After my return home to Connecticut after my 1998 summer in Alaska, I wrote to Washburn, who was then honorary director of the Boston Museum of Science. I told him of my Alaskan climbing interest and my previous ascent of Scott Peak in the Alaska Range, which I had climbed that summer of 1998. Washburn, in fact, made the first ascent of Scott Peak. I also told Washburn about something else we had in common: We were both born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Washburn was happy to exchange thoughts, and we kept in regular correspondence for a time. Sadly, he died recently, in January 2007.
In 1951 Washburn was a member of a team that was supporting a cosmic ray study carried out by the US Office of Naval Research (ONR). The expedition, hoping to conduct its research on Denali Pass, led Washburn and his team to find the most direct route to the Pass, which would eventually become the new and popular West Buttress Route to the summit. ONR agreed to provide air support for the expedition, which was successful in yielding the geologic data needed for ONR to establish its high altitude Denali Pass laboratory. The first idea was conceived and funding projected for the research in 1947. Unfortunately, by 1951, when the route and location for the laboratory were established, more powerful particle collisions were being generated by accelerators in more accessible areas, thus the ONR cosmic ray study was abandoned.
Seventy years after the inception of the Naval research climb of Denali, I volunteered to represent the service -- although neither funded, nor sponsored by the Navy -- once again on North America's highest peak, ultimately -- and for the first time -- flying the Navy flag on Mt. McKinley's summit. I did both earlier this year. (Despite extensive research, I haven't discovered whether another Navy flag has ever flown atop Denali, and, as a result, I can proudly say that my expedition was, quite possibly, the first ever to display the Navy's colors on North America's high point.
The single key factor that drives so many people to climb Mt. McKinley is its height -- the tallest mountain in North America and the Arctic region. Its climb is also the coldest and longest endurance trek of the seven summits (the highest point on each continent), commonly compared to that of the Himalayan giants. It stands 20,320 feet tall at 63 degrees north latitude. It rises up from the Alaska Range, which, on average, is approximately 3,000 feet high, so it has an enormous prominence that can be seen from well over a hundred miles away. Generally speaking, it attracts some of the most experienced climbers in the world for a two-month climbing season that begins in mid-May. This year, 1,202 climbers worldwide registered with the Park Service to make the ascent. Of the 1,202 climbers, 573 made it to the summit yielding a 48% succes s rate, which is just under the usua l 50% success rate of a typical season.
McKinley's enormous size and location generates a singular weather system that can be characterized by brutal storms that dump extraordinary quantities of snow. Also, climbers high on the mountain from Basin camp at 14,200 feet upward can expect to see temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees in spring and summer months.
The weather patterns cause a large number of accidents. Climber, Steve Bragg explains, "In a typical year, about 100 climbers succumb to either altitude sickness or frostbite, requiring an average of twelve rescues. The peak is located only 130 miles to the north of Cook Inlet, which is a natural feeder system for large quantities of precipitation. Consequently, snow tends to fall more heavily on the south side of the peak. The worst storms come from the southwest from the Bering Sea, and usually involve four-day storms that are accompanied by heavy snowfall and high winds. Arctic weather coming in from the north is obviously much colder, but tends to be linked with clear weather and high winds. If weather comes from the northwest, climbers camped on the lower Kahiltna Glacier are treated to inordinate amounts of fog, snowfall, and general misery that roll over Kahiltna Pass and d own th e glacier like a wet blanket."
During the turn of the 20th century, McKinley posed an ominous threat to anyone who challenged it or the area flanking its slopes. The standard approach route was from the south and moved up the Cook Inlet. It was traveled using sled dogs in the spring and horses in the summer. The route continued up the Muldrow Glacier, named after Robert Muldrow who co-led a surveying expedition to the area in 1898.
Judge James Wickersham, in 1902, led the first serious expedition to McKinley. The Wickersham Wall on Denali is named after him. Following Wickersham was Dr. Frederick Cook's controversial expedition in 1903 whose team made it to 11,300 feet and circumnavigated the entire peak. The controversy emerged when Cook undertook a second expedition in 1906, making false claims of making the summit in a rapid ascent of the peak.
In 1910 the Sourdough Expedition, composed of a group of miners, executed a tour de force, completing an 11,000-foot vertical climb in one day to reach the wrong peak. They mistakenly climbed the slightly lower north peak of Denali. To mark their achievement the team impressively hauled a 14-foot spruce pole up the mountain to plant at what they thought was the highest point, but rather it was, unknowingly, the lower north summit. Unfortunately, the great achievement was lessened because the teams leader, Tom Loyd, lied, claiming they reached the south summit.
Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker followed these efforts in three expeditions between 1906 and 1912. In the third Parker-Browne expedition in 1912, the expedition completed an epic half-year trip to and from the mountain, actually making it to the summit ridge of the south peak, but being forced down by ferocious winds without being able to make the final quarter-mile traverse to its top.
The Stuck Expedition finally reached the summit on 6 June 1913. Hudson Stuck was the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon. The Archdeacon's Tower, high on the mountain near the peak, is named after him. Harry Karstens, later to be the first superintendent of McKinley National Park (formed in 1917), was also a member of the expedition.
Ski plane landings became the standard access to the mountain, rather than overland routes taking weeks and months just to gain the lower slopes of Denali. The first landing near McKinley was on 25 April 1932 by a Fairchild monoplane, on the Muldrow Glacier. This is now within Park limits, and so landings are no longer allowed there because motorized transportation is forbidden within Park boundaries. Instead, planes land on the southern edge of the park, on the Kahiltna Glacier, where our expedition landed. Terris Moore made the first landing in this location, and also was part of the third successful summit team in 1951.
There were seven of us virtually unknown to each other. There was Casey McCoy, a confident 26-year old Air Force lieutenant from Seattle who was the strongest climber and skier, whose lifestyle was climbing. Although he had earned five degrees in physics and engineering related majors, I thought it noble of him when he told me he was pursuing a Masters in Liberal Arts, and eventually wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy because he didn't think, although professionally practical, that the sciences had all the answers. Brian Kalet, a self-centered 25-year old from Boulder, was also a strong climber who had climbed and skied just about all the 14ers in the Lower 48. He said he skied the mountains solo because he mocked everyone and didn't have friends. (Whether true or not, it was certainly plausible knowing his lack of congeniality). He was a Ph.D. student researching cancer. His emotional tension was exposed wh enever he uttered anything, as he ended every statement by replacing the period with the "motherfucker." Joel Schenk, the oldest at 46, was an athletic and easy-going amateur photographer who was laden with heavy camera gear all the way up the mountain. His strong Minnesotan accent underscored an even-tempered and near-humorous tone that put people at ease. Jesse Samuels was a mild-mannered and helpful 27-year old climbing guide from Chico, California. Rodger LeBedz, a 37-year old from Houston, was a quick-witted aeronautical engineer whose ingenuity came in handy when we needed to manipulate rigging and fix things like the stove. He was introspective, philosophical, and even-tempered. Eileen Bistrisky, a young-looking 40-year old, owned a Vancouver-based event planning business. She had a "type A" personality, was excitable, and socially dependent. She was rightfully proud of her strong winter camping and technical mountaineering skills, but was always quick to have a better way of doing things.
