Day Three: Here We Go (Departure from Paradise)

Panorama Peak behind the Kitchen and Guides' Tent

A loud, Pacific Northwest rain drumming offbeat on a skylight of the cabin woke me up at 1 am. I was dehydrated, and my body lingered behind in a far away time zone. Forced awake, my mind raced with nervousness. I knew we would have a short, first ascent, but the guides didn’t brief us on what to expect. They were concerned when the gates at the park would open. I was worried about my performance.

Restless, I started to wonder if I had overtrained. An old knee injury from climbing a Scottish Munro near Ben Nevis suddenly resurfaced despite more than twenty years of rehabilitation. My illogical phantom symptoms messed with my head. I had residual jet lag, but I was physically fit. Perhaps I was just mentally weak.

During the ride to RMI’s offices and later to the national park, I tried to relax and meditate. To no avail: warrior instincts prevailed. I had prepared myself, but the battle was starting late.

A Rest Stop at Longmire

A Rest Stop at Longmire

We arrived at the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center around 10:30 am. Paradise was no paradise. The visitor center was closed for the winter.

The Parking Lot at Paradise

In the Parking Lot at Paradise

The parking lot at the visitors center was, however, proficiently and professionally plowed. 10 meter high snow drifts banked the sides of the lot. I assumed they were pushed into place by a gargantuan plow. To the side, buried underneath a three meter high roof of snow, a bunker-like door opened to reveal a long tunnel. I wondered if there was a secret military installation behind the door. I discovered that the tunnel led to the public restrooms.

We took a quick bathroom break, unloaded our packs, and prepared our equipment in the near barren parking lot. Many in the group had never worn snowshoes before so the guides provided a quick introduction. They also showed us how to attach a sled. We had two sleds that carried some equipment for the whole group. On Denali, everyone would have their own sled.

Showing Us How to Fix a Sled

Showing Us How to Fix a Sled

As we put on our snowshoes and backpacks, a gentle snow flurry graced our departure. We climbed the snowy ramp from the parking lot to the awaiting trail, and finally left by 11:00 am.

Ready, Set, Go

Ready, Set, Go

Snowflakes accompanied our first few steps. Twelve seminar participants and four guides walked in a single line. The trail was fresh in the powder snow of the valley. Soft, wet snowflakes continued to tumble down from the sky as were suspended in a low hanging cloud.

Passing the Sled to the Next Volunteer

Passing the Sled to the Next Volunteer

We slowly gained elevation marching single file from our initial starting point at 1647 meters (5400 feet). The guides gave us a quick break after a half an hour. A bit south of Alta Vista, we adjusted our packs and our layers of clothing. We also switched sled haulers. Two new volunteers took over. They dragged the 20 pound sleds for the next half an hour. Since my usual pace was off patiently following behind so many people, I waited until the next break before I got a lucky chance. We were just above the intersection of Darkhorse Creek Trail and Skyline Trail. After so many tire pulls, dragging a sled was easier that I expected. I finally got into a good groove when a strap on my right snowshoe popped open. The entire snowshoe flew off shortly thereafter.

I was embarrassed that I had to stop. I thought the group stopped ahead to wait for me. They had actually reached our campsite.

Arrival At Glacier Vista

Arrival At Glacier Vista

We arrived at Glacier Vista, elevation 1921 meters (6336 feet), an hour and a half after leaving Paradise. The sky had cleared enough during our ascent to reveal enough of the valley below as the moist, dark clouds would permit. Above, our eventual route up to Camp Muir was obscured by puffy, less ominous, cotton ball cloud formations. We could spy another group off in the distance as the last trees on the horizon faded from view.

The Valley Below

The Valley Below

While the guides unpacked the sleds and gathered fuel bottles from us, we familiarized ourselves with our temporary home. The guides explained how we would excavate snow in avalanche rescue style. We had to build a platform for our tents. The guides proficiently demonstrated the technique and left us on our own.

Pitching Our Tents

Pitching Our Tents

While they expertly built the kitchen, a mess tent, and a latrine, we exhibited the North-South divide in a widely uncoordinated attempt at snow removal. It was obvious who could shovel snow and who had never performed Winterdienst.

Protip: How to Keep a Tent from Flying Away

Protip: How to Keep a Tent from Flying Away

We pitched our tents and our snowy mattress slowly turned to ice. A dugout in the front vestibule was our storage closet and changing room.

Welcome Home

Welcome Home

The Männer and I had a four person tent to ourselves, a luxury we may better appreciate during a later expedition. The other participants also slept in groups of three. In our tent, I was the monkey in the middle. Jefe and Valentine were tasked with keeping snow off the sides of the tent while I managed the rear wall above our heads. By keeping the tent free of snow, we maintained air circulation and minimized the chance that the moist exhaust of our bodies condensed and froze into a sheet of asphyxiating ice.

Dug into our overnight accommodations, the guides gathered us for a refreshed course on proper walking and arrest techniques.

Proper Walking Techniques

Proper Walking Techniques

For some, the basic skills were new. I noticed a few differences between American and European techniques. For example, the German Alpine Club (DAV) teaches you to raise your feet when performing a self arrest, which stops you from sliding down a mountain slope. RMI does not. I guess it doesn’t matter which method is more effective just as long as you stop yourself from falling.

Despite the short walk uphill, we had a long day. The guides prepared hot water (hots) for us by melting snow, and we snuggled together in the mess tent to eat our packs of dehydrated food for dinner. With a warm, full belly, I left the mess tent early. Jet lag still had a grip on my body.

Closing Time

Closing Time

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