Training for Denali on Mt Baker
April 19-20, 2013
My friend, Adam Greenstreet, was back from his winter job in Colorado (doing Lynx habitat research and getting to backcountry ski everyday!) so we planned a training outing with my brother, Mark, to practice fixed line and sled work in preparation for our Denali expedition next month.
Adam had been climbing and skiing in Canada all week so we decided to meet in Bellingham so we could be close to Mt Baker and the easily accessible snowy terrain.
I stayed at my brother's house outside Mt Vernon so we could get an early start Friday. We planned to meet Adam who was driving down from Canada that morning, at one of the Starbucks in B-Ham. Adam and Mark had never met before so I was glad to have the "fellowship" unite! Team chemistry is crucial on expeditions and Mark and Adam have the "can do" mentality that it takes to be successful in the face of adversity. Little did we know that this would be tested later in the this training trip!
After introductions we loaded Adam's skis and gear into Mark's car and continued down the Mt Baker highway to the Glacier Creek Road and followed FS 39 as far as we could. The Forest Service had removed the fallen trees so we were able to drive about 6 miles of the 8 mile road. Here we put on our boots, loaded up our packs and sled and started skinning up the road. My good friend, Matt Mussallem, had loaned us his sled which Adam had picked up the day before while in Canada. Matt and Adam had never met but I told them that it was interesting that I had the priviledge of climbing Slesse Mountain on two different occaisions with each of them!
We skinned up the road for what seemed like much farther than 2 miles but finally reached the trailhead. It had stopped raining at the trail head but an hour into our trip it started to lightly rain. It was at this moment that I realized that I had not only forgot my new Arc'teryx shell in the car but also the freshly baked cinnemon rolls that Mark's wife, Penny, had baked for us! Doh! That was going to be my breakfast the next morning. Fortunately, I had a waterproof OR softshell that my friend Andrew Marvel had just given me and Mark had extra oatmeal packets that I could have for breakfast.
We took a break at the trailhead to eat some food and drink some water. Mark and I had never been to this trailhead and Adam had only been here once so it was fun to explore this relatively new area to us. Adam had a USGS map of the upper mountain but we didn't have the map of the lower section so we made mental notes of the map that was on the trailhead sign. We could see that we needed to contour west past two major drainages and then ascend to Heliotrope ridge. (later after talking with my friend, Todd, I learned of the more direct winter route which leaves the trailhead from behind the restrooms and ascends through the forest to an open slope and then up to Heliotrope ridge. Next time!)
We crossed a small wooden bridge just a few minutes after leaving the trailhead and continued through the forest on a gradual skin track that appeared to be following the summer trail. After about 30 minutes the trail started to climb more steeply and it quickly became apparent that pulling a sled while traversing through a steep forest was more work than we signed up for. So we divided up the contents of the sled and I strapped the duffel and sled to my pack. This was much better!
About a mile and a half in we reached a flat plateau and almost decided to stop here and set up camp. Our packs were pretty heavy with two ropes, two stoves, shovels, probes, harnesses, pickets, two tents, crampons, and ice axes. But we decided to continue up in hopes of getting above the freezing level so we could camp in snow and not rain. We crossed a large drainage below a cliff with a frozen water fall then continued up the more gradual slope on it's left. Eventually we made our way out of the forest to an open slope that contained avalanche debris from a day or two before. We spread out and carefully and quickly ascended the slope to a large stand of trees then took turns boot packing up a steep hill to a prominent ridge where we set up camp. A few hundred feet below Mark realized that his GPS unit had gone missing from where he had attached it to his pack. I had offered to head back down to look for it but after climbing up to the camp, I was too wiped out so we decided to re-trace our steps the next day when we skied out.
The snow was pretty wet, heavy, and sticky so we were able to roll small snowballs back down the slopes on either side of our boot pack and watch them pick up snow and quickly become 10' tall pinwheels the size of monster truck tires! I had seen smaller, naturally occuring, pinwheels while skiing but these were unreal! One particular pinwheel fell over halfway down the slope and broke apart which created more smaller pinweels which in turn propagated into small slide the quickly fanned out to be a massive wet slide 200' across and 6' deep! As it slide down the open slope we could see the tops of trees shaking as it fanned out into the forest. We heard trees snapping and it was sobering to witness first hand the awesome power of avalanches.
