Saturday, September 24, 2011

Shasta with Greg, Sept 22-24, 2011

Watch for links to video below, and click pics for larger versions. View the whole set of pics here.

I love Shasta. I love it so much I want to share it with whomever I can, and I never get tired of it. What a special place it is.

This trip, I was guiding my buddy Greg up the mountain in his first-ever mountaineering experience, so this was a trip that was mainly for his benefit--meaning my primary role was to help him have a good and safe experience, rather than going for a summit attempt of my own.

We drove the usual 5.5 hours to mountain, stayed at the Cold Creek Inn (not without considerable homophobia drama from Greg, I might add... damn, I wish I'd gotten video of that hahaha), had a tasty dinner, went downtown to the Vet for a drink and ended up staying to play pool for a while, then crashed.

Mornings in Shasta City are some of my favorite, because A) it's at the base of a GORGEOUS mountain... and then there's the Seven Suns, and the wacky hippie clientele that frequent it. I hadn't slept very well the night before, so I was in desperate need of coffee (gosh, what a shock), so the Seven Suns was just the thing.

Coffee hipp... I mean...  HAPPiness
There was a group of older guys gathered for morning coffee inside, and they watched with rapt attention as I shot the photo of myself (at right) in front of the place--and proceeded to give me shit about it when I walked in to actually order my coffee. "Are you takin pictures of yourself out there?"

Not being one for taking shit, however, I popped off a right-handed no-look shot of the heckler on my way past him and said "Yep... and now I've got one of you, too." He looked horrified for a moment, and then his whole group cracked up, and that was sorta the ice breaker for more conversation.

When we had what we needed (breakfast burritos and coffee in our bellies, that is), we headed to the Fifth to pick up Greg's rental gear. There were plenty of people there, but we were in and out  pretty quickly, and departed long before any of the guided parties who were still doing some tedious gear checking out in the yard... whereupon we headed off to the trailhead on the north side.

Greg... making love to the camera
Overall, it was an uneventful morning, but I could feel the excitement building in the car as we rounded the north side of the mountain and I could begin to point out our route to Greg.

Truth be told, this trip happening with Greg at all was a pretty big step outside his comfort zone, so I was particularly aware of my responsibility to him as his guide, and really excited that he chose to do this with me at all. That I could be a part of it at all was a tremendous pleasure.

Greg, in his element
I get so excited to see prominent features I recognize up on the mountain myself... it never seems to get old. So as we drove the bumpy approach road snapping pictures and talking in animated anticipation and knowing the weather forecast looked pretty good, I was optimistic about our chances of success on summit day tomorrow.

Eventually, we reached the fire road's terminus and parked at the trailhead, loaded up, and hit the approach trail.

Greg, climbing to 9,000 feet
Our packs weren't too heavy, but our climb was slowed by frequent rest and food breaks--but it was no big deal. Our only concern that day was to have enough time to do a few key things once we got camp set up high.  The approach climb on the north side to high camp is usually about 3.5 to 4-ish hours, but I think we did it in 5.

The higher we got, the more Greg's spirits seemed to sag a bit, so we took it easy: we were in no hurry.

After the final push up a slightly steeper face that leveled out a hundred or so vertical fee above in a flatter portion of the glacial moraine, we eventually chose a nice little spot for our tent near 9,600 feet, and got a comfy camp set up.

Chillin' in the tent at 9,600
We refilled our water bottles from icy-fresh glacier runoff, cooked up some food, chatted a bit, and generally recharged.

Feeling much better by then, we grabbed some gear and walked up a little higher to do some basic snow school and glacier travel training up on the snout of the glacier nearby to get Greg ready for what tomorrow might hold.

He really seemed to enjoy that part, and said ice axe, crampon, and self arrest training helped him understand more about what I love about alpine climbing, which meant a lot to me. I've known Greg for at least a thousand years, so I would never want to let him down.

Greg in the moraine
I've learned after spending some time rock climbing and rappelling with him that it's the more technical aspects of climbing that fire him up--in warm temps, preferably--so I was glad to see him interested again after a somewhat pessimistic last leg of the climb to this point.

By the time we finished, the sun was just beginning to set, so we walked across the mountainside to get a better view of what promised to be a firestorm on the horizon far out on the western edge of the visible earth.

Me, shooting the sunset
Up here, that's always a great way to end an evening. We tucked in for a sleep, planning an alpine start around 3am--which is exactly what happened.

