Saturday, April 30, 2011

Foraker 2011: Saturday, April 30 – Move up to Camp 1 (Day 5)

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

8 AM

The weather isn't perfect this morning... it's showing patchy fog and overcast skies, but we didn't get much snow in the night either, so I think we're climbing.

According to the report, it will likely be light snow on and off, which is actually good for a day like today, where really heavy packs are in the plan; cloudy skies, colder temps, and a little wind mean firmer snow and cramponing conditions—and cooler climbing.

If we were heading out today under bright sun and clear skies, we'd be baking (and later, perhaps sinking in slush), so the cold and clouds are a good thing.

9 PM 

The climb to Camp 1 was a tough one, and (according to Nate) would be our heaviest day of the trip. We went up through a steep, narrow gully of ice and rock pitched at about 50 to 55 degrees, with fully loaded packs on our backs.

Wow... quite a view of the Pizza Slice down on the glacier below Camp 1

As I feared, mine was up near 90 lbs. Ouch. I have to figure out a way to drop some weight from this thing, or it's gonna tip me over. I could barely get the damn thing on this morning, or at breaks.

The lesson, though, was definitely learned today of all days about lightness: strip everything you can. And thanks to people like Nate and Joey and Craig, with all these the lessons I'm learning (the hard way) here, I feel like next time I go anywhere, I'll be much better at packing smarter and lighter.

Upward, into the murky fog on the ridge

Interestingly, Kirk has managed to fit everything he needs into something like a 60 liter BD pack, weighing in around 45 or 50 lbs, I think... amazing. I dunno how he does it. My 115 (!!!) liter pack is LOADED.

Packing light is something of an art, and it takes discipline and practice, and Craig seems to be really good at identifying what he can strip, and choosing interesting ways of keeping things he might need, too. And he often does it with alternatives that perform the same function (or multiple functions) but are lighter.

Anyway, I was on a rope with Joey leading, me in the middle, and Bob bringing up the rear. Man, I have to say... if I was wondering about Bob's fitness and general aptitidue for this kind of climbing yesterday, today those concerns were confirmed true, in my mind. He really shouldn't be here.
It's dangerous for both him and us. I basically hauled him up most of the route today, yarding very hard on the rope every other step or so just to keep pace with Joey—which meant I was also carrying at least 20-40 of Bob's pounds on my chest harness with just about every step—in addition to my own ludicrously heavy load.

Keeping tension on the rope for Bob (as Joey asked me to do at the bottom of the couloir) was one thing, but Bob just wasn't moving at anything that resembled a reasonable pace, and was unsurprisingly oblivious to the rhythm that Joey--and therefore I--were trying to stick to. (Evidence of the snail-slow pace was shown later by the fact that by the time my rope team pulled into the Camp 1 site on the ridge, Nate's team had already been there for over an hour, and had most of the wind walls built. Ouch.)

The drop beneath us

Just about the entire way up the gully, Bob would take a step (maybe two), teeter precariously a bit, and then stop, looking about to collapse and barely able to breathe, and only continuing with another step or two when he felt serious tension on the rope from me—basically ignoring the movements of the rope in front of him and not keeping pace.

Yes, today was super tough for me, too, and I don't begrudge ANYONE struggling with it in places like this. Lord knows I've had my share of hard days, too. But I'm thinking that while I've trained my ass off and I'm totally ready for this kind of exertion, Bob isn't in any shape for this sort of climbing right now—or ever again at his age, if he's let himself go too far this time.

Add that he seems a little hard of hearing, and you've got a recipe for something potentially scary on steep slopes--and for getting yanked around in the middle of a rope team, with Joey moving up, and me keeping pace, but not being able to move easily without putting serious tension on the rope behind me.

I was relaying all sorts of information to him from Joey above (very loudly), but again, he acted like he was startled out of a half-sleep sometimes when you yelled his name 2, 3, or even 4 times to get him to acknowledge.

