June 23, 2013
I am parked by a river, at a spot where the road further becomes too sloppy for me to be interested in driving, and the sound of water entices me to set my house on river rock, sip a beer from the cooler, and try to put the past couple of weeks into words. I’m in the Peters Hills, and if later, or tomorrow, I decide to hike or ride further in and up, perhaps I can get a good view of the mountain I just climbed.
So, how does this story go?
Morning, June 7th. I close the door of the van and trundle my gear over to the tarmac in the steel mesh wagon with wheelbarrow wheels. My pilot in nine-zero-yankee, a Beaver fitted with wheels and skis and trimmed out nicely in the blue and red of Talkeetna Air Taxi, is Brad. Brad came up here from Oregon to be a fishing guide a couple dozen years ago and ended up flying climbers and sightseers into the Alaska range. The Beaver seats five, and the other passengers are still getting ready, so I joke around with the mechanics, try to ride their unicycle (which doesn’t work so well in my ski boots). Two climbers appear and introduce themselves as Dick and Rhys, father and son from Western Massachusets. Rhys just graduated from high school and this is his graduation present, to climb Denali. Last year, the two of them came out in April and did a glacier safety course with Alpine Ascents. They’ve been practicing by climbing in the White Mountains and on trips to the Cascades. Dick has been running stairs with a 50lb weight vest. Both are tall and wiry. Dick is friendly, energetic and outgoing. Rhys is scrawny and strong, smiling with excitement, perhaps quiet with anticipation. We wait a few minutes for the third member of their party, Rich. Big red beard, tele boots, seems observant, thoughtful. They call themselves the Western Mass Crew.
We throw our gear on the plane, Brad runs through his checks, letting the plane idle for a few minutes to warm up the engine. I’m in front, the Western Mass Crew shares the bench seat in back, Rhys squeezed between his father and Rich. The day is calm, the weather board inside the office of Talkeetna Air Taxi says CAVU – Clear Above, Visibility Unlimited. Still, it is a small plane – as we take off, we feel every breath of wind, every pocket of more or less dense air, gently pushing us this way and that. Brad makes it look easy. Maybe it is. I doubt it.
The flight in to the range traverses over many miles of flat terrain, braided with rivers and patched with thick forest opening into pale green meadows and bogs. The Alaska range runs southwest to northeast, with the massive bulk of Denali posted in the middle of a vast array of glaciers, peaks, ice and rock. As we approach the range, this flat terrain becomes hills that quickly give way to angular juts of rock rising from a slowly flowing landscape of ice and gravel. We land on a tributary glacier to the main flow of the Kahiltna, the southeast fork, just outside the wilderness boundary in the shadow of Mount Hunter. Across the Kahiltna is Mount Foraker, the second highest peak in the Alaksa range.
Brad drops us off at base camp. It is still morning, and I think for a moment about heading out right away, and quickly realize that that would be foolish, that I need time to adjust to this new place. There is a stack of plastic sleds next to the airstrip. I retrieve a purple one and rig it for hauling my food, stove fuel, climbing gear, and other what not, all of which add up to more than 100 lbs. To rig the sled I use two pvc poles, about five feet long, run length of 6mm cord through one pole, through holes punched in the front of the sled, and back through the other pole. An overhand knot on a bight at the end of each pole, and a carabiner to clips each knot to my pack. Seems to work. Takes a little while to get it figured out, and it is the sort of system that will obviously evolve with use.
While I am finagling with the sled, the short circuiting of the social network begins. I meet few people in Alaska with whom I didn’t already have some connection. First, I meet the climbing ranger currently stationed at base camp, Tucker Chenoweth. His sister Darcy taught the Wilderness First Responder class I took back in 2006. Then I hear a familiar voice. It’s Rob Burrows. Rob is a glaciologist for Denali national park, I met him through our common friend Ali when Rob and I were both at UBC in Vancouver. He takes some of the credit/blame for introducing me to my ex. Rob and I haven’t seen that much of each other lately, since I’ve been in Colorado and he’s been in Alaksa, though we did meet up for some skiing at Wolf Creek a few years ago. He’s not usually on this side of the park, so it is a bit of a coincidence that he is here doing some research on this glacier when I pass through. We catch up a bit. He used to be the one living out of his camper, exploring various mountain ranges. Now he’s pretty established in his world up here: married, bought a house, has a 907 phone number. I’m the one following the free form adventure, living out of my van, going where my feet take me. Rob used to be a climbing ranger at North Cascades. We skied together on Mount Rainier. I admit to being a bit nervous, and he repeats a warning I have heard a few times already: these glaciers are not like the Cascades, the terrain is on a different scale, hazards are less predictable and higher consequence.
