Sunday, October 30, 2011

Heading Home

I left Yreka, CA behind after a joy-filled good bye with my auntie and headed North toward Salem, OR. Thankfully my headlights held tough while I drove through some pretty nasty, rainy weather. After driving around town several times due to my inaccurate interpretation of my friend Kim's directions, I finally made it to her house. We hung out with her roommates for a bit that evening and then talked fairly late, catching up on life and sharing our hopes for the future. it would be fair to say that Kim is going to go far in life because of her encouraging nature, commitment to others, and love for the people around her. I awoke that next morning for breakfast among new friends and headed off toward home on the final stretch of my journey.

The weather was holding well and I was on the home stretch. Minus the fact that I couldn't listen to the radio because the roar of my "hole-y" muffler was so loud, it was a good drive. I was initially worried about getting over the pass into Montana, but I got through early enough that the road surface hadn't froze yet. My final stop before making it back to Kalispell was in St. Regis, where I filled up on fuel, sunflower seeds, and my usual gas station coffee laced with hot chocolate. Unfortunately, my headlights would not turn on when I started my pickup and no amount of jiggling of wires, whispered coaxing words, or yelling harsh insults would get them to light my way home. Thus I spent my last night on the road sleeping in the back of my truck in the parking lot of the Travel Center listening to country music blaring from the loud speaker. Home was so close I could feel it, and all I could do was wait for the light of the morning.

I woke up before sunrise the next morning and drowned my disappointment in some huckleberry pancakes. Then I made the final slog home. And what a Home-Coming! The valley had gotten some early season snow and I was able to head up to the ski resort after Dad got off work to hike the mountain with some friends and get in the first turns of the season. If my trip around the West had been a giant sundae, then skiing the day I got home was a giant cherry on top!


As I sit here and write this final post almost a year since I made the journey, I can't help but reflect on how amazing this experience it was. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to take the time off of work and school to visit beautiful natural sights and wonders that I had been curious about for some time. I drove a lot of miles to hike in deep canyons, ponder big trees, scale beautiful granite rock, and ride technical slickrock. It has proved to be a sort of "sampler trip:" I hit the hot spots and didn't spend too much time in any one particular area, but I know places that I want to travel back to and spend a longer period of time exploring.

As fun as hiking, running, climbing, and riding is beautiful places is, I don't think it would have been the same without all the special people that I was able to visit along the way. It has reminded me of the importance of involving other people in my adventures and to use life experiences to build lasting relationships with those whom with I travel through life. My hope is to grow from this great adventure; to let the miles of  this road trip work on me and mold me into a better person.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Green Wine Country, Deep Blue Ocean, and White Mountains: Adventures in Northern California

Ocean in view: Oh the Joy!
The morning after arriving at my Aunt and Uncle's house continued to be special. I was treated like a prince and it was as if my arrival made the world stand still and should have been called a national holiday! We had a wonderful breakfast, Luke skipped his first class at the High School , and I went with the four of them to drop both Luke and Hope off at school. Then I spent the morning with Craig fiddling with the lights on my pickup before scooting further north to see a good friend from College.

Lil' Champ and I rolled into Potter Valley feeling somewhat out of place. I  immediately felt like this sleepy little town was a place you could go to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which might be a good description of what my friend Amanda had done. We met up at her house and scurried off to the foothills to ramble among the green grasses and damp earth of autumn in California. We followed truck trails, cow trails, deer trails, and no trails, climbing up to a gorgeous viewpoint of the town below, all the while having the kind of warm, friendly, and open conversation that I have come to crave from my friends. Amanda jumps up on this boulder at one point and declares to me and the world that she had planted a meadow full of wild flowers and hoped to see them sprout in the coming spring. She's so fun! After the "ramble," the rest of the evening with filled with lab puppies, wonderful homemade food and wine with Amanda's sister, and even deeper conversation.