Nate and Joey climbing to fix a line in the gully yesterday
He stumbled and fell once on a steep rock section just above the main couloir that leads to the ridge (connected to me—scary). By sheer luck, I happened to be looking at him when he started to go down, so I preemptively held his fall with even more tension on the rope.

Joey was another story. Although I admit we moving slowly because of Bob, he still seemed a little impatient with even what I would consider a more reasonable pace, and seems to frequently ignore the primary mountaineering axiom of being efficient. Again, I'm no expert, but for example, he had me struggle wide out of the track at one spot into deep untracked snow to free a stuck rope from a rock, instead of just giving me an extra foot of slack to free it with a quick flick.

I get where he's coming from… slack in the rope on this kind of terrain is probably a bad thing, but I wasted a bunch of energy unnecessarily on that. Other times, his chosen line took us straight up the steep fall line instead of using what seemed to me like obvious rising traverses to keep energy level outputs more efficient.

On the ridge of Crosson at last

He was getting very impatient with me, too, while he was yelling back down the hill to me, explaining what I should do as I approached the first anchor. I can understand that it's frustrating having to explain it a couple of times to get me to understand what he meant, and to yell hard to get his voice over the wind to do it, but part of his frustration came, I think, from my apparent lack of comprehension of what he was saying.

I say "apparent" because while he was very slowly and with an annoyed tone enunciating instructions about "theeee purrrrrpllllle rooooooope!...", apparently, he didn't realize that both ropes we were connected to were quite obviously purple (though very different shades).

Now, again, I'm sure he knows things I don't about climbing in this scenario, but it made no sense to me at all. Precision, it seems to me—in language, in descriptions, in body movements, in routefinding— are all so very important in mountaineering, that it's a pervasive skill.

Since we were on two ropes, the more precise way of saying it seems to me should have been using terms like "the climbing rope" and "the fixed line" to differentiate them, instead of "the purple rope".

Me, enjoying our comfy Camp 1
That said, I guess I'm willing to accept that Joey's approach to communication on the mountain might differ from mine, and our differences might just boil down to me being a writer whose job it is every day to be extremely precise in the way I write things. But I digress.

Human frustrations aside, the bottom line is that it was a tough 2 to 3 hour climb up 50 to 55° slopes under a very, very heavy pack. (The funny part is that I only began to worry when I could barely even get the damn thing up to shoulder level in camp without nearly toppling over.)

It just felt stupid heavy, despite having trained up to 90 pounds leading up to the actual trip. Interesting how soft snow and uneven terrain will do that, even if you're accustomed to heavier stuff on smoother, firmer terrain.

Nate at Camp 1, enjoying the hard work from the day
There's no end to the workout during expedition climbs, it, seems. Once we pulled into Camp 1, I unclipped, flopped my pack on the ground, grabbed a snow saw and started cutting 2-foot square blocks of very hard snow, while Nate, Bob, Joey, and Craig hauled them over to the ridge line we were on to block the howling winds that sometimes blasts across it.

Sawing is hard work!! I was surprised just how tough it is. You wouldn't think cutting igloo blocks is all that difficult, but before long, I was sweating just as hard as if I'd just barely rolled into camp with that heavy pack still on me.

When that was done, it was onto shoveling and using spades to chop and level the bed of ice and snow on which we planned to put our tents. That process results in a lot of loose snow (especially when it's Alaska-cold out), and that, in turn, requires moving snow from the higher spots to the lower spots to level the 10' x 20' space.
But before we could set up the tents, all that now-loose snow requires stomping to solidify it again, so the tent floors are stable and level.

It's quite a lot of work. Then we had tents and rainflys to set up, guy out, and dig many holes to anchor them down. The work just goes on and on, but we finally started moving our crap into the tents.

Getting ready to climb back down to the cache with Nate

About that time, I was milling around getting ready to move into the tent when Nate said "Bryan, what's your energy level like?" Honestly, even after today's work, I felt totally fine and had plenty in reserve, and that's exactly what I told him, knowing what he was going to ask.

