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Dispatches from the Road:
May '03 Archive

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Thursday - May 1, 2003

Well, I will leave in a couple hours from Talkeetna toward Petersville due west of here. If there were a bridge across, that would be very near. But instead, since Talkeetna is at the end of a 14 mile dead-end road, I need to backtrack that distance to get back on the Parks Highway to go north. I will turn west from the highway toward Petersville. Given the road conditions, we will meet with my friends short of Petersville.

The temperatures have been very warm and we expect very little, or soft snow. We are anticipating traveling at night and early morning to take advantage of cooler temperatures. This will continue until we get on the Kahiltna Glacier.

If you are wondering, I have been up all night packing, trying to fit everything into my backpack. Of course that is an impossible task, hence the justification for the sleds that we are taking in. I will be towing a sled behind me, on which I will place more of the heavier items during the approach. We really hope that there will be snow soon after I get off my bike so that we can start using the sleds. Otherwise, we will have to do multiple carries back and forth until we reach snowline.

Bears are coming out of their dens hungry this time of the year and the warmer temperatures will not help. Once their dens are soaked, they will be on the move, and be cranky. So we expect some bear activity, and we need to be vigilant about keeping a clean camp. We decided that we would eat cold foods until we get to the glacier. Early on, the stove would only be used to melt snow for water. We think that this will keep the odors under control, creating a minimum of trash and other attractants for the bears. These beasts have a phenomenal sense of smell, so we do not want to take any chances.

After a few hours of nap, I will get up and start riding? You will not hear from me until early to mid June unless I can use the radio at the base camp somehow to get an update to Nancy. She would then send a dispatch to everyone via our Yahoo! Group, posting it on the web as well.

Last Saturday, I rode almost 50 miles to Wasilla. My host in Anchorage, Terry had introduced me to two of her friends Peg & Bobbie who had offered to host me that night in Wasilla. That was my destination for the day.

I started the ride from the REI store in Anchorage where I had the opportunity to attend the morning huddle. The entire store then came out to send me off at 09:45 before they opened for business at 10:00 am. That was a nice gesture and they had already done many favors to our team already. I had had my bike essentially renewed, coworkers had arranged among themselves to give my friends a ride to Talkeetna, and eventually to Petersville. Many of our logistical headaches had been resolved enthusiastically by our friends at Anchorage REI. So many thanks are due to them?

The ride to Wasilla was straight forward, using the excellent trail systems in and around Anchorage. As I was trying to navigate my way on the trails, I met Chuck on a bicycle who was a Hodgkin’s survivor, in training to run a marathon. He had joined the Team In Training, and was raising funds for research with them. I called him the Lance Armstrong of the marathon world! He led me practically out of town, stopping at his home on the way to give me a bumper sticker for Gotta Wanna Expeditions that he had started. "Whatever it is, you gotta wanna do it!" he said?

When I arrived at Wasilla where I was to stay, I found myself on a bluff with a view of the Knik Glacier and Chugach Mountains to the south. My hosts Peg & Bobbie had found themselves a wonderful location to call home. I promised myself that Nancy should see their place also when she comes up in June!

On Sunday morning, I took my time with Peg talking about the near future on my journey. She showed great interest in helping us, and offered to look into the Yukon River crossing at Dawson City for me.

To see more of the countryside, I would like to take the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City on the way back, which would bring me back to Whitehorse from the north. Dawson City was the destination for the Klondike Gold Rush when everyone passed through Whitehorse on their way at the turn of the century. The only issue is that there is no bridge across the Yukon to get to Dawson City. A ferry is the only way across.

If I can have the ferry take my rig across, and I row, that would be human powered for myself, close enough I think, given the options. If Peg cannot arrange this, I will take the same southern way back through Beaver Creek, Kluane and Haines Junction. Nothing wrong with that, I will get to see my recently gained friends again!

I left Wasilla around 12:30 and arrived at Talkeetna around 20:45 after cycling 77.50 miles. My odometer read 2,633.8 miles when I checked into the Talkeetna Roadhouse. I estimate that it will read almost 2,700 by the time I transition to my pedestrian mode.

One annoyance was the mosquitoes that had hatched. They will be my biggest problem on the ride back in Anchorage and in Canada given the muskeg bogs. Whenever I slowed down up a hill, or got off the bike to rest or walk, they would swarm around me. I had no choice but to keep moving to avoid being eaten alive! Maybe this is why the caribou herds keep on the run during their migrations?

