Thursday, August 9, 2012

Day 2: Skills training at Base Camp

So after waking up to a delicious breakfast that I’ve already mentioned (the frosted cinnamon French toast…mmmm), Ted, Yoshi, and I roped up and snowshoed out to a small peak on the edge of Base Camp called “The Control Tower” due to its shape and proximity to the runway. We walked up the hill (carefully choosing our path to avoid the seracs and other potentially dangerous features), and carved out a rest spot to do our skills training. First on the agenda today would be self-arrest. Though I’ve learned the technique of self-arrest before, I had never actually practiced it in person. I felt that this was a must-have skill for Denali, as you never know when you might fall…or when someone might pull you down. Unlike Aconcagua, where we were never roped up, you are always roped up on Denali except when at camp. This means that you not only have to watch your own steps, but also pay attention to the other people on your rope. It means keeping good rope tension—usually not too difficult—but also being prepared to arrest yourself when someone else falls. Suffice it to say that self-arrest is very important to know for mountaineering. It can literally mean the difference between a close call and an emergency, between life and death.

When in the field, self-arrest is essentially taught by doing. Which is how I found myself face down, sliding at high speed down an icy slope with my ice axe clutched in my hands. I thrust the pick of my axe into the ice and gripped the shaft tightly with my other hand. As my axe lodge deeply in the ice, my lower body swung around and I stopped suddenly. It was exhilarating! I walked back up to my starting point and did it several more times so that the movements were all second nature to me.

We then returned and talked about knots, ropes, and avalanches. I peppered my guides with questions ranging from “Is there any legitimate way to prepare oneself for surviving an avalanche?” to “Uhhh…how do you use this CMC again?”. The CMC (an abbreviation for “Clean Mountain Can”) is where all human excrement goes. Yup that’s right, we were shitting in a can. A CMC is a green, cylindrical container measuring roughly a foot and a half high and a foot-long diameter. It has a screw on lid (thank goodness) and it never smells good, even when it’s empty. Anyway, I learned how to use it pretty quickly and, thankfully, without any issues.

I will say though that going to the bathroom on Denali is not the most private of experiences. Each campsite has a bathroom, with a spot for the CMC and a pee hole (pretty self-explanatory…). But the walls surrounding these bathrooms are not very high and, in the case of ours, can be mere feet from tents and/or your kitchen area.

Anyway, I learned a lot from my excellent guides and was very excited to greet the rest of my team who arrived in the early evening. We all helped each other set up their tents and then went to bed after a delicious Mexican-inspired dinner.

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