Myself? I'm 28 and originally from rural, northeastern Connecticut. I graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2000, and left New England in 2002, headed west, and pursued a Master's degree in Geography at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. In 2003, while still in school, I began working full-time for the Wyoming State Geological Survey (WSGS) in the Hazards Division. I was contracted by the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with emergency management and homeland security projects, modeling hazards and developing and writing hazard mitigation plans.
In the summer of 2004, I met someone in Michigan who told me about his work with the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVO) in GIS, geospatial analysis, and oceanography. I was looking for work with more opportunity, and we exchanged business cards. Not long after, I received a call from NAVO expressing interest in hiring me as a Physical Scientist (now Oceanographer). That's where I now work. In January 2005, I left the mountains and high arid plains of the West for the South, where I live nearly below sea level in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell.
Adventure has always been part of my life, and can muddle through, some might even say, manage, surviving adventurous forays from sea to summit. I enjoy all kinds of exciting and challenging exploits -from SCUBA diving to high altitude mountaineering, and many things in between: long-distance road biking and spelunking. I started alpine mountaineering in 1997 when I worked for a summer at Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington State. I couldn't help but attempt this mountain that was staring me in the face everyday. Since then, I've climbed other mountains around the Lower 48, and in Alaska, Japan, and Mexico.
Although conventional "sacred-bond-of-the-rope" writers rarely divulge any disagreeable personality conflicts, I have to admit to an unfortunate lack of unity among my climbing group. Our team was an odd mix of people who didn't mesh well. This could be expected as we only climbed once together and weren't close, and in the climbing community this is generally warned against. But as a team we worked together and kept negative feelings and perceptions of one another to ourselves until the end of the expedition. There were many times I wanted to tell Roger about my frustrations with Eileen. But this, in essence, would have been talking behind her back, and would have undermined our collective strength. I kept my mouth shut. And so did Rodger, who was also annoyed with her. Ultimately, we all had a common goal - to climb the highest peak in North America. Though never verbalized, we knew if we were to have a shot at the 2 0,320-foot summit, we knew we would have to work as a cohesive unit and put negative feelings and words aside until the journey was completed. High-altitude mountaineering has little room for caustic emotions and behavior.
It began at 7,200 feet at the Kahiltna base camp. The seven of us and our gear flew in from Talkeetna after spending the night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) bunkhouse. On a Twin Otter plane equipped with skis, we landed on the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip, which is also commonly known, in jest, as the Kahiltna International Airport. Kahiltna base was a beehive of activity with climbers from all ends of the earth arriving, awaiting to depart, and preparing for their climbs.
As we landed I was in awe of the amphitheater of jagged peaks and ice and rock of the remote Alaska Range that surrounded us from all sides: The infamous Moonflower Buttress, Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker, and, of course, standing above all, Denali. Although I wanted to take in the scenery and realize where I was, there was little time for that. It was about 6:00 p.m. on 21 May and we needed to begin preparations for our unconventional same-day, five-mile long trek to the 7,800-foot camp. Commonly, climbers spend one night at 7,200 feet to acclimatize to the altitude as the jump from Talkeetna to base camp is nearly 7,000 feet, but we were all feeling strong and motivated, and thought moving sooner than later would be to our advantage. More important, it's wise to move over this area at night (still light out in Alaska) when the snow is hard, the ice bridges over the crevasses are solid, and the glacier doesn't act as a reflector oven.
Unfortunately, going against better judgment, the night before, Casey, Joel, Brian, and I decided to escape to the West Rib Bar and Grill in Talkeetna. We agreed we'd only have one pitcher of beer. Disregarding that idea, after downing three pitchers of Glacier Ice Axe Ale, also known as Glacier Imperial Blonde, a high-alcohol content beer, the night prior, it so happened that we did not get as much sleep as intended. Rather, in a jolly stupor, we meandered back to the Talkeetna Air Taxi bunkhouse, discovered it to be full, so we simply laid our sleeping bags outside on a platform, crawled in, and passed out not giving much thought to the next day's flight to our long awaited start up North America's highest point. Most climbers find it imperative to spend the night before flying to Kahiltna base, hydrating and getting a good night's rest.
Once we removed our gear from the "runway" we picked out sleds (which were nothing more than cheapest plastic sleds you can get at Wal-Mart) located near the base camp managers tent/ office, being careful to choose ones with the least damage and cracks. After getting our sleds we cooked some food, ate, and drank to energize for the hours ahead of us. On the return, it's not uncommon for the weather to prevent planes from flying in, thus stranding climbers for days at base camp. This being the case, we would need food and fuel to ride out those days. So after getting our sleds and eating, we promptly began digging a large hole and cached three days of food and fuel in the case we needed to stay there waiting for our flight out.
We were one party composed of two rope teams one more physically aggressive than the other. The more aggressive team was named Nunatak with Joel, Brian, Casey, and Jesse. I was on the more conservative team, named Summit PostWholers with Eileen and Rodger. Nunatak left about 30 minutes prior to our departure as we ran into issues securing our gear to our sleds. We finally were tied into the rope, rigged, and ready to go by about 10:00 p.m., and we started out vigorously along the first leg of the route, which begins with about a 500-foot descent down what is referred to as Heartbreak Hill.
The vigorous start abruptly ended when we had sled problems. My sled kept swinging around my legs and effectively clotheslining me continuously down the hill. In my haste I had forgotten to tie a prussic knot from the sled to the rope to prevent this slippage. A prussic is a friction knot tied with a piece of cord to the rope that grabs the rope when pulled taught. The sled was annoying, but I kept my mouth shut and hoped we would be down the hill soon, knowing that once going uphill it would be fine. But it began to affect my pace and Eileen, who was leading, began to notice. We had no choice but to stop and rig the prussic. Rodger had a length of webbing accessible that I used. It wasn't as ideal as cord, which is usually used, but it worked adequately to get the sled down the remainder of the slope without too much aggravation. Rodger wasn't without problems, either. He had to stop to secure his bag to his sled several times.
