It shouldn’t end this way…I thought to myself as I felt the frigid, silty waters of the McKinley pour over me. I didn’t think that it was possible to find myself in this same position again, pack forcing my face into the murky flow. I tried to kick myself over and look for Joel on the bank, who would hopefully fish me out with the large branch that he had dangled into the water. I kicked, but couldn’t reach bottom. My horizontally mounted skis rammed the overhead shore line as I desperately reached out for the life and salvation that was the far bank.
Sure, I thought that I was smarter this time, having learned from the first return crossing to Wonder Lake, the time at which my most expensive, and least waterproof, belongings became inundated with the silt of the McKinley. This time I had stuffed everything into a dry bag in the hopes of having something dry to get into if I did swim again. Only problem was that I could only mount the skis horizontally with the bag closed, and hadn’t anticipated how the bag would act as a bobber, forcing my head down while it effortlessly traveled rapidly down stream with me as the unwilling, and unfortunately, non-breathing passenger.
Of course the dry bag didn’t come with a waist-belt, which of course you shouldn’t wear anyway while crossing streams, but when your gear weighs in at over a hundred pounds, and it’s all on your shoulders, you have to keep it fairly snug in order to prevent it from becoming more of a liability as it shifts and throws your balance off as you make every attempt to force your legs to keep churning through the icy torrent. The problem with fairly snug shoulder straps is exactly that; they’re fairly snug, and become even more so when you’re face down, facing upstream doing your damndest to wriggle free while working against the current.
Something about that need to live, that absolute denial of this being the time that I’d fold while playing cards with the Reaper, forced me to kick off the far bank and roll onto the top of the pack just in time to catch the branch that Joel had hung out there for just such on occasion.
As Joel fished me out, and forcefully contorted my arm free of the pack, he said with absolute conviction, ‘OK, time to go, gotta move NOW! It wasn’t that he didn’t care about my fourth near death experience, although he was maybe a little jealous that I had bested him by one on this trip, it was much more of a matter of fact statement. Knowing that the hour was late, and that the tolls of a 40-plus mile death march just preceding this incident were wearing on us both made it all the more imperative that we get to safer ground as fast as possible. No time for personal feelings, reflections or regrets. It was survival time. A time that we grew to know all too well over the course of the previous 42 days.
Of course not every day was like this. Some were even worse. Some were much safer by comparison, but more taxing on the mind and motivation. You can only spend so much time in a tent and not be the weaker for it. Unfortunately we never got the chance to find out if we had actually ever crossed that threshold, as Denali’s weather never gave us even a legitimate shot at the face that had lived in my dreams since the day that I read A Call to Action in Rock & Ice some two years prior. The way it had been described, I couldn’t imagine that the weather or approach would give us any trouble. It had been the hanging glaciers and avalanche potential that I thought deserved the most respect. Even to this day I am waiting to wake up from the nightmare that was this trip, as it seemed that Denali had taken a disliking to us from the very get go in a way that could never be retold in any form and be believable without having had firsthand experience.
Our mission was simple: 1. Drive to Alaska. 2. Carry in gear to McGonagall Pass. 3. Leave emergency supplies at McGonagall and set up camp at the west fork of the Traleika Glacier. 4. Watch the face for avalanche activity and patterns. 5. Climb the East Face of Denali with impeccable speed and style. 6. Descend via the Thayer Basin. 7. Return to the west fork of the Traleika and collect our gear. 8. Swing through McGonagall, pick up any remaining supplies and return to Wonder Lake/Talkeetna, drink much beer.
We had thought that we might even climb some of the satellite peaks while we were waiting and watching. After all, the approach was going to be some 40 miles, so the potential to bag a couple of FA’s was high. What better way to make my official entrance onto the serious alpine scene, show the big players there was a new kid in town. After all, I’d done my apprenticeship, without little muss or fuss or self-gratiating reports or bragging. Now was my time, it had to be. Unfortunately, I was soon to be proven wrong.
The drive from Iowa to Alaska is a long one–some 3,800 miles in fact. Joel and I had plenty of time to think about what exactly it was that we wanted to accomplish with this summer. Over the miles of road and hours of discourse we came to the conclusion that it was most important to us not only to climb the East Face, but to do it completely self-contained. No radios, no satellite phones, no air support (which isn’t a legal option anyway, as the park service doesn’t allow airdrops or landings on our side of the mountain), and no pre-established caches. We wanted to climb this mountain from the ground up. We felt as Bradford Washburn did, that The East Face of Denali is still the most exciting first ascent opportunity left in Alaska–possibly even the Western Hemisphere. This was not some sport route in the Alps that you could waltz in and take a shot at. This was the ultimate commitment that we felt Denali would demand from anyone who considered themselves deserving of an attempt at such a beautiful virgin face. Anything else would be dirty pool, or trying to take on the mountain by unfair means.
Sure, our convictions may have seemed a little unfounded considering that we hadn’t yet been to the base of the mountain, and it had all been conjecture entertained by two flatlanders from the comfort of the car. At the same time, we knew, as if guided by something bigger than us, that it was the only way that we could live with ourselves or our potential success. We did a lot of reading along the way, and hearing about Mugs Stump’s ideologies, and the way that he’d get that gleam in his eye when talking about new potentials, or ideas that others considered crazy strengthened our convictions even further. It also didn’t hurt to know that Backes, Twight, and House had pulled off the Czech Direct with similar ideologies.
Thus we arrived in Talkeetna, with high hopes, and even higher motivation. We were pleasantly surprised to find out from Ranger Miller that there was actually an old horse pack trail all the way to McGonagall Pass. This was even better than we had imagined. With this knowledge we made our way to Fairbanks where we bought canoe dollies with rugged off-road wheels upon which we would strap our sleds in order to make a single carry to McGonagall a possibility. When we tried them out at the parking lot while waiting for the bus to take us to Wonder Lake I thought, What a genius I am, as I casually hauled around more gear than I had ever imagined hauling into camp. This of course said to me that we should take as much as we could carry in order to put ourselves in prime position to climb numerous satellite peaks. Can you sense the foreshadowing in my overconfidence?
Well, the bus arrived, and all the backpackers marveled at our mountains of gear, and our contention that we were headed all the way up. When we finally arrived at Wonder Lake, it was after 10 p.m. As the days had been hot, we figured this would be the perfect time to start our trek in, as the McKinley would be at its lowest, and the weather would warm as we gained elevation. After firing down some shells and cheese, we set off.
When we reached the McKinley Bar Trail, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that there was an 18-inch-wide trail with thick brush and alder growing up on both sides of it, the unfortunate problem being that our dollies were 22 inches wide. This led to us pulling our trailers for a bit, and then having them upend and having to drop the packs to right them again. Initially it wasn’t so bad, as we could go a quarter of a mile without having to stop. I thought that if we could just make it to the McKinley Bar, it’d all be downhill from there. Little did I know just how far downhill, and how negative a connotation that actually carried with it.
Joel and I pulled, dragged, and grunted our way through narrow ruts, marshy tundra, and across narrow 2×12 boards that were the bridges over standing water. Of course we had to drop packs and help one another over the narrow bridges, since the wheels hung freely, and would occasionally hang up on the support posts that held the planks up out of the water. One jarring shot from the wheels catching the posts had me standing in water over me knees as I felt my feet sink further as I tried to right myself against the wishes of the spanner bars that kept the sled from ramming into me while traveling downhill. Joel had to come and help me once again, but we learned, adapted and overcame.
When we finally reached the McKinley, it was obvious why in most route descriptions for the Muldrow Glacier they oftentimes made the comment that crossing the McKinley was the most objective danger to the route. We knew that our single carry system would have to be broken down into what subsequently turned into a quadruple carry to get everything across the river. This first crossing went without incident, and if anything built our confidence, as we had each harbored a bit of apprehension about how easily we would make it across this first obstacle. Not that we shared any of that apprehension with each other until after we had safely surpassed it, of course.
With every bit of success or ease there came a heavy price to pay in the form of what could go wrong. Almost immediately after we crossed the McKinley, we were welcomed by a bit or rain. Not so bad we thought, at least it waited until we had crossed the river. Unfortunately, this little sprinkle of rain seemed to drum up a whole new adversary in our little excursion to this point: the infamous mosquitoes.
Now again, Joel and I are from the Midwest, Iowa in fact. I’ve spent some time in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, and I’ve seen mosquitoes that you would swear are big enough to carry you away, and swarms that threaten to eat you alive, but I’d never seen anything like this. The mosquitoes that the miniscule amount of precipitation drummed up, and thereby alerted to our presence, were so thick and relentless they had me to the point of panic. If you stopped moving any part of your body for even a second, and in some instances even those parts of your body that you just moved around slowly, those parts would become completely engulfed in stinging mosquitoes. They could sting through clothing, and even the places where the mosquito head-net touched the skin. We figured that this was a temporary situation, as we were close to the water, and as we moved up it would take care of itself.
Our next move was to make the carry from the McKinley Bar up over Turtle Hill. As we could not initially find the horse trail that the ranger had told us about, we set off trudging uphill over some of the softest, mushiest, most unstable terrain that I had ever seen. One second we’d be standing on a tuft of land, and the next we’d be struggling to remain upright. Without the use of trekking poles I’m sure one of us would have been seriously injured. It was like walking in a mine field, never knowing what our next step would bring, as there was no rhyme or reason as to how good any footing would be. All that we could know was that it was going to be wet.
When we had made it to just short of Turtle Hill, we found what was left of the horse trail. This definitely made the going easier, as the tundra had been worn away in these spots, and solid ground lay beneath. It didn’t take more than 400 yards or so until we found ourselves attempting to plow through alder so thick and dense that when Joel got more than ten feet ahead of me I lost sight of him completely. This definitely added to any grizzly bear paranoia that we might have already been experiencing. Not being able to see where you’re going or know just what’s making that rumble in the brush ahead of you definitely gets the blood flowing, and you can bet that there were more than just a couple of Hey Bears! thrown out as we made our way through those sections.
When we did finally top out on the back side of Turtle Hill, it was definitely a relief. From there we got our first glimpse of the terrain that separated us from McGonagall Pass. For the most part it looked to be pretty straight forward, with relatively little dense brush. I should have know better however, especially after spending the previous summer climbing Mt. Logan, the largest mountain landmass in the world, that when you’re looking at something that vast, your mind just can’t comprehend the scale of things. Nevertheless, we were in high spirits, and made the three subsequent carries to move our camp up to Turtle Hill. We opted to cache the dolly wheels and a dry bag full of those things we deemed were just not necessary enough to warrant making the approach a quadruple carry, and moved on up.
The next day started with heavy rains. We figured that this might be an opportune time to take a rest day, and maybe eat some of the food that we hadn’t allowed ourselves to eat, or more realistically couldn’t bring ourselves to eat, because any removal of the head nets meant numerous and repeated mosquito stings. Having moved away from the McKinley Bar, we were sure that the mosquitoes couldn’t possibly be as bad, and with the added insurance of the rain, we were set to lighten our load. To my astonishment however, the mosquitoes were as persistent, if not worse on Turtle Hill. We made an attempt to cook, and were successful, if you don’t mind a nice peppering of mosquitoes with your shells ‘n cheese.
Our next objective was to move our camp to Clearwater Creek. The morning actually started with snow, and then shifted to rain. We figured time was wasting, and decided to move anyway. When we got to Clearwater Creek, we ran into a NOLS group that was headed in for an attempt on the Muldrow Glacier Route. In talking to one of the guides, he related to us that the weather had been so dry the previous winter that they hadn’t planned on encountering snow on the glacier until the first icefall. This was not reassuring news to us, as we had been toting skis and sleds as part of our triple carry up to this point. He reassured us though, just as our ranger in Talkeetna had, that there would definitely be use for them both further up the Traleika.
The next day we finished our carries up to Clearwater Creek and scouted out what our next plan of attack would be. That night it rained again, but the showers were light, and we were less concerned about the upcoming water crossings of both the Clearwater and Cache creeks, as they were mild by comparison with the McKinley. So, we rested, and feasted on the rest of our perishables, i.e. bagels and cheese.
Our crossing of Clearwater Creek was definitely easy compared to the McKinley, and the fact that it was only a hundred yards across as compared with the McKinley’s mile or more width, made crossing it five times in a row almost enjoyable as the morning sun started to heat everything up. The fact that we could see the bottom of the river, and somewhat avoid holes made the crossing all the better.