We got an early, crisp start and headed up to the glacier, where we put our crampons on and started climbing. We weren't moving very fast, but made OK progress anyway for about the first 15 minutes until we made a quick stop for a layer change on Greg.

It was at this moment that he set his helmet down on the slope, and as one might expect, it immediately skittered away down the glacier like a turtle on its back, boucing and careening wildly through the suncups with the headlamp still attached, twisting and flashing the whole way down to the moraine below.

Greg and I, miserable on first break, summit day
It eventually stopped at the rocks, and we paused for a second to decide what to do. I'm the faster climber, so I asked him to anchor down here while I walked back down, picked up that lost turtle shell, and climbed back up to the place we dropped it. Only took about 5 minutes or so, so all was not lost. 

I think the helmet thing was my fault, though: I failed  the night before to warn him to never set his helmet down on the slope, cuz--yep, it'll run away down the hill faster than you can catch it, and you'll have no choice but to either A) burn the time to go get it, B) climb without a helmet--unwise--or C) turn around and go home, depending on how far it slides--and what's below you.

Dawn begins to break on Shasta's north side
But we got going again, and soon we were making great headway. At our first break stop, we did what one pretty much always does on the first break stop up here: shiver in the cold, windy dark and refuel for the next stage. Greg wasn't feeling too great at this point, and I felt bad for him, but resting seemed to help.

We got underway again, and pretty soon, the real fireworks began... it's like magic up here when the sun starts to rise on this side of the mountain. Everything changes from star-flecked moonlit black to the deepest violet to an intense shade of ultramarine to fiery red-gold... it's just incredible.

We snapped some pictures and kept our upward momentum going, but it was such a beautiful morning this day, that as we got up near the exposed patch of hard glacier ice just below the bergschrund, I simply HAD to stop and bust out the camera. What I got was one of the best climbing pictures of my life. The rising sunlight shone its morning colors off the wind-polished, scoured and shiny ice surface, making it look like stationary running water. (Which is exactly what a glacier is, now that I think about it haha).

Early morning deep violet shades flood the Hotlum glacier with ethereal light
Unfortunately, Greg got a pretty good bout of altitude sickness around 10,400, so we stopped to assess the situation, talk it over, and decide what to do. The answer, it seemed, was that he was done.

Greg, anchored in the morning light on the Hotlum
The common altitude headaches were plaguing him, yes, but I was more concerned about about his increasingly severe nausea (a small part of which, I'm guessing, was nerves--but regardless of the source, climbing while nauseated is truly miserable, and I felt bad for him). So after some discussion, we called it quits and  began to descend back to camp. Greg started feeling  better almost immediately, which was a relief.

Meanwhile, a 4-person guided party that had arrived very late in the evening and camped lower on the moraine the night before had been following below us all morning long, never more than a few hundred vertical feet below us.

Greg and the SMG party above us
Eventually, we found out who it was: Keith Potts guiding an SMG party up behind us, and we stopped for a quick hello, then continued on our downward trajectory.

Shortly after we passed them going the other direction, though, Greg started feeling regrets about going down so soon, and wanted to turn around and give it another try.

Me, on the way back up again
He was clearly feeling better after eating and drinking and resting a bit, so I did a quick health check on him, and then agreed to go up again with him for second shot.

So up we went again. This time, we got just above the bergschrund when we noticed someone coming up behind us: an independent fast and light party of two up there in just shorts, light shirts, tiny day packs, soft leather hiking boots and strapon crampons.

They were cruising pretty good, and zipped right past us in the middle of the huge face at about 11k.

This time (after passing the SMG party again while they were on a break) we got up as high as 11,600 somewhere around the bergschrund before Greg finally ran out of gas.

Greg, toughing it out on the way back up
I was hoping to get higher, and I think Greg was disappointed, too, but truth be told, if we'd continued upward much longer at the pace we were going, I think we'd have had to turn around anyway.

The reason is that later, we  noticed  a HUGE pair of stacked lenticulars blooming over the summit--just about the time we'd have been walking onto the summit if we'd stayed our upward heading.

My guess is that we probably would have hit the summit, and then been descending at about 13,000 when the high winds we later experienced kicked up full force hit.
Me and my bud.

And they're much worse at 13k than down low where we were. No bueno... so it was a good decision.