While I’m rigging my sled and meeting Rob, Rhys finds a campsite. I set myself up next to my three plane-mates. I briefly contemplate joining them for the first leg, across the flat glacier, where low elevation means softer bridges and more chance of falling into a crevasse, but decide to stick with my plan and move alone and in the early hours. I hang around the rangers’ tent, listening in as Tucker and Joe Stock, who is preparing a book on ski mountaineering, go over rope work. I’m impressed by Tucker’s skills. “A lifetime of things to learn,” he says. A Japanese soloist sticks his head in the tent to ask Tucker about the best time for crossing the lower glacier. I decide to leave at 2 or 3 am.
Not much sleep and up at 1 am. Cache some food in case the weather is bad when I’m back and the planes can’t fly in. I’m still not dialed into some of my new gear and systems, so I’m not out on the trail until 3:30. This is still early enough to get across the five miles of the lower Kahiltna while the ground is frozen hard. Every little rise and fall on the West Buttress route has a name – from base camp down to the main glacier is Heartbreak Hill. It isn’t much of a hill, but it is nice to get used to pulling a sled on a slight downslope. Supposedly the climb on the way out at the very end is heartbreaking. The solstice is less than two weeks away, so even in the middle of the night it isn’t dark, and I walk in a long morning twilight.
After about 5 miles, the slope increases and there is a cluster of tents. A few people have left camp just before I arrive, and I follow about half an hour behind them for the rest of the day, catching sight of them whenever the variations in the grade of the glacier provide a sight line. Though I had planned to stop moving by 9 am, I feel strong and keep going, making it to 11,000 feet by about 12:30. There is a sizable camp here, many tents. It’s been a long day; I set up my tent and crash. I’m feeling strong in body but I still have a lot to figure out and get used to in terms of gear, and the tricks my mind plays on me in this place will take some practice to understand. I’ve never done a ski trip longer than a few days. There is so much gear to haul. I could have practiced more, had my systems dialed. But I didn’t, so I’m learning on the fly. As usual, it works for me.
At about 10,000 I met Charles, Adrian, and Jarod, a trio of young guys who wanted climbing partners and found each other on the internet. We end up on about the same pace for most of the way up the Buttress. Charles is from Quebec and doesn’t talk much. Adrian is from Seattle, works as an actuary with a couple of guys who I knew in grad school. Jarod is still in college, in Wisconsin. They each have good systems, but it is clear that they have not spent much time as a team. They are learning to work together as I am learning to work solo.
Between 10,000 and camp, I noticed that my bindings are coming a little loose from my skis. This could be disastrous. I brought heavy ski gear so that I could rely on a stable platform underfoot in sketchy terrain. Losing a ski to equipment failure in a no-fall zone is not an option. After a nap, I pull the bindings and fill the mounting holes with epoxy and steel wool. I screw everything up tight. The epoxy takes a day to set, so I stay two nights at 11,000.
Above 11,000 foot camp is Motorcycle Hill, a fairly steep slope crossed by a few small and well-bridged crevasses. the trail then climbs onto a ridge and up the steep Squirrel Hill to the Polo Field, a moderate slope in the shadow of the cliffs at the end of the West Buttress. The trail turns around the Buttress at the Windy Corner, and then continues for a mile or so of sidehill and slight up to the broad flat area where 14,200 foot camp is situated. The whole route is marked by wands, and the trail is well trod. In the afternoon of my second day at 11,000, I walk up to the bottom of the Polo Field at the top of Squirrel Hill. The world feels good when I’m moving, sitting still is hard. All my questions, all my doubts, all the wounds I am trying to heal, they seep to the surface while I lie in my tent. Moving is good. There are decisions to make about the terrain. The scenery demands attention. I can focus.
