Winter Expedition to EldoradoRecently, I had the pleasure of attending an 8 day Denali Prep Course with Alpine Ascents. The guides for the course chose Eldorado Peak (8,868) as our classroom.
On Friday, March 17, 2006 I drove from my home in Medford, Oregon to Seattle and checked in with Alpine Ascents at their headquarters. I met the lead guide Allen Corbert and left my equipment in their facility for the night. I checked in at the Mediterranean Inn, but returned to Alpine Ascents by 6:30AM the next morning for a gear check and final coordination with the other members of the course.
On Saturday, I met the other 6 members of our team and the other guide, Andy Rich. Since this was a Denali Prep Course, the equipment needed for the climb was everything that would be need for a Denali expedition. It took us a few hours to go through the equipment list and make sure everyone was prepared. Alpine provided all the group gear including tents, ropes, stoves, fuel, protection, sleds, and food. Some of the team members had to rent sleeping bags, trekking poles, double plastic boots, crampons, and snowshoes.
After much fussing and organizing the guides finally decided we were sufficiently ready and we packed everything into a trailer and a large 15 passenger van. We headed north on I-5 for an hour before turning east towards the North Cascades National Park. In another hour we were slowly making our way up the nice gravel Cascade Road. Just before Mineral Campground at elevation 1,360 ft, the snow was too deep for the van, so we pulled over and our expedition began.
We loaded up all our gear in massive packs and full sleds. This total load was about 120 lbs for me. When everyone was ready, one guide took the lead and the other was in the sweep position. We slowly started moving up the road with our objective being Eldorado Creek some 4 miles and 800 ft elevation gain ahead. Since this was my first experience pulling a sled, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it followed. I could feel it back there, but it wasn’t that heavy.
After about 2 miles, the snow was deep enough and soft enough that snowshoes were in order. We arrived at our destination after about 2.5 hours and were happy that the forest service outhouse was unlocked. At least we wouldn’t have to use our WAG Bags until we were further up the mountain.
We set to work stomping out a level area large enough to pitch 4 tents. When the area was sufficiently compressed, the tents went up in a hurry and we moved in. This had been a busy first day and we were all grateful to be having a hot meal, hot drinks, and get to bed early.
Sunday, March 19th, dawned with clear skies and it was only about 26 degrees in camp. After breakfast, we did some skills training and then we filled our pack with all our extra gear. The goal was to double carry all our stuff up to Camp 2. With heavy packs we set off. The first thing we did was cross the North Fork of the Cascade River. The water level wasn’t too high, but it did get our feet wet through our mountaineering boots. We started climbing on the west side of Eldorado Creek in a northerly direction. I’m sure there is some sort of trail here in the summer, but it was all snow covered at this point. We struggled up through an old growth forest crossing over many down trees and post holing often in the soft snow. After struggling for 3 hours we crossed over a wide open avalanche area, climbed a few hundred feet more and then created a cache at about 4,200 ft. It was a relief to unload our packs before heading back to our base camp. It only took us an hour to get back to camp and hot drinks and a hot dinner were very welcome.
Monday, March 20th, was again clear and after more skills training we broke camp, created a cache for the sleds and everything we would not need for the rest of the week, loaded our packs full and headed back up the hill we had climbed the previous day. After a few hours we passed the cache that we had established the previous day and finally established Camp 2 at about 4,500 ft. We went back down to pick up our cache from the previous day and then established camp. The terrain did not lend itself to one large camp site, so we established separate tent sites and also established a latrine area and a kitchen area. Alpine Ascents uses a Posh Tent for the kitchen that allows all the climbers to congregate in one tent to share meals. This was a great way to get too know your fellow climbers and to ask the guides a 100 questions while dinner or breakfast was being prepared.
Tuesday was somewhat of a rest day in that we didn’t move camp or have to shoulder a large pack. We had skills training for about 8 hours.
Wednesday, March 22nd, it was snowing when we got up. It was just a light snow with a little wind so it was business as usual. After a morning filled with more skills training we loaded everything into and onto our packs and made a single carry up to our High Camp at elevation 5,800 ft. The snow was soft and it was slow going. The lead climber broke trail and the rest of us just followed in his footsteps. High Camp was set up in a relatively flat area and we built 4 ft walls with ice blocks on three sides as training and as protection in case a storm blew in.
Thusday, dawned clear and cold. The guides made a decision to go for the summit while the weather looked good. This excited the group and we all hurriedly packed our cold weather stuff and we were off hiking by 8:00AM. We hiked over the ridge at about 6,000 ft and then down to the Eldorado Glacier. Here we put on our harnesses and roped up. We couldn’t see any open crevasses, but this was a training course, so we did everything by the book. We had 3 rope teams of 3 climbers each and we slowly made our way up the Eldorado Glacier and onto the Inspiration Ice Cap. It was still a beautiful day and we could see Glacier Peak behind us and many other impressive peaks in all directions.
By the time we climbed up to the east ridge of Eldorado, the weather was starting to change. The wind was blowing up higher on the ridge and it looked like it was going to be colder. We bundled up and headed up the ridge. The wind picked up with gusts up to about 40 mph. The temperature dropped enough so that ice was forming in my Nalgene bottles. The lead guide set 3 pickets along the summit knife edge for protection and we all made it up to the summit and crowded together. I was the last man on the last rope, so when I arrived, the first team had seen enough and were freezing to death. They immediately started down. My team was the last to go and we picked up the pickets on the descent. It was still bitterly cold and would stay that way until we got far down on the east ridge. The middle climber on the first rope team fell into a crack up to his waist on the descent but managed to extricate himself without falling any further.
We arrived back at our High Camp 10 hours after we started. We were entirely happy with our accomplishments of the day and had a great dinner in the Posh.
Friday, March 24th, we got up to 2 inches of new snow. We started the day with more skills training learning how to set up haul systems to rescue climbers in a crevasse. It snowed all morning. After the training we loaded up everything in camp and headed down to Camp 2 where we picked up more cached equipment. From Camp 2 we were carrying large heavy packs down to our Base Camp. We passed through the avalanche area where a large avalanche had passed while we were up at High Camp. The snow here was really soft and we were sinking in up to our crotches with the heavy packs. We struggled all the way down the mountain and finally reached our Base Camp just as it was turning dark.
We quickly set up camp, ate dinner, and collapsed into our tents for some sleep. In the morning, Saturday, the weather had cleared but it was cold. We had a good breakfast, had the last of our field skills training, and then packed up everything along with our sleds for the hike back to the van. The hike out was peaceful and easy as we each reflected on the weeks activities.
I think the total climb was over 10,000 feet with the double carry on Sunday. This was a great experience for me and I received great training from Alpine Ascents. I think I will be ready for Denali in May.