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Saturday, 19 May 2007


In Pursuit of Adventure

By Justin T. Carreño

This weekend (May19), I depart to the Great White North, Alaska, to make a summit attempt on the highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley, also known as "Big Mac," or 'Denali,' as it is commonly referred to by the climbing community. People frequently ask me, "Is it 'Denali' or 'Mt. McKinley'?"

Before I discuss my climbing ambitions, the often-questioned Denali/Mt. McKinley naming convention needs some explaining.

The gold prospector, William Dickey, officially renamed the highest mountain in North America "Mt. McKinley" in 1897 after then presidential nominee William McKinley because McKinley was a proponent of the gold standard, and Dickey wanted to retaliate against the "free silver" partisans. Prior to Dickey's renaming, it was referred to by the native Athabaskan name, Denali meaning "The High One" or "The Great One."

Indian-rights activists over the years progressively saw the name "Mt. McKinley" as disrespectful and as cultural imperialism, and in 1980, the name Mount McKinley National Park was officially changed to Denali National Park and Preserve to honour the native name. The mountain itself was left Mt. McKinley as the official name, which is still controversial (but serves to help to distinguish the Park from the mountain).

Still, at the same time, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of the mountain to Denali. However, the US Board of Geographic Names left it as Mt. McKinley. Moreover, US Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the current congressman from President McKinley's district and hometown, introduces legislation at the first session of each Congress "to provide for the retention of the name of Mount McKinley," which effectively blocks any effort at a name change.

Aside from the mountain's name, Denali is notorious for having creative appellations for routes and route sections. One of the most notable is a steep portion of the mountain referred to as the macabre, "Orient Express," so named for the first to perish there from falling down its slopes -- Japanese and Koreans. 'Heartbreak Hill' located on the West Buttress Route received its name from the disappointing struggle that climbers contend with at the end of the trip ascending it to the meet their plane on the landing strip at base camp.

Destination Denali
It was 1998 when I was working for the National Park Service in Denali National Park that I finally saw the mountain not shrouded by clouds on one of my many forays into the back-country. Interestingly, I hadn't observed it right away because of the weather surrounding it, keeping it hidden most of the time. I was hiking alone along an animal trail that eventually would open up to a view of the mountain (if not obscured), and to a spot where I could set up camp for the night, according to the topo map I had, anyway.

There are no human-made trails in the Park's back-country. If you're on the Park bus you just yell at the driver to drop you off, whereever you desire. I hiked in through the willows, then into steeper terrain until I got to a winding rocky ledge where I began to wonder when I was going to stumble upon a Grizzly that had a taste for a lone backpacker. Thankfully, I never encountered a bear. Rather I lost my footing and tumbled down a good way. I was bruised and cut a bit, and I was thinking this is absolutely miserable, and frustrated that I decided to go alone.

I was all right, after all, with the exception of quickly waning optimism. I was also tired. I just lay for a bit and shut my eyes. Maybe five minutes passed. Maybe 30 minutes. I don't know. Despondent and a bit depressed, I finally decided that I had to keep moving. I opened my eyes, donned my pack, and was about to start off when I did a double-take. About 30 feet in front of me was what is referred to as a Dall sheep. It was munching on the little vegetation that there was in the area. These regal creatures are agile and amazingly strong and sturdy. I remember it looking like a solid statue, being incredibly white, and simply beautiful.

Realizing that it didn't really care about me and I wasn't in harm's way, I continued on a few steps to realize that there was something more. As I hiked, I would look up the ravine, first see the green of the vegetation, then gray-brown rock and talus, then the white of Alaska Range, and then the gray sky. But this time there was blue sky -- the Dall sheep was, in fact, in the foreground of the granite sentinel looming over the Range -- Denali!

I had been so shocked by the sheep that I hadn't noticed it. I was in total awe of the mountain as it dwarfed the rest of the Alaska Range. My thoughts of hopelessness vanished, as I stood there alone in the isolated Alaskan wilderness among these gifts of grandeur. Despite the emotional and physical hardships I was enduring, I also felt calmness accompanied by a burst of optimism that stayed with me and helped lead me to my campsite.

I immediately knew that Denali would be a future destination -- hopefully the following summer I thought. (But it wouldn't be until nine years later that I would return). That summer in '98 I now needed to get to Talkeetna, the fabled mountaineering town located about two hours north of Anchorage. It's about four blocks long, filled with climbing memorabilia and tourist shops, and the staging area where the majority of climbers depart to fly to the mountain. I didn't hesitate to thumb my way three hours south to the town from where I was in Denali National Park.

