The Denali Sanction

By Ephrat

30 May 2013

I would like to thank the American Alpine Club for their support of this adventure of a lifetime via the Live Your Dream Grant. They do amazing work and are invaluable to the American climbing community. You can read more about the programs offered by the AAC and becoming a member on their website.

Day 0 (5/21): Off to Anchorage

Long day in transit. Checked five bags of food and gear: 3 x 50lb and 2 x 25 lb. We were supposed to have a five hour layover in Seattle, but Alaska Airlines moved us to an earlier flight without telling us. We missed it, but got on the next one and landed in Anchorage two hours ahead of schedule! We stayed at the Millenium Hotel and indulged ourselves with delicious burgers at the lounge. I found a fake eyelash in the face towel in our room - gross! Otherwise, it's a cute place.

Day 1 (5/22): Glacier Landing

What a day! Go Purple shuttle picked us up right on schedule at 9am. We went to pick up another party of two, which turned out to be a party of seven. Oddly enough, one of them was a woman I had been chatting with on Twitter. Unfortunately, there was no way we could fit all the gear in the van. Since their appointment with the rangers was earlier than ours, we gave them our van and the driver called another one for us, which was only 20 minutes away.

We stopped at Safeway in Wasilla for last-minute supplies, then they bought us coffee and cookies (yum!) at a roadside stand. We arrived in Talkeetna around 12:30pm. We met with our air taxi, Sheldon Air Service, who said they might be able to fly us out that evening if conditions held up. So we spent a couple of hours sorting and packing all of our gear in the hangar while chatting with a few local climbers. A couple of them asked to sit in on our orientation with the rangers, so when it came time we hopped on rusty old mountain bikes and rode over together. By this time my nerves were nearly impossible to control. Was this really happening? Everything was coming together so quickly that I didn't have time to mentally process anything!

After orientation, we grabbed a few more supplies at the local market and pizza at Mountain High Pizza Pie. I couldn't even finish my slice I was so freaked out. We hopped on our bikes and raced back to the hangar. Within 20 minutes we were wearing our mountain clothes and taxiing on the runway. The plane was tiny -- barely big enough for us, gear, and the pilot.

The flight was spectacular: first through the flatlands and then up through the mountains. Crevassed glaciers, steep rock, clouds with intermittent sunshine. It was unreal! At some point we took a turn and saw a little city of tents. We land and unload all of the gear. The pilot shakes our hands and then he is gone. "We're finally here!" I shouted over the noise of the plane. I couldn't believe it. I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Months of planning and training have all lead to this day, this moment.

We check in with the basecamp manager Lisa. It takes a couple of hours to rig our sleds, and we finally hit the trail at 9:45pm. our plan was to hike in the cooler hours of the night and rest during the warmer hours of the day. Apparently, we were the only ones with this idea and we had the entire 5.5 mile stretch to ourselves. The feeling of being surrounded by impossibly tall mountains is indescribable. We witnessed several icefall, and heard even more in the distance. We crossed a few crevasses, but the bridges appeared fairly solid. It took us about five hours to reach camp.

Everything was still. We tried to be as quiet as possible while setting up camp, but I'm sure our neighbors weren't pleased.

We slept.

Day 2 (5/23): Move to 9700

Luca slept until past noon. I, as usual, woke up earlier. I read, napped, ate, napped, repeat until I felt rested. Many had left camp in the early morning, so it was fairly quiet during the day. We melted snow, had some food, and relaxed. Oh, by the way, cinnamon raisin bread toasted with butter is delicious!!

The weather changed about every 30 minutes. White out, snow, sun ... just never any wind. Many massive avalanches released on the nearby slopes.

Around 6pm we made dinner -- black bean soup, unstuffed peppers, and strawberry cheesecake. We packed up camp and headed out at 8:50pm. Initially we were headed for the 11k camp, but it soon became clear to me that it was a major stretch. I managed to convince Luca to camp at the 9.7k camp instead.

