Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Very Challenging day on the Fixed Ropes

"Very, very tough" is how Randy described the steep headwall today.

They had woken up around 11am to a very bleak weather forecast, so they guides had decided to wait a day before trying to carry to (Camp 2) High Camp (12,500 ft).   But Mother Nature is fickle, so a few hours later, the weather cleared, and they decided to give it a go.  After packing up the gear, food, and fuel they planned to cache up on the mountain, and making sure everyone was trained on how to ascend a fixed rope, the team set off around 3pm for the demanding climb.  The goal was to trek from Camp One across the upper ridges of the Branscomb glacier to the base of the fixed ropes at the  snow covered headwall, a 2000 ft monolith averaging about 35 or 40 degree slope.  They would haul themselves up the steep headwall, hike towards Camp Two, cache their gear, then descend the ropes back to Camp One for the night.  Climb high; sleep low.

This is what it looks like to climb the fixed ropes up the headwall (archived shots):

Each climber has to get himself up this headwall with about a 25 pound backpack.  They are not roped together since they all climb at different speeds, but each is connected to the fixed rope by an ascender and a safety, and of course, they always have at least one hand on the rope.  It's a laborious, demanding process where they take a step and jam their crampons into the snow, slide their ascender (called a jumar) up the rope, make sure the jumar locks,  take another step, slide up the jumar and keep going, resting when necessary.  When they get to an anchor, they have to very carefully unclip and clip back in.  And of course they do this all in increasingly thinner air and severe temperatures.  It sounds brutal.

The head guide, Greg, led the way, followed by some of the faster climbers.   Randy was at the back of the pack followed by the other guide, Mike.  In Randy's words, he was the "slowest by a considerable margin".  He found this fixed ropes ascent very, very fatiguing.  On the positive side, he got used to using the jumar, his calf didn't hurt, and surprisingly he wasn't overly intimidated by the steep terrain, but on the flip side, the physical exertion was kicking his butt.  His calf injury had really hurt his training regimen.  He had known his endurance was compromised, he just wasn't sure how much and had thought he could just rely on his accumulated general fitness and "suck it up" when he needed to.   But today, he felt his physical fitness just wasn't up to par and he had to take his time, try to get into a rhythm, and conserve his energy.  Mike was very encouraging and stayed with him,  and they finally arrived at an 11,000 ft rest point, about 60% up the headwall, after 2.5 hours.  The faster members of the group had gotten to that point in about 2 hours.  Randy said Anders was very fast and strong, right up in the front with Greg. At that point, Randy was pretty fried, and Greg made what I think was a good judgement call.  He told Randy that they didn't want to "blow him out" on this carrying climb, so Randy should give them all his stuff and climb back down with Mike.  Both guides assured Randy that this didn't mean that he won't be able to climb back up with the team and try to summit.  But since they were all coming back to Camp One anyway, Randy could skip the final 1000 ft up the headwall and conserve his strength for the next time.  Plus it was was getting colder and windy, and it would be safer if the other climbers could move quickly up and down.  Tomorrow would be a much needed rest day for everyone.
So Randy, guided by Mike, carefully and painstakingly descended down the fixed lines and made his way back to Camp One.  A very tired Randy called me a short time later filling me in and was definitely wondering if he has the physical fitness level required to summit this mountain.  I think at that point there was a confluence of factors that were giving him pause:  climbing the fixed lines was more taxing than he expected, he had gone from basically sea level to 11,000 ft in a few days, he has a terrible blister on his foot which was bugging him during this punishing day, he had never used an ascender, and it was colder and windier than he's ever experienced.

But like the mountain weather, Randy's ability to climb this formidable mountain is unpredictable. As to what will happen, he says, "It'll be interesting."  He promised me he'd listen to his body and to Anders and the guides, and he'd wait at camp if he felt he couldn't make it.  So I just don't know what to expect. Those of you that know Randy know how stubborn and determined he is, so I will not be surprised if he rests a day then wills himself up that headwall in position for a summit attempt.

It was reassuring to talk to Anders a few hours later, hear about the rest of his climb, and get his perspective on Randy.  He, Gregg, and the 4 other climbers had made it to the top of the headwall in another hour with Randy's and Mike's loads added to their own backpacks.  They cached the gear for Camp Two, then descended back down the fixed ropes.  After 6 hours of major exertion during deteriorating weather conditions, Anders was pretty beat up too. He definitely agreed climbing up the headwall was draining.  He had previously used fixed ropes ascending the infamously steep headwall at Denali. I asked how this compared, and he said Denali was steeper, but it was 800 ft and this was 2000 feet, so this just went "on and on and on" and was undeniably grueling.  But he loves this stuff, was still feeling strong and optimistic, and he thought Randy would feel a lot better with a day of rest.  Anders has a keen sense of what it takes to keep moving up the mountain and is very in tune with how Randy is doing, so I really trust him to help Randy decide how much he can handle.  Anders could not stay on the phone long because a front had come through and it was getting extremely frigid.  It was 20 below while we were chatting and getting colder.  He said it was A LOT colder than Denali, but assured me that in their tent, sleeping bags, and lots of layers, they were definitely warm enough.

What a day.  Thank God for a rest day tomorrow.  I think we all need it!

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