The next morning, after some not-quite-tearful goodbyes, I continued my journey around the West by driving west to the coast. I wandered up the coastal highway through amazingly beautiful country, eventually finding my way to the Redwoods National Park (RNP), the 12th National Park of my trip. Earlier, in Southern California, I stopped by the Sequoia National Park and saw the biggest trees of my life. It is my understanding that Sequoias are an inland variation of the Coastal Redwoods found in Northern California in Humboldt State Park and the RNP. If the Sequoias are the largest trees in the world by shear bulk, the Redwoods certainly give any other species a run for their money in a "tallest tree" contest.
National Park number 12 of my trip: the Redwoods.
The woods of the RNP are almost rainforest-like compared to the forests back home in Montana. Green is the primary color with life exploding all around you in the form of grass, moss, ferns, and the like. And I even got to see wildlife. This trip coming on the tails of a somewhat frustrating archery season chasing elk, I have a mix of emotions seeing the wily wapiti in the Yellowstone and Grand Teton areas, and now in the Redwoods. It is a remarkably freeing feeling when I can witness elk in their native habitat and appreciate them for what they are: a beautiful creature of the forest, strong and powerful, and masters of survival, without the pressure of the harvest that hunting usually brings. It is definitely a different enjoyment, but one that I could come to appreciate.
That's me, and yes, I'm hugging a tree. A really big tree.
Evidently the elk are rather ferocious in Northern
California...and they know it! The sign says "Wild Elk:
Do not approach or Feed."
Epic self-timer photo. Took me a couple of takes. But
isn't that sunset beautiful?
If you continue through the Park toward Crescent City, you'll come to the ocean and I happened to do just that as the sun was setting. It was gorgeous! Being a mountain boy from land-locked Montana I don't get to see the ocean very much, which made this that much more enjoyable. There is something about the sea that sparks the imagination and gives joy to the spirit; a view to the horizon, a salty breeze, and foamy waves crashing on the shore makes one believe they can do anything.

I enjoyed the sunset until the light no longer painted the sky with color and drove North through Crescent City, "around the horn" through Grants Pass, Medford, and back down to visit my Auntie Ingrid and Uncle Mike. Once again, I cannot express the gratitude that I  have for such a wonderful loving family scattered across the country. My aunt and uncle welcomed me into their home with some great food and even better conversation. The only thing that ended our time together that first night was my "glazed look." I had been on the road all day and was falling asleep in my chair. I hope that Uncle Mike will find a way to forgive me; it was because I was tired and not because of his pontifications that were making my eyes droopy.
Looking up the standard climbers' route of Shasta with
the alpine climbers' cabin in the foreground. 
Yet another coincidence on my trip increased the enjoyment factor exponentially: Ingrid happened to have the day off of work the next day. She took me on a tour to see Mt. Shasta and hike around at its base. There was a lot of snow around and we had some fun route finding among the fresh smelling pine trees in the crisp autumn air of the volcanic highlands. There is something about fresh air, hiking and snacky-food that stimulates the mind, body, and spirit, but then again I just love being outside. She sent me off alone at one point to go see the climbers' cabin and race around the woods in the snow, then I met her back at the parking lot. We then went to a late lunch at a wonderful little cafe that was even on a little on the ritzy side. I felt honored to have such a treat, especially when the two of us just sauntered in dressed in our boots and hiking clothing!
Inside the climbers' cabin. It's something like Craig and
Luke's favorite vacation spot and a local to which I want
to return.
Photo with my wonderful Auntie Ingrid in front of
Mt. Shasts.
From girls to future goals and dreams our conversations covered a lot of miles. We also had a great time defining a new term: phisching (pronounced fish-king). A blending of the words phishing and scheming, it's a tool in the "scheming process", all about gathering information/data about other people's interests and schedules upon which to formulate a plan for an adventure involving said people. Among certain circles of friends I've come to be known as the "Scheming Monster," a title of which I am proud.  However, I was surprised to find how much of a Scheming Monster Ingrid is in her own right. Perhaps these tendencies in ourselves can be traced to influential people in both our lives, people with names like Ron, Ann, Tabitha, and Duane. I am proud of my heritage for sure.