Beth Wheeler was working the shift at the Roadhouse where we got to chat a bit. Beth was a former marine, who had traveled the world. After her discharge from the service, she had joined the Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Kobuk Valley National Park and Preserve north of here. It was in the middle of nowhere, and visitors would arrive by plane. When she had first arrived, she asked what her duties would be, she was told "you are a ranger, go range?#034;

Beth owns a team of freight dogs, strong but not as fast as the race dogs. On longer sled races, her team would catch up to the other race teams on uphill sections, and on fresh snow. She kept talking about them with pride, so I had to see them. We arranged to meet in the morning when her partner Keith would pick me up and take my up to their cabin.

Keith lives in his cabin nearby with a view of Denali, and has been in AK for 25 years. He told me that the mosquitoes had just come out in the last few days. He called them the B-52’s. "Large and slow that one can slap them dead; wait till the small ones come out, they’ll get you before you know it!" he said. He also had a Novara Safari, an earlier model than mine, still working its way up and down from his cabin.

Keith gave me the tour of the pack introducing me to each dog. I had brought some bacon for them, I was going to be their best friend for the day. Dogs did not mind my presence after an initial bark-fest, except for one that just kept barking the whole time. He did not get any of the bacon, of course. He showed me the sled, and we talked about the experience of sledding at breakneck speeds. On one occasion he had to call Beth on his cell phone to meet the dog team at the end of the trail for he had fallen off the sled. He was OK, but Beth had had a good laugh about it?

Birds were out and around. I was seeing bald eagles in the air, I took a picture of a spruce hen near Keith’s place, and I had seen dozens of sandhill cranes circling an updraft near Wasilla. The cranes had recently arrived in the area.

After visiting with the dogs, I returned with Keith to the Roadhouse for a recorded interview with KTNA, the local FM radio station affiliated with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Soon after that on Monday, I called 710KIRO radio station in Seattle for a follow up live interview. KIRO had captured my departure from Seattle similarly, and they wanted to hear about the journey so far. I told them I enjoyed it so much, that I might just keep going around the world! Kinda like Forrest Gump, who kept running for no particular reason ;-)

It was good to finally see Cory and Chris yesterday. I had already made our appointment at the Ranger Station for Wednesday afternoon, so we focused on sorting gear and catching up. We had a good time over dinner and around Talkeetna while we visited the air taxi service where our supply crates had remained. The musher had delivered the crates to the air taxi at the airport when he could not cache them at McGonagall Pass on the north side of the mountain. We took some of the food our of the crates for the approach, and arranged for the rest to be flown into base camp. Eddie and Jeremy would then land on the glacier around the 10th where would meet them.

We feel ready for the climb, and there is great anticipation. I had been to Denali once in 1997 when the high winds thwarted our efforts to reach the summit. This time, after all the effort of getting to the mountain, I would really like to reach the top. However, I will not let that cloud our judgement during the climb. There will always be room to come down if conditions are not right to summit. Having said that, the six summits project will operate under the same premise: that we will come back alive, that we will come back friends, and that we will come back with the summit, in that order, as a famous climber once said ?whose name escapes me right now.

Until June sometime, please take care.


Wednesday - May 14, 2003

We made it to Base Camp!

Cory, Chris and I pulled into the Kahiltna Base Camp at around 16:30 on Wednesday, May 14 after having spent 13 nights our since I left Talkeetna on the morning of Saturday, May 1.

We have since come about 44 miles as the crow flies from the Forks Roadhouse where I transitioned from the bicycle to snowshoes and sled. With all the meandering that we had to do to stay above the snowline on a low snow year, the occasional double carries and the sometimes blind wanderings on the glacier to avoid crevasses, we probably covered close to 60 miles.

I met Cory and Chris before my May 1 departure from Talkeetna. That night, I was up until 02:00, answering e-mails and posting an update on the web site. As would be expected after such a foolish effort, I did not wake up at the "o'dark hundred" time that I had originally planned. Cory and Chris were surprised to see me in the morning at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, thinking that I had already left. Ben Armentrout from Anchorage REI was going to pick them up at 10:00 and to take them up the road toward Petersville after running some errands around Talkeetna.

