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.
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.
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|
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|
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|
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.|
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)|
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!|