I don't know if I had ever spent one-on-one time like that with my favorite Hansen auntie, and I will remember our time together forever.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Journey to Camp 1: Hauling Sleds on the Lower Kahiltna

Traveling in God's country and loving every minute of it.
Journal Entry No. 3
Location: Camp 1 at 7800' elevation, the base of “Ski Hill”. We single-hauled gear in packs and sleds to the first camp, crossed the extreme lower glacier without crevasse trouble, and set up camp before sunrise. Thankfully the glacier froze two nights in a row and we never punched through with our skis on. I was extremely relieved when I realized that climbing Denali was a “doable” thing, and I wouldn't get stuck in Base Camp.

Dad on the morning of our move. Glad to be traveling safely.

When we transitioned from skiing to skinning, we stopped at a not-so-smart location next to a Japanese team that didn't really seem like they knew what they were doing. When Dad stepped off his skies, I remember him looking back at a me with a weird look in his eyes saying something like, “We're right on top of a crevasse!” Apparently his foot punched a little deeper into the snow bridge than he was prepared for. Breakfast was fantastic but we're once again reminded that the sun is pretty brutal.
It's a big load between the pack and the sled...
June 18—We traveled today! The alarm went off in my head (well, my watch was in my hat after all...) at midnight. We checked the snow conditions and they looked stiff and favorable. We slept for another hour though and then dressed, broke camp, and skated down “heart break hill,” none too gracefully. I had both brakes on my sled so I was skating downhill and still only making progress with the pull from Dad's rope. Then it was a glorious skin/tour to Camp 1, passing a team and a guided group along the way. After camp was set-up we whipped up some gourmet hash browns and eggs for a late breakfast and commenced napping/resting in the shade of the tent. Dad beat me in our first ever scored game of Cassino :( Score: Dad-21, Colter-12

We are scheming of how to do a double carry to Camp 2 but in the same morning. We'll see if the weather holds out. Here's praying.
Gotta love those Bekos! Dad and I are hanging out in the shade of our cook tent.
Ps. 147:10-11 “He does not delight in the strength of horses; He takes no pleasure in the legs of a man. The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in His mercy.”
Ps. 144:1 “Blessed be the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.”
How does one reconcile two verses like these? God gives strength for battle but doesn't take pleasure in that strength?

I took a small 'New Testament and Psalms' Bible with me on the trip and had a chance to read a bit that day. I still can't figure out the two opposing trains of thought in the 147th and 144th chapters of Psalms. All I know is that I felt like I leaned on God a lot during our expedition, even being in a situation where I was trying prove myself worthy of climbing big mountains. He gave me strength for my “battle” against the elements and helped Dad and I on our journey, but imparted little nuggets of wisdom along the way that gently reminds me summitting mountains is nothing when compared with a life with God. There are very few things in life that I love more than climbing, but God takes greater pleasure when I use the joy and energy mountains give me to fill those around me with love and happiness.

What a glorious morning on the Kahiltna!
During our camp at the Base of Ski Hill we witnessed a huge avalanche across the valley caused by a serac fall. It was pretty impressive and we felt a gust of wind from it from a mile or two away. We stayed in the shade of our tents during the heat of the day, napping, eating, and drinking to pass the time. There was a lot of down time on Denali, balanced with some pretty hard pushes: it was an interesting mix. At this point with two nights on the glacier under our belts, we've got a pretty good snow camping system going. It's still pretty early in our three week stint on the 'High One' and we continue to get more comfortable with the gear, packing and unpacking, melting snow and cooking big meals.

Today, just about the time when the shade hit us (remember there isn't really any darkness, only a large period of time when you aren't getting direct sunlight and thus feels like a night), we saw our friend 'Hans' madly double-poling back down the glacier to his tent at Base Camp. Hans was a Swiss ski guide that we met in Base Camp and had several funny conversations with. He talked about the Kahiltna like it didn't have any glaciers: “If you want to see glaciers, go to the Alps,” he said in a very thick German accent. This guy was a beast: he had legs like a horse and skied like a mad man. The morning that we left Base Camp, he blew by us going down Heart Break Hill, transitioned to skinning and flew up the glacier. We never saw him until that night skiing back through Camp 1. I have no idea how far he went, possibly to Basin Camp at 14,000 feet in an attempt to acclimatize. We were amazed to say the least. 

