AK08 – Mystery Ranch on Denali Part I

Published 2008-12-08

Andrew Crow, Ray Baker, and Mark Seacat doing their best to keep the scale in perspective. Kahiltna Glacier, Alaska. Photo by Kyle Christenson

5/21 Day three 7800 feet

We slept as long as we could. At least until the intense sub-arctic sun drove us out of the Dutch Ovens we refer to as tents. The rest of the day was spent lounging around camp in our underwear eating cheesy meaty grits, drinking too much Dead Man’s Reach and watching the guided groups slog by in the wet snow and severe heat.

Cheesy Meaty Grits for Everyone! Photo by Matt Steen

Sun’s just going down and we’re just getting started. Photo by Matt Steen

While on the lower mountain, nighttime travel is the only way to go – the snow is harder, the air is cooler, and the gumbies are all tucked away in their sleeping bags. It took me a week to get over what a freaking highway the lower mountain is! There is a steady stream of overloaded and overdressed climbers from every corner of the world wandering by our camp all day long. If you are a people-watcher like me, that place is heaven!

It was particularly cool how many Mystery Ranch G-packs we saw. Every person with a Mystery Ranch pack got a big shout out from our camp. You could see them coming a mile away because they were the only ones with smiles on their faces. I surely wouldn’t want to be hauling loads like those with a Lafuma pack on my back!

Finally, the sun began to dip behind the mountains providing some relief from the scorching heat of reflected sun rays. As the heat was dissipating, we packed up our G 7000’s and sleds and prepared to take a cache to 11k. Each time we climbed to a new part of the mountain, the scenery got better and better. At the top of Ski Hill we had amazing views of the Kahiltna as it snaked towards the southern horizon.

A gorgeous night for a ski tour. Photo by Mark Seacat

The teams approaching 11,000 feet. Photo by Matt Steen

Once our cache was marked and buried, we decided that the best way down was to unrope and ski. The next hour will stick out in my mind forever. We descended 3000 feet of 25 to 30 degree slopes making slow, arching turns on the west flank of Denali with Foraker illuminated against the horizon in front of us. Wanting to enjoy the scenery, I took it slow, stopping multiple times to bask in the breathtaking views. The youngster of our group, Kyle Christenson “figure 11-ed” his way to 7800 camp in about 15 minutes. It took me about 45.

As I slid into camp, it was easy to recognize the tension and commotion coming from the “kitchen.” Evidently there was a bit of a mix up with the duffels and ALL of our food had been hauled up to 11 camp. I could feel the steady stare of blame as it had been I who had divvied up the gear. This was not a good position to be in: five cold and hungry dudes all waiting for you to pull dinner out of your ass. I knew I had better come up with something quick. I nervously began rummaging through all the bags in camp praying that there was something edible. After a few tense minutes I managed to gather up some potato flakes, Asian noodles and oatmeal. I even found Dead Man’s! Oh, sweet vindication. We crashed out after a not so satisfying meal, made somewhat tolerable by the fact that we dipped into the Lagavulin. As the bottle was passed around, I remember thinking that we should have brought a case of the stuff.

Ray Baker about to learn that passing the Lagavulin trumps any and all stories! Photo by Mark Seacat

Andrew Crow and Ted Reckas preparing an early morning dinner. Photo by Mark Seacat

Sleep was quick, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself as I began to doze off how screwed we’d be if a storm came in. We had to move up to 11k the next day considering all our food is there. My last thoughts were desperate wishes that it didn’t snow overnight…

5/25 11,000 feet

Ray Baker and Andrew Crow fight heavy winds in camp at 11,000 feet. Photo by Mark Seacat

Another Day in Tropical Paradise…. Ray Baker at 11,000 Camp. Photo by Kyle Christenson

Matt Steen’s fired up! Definitely not the best day to be out of camp. Photo by Ted Reckas

Super strong and super light… the Hilleburg Jannu standing up to the storm. Photo by Kyle Christenson

After hauling the rest of our gear to 11k camp, a storm moved in pinning us down for a couple of days. We ventured outside only to dig the kitchen and tents out from under the accumulating snow. Mark and I managed to watch an entire season of Californication on a two-inch ipod screen. Being snuggled up next to a dude definitely elicited some envy for Duchovny’s predicaments! Days like those made us acutely grateful that we had the best in solar charging ability Brunton makes. Two fully charged Solo 15’s kept all four ipods going for two days. Yeah for music and movies! That evening we decided to pack for the next day hoping the weather would break overnight.

The second attempt… Mark Seacat and Andrew Crow headed up Motorcycle Hill. Photo by Ted Reckas

Tools not Toys! Photo by Mark Seacat

K.C. and the 30 Somethings!!! Photo by Matt Steen

Watch your step! Photo by Ted Reckas

Day three at 11k proved to be clear, but windy. Damn windy. This was a disappointment as we were all getting anxious to get to 14K camp. There were many reasons for this, but the most pressing was to set up the Atlas base camp tents we got from Hilleberg. We had been hauling these puppies up the mountain for a week and had yet to use them. Having seen these set up in our backyard in Bozeman, we knew how posh they would be. Up to then we had been using the lightweight Hilleberg Jannu tents for the ease of setup and tear down. They are great little tents, ideal for being on the move. But living in these compact two-man tents for weeks on end would be tough. The Atlases uped the comfort level significantly, it was like moving from the RV to a Marriot. There is no better base camp tent. Even our Brunton Solaris solar panels attached perfectly to the joiner between the tents! This was as good as it gets.

