Day 12 Tuesday May 26th: We woke up early to strike camp. We were tired after our sojourn to the top of North America but there was a calm energy amongst the group. We knew that the summit was only half the trip. Until we were safe in Talkeetna we could not afford to let our guard down. After a hasty dehydrated meal for breakfast we packed up camp. This took considerable time since there was plenty to pack, we were tired and still at 17,200 feet. We had packed for five days at high camp and only ended up spending two. The NPS rangers were very happy to take our food which lightened our load. Without Colin we all packed a little extra. Carrying a full pack at 17k is as tiring as it sounds.
Our goal for the day was either the 9800 or 7800 camp. With the weather forecast to change the next day and how tired we were getting to either camp was a reach. Many of the groups were already heading down by the time we left high camp. We had no problems until the end of the ridge where climbers were waiting their turn for the fixed ropes.
Real estate with a view
Gabe, Dan and Haliku ready to go
The hardest section of the whole route
Going down a 55 degree slope with a loaded pack at 16k is just not fun. It required a lot of patience with the number of climbers slowly descending. Many were also going up to high camp. I did not envy them. Once off the ropes we were enveloped in clouds rising from below. The visibility and temperatures both dropped as did a light snow for the remainder of our route to 14 camp.
We cached a lot of food and gear before we went higher. Now everything needed to go with us—food, gear, garbage, etc.—that came up with six climbers on two separate trips. With the forecasted lousy weather it was easy to quickly give away 40 pounds of food. One might get the impression we brought too much along but keep in mind it was our 12th day of what we planned to be a 21 day trip (plus four days of emergency food). Subtract Colin’s appetite from the equation and we had a lot of extra calories. Many of the climbers who took food had carried to high camp the day before and cached a lot of their own. When on Denali extra food means your trip doesn’t have to end early due to hunger. If you wanted to travel light and weren’t a picky eaters you could factor in the food give-aways at 14 camp as part of the meal plan. It is a common sight to see a climber pulling a sled around camp loaded with food in an attempt to lighten their load. I would not recommend this approach.
After a few hours of packing we left 14 camp one last time with loaded packs, two full sleds and a stuffed drag bag. Thankfully Windy Corner did not live up to its name this time so we quickly traveled on to 11 camp. The crevasses, more pronounced now that when we came this way a week earlier, caused us no problems.
Once at 11 camp it was obvious we were not going any lower today as we were all very tired. With well practiced precision we quickly set up camp while Gabe got food and water ready. Another cache was dug up and its contents were added to the pile. At least we each had a sled to repack the mountain of stuff.
Day 13 Wednesday May 27th: The alarm went off early and as is often a habit in such environments I hit the snooze to avoid starting the day for a few more minutes. Thirty minutes later the other alarm sounded. As the motivation to start the day built I realized it was snowing. Not fluffy Christmas card picture type of snow but a heavy snow, wind driven. I stuck my head out the back vestibule; it was the snowstorm the weather folks had predicted. To make matters worse the visibility was very limited, at best 20 feet.
Motivation was even harder now that we had weather to deal with if we wanted to get to basecamp any time soon. 11 camp can get up to eight feet of snow so we did not want to spend the next several days here if we could help it. The team worked quickly to strike camp and load sleds and packs for the journey. A few time people asked if they could follow us down. One guy asked if he could tie in with our rope. Since he was a guide (for one of the authorized services) he was more familiar with the route than any of us so we took him on.
Packing up for one last drag from 11 Camp
I had recorded GPS waypoints and the route we took on the way up the mountain. So with the GPS, and map and compass as a backup, we headed out of camp in 10-20 foot visibility. The going was rough as visibility frequently decreased to arms length. The suggestions I had read about wanding the route on the lower mountain came to my mind. We had not followed this approach as there were many wands from numerous groups already in place. At least they seemed numerous on the way up. By trusting the GPS and not second guessing it we slowly made it from one landmark to the next and soon were headed down Ski Hill. The winds increased and the visibility dropped as we went lower. At one point I could not see at all as my glasses became snow packed. Our tag along guide offered to take the sharp end and we deftly passed the crevasse area and were at the larger and climber packed 7800 camp.
With no desire to set up camp other than at the airfield we pushed on. Now the relatively flat glacier was throwing more challenges at us with crevasses and flat light. The poor visibility continued. So poor as to confuse a Korean team we ran into who were actually going back up the glacier towards 7800 camp! That wasn’t the way they wanted to go either. When they heard we had GPS they fell in line behind us. As we worked our way down the glacier other groups joined in. Once at the base of Heartbreak Hill we had over twenty climbers with us.
Some of our followers before Heartbreak Hill who lacked a GPS unit
The hill is well named. At this point we had been moving, almost non stop, for eight hours with heavy packs and sleds and we were very tired. The hill sucked our remaining energy as we slowly plodded up towards camp. I don’t know what the others did to push on but I found myself counting…one-two, one-two, one-two…repetitively as I moved my feet. It was a long slow push at the end of a slog.
While Kiefer checked in for our flight, we were 25th, we quickly set up camp. Our first task was to dig up our last cache and liberate the cases of beer that we buried almost two weeks earlier. That was one of the best beers I had ever drunk. It was certainly well earned as was the sleep.
Dan, Gabe and Craig with a well deserved beer
Day 14 Thursday May 28th: We woke to falling snow and a very low cloud ceiling which guaranteed no planes would be flying, possibly for several days. Since we were several loads down the list there was no worry about needing to pack in a hurry.
Alaskan friend of ours, Mark and Thomas, had arrived in the middle of the ‘night’ having followed the now zig-zag wand route down the glacier from 7800 camp. They set up their tepee kitchen tent next door and we moved in for the day bringing a couple of stoves, plenty of food and any alcohol we had left. A couple of Colorado climbers, Cindy and Val, joined us bringing homemade pancakes to go with the bacon we fried up from our cache. With 10-12 climbers packed inside the stories and cooking continued all day while it continued to snow. The weather report that evening called for up to five more days of similar weather. That was disappointing as we had already finished the beer! It was a great day getting to know our neighbors instead of short conversations about the weather or the route ahead of us. It was also a relief to be safe in camp and have the mountain and its dangers behind us.
An all day eating and drinking fest. The tent held 10-12 climbers.
Day 15 Friday May 29th: Since any sense of urgency was removed by the forecast the night before there was no hurry to wake up and get breakfast. Excited voices, from the teams around us, woke me. I poked my head out the back vestibule to actually see some blue sky! The excitement was a plane on the way and as the vanguard would evaluate the conditions before the other pilots would take to the air. The odds of our return to Talkeetna were increasing with every minute of blue sky. Our placement at 25 meant we could get out on the fourth flight from Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT). We started to organize and pack—just in case—which was good as we got out on the last two flights. The last two for several more days as the weather moved back at basecamp.
Haliku looking for blue sky in the morning
Departure line for the plane
Dan and Craig behind Gabe, Haliku and Kiefer before returning to Talkeetna
A stop to the ranger station to check out of the park was first on our list. Then beer before well needed showers. Food and drink soon followed!
The stats the day we left the glacier
Craig has his eye on Kiefer's burger at the West Rib Restaurant
I want to thank the entire team for the work each put into this trip. It was a group effort and that effort was needed to summit and return without any lasting issues. Climb on!