Home sweet home at the base of Ski Hill.

Another rope team getting into camp after us. We saw a lot of other people on our trip, seeing as how it is the most popular route on the highest peak in North America.

A food preparation photo: cream cheese crackers for an appetizer, freshly chopped garlic, and dry hash browns ready to be fried up.

An avalanche a hop, skip, and a jump away from our camp. Pretty humbling.

Nap time!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Difficulty Leaving Base Camp

Journal Entry No. 2
Location: Base Camp
I am writing the day after flew in. We didn't leave Base Camp earlier that morning and you'll hear about why in the entry.

Scrambling to get sunscreen on, and wowed by the scenery.
June 17--Our adventure continues here at Kahiltna Base Camp as our hopes, dreams, and fears all mix together, churned like clothes in a washing machine.

We arrived yesterday around 12:30-1pm and setup camp for the day. After checking in, pitching our two tents, melting snow for drinking water, and eating some bean and rice burritos with guacamole (yum!), we set ourselves to the task of rigging our sleds and packing some of our gear. This took much longer than I expected and we didn't stop to crawl into our sleeping bags for a nap until close to 11 pm. As we were closing our eyes, one team was packing to leave.

We got up at 2:30 and pounded some granola with mild (and nuts and raisins for me). Coffee would have been nice but it was nicer not to have to think about heating water. By a quarter to 5 we were entirely packed up and ready to leave when Dad said he didn't think he could do it. He was struggling with anxiety over the stories we had been hearing about travel on the lower glacier, especially since we were a party of only two.
View of the Moonlight Buttress with several climbers chatting in front of the Park Rangers' tent.
I can't quite express the struggle within myself over my love for my Dad and frustration at not being able to travel to the next camp. I feel as though the snow was re-frozen well enough and we should take advantage of the good weather. After waffling for probably half an hour as two large guided teams packed and left we made the decision to stay, “resting” one more day, making sure our system was bomber, and leaving a little before midnight tonight. We setup the Allak tent again and slept for another couple of hours until being driven outside by heat and the need to relieve ourselves.
Lunch, then, was a solid batch of potato soup with reindeer sausage. We did some busy--work thinking about getting the sleds ready for whenever we decide to travel, and now we've laid around the tent for a long time. (We did try to learn how to play Casino, but we'll have to work through the rules small chunks at a time.)

To say that I was frustrated to not be moving camp would be an understatement. I don't think I handled the situation very well and struggled to maintain composure while sorting out the decision with Dad. He has said something to the effect of "Colter was freaking out, that I was freaking out." To be handed a "bomb" like that was totally unexpected. In the future, I need to remember sooner that group decisions are made while mountaineering based on the comfort level of any one of the team; an individual decision becomes the group decision in a hurry, and is usually the best choice. I forgave my Dad for the choice to stay put relatively quickly, and totally forgot about it when we were able to travel the following day. I hope that my attitude and body language reflected that. 
Our camp in the little tent 'town' they call Base Camp. Notice our guard-Poutingos.  
I've been asked several times recently (by strangers, mind you) about Why I decided to climb Denali. This will most likely be a subject revisited several times in the course of this journal. For now, I've come to the conclusion that I see Denali as a test of myself as a mountaineer. Sure, it would be a climbing resume builder and I wouldn't mind being able to tell people that I've climbed the highest point in North America. However it is more accurate, as well as “admirable,” to say I'm using the mountain as a training-testing ground. Perhaps that's why I like all outdoor sports: there is a certain amount of preparation that goes into it beforehand and the actual event tells you how well you prepared. (Cool metaphor of life maybe: every event and every adventure is a preparation for the next.)