Solar Space Station!!! Photo by Matt Steen

Breaking trail heading for fourteen camp. Photo by Andrew Crow

We broke trail up Motorcycle Hill through 2 feet of fresh snow. As we crested the top of the rise we were immediately hit with 50+ mph winds and the ground turned to scoured hardpack. We switched from skis to crampons and continued towards Squirrel Hill. It was slow and difficult going. We were each hauling 100-pound loads between the packs and sleds while getting tossed around by 50 to 60 mph wind gusts. As we continued along, climbers and guides began trickling down the slope. The gusts were gaining force as we continued, and soon they were strong enough to knock you to your knees. This ridge is not knife-edge, but one would not want to go for a slide. We decided to cache our load right there on the hillside after we had to dodge a second climber who had slipped and skidded down the icy slope towards us. We returned to camp hoping the wind and crowds would die down by the evening.

Andrew Crow, Mark Seacat, and Ray Baker make their way towards Fourteen Camp. Photo by Kyle Christenson

5/27 14,000 feet

Due to heavy loads and strong winds, we were now on our third (yes third) carry to 14000 feet. If this isn’t thorough acclimatization I don’t know what is! We left 11K around 8 pm when the winds died down and arrived at 14K camp around 12am. Most of us were still feeling good at this point so we decide to go ahead and start building the platform for the Atlas tents. These tents are huge, each with an area of over 18 square meters (vestibule included). It took us almost 8 hours to shovel out a large, flat platform and cut blocks for the wall. Some good Alaskan weather (below zero temps and blowing snow) motivated us to stay on task and get moved in.

14,000 Camp Excavation Crew…. only 7 hours and 45 minutes to go! Photo by Matt Steen

Got Cold? Andrew Crow looking a little chilled. Photo by Mark Seacat

Once we shoveled out the platform and had the walls up, it took less than 20 minutes to set up both tents. Hilleberg suggested we bring two, one with the removable floor and one with the standard bathtub-style inner tent. This worked fabulously. We had the most posh and comfortable camp at 14K. I think even the park service employees with their “permanent” camp were a little envious! These two big green domes were pretty conspicuous, bringing daily visitors – most of whom just wanted to catch a glimpse of what they looked like inside.

The Hilleberg Atlas Tents having no problems at all in 50 mph winds. No wonder we called this Camp Comfort. Photo by Mark Seacat

It must have been an interesting event for those already living at 14 camp. We arrived like aliens from another planet: stealthily, in the night, erecting a massive platform with walls and huge dome tents while all other inhabitants slumbered in their cocoons. They woke to a spectacle on the edge of camp that looked not unlike massive, green-bikini-clad breasts rising out of the snow.

With six hungry guys to feed, we needed a kitchen this big! Photo by Mark Seacat

“Where’d my sleeping bag go?” Matt Steen surveys the down-filled sleeping area. Photo by Mark Seacat

When connected, these tents set up as a tunnel with the rear vestibule of one connected to the front of the other. The front tent was the “floorless” one. This allowed us to excavate a sweet little kitchen and bench area with plenty of room to store all our food, fuel and gear. The rear tent, with its bathtub-style floor, was ideal for the sleeping area. Since these are eight man tents it was really roomy for the six of us. I could not imagine spending three weeks in anything else. With this setup you can do everything without leaving your tent. You can stand up to get dressed, gear up or to just walk around and stretch your legs during storm days. You can enter the floorless tent without taking off your boots and crampons and sit down to remove them under the cover of a roomy shelter. They made life on the glacier as easy as it could be. The level of comfort and ease of cooking, eating and sleeping in these tents played a huge role is being able to stay healthy and strong for the entire trip.

It definitely never hurts to have a southern boy as the camp cook! Andrew Crow prepares another meal from scratch. Photo by Mark Seacat

Not quite “Morning Fresh”… in fact they didn’t help at all! Photo by Mark Seacat

6/1 17,000 feet

Kyle Christenson takes in the view from 17,000 Camp. Photo by Matt Steen

Woke up at 17K camp after a cold and restless night. We’d been using the marginal weather over the last four days to acclimatize to the higher elevations and test out the gear we were planning to use on route. We had set up a camp there with the small Hilleberg Jannu tents so we can go back and forth between 14k and 17k easily. Mark and I were planning to use our Valandre Mirage down sleeping bags for the Cassin, but we wanted to do some thorough testing before we took off with these ultralight down bags. They weigh in at scant 1 lb. 8 oz. and are rated to 23 degrees (F). After almost a week on the mountain we were beginning to think we might be pushing the limits of sanity using such lightweight bags. However, our test runs proved them to be tolerable even down to minus 25 degrees as long as we were wearing all our layers. A key component of this system was amazing insulation of the Pacific Outdoor Aero Mountain 2/3-length sleeping pads. They are compact, lightweight (18oz) and use a material they call Aerogel to provide unparalleled insulation. Greatly motivated by how compact and light both items are, we decided that they would be enough to keep us alive (hopefully) and the matter was settled. Ready to get back to the “Castle” at 14K, we packed up quickly, slamed a couple of Gu’s for breakfast and took off down towards the fixed lines and comfort camp.

Ted Reckas descends the West Buttress between 17,000 Camp and the fixed lines. Photo by Kyle Christenson

Andrew Crow descends the fixed lines above 14,000 Camp. Photo by Matt Steen

Stay Tuned for AKO8 Mystery Ranch on Denali Part II