"Do you want to come with me back down the mountain a ways to pick up the cache Joey and I put in yesterday?", he asked. Me: "Sure! Just let me just get moved into the tent the rest of the way and we can head out."

The descent to the cache covered about 500 vertical feet, about a third of the total climb we did already today. We made the descent with me on lead and Nate belaying from behind, and covered the distance in about 20 min. with mostly empty packs.

Nate dug up the cache, and handed me to group food bags and a gallon of fuel, which aI loaded into my pack. After he loaded up a ton of wands and some more food bags in his pack, we headed back up to Camp 1.
Light snow begins to fall

Having spent time on rope with Joey earlier, it seemed like Nate kept a slightly more even pace, and I found my rhythm quickly. It was still some work, though, especially after the days exertion and over-the-top climb and camp-setting expenditure, but it was fine.

We had a great dinner—spinach and cheese tortellinis with sun dried tomatoes and ham that reminded me of prosciutto. Super tasty, and I ate a ton of it. I spent the rest of the day chilling out, resting, hydrating, and staying warm in my sleeping bag while trying not to be totally grossed out by Bob's farting.

Now that I think about it, Kirk has been pretty quiet today, but I just heard him talking to the guides about the fact that he's had stomach pains since he arrived at AMS in Talkeetna, and they've been getting worse ever since. That sucks for him.

Tiiiired... but happy and warm in bed at Camp 1

Friday, April 29, 2011

Foraker, 2011: Friday, April 29 – Crosson base camp (Day 4)

For once, the weather report was right… we got 4 to 6 inches of snow in the night, and awoke to slate gray skies, low visibility, and disappointment. I could see none of the surrounding majestic peaks.

I strained my eyes against the morning's rolling white-fog cloak to see if I could catch a glimpse of Foraker's immense and bristling bulk and its Eastern face—chock full of wicked ice falls and terrifying ridges.

But she seemed content to wrap herself in white and vanish before my eyes, as though she possessed mystical powers of invisibility. Damn. 
The view out the tent this morning

It seemed when I woke that today was destined to be a rest day from the get-go, and Nate confirmed it during breakfast.

He wasn't comfortable taking on the steep rock and ice gully that would get us up to Camp 1 on Crosson's ridge. And as one of the only places on the entire route that was threatened by avalanche hazard, he and Joey discussed it and decided we'd wait it out in camp today.

Bored... but happy

That was a good call, I think. But the decision banished us to our tents, where I spent a long and boring day, mostly writing in my journal and sleeping, punctuated by a lot of farting by Bob. Gross.

In retrospect, the two of us made quite a pair, though, since I can only start off sleeping on my left side, and apparently, he can only sleep on his right side – which put our faces just inches away from one another about half the time in the cramped tent. Good thing I brought a toothbrush. HAHA
Although I do like Bob, he nevertheless seems profoundly oblivious to most things happening around him. He's only 62, but he kinda behaves a little like someone closer to 80.

My obsession during downtime
 My dad is 84, but I noticed some of my elderly father's mannerisms in Bob: things like startling out of whatever he's doing after someone yells his name loudly the second or third time… it worries me, honestly.
I've noticed his hands shake like those of an older man, too. Seems like he really shouldn't be here, but maybe he's a stronger climber than tent mate. He and Craig have done many major peaks together including Denali, Aconcagua, I think Ixtapa in Mexico, but strangely, Bob exudes none of Craig's stamina, strength, or savvy.
I can't decide whether it's because Bob is lost his own world and completely tuned out, or because he's a little hard of hearing… maybe both. Either way, though, it seems like that's a potential safety problem on a rope.
I'm hardly an expert, as Bob has climbed far more big hills than I ever have… so he gets the benefit of the doubt from me, but we'll just have to see what happens when things get a little more vertical.
Craig, reading a book

From Craig, on the other hand, I've learned quite a lot so far, and I continue to enjoy his simultaneously genial good nature, and his gruff-and-rough personality. He's an engaging fellow to talk to, and he's full of compassion and good advice, along with many interesting stories.
Craig and Bob and the rest of a group of their close friends go back about 45 years, where they met in high school as football teammates. (Craig is the only one that went on to do anything in football. He made it to the NFL in the 70s, a golden age… which I think is pretty damn cool.)
Kirk is just as talkative as ever, and he and Joey are a constant source of entertainment with their discussions back and forth.