Once there I made a quick tour of the town, including the pub rumored to be the scene of where President Harding was poisoned. I then made my way down to the Talkeetna River where I ate some trail mix and dried ramen before I climbed into my sleeping bag under the clear sky with the moonlit Alaska Range reflecting in the river. Although beautiful, this seemingly serene setting soon turned into a nightmare with bird-sized mosquitoes biting any little part of exposed flesh. Covering myself with my sleeping bag to avoid the insects proved to be suffocating and miserably hot.

This led me to depart the tranquility of the riverside to head back up into the town and sleep on a less poetic park bench. But it was no less frenetic. Yet other freakishly large bugs tore me apart. Just then, I was startled by a man who asked me why I was sleeping on a bench. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him.

The man said he recognised that I might climbing McKinley. I told him that actually I was a Denali aspirant. He then went on to offer me as couch at his home so that I could finally get some rest. Knowing that there was no way I would be able to get quality sleep that night on a bench, I accepted and we exchanged niceties.

He said his name was Colby, and he lived with his wife Caitlin across the street. Still, I was wondering, Why was this guy seemed familiar? Outside his home was a sign, "Alaska Mountaineering School." It then clicked. He and his wife are two world-class climbers, some of the top guides on Denali, and owners of the AMS (which happens to share the same abbreivation as the common high altitude ailment, acute mountain sickness, or AMS).

I had seen Colby Coombs and Caitlin Palmer in a Discovery Channel documentary on climbing. As I helped him coil some rope, we came to realise that we were both from "back East." He was originally from upstate New York and the only one in his family with a pair of hiking boots. (I'm from Connecticut, originally). We spoke about Denali and climbing and he helped me reaffirm my interest in attempting the mountain someday.

Although my summer in Alaska was etched in my mind as a memory to never forget, I clearly pointed out to my boss that if I ever go back, there is only one reason I would -- to climb Denali. After three months of living in the sub-arctic tundra, I said my farewells. I also promised myself that I would return one day to attempt the highest peak in North America.

Why climb?
That idea to climb Denali, now nine years old, has become a reality. I leave New Orleans (where I now live) on 19 May and rendezvous in Anchorage with my team, seven others from six states and one from Canada.

I have intentionally avoided mentioning my ambitions to most my peers. Many, especially in the South, where I live, have no comprehension of what it entails, and describing the sport would be useless. For those who do understand something of what an undertaking it is, it is incomprehensible that a person take the extensive risks and extreme hardships associated with mountaineering. But this is, in part, why climbers climb -- to overcome challenge, to pursue well defined goals, feel a sense of accomplishment, push yourself to your emotional, mental, and physical limits, know what it feels like to really be alive when faced with the struggle to survive everyday, and to know that your mortality is based on your every decision and action.

The mundane things we take for granted in everyday life suddenly turn into life or death situations in the mountains. You eat to fuel your body, not to indulge in delicacy. Every step is deliberate and calculated. Every action is made considering how to maintain thermoregulation and keep dry -- sweating while climbing could lead to freezing during a stop.

I once met a climber on Mt. Rainier, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest, whose wisdom in the mountains transcends to everyday life. In his book he describes what it means to climb:

''When people stretch out on a warm beach somewhere, cool drink in hand, or sit in their backyard with a thick steak on the grill, and say 'Ah, this is the good life,' they're usually talking about comfort. I like that too, but more and more these days, the key to a life well-lived -- as distinct from the 'good-life' -- is discomfort. ...[T]he discomfort of stretching yourself beyond what you already know, or know how to do, of struggling with adversity....''

Although Whitaker's explanation is positive, I sometimes wonder if my motivations are so pure. Am I missing something vital in my life that mountaineering substitutes, or is it just a need for adventure? Am I trying to prove something to someone or myself? I don't think so.I know I get bored on occasion with day-to-day life, and high altitude mountaineering counters this by providing a surrealistic realm in which to escape and find intensity-- something negligible in my everyday life that I crave.

I also know that I like the mountaineer lifestyle. A climber high on a mountain is forced to live a clean, healthy, organized, and responsible lifestyle if he is to succeed, and this is usually reflected concurrently with the mountaineer's life down low as well. In my days of climbing, I have found a correlation between high altitude and the people at that altitude. On the whole, those who you meet at high altitudes that require some kind of endurance and technical skills to get there share certain characteristics, including being independent, self-motivated, healthy, intellectual, trustworthy, and successful in there personal lives. These are traits that I believe in and strive to embody.

How's It's Done
This is considered an extreme-high altitude arctic mountaineering expedition that will take about three weeks to complete. The mountain itself is located at 63 degrees north latitude and is the highest peak in the northern arctic region at 20,320 feet. An expedition of this magnitude takes special care in planning, know-how, physical training, and gear selection.