Cory, Chris and two climbers from Quebec, Eric and Emanuel gave me the farewell at 07:50. I had a pleasant ride over with the guys catching up with me in Ben's car about 10 miles short of the Forks Roadhouse. I was told that the road beyond the Kroto Creek parking lot could be too muddy to travel, however we found it to be otherwise. Ben offered that he had all afternoon, so we asked him to take the guys as far as the car/road would allow. The farther that I rode up the road to Petersville, the more effort that we were going to save for the team in terms of double carries. We desperately needed snow on the ground to be able to pull the extra loads and supplies which we needed to get to the base camp, and for me to be able to climb the mountain. The guys had sent their excess climbing gear by plane while I had to pull mine in.

Beyond the Forks Roadhouse, which is before Petersville just west of Talkeetna, the dirt road was not plowed, so that became the transition point for us. Up to that point, Chris and Cory had been filming me ride, taking pictures, pacing me by car and basically keeping me company. By 16:30, we were ready to pull the sleds. Ben took my bicycle, the trailer and the excess including the panniers and my riding helmet with him to Anchorage REI for safekeeping. My odometer read that my total mileage since Seattle was 2,683.3 miles, and that I had put in 49.42 miles that morning from Talkeetna. We cannot thank Ben enough for he had solved a major logistical headache for us...

The sleds took a great deal of abuse when we had to travel through thickets of willows and low brush. The abuse did not abate when we continued on through heavily crevassed glacier terrain on the rest of the approach. We saw small bear tracks early on, probably a black bear yearling, then later a fresh grizzly bear track that cut across the lower Kahiltna which got our attention(!) - we joked about Sasquatch but the size of the paw and claw imprints in the snow were no joking matter! During the approach through the Peters Hills and the Dutch Hills, we favored cold meals and dry foods to minimize food odors. We descended to the banks of Granite Creek on an actual animal trail on top of a dirt ridge which had fresh bear scat on it. Who knows, maybe they were watching us, and we did not know it...

Our most grueling day, which was a true back breaker, came on the 7th when we had to travel through more willows past Granite Creek, our low point at 1,300 feet and to cross moraine fields to gain snow on the Kahiltna Glacier. We had to take packs forward in the bush, to drop them less than 100 paces away so they remained with sight, then to return to hand carry the sleds while pushing branches out of the way. We kept doing that double carry through the low lying branches that seemed to fight back in both directions whether we were carrying the load, or returning empty handed for a new one. On the moraine file, we had to negotiate loose rock over ice to get near the snow. We only traveled 0.95 miles that day. A low back pain on my left side remained with me from that day forward, well into the rest of the trip. Daryl Miller, lead ranger at the Talkeetna Ranger Station had told us that some days we may have to be happy with a one mile progress, and I had thought that he was exaggerating - we did not even make a mile that day!

The travel on the Kahiltna Glacier was reasonably manageable. The glacier was a giant, stretching for 25 plus miles up to the foothills of Foraker, Hunter and Denali. It was two to three miles across in places with spurs of smaller glaciers joining from the sides. Where the glacier changed elevation, where it took a turn, or at the junctions with the spurs, the surface of the glacier would break up into crevasses, becoming a confused mess. Sometimes we were able to read the flow and travel through the crevasses with relative ease. Other times, we would be totally stomped on how the glacier was flowing as we would be passing through literally a honeycomb pattern of trenches that just would not end. Often we would call it a day on an island of ice surrounded on all sides by a moat that we would hope to cross the next morning.

The weather was not forgiving for us. We needed clear visibility and shadows to be able to read the glacier, to see the subtle undulations in the snow hinting of danger. When clouds closed in from the Gulf of Alaska up the glacier, it would start snowing and create a very low cloud cover almost like a fog that would obliterate any sense of depth perception that we had. The flat light conditions would make us start imagining drops where they did not exist or stumble over rises that we could not see coming. We finally figured out that there was a pattern to this. The clouds and fog would gather after mid morning, and then last until late afternoon. The sun would burn through the fog late in the day to provide another 4-5 hours of useful daylight.

It was for such clear days and open skies that we were here. The views were phenomenal in this alpine splendor and we savored our solitude. Each one of us would be lost in our own world separated by a half rope length, except when we would probe an area first before congregating. Campsites also would have to be probed by using a foldable stick just for that purpose to make sure that we would not be settling on a hidden crevasse. At all other times, we would have the rope stretched our between us as the amount of slack would also amount to the depth of a potential fall one of us could face...