Looking futilely for a break in the weather
 I shot a few pictures today, and some video, but nothing too inspiring, since the whiteout lasted most of the day—which brings me to my camera situation.
For this trip, I brought two cameras: a big (but light) Canon DSLR with a light wide-angle zoom, and a backup camera – a small AA-powered Canon point-and-shoot. (My camera rig for this trip has been a key focus of my preparations, because I very much want to take the photos I shoot on this trip to a new level of quality and awesomeness.)
But a chat with Colby back at AMS has changed my thinking on it. He's an excellent mountain photographer, and a masterful climber, having done the Sultana before, and many other serious and technical routes in the Range (also having had his own epic on another aspect of Foraker some years ago), but I was still surprised to hear his suggestion: Don't take the big camera on this route.
He went on to point out the fact that although the views from the Sultana Ridge route are some of the best in the Range, the nature of the climb itself makes it not easily photographed, while still staying safe on the rope. This route, he said, "is not a photography route."
He clearly appreciated the time I'd put into engineering a camera carrying system that would allow me to shoot quickly and with one gloved hand in a variety of conditions, but nevertheless recommended I take JUST my backup camera up the mountain.

New snow in the Crosson access gully

I think he could see that I was disappointed… not because my small camera doesn't take great pictures, but because it doesn't take DSLR-quality pictures. But as we talked it over a bit more, I knew that I would heed his advice.
He took me downstairs in the AMS shop to show me the amazing set of cameras and lenses he uses as a way of saying "I'm not anti-photography, as you can plainly see…", and I appreciated that.
He then took a look at my rig and removed lots of extra batteries and stuff I wouldn't need… and then we hit on an idea that might give something of a compromise: take the big camera from Kahiltna Base Camp across the glacier to the base of Crosson and see how that feels… maybe even to Camp 1 up the gully, and then either make the decision to carry it higher, OR if it's not feeling safe, just cache it down below and pick it up on the way back. 

Some other big stuff around us on the approach into Crosson Base yesterday
Excellent advice. So yesterday's walk across the glacier was, in part, spent evaluating the efficacy of taking the big camera higher became my plan. But yesterday's "easy" work across the glacier was indeed made harder by the fact that I brought that big camera with me. It felt like a boat anchor in places.
The whole rig with bag and lens and body and batteries and backup camera was something on the order of an extra 5 lbs, and when 80 or 90 lbs is already in store, that extra 5 is a killer.
So while here at the base of Crosson, I've taken the opportunity to shoot as many pics (and HD video) as I can, because I'm afraid this is as high as it will go.

Our next leg of the journey will be with very heavy packs—as in no sleds—and everything that was in the sled will now go in the pack, too. Brutal.

Hummus and pita bread... mmm
 Even leaving it behind, if I'm lucky enough to have a pack under 90 pounds, I'll be pleasantly surprised.

I've spent part of today trying to reach that goal, sorting out the heaviest food items and other gear I can leave behind here in a cache hole—with some helpful hints from Craig and Nate, too.
9 pm
We'll recover all the stuff we cached on the way back down, and between the big camera rig and other gear/food, I've saved myself 10 pounds or so. I'm still worried, but it's a little better. Now if only Bob would stop breathing on me, I wouldn't have to hibernate with my head inside my sleeping bag. Ugh.
Weather report came in, crackling over the radio at 8 PM, as usual. The forecast was for light snow on and off tomorrow, but with no accumulation for the next few days. They're saying we'll get a big snow on Monday, so if that all holds, we'll certainly climb tomorrow—and it'll be our heaviest pack day.
Looking forward to it… and a little worried about the pack weight. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


While I was transcribing the rest of my journal entries from this trip, I decided to make a movie about it, too, seein's how I have tons of video and still photographs from the trip. A movie is nice, because it's easier to get a sense of what expedition climbing in the Alaska Range is all about.