As we neared the end of the descent I realized that I had neglected to notice the rubbing on my feet because of the other issues we were having. I knew that if I didn't do something about it the rubbing would get worse and blisters are a certain showstopper. Despite that fact, it was the dead of night with freezing temperatures and I knew that it would take time, I asked Eileen to stop, explained that situation, and both Eileen and Rodger understood. I sat on the icy ground, removed my snowshoes, then boots, then two pairs of socks. My feet were totally exposed so I had to act quickly. Eileen offered me moleskin. I declined and instead wrapped both my feet in duct tape and began the process of putting the boot system back on. We started again and I immediately felt the relief on my feet.
The route weaved sinuously through crevasse fields slowly winding upwards towards camp. We were all getting exhausted. Eileen was feeling the weight of her pack and had to stop to take it off several times. The hike was seemingly never ending. Although she didn't think anyone could hear her, Rodger and I listened to Eileen sobbing. She persevered, and we pretended not to hear her. We were climbing a hill and all decided that if we couldn't see the camp over that hill then we would bivy (bivouac) at that point. Given that the crevasses were minimal, as we crested the hill Eileen, relieved, yelled to us that she saw the camp. Exhausted, having been up about 24 hours by this point, Rodger and I said nothing and kept moving with no expression, but containing our elation inside. It was 22 May and we made it to the first camp.
Once there, we hunted for a place to set up the tents. We found a site with half-height snow walls, which we decided were acceptable because the weather at that altitude is still forgiving. We didn't bother cooking. We immediately set up the tents, unpacked our bedding and hydrated food (e.g., GORP, trail mix, dried fruit), and crawled into our protective cocoons, passing out with the comfort of knowing that a rest day was to follow.
The following day, 23 May, we found Nunatak's campsite and we spent the day relaxing with them, discussing our issues of the previous night. Nunatak had their share of problems as well. The following day, 24 May, we met Nunatak at the 9,700-foot camp. We were caching food and fuel at this camp while Nunatak, bypassing this camp and moving directly to the 11,000-foot camp, were taking a rest before they continued onward. We returned to the 7,800-foot camp and the following day moved through thickening fog, occasional snowfall, and eventual whiteout to the 9,700-foot camp. Eileen navigated smoothly with a compass and backed it up by plotting waypoints in her GPS for return trips.
That day I was mistakenly overdressed. Thus far I had been wearing a pair of long underwear, a pair of fleece pants, and hard shell water/ wind proof pants for my bottoms. Moving at night, that system worked, but as we moved up what is called Ski Hill to the 9,700-foot camp I became so overheated despite my efforts to ventilate that I had to stop, remove my snowshoes, boots, hard shells, fleece pants, and then put on my hard shells, boots, and snowshoes, leaving my fleece pants off. There was a team gaining on us and didn't want to interrupt their rhythm by having them skirt around us, nor did I want to have our team move our packs, sleds, and ourselves off the route to allow them to bypass. I reviewed and rehearsed my doffing and donning exercise in my mind and methodically and quickly changed.
Over the following days we continued the trend and maintained a rhythm of steady climbing, as we would have a rest day, ascend, cache a load of food and fuel at the next camp, return to the camp below, and move to the next camp the following day. It was a routine but it wore on me mentally. I would get frustrated spending an entire day making a carry to the next camp just to have to descend and move the next day, but this is how its done on Denali - the only way to carry all our gear, food, and fuel - approximately 120 pounds of stuff that would allow us to potentially live for more than 25 days on the mountain. Unlike other high mountains around the world, Denali is infamous for requiring the climber to ascend it entirely under his or her own power - there are no pack animals, no porters, and no sherpas to assist in hauling.
We all began to feel like pack animals, as did other teams. As we made the move and plodded into the 11,000-foot camp from the 9,700-foot camp another team that we met and got friendly with at the 7,800-foot camp, Camel Trance, jokingly made donkey sounds, knowing how it felt to feel like beasts of burden. Camel Trance was composed of three men in their early 30s who were once college buddies at Brown University - a carpenter from Boulder, Colorado, a high altitude physician at Mass General Hospital, Boston, and an architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were a lighthearted, friendly, and generous group that covered their entire faces in zinc oxide looking like circus clowns. When I first met them they invited me over to their campsite to smoke a "fatty." I politely declined, and we all remained friends as we simultaneously moved higher up the mountain.
I wondered what was above. Despite having maps and guidebooks, what the route was really like? You have a sense of what it is, but before actually traveling it you don't know how it feels. Is it crevassed? How steep? How long? How many hours? What problems would we encounter? These were questions that would be slowly revealed as we crept up the glacier. Even when we were carrying to the 11,000-foot camp we climbed a difficult stretch, then rounded a bend to see what seemed to be an even more crevassed and steeper stretch than the last. Our morale got smashed knowing we would have to down-climb and move up the same part of the route the following day. We didn't say anything to one another. We just kept moving and eventually realized the hill, referred to as the notorious Motorcycle Hill, was actually beyond the camp. When we finally made it to the camp, we admitted to each other that if camp was beyond that hill we were just going to cache below it.
I was excited to be at the 11,000-foot camp. We were only one camp away from the 14,200-foot camp and that is where the real climb started. Mentally, the climb has to be compartmentalized into sections perceiving each section between camps as mini climbs, focusing on the next camp as the goal. While on the lower slopes, the upper mountain, never mind the summit, shouldn't even be thought about. It would become overwhelming to think of the entire mountain at once.
As I do many times, I was thinking of the end result. In this case, the summit - and focusing on not only the literal peak, but also the peak of the journey, rather than the journey itself. Spending days of labor for just a few minutes of achievement was a reality that we had to deal with. I had to keep refocusing myself to the present, on the here and now, in order to achieve the end result.
Rodger noticed that my attention deviated from the goal, and he'd reiterate throughout the climb, "Be in the moment." It reminded me of college. The end result was my degree. I would always think to myself that one day of studying for one test of one class of one semester of one year was so far removed from the end result, I would see it as virtually useless and not want to put much effort into something I saw as trivial. Studying meant little to me. The degree is what I sought.
Climbing to the next camp meant little to me. The summit was what I sought. Sometimes, someone would say, "The journey is the prize." I don't always subscribe to this. Maybe I should. But either way, I learned quickly that I had to elevate the importance of journey in order to realize the goal - something that I might have to do in everyday life, as well.