That 2-person party would have hit the summit roughly around noon, but we were never quite sure what happened to them. In all the time we spent at camp relaxing--and ultimately packing up before heading down--we never saw them come off the mountain, and we were in camp til about 3pm. Kinda worrisome.
First of two lenticulars forming over the summit
I got thinking about my mountain guide friend Rich Meyer... specifically how with guided parties,  mountain guides must have to do what we did today quite a lot: turn around mid-climb. In fact, they must have halfway climbed that mountain a zillion times when people want to turn back, I imagine.

At any rate, we made it back to camp without incident (and had some fun sliding in the process), and we laid around, cooked up some food, got more water, and rested up before we decided to just bust it out of there and get home. This is typical of what I do on Shasta most times. Before the trip,  think I'm gonna need 3 or 4 days, while expecting with optimal weather to get it done in 2, but I tell myself I'll just stay on the mountain that extra night and come down the next day--but I never do.

We had a bit of a rough time as we in our high wind profile heavy packs got blown around the trail a bit in high winds around 9k as we watched an alien ship cloud roll in over the north side of the mountain and settle over the tip of the peak, and the winds blasted us ferociously with sand and grit from the powdery dirt trail below the moraine.

After we got into the valley leading down to the forest and the main part of the descent route, things quieted down a bit, but out in the open, it was positively vicious for a while.

It's always nice to get back to the car and change out of stinky clothes, take a dump in a real toilet, and such from any mountain climb, but we had a bit of extra fun posing for retarded camera shots in the parking lot before loading up for real and heading out for town. It was burger time.

We went to the Goat after we got back down, and after we ordered some food and drinks, we checked the weather report... and we were shocked  to see what it was doing back up where we were on the mountain just a few ours earlier... 40-70mph, gusts up to 110mph.

Good thing we got outta that. We were breaking camp in high winds at 9,600 as it was, so we figured it was a good call. How right we were. With all the decision making about the direction, it was a crazy afternoon up there... and then add the weather in as a factor.

But overall, it was such a satisfying trip, and so great to be out there with my brave buddy Greg, who that day earned some respect in my eyes for doing something so far out of his box--just because I wanted him to.

Looking back on it now, I'm not sure I could ever get him back out there again... BUUUUT... knowing his penchant for technical climbing, I bet if we planned an ice climbing trip--that same exact route, but instead of going up to 11,600, we'd turn left and head to the icefall on the Hotlum glacier.

Or the bersgchrund... maybe rappel into it, and then ice climb out with spikes on all four limbs: two overhead swinging ice tools and crampons on both feet.

I've been wanting to do some ice climbing on the building-sized seracs of the Hotlum for a long time... maybe it's time he and I plan it.

Greg... rockin' the mountain.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Foraker 2011: Tuesday, May 3 – Carry to Camp 3 (Day 8)

The wall that looms over Camp 2: better than coffee
Watch for links to video below, and click pictures for larger versions.

As I watched the length of rope between Nate and Craig—and then between Craig and me uncoil slowly, I listened as it hissed softly, rhythmically with every step they took, pulling through a foot of dry Alaskan powder and wondered what today would hold for us.

That sound, I find, is both soothing and ominous in the deafening silence of such a wilderness, and its portent is never known until you yourself start moving, too.

Mentally and physically, I was fired and fueled for what I knew would be a lot of hard work today, but to be honest, I still had a quiet, nagging concern after what I considered a weak performance on my part yesterday.

Craig and I stood near each other, clipped in, just waiting for the person in front of us to stretch out the rope. But for better or worse, watching he and Nate make their way out of camp and slowly upward ahead of me gave me plenty of time to ponder my ability to get through the coming days that certainly held more monster climb days.

And then it was my turn to start moving out and up as Craig stretched it out. Immediately above our camp loomed the first challenge: a 100-foot wall of rock and snow that progressed sharply from horizontal at camp to near 70 degrees at the top. Five minutes later, halfway up that wall, I wryly noted that all thoughts but those of focus on the task at hand had vanished from my head.

Those initial moments marching out of camp in the morning are always interesting for me. With your pack on again—seemingly just hours after dropping it in exhaustion the night before and starting out cold once more—they're the moments that seem to set the tone for the whole day; the moments you know you'll either push through the brain and body fog from the previous night's sleep and go like a machine, or note with perhaps a hint of worry that the fog isn't clearing as you search in vain for a rhythm that isn't coming.

A view of the scorpion-tail of Mt. Hunter
 Today, I knew I was going to be fine. A huge bowl of good, slow burning oatmeal with cashews, yellow raisins, and cranberries pushed me up the steepest, longest, toughest terrain I've ever been on, ranging from chossy dirt and scree fields, to wind-hardened styrofoam snow; and from deep, soft powder blown by the wind to bullet hard glacier ice, always pushing ever upward.