All the rest of my entries from the Foraker trip are coming, but in the meantime, check this out:

Foraker 2011: Thursday, April 28 – Kahiltna base camp to Crosson (Day 2)

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

We poked our heads out the tent door this morning around 7:30 AM and got a faceful of perfect blue skies--and Mt. Frances.

Nate Opp, our lead guide, and Joey McBrayer prepared a light "breakfast" of bagels and cream cheese for me and my climbing companions for the next two weeks: Craig, Bob, and Kirk.

Craig is a big tall guy with an easy laugh and a gravelly voice, and reminds me quite a lot of Jerry from last year.

Bob is a quieter, less gregarious character who seems oddly reflective, perhaps a bit distant, and who has known Craig for about 45 years. They've climbed lots of big mountains together.

Mt. Frances' false summit. I stood on the true summit last year. CLICK THIS AND MAKE SURE YOU VIEW IT AT 100%!

Both men are in their 60s, and while Bob *seems* solid, Craig is more of a sure bet. He's definitely the guns-blazing-get-after-if mountain climber type. You can hear his booming gritty baritone from far away and he's quick with a joke, while Bob seems more content to let Craig take most of center stage. Both have climbed many times with AMS.

Kirk seems like a nice guy. Funny, and begins most of his sentences with "like" haha

He's climbed with Nate before on Mount Russell last year (which they summited… a peak that's on my list, too), and has also been with AMS many times before. As the least experienced climber and the only one on the expedition who's wholly new to AMS, that sorta leaves me feeling like a bit of an outsider.

In fact, I've found myself strangely quiet the last couple days… not my usual outgoing, loud, slightly obnoxious self. I think that's partly because of the sobering nature of this kind of climbing for me, and partly because of the group dynamic, but that's ok... I'm here to climb.

At any rate, all of us are tall, lanky types, so nobody is really dwarfed when we're all standing around. Kind of an interesting dynamic.

After we finished eating, we broke camp, loaded up our packs, packed our sled duffels, strapped those into our sleds, rigged the sled hauls to our packs, roped up, popped on our accursed snowshoes, and started the crunchy, lurching (but easy) march across the glacier.

Kirk and Craig loading up for the glacier walk
As I suspected, we were split into two rope teams of three men each, with a guide at the front of each team. I was on Nate's rope, with Craig in the middle, and me last.

Joey broke trail with Kirk and Bob in tow, and we followed (thanks for breaking trail, guys). We started down Heartbreak Hill—so named because Denali climbers returning from grueling West Buttress climbs are confronted with this very long hill before they can at last collapse in Kahiltna base camp at the top.

We headed down the West Buttress track for a mile or two before cutting off hard left, finally slogging into unbroken powder for nearly the entire Kahiltna crossing, aiming for the foot of Crosson – and Foraker. God, they're huge.

My team, being second as I mentioned, had the benefit of Joey's team's trail (thanks, guys!). It was mostly pretty easy glacier walking for a while, with some ups and downs as we undulated up, over, around, and between crevasses.

There were a few icy cracks here and there, but it seems like this early in the year, the crevasses are mostly still covered by snow bridges.

We'd done some crevasse rescue scenarios last night to make sure we are all on the same page for today's crossing, and the new-to-me pre-rig prusik and ascender setups Nate demonstrated for getting yourself out of a crack were now spinning through my head as I stepped and walked over crevasses both small and large.

Break before veering off the West Buttress path into untracked snow
And while I definitely hate the klunkiness of snowshoe design (have I mentioned that?), I was nevertheless glad to have the flotation they provided in deep snow.

My pack/sled combination was heavier—probably MUCH heavier—than it should have been, due to packing too much food (as usual), too much gear, and an unfortunately large, heavy (but awesome) camera at my side, so without my snow shoes, I'd have been sinking a lot deeper than I already was.

