Into The Mountains
It was snowing when I woke up and all I could think was “How many days do we sit around Talkeenta, waiting to fly, before we call it quits?” I kept checking the forecast, it looked bad, really bad. Chris and Sy arrived in a car packed to the gills, yet, somehow we managed to squeeze two more sleds, another duffel, pack, skis and myself inside.
We left town in a whiteout, counting how many cars were in the ditch along the way. As we headed north we began to see changes in the weather, a little blue here, a little there and then wham! Blue sky and Denali, clear as could be. Our speed picked up and our conversations became more positive and full of excitement.
We arrived at K2 Aviation around 11:15. “I am going to take some tourist up first and will check out the conditions.” Randy our pilot, told us. “Go into town and eat, come back in a few hours”. We hated the idea, it was clear, we need to go now, is all we could think. We over stuffed ourselves at the Roadhouse and rushed back to hanger, weighed our gear and stacked it next to the plane. We were excited, we were ready.
Randy returned and gave us the green light. We packed the Beaver and loaded up, Sy taking the shotgun seat. Some developing clouds made us nervous but as we left the foot hills and approached the mountains, all fears vanished. We flew over our route, which was important because there is only one way through the Kahiltna icefall, a skinny smooth path. I photographed the route, which was obvious from the air.We flew between the towering walls of Hunter and Foraker and then took a quick right to the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.
The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest glacier in the entire Alaska Range. From Kahiltna Pass, it slithers 44 miles (71K) down between Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker and their numerous off-springs. The South East Fork is where the Kahiltna International Airport and base-camp is for those attempting the popular routes on Denali and Foraker. From Late April to Mid July, the place is hopping, with constant air traffic and hundreds of climbers and their tents scattered about.
I have always wanted to go to the Kahiltna but was never interested in climbing the western routes on Denali and had no interest in being in the mountains with literally hundreds of others climbers. This is the main reason I decided to go in March, solitude. Our goal was to climb up to Kahiltna pass and ski and photograph the entire length of the Kahiltna, getting picked up at the Pika Glacier.
The Beaver sank into the deep snow as it slowed to a halt, Randy spun the plane around quickly, pointing it down hill. It was sunny and beautiful, the temp was a balmy -5F. Before we knew it, The beaver was gone, just a roar echoing through the mountains. The north face of Mount Hunter was amazing, huge and so close, its beauty made it hard to focus on getting packed and moving up the hill to establish a camp. I was excited, it was clear, there could be good sunset light, maybe even aurora?
We passed a strange cache site and wondered if someone else was out in the mountains. All the famous solo climbers were gone for the season. We found a great spot with straight shots of Denali, Foraker and the fantastic Mount Hunter. Sy and Chris dug in, allowing me the opportunity to photograph. They would dig a few feet, probe for crevasses and dig some more. Within a few hours we had a fortified camp and hot water was brewing. A stiff breeze was coming down the glacier and the temps were creeping lower.
All was quiet except for the thunderous avalanches that would pour down Hunter’s north face. I positioned my camera, mounted on a tripod, right at the area that was most active and waited. Then perfectly, while I was looking through the viewfinder a huge ice avalanche erupted, I got the entire sequence. However, when I went to take another photograph, the camera said “This card cannot be used”, and the Err signal kept repeating. I turned off the camera, same thing. I switched over to my second card slot, back to normal.
“That was weird” I thought to myself.
We decided to do a quick ski down the glacier to warm ourselves up a little. On the way down we saw the soloist heading towards his cache, he was moving painfully slow, dragging a sled with huge poles suspended from his shoulders (they were in case he fell into a crevasses.) We waved and continued our ski.
The sun began to dip behind the massive Foraker and the temperatures plummeted. -10f, -15f, -20f. The funny things was, we were all warm, full of excitement and warm from our ski and hot drinks. I started taking photographs of the fading light on Mount Hunter and then, Err, what? I turned off the camera and started again, Err. I took the card out and reloaded it, Err. “What the Hell!” switched batteries, Err. Sometimes the camera would fire and then make a strange noise then Err. No images were being recorded. The camera was fried! I was panicking, couldn’t figure out what was going on. The batteries were warm, fully charged. It was the camera itself, was it just too cold? I took the hand warmers I had, stuck them to the camera, put it in the case and shoved in my sleeping bag, hoping that it just needed to warm up a little.
The light faded fast and Denali began to turn red. I pull the camera out, Err! “F#*@” I paced around camp, trying to figure out what was happening.
“Hey Carl, you still have your sun glasses on.” Sy informed me. I took them off and opened my plastic glasses case, snap, it shattered into pieces.”It must be cold.” I thought to myself.
I had brought a few freezed dried meals that a friend left me last summer after he had climbed Denali. I usually don’t like freezed dried meals but I wasn’t really craving anything and I figured I get one of the out-of-the-way. I sealed it up tight and put it inside my DAS parka. We sat quiet and admired the emerging stars and the glow of the rising moon.
All of a sudden I looked down and I was covered in Kathmandu Curry, the freezed dried meal had leaked. I was really a wreck, everything was going wrong and we had just got there! In a few minutes I was able to just brush off the now frozen food on the outside of my pants, though the inside of my jacket and numerous layers were still wet and smelt like Nepal.
I went into the tent, I had to figure out what was happening with the camera. Okay, I took the cards and the battery out. I let it sit. Put the battery and the cards back in. Checked the photos I had already taken, good, I hadn’t lost anything. Tried to take a photo, Err.
“Okay Carl, step by step, we have been a pro for twenty years, we can figure this out” I assured myself.
” It’s not recording images, why? Maybe its the shutter or the aperture on the lens is stuck?” I took the lens off. Put the camera in full manual and fired a few shots, shutter was working. Looked on the back and reviewed the images, they had recorded, okay. I put my other lens on (I had, at the last moment, decided to rent a second lens, the 70-200mm f4, to shoot details of mountains). Switched the lens (my 24-70) to manual focus. Fired are few frames, it was working.
I rushed outside and shot a few, hastily composed night shots, the camera worked. The images had been recorded. The night was mind-blowing. The near full moon lit the mountains up like daylight, we all watched in awe.
“Its 11:30!” Chris said. With those words the spell of the night and mountains broke and we all began to feel the cold. We rushed into our tent and settled in for a cold, restless night.
Part Two: The Storm