasty morsel or two for "breakfast", sat down on my pack in the snow to snarf while enjoying a leisurely wait for a plane that was still an hour hence--wait... uhhh... what's that soun... omg, THERE'S THE PLANE NOW! Quick, put the food and coffee away! Repack your crap! HAHA

Turns out that the misinterpretation of the misinterpretation that had rousted us from toasty, fluffy slumber in the first place--was misinterpreted! (Ever hear of radios, people? Sheesh lol)

Total goofiness ensued as we split up teams to decide who would fly out first. The weather was certainly good for flying today, but having already jumped all over the front seat position for the flight in, I decided to sit in the middle of the plane this time to let someone else have a shot at it. As it turned out, my decision would have been overridden anyway, because there was some dude riding shotgun that, by all appearances, was from K2 Air's HQ. He seemed to be here to inteview pilots and ground personnel on the status of various operational and performance aspects of the company itself. Weirrrrd...

Whoever he was, he and the pilot proceeded to have a spectacularly boring conversation over the plane headphones for everyone in the cabin to suffer through the entire journey back to Talkeetna, so naturally, I took my cans off for most of it and focused on taking some fresh photos and video of the Range as we departed.

And with delight, I found I could now identify all the mysterious peaks, jagged crags, wicked outcrops, and crevasse-riddled slopes that, on the flight here, I had no hope of deciphering. I took great pleasure in doing so for as long as I could glimpse its staggering beauty.

Watching the snow and ice give way to black, rich, and wet glacial moraine and earth with rivers of crystal-pure glacial runoff snaking its way in giant rivulets in all directions, ultimately coalescing into what would eventually become the Susitna river (and other  major tributaries and waterways) was a reluctant joy.

On the one hand, I was sad to see mighty Denali and the Range fade into the distance behind us, but at the same time, I began to notice my own involuntary amazement at the new-again experience of the flash-flooding of vivid color that seemed to be rushing back into the world around me.

Having spent the last 9 days in a staggeringly beautiful but nevertheless austere world of pretty much just white, black, and glacier blue, seeing the deep and variously green-shaded forests, black earth, blue waters materialize around us below sent my brain into a pleasureable state of information overload.

Speaking of overload, it seemed like the plane was a bit overloaded, and the pilot for this leg of our journey, though clearly more "experienced" (read: old) wasn't nearly as much fun as the other guy. Lots of air miles on this guy.

But what do I care? All that matters at this point is a shower (and a second shower and a third one just for good measure, just to get 10 days of stink off haha), along with a nap and some good food back in Talkeetna, and he did just fine getting us back on the ground.

Once back in Talkeetna, we set to the mundane work of pitching the tents to dry, sorting out group gear, throwing away all the garbage we generated on the glacier (since it has to be packed out) and unpacking and repacking all the other crap we had left behind 9 days ago.

We all also took the time to divest ourselves of all the extra food we'd brought along, so we didn't have to pay the airlines to ship it back home with us. And since the food would all go into the food stores of an RMI Denali expedition two weeks hence that would be led by Tyler, assisted by Jason and Mike, it would not go wasted.

In fact, Jason and Tyler had told stories a few days earlier about how it was possible for a knowlegeable climber to come to the Alaska Range with almost no food at all and eat for free every day indefinitely, because there are so many climbers on the glacier eager to shed the weight of their extra food to any willing takers. I was astonished to learn that there's something of a minitaure grey market here for valuable items like salami, cheese, peanut butter, crackers, extra fuel, and all manner of other desireable, non-perishables.

Anyway, that all took us a few hours, and in the process, Tyler asked Denis and I to pitch the huge Mountain Hardwear Dome tent to dry it out along wit the others--the monster space station shaped canopy that was used to protect our hidden cache from enterprising ravens as we moved up the glacier to climb Mt. Frances on the 18th.

The comedy of this exercise was that neither he nor I had any idea how to pitch this one, but since it was just a drying out situation, we figured getting it perfect wasn't THAT important, as long as ventialtion was able to flow through it.

The lumpy, not-at-all-huge-or-correct tent-like travesty we erected resembled nothing of what a properly pitched MH Dome should look like... this was bumpy, small, lopsided, and totally hilarious--and once again, we cracked up laughing and shot a few goofy photos of us "expert mountain climbers" posing with our misshapen handiwork.

Once done, Denis and I headed back to the Teepee (our motel) for some much needed hygeine. (Lemme tell ya, a single pair or two of underwear just never seemed like enough for 10 sweaty days in the Range. LOL)

Anyway, after cleaning up, we decided to go for a wander through town to see what we could see, picked up Jerry somewhere along the way ("AWESOME!" haha)--love that guy--and maybe find some food and gifts. For food, we decided to go to Mountain High Pizza Pie... where we found Jason, Mike, and Tyler already sitting on the patio with beers and waiting for their pizza to arrive.

