Marathon Descent

May 29, Day 15: Late start (noon). Most of the team is keen to get all the way to base camp; this seemed like it would be very difficult, but I was willing to try. Katie went up to visit Larry et al while we finished packing. We then met up and followed our wands (retrieving them) to Prospector Col. This section was very difficult because of the hard windpack. We did manage to ski up the whole way, but were exhausted at the top (2.5 hours for about 800 feet). Our wands were a great help as it was a bad weather day. But this is it: off with the skins and prepare for a descent of about 9000 feet. And the recent snows had built up a little, giving us a great powder descent back to Camp 4. And, of course, we were now on the south-facing side of the mountain, which is warmer. We need no longer fear for our noses, fingers, and toes.

At camp there was only a new party of two, and of course we chatted with them.  Jennifer, Larry, and Mike were behind us and they lent us a sled that they did not need. This was much appreciated. The party of two said it was all right to leave a gallon of fuel there, as other parties coming up would use it. With that, we were able to fit everything into our packs and one sled (roping up so that a tail skier could slow the sled down) and make it down quickly to camp 3.

There we found the group of Canadian wardens who were ascending. The interesting story there was that only some of them flew in with Andy Williams from Kluane Lake. The weather was poor and some of them got tired of waiting, so they drove all the way around to Chitina, Alaska, to try flying in with Paul Claus. Paul got them in promptly. That is certainly the best vote for the efficacy of using the western approach to this western route up the mountain.

The descent to King Col was along a wanded route that differed a little from our ascent route. Susie and Leslie did a good job in the rear of holding back the sled that was attached to the rope behind me, in position number two. This was exhausting and slow work for all, but soon we are past the final hard crevasse crossing (an easy ski now, with all the new snow), and unroping for the final steep descent to King Col. Katie went down first, leaving Susie and Leslie to help me with the sled. For the first part of the descent I could manage to scrape down in control. But at the second, steeper part control was impossible, and some gear fell out of the sled. No great problem, but it was discouraging to see two bags spread out over the mountain.

I got down okay and there were no great problems, but now our team was spread out and it was not clear if we should camp here or continue on down to Camp 1 and perhaps base camp. We did eventually decide to push on -- hey, it's all downhill and it never gets dark. But one problem facing us was how to carry our gear. We had to leave Jennifer's sled at Camp 2, leaving us with two heavy duffels to maneuver down. It was not at all clear that we could drag them behind us in the new snow. S and L retrieved the gear from the Camp 2 cache and we loaded up. Susie and Katie decided to try to carry the duffels in front of them and, indeed, that seemed to work, though it was exhausting. As we descended, conditions deteriorated to white-out and, with the sun descending (at its usual snail's pace) the wands becames harder to see. By the time we were down the steep slope a mile from Camp 1, visibility was zero. Well, I guess this is the time for the GPS. I warmed it up a bit and took a reading, which told us that Camp 1 was a mile away at 300 degrees. So I tried to maintain that bearing. Incidentally, a few days before we began this trip, the U.S. govt. stopped degrading the GPS satellite data, so accuracy is much improved now.

Maintaining such a bearing for a mile is difficult, and in fact I was veering a little to the right. Nevertheless, the GPS does get credit for getting us away from our zero-vis position. Despite slightly improving vis., we still saw nothing except the camp of Reudi Beglinger -- the circus tent familiar to me from 1998 -- off to the left. That is surely left of our camp and cache, so we were unsure what to do. I took another GPS reading, but this time I got a very strange result, saying that Camp 1 was way behind us -- totally wrong.

Leslie and I decided to go over to Ruedi's tent to see if he had spotted our camp. In the way there we could see a rise in the snow in the distance that looked like the wall and half-igloo of our camp. That was a nice feeling -- given the flat terrain, this must be what a lookout in a ship's crow's nest feels like when he spies land in the distance. Still, we continued to Ruedi's to say hello. Of course, he was surprised to see me, since he did not know I was on the mountain. We chatted a bit about the route, etc., and one member of his party was from Vail (Deb DeCrausaz) and knew Leslie. Ruedi said he would call the park wardens and tell them we were at base camp. So we had to continue all the way now.

Then on to our camp and the long anticipated sleds. Leslie and I went first and then I grabbed some sleds to bring to the stolid duffel carriers behind us. Katie was almost at camp at this point, so I went farther back to Susie. As I stepped out of the trail to place her duffel on the sled I was very surprised to find myself breaking through a snow bridge into a moderately sized crevasse, this on a totally flat and white section. The skis, as usual, kept me up, and I gingerly stepped across. Bit of a surprise.

Actually, Susie and Katie, carrying the duffels, chose two different routes for the last half-mile, having a race of sorts. In fact, this is very bad practice: when traveling unroped on a glacier, parties should follow the same route, for the usual reasons of minimizing exposure to crevasses and having help handy if required. Susie was in terrain that we had safely skied over two weeks earlier, but the surprise crevasse shows that vigilance is necessary.

At Camp 1 we repacked as the hour approached 10:30 pm and sunset. But visibility was increasing: indeed, the late light was spectacular on the walls of the King Trench. The only problem was that there was no track set to base camp and we had a serious trail-breaking job ahead of us. But we managed and crawled into base camp at around 1 a.m.

A big surprise here was that the wand marking our cache was nowhere to be found. It clearly could not have been buried. Curious. But we needed sleep so just set up our tents and crawled in. Katie rose at 6 to search some more and found our cache where we had placed it, but marked by a different wand. No explanation suggests itself except that, perhaps, our wand broke and someone replaced it for us. The cache, of course, was of critical importance as it contained our tequila and margarita mix, as well as avalanche transceivers and other material.

This day was one of the most remarkable of the trip. We saw a lot of terrain in a wide variety of conditions, the day was physically demanding, and the finish was a classic trudge in Arctic conditions: flat terrain in the beautiful dusk light of the angling sun. This is the sort of day that our team, with its strength and skiing ability, was made for.

May 30, Day 16: A very restful morning of socializing, drinking, and a great potato and egg breakfast. Jennifer, Mike, and Larry came down later and shared some tinned fruit and potato chips with us. The Quebec team were around, having been there for a couple of days, and the weather was clear so that Andy Williams could fly in. The first thing we heard that morning was a helicopter, however; it had finally come in to raise the weather station gear up the mountain. But the crew of 3 were not keen to return to 17000 feet, so the installation job was put off until August.

We did hear from the helicopter pilot that Ruedi's message had gone through, so we had confidence that Paul would get us. I had made a couple of other calls on other people's satellite phones, so it was pretty certain that Paul had heard about our somewhat early return (we had told him to think about us on June 4).

Around 3 o'clock, we hear a plane, but it is only Andy Williams making his fourth run of the day. But Susie believes she sees Paul in the distance too. And she is right. What is about to happen is a very special moment in the history of Mt Logan flying. First Andy lands. Then Paul lands and, as I predicted, he taxis right over to our campsite. Paul, always interested in the welfare of our group, runs over to say hello to us. But then he and Andy recognize each other's existence and walk over to each other to say hello. What is amazing about this is that, despite Paul's 20 years of flying to this spot and Andy's 35 or so years of the same, the two famed pilots had never before met in person!

We quickly dismantle camp and carry it to the plane and load. Katie gets the co-pilot's seat to scan the terrain for future skiing options, and we all settle in to enjoy the fabulous ride down. We arrive at Ultima Thule to a lodge devoid of other climbers. The sauna is a first priority, followed by dinner. What luxuries.

Spikey Created with Wolfram Mathematica 8.0