First Five Days: To Camp Two

May 14: An amazing day. We were picked up by Ultima Thule Lodge's van at 7:45 a.m. Drive to Chitina arriving near 1 pm. Pilot Paul Claus immediately snags the three ladies for his plane, leaving me to fly with his father, John. John landed a bit hard, having landed in the wrong direction in light winds: "We went in like a hot bullet." Paul landed in the opposite direction. Upon arrival at the lodge Paul said the weather looked good for flying right to base camp, so we should just organize quickly. Uh-oh. This was not part of the plan and haste makes errors. But the chance of getting in a day early was too good to pass up. So after a quick lunch we stuffed a bag to stay at the lodge and piled into the 40-year-old Beaver for the spectacular 50-minute flight to base camp at 8900'. No last-minute showers for us. As we approached base camp Paul observed that it was clouding up and perhaps he would have to drop us off short of base camp, coming back for us the next day. That did not sound like a good plan. But it cleared up and he dropped us right into the 9000' level on the huge Quintino Sella Glacier. No one else was there and there were only two camps set up (fewer than two years ago). Paul said we should just use the existing walls. He suggested we take 21 days of food up rather than 18, since he never takes more than 4 days to get someone out of base camp. At our cache we left tequila and margarita mix and our avalanche beacons, and misc. other things, burying it all and marking it with two wands attached by duct tape. The weather was somewhat unsettled, temps being about 10 degrees. For the next week or so the temp. inside our tent at 6 a.m. would vary from 29 degs (F) down to 17 or so. But at the very high camps this changed -- downward -- a lot.

So we settled into our tents, sorted gear, and prepared for the hard carries ahead.

May 15 (Day 1): Katie said single carries were possible on this flattish terrain, so we packed our packs heavy and pulled the sleds. Of course, the terrain for the first mile only was familiar to me from my trip here with Beglinger two years ago. I had to pull out of that one after a few hours becase of a bad back. We roped up for this, as we did for all terrain that was new for us. I led through the small icefall; a few small crevasses had to be crossed. Then we were above it and on easier terrain, but we tired quickly and ended up setting up camp at a small snow shelter a little more than halfway to Camp 1. Call this Camp 0.5 (10250'). Leslie had mild indigestion this day, and I think the magnitude of the effort involved sunk in. By 9 pm all are enthusiastic again. We covered 2.5 miles and 1350' of climb in the 5 hours from 11:30 to 4:30.

May 16, Day 2: Again a single carry to the proper position of Camp 1 at 10800. A short day. So perhaps the single carries were efficient in that two days spent getting to Camp 1 involved fewer traveling hours than double carries and returns. On the other hand, the returns can provide excellent skiing. In any case, since the terrain now steepened, we would have to switch to double carries. This camp is in the heart of the King Trench and it is spectacular. Weather is warm and serac avalanches come off the side of the ridge of King Peak. Camp seems very safe. Katie helped me adjust my sled-hauling method. Robin Shaw, from two years ago, wrote a detailed diary, which we have with us. I recall his quote that it is better to do a trip like this with a group of friends than with people thrown together by a guide. Indeed.

Ouch!!! In the early evening, as we were all lounging around, I heard a very loud "[expletive deleted]!" from the small tent. It did not sound good. Then, a few seconds later, from Susie: "I cut myself real bad!". Susie had her Swiss army knife hanging around her neck with the blade open. She reached down to grab the knife and grabbed the blade, which was sharp enough to cut two fingers. These cuts were of the sort that I have occasionally done to myself in a kitchen: small slices through the end of the finger (and, indeed, several days later I cut myself mildly when slicing bagels). So there was lots of blood on the snow and Susie was in a slight state of shock. But the medical kit, prepared by Susie, had the proper gauze and bandages and we soon had her two fingers properly bound and gauzed. Naturally there was concern that these fingers would not heal properly and might be more prone to frostbite. But in fact they healed well and caused no problems later in the trip. Susie also noted quite a swelling on the back of her hand (her other hand). We thought it might be a small injury caused by pole straps, but there was no bruising, just a swelling that got worse the higher we went. I imagine this is a natural phenomenon associated with altitude. It gave her some pain, but eased at the end of the trip.

May 17, Day 3: Clear blue morning. 19 degrees in tent. A big carry to Camp 2 at King Col (13500'). This involved 4 miles and 2825' of climb and was quite tough because we had loaded the packs heavy. I am certain that the packs were 60+ pounds. This was hardest on Leslie, who weighs 115 pounds. We decided to leave our sleds at Camp 1, both because we felt that packs were better for ascending, and also because we had Robin Shaw's diary with us, and he reported that some of the slopes to Camp 2 were too steep for sledding, and they carried sleds. This decision of ours would haunt us 12 days later.

