Northern Exposure, Part 2
By Matt Tredway
Anchorage was still light when we landed, despite the time being 10:30 p.m. It was exhilarating. The long days promise the possibility of climbing late, and not fumbling around with headlamps all the time.
While waiting for our luggage, a stewardess approached us. “Is this yours?” she asked, extending a single boot. “Um, yes it is,” offered Dan. The stewardess turned on a heel and was gone into the crowds just as we understood the immense problems that her attentiveness had short-circuited. A glance at each other, and we shared the unspoken gratitude that people care.
A call forward to Talkeetna Air taxi the next morning yielded our first bit of dubious news. The planes had been grounded for the last several days as access into the Denali area was hampered by spring snowstorms. In fact, this trend was anticipated for the next couple of days. With no flights, a long cue of climbers, all anticipating a Denali climb, had effectively clogged up the town. Hotels were full, restaurants had long lines and anticipation was running high. Rather than join the masses, we opted instead to hang an additional day or two in Anchorage.
Fearful of long periods of inactivity, we spent a couple of days walking the streets, shopping for food, and renting ski equipment, which we decided not to travel with. In the afternoon, we walked to the indoor climbing gym, and climbed to continue preparation for the rock that lay before us. The climbing gym made me aware of just how strong some people are, and of my own limitations. It is a little humbling to watch a teenager send a 5.13. In addition, the nature of climbing on a wall and its relative safety cast a light of reality on the contrasting exposure we would soon experience in the mountains.
Watching the weather reports gave us little hope. Storms were backed up and conditions continued to be more than what the pilots were willing to deal with. Though it would be so disappointing, we entertained thoughts of hopping back on a plane and heading to Yosemite, Red Rocks, or Squamish just to have our climbing fix. Sitting in hotels with fully loaded sleds and packs was not what we had in mind.
Staying positive, we booked a shuttle to Talkeetna. Once loaded into the white cargo van, we had our first significant interaction with our driver, Bill. Bill ws looking like a bear out of hibernation. A little disheveled, and avoiding eye contact, he disclosed that he had just emerged from a long winter solo, spent in an off-the-grid cabin with no running water or electricity. Additionally, he mentioned that he is antisocial, hard of hearing, and doesn't really like people. “Those are general characteristics of a mass murderer,” he stated, but, glancing back at us in the rear-view mirror, he assured us that he was not one. With that proclamation, I decided there would be no naps en route, and l located my little Swiss army knife just in case.
Talkeetna was actually sleepier than l had anticipated. We dumped our gear in a storage shed behind the Roadhouse Inn and checked in to a dormitory-style room. With us was a young, energetic Japanese guy with nerves on edge. His plan was to attempt to solo Denali. I was whisked back to a time 15 years previous, when l did just that. Other expeditions gathered in the various restaurants and lodges in town, oozing excitement. These restaurants and lodges all shared many characteristics of Himalayan teahouses; In fact, occasionally, I would catch a familiar whiff of cooking fuel, boiling teapots and soap suds. Quiet conversations and contemplation of climbers prevailed, as did the patience of the employees dealing with the emotionally charged climbers. Most of the help was just coming back to life after a long dark winter as well. A large community dining table dominated the main room, seating several different groups, and there was a stash of books by a fireplace on one end, a collection of games on the shelves in a corner. The walls were adorned with the flags, photos and banners of previous expeditions. A guitar leaned against the corner of the fireplace. I could see the carpentry of several additions the building had endured in order to accommodate the swelling crowds over the years. The layout had clearly been designed to help people linger and pass the time. Through the windows, we watched the constant drip of rainwater cascading off the roof.
Beside the never-empty teapot, heating on a Bunn automatic warmer was a colorful sign written on a whiteboard, indicating conditions on Denali. It was the object of nervous glances all day long. At that moment, it read:
May 7, 2019
Permits issued 1051
On Mountain 29
17,000 camp -20
This would be studied and updated daily. For now, it showed just how young this season was, and how fierce the mountain can be. Minus thirty, wherever you might encounter it, is crippling, prepared or not.
The town had lost the majority of its winter snow. The trees were in early bloom, hoping for better conditions, just like us. Melted snow gave way to piles of winter-rotted leaves, skeletons of last summer's tall grass, and wood. It smelled very organic as things popped back to life. The entire town is basically a 4-block by 4-block grid with a couple of runways on the edges. Tall pines and birch lined the streets and packed the yards, preventing long views. On an early morning walk, there was a mist falling, and puddles accumulated in the gravel streets. A heavy smell of bacon and woodburner smoke mixed with humid air and pine sap hung low. The buildings were well-worn log and wood structures, reminding me of the many small mountain towns of Colorado.