Now I'm in the best shape of my life for mountaineering and I want to see if it's good enough to summit Denali. And, unfortunately I might not get to find out, since the weather isn't really cooperating. Mentally it would be okay to accept being prevented from the summit by storms, but it's a struggle to contemplate not making it off the South East Fork of the Kahiltna! I need to eat some humble pie...
Not exactly 'Humble Pie': enjoying a good breakfast on the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. To keep things in perspective: the views alone of the surrounding rock, ice, and peaks made the trip worth it. And at this point things are only going to get better!
*Note to self: I want to make sure and look up the Father/Son climbing team that put up a new route in the area as well as the Japanese pair that came in today. Rubbing elbows with famous climbers? More like breathing the same air...

I looked up some information from this past year's climbing season. I couldn't really pick out an oriental team that would have come back to Base Camp around the time we did, but I'm pretty sure that the Schmidt's were the father/son team that I overheard talking to the Ranger in Talkeetna and subsequently mentioned in my journal. It's pretty inspiring for an up-and-coming father/son climbing team like Team Poutine... The text below is taken from a summary of new routes done in the Alaska Range during the 2011 climbing season on
Windy Corner/West Rim Wall, major new spur climbed
Marty and Denali Schmidt
June, 2011
Climbs the prominent buttress immediately to the left of the West Rim route (Morrow, Ehmann, 1977) and joins the West Buttress route on the glacier just above Windy Corner. Team descended to Basecamp at that point. The Schmidts- father and son- also summitted Denali by the west buttress, and Mount Foraker by the Sultana Ridge, and were the only team to reach the summit of Mount Foraker this season.
Difficulty: WI5, 5.10, A2
Source: basecamp ranger conversation with Schmidt

Denali Journal: The Beginning of the Journey

Chillin' in front of the Beaver, our ride onto Denali.
 My goal in this is to share the story of Team Poutine's Climbing Expedition to climb Denali in the summer of 2011. I am using what I wrote in my journal as a frame-work upon which to build other thoughts and commentary. These entries will be posted on my blog with pictures to help illustrate the tale. I hope to use what I write here to prepare a book to share with friends and family and potentially write a “script” or “screen play” that I can compile our video footage and pictures from the climb into a homemade movie. I've got big dreams, but I guess it takes work to be a Renaissance Man.

Although I have been unable to help myself in editing some of the words in the journal, my attempt has been to type everything as I wrote it in my journal along the trip. I don't want to leave anything out as the journal really chronicles what I was going through mentally and emotionally through the climb.

The regular text comes directly from the journal, while italics indicates commentary that I have added while putting this together, several months removed from the expedition.
Our carry-on luggage in the GPI airport. We got surprisingly more comments about getting on a plane in June with our ski boots than about our Poutingos...
Journal Entry No. 1
Location: Talkeetna Air Taxi “alternate” bunkhouse (they have a bunkhouse with a shower and a kitchen more in the town of Talkeetna, but we chose to stay closer to the airport where we wouldn't have to put up with climbers just coming off the mountain potentially celebrating into the night)
Organizing our gear in the Corwins' living room. They were very considerate to let us invade their home with our 'tons' of expedition gear.
June 15--We flew out of Kalispell yesterday afternoon following a frantic packing session/cleaning-the-house attempt/gear decision/friend-phone-calling morning. This in itself was riding on the tails of an all day gear-fest, prep day on Monday. I was raterh weary of making decisions about what shirt to bring, whether, or not to take an extra gadget or how in the world we were going to pack everything for the plane to Anchorage, then the drive to Talkeetna, the flight to the glacier, and finally our travels up the mountain.
Good friends and good food at the Moose's Tooth.
Regardless of all that we had a great trip up to Alaska, complete with a complimentary beer from the airline and the smiling faces of Ben and Katie Corwin greeting us at the Fred Stevens airport. The four of us , along with over 200 pounds of gear in four giant bags, crammed into the Corwins' jeep and set off for their apartment located in the “Baroness.” It was so much fun to see their humble abode! I hadn't seen either of them in a bout a year and a half. Both of them are awesome people, great friends, and fierce lovers of God. It is always inspiring to be around them. After dropping off the gear we cruised over to the Moose's Tooth restaurant for some local pizza and brews, both of which were fantastic.
Chatting with Matt, our shuttle driver to Talkeetna. Dad is going through a food bag with him. What you see is a five-day pile of grub, and a whole lot of grub it is as we find out later. 
I have a side note in my journal about how much I've flown this spring. This might be an understatement as I probably was in a flying contraption more this spring than I have been the last five years of my life. We rode in a helicopter to Fairy Meadows, I flew to Dallas for a wedding, flew to Denver for another, to Alaska on a jet, and then on and off the Kahiltna glacier in turboprops.