About a mile from our destination, we ran into the camp of several Ukrainians who offered us hot tea and cookies. That couldn't have come at a better time, since the sun had just "set" and it was getting cold. We chatted for a bit, and then continued on to camp. It was another night of awkwardly trying to pitch the tent as quietly as possible. I was beat, and fell asleep immediately.

Day 3 (5/24): Move to 11,000

Woke up to noisy Russians and foul-mouthed, homophobic military men who clearly weren't enjoying their trip. After they cleared out, all that remained were a couple of Swedish dudes named Christian and Christian. We spent the morning chatting with them as we packed up camp. They are planning to visit San Francisco on their way home, so we may meet up with them there!

We left camp around 12:35pm. It was a crystal clear day with absolutely no wind. The sun was burning hot on the glacier. We thought we only had a short climb ahead of us, but it turns out that the book was off by quite a bit! What we thought would be a 2.5 hour hike was more like four hours. Fortunately, our heaviest sled-pulling days are now behind us, though!

Shortly after arriving at camp, Luca spotted a small, fortified site that fit our tent perfectly, and even had a kitchen and hole for the vestibule of our tent! Also, I don't think we've ever pitched the tent as well as we did today! Woohoo!

We were starving, and started with a snack of tortillas and cheese. We then moved on to Top Ramen and tea.

Luca's back was hurting him, so we rested for an hour in the tent. We also rested because I was really beat. At 8pm we turned on the radio to hear the weather forecast, but the squelch was set too high and we didn't hear a thing. We talked to a couple of guys and found out that the high pressure system will strengthen into next week!

Our plan is to carry a cache tomorrow to 13,500 feet (around Windy Corner) and then come back to the 11k camp to sleep. We haven't decided if we will take a light sled or not. Our neighbors Mike and Keith are planning to do the same. They are a couple of nice fellas that brought way too much stuff. Seems to be a trend around here!

Dinner was Thai red curry with chicken and brown rice. Unfortunately, the rice doesn't rehydrate very well, unlike the farro. Ritter Sport (with the cookie inside!) for dessert.

Day 4 (5/25): Cache at 13,500

Alarm went off at 7am, but it was cold outside and we were both still tired, so we didn't get up until 8am. It took us about 2.5 hours to pack up and eat breakfast. We put most of our food (minus 4 days' worth) in our packs and one sled, and headed up Motorcycle Hill. Luca took the sled, my hero. I felt really strong today.

There were several opening crevasses along the way up. Squirrel Hill wasn't nearly as dicey as our friend back home, Mark, made it out to be. But when we reached the top we were hit with icy wind until we reached the far side of Windy Corner. It was calm and warm there. We caught up with our friendly neighbors and chatted as we ate lunch at the 13,500 foot cache site. We buried our supplies in a beautiful hole that someone else had dug -- awesome! So far we haven't had to make any of our own campsites or dig our own cache holes.

The way back was fast and easy. Windy Corner was calm and hot. We ran into the military guys who knew that conditions would improve in the afternoon and were on their way up to leave their own cache. We also ran into two men from Montana. They passed us yesterday as I was struggling up the hill to 11k, and today one was visibly upset that we had beat them up by a longshot. The other flashed me a huge grin and "San Francisco! She's back! Like a rash!"

In the heat of the day, the snow bridges were looking a little iffy. I tried to go around one but punched in a little. Oops!

We got back to camp around 5pm. Luca was severely dehydrated; I was starving and finished my lunch. We then passed out in the tent for an hour. Eventually we got up to make water and dinner (macaroni and cheese). We also invited our Swedish friends over for hot chocolate and music.

Weather is looking good through Wednesday! Tomorrow (Sunday) we move to 14k and then take a rest day.

Day 5 (5/26): Move to 14,200

The alarm never sounded and we overslept by 30 minutes. It took us a really long time to pack up camp. We soon realized that we had a lot more weight than we initially thought. I volunteered to take some of the weight on a second sled to make things more manageable. (We had originally planned to only take one sled, as we had the day before.) While packing, another group of military dudes arrived; these ones are from Bridgeport!

