Experiencing Camp 1 – 7,800ft Elevation

Guest Contribution: Ed Palushock

The women invited several of us to make guest contributions to their blog during their climb, to describe some of our collective, individual experiences when we were climbing Denali on our own trips; this post is a reflection on travels to Camp 1 at 7,800 ft elevation- where the Denali Girls recently arrived on Wednesday evening, and hopefully provides some insight on the world around them.  I met Carolyn, Jenn, Leigh Ann, and Meredith through the Mountaineers climbing program, and have been in the Washington Cascade mountains with each of them at some point over the past several years; each one of them are strong climbers in their own right, and I feel this trip is well-within each of their abilities.  For myself, I was fortunate to climb and summit Denali in 2008 about this time of year, also as part of a 4-person, independent team of friends.

View of the climbing route- Kahiltna Glacier 2008

View of the climbing route- Kahiltna Glacier 2008

One favorite memory I have associated with Camp 1 was the experience of just traveling to it. We flew out of Talkeetna around 3:30pm, arriving 30 minutes later on the landing strip of snow and ice- dubbed Kahiltna International Airport; adrenaline was flowing after a flight among and through the snow-covered peaks in this range, with straight-on views of our ultimate destination. Stepping onto the snow while de-planed revealed a world where everything was brilliant white… and incredibly quiet. All the adjacent peaks were snow covered, and the Southeast Fork of the glacier we landed on spanned a miles-wide valley under an unbroken blanket of snow; it was bright as noon on the sunniest summer day back home. Our plan was to unload, repack, obtain our fuel from the Base Camp Manager, bury a cache of food for the end of our trip, load up the sleds, and begin make our way to Camp 1 that very same day.   Two hours later, we were all roped up and started walking down Heartbreak Hill towing a full 125 pounds of gear in sleds, to reach the main flow of the Kahiltna Glacier.

Upon reaching a point of losing 500 feet elevation, we were nearly in the center of the Kahiltna Glacier. I was on the leading end of the ropes, which tied me with my teammates, and distinctly remember the vastness of the landscape all around. Climbing only in Washington and the lower 48 states up to that point, I had not come across anything like it. The glacier was even wider than the small area we had just landed on, with even more miles of distance between each sides where peaks started rising up; you could start to appreciate the power of the snow and ice we were walking on, and its affect in carving away at rock on either side, as the glacier left impressions of muscling its way through this valley. We were small specks compared to the size of everything around us; perhaps this impression was amplified as we were the only ones on the route at that time of day, for the five miles between Base Camp and Camp 1. Perhaps I did not have anyone in front of me to allow my eyes to scale and adjust the size of that which was around me.

The temperature was below zero degrees Fahrenheit, which made the snow almost crunchy when walking on it; unlike the wet, maritime snowpack the Pacific Northwest has or even on the east coast- the snow was almost like Styrofoam. Each step I took with steel crampons underfoot yielded a short, small high pitch squeaky sound- and I could faintly hear the steps of Joe, Jeff, and Karl behind me as they were walking. Everything was dead quiet and still, with no wind. The solitude was amazing.

After four hours of regaining 1,000 feet elevation over approximately four miles, we reached Camp 1 at the base of Ski Hill. Various parts of the route have unique, unofficial names like Ski Hill and Heartbreak Hill– each with their own stories, history, and ties to previous climbs before us. While the sun had set just below the ridge of mountains to our west, the quality of light was that of just prior to dusk at sunset back home. It was 10pm and still light out, and we did not need headlamps to set-up our camp. It had gotten much colder despite us stopping for the day, and with the clear evening coming up- we knew temperatures were going to drop further. We began to dig-in camp for our first night on our trip, and get dinner started.

Every climber has distinct memories of a climbing route, and I look forward to hearing from the several others writing in the coming days and weeks on their unique experiences. My first impressions of the climb were distinctly sensory, and coupled with the new experiences of the route, the place, the weather, and the time of day- I found myself feeling as if I was climbing for the first time again. For me being outdoors (hiking, climbing, skiing, camping) has a lot to do with exploring new places and seeing parts of the world only a few may get a chance to see, and this first day of our trip delivered.