Dinner. Have to eat, could have chosen my food a bit better. A pair of Japanese snowboarders are descending after a victorious mission and give Adrian, Jarod and Charles some steak. They share the bounty, it is delicious. Why didn’t I bring more bacon?
Angela, one of the guides who I met at Frenchman Coulee on the way up here, is camped at 11,000 with the group she is leading up the mountain. She seems to not be enjoying this trip as much as perhaps she has enjoyed others. Perhaps the dynamic of her group is off. Perhaps it is something else. She offers help in taking care of my binding issue, but I have everything I need.
Day four is June 10th. I am up early to a couple inches of new snow – the only snow of the trip. Seeing Foraker in the sunrise while making coffee reminds me why I am here. I push through the loneliness, strap my skis on my back, fill the thermos with coffee, and load up the sled with about two thirds of my stuff for the first half of a double carry up to 14,200. I leave my tent and what I’ll need for the next day. The weather is mostly good, but while I’m crossing the Polo Field, between Squirrel Hill and Windy corner, clouds roll through and I stop a few times, waiting for enough visibility to see the next wand. The new snow has mostly obscured the track. Pulling a sled along the sidehill of the Windy Corner is aggravating, it slides down and pulls awkwardly. My shoulder hurts where I tore a ligament biking a couple months ago. My body is working slowly, and it takes until early afternoon to get to camp. By now I am above the cloud and past the wind. It is warm. 14,200 camp is a big place – a village. I claim a little corner near the center of camp. I do a little work to shore up the walls of this site. My saw is inadequate for making good blocks in this snow, my walls look like junk, and I am self conscious about them. I feel, or perhaps imagine, doubt and amusement in the eyes of some people milling about. I seem to have placed myself in a spot surrounded by guided groups. Someone walks by and hands me a blow pop. It’s Joe, one of the guides for Mountain Trip.
By about 4 o’clock I decide to head back down to my tent at 11,000. The skiing is fun in spots, but at the places where it should have been best, where it is steep, the visibility is bad and I can’t really see where to go other than the well worn track. Back at camp in less than an hour. The three guys who met on the internet did one carry yesterday and are about to head up for the second. I make dinner and contemplate staying another night at 11,000. Climb high sleep low. I have plenty of time. But I have energy, and weather, and hamster-wheel thoughts that get rolling with inactivity, so at about 7:30 I head up the hill, on my skis and skinning this time instead of hauling them on my pack and hiking with crampons. It is beautiful, perhaps the best hike of the whole climb. The sun sets slowly across Hunter and Foraker, now largely below me rather than looming high above. Again, the altitude makes me slow. At about 13,500, just around the Windy Corner, I stop for a snack – some chocolate, some Acclimate. One more push and I arrive. Set camp, in my bed by midnight.
The broad flat area where 14 camp is situated is bounded on the north and west by the West Buttress, a 2,000 foot wall of rock and ice. To the east rises the south peak of Denali, the high one, the summit hidden behind the edge of a flat area at about 19,000 feet called the Football Field. The Messner and the Orient Express drop down this slope. I would like to ski these lines. They are intimidating. There are no tracks. The Messner was first skied by Sylvan Sadun. Attribution is a strange game. Some people call this mountain McKinley. To the south, the mountain drops away, the Northeast fork of the Kahiltna is 4,000 feet below the edge of the world. The view is dominated by the Kahiltna Peaks, Mount Hunter, and Mount Foraker.
I spend the morning building up my walls. They are getting better, but I would like a sturdier saw. Mine is a sawzall blade that fits onto my shovel handle, great for digging pits and carving blocks out of winter snow in the Rockies or the Cascades, but not ideal for cutting up summer snow at 14,000 feet in the Alaska range. It works ok though. Of course, I could have moved into a site with better walls already in place. This was the advice I got from Kyle, back in Bellingham. Activity is good though, it helps me acclimatize. I wander around camp. I turns out that the three guys I met at 10,000 are camped right next door. Over at the weather board by the ranger tents (it says, “You probably spend too much time looking at this board, and you probably put too much faith in what it says.”), I meet Tyler, a guide who finally convinced his group that it would be a good idea to be a bit more chill, and is quite pleased with the results. His clients have cut blocks to spell “Out Chill” and stacked them on their walls. The guided trip is a strange annex to the mountaineering subculture. Tyler and I chat for a while about the skiing, the weather, life. The board also says that good weather is coming in a couple days, so along with most of the people camped at 14, Tyler is planning on moving up to camp at 17,000 soon.