At first, I wasn't sure what Rodger meant by "be in the moment." But then I realized it meant appreciate, understand, and be conscious of your own self and your current experience or being. By doing this I became hyper-aware and alert to my body and its immediate surroundings. During unpleasant times, rather than allowing the stress and thought of "what could happen to me" overtake my mind, I thought about how, in the here and now, that I am fine I am alive, active, and surviving, and have the proper gear and knowledge to mitigate any future problems that may occur. This was a great lesson. I realized that 99% of people are never "in the moment" and this is something you have to work towards. It's not natural. Rodger agreed.
The 11,000-foot camp sat at the bottom of Motorcycle Hill and above a couloir that had hanging seracs - blocks of ice that looked as if they were ready to avalanche anytime. Eventually, after loosening up during the heat of the day one of these blocks released in the evening, presenting us with an impressive show. Avalanches were heard and seen throughout the climb. It was impossible to avoid staring at this powerful force. It was a constant reminder of what could happen. Fortunately, avalanche conditions weren't often threatening on our route.
Despite arriving at the 11,000-foot camp physically spent, we didn't break long before we did some "real estate" shopping for a tent site. With so many climbers on the mountain, there is usually a place with snow walls already made that just requires some reworking. Also, with so many climbers, we had to act fast so others wouldn't claim a prime spot. It was routine for us to get to the camp site, happily doff our packs, unpack our shovels and snow saws, and level out the area by digging and then walking on the area to compact the snow and then patch and build the snow walls where needed. Eileen would set up her tent and Rodger and I would set up our tent. It required two people because it wasn't freestanding.
Rodger reveled in camp chores and typically took it upon himself to set up the stove and begin melting snow that I would have collected in a spot distant from camp and place in a plastic bag. We decided in order to conserve fuel we wouldn't boil drinking water, so to insure cleanliness we designated a specific shovel and cup to scoop snow from the ground and from the bag to the pot, respectively. We didn't want to transfer any bacteria from using a shovel that made contact with snow that was urinated on or transfer germs from one of us to another. With the daily physical demands placed on us we couldn't afford to get sick.
The next day, after arriving at the 11,000-foot camp, Nunatak, continuing with their aggressive style and high ascent rate and two days ahead of us at this point, departed to make a carry up to the 14,200-foot camp. This day was a rest day for us. Later that night we were surprised when first Casey and then Brian, about ten minutes later, flew down Motorcycle Hill on their skis and snowplowed into our camp. We hung out with them for awhile and they explained that Joel, on snowshoes, and Jesse, on skis, were going about the same pace, and were behind them about a half hour.
If Jesse were on skis, why then was he so far behind, we wondered? When Casey and Brian left them he said that Jesse was spent and not feeling well, and, in fact, only made it to 13,500 feet and cached his food and fuel there. The same thought was going through all our minds, but we never said anything - that he pushed himself too hard and was going too high too fast with Nunatak . Originally, he was supposed to be on our team, which was going slower. As a guide and skier, I presume he didn't want to admit that he was weaker than Casey and Brian, but he wasn't nearly as proficient at skiing as either of them.
Both Joel and Jesse finally returned, expressing how beaten up they felt. The next morning, Joel was feeling fine, and he was one of the earliest out of the tents, as he was throughout the entire climb, along with Rodger. It's amazing how the body with rest, food, and water recovers, even in this harsh environment. We knew no matter how physically exhausted and fatigued we were our bodies would recover with sleep, food, and water --ready the next day. It's not as easy for your mental health to spring back, which later would become evident. Psychological battles became just as challenging and trying, if not more, as the physical challenges.
Joel came to our campsite and explained that Jesse was up all night with a hacking cough and spitting up frothy sputum. These were classic signs of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema). Jesse denied his illness for a while, but realized the gravity of the situation when a guide from the guide service, Mountain Trip, checked his vitals and told to him, that unless he wanted serious issues, he had to go down immediately.
Fatal cases of HAPE have historically occurred here, according to the guidebook, on Denali's West Buttress. Later, at the 14,200-foot camp we mentioned the story to Peter, the high altitude doctor from Camel Trance, who said most HAPE cases occur between 11,000 feet and 13,000 feet. We helped Jesse pack, and Casey and Brian, being the strong climbers they were, didn't hesitate to volunteer to ski Jesse back down to Kahiltna base, and climb back up. They skied to 7,800 feet where Jesse requested they stop for the night to rest. The next day they went to base camp where Jesse immediately felt better and his symptoms were nonexistent. Casey reported that Jesse was happy to be leaving and looking forward to his return to California. Casey and Brian, now acclimated, took two days to return to the 11,000-foot camp - what took us five days initially.
There were six of us now, and although Jesse's situation was a demonstration and wake-up call to all of us of what this mountain could do, we all remained determined. Because of the high latitude of Denali the pressure altitude significantly differs from the actual altitude. Jesse, as a climbing guide, regularly climbs to 14,000 feet in the Lower 48. However, 11,000 feet on Denali is actually equivalent to a higher altitude, possibly up to 2,000 feet higher. As you go higher the difference in pressure versus actual altitude gets exponentially greater. This difference is caused by the earth's rotation where centrifugal force causes the atmosphere to be thicker at the equator than at the poles. And this pressure altitude combined with the negligence of climbing too high too fast led to Jesse's unfortunate failure.
For those two days, Joel remained at the 11,000-foot camp, and we hung out with him when we were there. He expressed his frustration of remaining at that camp for so long - about four days. He was ready to move up, and we understood his displeasure. He had no communication with Casey or Brian, and didn't know when they would return. They finally skied into camp, were all ready to move, and didn't waste anytime getting to the 14,200-foot camp.
Our team made a carry while Joel was waiting at camp and Casey and Jesse were on the lower mountain. I awoke not feeling well, having congestion and fatigue, but thought it would fade once I started climbing. However, it only worsened. The plan was to cache our load at 13,500 feet above what is known as Windy Corner, bypass this cache continuing to the 14,200-foot camp, retrieve the cache the following day after making camp, and climb back up to the 14,200-foot camp with the cached load.
By the time we got below the Corner, my condition had worsened. It was obvious I had a fever. It was freezing outside, and I was literally dripping with sweat, which was dangerous. I expressed how I felt to my teammates, who, thankfully, realized that I was in a dire situation, and we couldn't go on. The route flanked a vertical wall of ice and snow.
As we made a brief standing rest we heard a loud crack then roaring, and realized that the ice wall was avalanching. Eileen and Rodger immediately began quickly climbing upward. We were roped and so I did the same, but unlike them, I was exhausted and realized that there was no way we could escape an avalanche if it was directly in our path. I accepted our fate. We never took the time or effort to look for the avalanche. All I know is that it didn't cross our path.