The 1.5 hour glacier walk to the lower of the two icefalls we were aiming for near the toe of Crosson was pretty easy, with a good pace... but it's hard to keep your eyes off the giants in the background.

We skirted it up a hill to the left and wove our way up to the flat area that separated the upper and lower icefalls and serac fields. The plan was to hang a right on that flat and head straight over to the rocky base of Crosson—and that's exactly what we did.

Being last on a rope team can suck if the leader isn't paying attention to pace. On undulating up/down terrain like this, the leader might be heading down the other side of a hill you're just starting up, and gravity is on his side.
Mt. Foraker's massive Southwest ridge and face. CLICK THIS!

If he's paying attention to where the rest of the rope team is behind him, it's not so bad, because he'll slow his pace until the guy in back crests the hill. If not, you have to really motor on uphill terrain to keep up—which means you can be working very VERY hard hard on uphills from the back of the rope.

Nate is a great leader, but we were all still finding our groove with each other, so he probably wasn't paying attention to pace in this way today, and I found it extremely challenging to keep up. 

Consequently, near the top of the big hill between the icefalls, I was overheating and sweating profusely--a condition to be avoided in mountaineering.

I was a little mystified by this... I'm in amazing shape, and very strong, so this shouldn't have posed any kind of problem physically.

Note: I've since realized, having experienced this kind of challenge during two other days this trip that the main problem was not being fueled up for breakfast with enough calories to perform at the sustained high levels mountain climbing requires.

Approaching the lower icefall below our access point to Crosson
My other hard days from this trip came on 1. another bagel day, and 2. a two-pack of instant oatmeal day… about 400 calories of input vs. the huge, 5000-7000 calorie average output days of hard expedition climbing.

No matter how many 270-calorie energy bars you wolf down on short breaks, it's never enough without a huge breakfast to start with).

Today, I was just simply just out of gas, and hit the wall early. I've learned that I'm a very strong climber, but to take full advantage of that strength, I MUST be fueled up properly to perform at a high level… otherwise, I just have to wallow through it, and that can make for a very, very hard day.

Crosson Base Camp, looking back toward Kahiltna Base. Probing the site.
At about this point, I made another mistake: the day was heating up, and I should have shed a layer when Craig stopped the rope team unexpectedly to do just that. I thought I'd be ok, but it got hotter, and I got sweatier (and therefore wetter), so that just made the problem worse.

It was also about this time that my left snowshoe (which I hate—have I mentioned...? haha) came sloppy loose and started getting hung up on my boot every other step or so, causing me to sink a lot of unnecessary additional effort into correcting it, while still keeping moving at pace. Eventually, I had to stop the team to fix that, too. (Note: I sound like such a whiny little bitch as I'm transcribing this journal entry. HAHA)

We reached the base of Crosson about where we expected, but Nate and Joey didn't readily spot a good place to camp, so we continued and dropped down the slope a bit to a flat area a little lower than the gully we planned to ascend to gain the ridge tomorrow.

Nate and Joey probed the prospective camp for crevasses.

With such a light breakfast and only a couple of snacks on the trip, I was more gassed than I should have been, so stomping out a tent platform seemed pure, unadulterated masochism, but it was fine, and we eventually got a comfortable camp established.

Nate and Joey climbing the gully (yes, there are people in this shot)
We ate an early dinner, too, so that Nate and Joey could gear up once more and go do an exploratory climb to cache some gear higher up and anchor a fixed rope up the gully for the teams to use tomorrow.

Dinner was welcome, and very tasty: macaroni and cheese with ham, peas, and carrots. After this morning's meager volume, I made a point to mention to Nate the same thing Jason and Tyler learned last year from experience: I need more fuel, so if there's anything left, I'll take it.

Me: the human disposal, as usual. HAHA

After dinner, Nate and Joey donned their harnesses and packs again and took off up the mountain, heading for a bergschrund below a steep, narrow, rock and ice gully that led up the side of Crosson and onto rock scree on the ridge above.