Just like a sporting season, the preseason and early stages of a climb all reek of optimism. Every team believes they will win the Super Bowl, every skier hopes to win a world cup, every climber dreams of the summit. It isn't until skis hit snow that reality strikes. Here in this lodge, everyone was at their best: healthy, eager and engaged. I couldn’t help but glance around at the strong-looking groups and wonder how I might stack up. What kind of experience did they have? How had they trained? Did l do enough, and was my training slipping away with these days of relative inactivity? For now, the optimism was infectious, and all was good.
Another dire forecast convinced us to check in to the Roadhouse for an additional night. The ripple was felt throughout the tiny town, as more climbers arrived and were going door-to-door looking for a dry spot to sleep. A long, rainy night ensued. Groups that had already purchased return tickets began to feel the time squeeze before even stepping foot on the mountain. And just as the population balloon seemed like it had to pop, the sun peeked out. Nothing really significant, but enough to spread optimism – not only to us, but to TAT. We were directed to get to the runway and be ready. Another step in the process. We would have preferred the snatch-and-grab approach, flying in, climbing, and flying out, but at this point, it was a small victory just to be in the Ruth. We were possibly trading sitting in a hotel in Talkeetna watching the weather for doing the same in a tent on the ice and snow in Denali National Park. The comfort of the lodge was difficult to leave. We dashed the few blocks to the airport, dressed for the glacier and stood waiting on the tarmac. The combination of the sweltering 50-degree heat floating off the asphalt, warm clothes, and our bubbling anticipation was cooking us.
A whirr of activity; a plane landed, we packed up and we were in the air. In seconds our destination became evident. I glanced at Dan, and registered his wonderment. Sitting a little to the east of the startlingly white “Big Three” (Foraker, Hunter and Denali), all heavily cloaked in snow, was the brown rocky ring that is the Ruth Gorge. The sun had just exposed the range, and we were racing in. With us was a group headed toward another peak named Huntington, and a couple bound for the Moose’s tooth, like us.
The Huntington group would be dropped off first. They had their sights on the Harvard Route, which was in clear view as we flew by. I could see the glacier below and had no idea how the pilot intended to land. Obviously, I reasoned, we would have to fly around to another angle to gain an approach. It would be impossible to land from this point without a helicopter, or being shot out of the air. For the first of so many times on this expedition, l was wrong. We dropped like a rock. We circled down in a death spiral, with plane wings canted up to perpendicular with the earth at times. I was going to be sick. I closed my eyes, but still felt all the G-forces pulling me in myriad directions as we basically free-fell. We touched down, powder snow exploding under our plane’s skis and swirling by the props, and slowed to a stop. No one says a word. A collective exhale as the pilot turned, grinned, and said, “That was cool, huh?” Forget everything you ever have become accustomed to on a commercial plane: The long approach, warnings, bumps and countless checks by the stewardesses for trash, tray tables and seatbelts. We dove down toward the glacier and, in seconds, skied to the softest most controlled landing l have ever experienced.
Before l could react, the pilot was out and unloading the gear for the Huntington expedition. The group jumped out and dragged their equipment a few feet to the side, and the doors closed. He turned the plane around, revved the engine, and we began to slide down the same path we just landed on. Slowly gaining speed, l tried to calculate the distance we needed to take off. Whatever my calculations were, they gave me a clear understanding that this was not going to happen, and just as my butt cheeks took a solid bite out of the seat, bracing for impact, we were in the air.