It was hard work wallowing up the steep slope with all the deep snow so we were glad to be at this level ridge where we could easily camp. It was also nice that we just happened to arrive when Happy Hour started as Adam pulled out a 6 pack of Old Chubb! Mark and Adam set up the MegaMid for our cooktent while I pitched the Mountain Hardware EV3 that my friend, Scott Streett, had let us borrow. Soon we had our mattresses and sleeping bags all set up in the tent and Adam had the stove roaring away in the cook tent. Adam prefers real food to frozen meals so we put him in charge of dinner. He brought penne pasta noodles, onions, sharp white cheddar cheese and three bratwurst to make "Adult" mac and cheese! It's said that hunger is the best sauce but I would have enjoyed this delicious meal anywhere!
After boiling the noodles, onions and sliced brats, Adam was about to pour out the water but I asked if he could fill my mug with this tasty broth. On Denali it's very important to stay hydrated and you can't really get enough calories so we all filled our mugs and enjoyed this hot "savory tea" while the cheese melted into the noodles. I shared the funny story of Kim's "grave yard" drink that she concocted when we were on Denali in 2007. She just kept adding liquids to her Nalgene bottle: hot cocoa, Market Spice tea, sugar, Nido, Raspberry Crystal Light, chicken boulion- anything we had to drink, she put it in and finished the whole thing! It's amazing what the body craves when it's working hard. You can't have too many calories while climbing in the mountains.
I had my iPhone blasting some Rolling Stones while Adam boiled more water for tea and to replenish our water bottles. It was nice to relax in the warm tent out of the weather. Adam had done a great job of digging out benches of the perfect height and an island in the middle of our kitchen for cooking and eating. For desert Adam brought out a big bag of medjool dates that hit the spot! After the long day and full stomachs we closed down the kitchen and made our way to the tent for bed. It was cozy in the three person tent and all the "savory" tea, Old Chubbs, and water that we drank caused us all to have to get up in the night to use the bathroom. Lesson learned: it's important to be hydrated but not too hydrated!
Between the strong gusts of wind, midnight jaunts to the nearest tree, and the sawing of logs by Mark and I, I don't think any of us slept particularly well. I woke up to soft morning light coming through the translucent seams on the tent but tried to close by eyes and go back to sleep. There were two more things that I had forgotten: my contact case and my glasses. So I had to blink my eyes each time I woke up which is difficult to will yourself to do when your body really wants to keep the eyes shut!
I think we were all feeling the same thing that we didn't really want to get up but Adam finally broke the silence and said that he was hungry so we took turns getting our boots on and stumbling out of the tent and over to the Mega Mid. During breakfast we talked about logistics for our climb and gear that we still needed to pick up. Afterwards we practiced ascending and descending fixed lines and crevasse rescue with sleds practice. This took several ours and soon it was 2pm and we quickly broke down camp and loaded up our packs. As we were about to leave a group of climbers from the UBC Alpine club skied up and visited with us for a few minutes. I asked them if they had come up our skin track and when we heard that they had, Mark asked if they had happened to come across a GPS unit and they had! We thanked them very much and wished them good luck on their climb before we skied off.
The ski out proved difficult with the heavy snow conditions and our large packs. Mark had particular difficulty gaining contol of his skis in his mountaineering boots. We tried loading some of the heavier items from Mark's pack into the sled but skiing through the trees with a sled was very slow and tiring so Adam and I divided it up and I strapped the empty sled to my pack. This helped a lot and we eventually made it through the avalanche debris fields and decided to follow our skin track back down to avoid what appeared to be cliffs part way down the left drainage. We picked up our trail after making some challenging traverses through the heavy snow and slowly made our way back down to the road. At the road the skiing was much easier so we cooled off and I quickly became very cold. I hadn't eaten much all day so I'm sure that had an effect as well. I had to stop about a mile down the road and empty my pack to get my prima loft jacket and my warmer gloves. I had been carrying the sled on my pack so we took it off and I gave Mark back some of his gear and we transferred the heavier gear from my pack to the sled. Adam volunteered to pull it and I gratefully accepted his offer! It wasn't too much longer before we arrived at the end of the snow and found the car! I was starting to feel pretty exhausted so I was very happy to be able to take off my wet clothes and get warmed up with the car heater!
Adam commented that we were wet to the bone, skiing through thick heavy snow with big packs by headlamp but still having fun! Our Team name for our Denali expedition is Epimoni which is latin for Perserverance which Adam thought was very appropriate.
Thanks Adam and Mark for a great couple days in the mountains and for being such postitive, resourceful, and supportive teammates! I'm looking forward to our upcoming trip to Alaska!