Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Don't you know I've been up Denali?!

By Joris Volmer.

We stand there and watch the Havilland Beaver take off into the cloud. It wasn’t the amazing Alaskan wildlife, it was our ski plane dropping us off on the East Fork of the Kahiltna glacier. We have arrived in the Denali range and have about four weeks before we run out of food. There is no saying if we will manage to suffer for that long anyway.

Panoramic view of Kahiltna base camp, the airstrip and the sun above Mt Hunter
  There is no way of walking out of here. The crevasses are massive. It is either do our route and come back for our estimated finish date or a rescue helicopter. All I can hear is the chatter of voices in multiple languages - people putting up and taking down tents, packing up bags and loading up pulks. It’s time for us to set up our own tent and come up with a plan.

Looking up the “valley of death” to the summit of Denali. 
 Breathing heavily and with a slight headache, we arrive at what is to be home for the next few weeks - 14 camp. We are about 4200m up and it has taken us five days to get here. Better start digging if we want a good camp. As I go to dig for some cooking snow I look up and see a skier crushing a line and the big American cheers follow.

 Looking out from 14,000ft camp to Mt Hunter 
I wake up and think it must be time to get up, as the tent and everything in it is glowing orange from the morning sun. I check my watch - its 4:28 am. It’s a combination of the jet lag and the nearly twenty-four hour daylight (something we would be very grateful of later on). My watch also tells me my wrist temperature is 34 degrees. Time to snuggle back into my big red puffy tube.

All those feathers
Morning tent view 
A couple of guys walk past our igloo, ”Do you want any food? We are heading down.” Score! They tip two sleds worth of food over our snow wall. Getting more food was the next best thing to getting good weather and heading down ourselves. Pancake mix, cereal, smoked salmon, blueberries, pizza base, energy drinks. Wow!

Sorting out food in the igloo
We sit there and wonder what we need to save. Putting some of the food aside we decide we have enough ingredients to try and make a pizza. As we defrost the base and cut some meat we discus how easy a meal pizza is to make back in the real world, whereas up here it’s just about manageable. We add the cheese and tuck in.

8pm means weather o’clock. We turn the radio on. “Stand by for the weather”, our little black plastic box tells us. An annoying American voice speaks again. “The synopsis for the next few days: a low pressure will build on the east of the mountain and bring snow and south westerly winds…cruccch… The forecast for the next three days; today is Friday May 25th…cruccch…14,000 and above, mostly cloudy. Snow, less than six inches. Wind, southerly, less than 20 mph. Temperature, 10º.”

Good weather at 11,000ft camp
It seems like it has been the same weather forecast for the last week now. What is the difference between partly cloudy and partly clear? Nathan and I are unsure of what to do. We go to the rangers for some advice, “Well no one has climbed the Cassin in perfect weather”, a ranger tells us. This is probably true unless you are uber alpinist Ulie Steck and climb it in speed record time. “Most people find climbing the Cassin easier than the waiting” he tells us. We head back to the tent still unsure of what to do. “Do you think we should go?” Nathan asks. “I don’t know.”

Acclimatising before the Cassin
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. I struggle to move under six layers of clothing and a sleeping bag as the alarm goes off. Where are we? The frost that falls on my face as I move reminds me that I am on a small ledge in the small tent in a small sleeping bag. Why, when the mountains get bigger, does the kit and food get smaller?

Hard ice in the Japanese couloir.

Above Cassin ledge searching for a bivi.
We are on the Cassin or “Caa-seen” as the Italian guides told us to pronounce it the previous day. The guidebook describes it as a “career-defining route” ! I don’t even have a job let alone a career. What I am I doing here? We are committed!

Looking down the first rock band and the East fork of the Kahiltna Glacier
I try to move around touching as little as possible. Everything in the tent has a thin layer of frost hanging off of it. Mini stalactites and stalagmites, our breath captured in the night by a bright green force field, protecting us from the wind. I imagine little Lego men ice climbing pitch after pitch, a mecca for them. 

The worst part of the day is getting out of the sleeping bag, along with getting in it. At least you know you're going to get warm when you get out in the morning and start moving, but getting in the tent you get cold from not moving as much and know what awaits in the morning when you wake up. Time to look out the tent and see if the view has changed...

The view from the tent at the triangle niche bivi, about 16,400ft
Day five on the Cassin. What! This was only meant to take three days! Well we have to go up now. At least we have all this daylight to climb such long days and through the so-called night if we need to. I didn’t even bring a head torch.

Nathan climbing through the hanging glacier
Kick, Kick, Punch, Punch, Kick, Kick, Punch, Punch, Kick, Kick, Punch, Punch, Kick, Kick, Punch, Punch. Are we nearly there yet? The weather has really crapped out. Scottish, some would say! We should have had enough training then.

The weather starting to deteroirate, the couloir in the third rock band
We arrive on the Kahiltna Horn, drop our bags, and head to the summit. Wait, which way? I see a wand and head towards it, then another, and another. We play dot-to-dot on the top of America. Finally the last dot. We congratulate each other, hug and take a photo, even though it looks like we could be on the Cairngorm plateau. They say the summit is only half way but it took us six hours to get back to 14 and eight hours to get from 14 to the landing strip. Twenty-seven days up, only fourteen hours down.

The Summit Marker.

Hero shot!
We arrive back at the landing strip at 7am absolutely knackered, travelling through the night being the safest way. The lower glacier has changed lots over the previous weeks. We can’t ring to arrange our flight out till 8 am - some people live in the real world you know.

Sunset on the way down.
Time to dig up our emergency food and have a rest. We sit there and have what feels like a banquet fit for alpine kings. I can hear the annoying buzz of airplane propeller. “Well that’s it!” Malcolm says, and I think: All that planning and training, all that money, all those dreams gone. That’s it, we did it! WOW, THAT’S IT!

Time to pack the bags onto the plane and fly to shower village, food town and beer city. We arrive back in Talkeetna. Ahh civilization! Every thing is so green!

I have a shower and wash the weeks of dirt and grease off. Time to get a Seward’s Folly, the legendary burger we have been dreaming of. We wait for our food but beer will do for now. She brings the stacked tower over. "Ooooohh" everyone in our part of the restaurant mutters. We scoff it down. “Just come off the mountain?” the table next to us asks. We tell them a little about our adventure and they take some photos.

Enjoying some real food and drink
My alcohol tolerance isn’t very high at the best of times, but after a month of being teetotal, wheeeey! Everybody thinks its time to move on to the next pub. At this stage I wonder why they classify alcohol as a depressant?

Feeling Merry!
Next pub and everything is a blur. We have some more drinks and chat to some more locals but no one is actually from Talkeetna. Like the north west of Scotland it attracts the weird and wonderful. We try and work out how long we have been awake. We can’t manage, but it was thirty-seven hours. “I think you need to go home,” someone says. ”Don’t you know I’ve been up Denali?!” I yell at him. I somehow manage to find my way back and pass out on the floor of the bunkhouse.

Waking up the next morning in a half drunk half sleep I think…

What next?

Watch the video here.