Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Dispatches
by Liesl Clark


Deadly Ascent homepage

Across a Glacier

When you leave Base Camp for the higher camps on Denali, packing your gear becomes an art in reduction. And yet as a film crew shooting in High Definition (a high-resolution picture designed for large TV screens), our camera, batteries, lenses, and tapes have tipped the scale towards the ridiculous. The satellite phone, digital cameras, laptop, and spare batteries — which allow us to transmit the images and content for this site—would be considered a single sled load for a climber moving up the mountain. And that doesn't include the food, clothing, tents, and equipment needed to survive in Denali's arctic surroundings.

Travel across a glacier should never be taken lightly; the ground we perceive as firm below our feet is a shifting and constantly changing river of frozen yet still flowing ice. On snowshoes and skis we wear a harness and clip into a rope that connects us to our teammates. Our first day at Base Camp, Colby Coombs and Caitlin Palmer took us out to a crevasse where we learned how to extract ourselves from deep within. Through a series of anchors and a Z pulley system, we should be able to rescue each other if the need arises. We travel by two- and three-person rope teams to maximize our maneuverability.

The move out of camp on Sunday began at 10 p.m., with the sun just slipping behind Mount Crosson. Half of us were on snowshoes, the other half on skis. Crisscrossing the route was a seemingly endless number of hidden crevasses. We chose to move at night, when the snow freezes into a hard crust. The danger is that at any moment, the crusted snow can give way underfoot, sending you plunging deep inside a cold cavern. We've been told that, if the conditions are right for it, there's no way to avoid a crevasse fall. But a climber can survive the fall if she is roped to another teammate and wears proper equipment.

With backpacks fully loaded, and dragging sleds behind us, we carried what we could of our gear. Backpacks are clipped into the rope and sleds are tethered off from behind to prevent them from hitting us on the head should we fall into a crevasse. A rope called a prussik hangs from a locking D carabiner on our harnesses to act as a braking foothold on the rope if we have to climb out from a fall. We finally moved out of camp in single file, prepared for the terrain that lay ahead.

It was a quiet, windless night as we slogged five miles up the Kahiltna Glacier to our camp at the base of Ski Hill. The northern sun took its time dipping below the horizon, bathing the peaks in an extraordinary alpine glow for the duration of the climb. At this latitude, the sun grazes the horizon for hours, barely disappearing before appearing again for another cycle of infinite sunrise to infinite sunset. Although the temperature was about 10°F, our bodies were pumping hard against the slight upsloping terrain and heavy loads we carried. A stop for more than a few minutes in the slight breeze, however, meant taking off our packs to put on a down parka to prevent hypothermia and freezing fingers. We realize just how fragile we are in this extreme environment. "The only warm thing out here is your body," warned Coombs.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld, having swallowed a thermister pill, recorded a core body temperature that exceeded 100°F during the climb, with frequent dips below normal during the brief rest stops taken for food and fuel. At 1:30 a.m., we reached camp and began digging our tent sites out of the white expanse of snow.

Read on for a report from Grunsfeld on his core body temperature readings as he moves up to 11,000 feet.

Location: Ski Hill Camp
Altitude: 7,800 feet
Air Temp: 36°F
Windspeed: 4 mph

Back to top

climber near snow ledge

The danger of falling into a crevasse is so great that climbers must be roped to one another and prepared at all times to avoid such an incident.

See a video of Colby Coombs showing how to use skis as a makeshift snow anchor.

Enlarge this image


Dispatches

On the Way (06.01.2000)
One Shot Pass (06.02.2000)
Midnight Rescue (06.04.2000)
Across a Glacier (06.05.2000)
Cold Toes (06.07.2000)
Cloud Walkers (06.09.2000)
Fourteen Medical (06.11.2000)
A Climber Saved (06.13.2000)
Lull Before a Storm (06.15.2000)
Frostbite (06.17.2000)
An Unforgiving Mountain (06.19.2000)
Stopped Short (06.20.2000)
A Great Loss (06.20.2000)
Bid for the Summit (06.23.2000)
Summit Reached (06.24.2000)


E-Mail

Set #1 (06.07.2000)
Set #2 (06.08.2000)
Set #3 (06.11.2000)
Set #4 (06.12.2000)
Set #5 (06.21.2000)


Meet the Team

Pete Athans
Colby Coombs
Dr. Howard Donner
John Grunsfeld
Dr. Peter Hackett
Caitlin Palmer



Liesl Clark directed "Deadly Ascent".



Send Feedback Image Credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site