When we rounded the bend that was the little alcove that Clearwater Creek ran from, we found more standing water then we’d found on the trail to this point. The flooding of the trail, combined with the numerous game trails in the area, caused us to have difficulty staying on the trail at all. We knew, however, that having had any trail up until this point had been a gift, as there weren’t supposed to be any trails in this part of the backcountry, and we’d already experienced just how miserable it could be with no trail whatsoever. So we pushed on, and made our way to and across Cache Creek.
The rest of the day we spent ferrying loads between Clearwater Creek and our newly established camp at the top of Cache Creek. At some point during all this hiking we found what was supposed to be the main established trail. This allowed us to move significantly faster than on the initial carry to Cache Creek. The weather was beautiful, and we thought that maybe the heat would deter the mosquitoes, as nothing else had yet. We were wrong.
By this point, we were suffering a little from our lack of sustenance. All we could bear was pulling our head nets up to pop a GU, a granola bar, and occasionally when we felt exceptionally sassy, a pop-tart. I had suggested that we could cook and then eat in the tent, as I was getting desperate, but to his credit Joel remained a staunch defender of following the guidelines for traveling in grizzly bear country and would not allow it. It must have been all those years that he hiked in Glacier National Park that had him brazenly against breaking the rules for just this instance. Either way, cooler heads prevailed, so we again didn’t eat more than we absolutely needed to survive.
Our next objective was to get to the top of McGonagall pass, where we prayed that the mosquitoes would be abated by the cooler temperatures that we knew the glaciated area would bring. We came up with the idea of carrying further on that day, and made a first cache at the base of McGonagall Pass. Here we left our sleds, skis, plastic boots, technical climbing gear, and extra fuel. We planned to return the next day and carry past this cache up to the Pass where we could establish a new camp, and hopefully do some much needed cooking and more importantly eating.
The next day we did just that, carrying our first carry up to the top of McGonagall Pass, and establishing a camp area. When we descended back to the bottom of the pass and our cache, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that some rodent had chewed into our goods. I didn’t initially find anything to be wrong with my gear, but Joel did. I could tell immediately from his swearing in frustration that it was something not good. When Joel had opened up his cache bags to see what had been hit, he found pieces of his inner boot littering the inside of the bag. I was sorry for him, but only in a way to maintain solidarity, as my gear hadn’t been touched. You can only have so much sympathy, but empathy was a different beast all together, I would soon find.
I had not been feeling well all day, and decided to return to camp. I had picked up some of my cache on the initial carry to the pass, and I was sure that I could make a single carry past this point and to the pass on the following day. Joel decided to carry on, looking stronger than ever as he motored up the pass in some 45 minutes and back down in under thirty. That’s some serious hauling of ass, and I envied his strength as I found myself vomiting on the solo return trip to camp. It was most likely a combination of lack of food, and a bit of heatstroke that had me down. Although it was only in the 80-degree range, it was much more like 110 degrees inside the head-net, bug shirt, full pants and gaiters that we had to don in an effort to prevent being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Regardless, I was ready for some R&R that emphasized nourishment as part of the pastime.
The next day as we made our carry up to McGonagall Pass, I stopped to pick up what was left of my cache at the base. In it was technical gear, skis, cold weather clothes, my sled, and of course my plastic boots. You’d think that I’d have learned from Joel’s misfortune, but I didn’t, as I was sure my cache was protected by my Mountainsmith sled shell. I guess that little rodent wanted in more than the sled could prevent, because I opened the sled to find about one fourth of my left boot liner missing, and better than a third of my right boot liner missing. For me, this was nearly a trip ender, as I couldn’t imagine that these boots would be worth anything at 20,000ft. I thought about it for a minute, and then realized that this was some kind of test that the mountain was putting us through. It can’t all go this wrong, something has got to turn our way, I said to Joel. He agreed, and I figured that I could make do with the boots, as I should have learned from our previous misfortune and so was now responsible for working through my error.
When we got up to McGonagall Pass we quickly moved into camp, and relished the idea of being free of mosquitoes until we made our victorious descent back down into the bog, but of course we were immediately foiled by the arrival of thousands of mosquitoes coasting in on the unusually warm drafts of air that were also responsible for the deterioration of the glacier that lay before us. To say that we were a little disappointed about the amount of snow that covered the Muldrow and what was visible of the Traleika glaciers, was an understatement. Having just hauled skis and sleds all the way to camp, some 20 miles, and then to think that they may be completely worthless, well, I can’t really describe the feeling. It falls somewhere between disappointment and disgust, but remembering our luck to this point, there definitely wasn’t any surprise mixed in there.
The campsite that we’d chosen was at the very lip of the pass, and gave us a good overview of the terrain that lay before us. When we first arrived we could see all the way to the corner of Carpe ridge, where the Muldrow and the Traleika meet, and we had an excellent view of Mt. Brooks which lies on the far side of the Traleika. Unfortunately this view was not any more reassuring that carrying our sleds and skis was not completely futile, as there was little or no evidence that there would be any kind of consistent snow on our route up the Traleika. Very frustrating considering that they were essentially one trip in our triple carries. One can only speculate just how much it had taken out of us, having to carry that extra load, having to make the two way trip to bring them up-all of which meant traveling through the mosquitoes, through the bog one more time. Just the same, as Jim Donini had said when we ran into him in Talkeetna, our greatest asset would be our short memories. He was right, and it wasn’t a matter of what had transpired to this point; but about what we were going to do now.
Well, later that evening the weather moved in, and pounded us with rain, and snow, and sleet and forms of precipitation that seemed to metamorphose between the point that you first caught them in your sight and where they eventually made contact with ground, tent, or skin. As we had hauled an overabundance of food all the way up to camp, we decided that we could afford to sit a few days and refuel our bodies. Seeing as this side of the mountain wasn’t known for its storms, we figured it’d be a day, maybe two at most, and dug into the food.
The one good thing about the weather was that it finally did give us the upper hand against the mosquitoes. No, believe it or not, the mosquitoes didn’t go away; but the unusually quick change in temperatures made them very slow and easy to swat, whereas lower on the mountain we had dubbed the local variety the Steven Seagal of mosquitoes, as they were hard to kill. On several occasions I would crush a mosquito with my bare hand, and watch it fall to the tent floor, only to lie there for a minute, roll over, stagger a bit, then take flight once again. Unbelievable, but true. Up here in the weather, though, they were at our mercy. Although I don’t consider myself to be a cruel or spiteful person, I enjoyed crushing those buggers as they lazily flew around the inside of the tent looking for blood.
We managed to stay in the tent for two days, doing nothing but eating and drinking. We were feeling more recharged, and on the third day of weather, we decided to hell with it, we were at least going to make a carry as far as we safely could, in an effort to check around the corner and get a look at the snow conditions. So we got into full regalia for a party in the storm, and ventured out onto the glacier, most of which consisted of scree and choss. Visibility was less than 75 feet, but every now and then there would be a small opening, and we could get our bearings once again and move on.
It wasn’t long before we came to our first major obstacle. Where the Muldrow and Traleika glaciers meet, at the corner of Carpe Ridge, and where normally there would be crevasses and large rifts in the glacial snow, there were instead giant fissures of snow and ice pushing their way unevenly up from the depths of the glaciers. In doing so, they displaced tons of rock and essentially created a labyrinth of glacial rivers, lakes, and vertical ice walls. Finding our way through this initial section was probably the most difficult thing we’d done yet. The fact that the visibility was so low definitely did not help anything.
Making it to Traleika proper involved a particularly hairy move. Seeing as we couldn’t find another way around, over, or across, we agreed on the plan that we’d jump from a low hanging tongue of the glacier, across a glacial river, onto a lower set chunk of glacier. The gap between the two was probably only about 4 ft, and the distance down was only about 8 ft, but the fact that the upper part of the tongue off of which we planned to jump was covered with loose scree and sloped down at about 60 degrees, and the landing consisted of a pile of talus that had deposited itself there from sliding down and launching itself off the tongue definitely added to the level of difficulty.
Joel went first, and made an excellent leap, and about as graceful a landing as one can make when trying to do the long-jump in plastic boots while carrying a 70+ pound pack. Essentially he did not completely face-plant on the far side. Graceful by my standards. Then came my turn. Seeing Joel nearly peel his face off in the talus I knew that landing a bit more upright would be to my advantage. So I leapt. Landing squarely on the slanting talus pile, with maybe a little overcompensation against the falling forward. I immediately fell backwards, splashing pack first into the glacial river that undercut both glaciers. I was stuck in a precarious position, as the base of my pack was still supported by the talus pile, while my outstretched arms couldn’t find any purchase on the bottom of the river. I was flailing like an upended turtle, as Joel stared at me with a most inquisitive look in his eye, like he was watching some weird nature film. Of course all I had to do was say A little help here. A little help would be in order if it’s not too much to ask. Almost as if waking from a daydream Joel jumped over and dragged me out.
This ended up being the crux of our route-finding to the Traleika Glacier, and aside from the low visibility, the rest of the day went without incident. We made our way up the glacier in rapid fashion, looking for a proper cache point. Along the way I thought to myself, this is where everything becomes even more beautiful. After all, every step that I took was likely to be previously touched by human feet, especially considering how much the glacier had melted out in the recent past. Seeing as I couldn’t find any record of anyone having been there since Tom Bubendorfer had been there in 1998, it was all the more likely that we were on virgin ground. I embraced this part of the trip wholeheartedly, as how many times will one be able to say that in their life? It’s more likely that astronauts will be the only people to say that in the coming years than climbers will be able to. Nonetheless, it was not long before my romantic idea was spoiled.
After we’d traveled about a mile up the Traleika, hopping over glacial streams and meandering through boulders the size of houses, we came upon the first evidence of prior passings. It wasn’t some great rustic piece of nostalgia, no, it was a neoprene toe cover. We thought, Wow, whats this doing out here? We picked it up to find that all the writing on it was in German. More than likely Bubendorfer’s. Not another mile down the glacier we found a most peculiar deposit. On top of a large flat rock we found some weathered tubular webbing, and believe it or not, a pair of blue jeans. They weren’t actually blue anymore, as the glacier had had its way with them. Very weird things to be finding some 24 miles into nowhere. We made a small pile of all the trash, and vowed to come back and pick it up on the way out.
After we’d hiked another hour over the now more leveling terrain, we found the most pronounced rock outcropping we could in the limited visibility and decided to make that our cache. We had hoped to push all the way to the West fork of the Traleika, but low visibility made it hard to gauge exactly where we were. So making the cache here was our best bet. We divested ourselves of everything that we didn’t absolutely need, and made the tallest cairn we could muster, out of the top of which we propped a couple of wands with surveyor’s tape, and a large blue shovel blade. As we periodically looked back to see just how visible our cache would be, it reminded us of a communications tower, so we dubbed it Repeater Rock.
The weather had started to lift as we buried our cache, but it had now done a complete 180 as we started to make our way back to camp. What had previously been heavy clouds and light rain turned into a full-on blizzard. The flakes were small and sharp and stung our eyes as we made our way back down the glacier. I said to Joel, If I get one more shot to the–shit, well, I guess I’m putting on the goggles. No matter, though, we had made good progress in a day that we knew most others wouldn’t have moved at all. I felt reassured that making this carry in inclement weather meant that we would be awarded at least one more day of good weather when it really mattered–during the climb.
We staggered back into camp, mostly through the guidance of our GPS, which had fondly taken on the name Gippus, as having to read a 200-page manual during the drive up had caused me to become more intimate with it than, say, a tent stake or a carabiner. As visibility dropped to 10 feet or so and the snow continued to pile up, we rolled into camp to find that the majority of the stream that we had gathered water from had frozen over. We thought we might possibly be in for a big storm. That was fine with us if it patched up the glacier and made us carrying our skis and sleds to the pass something other than an exercise in futility. We battened down the hatches and settled in for who knew how long.