Our rope team order has now been well established. Nate leads, Craig belays from the middle, and I carry large bunches of 4-foot willow wands and mark our route. My other two jobs are 1) to pull the protection pieces Nate has placed above as I pass them—ice screws, snow pickets, and other anchors—and 2) to place those same protections for my team behind me as I lead the rope team on the way down.

A few days ago, I was in this same role in the larger group's carry from Crosson base camp up the fixed lines to Camp 1, but I was asked to leave those anchors in place as I passed them because we'd need them there the next day to move camp up the route, too.

A bunch of wands sticking out of my pack on a break stop.
Oh yeah, and an INCREDIBLE view.
So today, we climbed. And climbed. I dutifully wanded the route, which is simply a task of placing a tall thin stick with little colored tape flag in the snow every rope length to act as a trail of breadcrumbs back to camp in case we get caught high on the mountain in unexpected fog or a snowblown white out.

But because today, like the other day, was just a carry and descent back to Camp 2, I followed what I thought was the correct protocol once more, and left all the pickets I passed right where they were in the snow, thinking logically based on yesterday, that we'd again need them tomorrow.

About 800 vertical feet up the route after some hard climbing, Nate stopped on a ledge and reeled us in on the rope, and then asked me for the pickets back. We hadn't explicitly discussed what I should be doing with them, but he assumed I'd been pulling them as I passed.

Stunned, I had to confess I'd left them all where they were on the way up. He was stunned, too. The problem was that the next sections of the climb above us were far steeper, of much higher-consequence and covered terrain that was significantly more exposed than we'd been on so far, and he needed every anchor we had to protect it.

A bunch of F-bombs ensued from both of us, and I felt soooo stupid… but after the shock of the predicament I'd put us in wore off, we started talking more seriously about real options. One suggestion was that we could just make it a mellow day today and cache the food and fuel we were carrying near where we stood instead of up high, and limit ourselves to just an 800 foot gain today—and then climb high tomorrow with maybe an extra back carry to retrieve the stuff.

One thing was certain, however: continuing upward with only the one picket and one ice screw was not an option, Nate said. We would need every piece we had to get up the next several sections, because it presented such serious exposure with just one slip.

Camp 2 from high on the ridge above. Check out the tent and wind wall.
After we got our composure back and had a bunch of back and forth to try and solve the problem, and, I suggested we drop packs where we stood, I stay on rope and descend the last big ridge we now stood on top of, and go retrieve at least the two pickets placed on the slope below us—and then we could continue on up.

Throughout this exchange, I was mentally kicking myself so hard, and I apologized profusely for the error. I should have asked explicitly if I needed to pull them all, but Nate said he's shared the blame for not being specific, especially having left them behind intentionally the other day.

There was more debate, but ultimately my suggestion was the solution. So I ruefully dropped my pack, got back on the rope, and down climbed 150 or so vertical feet of the last slope eagerly to try and make up for my stupidity. I pulled the pickets placed there, and the re-climbed up to our stopping point.

Nate then give us careful instructions for the next sections on up to the top of the mountain. "Be very, very surefooted with every step." And we were.

When we started climbing again, we were armed with five anchor pieces instead of just three pickets and one screw. Nate cleverly used his second ice axe as another anchor too. Neat!

Climbing... and climbing on Crosson
 So on up we went, carefully stepping over open crevasses, walking hard ice and snow bridges on vast sheets of windswept snow and ice crust. In most places, our crampons and axes bit, but didn't sink, and they squeaked in protest, singing at dissonant icy tune with every step—and the wind had picked up.

Finally, with only about 500 vertical feet to the summit of Crosson, Craig said he thought he might be out of gas, and that he'd been feeling out of breath and was having a hard day—kind of like me two days ago. Having been in that same condition recently, I empathized, and we again discussed options.

We decided to cache the gear there and pick some more food and fuel up tomorrow as we passed through, so Nate scouted a spot for the cache hole and started chipping away laboriously with his ice axe adze at the near-rock-hard wind scoured snow, alternately chipping, and then shoveling it out.

We were standing on a huge, open flat area beneath what looked like giant snow blooms and graceful blue ice overhangs carved by the unceasing (and now howling) wind. Our stopping point was beautiful, but the wind had continually cranked up the higher we went, and it was bitterly cold.

