A DAY “OFF” IN TALKEETNA

We arrived safe and sound in Talkeetna, Alaska around 9:30 pm on Saturday evening.  We popped over to Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) to check on some missing shipped gear that we need for our field work (TAT was closed by the time we arrived), snagged a hotel room at the Swiss Alaska Inn, and then bounced downtown to visit some climbing friends at the local evening hangout, Fairview Inn.  Blaine was able to meet up with colleagues he hadn’t seen in a couple years and we talked with them about current climbing route conditions, considering they just came off Denali.

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Kristin and I at TAT, Saturday evening

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Amazing Plane! The Otter…

On Sunday morning we ate breakfast at the Inn and checked in with TAT. They helped us locate three of our missing bags which just arrived yesterday in Talkeetna.  We are still missing two bags but they are the less important of the five total bags so it seems our project is now officially a go!  We talked for a bit with the great folks of TAT (including owner of TAT, friend, and long-time supporter of science research in Denali, Paul Roderick).

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Blaine (center) and Brian Wright (USGS-left) looking skeptical as I explain ground-penetrating radar for use in measuring snow and ice thicknesses.  Seriously, it works guys!

We then bounced over to the DNP Ranger Station for our briefing with park rangers.  Every climber that goes onto Denali needs to fill out climbing permit paperwork in advance of their climb (which we had). Upon arrival, every group meets with a ranger to discuss their climbing objectives and some other pertinent details.  For example, we let the rangers know the color of our tents, our emergency communication capabilities (we have a Delorme In-Reach and a satellite phone), our planned route, and proposed start/end dates for our time on the mountain.  The rangers also summarize current route conditions and any policies which are pertinent to our climb.

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Lots of climbers this year but not a very high success rate!  Usually its a 50% success rate, not 35%!

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That’s a big foot!

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The marker we are installing at Windy Corner

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A comparison of markers on display at the ranger station. Note the center marker and the sticker in the upper right hand corner.  Blaine and team from last year surveyed the Denali summit at 20,310 feet above sea level, 10 feet lower than previously thought.  Now everyone has to change the elevation listed on all their Denali-related memorabilia!

Considering we are one of over 1000 climbers who are registered to climb the West Buttress of Denali this year, the rangers provided a detailed summary of:

  • Where their rangers are located on-route right now;
  • Where and how we can cache gear and equipment along the route, that we don’t need for the entire climb;
  • Where we can dump human waste on the mountain;
  • What is required for all climbers to have when traveling to higher camps on Denali;
  • Recent weather events such as snowfall or wind that significantly influence the safety or condition of the route (i.e. avalanche hazards, wind slabs, icy route conditions, etc.).

Ironically, probably one of the most commonly asked question by non-climbers is about how we manage human waste in the field (i.e. how and where do you go the bathroom? What do you do with the human waste?).  SO, I’ll give you a little run-down here as it relates to the West Buttress climbing route.  The park staffs a seasonal ranger station (tent) at base camp (7,600 fasl) where you fly into the West Buttress and a second at 14,200 fasl.  Pit latrines have been established at both sites where climbers can go pee in a hole. However, climbers also use a lightweight and portable 10” diameter capped-PVC tube called a “clean mountain can” (CMC) to sit on like a 5-gallon bucket, for #2!  The park provides biodegradable bags to line each CMC which you fill to the brim before you pull the bag out and tie it off like a trash bag.  Certain crevasses (large cracks in the glacier ice) on the Kahiltna are approved dumping grounds for climbers to toss their biodegradable bags of human waste into, with the idea that over time it is biodegrade.  This said, the most conscientious and environmentally friendly climbers try to minimize leaving their waste on the mountain so they also have the option of transporting it out via plane at the end of their season.  High on the mountain where the slopes are mostly ice due to high winds scouring the glacier, all waste is required to be carried down the mountain to lower elevations.  It’s a pretty extensive and impressive leave-no-trace strategy considering climbers often stay on the mountain for 18-20 days per group.  Lots of research has actually gone into the current waste management plan.  For example, here is a link to a peer-reviewed paper by colleagues about waste management on the Kahiltna!

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Clean Mountain Cans, ready to be used!

Another cool fact: Rangers patrol from base camp all the way to the summit and back to help answer climber questions, make sure climbers are following waste management (and other) regulations, and to be available in the event of an emergency which needs immediate attention (for example climbers who may have injuries from a fall, cold related injuries or illnesses such as frostbite or hypothermia, or high altitude illnesses).  Rangers on Denali are the backbone of the park and the climbing rangers are also a wealth of knowledge.  While at the ranger station, we bumped into a long-time ranger, now friend, and supporter of our science efforts, ranger Joe Reichert.  It’s always good to see the familiar faces in Talkeetna but Joe is one of those that has a tendency to stand out for both Blaine and I.  He is always positive, always has a smile on his face, and is ALWAYS psyched to chat about climbing, science, the park, or anything outdoors.  In reality, all of the rangers at Denali are similar to Joe in this manner so it’s always fun working alongside of them on the mountain.

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Joe Reichert with Kristin, myself and Blaine (left to right) in the Talkeetna Ranger Station

 After our ranger visit, we returned to TAT to organize and weigh all our gear which will be flown onto the mountain.  TAT (and any flight service provider for that matter) needs to know exact weights of everything so it’s a standard process to weigh every little piece of equipment.  With the organization and weighing of our gear out of the way, now we play the waiting game!

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Kristin weighing my skis and ski poles

Poor weather (snow and low clouds) has base camp socked in right now and it’s a down-pour in Talkeetna so it’s a no-fly day.  Will killed the rest of the day by eating pizza for lunch at Mountain High Pies (where we also ran into a friend and long-time pilot, Tony who showed us a cool video he recorded of sub-glacial melt water flowing out from under the vegetation-covered tongue of nearby Ruth Glacier), ice-cream at Nagley’s General Store, checking out various local artist shops, and walking down to the Susitna River.

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Nagley’s General store with a few other businesses.  Perhaps food at the West Rib may be in order today.  Check out their “Sewards Folly” burger.  4 pounds of meat in one burger!

At the Susitna, we realized that flying onto the glacier may be delayed for a few days, BUT, overall, it was a nice relaxing day yesterday to catch up on rest after the long travel day to arrive in Talkeetna.

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Where is the mountain?!  View last night across the Susitna River towards Denali… Maybe weather will improve tomorrow!

It’s raining this morning but that means breakfast at the Roadhouse.  They have amazing food in a comfortable family style atmosphere… Amazing black and blue (blueberries and blackberries) sourdough pancakes! Blaine, Kristin, and I just finished eating so now we wait and see what today brings!

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