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...


  1. wow i like of course your writing and your creativity

  2. Thanks for reading... glad you're enjoying it! :-)