The next day was anything but stormy. The sun came out and it was beautiful. The sun’s rays quickly dried everything out, and for once things were looking up. We loaded up the rest of camp, opting to cache the skis, sleds, some extra fuel and food, and headed up glacier. On the return trip to camp the previous day we’d somehow found a route that brought us back without having to negotiate the tongue, and tried to cover that same ground. Traveling through scree has absolutely no redeeming qualities. It doesn’t leave much of a trail to follow, especially since this was previously undisturbed scree, it’s so loose to the touch and seemingly bottomless that you’d take a step, lose sight of the lower two thirds of your foot, and then pick it up and never know where you’d just stepped. It didn’t help that most of the ground we covered was slanted and uneven. The scree on most of the terrain we crossed was like a crazy game of Jenga. Every step would bring down a different amount of loose rock that would sometimes be so much that it’d crawl over the top of your gaiters that you hadn’t fastened down since you’d underestimated the prowess of said rocks. There were many lessons both given and learned on this trip; this was but one of many.
After about an hour of this desperate scrambling we were out onto the Traleika proper, and were rewarded for our toiling with something special, our first glimpse of the upper East Face. It was beautiful, a sight that I’ll never forget. The sun came out in full force, and made the traveling fun for the first time I could recall since leaving Wonder Lake. I was above the mosquitoes, in the sun, with a great friend and partner covering ground that may never before have been touched. The packs felt lighter, the motivation stronger. What could be better?
It wasn’t long before we motored past Repeater Rock and further up the glacier. We could now see with perfect visibility that we were still about 3 miles short of the West Fork of the Traleika when we had stopped with the cache. We decided to move the camp up as far as we felt was safe to travel un-roped, as we were now moving back into something that resembled a glacier. When we found what seemed to be an adequate site, we settled in. On both sides of our camp there were boulders the size of tractor trailers, most of which balanced precariously on unbelievably thin chunks of ice.
As we looked up the glacier we could see three different prominent rock bands that divided the Traleika into four parts. The first two were of the same type and color, while the last two were different from both the first and each other. When I looked down the glacier I thought, Man, how things must have changed. Especially considering what Washburn had to say about how the utterly crevasse-less Traleika Glacier would permit a DC-10 to land. I said to Joel, Land in one piece, doubtful, take off again, never. The glacier was an upheaval of change; uneven, churned, and scoured by the effects of global warming and mild winters. There were definitely some holes in our plan of attack, but none that anyone else could have foretold, I reassured myself.
That evening we got our first taste of avalanche activity, as parts of the large icefall on Mt. Carpe crashed down as their own weight pushed them over during the contracting state that passes during the night. Nonetheless, we slept as well as we had yet since we could finally crawl into our 20-below sleeping bags for the first time this trip.
The next morning we were awakened by the loud roar of prop planes and their deafening echoes off the mountain walls. We actually crawled out of the tent just to see what all the commotion was about. Joel and I both joked that it was probably our mothers flying over to check on us, having threatened a pilot or two into taking them there, as we had been told that no commercial flights were allowed onto that side of the mountain. There must have been 12 planes that flew over throughout the morning. None of them landed, which made me feel better, as seeing some tourist land in a pair of jeans and walk around where we’d so ardently been working to get to for over two weeks would have made me want to tear my hair out. Of course they could never have the same appreciation for standing on such hallowed ground, but just the same I was glad not to have to deal with anything but the invasion of our privacy.
That afternoon we went back and retrieved the cache. It was a nice hike back down, aside from the deafening prop planes, and the weather seemed to be making a turn in our favor. I was sure that our initial difficulties were just a testing ground, one that was albeit frustrating to a degree that I’d never before experienced, but behind us just the same.
By the time that we reached Repeater Rock I knew without question that something needed to be done about the sorry condition of my boots. They were wearing against my shins so hard that it felt like someone was taking a hammer to my legs on every weighted step. I tried lacing them in different configurations, thinking that it might take some of the stress off that particular point, but nothing worked. I ended up having to implement the ultimate tool: duct tape. The duct tape, in conjunction with a severely mutilated and reconfigured capilene expedition-weight sock, was enough to make travel bearable.
When we were fully loaded with the cache, we decided it was a good idea to continue our leapfrogging, and planned to carry the cache at least to the fork in the glacier. We figured that we could go as far as we felt now that we had picked up the technical gear, most importantly the ropes for glacier travel. So we moved past camp, half expecting that we’d have to rope up, but finding that the rock band that flowed almost immediately out of camp and towards the West Fork was sustained enough that we could move along the top of it without having to rope up, or sacrifice safety.
Joel led out, and we were continually surprised just how far we could go without having to worry about the terrain. There were no crevasses that we couldn’t step over, and for the most part just large rocks that we’d have to weave in and out of trying to guess which ones would be stable and which ones would topple with out weight. For the most part it was the least stressful glacier travel I’ve ever been a part of. It was however very monotonous, as you really never could look up, as the rock was far from level. It reminded me of the Ani DiFranco lyrics, When I look down I miss all the good stuff, when I look up, I just trip over things.
I periodically stopped to take some photos to document our progress, and it didn’t take long for Joel to get out in front significantly. I had just stowed away my camera and started to hustle after him when I found a most peculiar item. At my feet was a plastic wrapper. I stopped to pick it up, partially disgusted, and partially surprised. As I hurried ahead, I saw Joel come to a quick halt, and bend down to pick something up himself. He turned towards me and waved a large red tarp towards me. In usual Joel fashion he added Toro, Toro, andale! I laughed and hurried to see what it was that he’d stumbled onto.
When I arrived at Joel’s spot I found a large cache of everything from tea bags, a fuel can, chalk, mylar blankets, hand-warmers, and even a Koflach boot liner. It was more like a yard sale than a cache, as everything was spread out within the rock band, and one could only speculate just how much other gear had actually blown away in the wind and deposited itself throughout the Traleika. Needless to say that we were both pissed. Here we had come to a point so far in, having earned it with every step, and some jackass had ruined it for us.
I originally speculated that it may have been some kind of dump from a plane that had flown overhead. After all, the amount of gear left behind, and the strangeness of its contents made me wonder why someone would just leave all this behind, as it was obvious that whoever it had been had no intention of retrieving it as there was no cairn, wand, organization, rock pile, anything that would suggest an attempt at caching. Then, the ultimate piece of evidence presented itself to us. Upon further review of the cache, we found the writing T Bub, on the boot liner.
This T Bub was a sure sign that this cache had been left behind by Tom Bubendorfer, revered Eigerwand ascensionist, and now great Tralieka garbagist. He had apparently been in on the hopes of making a solo ascent of the East Face in 98, and as it looks, prudently backed off, and lazily left behind. Realizing that there wasn’t much we could do to scold him for his less than adequate leave no trace ethics, we decided to plan for the future. We gathered up all of the trash that we could find, built a fire ring, and burned down the trash so that we might be able to carry it out on the return to Wonder Lake.
Of course while doing this, we came up with the great idea of taking some choice pictures of us showing Boob, as we had taken to calling him, exactly what we thought of his desecration of this sacred ground. We figured if nothing else, we could send him a lovely X-Mas card every year that reminded him of his laziness. So, we took some pictures and decided to move on.
We only went about another half mile before we found ourselves at the end of the rock band, and as we could no longer see camp and the clouds were moving in from ahead of us we decided to make our cache there. We deposited our cache at what was effectively the Traleika’s West Fork break, from which we got a few shaded glimpses of the East Face. It was definitely an eye opener, as it looked huge even from that distance. It became apparent to us that this was most likely as far as Boob had gotten, as from here on the glacier was noticeably open, and would require some serious crevasse laden travel. So we made the tromp back to camp and feasted on more high-carb goodies. It was actually a cool night, and it helped us to sleep better.
The next morning we were once again awakened by the buzz of prop planes overhead. Only this time when we crawled out of the tent we found that the clouds that had been moving our way from the Traleika Spur had settled into the entire glacier limiting visibility to a few hundred feet. Thus we could not see the planes flying overhead, and didn’t feel quite so much like our privacy was being invaded. We figured if the planes were out flight seeing, then the weather above must be better. So, we proceeded with breaking down our camp, and planned to move up to what we figured would be our main camp until we were finished with the climb itself.
It didn’t take us long to be back at the cache, and we quickly roped up and got ready to take on the more intensive part of the approach. The sunlight which had flirted with us all morning finally crept away as we moved out onto the West Fork proper. Joel led us over and around numerous crevasses that littered the break in the fork. The majority of crevasses we could still easily jump over, but there were so many that periodically we’d jump over one and land in another. We got off pretty easy though, and never sank much past the waist, and made relatively good time because of it.
The West Fork itself was littered with a number of rock bands that mysteriously rose out of the snow. We made our way up to the furthest-most rock band, the one that sat closest to the base of the East Face. Almost immediately when we reached camp I realized that I had left my camera sitting out on a rock completely exposed at the cache. As it was looking like we might get some pretty good weather I was a bit nervous about leaving it out, and Joel consented to making the last carry up to base camp as soon as we could divest ourselves of our camp goods. We quickly set camp, and made our way back down to the cache site at the fork it the Traleika.
When we arrived back at the cache, it wasn’t long before we were loaded up with the remaining bits of gear, food, and fuel, as well as my camera. We motored back up to camp in under 45 minutes, and were there just in time to secure camp and crawl into our bags as the first storm hit. We were definitely glad to have all the gear in one location, as you never know just how long one of those AK storms would last, and without a radio to give us the inside info, we were at the mercy of the mountain.
Late the next morning the weather cleared, and we were rewarded with a nearly unobstructed view of the East Face. Aside from one band of clouds that bisected the face we could clearly make out the majority of our intended route. Now came the waiting game. We’d have to wait and see what the avalanches were like. When did they come, what did they hit, and was there anything we could do to increase our chances of both success and survival? Washburn suggested that we watch the route for at least a week to be able to follow the avalanche patterns. Seeing as we had eaten very little on the approach through the bog, we were currently stockpiled with food and fuel. A week would be easy, and if it meant increasing safety, then I was all for it.
We watched the route all day, and the next, and the next. It seemed as though the route was clearest just before midnight, and most clouded first thing in the morning. The weather was beautiful, and had started a warming trend that had me a bit worried. Periodically at night we’d wander out on the glacier just to see how it was setting up. With the days so clear, and the nights not unbearably cold, the glacier seldom set up in such a way that we didn’t find ourselves post-holing more than a couple of yards out of camp.
On the fourth day of watching the route we decided that we’d go early the next day and make ourselves a route through the rest of the crevassed glacier that would take us right to the base of the climb. As we had seen absolutely no avalanche activity, and had great weather, I was getting anxious to say the least. It was a gamble to go early, as at any point the avalanches could come, and not knowing where they’d come from made running headlong up to the face a serious game of Russian Roulette. Of course sitting in perfect weather also gave us the the anxious feeling that we could be going for it, when weather might close in one of the following days, and never open us up to the opportunity to try and take it on again.
Of course the next morning the weather came in. We sat for three days as the snow fell, the sleet slid, and the rain inundated everything. We seldom came out of the tent for any reason other than to relieve ourselves. The rain that fell for the majority of the time over those three days was so intense that you could visibly notice how much it had settled the snow pack on the glacier. I knew that this would be a bad sign for the snow that was hanging precariously from the Traleika Spur. Late into the second night the avalanches started to fall from nearly every surrounding face.
On the morning of the fourth day the weather finally cleared. We were surprised to find that there was avi debris under nearly every face, with the only exception being the East Face. Regardless, we decided to make a run towards the base of the East Face, as we were suffering from cabin fever, and knew that with nothing in our packs, and a whole day to do it, we’d build ourselves a safe route to the base that in the near future we could utilize when it was time to go for it.
We loaded up with the bare essentials, rope, ascenders, tools, crampons, pickets, water, energy bars, and GU. The going was definitely slow, as all the rain had made the snow pack as sticky as starchy mashed potatoes. Great for snowball fights, but not much fun to walk across. To top it off the rain had also deteriorated the under layers of snow so considerably that nearly every step was a posthole. The frustrating part being that it was nearly every step. A kicked step that had held Joel would suddenly collapse on me, and I’d find myself buried to the waist and vice versa. To say that the going was frustrating would definitely be an understatement. Yet, gluttons for punishment that we were, we reveled in it as we got closer to the base of the East Face.