We left camp around 11:30pm. The day was hot and the wind was calm. We made it up Motorcycle Hill in fairly good time, passing a couple of parties along the way. The snow bridges seemed stronger today. Squirrel Hill was absolutely brutal with the sled, even though it didn't have that much weight. By the time we reached the base of Windy Corner, I was exhausted. Somehow we made it up though, and then we took a nice long break.

At the 13,500 ft cache we collected our shovel that we had cached the day before, and we took another long break. We were really starting to feel worn down by the heat and exertion.

It was at least another hour to the 14,200 ft camp. There were some impressive crevasses along the way. We arrived around 7pm, dehydrated and hungry. We were lucky to score a pretty sweet campsite and started setting up camp and melting snow.

I felt really chilled, even though it wasn't that cold. We collapsed in bed around 10pm. Dessert was Ritter Sport, and we didn't even bother to brush our teeth.

Day 6 (5/27): Pick up cache at 13,500

Slept in until pretty late. Luca was so happy. I read for a couple of hours while he slept and the condensation frozen to the tent walls and poles slowly melted onto my face.

Breakfast was bagels toasted in butter. After a walk around camp we roped up and retrieved our cache. It took 1:45 round trip. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking and eating. The weather outlook is good through Friday, so our plan is to rest tomorrow and then move to the 17k camp in a single push! The weather was beautiful today.

Day 7 (5/28): Rest!

Woke up at 10:30, but I thought it was a lot later. Luca had terrible dreams and didn't sleep well. A helicopter visited, taking several payloads back and forth with the 17k camp. Low energy today. Luca had a headache most of the day.

There was a large icefall in the afternoon sun. Our neighbor has HAPE and will descend tomorrow. We're planning to wake up early to move camp!

Socialized a bit with the Montana guys and Mike and Keith. The Christians made it up this evening and look so happy to be here. A mountain guide gave us valuable advice on protecting the fixed lines. His customer was pretty cranky since they didn't make it past 17k.

Day 8 (5/29): Move to 17,200

Woke up at 7:30 to begin packing up camp. Our goal was to leave by 9:30, but it was very cold in the morning and we were moving too slowly. The sun doesn't hit the camp until 9:30 or so, and we couldn't be very efficient in the cold. The night before we had prepared all of the food and gear we would need, so it was only a matter of breaking camp, burying a cache, and tossing our waste in the poo crevasse. Breakfast was cinnamon raisin bagels that we had kept warm in our sleeping bags overnight. I had to choke it down since I was feeling the weight of the day ahead of us.

The sky was clear and there were already several parties making their way up the headwall. At 10am, Mike and Keith passed by our camp, connected by their bright orange rope. They were 1:30 behind their intended schedule. We were almost ready to go, with one major task ahead of us: tossing the poo.

We asked around to find out where the crevasse is, and someone pointed us toward a sign that lead to the trail back to 13,500. We had passed a massive crevasse on the way in to camp, about 1/4 mile away. Not seeing any other options, we walked all the way and tossed it in, losing precious elevation along the way. I was annoyed, since we lost nearly 30 minutes and we were already way behind schedule. I really wanted us to have enough time at 17k to rest and acclimatize, but this was now looking highly unlikely as it was already past 10:30.

Just before we left, a guy came and chatted with us for a bit. When he found out our plan to make the summit alpine style (i.e. no caches or double carries), he tried to tell us it was a bad ide. He said some other guy who has done Everest and other tall mountains said that it was moving too fast. We just kind of smiled and assured him that we are listening carefully to our bodies and were feeling strong. He shrugged and took off, and by 10:45am we were making our way up the steep slope to the headwall.

The sun beat down on us and I was way too warm in my layers. Several rope teams of the military guys (marines, actually) were ahead of us, and one behind us. I was in the lead, and I felt the pressure to maintain a steady pace so they wouldn't have to wait for us. After gaining only 400 feet, I already needed a break and let them pass. I could tell this was going to be a tough day.