We continued to just under Windy Corner where it lived up to its name - the weather was brutal. My state was deteriorating and we still had to descend. My clothes were soaked with perspiration. I pulled up the sleeves of my shirt to help ventilate while climbing. Beads of sweat formed on my arms and froze in place. My arms were covered in frozen beads of sweat. At the time it was relieving, but I knew that with the cold temperatures any amount of time spent standing still would freeze my clothes before it would dry them. So we quickly dumped our load, took out our shovels, and started digging a cache. I was beginning to freeze, but knew I would warm up once we started moving again. Moving down I wouldn't sweat as much, but the heat from my body would dry my clothes, and I was looking forward to this. We dumped our load, buried it, and started back to camp at 11,000 feet. Upon returning, we made a meal and promptly went to sleep. As I was fa lling asleep, I hypothesized that my illness was caused by a deteriorated immune system triggered by my rapid weight loss.
The next morning Eileen and Rodger insisted that I remain in the tent to get better. Eileen gave me vitamin C to mix in my Nalgene (common name for the one-liter bottles we used for water) and a benylin pill that knocked me out. It wasn't that they didn't care about my health, but I knew what they were thinking - if I didn't get better I would quickly become a liability and jeopardize their climb. I awoke hours later groggy, but feeling better. We took this day as an extra rest day, so it wasn't until the day after that we went up and I was feeling like a new man - strong and ready to move up to the 14,200-foot camp. Nunatak moved the day before - they were a solid day to a day and half ahead of us.
The entire trip Rodger was the first out of the tent, collecting and melting snow, boiling water for our Nalgenes, and preparing breakfast. If it snowed the night before, he'd shovel out the campsite and clear off the tents. In the beginning, I'd reluctantly force myself from my 'womb,' the warmth of my down sleeping bag, and go out into the morning cold to help. I both appreciated -- and detested -- his morning work. I appreciated it because he would save Eileen and me from firing up the stove and making water.
I detested it because it forced me to wake up early. If I didn't have my meal ready for water, then I would miss breakfast. There was no reason for him to wake up early and force us to get up, as well. I was pissed! I didn't tell him off until later at the 14,200-foot camp. It made no sense why he'd wake up so damn early, leave the warmth and dryness of his sleeping bag to begin working when we could do it an hour or two later without it disturbing our schedule. When I asked him, he said he was a 'morning person.' Huh? I'm also a morning person, but not when I have to crawl out of soft warmth and into bone-chilling weather.
As for Eileen, it didn't matter. She wouldn't get out until between 10 AM and noon, which pissed me off, too. This meant that we wouldn't begin our climb until the afternoon, meaning we would be climbing in the cold and reaching our destination late. That was crazy. I liked getting going early and reaching our destination early so we didn't have to contend with the cold.
Realizing near this point that we brought too much food, we unloaded a massive amount of it at the 11,000-foot camp. We had planned a maximum amount of three days to make our way down the mountain after summiting. We also left our snowshoes, a sled, helmets, and some other miscellaneous items that we agreed we had no use for on the upper mountain.
We started off for 14,200-foot Basin camp in the afternoon now on crampons, clawing into the hard-packed snow. My flu-like symptoms had vanished and I felt strong and motivated. The weather was clear and we moved swiftly up the mountain until we got to our cache just below Windy Corner. This time the weather was clear and calm with little to no wind. We concluded that we needed to move our load to the more benign caching location at the 13,500-foot alternate camp so our down climb to retrieve it the next day would be less demanding, and we knew it was going to be rough. We would be carrying a double load. Collectively, we were weighted down by hundreds of pounds of stuff.
Rodger, the strongest in our group took an entire duffle bag and strapped it to the top of his pack. We slowly crawled around the Corner to discover the 13,500-foot location was only about a half a mile, but the terrain was heavily crevassed and the ro ute had a steep drop -off on one s ide that the sleds would naturally fall towards and ride along the edge, causing Eileen and myself to have to fight the downward pull of the sleds.
We eventually reached the caching area. In the little distance, we covered we had spent so much energy that the three of us were starving. We first buried our cache, and while burying, I joked -- in serious way-- "Try not to get snow on any my stuff." I got immediate smiles and laughter from Eileen and Rodger. Then we turned our attention back to food. I wanted to eat, but it was getting late and cold and we needed to move. I decided I could get by on some granola bars because my hands were beginning to freeze, but Eileen had a different idea. She wanted to cook. I thought it was ridiculous. Rodger seemed indifferent. I told her my fingers were freezing and we had to get moving to warm up. She understood, but thought hot food was necessary. I spent the long minutes swinging my arms and blowing on my hands to keep them warm. My fingers were numb, barely able to move, and I was concerned about frostbite. I insisted we begin moving up, a nd we soon departed the 13,500-foot location for the 14,200-foot Basin camp.
Once moving it didn't take long for my fingers to warm. We weaved up the short route passing over some huge crevasses. Although it was a mere 700 feet over one mile to the Basin camp at 14,200 feet it was soon obvious that the altitude was wreaking havoc with Eileen. As the guidebook said, this stretch is notorious for where climbers begin to feel the effects of the altitude. We all were strong at the start but by the time we came within a couple hundred feet of the camp Eileen could barely walk.
Again, I was frustrated. Advancing at such a slow pace, my hands quickly became numb again. I knew it wasn't her fault, and I should have been more forgiving. But it was late and cold, and we could have avoided the late arrival if she hadn't taken her time that morning and if she hadn't stopped to cook. Rodger was the last person on the rope team and I was the middleman. Eileen seemed to be sapped of energy. We would slowly creep up a bit, then stop, creep up a bit, then stop. I felt like I could run, and Rodger was feeling strong, too. We were so close to camp, yet so far away. During one of these stops, we decided that either Rodger or I would unrope and go ahead to the camp to find a campsite. The one who didn't go to the camp would assist Eileen.
I volunteered to assist Eileen and Rodger went ahead to the Basin camp. As always, I never expressed my disgust with people during unfavorable situations. It would only demoralize the team, I thought. I coiled the rope that had led to Rodger and then coiled the rope in front of me to be closer to Eileen. I knew that by doing this it totally went against all the rules of glacier travel, but I assessed the risk and new we wouldn't have a problem getting to camp because of its close proximity.
I pulled from my experience as a coxswain on the University of Connecticut rowing team. I motivated and comforted Eileen saying rowing-like things, "You're so close," "You're doing great," "I'm right here along side you," "Think of settling into your warm sleeping bag," "Let's count steps: 1 2 3 4 5." I even put my arm around her at one point to calm her anxiety and let her know that I was going to stay right by her side all the way up to camp.