My heart was racing, knowing that we were next. I instantly recognized the landscape that had been the center of my studies for the winter. I saw the familiar ridge crest of the Ruth and spied our route on Moose's Tooth. I asked as much, and the pilot glanced my way with a thumbs up. It was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Big, elegant and imposing. Just one line among hundreds of possibilities. I could see a small contingent of climbers gathered in a flat area. A ski track, marked with a couple of kids’ sleds, poked into the snow to mark the runway, and we were dropping. A long slide and we were stopped. There wasn’t even time to adjust. We had just landed in one of the most isolated spots on earth, and our pilot had no intention of being trapped here. Our gear was offloaded, we stepped to the side and the other group loaded. We quizzed the group: “Did you climb? How was it?” They relayed that they had lain in their tents for seven days, not even approaching the route. After the long week of pounding winds and snowfall, they were thankful to get out. Dan was speaking with one of their expedition, and all of a sudden I heard, “Mr. Tredway? Is that you?” Stunned, l turned to see a strong, twenty-something old kid, tan face, big shoulders and trim body. “Yes, who am I talking to?” I replied, at a loss. “I was one of your EOS students, from the Outdoor school in Steamboat.” l would probably not have recognized him for a couple of reasons: First, the pace that we were transferring at, and second, the fact that the last time l saw him he was 14 years old. “Of course,” l replied… what the hell…what are the odds? Later, l asked Dan how he recognized him. Dan responded that it was the other way around. Dan had been wearing a hat from our favorite mountaineering store in Steamboat Springs, Backdoor Sports, and the boy had recognized that by saying, “That’s where I had my first job, ever! Where did you get that hat?” What would have been a great conversation and reunion was cut short by a revving engine and the urgency to get back in the air. I vowed to look this kid up when l had the chance … we would have a lot to catch up on.
We wrestled the sleds and packs through the deep snow, and moved to the side. I had a little reconstruction to work on, as the TSA agents had required me to remove the external brackets for air travel. I grabbed for my wrench and bolts to begin to reconnect my sled when the prop wash of revved engine caught loose snow and created a momentary whiteout as they took off. I watched the plane become airborne, bank and disappear. Suddenly our endeavor was real. Quiet, and alone. Two groups of two. Looking back to my sled-reconstruction project, l was horrified to find the nuts, bolts and washers had been scattered by the plane’s wind, blown into the snow. A little panic, as l slowly sifted the snow in the surrounding area for any sign. Several minutes later, l had all but one. Dan was towing, and the other group had moved by the time l collected my hardware. Putting on my skis, l looked for my poles among my gear and found nothing. I yelled to Dan, “Did you get my poles!?” already knowing the answer. “No,” he responded. What the hell? They must have been grabbed at Huntington. My second hiccup. We didn’t have far to pull the sleds and establish a camp; In fact, we decided to utilize the camp excavated and inhabited by the departed expedition. I could live without poles. We felt very good about the location of this camp. A quarter-mile from any vertical surface, and almost centrally located in the valley. The most ominous threat above-ground were two bright-blue seracs that hung ominously at the head of the valley. These reminded me of the ones on the west flank of Everest that collapsed in 2014, killing 18 sherpa.
Skiing without poles could be an issue in some instances, but not now. We were moving slowly, pulling weight while carrying almost the same amount on our backs. We were outfitted with skins that virtually eliminated the possibility of slippage, and the new snow prevented much acceleration in either direction. Another benefit from the previous week's snow: it masked the presence of the previous group. Like putting new carpet in a house, a multitude of sins was extinguished, and it felt revived. We knew that, as gross as it might sound, solid waste would have to be carried out and presented in its special canisters to the park service. In fact, they have a calculation of approximate weight per day produced and try to match these calculations with what you return with. We were in no danger of occupying an old outhouse, as they don't exist out there. A little cleanup and re-excavation and we were ready to erect the sleeping tent and a cooking shelter. The tent was placed on the surface of a packed-out spot. All the while, the route up the Moose's Tooth was staring at us. It felt like the same gaze as the bully in gym class, or the gaze of a policeman as you drive by. We couldn’t help but stare back, halting all work for minutes at a time, gazing at the imposing, dominant rock faces. We immediately placed heavy packs inside the tent and zipped the doors shut to prevent a gust of wind from carrying our shelter off into the Ruth somewhere. There are way too many stories of busted expeditions that are a result of something careless like that. The sky was closing, and a slight wind was picking up. The conditions change in a heartbeat there. Fabric tent stakes were filled with snow and stomped deep into the snow to anchor both tents and fly. A piece of light plywood, the exact shape of the bottom of the sled, was placed in the middle of the cook tent. It, too, was placed on the surface, but once erected, we dug a 3-foot-deep trench for the plywood, thereby creating an isle and benches around the perimeter. Into the back of each bench, Dan excavated shelves in the snow, into which we stashed our food, fuel and kitchen equipment. It was all a very cozy arrangement. Sleds were tied down and piled behind the tent and we decided to initiate the long process of hydration. We pulled out the stove and filled the fuel bottle. It wouldn’t start. Panic. We adjusted, tweaked and started the process fresh. It still didn’t work. Again, and nothing. We tinkered for the better part of an hour. The wind picked up and it began to snow.
Check back next week for part 3 of Matt Tredway’s Moose’s Tooth climbing story.