Finding our way through the initial difficulties was not so bad. The majority of crevasses were narrow and well defined. Still, we were tentative in our route finding, as the remoteness of the area added a new level of awareness about safety. If we were to cut ourselves deeply while doing something as simple as opening a can of tuna we could be putting ourselves in great peril. But as we approached the run out zone of the East Face we found more consistent snow pack, which led to easier and safer travel. Almost on cue the sun came out from behind the clouds that had hidden it away for days. This new found warmth was definitely a blessing, but did not come without its consequences.
The sun not only came out, it came out with an intensity that we had not yet experienced, and as we approached the lower flanks of the icefall we had to stop to shed layers. We decided that as we were very nearly at the start of the route, and now had earned a new vantage point at which to study our potential line, we’d take a much deserved break. We threw down our packs, reapplied the sunscreen, and enjoyed a Clif bar or two. Not five minutes into our little picnic lunch did everything get more interesting. Joel called out to me from the other end of the rope that a particular cornice that hung off the Traleika Spur which he’d been studying was finally coming down. Feigning interest I looked in the general direction of the collapsing cornice. What I saw gave me a pucker that didn’t quickly go away. The falling cornice ripped down the wall of the Spur, and exploded on the floor of the West Fork, causing a plume several hundred yards wide, and a couple of hundred feet tall to race across the glacier directly parallel to us while directly bisecting our recently used route of approach. Fortunately for us we were at least a mile and a half from the deposit area. Due to the size of the plume and its speed we couldn’t immediately tell how well camp had faired however, and were pleased to see that the slide was not as wide as we had originally anticipated. We would most likely have sleeping bags to crawl into later in the evening. Yeah for us.
Once we finished our break we motored up to the very highest part of the glacier, where it effectively became the lower ice fall. From here we captured a number of pictures, as well as took an account of the recesses that lurked around the inner flanks of the proposed route. We contemplated a number of different options, and discussed scenarios that might lead us to success. It wasn’t more then a couple of minutes of this before numerous other slides were triggered by the sun’s intensity on the already weakened snow pack. Then almost as quickly as it had all cleared off, the East Face once again became obscured with light cumulous clouds. We got what additional pictures we could before we prepared to retreat.
Just as we turned to leave the route behind with our newly laid plans in mind, we heard a tremendous crack, and then what sounded like thousands of tons of gravel being poured down the East Face. As the clouds had already obscured most of the face, we could only guess where this newest ruckus was originating from. After about a minute or so of the rumbling did we see huge quantities of snow dumping down the East Face in a loose snow form. I traced it back through the clouds to its origination. A large hanging glacier that overhung the largest couloir could be seen to losing a couple more pieces that then fell hundreds of feet to where they pummeled one of the few prominent rock bands, and then deflected into the couloir that runs right of the prow at 11,000ft.
I had been continually telling Joel that I really wanted to see something come down the face, as having seen nothing to this point, much less any evidence of slide activity, I was definitely suspect of the whole deal. What was going on here I thought, I thought that this was supposed to be some avalanche riddled face, and now I come here and there’s nothing. Is the mountain just waiting to get us into a compromising position, and then make us pay? It all just seemed too odd.
As we watched the huge quantities of snow dump down the face we wondered just how much more could fall before it would all be spilling down onto us at our vantage point. We decided not to wait around and find out. We quickly made our way back to camp as the clouds once again closed in all around us. It was almost as if they were engulfing us, with a short section of clear sky just over camp, and funneling us back to where we came from. It was as if the mountain was saying Shoo, you’re not welcome here. So we busted right on back to camp, and brewed up once again as we waited for the dark-less night to surround us once again. To our surprise, the weather actually cleared almost immediately upon our return to camp. Of course that was about as clear as it would be for some time to come.
We ended up rolling into the bags that night with a new found enthusiasm about our chances at succeeding on this route, as we had now seen quite a few more opportunities opening up to us then we had prior. Of course it wasn’t long before we were once again frustrated and tent bound. The next morning opened with the crack of the vestibule as it snapped freely in the wind. When I couldn’t take it any longer I crawled from the tent and tried to re-affix the vestibule to the tent stake that struggled to keep its purchase in the chossy terrain where we’d perched the tent.
Once outside the tent I found the weather to be atrocious, and didn’t waste much time finding my way back inside. Of course Joel had been awake the entire time, and it was merely a waiting game, see who the annoyance would get to first, and that person ends up doing the dirty work. Sure, we’d traded wins and losses on that a number of different times throughout the trip, whether it was shoveling out the tent, listening to the ravens come into camp and drag around our empty cans of tuna, or washing the pot so that we might eat. I had probably won the majority of these little battles, but at some point it doesn’t feel so much like winning as it does like becoming dependent. Just the same I had been out doing my part, and once again the vestibule was silent.
It didn’t take too long for Joel to magically awaken, as he had never been asleep to start, only more patient. When he asked for the weather report, I told him just how gloomy it had been on my little visit; but he would not be dissuaded from getting a firsthand look, and his bladder could only take so much. So out he went.
As is customary when spending quality time in the bag, he staggered out into the blizzard in nothing more than long johns and over-boots. It wasn’t long before he concurred that the weather was truly crap. It wasn’t that it was snowing so hard, as much as it was blowing what were essentially tiny ice flakes at a rapid rate into and onto every part of our bodies, most annoyingly our eyes. The fact that it was cold enough for the precipitation to take the form of ice crystals was only partly comforting, as at least it wasn’t rain. Regardless the weather was deteriorating at a rapid rate, and seemed to be lending itself towards antagonizing us.
The first day wasn’t so bad, as we -I guess I should say I, as I was the only one that had felt the need to journal up to this point- actually had something to journal about now. We’d actually been up to the face of the mountain, and seen just how much more we had to work with, referring to the couloir that trickles up the right side above the right icefall. Plus we now had a new vantage point from the start of the route. From where we stood at the base of the route on the previous day, the route seemed so much more attainable, as the mile of distance that the route stretches horizontally from base to summit is not so readily perceptible from a couple miles back, it definitely gave the face more depth. Angles that appeared to be overhanging were actually not so bad.
Don’t get me wrong, the route was still filled with numerous atrocities, from the hanging glaciers that loomed over most of the potential route, to the recurrent rockfall that littered most of the lower part of the route. I hadn’t initially realized just how far back the middle section of the hanging glacier, which lies from just beyond the prow to the next section of the face, actually ran. From a distance it looks as though it might be a hundred yards or so, and even appears so from up close at the vantage point that one has when standing underneath it. It wasn’t until a large portion of the hanging glacier that overlooks the Ubercouloir cut loose while we were checking out the route, and plummeted down on a crash course with us only to deposit all of its fury onto the upper section of the right icefall that I realized just how damn big the thing was, and how committed we were going to have to be to pull this thing off.
The first day of journaling I spent writing about everything from what Beer I missed most, to what foods I thought I would eat and in what order of importance they fell. The next day I got pensive about my future, and contemplated the works of philosophy that have given me fits over the years. I even let myself think about the love life that I had tried to keep from creeping into my mind, as there is nothing more frustrating then thinking about something that you’ve got no control over when you’re in the least possible position to even influence it.
The next couple of days passed, and I was less than excited. I had always been told that for every day of bad weather you need at least two for the snow pack to consolidate and set up so that it’s safe enough to travel on. Of course I hoped for some major slide that just buffed the entire route down to size, and we’d be the lucky group that happened to be at the right place at the right time, and casually claim the first ascent. However, at this rate we were going to need at least a week of good weather before we would be wise to risk traveling on some of that terrain, and probably more if we were going to think our chances were above suicidal.
The way that I saw it, the route was essentially a game of Russian Roulette in the first place, just because of all the inherent danger that the particular terrain on this side of the mountain holds. The addition of all this new weather was changing the game of Roulette from that with potentially two bullets in the gun, to a game with five bullets in the gun. The third day of storming had us hopeful as the sun peeked through on the main fork of the Traleika that lay behind us. Unfortunately it never materialized.
The forth day the weather finally opened up. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon, but it opened up just the same. I guess you could say that we were fickle with our emotions in so far as motivation that we would succeed was considered. But, with the weather and luck that we’d been having up until this point I guess that I’d consider that a good thing. If any single emotion would have dominated it would have been that of desperation, so being up and down was much better, as at least up was included in the mix. We had a positive motivational flux, though we were not necessarily optimistic, because when things were bad we didn’t pretend they would get better. It was initially more that we couldn’t believe that it could possibly stay this bad, and as Jim Donini had suggested in town our greatest asset was going to be our short memories.
I was getting extremely anxious, and knew that we weren’t going to be able to wait until we were sure that things had settled down to the point that we knew that we’d be safe if we were going to have any type of a shot at this thing. We discussed our game plan, and as always came almost immediately to the same conclusion. This entire route was completely unpredictable, and although the weather leading up to this point was anything but confidence inspiring, we decided to go as soon as the avalanches stopped. So we watched the slides roll down for a night, and plotted our attack.
The next day nothing came down right away, but it wasn’t long after the sun peeked out that the slides once again started rolling. I suggested that we pass the time by cutting all the superfluous tags off of everything and anything. I had heard of people like Ed Viesturs doing it before, but never really could justify that there would be any substantial weight savings. Of course after about an hour of cutting, I could be dissuaded against my original argument. By the time that I was done, I found myself with a gallon zip-loc bag full of extra weight.
No sooner did I finish cutting tags and drying out gear then the slides stopped. It’s like a sensation of anticipation that one gets when you’re so used to being in peril, and then all of a sudden nothing. Like the part in the horror movie when the killer has already shown his face, but then disappears at a seemingly opportune moment one where he could easily strike- only to reappear right after you think that he might actually be gone. It was that same feeling of anticipation that had me staring pointedly at the face for over an hour. Amazingly, nothing more came down.
We decided that this was it. We’d wait until the snow-pack consolidated for the evening, and then set off on our assault of the East Face. We packed up everything. Unpacked, and then packed again. Each time shaving weight, and cutting out this thing or that trying to keep the scale balanced between safety and speed. We decided that the tent was superfluous, and I doctored up the shed with a couple of custom modifications so that we might use it as a two-person bivy. We were sure that we’d have a much easier time digging a snow cave than we would finding room for a platform higher up on the route. So we left the tent standing as a solid point of reference while we were up on the route, and anchored it down with numerous large rocks, something that we would have done initially had we thought that we’d be spending so much time at the current location.
We hadn’t fully decided just how we were going to approach the route, but we decided just how committed we were, and packed accordingly. We knew that spending more then a couple of days on the route was just begging for trouble. However, we weren’t completely adverse to the idea of spending a couple of days camped on the prow so as to get a better look at the upper section of the route. So we packed a little more fuel then we might otherwise have, and packed a few more amenities then we otherwise would have, and before you knew it we had 50-pound packs.
This was very disconcerting to me, as I knew that leading some of the more difficult sections would only be exaggerated by the weight of the pack. Or worse yet, we’d spend even more time in compromising places if we were forced to haul. Either way, I was not excited about moving up and waiting, but it was something that we could both agree on, and went forward with that plan in mind.
We lay on our rock outcropping at camp, and waited for the sun to go behind the ridge so that the snow would set-up, and then we’d be on our way. Every so often I ‘d venture a few feet out of camp to see if it had solidified at all, only to fall into a small crevasse up to my waist.
Of course the weather had turned in our favor, but now seemed to be turning so drastically that we were going to have some real difficulty getting to the base of the climb. I wondered if the snow-pack would ever set-up, and continually ventured out, only to fall in again. Finally, as it was approaching dawn, we conceded that the pack was just not going to set up, and loaded up to set off across the glacier.
Now, getting out of camp wasn’t so bad. It was once we got 50 yards beyond camp that it was bad. The trail that we had so painstakingly ground out for ourselves on our initial trip to the base of the face was only faintly recognizable. All the time that I had spent kicking snow into Joel’s postholes, and then stomping down to consolidate it, while trying to keep up the pace, was completely in vain. We were actually falling in further then we had on our inaugural trip across the West Fork. To say that the profanity was flowing would be an understatement.
After about an hour and 45 minutes of slogging through the slush we were back to within half a mile of the base. Some light clouds had moved in to block out the sun, but also held the heat in, continuing to deteriorate the glacier into glop. We finally decided that we needed to adjust our attire to match accordingly, and came to a rest. When we sat down to take a break, we cooled down quick, and I was fast to pull my hat from my pocket and throw it back on. Joel went to follow suit and made an unfortunate discovery. Apparently his hat had fallen out of his pocket while we were packing things up, and was still in the tent. Not wanting to turn around and head back to camp after having struggled through such inhospitable terrain, Joel dug through his entire pack, literally dumping all of its contents out onto the glacier. When in our last bit of hope he dug through his sleeping bag and didn’t find it, we realized that we were likely making a return trip.