A constant separation of 80 feet from the others all day, surrounded by the glorious views, or by the murky fog white everywhere obscuring all visibility, snow crunching under the snowshoes, crust piercing by the trekking poles, a steady hiss of the sled chasing from behind, the rustling of the shell garments mixed with the ever present clanking of all the crevasse rescue hardware dangling all over me, the sound of wet snow particles sticking on my hood, and listening to my own breathing daydreaming about past and future events - that was my existence until two days before arriving at the base camp when the weather improved.

We were finally within reach of the base camp where all other climbers were arriving by plane. Over flights increased in frequency and a few of them actually circled low over us to see details of our gear. We later learned that the rangers along with Jeremy and Eddie had been worried about our delay. Two rangers had skied down to the ice fall at 6,000 feet to check on us, and had returned empty handed saying: "Nobody is coming through the icefall!" Base camp manager Lisa asked one of the pilots to see if they could spot us. Apparently there was another group behind us, approaching on skis and if the pilot could spot our snowshoes by an over flight, then we would be easy to identify. So they did...

All the way to base camp, Cory, Chris and I talked about food - peanut butter of all things! We knew that we were going to find two 5-lb tubs of that stuff which we could devour upon arrival at the camp. Jeremy and Eddie came to meet us on the trail. They offered us bear hugs, lots of congratulations and a choice of Pringles, cookies or fruit. I recall having some of each myself!

The welcome continued into the camp where the rangers had heard of our arrival. They had already seen the article in the Anchorage Daily News and in the Outside Magazine. Eddie had shown me the Outside magazine article that a stranger had ripped out of his copy when talking about the trip in Talkeetna. Lisa offered to present me as the speaker of the day on KTNA radio in Talkeetna that evening. She also helped this dispatch to be mailed our by one of the pilots as courier.

Joe Puryear was one ranger who serendipitously happened to be at the camp. He had collaborated with Mike Gauthier on the final investigative report on G?an's accident. Scott "Scooter"Metcalfe was another ranger who offered me the ability to place a call to Nancy after such a long trek. He told me that a group from National Geographic Society was on the mountain at the 14,200 foot camp filming. It was very likely to run into them. I also ran into Mark Synott at the base camp with whom I had climbed the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite in 1991. He was here to climb the Moonflower Buttress on the north face of Hunter, a climb of 4,000 feet of technical ice and rock, higher than El Capitan, right next to the base camp! I felt welcome and at the right place in my life.

The location of the base camp was just under the north face of Hunter and across Foraker. Hunter towered 4,000 feet above us, and Foraker almost 10,000 feet although across a three mile wide Kahiltna Glacier. We had the outdoor toilets with the best views! The camp was on the Southeast Fork of Kahiltna Glacier which flowed a foot a day on average, and by the end of the season, the camp would have shifted almost 60 feet.

One thing about these northern latitudes was the length of the daylight hours that one gained. It was midnight when I wrote this dispatch without a headlamp to be couriered. The next morning, I would repack with the rest of the team, caching at the base camp enough food and the necessary gear for the walk out. What we pack up would see us to the summit and back. I plan that if the weather shuts us down, or if for some other reason I cannot reach the summit, I will continue with the journey around the world, returning to Denali in 2009 for another try. This would be the logic to apply to all subsequent summits. The only catch would be that I would fly into base camp in that case, as I would have already done the human powered mega-approach, leaving just the climb itself to the summit of Denali.

Thinking of y'all...


Archive of Dispatches:

  • February, 2003
    • February 1st
    • February 2nd
    • February 6th
    • February 14th
    • February 16nd
    • February 18th
    • February 19th
    • February 20th
    • February 22nd
    • February 26th
    • February 28th

  • March, 2003
    • March 7th
    • March 8th
    • March 16th
    • March 23rd - statistics
    • March 23rd

  • April, 2003
    • April 5th
    • April 15th
    • April 21st
    • April 21st

  • June, 2003
    • June 5th

  • July, 2003
    • July 7th
    • July 16th
    • July 22nd

  • August, 2003
    • August 4th
    • August 5th
    • August 17th
    • August 17th
    • August 24th
    • August 31st

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