An Expedition to the Top of North America, by Jay Meyer

Ascending the Kahiltna Glacier

The Mountain
The Kahiltna Glacier
The Upper Camps
Summit Day
Down and Back

Unloading at Base Camp

As soon as the Otter slowed to a halt, we piled out and unloaded our gear.  The team members who arrived earlier in the Beaver had already selected a spot and pitched several tents in base camp, which lies next to the snow runway.  The rest of us finished the job of setting up our first camp, leveling tentsites and digging a large pit for the kitchen tent.  This would be the first of many nights camping together, and the relatively benign environment of base camp provided a good opportunity to sort out our camp routine and group gear.

Base Camp

The Kitchen Tent

Our camp procedures were fairly uniform throughout the trip, except at high camp where we spent nearly all of our time in sleeping bags sheltering from the cold and wind.  In the lower camps we ate and socialized in a large kitchen tent pitched over a snow pit with seating around the perimeter and a central counter for stoves and cookware.  The guides cooked, and particularly on the lower mountain we had an ample quantity and variety of food.  Our fare included pasta, beans, rice, bagels, cheese, canned meat, fish and vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, hot drinks such as cocoa and tea, and a plethora of nutritional bars.  All of our water was melted from snow using white gas stoves, a process performed regularly whenever we were in camp.  In our smaller tents we read, talked, wrote in journals, listened to the radio, slept or just stared at the walls.

Whiteout on the Kahiltna Glacier

The morning after our arrival, we began our move up the route. On the glacier we carried gear and supplies in backpacks and sleds, allowing us to move heavy loads. But with so much food and fuel for our long trip, it was impractical to carry everything in a single push; instead, we alternated carries, where we moved supplies and buried them in a cache, with camp moves where we broke down our tents, kitchen, etc. The first morning we carried loads to cache at a future campsite. After rigging up our sleds we headed down the Southeast Fork and onto the main branch of the Kahiltna. It was cold and, at first, snowing lightly. But soon the snow fell heavier and blew into blizzard. We used snowshoes as any semblance of a trail quickly disappeared. In whiteout conditions the guides used GPS to find our way to the cache site, approximately five miles from base camp. There, in the blowing snow we dug a deep pit and buried our load of food and fuel. The return to base camp was difficult; we lost our way several times on the foggy, crevasse strewn glacier, finally snaking back to base camp almost twelve hours after we began.

The Kahiltna Glacier

Overnight it snowed heavily, and in the morning we knew that we would not be moving that day. Instead we shoveled snow, ate and rested. But the next day the weather was clear and we got a cold, early start for our move to the campsite where we had cached two days earlier. We got to that site around noon and began the process of leveling tentsites, building snow walls for wind protection and digging a pit for the kitchen tent. Then we had some time to laze in the warm afternoon sun. The next morning we carried a load up Ski Hill's long slope to Kahiltna Pass (approximately 10,000'/3,050') where we cached, admired the view down the Kahiltna, then returned to the 7,800'/2,400 m. camp for another night.

Ski Hill

Kahiltna Pass

The following day we moved up, past our cache at Kahiltna Pass, to a third camp at 11,000'/3,300 m. This was a popular campsite where many teams waited out bad weather and prepared to move higher, up steep slopes and past aptly named Windy Corner to the top of the Kahiltna. With our heavy loads we were starting to feel the altitude, but almost immediately after arriving we dug into the task of constructing large protective snow walls for our tents. Though this campsite could be pleasantly warm during the day in sunny weather, it could also be very cold at night or when the weather turned. The day after arriving there we retrieved our cached supplies from Kahiltna Pass, and the next day we waited out a windy snowstorm.

Motorcycle Hill

Windy Corner

After two and a half days at 11,000'/3,300 m. we were restless to climb higher. Above that camp, the route first ascends Motorcycle Hill, then continues up open windblown slopes and around a shoulder of the West Buttress - Windy Corner - that is often impassable in bad weather. From there to the basin at 14,200'/4,300 m. lies a region of huge crevasses formed by the glacier's wrenching turn around Windy Corner. Our first trip past Windy Corner was to carry supplies for caching in the basin. We used sleds, but they were becoming clumsy on the steeper, icy slopes. It was cold and the wind bit as we made an early start, but we quickly warmed when the sun rose higher. Past Windy Corner, after a long break to catch our breath, we pressed on and made our cache at 14,200'/ 4,300 m. During lunch in the basin we got our first good view of the West Buttress' ridge and headwall, then descended back to 11,000'/3,300 m., stopping on the way to look out over the Peters Glacier. The next day we broke camp at 11,000'/3,300 m. and moved to 14,200'/4,300 m., leaving behind a large cache of waste and items such as snowshoes that would not be needed until we came back down the route.

Above Windy Corner

Next: The Upper Camps

(c) F. Jay Meyer 2007 All Rights Reserved