A few more parties passed as I took off a few layers and drank some lemonade. As we started again I was feeling much better. By the time we reached the base of the headwall, we had caught up with the marines. They were so supportive, cheering "San Francisco!" and telling me my pack was bigger than me (kind of true!). The fog was moving in from the pass above, and within minutes visibility had reduced to maybe 50m.

As I clipped into the first fixed line, I noticed that two people were being lowered by rescuers on the down lines. I asked one what happened, if they were ok. He said they were a husband and wife team. They had taken a fall near Zebra Rocks (above Denali Pass). The wife broke her hand and the husband injured his hip. I was happy to hear that both would be fine.

We started making our way up the fixed lines as the fog around us intensified to a full-on whiteout. The first line starts out pretty steep, with the need to step up and over an opening bergschrund. This was my first time using an ascender, and it was pretty neat! I placed protection as I went by clipping a biner and then the rope through every fixed anchor I found. Luca cleaned as he followed.

By the time we reached the top I think it was 2:45pm, around four hours after we started. At this point the marines were already well ahead of us. We took a brief break, but it was cold and breezy. The next leg of the climb follows a spectacular, exposed ridge from the pass at 16,200ft to the camp at 17,200. There are many fixed anchors along the way, which we used for running protection, and there are a few short fixed lines as well around Washburn's Thumb.

We slowed down considerably, worn by the heavy weight of our packs, the cold, and the poor visibility. Eventually we caught up with the marines near Washburn's Thumb. They had placed a cache and were on their way down. They gave us many warm wishes of encouragement and assured us that we were nearly there. I was relieved.

Sure enough, we pulled into camp another 20 or 30 minutes later. It's funny that every camp has a little "crux" (usually a seemingly unnecessary hill) right before you reach it. Oh well.

As usual, the moment we reach camp I drop my pack with a heavy thud, unwilling to take another step with it on my back. A quick survey of the camp reveals that we weren't going to be poaching any sweet campsites this time. We had arrived too late. Oh well -- you can only push your luck so far!

I found an open spot behind a wall and immediately claimed it. Mike and Keith were already hard at work reinforcing their spot. They had arrived only 20 minutes before us. We were all beat. I think it took us 7.5 hours or so to reach camp.

The breeze was icy, and it was clear that we needed at least one more wall. Luca cut blocks while I dug out and flattened the platform for our tent. As we were working, a group of unsmiling Russians camped next to us just stared, frowning and without so much as a greeting. I immediately felt uneasy and annoyed. If there was a problem, they should have said something.

Our other neighbors were much friendlier. A party of three from Seattle and Montreal -- two guys and one gal. They had a ridiculously sweet and large Hilleburg tent (I think Luca is finally convinced!). They had arrived at 17k the day before and spent a day resting. They are also planning to try for the summit tomorrow.

A friendly Russian/Ukrainian we had met earlier showed up at camp a couple of hours later. I have a feeling that our neighbors were saving our spot for him, which would explain all the dirty looks. Well, rule on the mountain is first come, first serve! He came to talk to us, all smiles. He asked about our plans and then tried to convince us to take a rest day, that we had time. While I agree it would be nice, I don't think we have time. The weather will be deteriorating every day until the storm hits on Sunday.

With the tent pitched and camp set up, we started melting snow. It seems that our stove is a little sick, not giving nearly as much throughput as usual. Luca asks one of the Russians if we could borrow a stove for a few minutes. He grumbles something about going to bed, but eventually relents and gives us a canister stove to use. We make some hot water and Top Ramen. This soup has to be one of our favorites on the mountain, despite how embarrassingly processed it is. We then rehydrate a meal of tabouleh, veggies, chicken, and hummus as we prepare for bed.

The sun stays out much later at this camp, but it is significantly colder. We decide to eat dinner in bed. We don't brush our teeth, again. Our plan is to leave camp by 10am for our push to the summit. That should give us plenty of time to sleep (it's now 11pm) and prepare in the morning.

