Shasta Winter – Denali Training

Welcome to the next installment of Denali training for our spring 2018 trip! Since my last post, I’m sad to sad that Maura won’t be joining us on our trip to Alaska. However, I’m super happy for her being able to get a job that she’s super stoked about and the flexibility to do a bunch of traveling before she starts full-time.

Last week, Patrick, Brent, and I headed back up to Mt. Shasta for some winter camping experience for Denali – this time we decided to head for the easily accessible Avalanche Gulch route on the south side of the mountain. As we watched the weather for the week leading up to the trip we got more and more excited: very cold with lots of wind and snow. Perfect!

Saturday Feb 17th

Required trailhead team photo

After arriving at the Bunny Flat parking lot very late on Friday night and sleeping in the car I met Brent and Patrick at Yak’s in town for a quick breakfast before starting up the mountain. We started up from the parking lot just before 11:00 AM.

For this trip we decided we should practice hauling a loaded sled like we would be doing for the first half of our Denali expedition. This consisted of loading a large waterproof duffle bag with a bunch of food and gear and tying it down to the sled using 5mm climbing cord. We decided to only bring one sled with us and take turn s hauling it so we could all learn but not all have to deal with our own sleds.

Hauling a sled up avalanche gulch

Given the poor snow conditions this year we were happy to see plenty of snow along our route making sled-hauling possible. The going was slow but relatively easy. We slowly made our way higher and higher until we decided that a good plan would be this:
Make camp about 1000ft below our original goal of Helen Lake (elev. 10,000ft) then spend the next day training and move camp to Helen Lake that night.
We also decided that there was no point in trying to summit on this trip since it wouldn’t really aid in our true goal of practicing winter camping and technical skills for our Denali climb. Plus, the weather didn’t look very good for a summit attempt.

Building walls at our first camp

A little after 3:00pm we found a reasonably flat spot out of the way of any potential avalanche paths that was reasonably exposed on a hill out in the middle of Avalanche Gulch: a perfect spot to test ourselves and our equipment against the coming weather.

Patrick and I started out building a flat spot and setting up the tent while Brent got started quarrying blocks for our wind walls. We were much more careful on this trip to start with a flatter area and to build stronger walls since real weather was coming in; it went much better than last time. We eventually started to run out of daylight (a problem we won’t have in Alaska in June!) so decided to stop our walls a little short of full height so we’d have time to melt snow for water and prepare a dinner.

Fortified camp at sunset

That night, the weather moved in. It got very windy and very cold. After the trip, we learned that it was about 5 degrees at our elevation that night and around -20ºF at our original goal of Helen Lake at 10,000ft. To make matters worse, Brent had had mild headache before bed which escalated to full-blown altitude mountain sickness (AMS) during the night (he didn’t drink enough water on Saturday’s hike up).

Sunday Feb 18th

Whiteout conditions in the morning

By morning, Brent’s AMS induced nausea and headache were more than he could bear. That, combined with a near-sleepless night in the fierce winds prompted us to decide to descend. Brent had informed us he was going all the way back to the car with or without us, but I was pretty sure if we could all get down about 1,000ft he’d feel better enough to stick around.

We broke down camp that morning in strong winds with snow with near-whiteout conditions. Another perfect test for our ultimate goal in Alaska! We pulled out our trusty GPS (phone) and quested out into the weather. We decided that one person would haul the sled downhill while another held onto a tether from the back to keep it from sliding into the hauler. On Denali the sled will be attached to our climbing rope to perform this function. We left camp at about 10:30am.

Walking down the route we had come up just the day before wasn’t as easy as any of us thought it would be given the conditions. By the time we’d gotten down to about 8,000ft Brent was feeling much better and we decided to spend another night on the mountain.

Making butter bagels at camp

We set up camp 2 near some trees at about 1:00pm. We then set up the stove and cooked a delicious lunch of bagels fried in butter (now known as “butter bagels” to our team). These were a real morale booster!

That afternoon, Patrick and I did a bunch of crevasse rescue drills while Brent took a nap. After he woke, we did a bit more crevasse practice before cooking dinner and heading to bed for our second night on the mountain.

Monday Feb 19th

Sunday night was still windy and cold with some snow but not nearly as bad as the previous night. We did, however, wake up to find fresh snow all over our gear, both inside the tent vestibule and outside.

Fresh snow in the morning

We packed up camp that morning and headed out between 8:00 and 9:00am. The walk down in the fresh snow was beautiful. We decided to do the entire hike out roped together like we would be for most of our Denali trip. This also let us attach the sled to the rope minimizing its ability to slide into the person hauling it.

Cars plowed-in at the trailhead

We got back to the trailhead just before 10:30am to find our cars buried in a few inches of fresh snow even at 7,000ft. We were plowed-in and were clearly the only people who had spent the last couple nights out in the storm.

After a lot of effort to first dig out, and then get Brent’s brand new (to him) van unstuck from the hole it was in, we carefully drove down into town where celebratory burgers and milkshakes ensued.

This was overall a great training trip and I think we’re all feeling much more confident about our chances on Denali.

  • Required trailhead team photo

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