The terrain was beautiful with giant seracs on the left and the rocky, icy slopes of Logan_13.gif on the right. The camp was hidden until the last minute, and I had thought (because of an error in locating the altitude of Camp 1) that we had only 2500' to do. Thus the crew was quite exhausted when we reached camp at 5:40, 6.6 hours after starting. There were lots of walls there and two people: Jennifer Olson from the 3-person glaciology team and Karsten Heuer from the 6-person team leading blind Ross Watson. We cached our gear in an igloo they had built and headed down quickly. The girls are all expert telemark skiers so the trip down (unroped) was most enjoyable: 30 minutes. This day afforded us our first view of The Icefall, which is the steep terrain above King Col. This is generally the route-finding crux of the route, with huge seracs that must be negotiated. Indeed, the seracs of this section are by far the largest I have ever seen. But there are tracks (boots) up a steep slope and looking at the angle we are confident we can ski up the (near 45 degrees).

The ski down was in excellent powder, and the girls, as always, looked very good on descent. They are among the best telemarkers in the country. My quads burned, but I had fun. K. has instep blisters because of her new liner situation (special high-insulation material), but some Compeed will help them, and she will take out the foot beds entirely. S's fingers seem OK.

May 18, Day 4: Dawn is cheerful. S&L are both drinking a lot to help with altitude issues, and S proudly presents almost a full liter of urine in the morning. Urination into bottles within one's sleeping bags was a main topic of conversation (though irrelevant to me, as I urinate before going to bed and after waking up, and not in between). Weather is okay. This time we take less than 5 hours to gain King Col with the second part of our load. But we really don't eat or drink enough en route (eating heavily at dinner) and this causes K, despite her strength with heavy packs, to end each day feeling chilled. S & L have CamelBaks, which give them easy access to water, at the expense of some weight and complexity. Our loads today are about 40 pounds. Camp 2 is now deserted. We should have balanced the two loads better. That evening we decided to take a rest day on the following day. But our luck with the weather continued in the sense that the weather was BAD the next day, so we would have had to rest anyway. This night spent at 13500 is the highest night ever for Leslie and me. The sea level equivalent barometer is 29.44, very low and, I think, indicative of the lower pressure at 60 degrees latitude.

FOOD ISSUES: Of course, everything quickly freezes here. So if we want, say, bagels for breakfast or oysters for dinner, we must thaw them out in our armpits or stomach pockets. But in fact it all works quite well, though it does take a lot of time to melt snow for drinking and cooking water. Dinners (thoroughly vegetarian) are either Mexican burritos, Nature burgers, pasta, or, high up, freeze-dried from Backpackers Pantry. Tortillas and bagels keep very well in these conditions.

THE RUDI SUDRICH STORY: At 8 p.m. I was outside urinating when I saw a fellow coming uphill to the camp with no pack, no sled, and no skis. Bizarre. Well, he had just skied down from the summit and was a little lower than our camp, so he walked up to collect some stuff from his cache. He had been here with Judy Hartling, but she got a urinary tract infection and had to go back to base camp with Rudy to fly out. Rudy suggested she had not eaten nor drunk enough. Then he came up quickly from base camp to the summit. They were the first to find a route through the seracs above King Col, a job that took them two days. He is a former coach of the Canadian nordic ski team, and coached them at the Lilliehammer Olympics. He is Czech, but has lived in Whitehorse for 20 or more years. He also said that the other side of Prospector Col was too icy to ski and he had to use crampons. Yet it was possible to ski to the summit. This was very surprising news.

But....we learned later that most of this information was inaccurate. Another team told us that what he told them was: "I skied to the base of the main summit, found it too icy, and then turned around and skied easily to the top of the West Summit." Well, that made sense, but I now feel that this too is inaccurate. First, our team had no trouble skiing down, and later back up, the other side of Prospector Col. Second, the W Summit is very icy near its top, much more so than Prospector Col. Third, the main summit is sufficiently far from Prospector Col that his schedule (given the 10 a.m. start he reported), seems unlikely. It seems most likely to us that he took the W Summit to be the main summit, turned back, and skied over the peak behind, which is Houston's Peak. Nevertheless, the fact that he did all this solo, and fast, is noteworthy.

May 19, Day 5: A full rest day. And we learned why the barometer was low in last night's clear skies: it was a bad-weather day at King Col.

More details of life in these camps: K and I share the large North Face VE-25 Logan_14.gif, while S. & L. have a smaller tent. The sun rises about 4 a.m., and that usually wakes us for a weather check. Then we go back to sleep, rising again at about 7 to clean the rime ice from the tent interior and start the stove. We start by melting snow for water, then heating it for tea and breakfast. This takes a long time, so we are not ready to travel until 11 a.m. or later.

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