In the afternoon, I head out for a ski. The slopes below the Messner and the Orient are mellow, and already have a skin track up to about 15,400. The turns are fun, the snow is reasonable, still in decent shape after being refreshed two days ago. On a serac to the side of my run are two climbers, playing on the vertical ice. I ski over and introduce myself to James and Jared from Salt Lake City. We talk about the Black Canyon, Ouray. They can’t believe that I haven’t spent more time in those places. So much to do, so many places to explore. When I’m down, I join the other Jarod, Charles and Adrian on a hike out to the cliff overlooking the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna. I wonder what happened to the Japanese soloist, but I don’t see him. We chatted at 11,000, but he is moving faster than me. No sled, minimal gear.
This is an interesting sort of solo trip. I am by no means alone – there are always people around at camp. While hiking I’m solo. Kind of. I’m on a well trod and wanded trail, and I pass people, they pass me. Personal camp things: food, set up, take down, sleep, writing, this is just me. Sometimes I like this, sometimes it is difficult. It strikes me, the contrast between this trip and my solo desert trips, where I find myself with much more solitude.
On June 12th I wake up feeling pretty rotten. I don’t want to be altitude sick, not like what happened to me in Kibber. The second day of a ten day trek through the Himalaya I spent vomiting and feeling like my head was going to explode. I was living at sea level, and didn’t take time to acclimatize. I spend this morning loafing about, napping and snacking until about 3 in the afternoon. I start to feel better. I visit with James and Jared, who I met on my ski, and their friends Vince and Keith. Keith used to work at Mt. Crested Butte, and we chat a bit about the skiing, both here and there. Later I spot him sporting a confederate flag bandana and lose whatever esteem I might have had for the guy. I wonder how that fashion choice went over with the African-American team.
Around 3pm, Adrian and I head up the trail onto the West Buttress. From 14 to the bergschrund at about 15, the slope is not too steep, and I am able to skin almost the whole way. At the bergschrund, it gets quite steep, and there are fixed lines. Adrian decides that this is as far as he wants to go and skis back down. I strap my skis to my pack and use my ascender to climb the fixed lines. This is a new tool and I am figuring it out by using it, learning by doing. I’m glad to have good weather for practicing. Up on the ridge, it is windy and cold. It has been a while since I’ve done many transitions in steep exposed terrain, so I am a bit afraid of dropping something going from crampons to skis. It was the same going in the other direction back at the bottom of the fixed lines. Practice days are good, I make mental notes on how to rig up a better system back at camp. Skis on, I traverse back to the south side of the ridge, looking down at camp. It isn’t as windy. It is steep. I stand at the top of the headwall and calm my nervousness. The snow feels good and I link solid turns down the headwall, stopping just above the bergschrund. I am not graceful in crossing, nor is the rest of my run particularly elegant. Still, I am riding high on the seventeen turns I made next to the ropes.
I wander around camp some. Jared from Salt Lake has frostbite on his finger. No climbing the Cassin for him. It reminds me to be very careful of my toes. I wish that I had had someone punch out a little more room in my boots for my big toes. Next season.
June 13th begins with wind. Enthusiasm has definitely waned, I spend the morning in camp. I smell bad, I doubt my plans, I am tired and the altitude is hurting my head. Why am I still in winter, when this season is such a long one at home? Why did I remove myself from warmth and green things? What can I do to recapture the magical enjoyment of this place? Why is it so fleeting?
Get up, walk around camp. There is a team from Stanford doing experiments on people’s adaptation to altitude. They just set up, and are only taking data points who have been at 14 for less than 24 hours, so I can’t participate. I chat with Pat, the lab tech running the outside part of the experiment. He has a fair bit of rock climbing experience, but the big mountains are a relatively new thing. Pat has laid out a walking course, and has the participants follow it for a few minutes while their pulse and oxygen saturation levels are monitored. Then the other researchers measure hydration levels and give them a trucker hat that says SHARP (Stanford High Altitude Research Project). One of the participants compliments my tracks from yesterday, and asks me about the snow conditions. We talk for a bit, and I get the impression that he’s somehow familiar. When I excuse myself and wander on, he introduces himself as Jeremy, and my brain realizes that this goes with the Jones hat that he wears. Seeing his movie last fall is part of the inspiration for this trip. There’s a group of famous people up here: Jones, Conrad Anker, John Krakauer, some other folks I don’t know.