The climb from base camp to summit on Denali is the longest continuous stretch of any mountain in the world, greater even than Mt. Everest. We will have two rope teams -- three on skis and four on snowshoes. The idea is to climb slowly, employing a multiple-ascent, "siege style" or "expedition style" approach where we'll cache supplies and equipment (called carries), while descending to sleep low.

The process of shuttling gear up and coming back down to sleep, and establishing camps to get higher and higher in this manner essentially means that we will be climbing the mountain approximately twice. This process allows time for the body to acclimate to the altitude by making subtle changes in blood chemistry and physiology.

It also allows for less weight to carry at one time. Even so, it will be be tough going. Living near and even below sea level, I have had to be innovative about my training. It's generally accepted by climbers that the best way to train to climb is to climb. With the exception of a training climb on Mt. Baker in Washington with our team in February, I've been limited to the flat land for my training. Simulating any kind of altitude is out of the question, but I have been able to work on my cardiopulmonary system by running and cycling, and I supplement it by weight training at the gym.

But probably most beneficial has been climbing the 27 flights of stairs for a couple hours about twice a week in a place considered very possibly the antithesis of a remote, high mountain -- a high-rise located in downtown New Orleans. The contradictory juxtaposition of New Orleans to Denali is interesting to say the least: I train below sea level in the staggering heat and humidity of a heavily populated city famous for its unhealthy, reckless debauchery to go to a remote, high-altitude, cold, and dry destination with but a few, extremely fit people with a focused goal.

I've climbed the stairs with a full pack, slowly adding more and more weight until I've had about 65 pounds on my back. This type of training is called power endurance, and combines weight training with endurance training, and is considered one of the most vigorous and dynamic types of conditioning to increase an athlete's fitness.

Equipment for high-altitude mountaineering is less than ordinary and not cheap. Considerations, which have no place in everyday life, take on new meaning when planning this kind of expedition. No cotton of any kind is allowed, since that fabric soaks up perspiration and doesn't dry readily. Thus, it can freeze and kill. Skis require special adjustable bindings and "skins" for traveling uphill. Plastic children's sleds need modifications to accept PVC piping used as stabilizers. The head of a lightweight aluminum ice axe gets wrapped in foam to prevent fingers freezing to the metal. Redundant pairs of polarized glacier glasses protect against snow blindness. Water bottles get wrapped in insulating blankets. In order to avoid embarrassing mistakes in the middle of the night, pee bottles are carefully selected to distinguish them from water bottles by color and shape. (Both water bottles and pee bottles are kept inside sleeping bags at night to avoid frozen disasters by morning).

The combination of your body and the sleeping bag, in fact, acts as a dryer. Ergo, anything you want warm and dry you sleep with. It's a virtual circus in your bag. Weight considerations govern everything. The heaviest weight is fuel: food and gas for stoves. Each team member will be hauling his/her own food and fuel. Calorie requirements are upwards of about 4,000 per person per day and fuel can be about 0.3 liters per person per day.

Food is a huge concern. No crackers because they'll be crumbs. No peanut butter because it will be frozen. No candies made primarily of sugar (e.g., caramels, tootsie rolls) because they'll be too tough to chew.The generally accepted ratio of nutrients is 60-65% carbs, 20-25% fat, and 10-15% protein (what amounts to about 2 pounds of food per person, per day, not counting packaging.) The general rule is that one pound of food is approximately 2,000 calories. Expenditure can be as high as 6,000 calories per day, depending on altitude, extreme temperatures, and performance requirements for any given day.

Raw energy requirements increase 15-50 percent over that needed at sea-level for comparable exertion, and will obviously depend on the size and gender of the individual. A 115-pound woman, for example, won't need as much food as a 170-pound man, assuming they're doing comparable work. At the same time, food intakes typically fall 10-50 percent during altitude exposure, depending on the rapidity of ascent and the individual's susceptibility to altitude illness such as AMS (acute mountain sickness), which is a primary cause of loss of appetite.

One key to success at altitude is to hydrate regularly, above all else. Dehydration exacerbates symptoms of altitude sickness and diminishes appetite further. If you feel the start of a headache, it can be thwarted with a carb-loaded beverage. Consumption should be around 3-4 liters a day, containing 100-250g carbs in addition to your food calories. While water is usually the beverage of choice, the need for regular, ongoing dose of carbs is helpful, thus a combination of cider, juice mixes, cocoa, tea, lemonade, Gatorade, soups, and the like all involve plenty of water and carbs. The more per meal, the better.

We will be climbing the West Buttress or Washburn Route, named after the discoverer and pioneer of many routes in the Alaska Range, Bradford Washburn (born 1910). Upon returning to Connecticut after my summer in Alaska, I immediately got in touch with Washburn, a Worcester, Mass., native (I was born there, as well) who, at the time, was honorary director of the Boston Museum of Science.