I'm nervous about tomorrow. Are we acclimatized enough? Is Denali Pass safe? So many unknowns, and such a big day.

Day 9 (5/30): Summit!!

We did it!!! We reached the top of North America! It was breathtakingly beautiful and exhausting.

Where do I begin? We awoke around 7:30 or 8am. The inside of our tent was caked with the thickest frost as of yet. Luca suggested it's because we were breathing so heavy. We start heating water with our dying stove. Emergency gear we are brining: stove, pot, ramen, sleeping bag, and a shovel. Plus all of our warmest layers, of course. We dry out Luca's sleeping bag as best as we can in the cool morning air. There are already several parties making their way up the pass.

I drop by Mike and Keith's camp around 9:30 to see how they are doing. They are roping up and getting ready to head out. They were also slow yesterday and estimate a 12 hour day ahead of them.

The unfriendly Russians leave shortly after, and our friendly neighbors around 10am. As usual, we are the last to leave camp. I can barely stomach my bagel, and only manage to swallow about half. By 10:30am we are leaving camp, and it is starting to warm up. There is absolutely no wind! Luca is in the lead today, for the first time this trip.

We cross the bergschrund as the route steepens considerably before traversing to Denali Pass. This leg has seen many accidents, but conditions are good and we make sure to use all the fixed protection we find. There are only 3 pitches where the protection is spaced beyond the length of the rope between us, but it wasn't bad and we took extra care there.

About half way up we pass two young guys carrying skis. They were super nice and commented that we were moving fast, which felt good. They weren't roped up. We joked about how we want to finish and go home already. We are also gaining serious ground on our Montreal neighbors (Jesse, Sarah, and I forgot the name of the last one). We meet them at the pass and stop for a break. It had taken us two hours of steady climbing, and we had built up a bit of an appetite. The Montrealites were quiet, but the skiers joined us not long after and we chatted for quite a bit. They both work for Backcountry.com and were excited to see the logo sticker on my helmet. This was their 23rd day on the mountain. they had tried a single push summit bid from 14k four days prior, but got shut down at 19,000 ft due to high wind and cold. They said it was a major bummer, especially since it was too dicey to ski down.

Not wanting to waste too much time, we put our food away, wish everyone luck, and then start to make our way up and around Zebra Rocks. This is a striking formation of, believe it or not, black and white striped rock. I have no idea how something like that forms. At this point we start to feel our bodies slow from the altitude. Luca is taking several steps and then resting. I secretly enjoy this, because earlier he had given me a hard time for doing this very thing, saying it's better to go slower and without breaks. I decide not to say anything. Surprisingly, I seem to be handling the altitude slightly better today.

Eventually we reach the Football Field -- a large, flat field on the summit plateau. On the far side is Pig Hill, which ends at 20,100 feet as it connects with the summit ridge. Pig Hill is steep, and there are several parties inching their way up it. The unfriendly Russians are not far ahead of us now.

Going up is torture. Every step takes massive effort. We move excruciatingly slowly. There is some fixed protection along the way, and we make sure to use it. When we finally reach the ridge, we take a break. 1/4 mile and 220 feet now separate us from the summit.

The ridge before us is exposed and knife-edgy at times, but nothing scary. Hearts pounding, we start to pick our way along. About 2/3 of the way, we run into Mike and Keith who are on their way down. We exchange big hugs and congratulations. It finally hits me that we are going to make it. We continue past and around a corner. I can see the summit, only 20m away. A wave of emotion hits me, and tears spring to my eyes. Luca and I drop our packs in a flat-ish spot just below the high point. We shout for joy as we embrace on the top of North America. I just couldn't believe it. Was this really happening?

