Henry called in yesterday evening to report that the team packed up all their kit and moved five miles up the vast Kahiltna Glacier to a spot at about 7,800′ (2380m) where they set up their Camp 1. The spot is off the point where the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna comes out from the broad south face of Denali and at the base of an 1,800′ (550m) hill on the Kahiltna called Ski Hill.
The team moved well and avoided the numerous crevasses that riddle that first stretch of the route. This year is a particularly challenging year for crevasses, as our first team (a week ahead of this crew) reported very little new snow on the glacier had fallen over the long, Alaskan winter.
The route actually descends out of Base Camp and drops about 600′ (183m) to join the Kahiltna. This hill is known as Heartbreak Hill, and seems to go on forever when ascending it after the expedition. The bottom of Heartbreak Hill is one of the more crevassed stretches of the glacier, although this year, the hazard is fairly continuous until reaching the compression zone at the site of their current camp.
Glaciers are somewhat like rivers of ice, with a degree of plasticity in how the ice stretches when going over a bulge in the underlying bedrock. When the top of the glacier can’t keep pace with the deeper ice as it flows over a bulge, the result is that the top begins to crack, often in lines roughly perpendicular to the flow of the ice. This is a gross over simplification, but try placing you hand down on a table with your fingers tightly pressed together. Pivot your hand in a circle while pressing down onto the table. See how your fingers begin to spread open? The same essentially happens when a glacier turns a corner, resulting in radial cracks. In Alaska, where glaciers are sometimes thousands of feet deep, we grow some seriously deep crevasses!
In any case, the team planned to “make a carry” today. this means they packed up roughly half of their food, fuel and supplies and carried it up glacier to a spot near their next planned camp. In their case, they planned to carry their kit to about 10,200′ (3120m), which is about an hour’s walk from their next camp. They will dig a deep hole in the snow and bury all their supplies under a meter or more of snow, to protect it from the numerous ravens that patrol the glacier, looking for shallow caches. Ravens have been known to dig down a couple of feet to rip open bags. They are pretty remarkable critters.
The team will then descend back to their camp at the base of Ski Hill, thereby following the proven alpine principle of moving high and sleeping low. This allows their bodies a better chance to adjust to the increased altitude than if they just kept walking and camping their way up hill. I’ll post some photos of what they are seeing in a follow-up shortly.