I wrote about my Alaskan climbing interest and my ascent of Scott Peak in the Alaska Range that summer. Washburn, in fact, made the first ascent of Scott Peak. He was more than willing to talk about it and we kept in regular correspondence for a time. Sadly, he died recently in January 2007.

Climbers attempting the West Buttress Route fly a light aircraft, ski plane 45 minutes from Talkeetna at about 350 feet to base camp at 7,200 feet. We're taking a Cessna 185 that will approach the Kahiltna glacier revealing a breathtaking view of our competition. At 7,200 feet we'll be on a crevasse field on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, 15.5 miles from Denali's summit. After a night's stay at Base Camp, we will climb to 7,800 feet at the base of Ski Hill, which includes a descent of Heartbreak Hill on the way up to the 8K Camp.The 11,000-foot camp is next located just below Motorcycle Hill. The next camp is the 14,000-foot Park Service Medical Camp consisting of nothing more than a big tent.

This climb can only be done in good weather with reasonable assurance of low winds for the traverse around Windy Corner. Up the route 2.75 miles and into a wide crevasse-ridden basin lies camp at just above 14,000 feet. The next stop is the 16,200-foot camp. To the north of camp, we'll have to ascend the fixed ropes of the 800-foot vertical face of the Headwall, the steepest section of the West Buttress route. Ridge Camp sits at the top of the Headwall.

Upward is the most spectacular section of the West Buttress Route, the .75-mile ridge line above the 16,200-foot Camp heading to the 17,200-foot high camp, which offers stunning views and dramatic exposed climbing. Any time spent at High Camp will probably be miserable where the body's ability to compensate for altitude is negligible.

The longest and most strenuous day on Denali will be the summit day, a 5-mile round trip back to High Camp. Our plan is to ascend Denali Pass in the cold morning air, until we cross a high flat plateau called the Football Field. The Summit Ridge begins at 20,100 feet, leading us up the last 220 vertical feet to the summit. It will be another two full days back to base camp where we'll meet the ski plane for transit back to Talkeetna.

There is no other mountain in the world like Denali. It is bigger than the peaks of the Himalaya and Karakoram. Mt. Everest, for example, has a vertical rise of 12,000 feet from the Tibetan plateau, but Denali is 18,000 feet above the Alaskan tundra. And Mt. Everest is approximately 4 ½ degrees of latitude north of the Tropic of Cancer, but Denali is 3 ½ degrees south of the Arctic Circle. This far northern position not only makes Denali bitterly cold but the atmosphere is thinner at this sub-polar latitude than that encountered at similar elevations in temperate or tropical latitudes.

In addition, Denali's proximity to the Aleutian Islands, "the birthplace of winds," gives it its notorious severe weather, including white-out storms, and cold temperatures. Average summer temperatures at base camp are around 15 degrees Fahrenheit, while temperatures on the summit average a balmy -20 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it's not uncommon for -40-degree weather to be experienced and -100 degrees with added wind chill.

A layered clothing system, including down pants and parka will be worn on the coldest days. The weather is a significant cause in the low success rates -- about 50 percent of all teams actually make the summit.

Safety is the Number One concern. Of course we would all like to summit. But getting down is mandatory. Getting to the top is optional. Summit fever is a common affliction, but turning around when things aren't right is not beyond my capability.

Anytime anyone climbs, or travels into the wilderness for that matter, they have to be self-sufficient. We will be reliant totally on our own knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources. It can be deadly to think you can rely on anyone else (even the National Park Service). Having said that, this is a well-traveled route and there usually isn't a shortage of people that will selflessly come to your aid, if possible (as our team would for others).

Although, I will be incommunicado for several weeks with the "real world," we will have regular communication with radios to Base Camp, the Talkeetna Ranger Station, and our chartered plane service (Talkeetna Air Taxi). The whole team is experienced with a slew of survival skills, including proper ascent rates, identifying and mitigating frost bite, hypothermia, high altitude medicine, and we are skilled in crevasse rescue, roped glacier travel, crevasse negotiation, self-arrest (where a climber stops himself during an uncontrolled fall using his ice axe), and building snow caves.

That's what's to be expected and what this trip is all about. This is much anticipated, and I am hoping that all goes smoothly. We will remain prudent throughout. Here's to new adventures, and I'll be in touch at the end of June.

(Justin T. Carreño is Junto's aide-de-camp).

Editor's Note: As of this posting, Justin has arrived in Anchorage, and was having breakfast when we spoke. He and his team leave tonight to connect with the plane that that fly them to their base camp.