The next day we leisurely got up around 9 AM or later, had breakfast, and packed up. We left around 11:30 AM to head down. On this morning the NPS was evacuating a French climber down the Rescue Gully to 14k camp because of a hurt leg/foot. They store 1000 m of rope and have a winch system with sled for these rescues.
Lowering hurt climber 3000 ft to 14k camp
It was a nice day so got some good photos along the ridge.
Me on the Ridge with Foraker
We got down to the 14k camp around 3:30 pm. This was a little slow as one from our group was tired and had trouble coming down the fixed lines. We toyed with the idea of going down to the 11k camp but in the end decided to stay at 14k and go through all of our gear and give away 5-6 days’ worth of extra food and fuel so we wouldn’t have to carry it back down.
The next day we descended all the way to the airstrip. For some reason our group was slow to get going and we didn’t leave camp until 12:40 pm. There was a long line of folks heading to high camp – in the photo we counted 49 people! It was cloudy again so in retrospect we hit the weather exactly right. We moved up in marginal weather, had a good rest day, summited on the best possible day, and then descended. It was cloudy below and could not see much of anything.
We descended with our sleds down and around Windy Corner. This time WC was living up to its name. It was windy and cold there with low visibility and some snow.
Windy rest stop at Squirrel Point
We continued down and the wind got stronger. It was probably 30+ mph down Squirrel Hill and Motorcycle Hill. Squirrel hill was wind swept and icy and coming down in high winds and the sled had our full attention. I was concerned about the possibility of frostbite on the left side of my face so moved my balaclava and hood around to try and block the wind. We got down to the 11k camp in about 2 hours. There conditions got much better – still snowing and cloudy but the wind had died down.
Snowy return to 11k Camp
What a difference a few days make – on the way up it had been sunny here.
We dug up our cache which included our snow shoes. We continued down toward Kahiltna Pass and the snow intensified. We could only see about 200 ft. so we were going wand to wand.
Low Visability toward Kahiltna Pass
Fortunately the route was well wanded (if it wasn’t we would be forced to camp there since there are crevasses just off the trail). We continued down and I didn’t even see/feel the left hand turn from Kahiltna Pass down Ski Hill and toward Camp 1. The snow kept piling up and it was probably a foot deep so we switched to snowshoes. Amazingly as we reached about 8500 ft. elevation we broke through the clouds and it was sunny below!
Almost out of the storm
Rest break in the sun!
We got down to Camp 1 around 6:30 pm or so. We took a good break there and talked to some of the folks just coming up. It turns out planes had started flying again at 2 pm.
We just had the 5 miles of trudge back to the airstrip and only the last mile is uphill. We continued along. I was on the tail end of the rope so was managing the sled ahead of me so as to not hit that climber and my sled which tended to want to go everywhere. This was mentally tiring as much as anything else. We had a couple people in our group having trouble with the sleds so we fell behind some. We eventually got to Heartbreak Hill and started the slog up. I found Heartbreak Hill tough at the end of the day but we kept a good pace and got to camp around 11 pm. There we dug up a cache of juice which turned to be slushies. We put up the tents and settled in for the night – remarking how much warmer it was than 2 weeks before.
We woke up the next morning and awaited word about when we could fly. At 8:30 we got word – the planes are in the air and will be here in 20-30 min! We packed like mad and got all our gear piled up for the planes.
Take me home!
We took off and landed in Talkeetna 45 min later. It was amazing but the landscape had gotten much greener and warmer in the last two weeks. The snow around Talkeetna was gone and everything was blooming. I started sneezing from the pollen almost immediately. We went to the Roadhouse for a nice, huge breakfast and then some souvenir shopping for the ones back home. The van came and took us back to Anchorage where we got there in the late afternoon. We went back to the B&B and snuck a shower (the first one in some 17 days!) and repacked for the plane home. Luckily I got rebooked on the United flight to Denver that night at no cost. We then went into town for some more souvenir shopping and had a nice dinner with a couple of the guides at Orso. Then the redeye home and back home by 8 AM the next morning.
Overall it was a great trip. The route was in great condition and we hit the weather almost perfectly. We had 5 or 6 extra days for weather built in and didn’t use any of them. The weather turned a little unsettled but we were at 14k camp and used that as extra rest and acclimatization days. Mountain Trip did a great job and the food was generally excellent and probably much better than I could cook on my own. I would highly recommend Mountain Trip.
The question is what to do next? I’m thinking a starter 8000 m peak like Cho Oyu but may not be able to fit that in until Fall 2014. I have a friend who may want to do Aconcagua and while that slag heap doesn’t interest me that much it would be great to do a trip with him. I’d like to get back into some rock climbing, doing alpine routes and continue to do 14ers’s and where possible combine the two (Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle, LB to Blanca, Cables route on Longs, etc.). I have a friend who has about 10 of the harder 14er’s left and would like to help him get those done.
I hope you enjoyed reading this TR and it helps you if you head to Denali.