They'd ordered a Meat Lover's pizza, which is what we had ordered too, so it was decided that the 6 of us would all split both pizzas, thereby ensuring a constant stream of HOT pizza. It worked out great, and we all got drinking and reflecting and talking more about next plans and such. Good times.

I picked up the bill for the guides and the guys, and now fully satisfied, we set about finding some goodies to take home with us. I found an excellent SuperTopo book on climbing in the Alaska Range, some interesting antique glass fishnet floats that were used by Japanese fisherman in the Bering sea long ago, and are still washing up on shore to this day, and a bunch of other crap to take home... it was raddddd. (I even went for a much-needed espresso, as all the coffee we had on the glacier was dreadful.) Haha

There was some lazy time--chillout in the Teepee, hang out around town, whatever--and then we all reconvened for dinner at Denali Brewing Company's new restaurant, Twister Creek.

Everyone was all tidy now (thank god haha), and we shared a few well-earned toasts, talked more about the future for each climber, and started laying the foundations for our various AK enterprises next May. Sounds like Ben, Paul, and Jerry are pretty serious about going to Denali next year, while Denis and I will hopefully end up on Foraker.

After that came the obligatory partying at the Fairview--and parrrtyyyy we did. It's very strange, seeing pretty girls and nice civilized things after a while out in the wilderness. They smell good, they look good, and it's all brand new again. Odd. Sorta like the whole colors thing I mentioned earlier.

I felt like that old stereotypical image of a dusty, weatherbeaten, interaction-deprived prospector coming in from months in the desert with his mule and seeing civilization again. HAHA At any rate, the band, The Denali Cooks, was awesome. They had a nice, casual, easygoing bluesy-influenced and well-rehearsed, polished sound to just chill out to with lughs and friends, and this night was just what Dr. Ben ordered. (Dr. Ben is on the right... Jeff's on the left, Paul's in the middle of that pic. :-)
On my first bathroom break of the night, I noticed that nearly one whole wall of the Fairview's men's room was a chalkboard, and I was face to face with a huge chalk scrawl for the RMI party, presumably put up by Tyler and Jason (but they denied it). ;-)

I had some cool conversations outside with Jason and Tyler, and shared another cigar. One odd aspect of this whole guiding thing, I've decided,  is gratuities for the guides themselves. Maybe I'm unique in this opinion, but by the time we get off the mountain, we've already paid a shitload of money for the expedition and everything associated with it, and although it's nice for them, they ARE getting paid by RMI to take their teams out and bring them back safely... it's their JOB--and gratuities just aren't that necessary. It would be like me asking for a tip from any customer that uses my company's web site to do something. Silly.

Thing is, it's not like they're getting paid on commission based on the number of climbers they bring back alive, and RMI doesn't give them a reduced salary with the expectation that they'll make up the rest of their living expenses in tips like a waitress might, either.

That said, I don't mind giving them $40 or $50 each as an extra thank you for the experience and knowledge, but more than that seems excessive to me... especially when it's $50 x 3 guides. And I'd already bought a big meal and beers for all three of them earlier. Still... it seemed like they weren't all that happy with that. Maybe it's just me, though. I dunno.

Regardless, with our first AK expedition now behind us, a massive amount of fantastically interesting and critical information packed into our brains by direct experience and hands-on training, and the bonds of friendship growing amongst various people on the team, it was time to pack up and say goodbye--for now.

Denis has had an interesting fascination with Denali since we got here, but since he and I have been chatting more and more about the possibility of coming back to AK next year--after spending a lot more time on mountains like Shasta and Rainier--his attentions have turned more and more toward Foraker. I can't tell you how much that would please me... Denis and I get along great, and we seem to share similar levels of acceptable risk, as well as climbing values.

As I write this, I'd say he's probably the stronger climber of the two of us, in part attributable to the fact that he's just had more experience doing it, where I came here brand new. BUT I'm a quick learner, and a highly motivated one. A chance to climb something as formidable as Foraker with Denis is something I'm very interested in.

As such, my drive to reach new heights, improve my knowledge, build on my experience and to put in plenty of time between now and next May on big mountains, ever-more-challenging terrain, and higher elevations is very stong. Foraker is definitely in my sights... it's just a question of whether those more expert than me think I'm up to it. I am absolutely confident that I am, but whether it happens in 2011 or beyond, I will definitely be back  to AK to climb Mt. Foraker's magnificent Sultana Ridge.

One more AK entry to go...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

May 20, 2010 - Kahiltna Base Camp, Alaska Range, AK

Watch for links to video below, and click on pics for larger versions.

We got about a foot of snow last night, so Denis and I have spent the last 40 minutes or so digging out our tent and tightening all the guy lines that anchor it to the snow. Today, I think, is real-life crevasse rescue training, if the guides think it's suitably safe weather for it, and mostly hanging out if not. In that case, it would be maybe some more in-camp discussion of other skills.