The downclimb - rock-hard snow and a 3,000 foot drop to the glacier on our right.
Don't slip.
Pulling in to a spot like that after climbing hard and being all sweaty, one hesitates to put one's pack down, because it's keeping half your body warm. But I didn't want to see Nate chop that hole out all by himself, and it also gave me a way to stay warm the same time.
 So we alternated chopping and shoveling for a bit, but the snow was so hard, it nearly took us nearly an hour and get a hole that was probably still too small for all the stuff we wanted to put in it.

After more work, we'd finally gotten close to the size we needed it to be in the hard, hard snow, but in the last few strokes before we were to start filling it with group food, wands, and extra fuel, the adze of Nate's ice ax head snapped and whickered off into in the snow. It was destined to be a swearing kind of day, it seemed.

Several groups food bags, gallon cans of fuel, large bunches of wands that we will need up higher on the route, sacks of personal lunch food to last each person 8 days, plus all our huge puffy pants and jackets all went in the hole.

On the way up, my toes had gone cold—really cold—long ago, and I was concerned. When that happens, you can only do what you can do to keep the circulation flowing, because taking off your boots is not an option.

So there I stood, temperature dropping, wind howling, trying to fend off the deep, penetrating shivers that seemed to stab through every fiber of my puffy jacket with my toes damn near frozen. I began to stomp my feet, shake my arms and legs, and in doing so, I quickly came to understand just how quickly someone can get frostbite in a place like this (and we were only at around 12,300 feet).

Digging a hole at the cache site

The subarctic is no place for the unprepared. I pulled my face farther and farther back into my multiple hoods and tried to hide behind my face protection to beat back the viciously cold winds, but my softshell pants and jacket, R1 hoody, wool base layer, and hooded puffy jacket were only just barely up to the task.

And in spite of my efforts, I could feel my toes going colder by the minute; but there was no sign of us getting moving for a bit. We still had to fill and mark the hole so we could find it tomorrow, and reset the rope for the long downclimb back to Camp 2.

It was in that moment that I began to worry about the condition of my toes in earnest, especially my left big toe, though all of them were pretty numb, so while we finished up, I alternately swung my legs and arms furiously to try and force blood down into my feet and hands. I had limited success, but some success is better than none.

I changed my tactics to scrunching my toes over and over in my boots to try and create a little friction in there—but again, with limited success. I began wishing for the huge puffy gear we had just buried in the hole, because the wind had picked up even further—but at last it was finally time to go.

Nate had gotten everything buried, and he told me I'd be leading and placing protection on the way down, handed me what gear he had, reminded us once again about the importance of being surefooted on the descent, and off we went.

I took it slow at first, but soon became more confident and rhythmic, banging in pickets where protection from falls was needed on the steepest and most exposed sections. It took us a couple of hours to get back to camp.

Almost immediately below our top-out point, we walked back into the protection of the ridge and the winds started to subside, and I was glad to be into lesser cold as we downclimbed the route we'd just ascended.

We'd drop sharply—60° - 70° off ridge after ridge, outcrop after outcrop, until finally camp appeared below us. I was exhausted. While Nate fired up the stove and began cooking a huge, filling, and awesome meal of Thai chicken and rice in spicy yellow Curry, complete with rehydrated powdered coconut milk (yum!), I sat in the tent vestibule and pulled off my boots, scared of what I would see when I got them off.

My toes were all pretty much in complete whiteout, but the big toes were definitely the worst. Nate asked me to test the capillary refill of them by squeezing them, and those results were not encouraging, but I started massaging my feet vigorously and continuously to get the blood flowing again.

After about 15 minutes of this, I became concerned that I was frostnipped… after 25 minutes, I was sure of it, but FINALLY after about 30 minutes, the feeling started coming back into the big toes, and the screaming barfies started… a good sign that I might be ok. Whew! Scary.

I'm gonna have to take a look at the combination of my boot liners, socks, footbeds, and other things to see if there's something that can be done to improve the circulation. If this is what happens to them at 12,300, imagine what 17,400 on top of Foraker will do to them, should we get there. Yikes.

Me... after returning to Camp 2

Dinner was a delicious, hot, spicy, sweet, and savory meal that was much needed, and a perfect way to refuel after a hard, cold day of climbing. Then came the hot tea to warm the frozen bones. I soooo needed that.

As it stands, we're planning to move camp up tomorrow, by the same route, and establish a new camp there, or go all the way to the summit, 500 vertical feet above the cache point today, and then maybe do a short back carry to go get the stuff we stashed today.

