A day in the life of a mountain guide, Part II
After a short hiatus, we've heard back from Bryan Dalpes, a guide with St. Elias Alpine Guides. Check out Part I for some new pictures, and in case you missed the adventure last time. In Part I he left us hanging, in what was sure to become a big adventure! Let's find out what happens in Part II. Be sure to check back often as we hear more about a 'day in the life of a mountain guide'.
West Ridge, Mount Hunter
Upon arriving on the shoulder below the feature known as the Cat's Ears we set up the tent and began melting snow for water and food. As we sat drinking mugs of hot Gatorade, the incredible Alaskan landscape sprawled out before us, I felt overwhelmed by the beauty, scale and immensity of the range. Denali towered over us towards the north while Mt. Foraker sat to the north west with a calm yet menacing aura. We were surrounded by icy, jagged peaks...I felt small and lonely. I finished my second liter of hot drink but felt weary and worried. I was still incredibly thirsty and was very aware that I had let myself get dangerously dehydrated. We slammed down some re-hydrated glop of something that resembled rice and chicken and began brewing more water before trying to get some sleep. The weather began to deteriorate rapidly as the arctic cold front which was forecast began to roll over us like the icy hand of a mountain demon. The winds picked up and the temperature plummeted. We began to notice that it was taking an extremely long time to melt snow due to the frigid temperature. We peeked our heads out the tent door only to see an absolute white-out. Realizing that we may be pinned down for an extended period, we discussed the option of rationing our fuel. This meant cutting back on the amount of water we would consume. While James has the super hero-esq ability of climbing hard objectives while consuming as little as 2 liters of water a day, I on the other hand, require at least 4 to 5 liters per day minimum. During our conversation about this, I made an ego-driven, irrational decision. I concluded I could power through the rest of the climb on 2 to 3 liters a day. Even though this would be an insufficient amount to properly hydrate, I felt I needed to do my part, to make my sacrifice. This would prove immature and foolish.
The storm raged for 30+ hrs before suddenly relenting. As James slowly opened the tent flap I secretly hoped for the weather to still be poor as an excuse to go down to the safety of base camp. "How's it look?", I asked.
"Bluebird", he responded. 'Damn', I thought silently. As we started to pack up and rack up for the next section of climbing, a flutter of emotions coursing through my mushy, semi-dehydrated brain. I think it's a head space
that every alpinist will experience at some point while perusing in the mountains. I wanted to continue...more then anything. We had worked so hard, planned so much. We looked over hundreds of pictures, watched videos, read blogs and guide books, gleaned beta from friends who had attempted the route and obsessed over it for months. At the same time, I couldn't shake the the deep, persistent, gut feeling that we should go down. I began the route not entirely mentally ready, and now had let my physical condition dwindle. James, on the other hand, was mentally strong, prepared and physically strong as a draft horse. I didn't want to let him down and his positive energy seeped into my psyche giving me a boost. I decided to push on, ignoring intuition.
Climbing up between the Cat's Ears revealed a gut wrenching repel into a notch which spelled the point of no return. Once again ignoring my gut, I threaded the rope through my belay device and stepped off into the void: we were committed.
James lead the majority of the climbing that day and even though I was continually weighed down with thoughts of retreat, the climbing was engaging and enjoyable and the views unmatched. I actually started to have fun. We climbed throughout the day and decided to set up camp on a beautiful saddle over looking a jaw-dropping expanse of fractured glaciers. It was around 5 pm and we had been climbing for around 9 hrs. The sun had been blazing all day and it wasn't until we stopped moving that we realized how cold it really was. It was bitter. James suggested it was early enough to continue on but I was spent and convinced him we should stay put and re-fuel. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. As we sat in our sleeping bags sipping hot brew and listening to the blood curdling rumbles of serac fall, It dawned on me that some time had passed since I had had feeling in my toes. It seems strange now to not have noticed this sooner, but when I think about it, there have been a number of times climbing that I didn't feel my toes for a period. The difference this time was they didn't quickly warm back up when I got into my sleeping bag. Upon pulling off my socks I was stunned with what I saw. My toes were chalk white. It reminded me of a cheesy investigative TV show when they pull the bloated, water logged body from the murky river...my toes looked dead. I quickly sunk them back into my sleeping bag in order to hide them from James (and myself). After 20 minutes of attempting to rewarm them I begrudgingly announced that I thought I may be in trouble. I revealed my grossly discolored toes to which (being the eternal optimist) he responded,"eh, they don't look too bad." I knew he was humoring me but I clutched a hold on his positive intentions as I couldn't yet admit to the truth of the situation. We decided to continue to try and rewarm them and reevaluate in the morning. Even with warm water bottles, a down jacket wrapped around them and stuffed in my 0 degree sleeping bag, I never did regain feeling in my digits that night.
In the morning I reluctantly pulled my feet out of my bag to see what our future held. I slid the down jacket off my feet. James and I immediately made eye contact. "We're going down."
Until next time...