Day Four: From Glacier Vista to Camp Muir

The Box (Foreground) and Outhouse (Background)

I had a restless night in our tent. A mixture of jet lag, altitude, wind noises, and lingering nervousness kept my sleep cycles short. Condensation and poor housekeeping left my feet in a moist layer of water on the floor. Unlike the Männer, I skimped on buying a second mattress. The inflatable one I rented was too short and narrow. I was cold, wet, and grumpy. My misery was my own fault.

I got out of bed at 7:15 am and quickly left the tent. I was already dressed in an attempt to keep myself warm during the night. The inner boot of my double boots were warm. They were in the bottom of my sleeping bag. The shoelaces of the plastic shell for the double boots were frozen. They were left outside. I rushed to the kitchen and got boiling water for my breakfast. In the mess tent, I ate a piping hot bowl of German porridge washed down with Chinese green tea. The warm meal improved my spirits and helped me regain my equilibrium. I was ready to break camp and move on.

While waiting for the others, I packed my gear and took pictures of our campsite. We had received about four inches of snow overnight. Some of the tents were covered with a light, encrusted layer of snow. The equipment we left outside was barely visible underneath the crispy blanket. Our snowshoes, which served as tent stakes, were frozen solid in the ground like the sticks of a popsicle.

Morning is Frozen

Morning is Frozen

After the others finished breakfast, we took our tents down in a more coordinated manner than we put them up. Everyone pitched in and helped. Meanwhile, the guides attacked the kitchen and mess tent. They covered the common areas with snow. They also buried gear and poop bags in a cache that would stay behind.

We left Glacier Vista at 10 am. We followed the route the National Park Service (NPS) recommends for winter travel trudging through a light, fresh snow.

Our first break was an hour later. We stopped a bit shy of Panorama Point (2074 meters or 6800 feet). I had been keeping pace and trying to get warm. I didn’t understand why we stopped until I remembered how the Männer casually mentioned in Poland that RMI breaks every hour or so.

Taking a Break

Taking a Break

Our second break was another hour later. We were slightly north of The Sugarloaf (2350 meters or 7789 feet), and the stop halted my rhythm. Falling snow and limited visibility didn’t ease the situation. Traveling with a heavy pack through deep snow is a mind-numbing exercise. The key is striking a careful balance between proper foot placement and keen observation of the surroundings while (at the same time) relaxing your senses enough to propel yourself forward. Some struggle with the repetitive motions. They drift out of line or quicken their pace only to slow back down again once they realize that they can’t maintain a quicker tempo. Our guides, experienced and in excellent condition, didn’t have any problems with the pace. They chatted among themselves. Unfortunately, their conversation unintentionally mocked those who were trying to focus their attention or uncover their own physical potential.

My hours of training kicked in near Little Africa (2620 meters or 8596 feet). I finally found my legs. I was in the zone on game day.

The Sky Finally Clears

The Sky Finally Clears

The third and forth breaks annoyed me. I was getting tired of stopping every time I got into a new groove. By this time, we had climbed above the clouds, passed Moon Rocks (2765 meters or 9072 feet), and were on the Muir Snowfield. We were still following the recommended route well clear of Anvil Rock (9584 feet or 2921 meters). The sun was out and Camp Muir was on the horizon—ideal conditions for a delightful afternoon stroll.

After the fourth break, I tried to maintain a steady pace as those in front of me quickened. The group split off into three clusters: the leaders, the midfield, and the stragglers, who were soon far behind and well out of sight. I decided to drop back from the leaders’ pace. I was tired of the guides talking about other guides. I thought it was unprofessional to gossip. I wished they would have told us more about our route and its points of interest instead.

Five hours after our start at Glacier Vista, we arrived in rolling, boisterous waves at Camp Muir. A clear blue sky welcomed us to our base at 10188 feet (3105 meters).

At Camp Muir with Cathedral Rocks in the Background

At Camp Muir with Cathedral Rocks in the Background

The guides quickly began to shovel snow. The door to the Gombu Hut (also known as the Guide Service Hut, Client Shelter, or The Box as I called it) was partially hidden behind accumulated snow drift. The guides also cleared the outhouse and their own hut from snow while we unpacked and settled in our new sleeping quarters.

Digging out the Box

Digging out the Box

The Box (Foreground) and Outhouse (Background)

The Box (Foreground) and Outhouse (Background)

The Box is a rectangular structure made out of plywood. The shelter was originally built in the 1970’s. RMI continues to use it for its groups, although the building is scheduled for replacement or major refurbishment soon. Inside, the Box has three bunk levels on one side, an overhang in the middle, and a two person platform above the entrance. Jefe and I made the platform our new home. We figured it might be colder, but no one would step on or over us during the night.

Home Sweet Hole

Home Sweet Hole

To the delight of the group, the guides brought hot water (hots). Despite the few layers of plywood over our heads, we were cold and hungry after the day’s hike. We took turns pouring the hot water in our packages of dehydrated food. The fragrant smell of Indian curry, southwest chili, and beef stroganoff mixed in the thin, musty air of the Box.

Dinner in the Box

Dinner in the Box

Two of the guides joined us for dinner. Afterwards, they shared stories and advice. I enjoyed learning about Denali from them. They also gave us an eyewitness account of the Everest icefall in 2014. I lost my patience, however, when one of the guides told a tall tale about Nanda Devi, which was factually incorrect in almost every aspect of his version. Having worked with a team of brilliant scientists in the early 1990’s to detect Chinese nuclear tests, I was familiar with the story and some of the actors. My pride burst out when I should have kept my mouth shut. I barked that his facts were wrong—a dumb move in retrospect. I apologized later (perhaps too late) for my unnecessary outburst. At the time, I was angry that he wasted a good learning opportunity. All we wanted was an entertaining, good night story. He could have encouraged us to share our own. We were an interesting group from a wide variety of careers and reasons for joining the trip. We could have learned much from each other.

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