The Early Days

Sunday, May 14, 2017 we waited all day at the airfield hanger in Talkeetna for a weather window to appear.  It's early evening when we get the signal.  The air taxi service is using two DeHavilland Beavers (bush planes) to fly us and all our gear onto the glacier.  For about 30-minutes, we glide above the clouds, weave in between mountain peaks, soar high, and higher still, punch through the clouds at just the right moment, then bank right and right again.  The glacier deck appears and we set down for a solid snowy landing.  We quickly unload our gear and pitch tents at Base Camp.

Monday, May 15, 2107, wearing snow shoes, +40 lb packs, and pulling +60 lb plastic gear sleds we slog about 6 miles to Camp 1 at about 7,800'.  Set up tents and collapsed for a while.  The sun was out this day and I stripped to my long sleeve base layer and hiking pants.  The snow amplifies the heat by several factors.  Little did I know that combined with the Diamox I was taking for acclimation (acts as a diuretic), I was getting severely dehydrated.

Tuesday, May 16, 2107 the team climbed Ski Hill with packs and sleds in tow to 10,600' where we (the guides) dug a hole and buried our cache of mostly food.  My dehydration was severe enough that I asked my rope team to make a prolonged stop.  My quads, calves and hammies were locked up.  I quickly downed some electrolyte drink, took 2 potassium caps, 2 or 3 Aleves and did a hammer massage on my legs. A short time later, I was able to continue - but it was tough.  The guides were not happy.  Everyone was encouraging me to just power through. But they had no idea what I was feeling.  That is the first time (not the last) when I really wondered in my head if I would be able to make the climb.  And it's only Day 2!

We emptied our packs and sleds, then walked back down to 7,800' camp.  That night, intimidated by the summit forecast of -30F and high winds, I laid shivering in my -30F sleeping bag - and it wasn't even very cold at 7,800'.  Over the first two days, my boots managed to rub large pieces of skin (post blisters) off the tops of my heels, exposing painful 2cm x 4cm wounds.  This would prove to be one of my many undoings.  No amount of duct tape would be able to overcome this.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 we broke camp, loaded packs and sleds again, and slogged up the hill past our cache to 11,000' and set up camp.  I still struggled, using every trick I knew to ward off leg cramps, but in general felt better and had renewed confidence.

As an aside, shortly after we headed out from 7,800' camp, one of my fellow climbers, J.T., disappeared into a deep crevasse - pack, sled and all.  He was on the lead rope team.  All 3 guides sprang into action and set up snow anchor(s) and pulleys.  It took nearly an hour to pull him and his gear out.  Thankfully he was shaken, but not hurt.  We proceeded up the hill.

As a post script, after I got home and looked at injury reports from Denali, I saw that another climber fell unroped into a crevasse in the same area.  He was wedged at the bottom and the park service had to fly in rescuers with pneumatic equipment borrowed from the fire department in Talkeetna to chisel the climber out of the ice.  It took nearly all day and he was airlifted out with life threatening injuries including hypothermia.


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