Last night I couldn't sleep. Not because of the futon I was sleeping on, or the close quarters to my dad, but because I was anxious about the upcoming trip onto Denali.

This was also my first experience with 24 hours of daylight. We were able to close the shades enough that it wasn't a problem to sleep but it was still startling when we came out of the restaurant around 10 in what seemed to me to be full daylight. We were even more amazed by this “Northern Phenomenon” while on the mountain, but more about that later.
Organizing gear at the airstrip in Talkeetna. We had to package everything in bags less than 80 pounds. I think this is the third time we've re-packed our stuff in the last two days!
The past couple of weeks have been a crazy roller coaster of emotions. You worry and fret over one aspect of the climb, get it settled in your mind, and then your confidence grows again...until you start worrying about another facet of the adventure. Crevasses? Yes. Altitude? You bet. Steep ice? Death on the Mountain? Small pack? Warm clothes with -30 degree weather? Everything.
Today was no different. Talking with Ben, to a drive with pseudo-guide and food delivery guy Matt to Talkeetna, to the Ranger briefing, to conversations with climbers fresh off the mountain has left my heart and mind dazed and confused.

It sounds like the lower glacier doesn't have very good conditions. Many climbers are falling in crevasses. I was braced and ready to be denied the summit by inclement weater up high but was not prepared to think about being turned away by the first segment. Still, I don't want to die. I don't want to fall in a crevasse. And I want to be able to climb for years to come.
Dad doing his best "Vanna White" showing off the pile that will fly with us onto the glacier.
We will make our decision when we get there, hoping and praying for cold weather and frozen snow. Right now I look forward to a good night's sleep and a beautiful flight in the morning.

I got a good night's sleep in the TAT bunkhouse, but we didn't fly out to the glacier until mid-morning. The weather didn't cooperate early for flying so we sat in stand-by mode for several hours with nothing to do except play with my kendama, tape pink flamingos to our wands, and worry about crevasses. We had everything packed for the flight in so we were stuck wearing our ski boots and glacier travel clothes, not uncomfortable, but not ideal for walking around the airstrip.
Killing time with the Kendama. It was an anxious couple of hours.
Flying from Talkeetna to the airstrip at Base Camp was pretty incredible. The landscape changes from rivers to swampy tundra to barren foothills to the mountains and glaciers of the Alaskan Range. I was surprised to see so many houses below that didn't seem to have any form of road to get to them. It would be much easier to travel around during the winter I'm sure. But how do they get supplies in the summer months?
The plane was a Beaver, and the flight in was only the two of us and the pilot. 
What struck me was just how BIG everything seemed to be in the mountains of Alaska! The peaks were more rugged and the glaciers were more vast than anything I've ever encountered before. And I probably thought the same thing when we flew into Fairy Meadows in British Columbia earlier this year. Your experiences make everything relative I suppose.
Thumbs up and all smiles!
A side glacier we viewed while flying in. We didn't have to cross anything that gnarly thank goodness.
The pilot dropped us off under blue skies and a harsh sun. With all the snow around to reflect the sun's intensity, combined with the altitude, Dad and I scrambled to get covered up and put sunscreen on our faces. We then piled our stuff in the sleds we chose from the pile at the air strip and skied down into camp.
Showing the plane we just rode in on at the landing strip of Base Camp. Another crew is packing their stuff and getting ready to fly out. They looked exhausted!