By now my hands were cold and my fingers completely numb again. I would break to warm them in my armpits enough to get my fingers moving again. Frostbite was my primary concern, and I politely said to Eileen, "My fingers are cold. We must try to keep moving as fast as we can." She understood, but, physically, she could not go faster. Although I sympathized and kept comforting her, internally my rage was building. We finally plodded into camp around 11:00 p.m. on 29 May.
This camp is located on a large plateau at 14,200 feet that acts as advanced base camp for climbers, and is regarded as the start of "real climb." It's known as Basin Camp or the medical camp. The basin itself sometimes is referred to as Genet Basin after Ray Genet, generally accepted as the pompous pioneer of guided climbing on mountain. The National Park Service (NPS) has a permanent patrol stationed there with rescue and medical personnel on 28-day rotating schedules. There is also a weather station, and the NPS provides daily weather reports with a weatherboard located outside their tents.
Exhausted, our fear was realized - there was no sufficient campsite despite Rodger's best efforts to locate one. The place was packed, and we were only a few who were awake. We spent about an hour reworking a site. At this altitude, the weather could be extreme and good, fortified snow walls were crucial. Working through the bitter cold of the night and our fatigue, we cut blocks, dug out a platform, and leveled it the best we could. After setting up the tents, both Rodger and I grabbed our clothes and some food that we both fell asleep munching on as we collapsed in our sleeping bags.
Although AMS (acute mountain sickness) is typical in the first 24 hours of arriving at this camp, it didn't seem to strike any of us. However, later I awoke with heartburn from eating too much chocolate and trail mix before falling asleep. A fitful couple hours passed and I was still having acid reflux. I was so tired and needed to sleep, so I made the difficult decision to leave the warmth and comfort of my cocoon. I donned my clothes and boot system, entered the below-freezing weather, got pegged in the face by the wind whipping up sharp spindrift, walked a little ways from the tent, first peed, then put a stop to the heartburn, inducing vomiting by putting my finger down my throat. Back in the tent I drifted off into a snug slumber.
This day there was no question we were going to rest. Eileen didn't mention anything about me helping her the night before, except for a blanket statement saying that we were all helping each other -- and that was said a couple days later. She acted as if nothing happened, and I felt that she didn't want to acknowledge her weakness -- or my motivational strengths. However, she did keep insisting that we take acclimatization climbs to 16,200 feet. She was nervous the altitude would hit her again. I was adamantly opposed to this idea. I didn't want to climb that thing more than I had to.
Before resting, we first found a better tent site that happened to be next to Nunatak. We moved our gear and tents and established a comfortable campsite with high, strong snow walls. It even had a sitting area dug out of the snow. We relaxed, but I was frustrated again. Even though we were at the 14,200-foot camp, we weren't actually moved ther. We still had to retrieve our cache from Windy Corner below at 13,500 feet to be completely moved.
The next day, 31 May, we awoke to clear skies. I looked up to see what clouds hid the previous night - the route going towards the ridge camp at 16,200 feet. It was the steepest part of the route, where a 1,200-foot climb leads to an 800-foot, 60-degree face referred to as the headwall, which was rigged with fixed lines in order to ascend and descend it. I rolled my eyes, and said out loud to myself, "You have to be fucking kidding me!" Rodger overheard, laughed saying, "Ha, you just climbed up here over the last week and you're bitching about that little thing." His statement put me at ease.
We were rested and a bit more acclimated, and knew that retrieving the cache would be a trivial jaunt (compared to our typical days) lasting no more than two to three hours over the two-mile round trip section. We relaxed that morning and around high noon (which is around 3:00 p.m. in Alaska at that time of year) we left to retrieve our cache just above Windy Corner. It was a beautiful day and people were leaving for the next camp to summit. As we descended there was an awesome panorama - to our right was the West Buttress with a couple of climbers scaling it its flanks, to the right, were huge crevasses, and to our center, were peaks of the Alaska Range with Mt. Hunter and Foraker dominating the skyline. I thought how lucky I was to be able to view something so beautiful and so few ever get to see.
We returned with the cache and were set to make another cache above the headwall the following day, 1 June. However, that day we only made it to below the headwall where we cached 3 days of food and fuel at about 15,200 feet the high altitude stopped me in my tracks. After resting below the fixed lines, I told Rodger and Eileen that I would like to attempt climbing the fixed lines and get the cache to the 16,200-foot location. Rodger agreed with me, but Eileen insisted that I don't go on, that I get more acclimated below. I agreed. So we cached our food and fuel and descended.
On 2 June, the following day, we decided that with my acclimatization, our rest, and our previous days exercise, we'd be strong and could move the cache above the headwall. We got up to our cache, we all felt great, but ominous clouds that were lingering during the climb up turned into a bit of a storm. It was snowing and windy. We deliberated for some time. Rodger argued that we had to distinguish between discomfort and danger, and that this weather would be mere discomfort.
Eileen argued that it was dangerous. To me, the wind meant cold, and cold is dangerous. Rodger reluctantly agreed and we decided to make the carry the next clear day. We were all frustrated that we had climbed there just to turn around. Rodger, the following morning, said, "I think we made a mistake not moving the cache." I was feeling irritable and didn't want to hear it. I felt confident in my decision. I just looked at him as I continued walking, as I said, "Woulda, coulda, shoulda ." This aggravated him, but I didn't care. Neither Rodger nor I let anything bother us for long. Soon after, we were chatting again as if the earlier words never took place.
Meanwhile the weather along the West Buttress ridge, all the way up to the summit, was worsening. At this point, we were beginning to consider our move up and the summit bid. We were getting information wherever we could about the route and weather conditions above. We met a climber descending who mentioned he summited at 3 AM that same morning in bad weather. His two partners were roped, going slow about 15 to 20 minutes behind him. This "bad weather" report seemed like a consistent trend, and the outlook was beginning to look bleak.
This proved to be true. Our move wouldn't come until eight days later on 10 June. Over the next days the weather above was relentless, making a move to high camp at 17,200 feet out of the question. During those eight days, the weather, at 14,200 feet, was relatively stable. One day seven of us went for a hike to what is referred to as the Edge of the World. With us was a carpenter from Camel Trance and another climber, Alexander, from a sponsored Serbian team, who we had met in Anchorage. The Edge of the World is a quarter mile south of camp, and is known for its spectacular views. It marks the edge of the 14,200-foot plateau with a 4,700-foot drop to the northeast fork of the Kahiltna glacier. We had an entertaining impromptu photo shoot with the dramatic peaks of the Alaska Range as the backdrop.