We dug in a spot for our packs, and stripped of anything that we didn’t absolutely need, and headed back down the glacier towards base-camp. Joel’s frustration level was high, as he doesn’t make very many mistakes and takes it personally when he does, so he motored us back to camp in under 45 minutes. Within a couple of seconds Joel located his hat, and we decided that we were best to keep moving, as we still had aspirations of getting up to the prow that day.
We actually made the return trip from base-camp to our pack in just less than half an hour. It most definitely helped that we had blazed ourselves a solid trail, but we frowned on it, as we knew that all the work of building a trail was of little benefit while at the same time sapped us of the strength that we would have otherwise turned on ascending the first icefall. Once back at the packs we took a quick break, and realized that those light clouds that had been creeping in were spiraling over both the Traleika Spur and Karsten’s Ridge on a mission to meet with us. Within 30 minutes it was snowing. Fortunately our short memories don’t completely preclude us from learning from our mistakes or missing out on observational knowledge, and we were 30 minutes into digging ourselves a snow cave when the snow met us.
Since there was only so much room to work I left Joel to his master trade of digging the initial part of the cave while I dug us out a kitchen. When you’ve seen as many snow days as we had already you expect the worst and provide accordingly. Thus we planned that this was not going to be any overnighter, and dug in like it was going to be a couple of days. Besides, it was still relatively early in the day, and we had nothing better to do unless we wanted to start wandering up the East Face in a whiteout.
When Joel picked the area for the snow cave we first wanded it out, and then tromped around over the top of the area to make sure that we found the most solidified snow, which of course would be harder to dig out initially, but in the end would provide the most stability as far as a roof was concerned. With the East Face as close as it was, and us being just beyond the run-out debris of all the previous avalanches, we decided that we had better be prepared for the worst. We found a section that had a six-inch layer of ice just below the first couple of inches of snow. This was ideal, as we then wouldn’t have to dig the snow cave so deep to accommodate a thick roof.
When we first started digging through the layer of ice the snow saw was not enough to go through, as it was more like water ice then alpine ice. Even after a couple of good whacks with the axes we were worried that we weren’t going to be able to dig in. When we finally did break through the going wasn’t much easier. Joel makes quick work of those kinds of things though, and it wasn’t long before he was cutting and chucking and I was scooping and throwing. Within an hour Joel was in far enough that I had to go down the two first steps onto the landing, and bend down to check his progress. Things were going great, but of course they couldn’t possibly last.
When we were nearly to the point of finished, Joel came out of the cave to grab a break, and put on some warmer gloves when something completely unexpected happened. Like it hadn’t done to this point, and for no reason other than to spite us did it ever again, the sun came out in full effect. Not on the route of course, as it remained completely socked in, but the entire glacier from just below the face all the way back to base-camp was bathed in sunshine. Normally this would be welcomed, but as we had just dug a cave, and were prepared for a storm, we were a little frustrated to say the least.
The sun worked it’s magic as it so often does, and turned the top of the glacier into a river. We watched as the central section of the glacier turned a magic shade of blue. Within an hour it increased in size by ten fold, as all the water from the small crevasses that lie uphill on both sides of it fed what little water they produced into this central section. All the while the snow-pack weakened at a rate I had previously thought unimaginable. We watched helplessly as the center of our snow palace began to droop and sag. Joel was so frustrated that he decided that he was going to at least get the joy of destroying his work by jumping through the top before it got a chance to collapse. Not surprisingly though, the roof caved while he was in mid air. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it, but thus far on the trip there hadn’t been anything that I would have believed could have happened, and yet it did.
We looked solemnly at what was left of our palace, and discussed what we’d do now. I suggested that this could be a nice opportunity to test out the effectiveness of the shed. No sooner did I say that then the clouds started rolling back down the face, and back up the West Fork. In a matter of minutes we were once again engulfed in the clouds that had been so nice to part for us. Of course the new warmth that we had so recently experienced was still noticeably above us, and warmed the clouds as they moved in over us. The precipitation that had so recently been snow was now a light mist, and threatened to be a down poor.
It wasn’t long before Joel and I conceded that we were going to have to make another trip back to base-camp, yet we weren’t willing to relinquish our newly gained high ground. So we came to the conclusion that we’d have to make another speed carry between base-camp and our newly established advanced base camp. The idea of moving base camp to here wasn’t really so bad, as I had often heard that the official translation of advanced base camp is where base camp should have been in the first place had we not been so stupid. So we emptied the packs, stashing the gear inside the shed which was working out for us rather well, and headed back to camp.
The trail back to base camp was actually worse then when we had crossed it only a couple of hours earlier. In some sections we post-holed up to the top of our thighs. It got to the point that we weren’t sure if we were post-holing or plunging into the top of crevasses. It more pissed us off then worried us, as we were hell bent on getting back to camp and getting the tent before the weather moved in. As we had decided to go fast and leave everything behind, our sleeping bags were still back at advanced base camp.
When we reached the center section of the West Fork, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that the glacier had melted down so much that the top six inches were essentially slush. Some sections ran deeper, and when we stepped into them unknowingly it’d cause a splash big enough that the tops of our gaiters were struggling to keep out all the water. While at the same time the consistency of the slush was thick enough once out of its watery surroundings that it stuck to the tops of the boots where the gaiters didn’t cover, and inundated everything with water. It was hard to tell whether our feet were just cold from the water/air temperature inversion, or actually wet.
When we did get back to base camp we were so frustrated that we decided that we could wait a bit until the glacier consolidated a bit, as the clouds had set in, and tromping right back through all of that was not anything that either of us wanted to do right away. We broke down the tent, and Joel grabbed the last of the food that we had cached back their as part of his penance for having to have come back for his hat earlier. With the way things had been going I wasn’t completely adverse to the idea of having some extra food on hand either.
We waited for a couple of hours, and then finally decided that the glacier would have to be in better condition, as we were starting to cool down quite a bit ourselves, and had actually taken shelter underneath the vestibule of the tent as if it were a giant blanket. We decided that we were going to go regardless, as we were not getting any rest where we were, and we had hopes of moving the following day provided the weather cooperated. So we set back across the glacier one more time.
The glacier didn’t set up any, and we splashed and slopped our way back to ABC. When we arrived we realized that the hole that we’d dug out was going to need a little modification in order to accommodate the tent and its fly. It didn’t take more then a couple of minutes before we were hitting another unforeseen roadblock. After we had moved all the snow we needed to set up the tent, except maybe a couple of square feet, we found ourselves trying to chop into the most bulletproof blue ice that I’d ever seen. We moved to the other side of the hole, and found the same. We dug back four feet, and found the same. With much frustration we squeezed the tent into the narrow gap between the two sections of ice, such that it folded a couple of poles precariously close to the point of being damaging. It was going to have to work though, as the weather turned right to shit.
Joel and I crawled into the tent without having anything to eat, as we were both frustrated with our staggeringly slow progress, and wasted energy in getting to the point that we were finally at. So to some degree we didn’t eat as self punishment, and to some degree it was a case of recognizing that the rations that we’d had so much of that we had to initially triple carry were now starting to dwindle down to a level that we could actually see the end of the rainbow. Plus, with the weather that we’d been having to this point, and the luck–or I guess I should say un-luck–didn’t well support our hopes that this weather block would pass shortly.
The snow rolled in, and didn’t pass for more then 36 hours. When it did finally start to let up, it once again started to rain. We couldn’t have been more frustrated, and we listened to the spattering of the rain on the fly for more then 60 hours. When it quit raining it started snowing again. When I went out to shovel off the tent the snow was so heavy and water laden that it was more like shoveling cement then snow. I had hoped that the weather was going to lift, and although our 3 days of good 3 days of bad pattern had been completely destroyed sometime prior I thought wistfully that it might be back on pattern.
We ate very little, and tried to spend our time sleeping as much as possible, as lethargy and discontent seem to settle in when you think about your situation and sleeping allows you to be off enjoying your most favorite things regardless of your actual situation. Hell, sometimes I think that I’d be better off living those dreams of easy life, and just dreaming about the alpinism–how much nicer would it be to just wake up from the nightmare that this trip had been up until this point. I know that I said to Joel on numerous occasions that I knew that this wasn’t even a nightmare, as my mind couldn’t bend so far as to fathom such horrible chance, and consistent disappointment in ways that I never could have foreseen.
It was late on the fourth night that we were sitting in the tent listening to the slides come down, rehashing old stories that we’d already told each other, but gladly shared again, as anything to talk about after 25 plus days of sequestering with one another should lead to an overstated level of comfort that sometimes breeds contempt. I was in the middle of retelling some great story to Joel when mid-sentence Joel said, Wait. He sat bolt upright in his bag, and unzipped and moved to the front of the tent. He pulled the door down a little bit, then tore it open without using the zipper toggle. My immediate thought was that he was being rather rude, and should show more respect for other people’s property. When he then opened the vestibule completely, and jumped up out of the tent in only his socks and long underwear I took it a little less personal.
I figured that whatever had motivated him to jump out of the tent with reckless abandon must be worth checking out, so I moved to the front of the tent, and started readying myself to come out of the tent to play. I had figured that it was probably just a sizeable slide that had attracted his attention, as he seemed to be much more sensitive about the rumbling and cracking then I had been to this point. Of course, I had seen more avalanche activity the previous summer on Mt. Logan then any human might ever need to see in a lifetime, and so was maybe a bit jaded towards the constant rumblings that surrounded us on a daily basis. Regardless, I decided to follow Joel out and see just what it was that was so enthralling.
I called out to Joel to see if he wanted me to throw his boots out to him, as I was sure that his feet had to be cold and wet. All the while I was going through the motions that one does in order to go out into the elements. I threw on my plastic shells and fastened the gaiters to keep out the debris, put on my coat, and found my lightweight liner gloves. At the last second I thought that I should grab the camera, as Joel was now really whooping it up outside. So I reached back into the loft of the tent to grab the camera and hustled out to the top of the stairs that rise to the top of our snow walls. By this time Joel was screaming out to me get the fuck out of there man, get the fuck out. I couldn’t understand why this was, as I reached the top step of our camp. When I looked out towards the East Face it wasn’t initially apparent just what Joel was so excited about. Visibility was still poor at best, and I didn’t immediately make out the difference between the lower part of the East Face, and the giant plume of snow that was now rushing towards us.
For some reason my initial reaction was, Man, prime photo op! and I quickly switched on the camera in the hopes of capturing a Rowellesque photo. Seeing as I had left the camera on auto focus, it just whirred and shifted as it tried to focus on the mass of snow that was rushing at us. Joel then yelled at me as though I were losing my mind, yet at the same time I turned around to see him no more then 20 feet behind me holding up the shed for protection. I would liken this defensive maneuver to holding a space blanket up to protect oneself from a shuttle launch. More of a feel good act then anything else. Of course there wasn’t much else available in the form of options. Running willy nilly down the glacier would potentially lead to a lovely wedging into a crevasse, so I can’t really fault him.
When the seriousness of the situation actually set in, I turned to join Joel, and then thought better of it. Joel called out is it just the plume, is it just the plume?! I tried to give my professional opinion and it came out something like, Yes, well, yes, maybe, or uh as I was continually looking at the front of the racing plume to see if I could see any debris crushing up the snow that it was picking up and pushing our way. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell anything, and prepared for the worst. With the limited number of options that I had, I decided to jump back into the tent. I figured that We had 4+ foot walls, and I had wishful thoughts that the debris might just pour around the walls. I didn’t say that my thoughts were realistic or rational mind you.
In a couple of seconds I was back into the tent trying to shut the vestibule before the spearhead of the plume hit camp. I didn’t get the zipper closed more then three inches before it hit us full on. All the while Joel was just yelling out to me to get out of the tent. I was convinced that I was in a better way than he, as I thought I could possibly hold the snow out of the tent if I could get the doors closed. At that moment the first major wave of air moved through camp. I had to give up my plans for door closing and grab for the vestibule pole in order to keep it from folding itself in and snapping completely.