It all depends on the weather, though. The weather report that crackled over the radio from the NPS sounded non-promising, though. Nate called in to AMS to double check with Rob Gowler and to get his take on tomorrow's weather. It's still uncertain, he said. I guess we'll know when we poke our heads out our tent in the morning.

I'm pretty proud of my performance today, though. Leading on the way down was a new experience, and found me frequently banging in pickets or twisting in ice screws and clipping in. We had all found a really nice rhythm together in both directions, and today, I was exposed to a surge of experiences that have forever changed me.

We'll see what tomorrow holds.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Foraker 2011: Monday, May 2 – Camp 1 to Camp 2 (Day 7)

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

Wind wall at Camp 1
8pm - This morning, Joey, Bob, and Kirk saddled up to head down toward the glacier floor far below, and marched out of camp. Nate, Craig, and I would go the other direction later, but despite the carry of half our gear up to Camp 2 where we cached it yesterday, today's pack with the other half of the gear was still alarmingly heavy.
But where yesterday the three of us had powered up to Camp 2 with plenty of energy, today's climb of the same route was a grueling torture festival.

As I write this, I'm laying here in my puffy warm down sleeping bag, reflecting on what has been without question the single most physically demanding day of my life. Right out of camp, I wasn't feeling my normal strong climbing self. I just couldn't find my rhythm, and I couldn't figure out why I was so out of breath so quickly, when yesterday, I had destroyed the same climb. (I later realized it was the meager breakfast calories that stalled me out so early on this day... another two-bagel-with-cream-cheese day, I think.)

I had a number of things bugging me: First, yesterday I had accidentally stepped on my own foot pretty good, and doing so had driven a crampon point straight through my outer boot, the inner boot, my thick mountaineering socks, and straight into the top of my left big toe. OUCH.

I examined the injury when I got back to Camp 1, and found that it had bled a bit inside my boot, but I cleaned it, bandaged it with some antibiotics, and put on a pair of fresh socks--but it was still hurting and swollen this morning.

Second, once I got my feet into my boots today, all my toes went very cold, most of all my injured left big toe. I'd had had cold toes yesterday, but the fresh pair of socks I had put on for my toe ended up being a very bad idea. The extra loft of the new socks made the fit inside my boots even tighter, which constricted blood flow to the area, and made the cold problem worse. And because my left big toe was still swollen from injury, it was the worst of all.

Third, because I'd had cold toes yesterday, I decided to try my boots today laced very loose to see if I could improve the circulation. Another bad idea. Boot lacing supports stiffness and lets you flex into your boots, which helps you get up hills with a little more efficiency—an important aspect of climbing—but every step up the steeps this morning lacked that support. I was slopping around inside them.

Fourth, I didn't get enough food last night that would have helped me recover from the exertion of yesterday's climb, and fifth (the worst idea of all), I didn't drink enough water last night, largely to avoid the need to pee in a bottle in my sleeping bag during the night. I was dehydrated.

Add this together with Craig's strong pace on the rope in front of me, and Nate's strangely faster pace (despite his assurance at the outset that we'd take it nice and slow), and you get me, wallowing around on the back of the rope, and nearly passing out—with extremely (perhaps dangerously) cold feet, to boot.

Nate later admitted he got a little carried away on the momentum of today's climb, but I made the error of not taking proper care myself last night: not good. That's definitely something I need to pay more attention to if I'm to do my job for my teammates.

A look at the first slope on tomorrow's climb

Anyway, when we reached Camp 2's narrow ridge and dug up the cached gear we'd left there the day before, we set to work building camp. Another tent platform leveling/stomping, another heavy 50-block wind wall cut from the hard, windswept snow crust all around us, and another camp set. I was positively staggering when we were done, but it was nice to only have to pitch one tent this time, and we were soon moving our sleeping gear into it.

We've just had a nice hot meal with pretty good volume this time. Nate chose mac and cheese again… awesome! I love that stuff. He also added some tasty miso soup, but I also ate half a salami and cheese bagel and an energy bar of my own to supplement.

With half our party gone, we now have an excess of group food and fuel, despite them taking a lot of the overage down with them.

Tomorrow (assuming the weather holds) we'll do a carry and cache of some group gear to the future site of Camp 3, over and beyond the Summit of Crosson, and return back to camp to to sleep. That's a day that will surely end up being more like 3000 vertical feet of climbing instead of the 1500-ish days we've been doing so far, so I need to fuel up, get my crap together, take good care of myself, and knock it down.

