Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wind and Waiting on Denali

Lauren Ditolla and Mike at the summit of DenaliMike and I had been stuck at the 14,200 ft. camp on Denali for 6 days now, and it was making us more than a little stir crazy. The weather had completely socked us in, and the wind was howling up on the ridge that led to the 17,000 ft. camp. We weren't going anywhere until the weather had cleared and the wind had tempered her fury. Fortunately, we had set ourselves up well for the waiting game. Our slow and steady slogging up the Kalhitna Glacier with enormous packs and heavy sleds were packed with enough food and fuel to last us another week and a half at Advanced Base Camp. We would wait for our weather window as long as we had the food.

Every couple of hours we would emerge from our slightly cramped, single walled mountaineering tent to shovel away accumulating snow, cut snow blocks for the wind wall, and wander over to the Ranger's tent to say hello. We weren't the only ones stuck in camp...there were plenty of other parties waiting for the weather to clear as well. The camp made for an interesting hodgepodge of mountaineers hailing from all over the globe.

We maxed out on card games by day 3. By day 4, we had killed all the batteries for the mini disc player, and by day 5 I had counted how many squares of ripstop there were in a square foot of conduit. By day 6, we were itching to get moving. The weather had started to clear up, and the forecast on the radio was promising. We hatched a plan, and decided move. We decided we would wake up at midnight, and be moving up the Headwall by 12:30am. That way we'd beat the crowds to the fixed lines, which were notorious for having people held up traffic-jam style waiting for their turn. We'd make camp at 17,000ft., have a hot lunch, then push to the summit with super light packs, all in a day.Lauren Ditolla heading to the summit of Denali

At 12am our alarms went off and the tent was frosty with the frozen condensation of our breath. The cold stung our faces even inside the tent, a not so gentle reminder that we were in for a long, chilly couple of hours. We pulled on our overboots and all of our layers, and broke down camp as quickly as we could. We were roped up and ready to go at 12:45.

At the higher elevations on Denali, the hours between midnight and 5am are brutally cold...it was all I could do to keep my extremities warm. I swung my hands and feet every couple of steps, trying to force the circulation back into them. It's amazing how fast your hands can get numb carrying a metal ice axe- even through the thickest gloves and having ensolite pad the head of your axe.
We made good time form camp to the base of the fixed lines. Our plan was working so far- we were the first ones up and moving, and the first ones to the fixed lines. We had traveled up the first 1,000 feet of elevation pretty quickly, and it may have been the fast hike combined with the intense cold that turned my mood from super motivated to super cranky. I swallowed a couple of packets of GU, and then Mike and I started moving up the fixed lines slowly. The are numerous sections of line that are fixed, so every 100 feet or so you have to get out of one ascending system and into another, which got irritating after the first 3 or so. Not to mention that locking an unlocking carabiners with bulky gloves at that altitude and temperature makes the whole process take 20 times longer than it normally does.

When we reached the top of the fixed lines, I begged for a break and we sat for a couple of minutes, watching the sun starting to peek up from the horizon. It was stunningly beautiful- oranges, purples, and fiery pinks illuminated the sky, making Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter look as if they were ablaze. After taking in the 3am sunrise, the cold started to penetrate our tired muscles and we roped up again, moving up.

The most beautiful part of the West Buttress route is gaining the Headwall and walking the Buttress itself. The ridge was sidewalk thin in some areas; with sheer, steep drops on either side. If you fell, you would tumble all the way down to Peter's Basin. It was nervy in spots, so we went slow and methodically. By the time we reached the 17,000 camp, we were exhausted but excited that we'd made it. Our plan was to keep pushing to the summit. We set up camp and made a hot lunch, and crashed for 2 hours. I woke up to Mike flaking out the rope outside, setting things up so that we could keep climbing.

Denali Pass was a beast- it wasn't as steep as the Headwall, but it took forever. The wind was starting to pick up, and we could see gusts of wind moving the snow around like mini tornadoes higher above us. It took us over 2 hours to reach the top of Denali Pass, which lies at 18,200 ft. We were absolutely worked, and as soon as we crested the saddle, we were in for a rude surprise...gale force winds nearly knocked me off my feet, and it took all I had to move forward even a couple of steps. We were getting blasted, sitting in an exposed saddle with little protection. All it took was a look from both of us to communicate with each other that Mother Nature had won for the day. It was time to go down.

And so we headed down. Even though we didn't make the summit that day, we waited it out at High Camp for a night and touched the top 2 days later. We were pretty excited that we had pushed up over 4,000 ft that day, and seen a gorgeous sunrise in the process. On our expedition, we had seen most all of Denali's mood swings, from the powerful winds to the biting cold and the bluebird skies. We counted ourselves some of the luckier ones-we got to summit in style and earned every step of the way!
-Lauren Ditolla
Gearhead

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