If the snow doesn't let up by tomorrow morning, we may have to wait, and even stomp out the glacier runway with other teams here to clear a path for planes to land.

The weather cleared to bright blue skies by about 10am, so as promised, we all suited up and took a walk up the glacier to find a crack to throw ourselves into, so we could all practice the crevasse rescue skills we were taught on our weather day earlier this week.

Before we headed up the glacier today, though, we spent a couple hours on some education in the basics of high altitude medical--made especially interesting by the fact that Ben is a doctor. He was able to illuminate some of the physiological mechanics of conditions like cerebral and pulmonary edemas... interesting stuff.

Anyway, the guides found a good crevasse that wasn't too overhung but was nevertheless huge--60 or more feet across--and we set up 3 stations, where we were all able to rotate efficiently through the training taking place at each. I started by getting down and dirty over the edge, hanging for a few minutes in midair by my harness as I set up for the real task at hand.

My job was to attach two prusiks to the climbing rope in a reasonable amount of time, prusik up the rope, and climb out of the hole--which I did. Prusiks make for hard physical work shimmying up the rope, but it sure beats having to do it with just hands and feet.

Still, getting out was some seeeerious work! I can see now why this is such an important skill to have. I imagined myself exhausted after a long day's climb, falling into a crevasse, and having to do this.... HARD!. Anyway, I climbed out of the hole totally steaming in the cold air from sweat, but I had a great time doing it :-)

Down over the edge when I started, I needed a little extra time getting the prusik setup right--took me a minute to figure out what I was doing wrong, but eventually nailed it, clipped in, and up I went.

Everyone else was rotating through different positions on a mock 4-man rope team. One guy was in the crevasse as the fallen climber, one was the primary anchor position, and two uprope to help anchor, transfer the load, to assist, or to help set up the pulley system that would get our buddy out of the crack.

I rotated to the belay station, and then worked my way through every other position on that rope in the remanining time. Getting through every station has taken most of the day--and what an educational day it's been! WOW!

Now that I know it, I feel like I just now need a lot more practice with these techniques before I have them totally nailed and second nature, but the books I have at home are now suddenly FAR more useful to me, having now had hands-on instruction in 3-dimensions, and interactively. I read a lot in them before I got to AK, but the crevasse rescue portions only kinda made sense to me at the time. Now they REALLY do :-)

We finished up the crevasse rescue earlier in the day and headed back to camp, where Tyler busted out the BBQ grill once again(!)--bacon cheeseburgers and one other incredibly awesome surprise: adult beverages! They've apparently been saving it for the end of the trip. (As this is a Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. trip, what other brand could it be but Rainier haha)

After dinner, we did some avalanche beacon training in camp, which was kinda wacky. Jason was leading the discussion, but Tyler, who seemed to be in a rather stern mood tonight, would bust in with long, passionate additional commentary. He was most aggro about the way to get to a person in an avalanche, and pointed out that the beacon is not your primary search tool initially... your brain is. Jason and Tyler crack me up. They're such good friends, they're like an old married couple

Tyler's philosophy is pretty simple and straightforward: don't walk... SPRINT to where you last saw people go down and visually scan rapidly for lost items or exposed things still on (or off) the climbers. Follow the breadcumbs. Lost gloves, hands, arms poking out of the snow, can lead you right wehere you need to go... but do it FAST.  He went on to say that our shovels and probes are the most immediate things that can potentially save their lives, followed by beacons--and while the beacon is a great tool, the point of it is is not a slow methodical search, because if you spend all this time on getting it just right, people might be dying under the snow. His point was learn to us it, and to do it quickly.

I do agree with much of this... and one of the recurring topics of this seminar came out yet again loudly and clearly through this discussion: be smart, be efficient, and above all, use smarts and efficiency to be safe, and to help keep your friends safe, too--and then that stay way. Common sense and being smart and THINKING about what you're doing and why while you're in the mountains has been talked about and talked about, and it's something I definitely believe in.

I'd characterize myself as a conservative climber anwyay--much of my inspiration has come from pragmatic climbers like Ed Viesturs--and I came here to learn the art of listening to and following your instincts based on what the conditions tell you, even if it means disappointment, turning back or waiting out a long storm. I've learned a great deal about just how to execute on that in my own climbing from the training here in AK, too.

AAAANYway, after beacon training, many group photos of our last night on the glacier together as a team, lots of sunset pics, and general camp jokeyness, I took off my boots for the last time, and we all headed off to sleep for our last night in the breathtaking shadow of Mt Crosson, and Foraker's Sultana Ridge, deep in the Alaska Range... with perfect weather.

Fingers crossed once again that we get off the glacier tomorrow as planned. If we do, tomorrow night will be dinner with certificates, and a lot of partying at the Fairview Inn! Raddddd...