The weather has turned, the wind has stopped, and it is still forecast to be nice for a couple of days.
June 14th I get up early and hike to 17,000. As I am waking up, Dick, Rhys and Rich pull in to camp, exhausted. It is good to see them again, and I’m glad that they are progressing up the mountain. Climbing, the going is slow, both because I am feeling the altitude and because all of 14 camp is on their way up to 17. At the top of the fixed lines I sit for a bit with Jarod, Adrian and Charles. Someone above me dropped a tent while climbing the fixed lines, and his party waits while he goes down to retrieve it. I feel the altitude. Moving on, I hike very carefully, thinking of how I passed out while walking around Cusco when I showed up and didn’t pay attention to the altitude. The trail is not difficult, but if I were to zonk out, the consequences could be high. A slide unarrested could send one a long way down. The West Buttress trail consists of sections of steep snow winding among boulders, where so many have walked that the snow is compacted into a staircase, and other sections of narrow but not knife edge ridge walking. There is fixed protection along the route, and many of the teams are roped together and clipped in. It doesn’t seem necessary to me, though in foul weather, the story would probably be different. I finally come to 17, exhausted.
I spend an hour or so recuperating, sitting on an outcrop, looking down at 14 camp, out at Foraker and the like, enjoying the view. I cache my skis and bivy gear, planning to return in the morning to continue on up to the summit. On the way down, I run into Jeremy Jones and his crew – Brody and Robin, headed up to ski Rescue Gully, a line from 17 down to 14, looker’s right of the fixed lines. Returning to camp, I take stock of my energy levels and realize that I am not ready to summit the next day.
The next day starts out as a rest day, but then at around 2 in the afternoon I get antsy and head up to fetch my skis. My plan is to ski Rescue 3, a gully on looker’s right, also coming from 17 down to 14, just to looker’s left of the bottom of the Messner. There is blue ice at the bottom, but I see a traverse and what looks like a way through some crevasses to the mellow slopes where I took my first run from 14 camp. Getting back up to 17 is easy, my body has finally adjusted to at least that much altitude. I chat with the Jarod, Adrian and Charles for a bit; they aborted a summit attempt in the morning due to cold and wind. I talk to Tyler a bit too. He led his group up to the summit, and is going to head down in the morning.
It takes a little while to find my way in to the gully, but I do find it. The snow feels ok, a bit wind-affected. One turn in and I kick off a slide. The ground disappears from beneath me. Luckily I am able to dig in to the bed surface with my whippet, and catch myself on some rocks. The slope I was looking to ski immediately goes from looking like fun to looking like death. The thought crosses my mind that I could still ski it, and is quickly shouted down by the voice of reason telling me to not die. So, I anchor myself, change modes, and climb back out. I’ll either ski Rescue, where Jones and crew skied yesterday, or just hike back down the Buttress. It is probably 9 pm and I’m walking back through camp at 17. Tyler sees me, calls me over, and on hearing my story, tells me to stop my mini epic, and offers me a spot in his tent for the night. He and Garret, the other guide on his trip, have an extra everything, so I take them up on the offer. The weather tomorrow is supposed to be perfect.
I sleep poorly, but wake ready to climb. I don’t have my skins with me, and even if I did, I’d probably have opted for crampons anyway. From 17 camp, the West Buttress route crosses a steep slope called the Autobahn to Denali Pass. The Autobahn is north and west facing, and it is cold in the shade, even on this gloriously warm day. I am glad to come to the pass and step into the sun. From the pass, the trail gradually gains altitude, winding among rock outcrops and over gentle rolls up to the Football Field below the summit ridge. The last steep climb is called Pig Hill. I’m moving quite slowly, the altitude and my lack of sleep are making me suffer. Slow works though, and the suffering isn’t bad. The weather is indeed perfect. Standing on the summit ridge at the top of Pig Hill, I meet the three climbing rangers, Chris and his two volunteers, both named Mike. Mike Kingsbury is from Crested Butte. We wait for Angela to bring her team down from the summit, and then make our way to the peak.