This aspect of Crosson melts out quickly every year, which is why this expedition goes so early, I learned.

They were gone about three hours, and cached some of the gear they were carrying (wands, group food, and a few gallons of fuel) near the ridge above us, and set a rope for us to stabilize our climb up the gully tomorrow.

Shortly after they got back to camp, it started to fog in, cloud over, and Foraker disappeared from view as it started to snow lightly.

If that keeps up through tonight, we won't be climbing tomorrow. Weather report is for snow in the night, so it's not looking good.

Panorama of the Foraker/Crosson massif - CLICK THIS!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Foraker 2011: Wednesday, April 27-Talkeetna (Day 1)

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

I arrived at 8 AM at AMS—once again deprived of another Talkeetna delicacy, the epic cinnamon rolls from The Roadhouse. They're not open til 9! WTF. I want!!

I mean, come on... besides climbing, there just aren't THAT many things that make a trip to Talkeetna worthwhile foodwise, and I've so far missed out on two of the three I was looking forward to!! GAH!

Anyway, we did introductions, ran through a swift gear check (where I shaved at least 10 pounds from my pack… overpacked!! Did I mention? Ha ha). Awesome.

Before we took off, we harnessed up and did some crevasse self rescue training out back, hanging from the rafters on ropes. It was a new twist (for me) on the familiar prusik method... just basically getting everybody on the same page using a partial "Texas pre-rig" system for glacier travel. I found it educational, since I've never done glaciers pre-rigged with prusiks in case of falls.

Kevin Wright. With a brother Brian. Weird.
When that was done, we finished packing our gear into backpacks and sled duffels, loaded it all up in the van, and headed over to the Ranger station to sign in and pay our climbing fees... $210 for Foraker. Ouch!

Oh yeah, one weird thing: we were required to do a briefing on the dangers of Foraker at the NPS station, and it was basically just a presentation from one of the rangers... who was named Kevin Wright (same as my bro).

I noticed it right on his nametag and interrupted him mid-sentence.Turns out he has a brother named Brian, too. Bizarro.

Just like always, it's a whirlwind of "hurry up and wait" activity and deadlines getting out of Talkeetna and onto the glacier.

We rushed over to the airstrip... where we promptly sat down and waited for our TAT pilot to figure out whether there was an air leak in his left tire or not.

They got it sorted, though, and we loaded the gear up, boarded the plane and flew directly onto the glacier.

How awesome is that? There have been people stuck in town burning time for three days waiting for weather to get good enough to fly onto the glacier, but the instant I show up, the weather clears, and on we fly, with not a single minute lost. Haha Sweet!

All the other climbers in town should thank me for showing up haha. Anyway I got tons of epic shots of the Alaska Range on the way in,we dumped gear on the snow, and set up camp.

It's a very eerie feeling at Kahiltna Base Camp this year. There's almost nobody here, and much more than last year, it's now scarily evident just how remote a location this truly is.

Last year, climb season was in full swing with tons of Denali traffic, bustle, tents, noise, and everything else.

Today, though, the NPS tents aren't even set up yet, there's barely even a runway, and we're making first tracks in the snow almost everywhere we go.

A high glacier that pours its ice off an immense cliff 
It's a deathly silent and beautiful experience , standing amid these giant spires, towers and buttresses... one that requires, if you're even the slightest bit of a thinking person, serious consideration of what one is about to undertake. I was awed once again by their very presence, and knowing that I was to climb what lay before me in short order gave me a reason to consider my quest even more seriously than I had up to this point.

And there, across the glacier once more, looms Foraker, silent and vast. I'd forgotten just how massive it is, the way it forces you to look, the way it draws your gaze and fills the field of view of even the unwilling.

Crosson is utterly vision-filling, too, lying under nearly perfect blue azure skies.

Today, it's touched occasionally by drifting fingers of cloud that caress its slopes, as though the mountain were the immense pet of an even larger, colder, and less corporeal being whose stroking hand is manifested only in wisps as they cross the dimensional boundaries that divide us from the deep, ancient souls of the mountains.