Unfortunately the unfriendly Russians were crowding the summit and told us to wait for them to finish. One dropped his hat without realizing and I pointed it out to him. When it was finally our turn, we asked him to snap a picture. He shook his head no and shoo-ed us away with his hands without making eye contact. Wow. Eventually they left, and we had the whole summit to ourselves. There was pretty much no wind, and we could see forever. We probably stayed for around 15 or 20 minutes before peeling ourselves away to make our decent. Just as we were leaving several parties were arriving, including our Backcountry.com friends and Montreal neighbors. We exchanged congrats and high fives, then continued on.

As we rounded a corner, we saw a pretty crazy scene taking place. The Montana guys had been coming up the knife-edge section while the Russians were descending. Instead of giving the Montana guys right of way, as is customary, the Russians just ploughed right through, forcing the Montana guys off the trail, clinging to the side of the steep slope in self arrest as the Russians passed. I couldn't believe it. We waited patiently for the scene to clear and then found a much safer way for our teams to pass (really, it wasn't that difficult). The Montana guys were grateful and a bit shaken. I was so thrilled to see that they were going to make it to the top, since the night before one of them wasn't feeling well. What a treat! 100% success for all our friends that day.

As we continued down and reached the top of Pig Hill, I started to feel the full effects of the altitude plus dehydration. Very foolishly, I had only drunk maybe 2/3 of a liter so far. I now had to carefully concentrate on every step, making sure to keep my balance. Suddenly I could so clearly see how so many accidents seem to happen on the way down.

We took a short food and water break at the bottom, and then began our long journey back to camp. We pass the Russians who are resting at the end of the Football Field. The rest of the descent was uneventful. We made it around Zebra Rocks and to the top of Denali Pass. Mike and Keith were not far ahead. I found out later that they had run out of water and had to stop and melt snow along the way.

Fortunately there was still direct sunlight on the route down the pass, which kept the temperatures warm enough. The snow was softer and easier to navigate this late in the day. We reached camp around 10:30pm, 12 hours after we set out. No speed record for sure, but a success nonetheless. As soon as we got to camp, the chills hit me. The sun had just ducked behind the mountain, and it was getting cold fast. Plus, my body was tired, hungry, and dehydrated. Both of us wanted nothing more than to crawl into our sleeping bags, which is exactly what we did. I brought with me a celebratory Ritter Sport and a bottle of water, which we shared with great joy as we let the warmth seep back into our bodies. We fell asleep with big smiles plastered across our faces.

Days 10-11 (5/31 - 6/1): Back to basecamp

Woke up around 8. Condensation was even worse than the previous day. Luca had a headache, I was very thirsty. I got up and started fixing up camp while Luca rested a little longer. I melted snow and filled our water bottles for the day while my sleeping bag dried in the sun. Luca eventually dragged himself out of bed, and we rehydrated with water and Top Ramen. Mike and Keith were up and slowly packing camp. Our Montreal neighbors were thinking of going to 14k and trying other routes on the mountain since they had so much extra time.

We finally left sometime after lunch. There was a party of four -- one Argentinian guide and three clients -- behind us. The weather was clear and the ridge was breathtaking. I was in the lead and didn't slip into much pro as the going was easy and the route wasn't icy.

We get to the fixed line around Washburn's Thumb just as the first of several guided parties was coming up. They were incredibly slow and incompetent. The Argentinian guide was clearly annoyed. It turns out the guide of the first party has the record number of ascents on Rainier. It felt like we waited 45 minutes for them to pass, but it was probably more like 20. While we were waiting, the guide gave us good tips on how to descend the lines. There were a few other parties that slowed us on the rest of the ridge, but thankfully no other major delays.

As we reached the fixed lines on the headwall, the afternoon clouds started to settle around us. There was no wait on the lines, which was nice. As we descended, we ran into the marines who were moving to 17k camp. They gave us many congrats and seemed to feel the heavy weight of the monstrous task ahead of them. I was so happy that the hard work was behind us. The descent down the headwall was fast and surprisingly easy. The bergschrund was noticeably more open than it had been two days before.