It is late afternoon, I am standing on the summit. Charles, Jarod and Adrian are there, we shake hands, high five, and they head down. I pull the little jar of my dad’s ashes from my pack, take them to the peak. I sit down in the snow and cry: relief, release, sorrow, joy. The world flows through me. I am a lightning rod, a hollow bone, a prop, a gate. I am completely lost in my own story, and vaguely aware of the fact that only a few feet away are others, lost in theirs. I am not the only one crying.
It is a glorious day to be on the summit of the continent. The weather is calm, warm. Visibility is endless. The Alaska Range stretches out to the northeast and the southwest, and in other directions, drops off almost four miles straight down to the lowlands.
I linger and a crowd assembles. Jeremy Jones, Conrad Anker, their friends Brody and Robin; Chris, the climbing ranger, and his volunteers, Mike from CB and Mike with the big gummy bear; Rory and Fred, up for the weekend from Anchorage. There is a guided team, including Dubai’s first Everest summiter. Chris points out highlights of the terrain. Jones takes mental notes when he talks about areas rich in potential for first descents.
Eventually it is time to leave. I stand at the summit, touch the marker, push off and drop into a turn. It isn’t great skiing. In fact, skiing over the wind shaped sastrugi is a bit like skiing down a flight of concrete stairs. Perhaps if I were JP Auclair I could do something with it. Jones and Brody take the Orient Express down – that crew climbed it and while it seemed sketchy, it seemed to the two of them rideable. Perhaps I should have followed them, but instead I follow Anker, Robin, Rory, and Fred down the Buttress trail. The bulletproof snow continues to the top of the Autobahn. I meet Charles, Jared and Adrian there. Once on the Autobahn, the surface has softened up enough to make a few turns, but there is the climbers’ trail below me, so I can’t kick off any slough or debris. I traverse to avoid skiing above anyone. Still, I am mostly skidding. I pass Angela just before arriving at 17 camp. She has a client on a short rope, and seems exhausted. From 17 camp, I ski Rescue Gully. Below 17,000 the snow softens and the surface turns to slush. I side slip the top hundred feet or so of Rescue Gully, and then it opens up. For the last 3,000 feet, I can arc big water skiing turns, shifting my line sideways when too much slush starts flowing, hopping about five feet of bergschrund, and cruising victorious back to camp at 14.
Now I can take an honest rest day. The furthest I go from camp is to the crevasse where we throw bags of poop. (Biodegradable plastic bags and hard canisters are provided by the park service, and everyone on the West Buttress route is required to responsibly dispose of poop. There is a crevasse at 14 camp specially designated as a receptacle.) The guided groups are packing up and leaving, so all sorts of food is being offered around. Now I have plenty of bacon, bagels, elk steaks … I’m better provisioned than I was when I arrived. I take my little down vest around and try to collect signatures from everyone with whom I was on the summit. I visit folks at Anker’s camp and end up sharing stories about my dad.
Dick and Rhys make bacon quesadillas for breakfast, and remind me that my summit day was Father’s Day. I borrow Adrian’s saw and rebuild the walls around my tent. Jarod and Charles are done, ready to head down. Adrian wants to stick around, so I invite him to join me. We plan on climbing some more routes, skiing some more lines. It seems wise to have someone to rope up with for the lower Kahiltna, those five miles of mostly flat will be more treacherous with another couple weeks of warm weather. Conrad Anker wants to get a picture of everyone, so at 8pm, we all gather by the Stanford team’s tent. Brody and Robin appear with a sled full of snacks and hors d’oeuvres. This is the highest village in North America for a few weeks each summer, and Anker wants to commemorate its existence. Adrian and I make plans to head up the Orient, and talk to Jones and Brody about their climb and their run.
We wake early and head up in twilight. Adrian is faster than me, but his experience trapped in a crevasse has left him with a lot of fear. Twice, he almost turns back, and we end up climbing up the mixed rock and snow of the West Rib rather than the Orient. When the rock ends, just below 18,000 feet, he is done. The snow is still hard, not ready to ski. I debate climbing higher, summiting again. I feel like I may have already pulled Adrian past his comfort zone, and I am anxious about ditching him. This is why I did this trip solo. I don’t want to have my decisions influenced like this. But I’m glad for the company. We wait, I ski down a bit. Adrian downclimbs. We wait some more. I decide to keep skiing, he to keep downclimbing.