The force of the wind had the center of the pole flexing like it was made of rubber, as it whipped down and beat me about the head and neck. I had never heard anything so loud, as the wind ripped through camp and snapped the nylon tent fabric so fast and sharp that I really wanted to let go of the vestibule pole and cover my ears. Of course I couldn’t hear anything from Joel, and wondered just how this was affecting him out in the middle of it.
The initial burst of wind was fierce, and lasted maybe a minute, but it felt like hours as I was waiting for the imminent following of tons of snow to pour over me and bury me alive. Yet, I was still just positive that if I could just get the tent closed then I’d be much better off. As the wind gusts just began to ebb, I reached for the vestibule zipper and got it closed those same three inches when the first wave of debris hit. The only sound that I can liken it to would be that of what I would imagine it to sounds like if you might be directly under the rampant and excessive firings of a C-130, Puff the Magic Dragon like the one in The Green Berets. Anywhere and everywhere that snow could possibly go it would go, even at unimaginable angles. The camera that had been sitting on my lap, and the watch that had been hanging from the ceiling of the tent–completely congested with snow. Every orifice, every indent, every recess–packed with snow.
The crazy part was that, and even though I had heard about this, I’d never personally experienced it, the snow seemed to be actually working through the transformation of frozen substance into liquid–spurred on by the moving force that is an avalanche–and then right back to frozen so fast that you’d never be able to recognize that it had changed for except for the aftermath. The arm that had only been exposed for less then a second was completely layered and caked with snow that held like spackle.
The minutes following the initial burst of wind and snow were actually uneventful, as I waited for the inevitable burying alive, only to be pleasantly surprised that it never came. The wind blew so hard and so long that I wondered if it had brought a storm, the likes of which I’d never seen, in with it. Then almost as quickly as it had come, it was gone. The roar of the wind flowed down the rest of the West Fork, and it became deafeningly quiet, as we had been through so many different waves of it, that we weren’t really sure it was done until it was. I was really taken with the way the snow had placed itself pretty much wherever it wanted to, and hoping that I’d gotten away with one, when my thoughts turned to Joel. I hadn’t really heard anything from him during the whole ordeal, and wondered if just maybe the walls had saved me, and he’d been washed down the glacier, or worse yet, buried in his underwear.
Just then I heard Joel call out; well, it was more a life statement at that point as he screamed out, Fuck, fuck, fuck! Being so well read, Joel is not usually at a loss for words. In this particular situation however, I could see how he might have found himself at a loss. I called out to ask him if he was OK, and he responded, Let me check, at which time I could hear him patting himself down, I think that I may have further dirtied my already dirty underwear, but everything is intact.
I couldn’t help but laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I reopened the tent, and crawled out to see the damage. For the most part we’d gotten off pretty unscathed, and little or nothing was lost. What I did see however was Joel caked with snow, much like my arm had been, but in a much more thorough way. I could almost immediately tell by looking at him that he had put his arm across his face when the first wave of snow hit, as he was spackled across the face in a weird pattern, which happened to match up with the completely spackled torso aside from his left arm-which was spackled on the underside.
I had really wanted to take a picture, but the snow that had wedged itself into my camera had caused it to malfunction for the time being. What was better however was that even if my camera had died, I hadn’t. The camera ended up working again shortly, which was fortunate, as when the clouds of churned up snow actually settled we could actually see the East Face, and the origination of the avalanche.
As I peered up at the East Face, I found that a large chunk of the snow that had been attached to the front of the main prow was no longer hanging around. When I pointed this out to Joel he just kind of gasped, and we both took in the magnitude of what we had just been a part of. It was a little exciting to be a part of something that big, but even more exciting to not become a permanent part of something that big.
The avalanche that had blown through camp was so intense that it actually blew out the weather that had been sitting on top of us for four days. It was so dead calm, and for once there was no precipitation, although the clouds never did part. Joel decided that the best plan of action would be to get fully bundled up, and spend some quality time outside. I couldn’t have been happier to join him. As we hadn’t eaten for some time, Joel figured that it was time to cook, and opted to fire up the stove and have a little celebratory pasta. I was only mildly hesitant, as I too was very hungry, and although my motivation had not diminished, I was starting to sense that the odds were stacking up against us, so food was most definitely in order.
Throughout the brewing process Joel kept harassing me about my decision to go back into the tent. I asked him what he thought was so much better about his game plan of running out of the tent in nothing but underwear and hiding behind a piece of nylon. Joel absolutely and unwaveringly contended that he would at least have a fighting chance, if he were outside of the nylon death trap. Of course when we recounted the incident from our varied perspectives, it didn’t sound like he made out too well, as the first gust of wind had torn the shed from his grasp, as he was left wide open for the first wave of snow. Without actually saying anything to each other we started scanning the narrowly visible horizon for our escape routes should another slide come ripping into camp.
By the time the first brew was done we found most everything in camp, and we were just starting to enjoy being outside again when once again the snow started in. It wasn’t long before our nice little evening of recoup was turning into batten down the hatches once again. I decided that our forward walls needed reinforcing, and took it upon myself to build them up another 3 ft, and put a moat like hole around the front to boot. Whatever will potentially protect us, I thought.
When the weather finally got to the point that staying outside was worse than waiting in the tent for live burial, we managed to coax ourselves back into the bags. We were inside for no more then a couple of hours when the avalanches started again. This time every rip and tear was unnerving in a way that it never had been before. It was as though our feeling of invincibility finally had a little chink in its armor. I could tell that Joel was affected by the experience, as it was cold, and he refused to zip into the bag, and left his hat on and boots ready as a precaution. I was a little surprised that he hadn’t left his shell on as I didn’t think that he was even going to get back into the tent initially.
While we passed the time I thought about things, journaled a bit, and then for no good reason felt the immediate need to move camp back to base camp. The lucky Buddha that I always carry with me was adamant about the issue, and although I tried to sleep, I couldn’t. I was a little reluctant to tell Joel that I was feeling that way, as I didn’t expect that it would take much to steer him in the direction of folding it up and packing it in, because he’d been the logical one up to this point while I had still fostered some very real hope about pulling this off in spite of the obstacles that we’d encountered to this point.
I had thought that Joel might be sleeping, but I should have known better. Without even opening his eyes he said, What is it, Brian? I told him about the vibe that I was getting, and almost before I’d even finished speaking Joel started the process of breaking down camp. To say that he was expedient would be a serious understatement.
It wasn’t long before we had camp bagged up once again. All that was left was to tromp back across the glacier. When we set off across the glacier I found that it was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. It wasn’t that the snow that had accumulated over the four days that we were stranded at ABC had completely covered our trail again. Nor was it that the Traleika River as we had dubbed it, was making such a gloppy mess of the bulk of the glacier and causing almost every step across that glacier feel like we were tromping through wet cement. It was the fact that for the first time ever I was actually conceding that I had failed on a big objective. I felt like I was in a trance, and even though I was walking over debris from the big slide some 500 feet beyond camp, I found little consolation in having survived. It’d be like telling Michael Jordan that although he lost the NBA championship that he was still alive. Of course it’s a matter of messed up priorities, but at the time I think that it would have hurt less if someone just kicked me in the junk until I passed out.
I did find a little consolation in the fact that as I watched the foodstuffs dwindle and I watched the storm days quadruple the number of good days, I had been working on a back up plan. I had already put together a list of things that I would be able to cache back at Boob rock, so as to make my carry in the following year for my triumphant return much more accommodating. I wasn’t sure what Joel’s take on the return trip had been initially, but knew that he had potential commitments back home, and so planned in a solo capacity for my return. This was of little consolation, but I had to find something.
Visibility was little to nothing, as I just followed the rope in front of me back down the glacier. Within an hour we were back at camp. I was content with having moved back that far, while Joel had decided that if we were moving back, we were moving out.
This did not sit well with me, as I knew that moving all the way out would preclude me from caching anything on the glacier, and even if I were to cache it, it would undoubtedly be wet, and likely destroyed by the same time next year. So, I made the argument that I needed a warming day to at least partially dry out the gear that I hoped to cache. Joel was not overly pumped about the idea of waiting for a good day, as we’d seen so few up to this point. I couldn’t really blame him, but I had a feeling that it’d work out the way that it was supposed to. I was counting on a little mercy from the mountain gods, and although I normally don’t expect that, I figured in this particular case I had it coming.
Fortunately, or more appropriately, mockingly the mountain gave us a good day of weather the following day. The sun came out in all its glory like it hadn’t for weeks. I was kind of stirring through things, and wondering what would keep for a whole year, and what I’d need to carry out as it wouldn’t make the wait, when unexpectedly Joel came up with the most amazing idea that I had heard in some time. Almost as if he hadn’t meant to say it, or maybe because he was feeling the vibe of self-loathing that I was giving off because we were throwing in the towel, Joel said something completely unexpected. Joel said to me, Hey, what if we just leave what we absolutely need to make a lightning quick ascent of this thing here at camp, and take out all of this other shit and restock ourselves.
At first I was upset, as I hadn’t thought of proposing something so bold myself. How could I have just overlooked something that made so much sense. We were strong and we knew it. There was no good reason that we couldn’t make the 40 plus mile hike out in one day if we weren’t triple carrying. What’s more, with the promise of beer at the end of the trip I couldn’t see any reason that making that incredible slog in the bog, as Joel referred to it, in one huge push. Hell, if nothing else, we’d have to be proud of ourselves for making such a monumental effort. With little discussion we started resorting our gear so that we could take out every last ounce of gear that we didn’t absolutely need.
Thanks to Joel I had found new motivation, and my self-loathing turned into a supreme confidence. We quickly went from being angry at all the time that we spent dying in a tent this far to focusing on all of the great amenities that we were going to take advantage of once we reached civilization again. The more that I thought about it the more that I liked that idea of making two big pushes. I made the comment to Joel that it would be like one giant double carry with beer in the middle. That I could deal with.
Without missing a beat the mountain proceeded to show us its dislike of our intentions to return to her flanks. No sooner had we mad the solid commitment to return then we found ourselves being chased out of the West Fork by spiraling clouds. We had cached the necessities–tent, sleeping bags, pads, technical gear, film, extra big clothes, all at base camp. We still needed the rope and harnesses and such to make our way back to the main fork of the Traleika, as there were a number of crevasses in our path. Once back at Boob Rock we cached everything else that we weren’t taking all the way out. It hadn’t been an hour from the time that we left Base camp until we were headed out from Boob Rock, but already the clouds were upon us.
As we jogged our way along the piles of scree that created our path back to McGonagall Pass the clouds kept right behind. When we finally got to the point that we could see the end of Carpe Ridge, and should have been able to see the pass, we realized that we were in for a wild ride yet. For not only had the clouds that were chasing us finally engulfing us, the view around Carpe Ridge showed us that a storm system had been moving up from the Wonder Lake area as well. Lucky us, we were about to be right in the middle of it all. It was only a matter of minutes before we were in a whiteout, and the area that had been so easy to navigate through before had now become so obscured that we had trouble telling where we were at all. When we were finally sure that we were on the right track, and then weren’t, we went to the gipass. Everything that had seemed so familiar in the whiteout was actually a mile past the turn off for McGonagall Pass. So, we backtracked a mile to the pass, and stumbled into our old camp in an effort to find some sort of sustenance that we’d cached there earlier.
When we finally dug the cache out of the rock pile we’d buried it under, we’d been going for about 5 hours, and had covered the first 17 miles. It was all down hill from here we figured, and took the time to fire up the stove, as we opted to carry one of the stoves out as well, as the first had been working such that having a backup seemed like a luxury we didn’t need. So after downing a large bowl of oatmeal we re-cached everything and packed it up quick as my hands were getting dangerously cold.
When we turned to head down the pass we found ourselves in someone else’s freshly made tracks. We hadn’t seen anyone ahead, and we entertained different guesses about what group it could be as we scampered down the scree and ice that clogged the pass. I kept thinking that if we could get on the heels of another team that our motivation could be unsurpassed. As fast as we moved, we didn’t see anyone for the longest time, and were forced to move into dis-associative mode in order to keep moving. Seeing as we hadn’t had much sleep the night before, our fatigue was being compounded by our inability to see the end that our means were supposed to justify. Visibility was so poor, and although we were now warm from moving, the snow had seemed like more then an annoyance, until of course it stopped snowing. Of course it couldn’t just stop snowing, it instead had to change into rain.
