What goes up, doesn't always come down.
I, Ken Babenco and Sam Grenlie are catching a plane in two weeks to Alaska. It seems pretty unreal to me right now, I suppose I'll believe it when my feet are cold. This all began as a casual conversation six-months ago over lunch at Rumbis after a good day of skiing. Sam asked me if I wanted to climb "Denali" with him next spring. I agreed, unfortunately for me I had no idea what "Denali" was other than some obscure mountaineering expedition people went on somewhere in Alaska. I didn't realize it was the coldest, biggest rock on our continent. It's a lot easier to agree to things before you know what they really entail. Regardless, as a man of my word I was committed. Fast-forward six-months of hard (and fun) training later, the last pieces of the puzzle are falling together. We are still a bit of a junk-show, but thats the way we have always been, and honestly I would be seriously worried about this trip if we were already prepared.
After a few local winter climbs, we decided to tackle Rainer in the winter. Little did I know at the time Rainer has about a 15% success rate in the winter. We decided to toss the dice and see what is was that was preventing people from summiting in the winter.
We got a late start because multiple avalanches closed the road, we had little time to make it to high camp @ 10.5k, heavy packs and lots of inadequate gear. At low altitude it was slushing and raining on us, as we pushed uphill in the whiteout we quickly froze. We broke trail with 90-pound packs and heavy big-mountain skis and race-boots all day long free of rests. Navigation was difficult in the whiteout, but we pulled it off.
After pushing non-stop uphill all day in the storm we realized we weren't going to make it to high camp before dark, the blizzard was getting very strong, we decided we had to dig in for the night. After a cold, frozen and wet day, sleep was minimal. We had only 3 days to reach the summit before we had to back at work in Salt Lake so I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself. I jumped out of my bag, into my frozen clothes and began to clean up camp and continued to push onward.
The climb was incredible, there wasn't another soul on the mountain for the entire three days we were up there. The snow was so deep (after 12 straight days of heavy snow on Rainier) Sam was laying face-down on his stomach as I crawled up his pack and jumped off him, leap frogging up the ridiculously steep, chest-deep sugar. We did a lot of scrambling and Dry-tooling before we made it to the top of Gib Ledges 3 days later. At this point I was exhausted, throwing-up and having one of the best trips of my life. The camera froze about 12,000 feet but I managed to snap a few shots leading up to it.
Our climb followed this ridgeline to the point where it meets up with the large rock-wall.
There were ice-falls literally the size of houses ripping off the the ice ledges across the couloir to our left. I've never heard a more horrible noise than that, it sounded like someone was tearing the sky open.
After this climb I felt a lot more confident in my resolve to go up.