Most of the days I didn't have any desire to get out of the tent. I would wake in the morning and measure my heart rate as I did everyday. It should have been slowing down or steadying as I became acclimated, which it was. Then I'd pee in my bottle and look at its color to confirm I was properly hydrated. Usually I wasn't. Then I'd put on my down (what we referred to as puffys), put on my boot liners putting my overboots on over them without the plastic shell boot. Without the plastic shell, the cold penetrated through the liner and the overboot from the ground within about 45 minutes to an hour if I wasn't moving around. People asked me why I just didn't put on the boots. I quipped in return, "I don't like tying laces." I entertained them with other quotes during the days like, "I'm not really into camping," "I don't work well with slopes," and "I look forward to getting back to my usual hobby, wa tching TV."
After getting geared up to get out of the tent I would make my way to the designated pee hole and empty my pee bottle. Then I'd walk to the other side of the camp to use the latrine. Unlike the rest of the mountain, this camp had two latrines - one with an actual toilet and the other was just a whole in the snow, referred to as the sit-down and squatter, respectively. Both had protective snow walls around them, but they weren't high, nor were they built well. During days of bad weather I would joke, "I'm waiting for a weather window to go to the shitter."
Waiting was impractical, so using the latrine was quick act. During some of the worst weather when the wind was blowing the snow horizontally, Rodger would joke that he was getting an ice enema. The low walls allowed anyone to see the top half of you, so you could forget about being modest, especially with a line of people standing outside it. The designated unisex pee holes were marked by flags and located on the trails right through camp. There were no privacy walls around these. Anyone with a fear of urinating in public soon got over it.
On the rest of the mountain, we used what were called CMCs or Clean Mountain Cans provided to each team by the NPS when first registered to climb the mountain in Talkeetna. These CMCs were plastic buckets with a screw lid that you placed in what looked to be a clear plastic bag. The NPS said they were made out of corn product and were biodegradable. You used those to defecate in. The bags are carried until you get to a crevasse that you can heave the bag into. This procedure was one of the most unpleasant things about the trip.
According to statistics, the mountain has, at any given time, approximately seven percent women on it. Despite the fact my libido was near non-existent (which I'm thankful for), the thought of meeting a girl or "mountain hottie" as we called them did run across my mind. (It's common for sexual drive to decrease at altitude, primarily because your body is concentrating on survival). But this lack of sex drive apparently didn't affect Casey, and he would occasionally ask me if I had seen any mountain hotties as new climbers would come into camp.
Then the question came up as to where we could meet women, as there was no club or bar -- or Starbucks. Eileen eventually clued us in to the fact that most women didn't have zip-crotch pants (as she did) and were too modest to pee in the "streets," aka the trail. Thus, they would be in line at the latrine. So, when motivated to leave the tent, I would join Casey near the latrines where we'd act as each other's wingman to chat with women. Usually, if I wasn't with him, he'd return and say that he found it too awkward to hit on a women while waiting in line to take a crap. Then he'd get angry at himself for not talking to her. We'd always joke, "Just tell her you skied the headwall and she'll be all over you." This referred to his bold act of skiing down the headwall on the return of their carry to high camp, which he and his team were doing while we were caching our load under the headwall. It was certainly an impressive feat, but, act ually, nothing that a woman there would latch onto.
Brian spent most his time in the tent reading. Joel made pictures. Eileen would socialize with whomever would talk to her, which was most the camp. Casey would climb up the slope and ski down. Rodger would be doing camp chores, fortifying the walls or cooking, and I would spend my time reading, sleeping, or contemplating life in the tent. I borrowed books from whomever had them -- mostly from Brian. The books were primarily high altitude medical texts and historical accounts of Denali climbing disasters, which I enjoyed. I also reluctantly made a point of going on a hike up towards the headwall everyday even though I didn't want to. It was imperative that you get some kind of exercise otherwise it could jeopardize future performance. I would be in the tent all day, then say to myself, "OK, Guess it's time," and spend the 10 or 15 minutes putting my gear on and head off up the mountain. In a way, I also did this in case I didn't perform wel l, and so Rodger and Eileen couldn't claim I didn't get exercise.
Brian, like myself, was only interested in non-fiction. He devoured books by the minute, it seemed, and he had ended up reading just about all the non-fiction books in the camp, and all the non-fiction that he thought were crap. Everyone would know it if he didn't like a book. From his tent he'd yell, "I can't believe I'm reading this crap!" Being a perpetually angry individual, but still wanting to read, he became irate at the fact that now he had no choice but to read fiction. But he read it, anyway. He was an expert skier and couldn't comprehend anyone who would actually hike down the mountain. He was so adamant about this that when his teammates carried their load from their cache at 16,700 feet to 17,200 feet he didn't go with them, yelling, "Why the fuck am I going to climb all the way up there just to move my fucking load 500 feet and walk all the way fucking down when I can be sitting here reading! That's retarded!" His anger was h umorous. We'd always laugh when he said something like that. He knew that he was entertaining, and kept up the act. Although he broke a binding on one of his skis, he insisted that he would still ski from the summit, which he eventually did.
As the days progressed, everything was running out, including time, patience, and our consumables. We needed more food, fuel, and toilet paper. We had some at 11,000 feet, but to go back down there was implausible. It was too far. People coming down the mountain are always looking to get rid of their consumables because its weight they don't want to carry down. We decided that we would all keep an eye out for climbers coming down and ask them for food, which paid off because it wasn't long before folks were unloading some food on us. But it wasn't substantive. Also, Eileen's social networking through camp paid off as she was able to obtain food, fuel, and toilet paper from her new friends. Despite this replenishment, it still wasn't enough.
Personally, I had enough to last me because I budgeted and was conservative. Anyone that knows me knows that I'm fiscally conservative. OK, tight. On the mountain, food, fuel, and toilet paper were the equivalent to money. I conserved. (Money, on the other hand, was useless). I knew I wasn't expending a lot of energy during these days, so I had no need to eat an extravagant meal every night - a little oatmeal and chocolate would suffice. But Rodger and Eileen would discuss what freeze-dried meal they would eat every night. I knew that once they ran out I'd be sharing my stuff with them, which I began to have to do. This was annoying because I felt that I was being responsible, and they weren't. If I ate a freeze-dried meal, I would eat only half of it, and cook the rest of it in a zip-lock bag.