By the time that we’d reached the bottom of the pass we were anxious to find ourselves back in familiar territory; the moose antlers that marked the top of the last major hill before the pass, the tricky footwork sections through the bog that created some interesting situations as we could hardly see our feet. What we weren’t ready for was just how much the tundra had grown up during our time beyond it. Alder that had only been a few feet tall the first time that we’d passed it was now taller then us by a few feet, and much more combative as we tried to force our way through it. Flowers were in bloom that hadn’t been before, and bear digs right next to the trail that made us more anxious when entering the tall alder.
When we reached the last up/down hill that led to our prior Cache Creek camp Joel stopped abruptly. This was weird, as we had only stopped the once at McGonagall prior to our stopping here, just short of our only other cache en-route to Wonder Lake. Due to the dense underbrush, I couldn’t tell exactly why it was that Joel had stopped, and was only hoping that it wasn’t for a bear. When Joel finally bent down and picked up something I felt much better. Although we had been picking up trash periodically throughout the hiking part of the expedition, this was an especially large find. What Joel held up to me was a large green G.I. rubberized laundry bag that appeared to be full. Upon further inspection Joel pulled out three empty Coleman gas cans among other trash. Trying to be the optimist about people I suggested that it might possibly have been pulled free of someone’s pack by the dense underbrush and they might not have known. Joel then dropped the bag from medium pack height, which upon its meeting with the ground made a loud crash as the cans clanged together. Not likely we thought. It gave us a new motivation however, as now we had to catch up to the idiots that had left behind this trash, and make sure that they get a good what for. Seeing as Joel had already shouldered a number of other pieces of trash I felt that it was my turn to right my Karma with the mountain gods, and opted to take on this trash–at least until we could catch up with the perpetrators of such a travesty.
When we made it the last quarter of a mile into camp we dumped our packs, and dug into the bushes for our cached sleds. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that I had already cached more back at the sled then I had initially thought. However, the empty area in the sled that raised up over my pack made for a nice spot for the bag full of fuel cans. We sat for a bit, and just let the rain inundate our Gore-Tex suits as we relished these few moments of inactivity. It wasn’t long of course before this little bit of contentment was disturbed by something much worse then rain. Somehow, some way, they returned. In conditions that should have made it impossible, as it was around 40 degrees and raining, the mosquitoes found us once again. So, without much further adieu, we were up and moving in short order, as we could hardly stand the pestering that we were getting. I don’t know if it could be possible, but I think that it had actually gotten worse from the first time that we’d passed through, and it was unbearable.
When we got down the hill from camp, we ran into something that we had only contemplated, but prayed was not the case. Cache Creek, which had been the sight of some pleasant crossing, and even a nice bath weeks before had become a raging torrent upon our return. I ventured out into the once stream, now river, and struggled to keep myself upright where I had basically strolled through before. I made it across without incident, but not without serious effort. This made me immediately worry about the upcoming crossings, which this one had initially paled in comparison to.
We found the trail on the other side of the Creek to be even more overgrown then anything that we’d encountered prior. Lucky for us bears are nocturnal, as it was now after midnight that we found ourselves tromping through this ridiculously thick growth. When we finally pushed and shoved and tripped our way through the thickest sections, and made our way back up onto the ridge Joel turned to me, as though he’d been saving it for some time, and said excitedly (remember however that we’d been going hard for 10 plus hours on limited sleep, so it probably sounded not excitable in regular terms, but contextually), Hey, what do you say we leave that bag of trash at their camp? I looked back at him straight faced, as I thought that he was starting to suffer from sleep deprivation to want to stop our progress and turn around to tell me that, and said, Sure, that sounds like a great idea, and then waited for him to continue on.
Much like in instances past, we were on the same page, just not on the same paragraph due to some slight misunderstanding, usually stemming from some observational difference. He of course knew that their camp was only a couple hundred feet away, while I had seen nothing of the sort, as I had had my eyes firmly fixed on the trail ahead of my feet so as not to notice the painfully slow progress and seemingly endless distance that we still had to go. So, I waited for Joel to move on, and he waited for me to cut loose the trash bag. When I finally went to go around Joel, as I thought the only thing that he might understand would be to keep moving, I finally noticed the camp that lay just ahead and understood that it was not a theoretical idea that he felt such a sudden need to express, it was instead a reality he wanted to act on. As usual we both felt dumb for a minute after understanding how each of us had allowed the other to misperceive the situation, and then relished relocating the trash on the perpetrators.
We got ourselves situated so that we could make the drop and then keep on moving. We decided that we really didn’t want to be asses about the whole thing, although the thought did creep in, and decided instead to let them redeem themselves. So, ever so quietly we set down the bag by the edge of their tent, and made our way down the trail that left the ridge and crept back into the bog.
We trudged on, and as we could feel the weight of our packs dig new trenches into our already bruised and pussing pressure sores, from the constant abrasion and compounded weight from our packs, we just dug deeper into our reserves and almost as a challenge, but equally as support, each of us kept on so long as the other did, neither one wanting to break before the other, while at the same time wanting to take the other’s load if we could. It’s a weird bond, and one that I know has made me capable when I otherwise wouldn’t be, a bond forged by time and tests that had culminated itself in this moment of truth.
When we reached the second crossing of Cache Creek, which had previously been so shallow that you could get across without wetting your toes if you chose, we found ourselves wading into a overflowing river that not only overran its banks, but filled the rut that was the trail for another mile or so on top of that. The path of least resistance that was the trail had us stepping into water that would be boot deep to calf deep in a moments notice. The fact that we had to plunge through alder that stood eight to ten feet tall only made matters worse when trying to make it through without twisting an ankle or wrenching a knee.
When we finally did get out of the water to the point that it wasn’t flowing over our feet as we walked, we found ourselves in the remnants of tundra that had been inundated by the water for sometime. I found myself folding my toes over, sort of making a fist with my feet in order to keep my shoes on, as the laces themselves weren’t enough to keep them in place as the tundra had been stripped away to the point of being nothing more then mud. The suction that the mud would create was so strong that on more then one occasion I found myself free-heeling with only the clasp of my gaiter securing the shoes to my feet.
It wasn’t long before we reached the next major obstacle. We could actually hear it before we saw it–Clearwater Creek. When we got there we knew that we were in for trouble, as the rocks that had previously been standing just above the water were now completely submerged and the creek ran by with an almost glass like surface. The fact that the water was clear like that of Cache Creek was beneficial, as we could at least see the bottom, and although depth perception is still so distorted it isn’t as bad as the vertigo that the silty waters of the McKinley provided if you found yourself looking down to check your steps.
Joel ventured in first, and seemed to be making it OK, but turned back quickly as he reached a new found deep spot. We decided that we’d have to team up for this crossing. Seeing as I was the heavier one, and Joel the taller one, we opted to put Joel in front, and leave me behind for anchoring and support. We ventured in with a little bit of apprehension, not about our skills or our trust in one another, but about the potential of the crossing getting even deeper then Joel had already found during his pioneering efforts.
When we reached the point that Joel had opted to turn back I braced myself against the bottom and pushed down on his sled and pack as though I wanted to sink him to the bottom. As the water reached crotch level, Joel fought through like a champ, and helped us past the point of no return. I nearly found myself letting go, as water that cold making it to crotch level not only increases one’s buoyancy, it surely takes away one’s breath.
When Joel deemed that we need not work in tandem any longer he set off to cross the rest of the creek, and I tried to regain my independent balance, as having Joel in front of me broke the current, and catching the current full-on caused me to have to reorient my balance slightly, almost slightly in the way of tipping over backwards. Although I hadn’t thought about it before, I quickly found myself wishing that I had closed the thigh pockets on my Gore-Tex suit, as they were now filling up with water like the cells of a parachute and attempting to force my legs down stream. It definitely added a challenge to the already formidable crossing.
When I regained my balance, and stumbled into the far side of Clearwater Creek, Joel was already waiting, and I could tell that it was time for a break. We dropped the packs, and although I started to mention that I was a bit worried about getting back across the McKinley, as if the other crossing were a precursor to what we could expect from that final crossing, then we had our hands full. For whatever reason, I decided that I needed to keep it to myself.
By this point I was so tired that I was starting to have blurry vision. I forced some fluids, and popped a GU for fuel to burn. When we felt ready, we struggled back under the loads of our packs and attacked the hill that rises up from Clearwater Creek. In short order we were back to the grind, and found ourselves neither communicating, or in my case, even thinking. We pushed on like robots with an agreed upon next rest at the top of Turtle Hill.
It didn’t seem like long before we reached the top of Turtle Hill, and in fact it wasn’t. We arrived around 3 a.m., and didn’t even bother to take our packs off, as we fell back upon them and waited for sleep. I had so hoped that we could sleep as my body ached for it. With every stretch I thought that it might pull me under, even if only for a minute, to that place where it wasn’t raining, there were no mosquitoes, there wasn’t the McKinley yet to cross. All that I wanted was to be on the bus, on the way out, on the way to talk to my girl, who was currently in Japan, but I couldn’t go there; the rain and the mosquitoes and the cold wouldn’t let me. So I sat on my pack and I stared around the corner at the McKinley. I stared at it much like I had the lower section of the then deteriorating, late season Kahiltna Glacier when I returned from my first ascent on the West Butt. I stared at it with fear, admiration, and contempt. Fear that it might be the end of me. Admiration that it truly was its own independent beauty, massive and moving, and had I not wanted to cross it I might find myself looking at it for days just beholding its wonder and ever changing attitude. I stared at it with contempt, as I was sure that this mountain now wanted me dead, and had only let me hang on to the last so that I might have complete and total suffering before uttering my last breath.
When I couldn’t take the mosquitoes any more, and Joel quit pretending to sleep, as he couldn’t either, we shouldered our packs and set off for the McKinley Bar. When we got a little further around the corner of Turtle Hill, I suddenly realized that there was something very odd about the shape of the river. I couldn’t immediately figure it out, but then it hit me. When we had initially crossed the river there had been numerous braides that separated the McKinley into manageable sections. Now as I looked out into the vastness I could only make out one large braid. When I said this to Joel, he optimistically said that it was likely that the river had receded that much, as it was glacier fed, and with the amount of bad weather we had been having it was unlikely that it had significantly come up, as there weren’t any glaciers that had been seeing much sun during our time in the backcountry. I decided that this was a logical possibility, and hoped that it was an actuality.
As we lumbered down the boggy trail that led to the McKinley Bar, we found ourselves mucking through the same tracks that wolves and moose had deemed good enough to make their own. I crossed down into the first major alder grove without incident, but it didn’t take long for things to get worse. While plowing my way through some thick alder I made a terrible mistake. The alder was so dense and thick that it was like a continual game of red rover, in which there were endless outstretched arms trying to hinder your forward progress. In order to not lose momentum I found myself leading heavily with the front foot. It wasn’t long before my foot found itself perched on a loose rock that, once it took the full weight of me and my pack, shifted and wrenched my ankle with an awful crack. I still to this day am not absolutely sure that I didn’t fracture it, but stopping was not an option. So I forged on in a gimping sort of lunge through the rest of the trail.
By the time that I caught up to Joel he was already resting down on the McKinley Bar, and had dug into the very first cache that we had left. He had found some more Kool-Aid, and a couple of pop-tarts, as well as a can of Coke. This was something to lift our spirits, but unfortunately not enough to make me sane. Joel snarfed down as much as he dared, and loaded up what more he could onto his pack. I couldn’t find any justifiable way to load anything onto my pack, and instead opted to leave it for the return carry. Had I been thinking, I would have resituated everything so that my most valuable possessions were in a dry bag. I however was much too fatigued to think that clearly, and decided that I was ready for the McKinley, and had even convinced myself that it might well have gone down.
When we were both ready Joel and I ventured back to the water’s edge. It wasn’t long before we felt that things were not going to be as bad as we might possibly have foreseen. We managed to cross the first couple of braids without incident, and had allowed ourselves to foster a false sense of confidence. We had somehow managed to find a route that took us to the last braid before we reached the far side of the McKinley Bar, and that’s where we found our most significant roadblock.