By the time we reached the bottom of the lines, we were in a full-blown whiteout and it was snowing. The descent from there to 14 took a lot longer than expected. About half way down two figures emerged from the fog. It was the Christians, making their way up to leave a cache! We were so happy to see each other, wished them luck and reminded them to look us up in Sf.

At 14k the snow was coming down pretty hard. We dug out our cache and prepared a hearty bowl of tomato and black bean soup, which we shared. We also ate a lot of Taralli and killed whatever beef jerky we had left. We managed to give away a little food to an unsuspecting newcomer.

Mike, Keith, and the Montana guys were beat and decided to make camp for the evening. We knew that if we didn't make it to the landing strip by the next day (Saturday), we might et stuck waiting out the storm for several days. Also, we heard that the crevasses on the lower glacier were beginning to open, and it was recommended we travel at night. So we decided to push on as far as we could.

Side note: Luca discovered that our stove wasn't working because somehow the ring on the fuel pump was missing! Sweet, easy fix.

We rigged the sleds the best we could, which were disappointingly heavy. The weather wasn't letting up, but at least it wasn't windy. We had several issues from the start. The break on Luca's sled wasn't working. The coils of rope wouldn't stay put. The sleds were flipping. The rigging was getting sucked under and putting strange forces on our packs. We had to stop every 50 feet and make adjustments. Both of us lost our patience on more than one occasion.

When we reached the poo crevasse, Luca tried to throw in the bag. To our horror, he miscalculated and it ended up on the far side. After crossing the snow bridge, I belayed him as he retrieved it and threw it in a second time. Whew, success!

Moving on, we reached Windy Corner without too much incident. I helped Luca re-pack his sled and fix the break. The whiteout was getting worse, and I often couldn't see the next wand on the trail. I followed footsteps very carefully, but it was dizzying. Half way down we ran into a couple of unroped skiers who were making their move to 14 before the storm hit. It felt so strange to see others in the middle of a whiteout, late a night when most people were huddled in their tents.

They assured us that the system clears at the top of Motorcycle Hill, and sure enough it did. That was a major, major relief. On the way down, Luca's sled flipped approximately one million times, but the snow bridges looked strong and we made it down safely.

We found our cache and started digging. It was near midnight and the whole camp was asleep. We were both feeling really good, so we decided to push on. We switched to snowshoes and started down the hill. Almost immediately, my sled started acting up. I had to stop every 10 feet to adjust one thing or another. At one point I became so frustrated that I kicked my sled with my snowshoes on. That felt really good. Eventually, with Luca's help, I got it working and we started to make better progress. Unfortunately, my brake was a little too aggressive and I had to put it on/off every time the terrain steepened/flattened. At least it was workable!

From 11k it was a long (10 mile) walk through the night back to the landing strip. We took a short break at the 9800 foot camp, and then moved on. The night was still. The crevasses were clearly opening in the heat of the day, but in the cold of night there was little danger of falling in.

By the time we reached Heartbreak Hill, I was really feeling it. My pack was heavy, my back hurt, my feet hurt. And now we had to gain 500 feet to reach camp. Are you freaking kidding me?! With much frustration and grunting we finally made it back. I drop my pack and collapse on the ground. I'm so tired, and I don't want to move or do anything. After recovering for a few minutes we go and dig up the cache. It's 7:40 am, about 20 minutes before the basecamp manager is supposed to start her day. There's a large guided party getting ready to head to the first camp, and a couple of other parties already waiting for their air taxis.

Lisa shows up shortly before 8. She takes down our name and calls Sheldon Air Service for us. There are low clouds in Talkeetna this morning and it might be a couple of hours before they can fly out. It also turns out that there are two parties ahead of us in line. We take some time to sort and rearrange our gear and pack everything up. We had left some sweet potato chips in our basecamp cache, which we gobble up in a flash. Our plane shows up at around 12:30 in the afternoon, and before I know it we're back in Talkeetna, back where we started. As if nothing had even happened. We're greeted with warm chocolate chip cookies and bottles of water as soon as we deplane. I just can't stop smiling.

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