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.