The narrow bar of rock that protruded from the now raging torrent had us pacing up and down throwing rocks into the current in an effort to sound out any weakness that might let us pass. In every case though, we’d throw a rock the size of a shot-put or larger, and it would just go splousch with it deep hollow sound as it parted the water but never made the resounding clang of finding bottom. We paced and paced, and backtracked, and put ourselves in other harrowing positions in an effort to find a weakness, and there was none. We finally decided that we were too committed at this point, as we had no shelter, no stove, no sleeping bags, and were suffering from dehydration and fatigue. Either we made the crossing, or we contemplated going back some 20 miles for the stove, or 40 for the gear.
We picked our spot. It just so happened to have foot tall whitecaps rushing down the middle of it, but we found it to be the easiest place to cross of everywhere that we had looked. Again Joel took the lead, and I got in a position to anchor him for support. Slowly we waded out into the flow, and for the first 50 ft we were pleasantly surprised to find that the water was hardly over calf deep. When we got out to the point that we were most worried about, it didn’t disappoint. As the water crested well over Joel’s waist, and I struggled to keep my face out of the water while I held his pack and sled to balance him I could feel Joel start to rise up out of the water like a human bobber. Over the rush of the torrent we could hardly communicate, as Joel called out that we had to go back. At the same exact instant I found my feet scrambling to find purchase, as the riverbed below was a tumultuous rock flow that had me moving on a conveyor belt type of tumbling rocks. We both tried to fight our way back to safer ground, but no sooner then we moved to go back did Joel’s feet get completely swept out from under him and his heels hit my shins and sent us both rushing down the river.
I somehow managed to free myself of my pack, and I watched helplessly as Joel ripped past me face down with his pack still attached. I yelled for him to cut it loose, as no amount of money or gear is worth one’s life. I had just started to make it to shore as Joel passed me by. Kicking off the far bank I pushed out to meet him. The coldness of the river immediately took my breath away, and found me gasping and thrashing around uncontrollably as the shock caused my limbs to freeze up. What would have otherwise been a leisurely swim in the river was a desperate scramble for life.
Joel managed to free himself, and scrambled to shore. I had unfortunately kicked off too hard, and found myself in the middle of the torrent. Not willing to let go of my pack, as it retained some buoyancy, and my extremities quickly lost any capacity for dexterity, it was all that I could do to keep frog kicking towards the far bank again while the current ripped me downstream.
In between my gasping and panicking in a freakish, staccato manner I called out to Joel. He had somehow managed to pull himself to shore, and rid himself of his pack. I caught the edge of the far bank, and struggled to pull myself up while my pack held tight by my left arm had become so inundated that I couldn’t pull it to shore. I called out to Joel, who in a matter of seconds had become over a hundred yards away. I saw Joel attempt to run to my aid, but the frigidness of the water had seized up his muscles to the point that he was moving more at the pace of a leisurely stroll. I held on only because I knew that he was coming. When Joel arrived, he tried to pick my pack up and move it to shore. It was so heavy that he had to drag it instead. With my crumpled fist I latched onto the pack and drug myself as far out as I could, all the while the water of the McKinley flowed through my gore-tex suit filling it like a balloon. Joel rolled me onto shore, helped me to my feet and said matter-of-factly, Let’s Go! It wasn’t that he was being rude, more that we both understood the seriousness of the situation, and that our only hope was to make it to the road so that we could catch the first bus.
If I could have cried I think that I would have, but I was too tired, and knew that in the weakened condition that I was in that any lapse of direction on my part would only lead to my demise. Joel went to help me shoulder my pack, which was a good thing, as it took both of us to lift it. I staggered down to his pack, and helped him as well. Seeing as we weren’t sure where we were from the trail, as we’d become so disoriented while swimming the McKinley, we made our way directly into the timber hoping to bisect the road in the shortest distance.
The time was now 7:30 a.m., and we knew that the first bus left at 8:30, so we had one hour to make it the two miles back to the road. Joel was on a mission, and blazed a trail as best he could. My ankle was hurting so much that stepping on the loose mushroom like caps of tundra had me screaming out obscenities as they collapsed under every other step while I tried to follow his lead. It wasn’t long before Joel was out of sight, and I wondered if I had what it took to motivate myself to keep moving. I thought to myself, I’m sure that people have died from a lot less, so what’s keeping me going? Where’s my breaking point?
Just when I thought that I might reach my breaking point I heard the low roar of what I presumed to be a bus. We were close to the road, and it bred a new found determinism within me to survive. Joel pushed harder, and I told him to go for the bus, I’d catch up, but he’d have to catch the bus without me. I think that Joel could hear the desperation in my voice, and moved on like he had just started the day.
Some 15and a half hours after we started we were back on the road. Of course that roar was a work truck, and we didn’t see a bus for nearly an hour. Luckily Joel had been smart enough to line his pack with a garbage bag, and had something warm to put on, and kept telling me to eat something as I stood and shivered while I waited for the first bus to arrive. Numerous trucks came through, and raised my hopes each time. I could feel my core temperature dropping, and kept saying that I was stopping the next truck no matter what, but then only found myself waving an empty wave as we waited for what seemed like an eternity.
When the bus finally did arrive, it meant everything. It meant warmth, beer, food, a shower, a phone, salvation. I couldn’t have been more excited to see the bus come to a stop, and I choked back the fear that they’d tell us that they had no room for us. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic when they waved us aboard. The driver was even kind enough to crank up the heat so that I might dry out a bit. We played it off like we were fine, but we both knew just how serious it had been.
When we got to the Eilson Visitor Center, I got the first real glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. The rough life that we had been living shown in my face. I was soon smiling as Joel cracked a joke with the tourists, telling them, Don’t get off the bus, for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t get off the bus–we hardly survived. It was easier to be lighthearted now, as we were all but home. Yet we knew that there was unfinished business.
We took the next couple of days off, and spent them in Talkeetna just eating and drinking. I think I broke a record for how many Ice Axe Ales could be consumed in one day. We did laundry, dried out, listened to music, and played pool. Best of all we became honorary locals due to our quirky camaraderie, as we were highly entertaining to those around us. Something about spending that much time outside of civilization with one other person, it really puts you on the same page, and everyone else in a completely different book. We talked to our parents, and caught up on all of our e-mails, and I learned that the errors of my past had come back to haunt me. Having let go of my girl so I could better focus on what I was doing, and to try and stymie the fears that go along with long distance dating left me in a rough mental state. I had lost everything.
There was still however the matter of making our return trip.
Growing Older, Not Wiser
The second round
Ding, Ding!! Well, we never said that we were the best climbers, or the most experienced, or even the best looking, but dammit we were determined. During our time off, our emotions went through the whole gambit. I had even baited Joel with the idea that I would buy him new gear if he would just concede that the mountain was out to get us, and leave his stuff there to rot. I was afraid, not of the climbing, or even the approach, but damn did that river have it in for me. Initially I had tried to talk Joel out of returning until next year, and even though I think he wanted to go along with me on it, Joel’s level head once again prevailed.
Joel was sure that to not return would not only be going against the kind of people that we were, it’d most definitely be a scarring mark on our personal report card. Joel was right when he said that it would most definitely be Poor Form not to at least go in and retrieve our gear. After all, Joel was now returning to a real job back home, as he’d deferred judgment as to what he was going to do for the next couple years. By not making a yeah or nay decision, he allowed his decision to be made for him. With that in mind he didn’t feel like having unfinished business either. We had gone full circle, but in the end knew what we had always known-that we would take another shot at getting up the East Face.
It took us two full days of cleaning out the spider webs, as well as making some alcohol induced new ones, before we were ready to commit to our return trip. When we took the time to survey the damages they were many and much. My camera, Mini Disc player, and cell phone had been destroyed during our swimming exercise in the McKinley. I had hoped that the camera might be salvaged if nothing else, but it was not to be. It just goes to show how much a factor fatigue can play in the role of decision making. Never before, and never again would I make the mistake of not protecting my valuable electronic devices before crossing a raging torrent. The best part about that mistake though, is that I lived to learn from it. So, it could have been worse.
The night of the third full day being off the mountain we found ourselves back at the park entrance, ready to make the long bus ride back to Wonder Lake where we’d start our hike in. Of course we knew that the going would not get tough until we had endured the arduously long bus ride in. If you haven’t taken the bus ride, it’s a must. One round trip is more then enough though, so this being our third pass over the same terrain, at a painfully slow speed due to the tourists requesting to stop for every thing they think might be a bear or moose, or anything for that matter. The best is when we’d spend an hour or more at Eilson Visitor Center, where people would get the best possible view of the mountain if the weather was right. We always found this to be very entertaining, as there were definitely better views of the mountain, but truthfully we hadn’t seen it enough to not just smile and hope to see it at Eilson.
Knowing what we already knew, we were definitely in agreement that we were going to need to go out and give ourselves a solid sendoff the night prior to getting on the bus. It wasn’t that no one else cared; it was more so that no one else understood. It was one thing to risk your life for some imagined nobility that climbers sometimes entertain the idea of. Many might call it just plain selfishness. Either way, part of the strength necessary to overcome such deprivation is recognizing what it is that separates contentedness with the kind of self-loathing that one has to have in order to submit themselves to such intense, and decidedly painful ordeals. It’s recognizing the balance that makes for a well adjusted, theoretically speaking, socialite and climber. Too much self-loathing does not a good party guest make. Too much complacency does not a good climber make. Finding the balance between good and evil sometimes means finding the extremes. So, we went out on the town like it was our last night ever. Consequently we missed the bus that came at 6 a.m.
We were so disheveled when we finally caught up with the bus that I wasn’t sure that I’d packed anything I needed. It was dark, relatively speaking for AK in the summer, and we ended up packing more then we needed to, but less then we could have. It usually works out that way for one reason or another-weather, sickness, forgetfulness. Usually you don’t know that you’ve done it until the immediacy of the minute that you come to terms with the fact that you had rationed lunch snacks for two, and not three, thereby under packing by one third. This scenario however was different, as we know from the get go that we were overloaded. Overloaded for what we had proposed, but not necessarily overloaded to survive some unforeseen incident on this our second round.
During the long bus ride in we nursed our Everest sized hangovers with pop tarts and Gatorade. We laughed as we recounted the prior nights events, and reminded each other of our favorite moments of the trip so far. Things were really starting to look up, and the sun had even made an appearance. Things were looking up so much that we even started to joke how we might be able to just go straight in and up our route without stopping for so much as water. We wanted something good to happen. We needed something good to happen.
When the bus arrived at Wonder Lake we hopped off and started up the McKinley Bar Trail like we had over a month ago. Without the hindrance of our sleds on carts that were too wide for the trail we made good time. We arrived at our first camps location within 30 minutes of hiking. We hit the McKinley Bar in another 10, and were relatively excited to find that the river had actually come down. It had been so warm and Sunny the entire time that we were off the mountain that we were sure that it would only have come up in our absence. To our pleasant surprise, we couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our initial foray into the McKinley was fruitful, as the markers that we’d keyed on while making our initial 8 trips across the river were again visible and in as good or better shape as they had been prior. I had decided that on the prior return crossing my billowing Gore-tex pants were not beneficial to keeping my feet on the bottom. I had stripped off my gaiters and pants in order to wade across this time, and it seemed to be that much better. Things truly were turning in our favor. Until we got committed that is.
Once we made it across the river, which was relatively painless, things took a turn for the worse. No sooner had we arrived on the opposite banks of the McKinley then it started raining. What had been a beautiful blue sky with cotton candy clouds was now spitting freezing rain down onto us. I was convinced that it would pass, and stalled putting on my Gore-tex suit for as long as I dare. The longer I waited the harder it rained, until we were in a downpour with only 36+ miles to go. If I hadn’t been so sure that it was personal-the fact that rain was now coming down in what was only minutes ago a blue sky, the mosquitoes had returned, and my shoelace broke-I probably would have tucked my tail and turned back to catch the last bus of the day. This had become personal though, so I wasn’t about to back down. I did find myself asking myself again and again what I possibly could have done to deserve this incredibly bad Karmically induced turn of events. I then decided that it was likely that Joel had in fact been the perpetrator of some Karmic Wrongdoing, but since I was in his proximity I too was getting the brunt of it. It probably was something that I had done, but I was feeling traumatized as it was, so letting myself think that Joel had brought us this was excuse enough for me to get my mind around turning back.
THIS WILL NOT BE THE “END OF THE STORY”