The whole area is exhilarating—and terrifying. I can see nearly our entire route from here. Crosson, the dirty and imposing dirtpile; Foraker, icy and forbidding, guarded by gargoyles, corniced ridges, insane hanging glaciers, titanic ice falls, and other immobile-yet-raging menaces.

Foraker looms
It's always been a mountain to me that fairly bristles with benevolent (and yes, even malevolent) attitude, a mountain that dares one to climb it.

Sitting this close to such a towering monster—one that was once only an idea, a concept, an intention to climb—I can now feel in the reality of the actions I set in motion the icy breath of the mountain.

And I can hear the distant deep booming of its heart, as the mighty seracs on its flanks collapse in cataclysmic explosions of neon blue ice.

Crosson in the mist
There's a power beyond description in these great peaks.
A shot of the Crosson start
That I underestimated even the size of Crosson (not to mention Foraker) as I sat home in my little world, studying picture after picture of it on a tiny screen was painfully obvious the instant I stepped off the plane and into the pillowy snows of the Kahiltna.

I realized that I had been lulled by the sense of tranquility that photos of these mountains can sometimes portray. My sensitivity to being dwarfed by these great beings was dulled by the time spent in proximity to them as I stood in this same spot last year.

But I know in my heart that I'm absolutely up to the task. I've prepared hard, and with great discipline and forethought... no more thinking. It's time for doing. Tomorrow, we climb.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Foraker 2011: Tuesday, April 26, Talkeetna, Alaska - travel day

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

Bambi hangin' with her daddy
for a while before he leaves

I woke to an easy preflight ritual this morning. My flight wasn't til 1pm, so it was rather unlike many trips I've taken lately where I've had to be up at the butt-crack of dawn.

I've spent the last several days frantically running around comparing gear lists, because for whatever reason, AMS has multiple versions : one mostly geared toward climbing Denali's West Buttress, and another that's based on that one, but a little more Foraker-specific—but they don't agree completely.

And neither of them agree completely with my own list items; packing got unruly quickly. Looked like a climbing gear bomb went off in my studio.

Last year's experience in the Alaska Range has proven invaluable, though, as I now have at least some sense of what worked for me and what didn't.

So comparing all three lists I'm finally packed, and my First Ascent bags are once again sitting in the family room waiting to be (tortuously) lugged out to the 4Runner for transport to the airport. I believe I'm one bag smaller this year, though, and for a trip that's more than twice as long, I call that progress!

 Still, it's just a ton of crap… I'm probably still overpacked, too, like always. This whole thing with packing light is always a challenge for an anal retentive idiot like me, but I am getting better. It just takes practice.

My modest room at the Tee Pee
My flight today was at 12:40 PM—which means it got in to Anchorage around 6pm: a great time if you like getting to an airport at an hour where no trains run and nothing but expensive custom trips go to Talkeetna, and then charge you $150 each direction for the privilege. Gas prices are crazy now, true, but still… Ouch. Last year was $60 each way.

The flight: so uneventful as to be nearly unworthy of mention here, and my ride to TKA was equally aggressively mundane.

The rugged Chugach range just outside Anchorage
I dropped my gear off at AMS around 9:30 PM and had high hopes of a caribou burger at the West Rib, but it was not to be: the were closed for the night.

So instead, I headed over to my "hotel," the Tee Pee where I stayed last year, and whose proprietor is still that same nice, but wayyyy too chatty older woman. She promptly checked me in.

I asked if there was anywhere still serving food in town and was told nobody was open at this hour. GARRR!

Miraculously, though, she volunteered that she'd hosted a banquet at the hotel that day, and had tons of leftover food—and that she would feed me for free!! Done, and done.

The Chugach range
I took my stuff to my room. I sat on the bed. Bored. Hmmm... Continue sitting in room and ponder my impending starvation. Wait, what am I doing? Okay, time to eat.

Two huge plates of barbecue baby back ribs, macaroni salad, garlic bread, and two beverages later, I crashed.