I feel like after lagging a bit on the rope today, I have some redeeming to do. I know I can do it, and this is what I've been training so hard for. My only concern now is that my pack still seems heavier than I want it to be every single day—and that always makes going tougher.

Topping out at Camp 2

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Foraker 2011: Sunday, May 1 – Carry to Camp 2 (Day 6)

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

Well, I tried my "brilliant" idea for a pee bottle in the middle of the night last night. I HATE pee bottles anyway because I'm always so paranoid of an accidental miscalculation that would result in me peeing in my nice, dry sleeping bag instead of the bottle. But there were no serious problems (other than my choice of bottle for this trip made the job harder than it needed to be. Ugh).

Anyway… haha uhmm… we had some light snow and some drifting in the night, but nothing significant to stop the climb. So with favorable copnditions, a plan and a goal, today began with a huge bowl of oatmeal with whole cashews and dried cranberries. Yum! And with Nate having given us an inkling yesterday of what kind of climbing lay ahead today, I wisely supplemented breakfast with an energy bar for more calories.

Today was a carry— partly a gear moving trip, partly a reconnaissance trip, and partly an acclimatization trip using the "climb high, sleep low" approach that many parties employ. Classic. The goal was to ascend to and scout a location for Camp 2 at 10,000 feet, dig a hole in the snow there, cache a bunch of food and gear in it, and then head back to Camp 1 for the rest of the day to sleep low.

We had a lot of crap to take with us, so we loaded up our packs, which consisted of a few group food bags per person, many gallon cans of fuel split between us, a couple hundred wands, some shovels, spades, and any personal gear each climber wanted to cache up higher so he didn't have to carry it tomorrow with all the rest of the tents and camp gear when we officially break Camp 1 and move up.

Into the huge snowfied above C1
 I'm (once again) annoyed with myself for having so much shit. I'm caching things in every hole we put on the mountain to save weight, but I guess this is all a necessary part of the learning process for me. Once again heavily loaded, we left camp. Joey, Craig and Kirk went first, then my rope team, in which I opted to be last after Bob. He was in the middle this time.

I knew two things in my choice: 1) that my day would be vastly easier with Bob in front of me instead of behind me because he's slow, and 2) that Nate, who might not yet be aware of the potential dangers of his fitness level yet, would get to experience first-hand having Bob behind him.

NOTE: In Bob's defense, because of the fact that he's apparently climbed with AMS many times over the years, it makes sense that they might not have applied the same intense enrollment scrutiny for this climb that I received as a brand new AMS client.

Gettin' it done.

The assumption therefore follows that AMS—knowing that Bob is now well aware of the seriousness of what he's undertaking on ANY climb with them—would trust Bob to show up ripped and fit and ready to rock, even though it's theoretically possible he could have been sitting on a couch eating nothing but Ding Dongs and soda since his last climb with them in 2004.

I know it sounds like I'm bashing poor Bob, but I'm truly not. I really grew to like Bob as a person… but liking him has nothing to do with whether he's fit enough at a given moment to be safe on a rope with others tied to him. But I digress.

As the first rope team prepared to climb, Kirk paused, saying his stomach pains had gotten worse and that he's now starting to get quite nauseated under exertion. So Joey promised to set a slow pace and see how it went, and off they went ahead of us.

The slopes we tackled today were way steeper than yesterday, even. Once above the first big snowfield above Camp 1, we climbed into large sections of scree and small talus, finding passage on dwindling patches of snow, where possible.

In some places though, the snow was thin enough over the rocks that it made being on the rocks even worse than the rocks alone, because I'd think I had solid footing on the snow, but it would break loose all the rotten rock immediately underneath it, which would throw me off balance. The scree sections in general, I found, burned a lot more energy than the snow sections, but I found a really great rhythm going up it, kicking my frontpoints into the soft earth, and drytooling it up the slope. Lots of fun.

Thankfully, once again, the sun refused to show her face for most of today, and we were blanketed on and off with low visibility clouds and fog. Joey's team was never far ahead of us today, and Bob was again a big source of slowdown for my team—which today I enjoyed thoroughly because of the slower pace. In fact, I had it pretty easy for about half the day today because of that alone. 

Spreading out up the mountain

In places, though, we were climbing so slowly that I was having difficulty staying warm… a weird problem to have while underway, since it's usually the opposite problem: how to stay cool and dry.