The skiing is scary: steep, exposed, icy. One whippet seems inadequate, but I feel off balance with just my ice axe in one hand. So, keep in control. One thing I learned in Darcy Chenoweth’s WFR class that has served me well many times was the reminder, not quite a mantra, that her ski coach gave her as a young downhill racer: “You’ll be fine, just don’t fuck up.” I make it down to the gentle slopes where I first skied and let myself take a break. I de-layer – up high it was cold, back down here, sheltered from the wind, it is summer. Three people are skinning up. “Someone told me there was a guy up here skiing in a cowboy hat!” (My sun hat is a fake cowboy hat, the kind you get at a state fair in the West or a tourist market in Mexico. They are made of plasticized paper, and have a wire in the brim, so they are light, durable, and can be easily reshaped after being stuffed in a pack. And the look amuses me.) We talk for a bit. I’m worried about Adrian, feeling bad about leaving him to downclimb the West Rib. They remind me that he’s a grownup and able to look after himself. The one who likes my hat went to Western. They invite me to stop by and say hi later, but I don’t realize that by the camp on the edge of the village that they mean where Anker et. al. are set up.
Adrian makes it down, but he’s done, ready to head down. I’d still like to play a bit, but I am also enticed by warmth, green smells, flowing water, beer.
Next day, I want to go up to 17 and get Chris, Mike and Mike, the rangers who I summited with, to sign my vest. Rich wants to hike up there for acclimatization, so we head out in the afternoon. The going is slow, and at the top of the fixed lines, I decide to press on ahead of Rich, since I want to ski Rescue Gully again, and if it gets into the shade, whatever softening happens during the day will be quickly lost. The clouds are in and out, the light is amazing. This is the third time I hike the Buttress to 17, and it is a lot easier than the first time. On the way up, I meet Ron, Fred, and Vaughn. They are on their way down from climbing the Cassin Ridge, probably the classic technical route up the mountain. Fred and I have a friend in common, Sean Davis in Boulder, and Sean has told me to keep my eye out. All three of them are exhausted, and rightly so. We pass quickly and continue on. I show up at 17 camp, say hi to the rangers, get their autographs, chat for a bit, and head out. Rich arrives just as I am getting ready to ski.
The snow is hard. It never really softened up much, and now the sun is behind the ridge. I experiment a bit and conclude that the telemark turn is objectively worse for skiing steep and icy terrain compared to regular alpine turns. What I really want is a snowboard, or maybe ice skates. Something with a short, sharp edge. A long edge distributes the pressure too much, and doesn’t bite. So, I mostly make alpine turns. Still, it is fun. By the time I’m down, it is late, and Adrian has resigned himself to the fact that we aren’t leaving that day.
In the morning, after coffee and breakfast, I go say hi to Fred, Vaughn and Ron. We’ll meet up down in Talkeetna later. Adrian and I pack up and head out in the afternoon, gather our caches from 11,000, and make camp down at 7,000, where the glacier flattens out. I am regretting leaving, though I am looking forward to the comforts of being off the mountain. I almost turn around and hike back up, it is so hard to go. The last five miles to the airstrip is uneventful. My heart broke during the descent, the gentle climb up Heartbreak Hill to gather our caches and check in with Lisa so that she can get us on a flight out is just a formality.
The weather is variable, and for a while it looks doubtful that a plane will come in to fetch us out. Eventually it clears, and a TAT Otter floats up the glacier. Back in town, I retrieve my things from the fridge in the hanger, and have my portage ale, a bottle of the 6th anniversary ale that Raven Brewing made for Malt and Vine. I meet Adrian for dinner at the West Rib Pub, and have a double order of their beer and a cheeseburger special.
The next day, I’m still parked in the lot at TAT when Vaughn, Ron and Fred show up. We have some celebratory food and beers, decompress. They invite me to come visit up in Fairbanks, especially if I’m headed up into the Brooks Range. Vaughn suggests that I check out the lay of the land out the Petersville Road, so I do, and so, here I am.
More pictures are here.