When we went to bed last night they were calling for abnormally high winds at 60 mile an hour and temperatures at -30 F. The guides woke us up at 9:00 am to find blue bird skies! We haven't lost any days to weather yet. Right on schedule.
Today we attacked the head wall which is two thousand feet ending off at 16,200 feet. It was really chilly this morning so I put on a insulated material that goes over the entire boot and up to the knee called "over boots" to keep in any extra heat. Just to explain what is on my feet while I'm climbing; we have a base layer of socks, wool socks, boot liners, plastic boots and now I have added my over boots. When we are walking we wear crampons (which are stainless steal spikes that strap onto our feet) The head wall has not been climbed by many people yet this year because we started climbing really early in the season. This is nice in the sense that there aren't a lot of people in the way slowing us down. However, it's also a bummer because the solid blue 1000 foot ice hill doesn't have a lot of foot tracks. (towards the end of the season it will look more like a set of steps) So as we we’re climbing we were kicking into the ice for every footstep. The first 1,500 feet was 35 degrees steep and was draining my energy quick. Climbing altitude so quickly you become out of breath fast. I was taking two steps, and stopping to take a breather.
There is a common misconception that the higher you go the less oxygen there is. If fact, there is the same amount. To explain this let's say at sea level there is 10 pounds of oxygen and the circumference of the earth is 10,000 miles. At 16,000 feet above sea level the circumference of the earth would be 11,000 miles and there would still be 10 pounds of oxygen just stretched out. That is why you hear the expression "the air is thinner the higher you go". Some tricks that I was using today to avoid altitude sickness was pressure breathing, where you would breath in deep and then force the air out as quickly as possible. Also I undid my chest strap on my backpack to allow my chest to expand easily. The last 300 feet there are ropes lying on the ice called fixed lines. These ropes are laid out by the park rangers as a safety due to the angle of climb changing at 50 degrees. We would attach ourselves to these ropes because slipping is a real threat. This last 300 feet was very difficult for me because I needed more time to catch my breath but when you are strapped to 3 other people you need to keep pace. As I was about 10 feet from the top you could see the end of the fixed lines. All I was thinking about is how nice it’s going to be to sit down and catch my breath. All of a sudden I slipped!
I held onto the rope and tried to drive my crampons into the ice. My crampons were doing nothing however I was able to hang onto the rope and turned a fall that could have been 1,000s of feet and certainly death to only 3 or 4 feet. Not knowing why I slipped I look at my equipment and my left crampon had slipped half way off my boot making it unusable. Shaken up from the fall and the “what ifs”, I fixed my crampon and climbed the last few feet.
We cached some group gear at the top of the hill, rested and then turned back. The climb down was super scary. We moved very slowly on the 50 degree ice facing our crampons down hill and making an imaginary line between our toes, knees, and nose to maintain balance. This is not a stage of the mountain I'm looking forward to after summating. It took about two hours to get down bringing us to a total work out time of 7 hours.