There's been a fast and light two-man independent team on the mountain for a few days with us now, and they've been pretty much just following our tracks, it seems like. It was honestly kind of a bummer when they pulled into Crosson base camp a few hours behind us the other day, since we were kind of expecting to have this whole route to ourselves.

Nate theorized they were only here because we'd broken trail for them across the glacier and up to Camp 1, and that they were looking for an easy summit on Crosson and possibly Foraker, with experienced, guide-laid tracks all put in for them all the way.

That way, they could waltz up to the summit and back without having to put in too much energy to the routefinding—which which seems to me to have been an accurate read of the situation. With no tracks, they might otherwise not have been here at all.

So yesterday, they climbed up just above our chosen Camp 1 spot to a bivy site at about 8,500 feet (again, probably so they didn't have to break much trail and could wait for us to pass them and put in more tracks), where they pitched for the night.

Then today, we leapfrogged past them on our way up. They said they were taking a rest day, so we waved, said hello, and plodded on past their tents. Hmm… bizarre. It would suck have these guys tagging along the whole trip.

But we climbed on. Then at about 8,900 feet, we all pulled into a break stop, where the ritual was the same as all break stops: drop your pack, put on a puffy jacket, eat a little something, drink some water, and get off your feet briefly.

Nate and Craig on break at 8,900 feet.

But this time, something was different. Kirk's condition it seems, had reached intolerable, and as we sat in a group on a rocky slope overlooking the spectacular Kahiltna glacier below, Joey announced that instead of ascending further, he'd instead be guiding Kirk back down to Camp 1, and then in the morning, all the way back across the glacier, where he would fly out back to Talkeetna to get medical attention—he's leaving.

Reminded me of Dennis the military dude who decided to leave last year's AK mountaineering course a few days in (though Kirk has a legitimate medical reason… Dennis was just a douche.) :-)

After some surprised discussion, the talk turned to how we would manage the logistics of the remaining climbers. With two people leaving, Nate's guide to climber ratio would rise to a less-than-optimal number—and we talked about other options that remained open.

Nate climbed up to the nearest ridge top to make contact with AMS and ask for advice, because apparently, a 1:1 guide ratio for (Joey and Kirk) isn't legal on the lower Kahiltna because of crevasse fall hazard.

Down to 3 climbers, and getting steeper

Left with yucky options like having a single four-man tent with four men to occupy it—tight!—or to carry a whole huge extra tent with tons of unnecessary weight, and a less than optimal 3:1 client-to-guide ratio, we talked about our new roles.

We would be an all or nothing team from that point forward, since, if someone else were injured or unable to continue, there would no longer be a second guide to stay back in camp with them or take them down while the others continued.

But Bob saved the day when he dropped another bombshell: "I'd be willing to volunteer to go down with Joey and Kirk. I mean all the way out. I feel like my pace is slowing everyone up.

Normally, I like to feel in the mountains that I can take care of myself plus one other person--and I just don't feel like I can do that right now."
 So it was agreed: Joey will take two climbers down, they'll stay Camp 1 tonight, and head down and back across the glacier to Kahiltna Base Camp tomorrow. Continuing on up the route will be a party of three: Nate, me, and Craig. Faster, lighter, and more nimble… it should be fun!

So we all swapped various rope team members, gear, and provisions, and Joey's team headed down, while Nate's team (with me on it) headed up to 10k. 

By the time we reached the spike of rock that marked the 10,000 foot precipice on Crosson's mountainside, the sun had begun to poke through a little, and a slate-grey day turned bright and glorious.

Nate, caching gear at Camp 2

An with typical Alaskan magic, it steeped the mountain ridges and peaks in fingers of wispy fog, bathed them in bright yellow sun, and the air went brisk and cold for a short while as Nate dug the hole and filled it with the gear we'd brought with us.

It had been a challenging day of climbing indeed, but I was fueled and amped for it, and I was pleased to see how energetically we all got on up the steeps required of us today.

After an inspiringly strong downclimb, Nate, Craig and I rolled back into Camp 1, but I managed to shoot some video and cool pics as we approached Camp 1 from above, with the dark silhouettes of Joey, Bob, and Kirk standing in camp as they watched our approach and descent.

Downclimbing back into Camp 1
Climbing-wise, today was a pretty neat day, and I feel great about the performance I delivered. It was everything I trained for, and more, and I knew then that I had done my preparations well.

Tonight's dinner was Thai noodles and peanut sauce… DAMN, I love this meal. It was really really good, but I don't think I had enough of it to refuel me properly for tomorrow. We'll see, I guess.