Nunatak finally clued us in to the fact that Jesse had left a cache of food at 13,500 feet. Apparently they were oblivious to our problem because they hadn't mentioned this to us until we were getting desperate. We were obviously excited about the prospect of plentiful food. There wasn't need for three of us to retrieve his cache, so Eileen and Rodger volunteered. In just a couple hours they brought back all kinds of great stuff. It was awesome. While they were retrieving Jesse's cache I got even more food from a guide group that was departing down the mountain. With our food problems solved, my mind turned to other issues.
As I mentioned, time and patience were running out. It was hitting me hard. The reality of what this mountain could do to people was thrown in our faces: before beginning our climb two people fell and died; Jesse got HAPE; and, during our stay at the Basin camp, two people were airlifted by the high altitude Llama helicopter used for rescues. Later, there was an emotional memorial service officiated by a priest at a pulpit carved out of snow. Then, there was a man who contracted a rare condition of snow blindness, whow as led around by another climber.
Our nightly ritual was to stand around the radio and listen to the NPS weather report at 8 PM, hoping to hear about good weather. Each morning we'd check the NPS weatherboard, but the fortcast never was good. With no signs of the bad weather letting up and the days ticking by we all began to realize that our dream of summiting Denali was quickly fading. We tried to keep positive, but the reality was that we probably weren't going to make it up, possibly not even to high camp. But, even worse than the weather and lagging time, was my attitude about summitting.
I didn't care anymore. I missed the familiar, all of it - my family, friends, and even my cubicle at work. I had been on the mountain more than 20 days without a shower. I could hardly stand my own stench. I had no communication with the outside world. Sometimes at night, I would turn on my cell phone and try to place a call. It would show it trying to connect. But it never would, just teasing me. During particularly rough days, I would awake to the radio or James Brown singing on Rodger's mp3 player in the morning: "Fellas, I'm ready to get up and do my thing (yeah go ahead!) Get up (get on up), Get up (get on up), Stay on the scene (get on up) .'' This would bring an immediate smile to my face and because it was our only direct connection to the "real world," it was a luxury for us. His battery was running low, so we'd use James Brown and the radio sparingly.
There was one night where it was one of Eileen's new friend's birthdays. There was a celebration for him in an igloo that a Norwegian team had made. Eileen made him a card, I had signed it. I felt obligated to hang out in the igloo for a while. They had Guinness stout that had been hauled up, a cake baked in a kind of backcountry oven, and popcorn. It was ridiculous, but this is how Norwegians operate.
While sitting in the igloo with 11 others from all over the world, I noticed someone with a satellite phone. I asked him if I could borrow it for a couple minutes in return for food, fuel, or toilet paper. He told me not to worry about bartering anything and gave it to me to use. I made a three-minute phone call to my mother. It was the first and only time I had outside contact. I told her that I was having a great time; things were going well. I didn't clue her to my deteriorating morale and psychological state.
I went back to the igloo, hung out a bit more, and then retired to my tent. At some point during my stay at Basin camp, I mentioned how I was feeling to a climbing guide named Forrest, who I had met earlier in Anchorage. We had become friends because our climbing schedules coincided, seeing each other along the way. Amazingly, we also had something unique in common - Forrest was a graduate school where I had also gone to grad school, the University of Wyoming, and he was studying the same major, Geography. His advisor, John Allen, had been mine. After listening to how my thoughts were turning away from the summit, he said nonchalantly, "Oh, it finally hit ya. We call that the Denali mind fuck.'' He told to keep my eye on the prize. He mentioned that weather like ours hadn't been seen on Denali for 15 years; it was definitely out of the ordinary for this time of year.
Rodger knew how I was feeling. We would have nightly discussions before we'd drift off to sleep. One night we talked about food and restaurants. We shared stories about our world travels and adventures. We talked about comforts and conveniences: toilets, warmth, freshly cut grass, beds with mattresses and pillows and freshly cleaned sheets, showers, clean clothes, not having to spend 20 minutes in confined quarters preparing to go outside for five minutes. The regular stuff.
We discussed religion and belief in God. He is a strong believer. Although I'm not particularly religious, I started to think otherwise and prayed several times. Maybe, Indian style. My prayers, for the most part, related to the weather. When sunny, we were climbing in a reflector oven, and, overcast and windy, we we climbed in a freezer. In other words, a combination microwave and freezer. When the sun became unbearable, I prayed for a slight wind, and when the weather picked up, I prayed for the wind to stop. These prayerful sessions occurred, not surprisingly, during periods desperation, evinced by lack of control. I suppose this is when most people turn to God. I felt like I was using God at my convenience and felt guilty about that. At the end f the day, however, I reckoned He would be forgiving. That is, if He existed.
I learned to expend energy on things that I could control -- subjective hazards, rather than agonize over things that I could not control - objective hazards. Subjective hazards included crevasse negotiation and health and fitness. Weather and altitude are objective hazards, and are dealt with as they are encountered.
Rodger maintained focused on the goal and was resolute about making the summit. He would tell me every couple days not to worry. He knew the weather would clear and, in a few days before he had to go down, we would climb together to the summit. I remarked on his positive thinking. Myself, I don't say I'm going to do something unless I'm definitely going to do it. Rodger's response to this reasoning would be, "You are going to do it." To myself, I'd think, ''Well, I hope so, but, really, I can take it or leave it at this point."
On 9 June we awoke to an unexpected site - we looked upward above along the West Buttress ridge. The summit. We didn't see typical plumes of blowing snow and clouds. Nothing but clear skies. Good weather was predicted for the next few days. It was time to prepare to move. During our weather days at the Basin camp we decided that we were going to keep our cache under the headwall and carry a double load up the fixed lines to our camp.
That same day we went on an acclimatization hike to below the fixed lines. Nunatak was moving that day to the 17,200-foot camp. As we climbed, Casey caught up with us and, during a break, we told our plans to carry a double load. He was firmly opposed to that idea, and told us that we must get our cache above the fixed lines. Carrying a double load, he insisted, would be impossible. He was persuasive, and we were persuaded. Eileen and Rodger volunteered to move our load to above the fixed lines to the 16,200-foot alternate camp at the saddle of the West Buttress Ridge.
While they were moving the cache, I returned to camp, began packing what I could for the next day. Knowing the others would be cold and hungry they arrived later, I prepared some hot water for meals and hot drinks. I noticed that Joel from Nunatak was coming down. He seemed curious about my activities. It was an off day, he explained, and he was lacking energy. I prepared some hot water so he wouldn't have to dig out an alternate stove. He was grateful for this. He ate and went straight to his tent.
Hours passed, the camp became still as everyone went to sleep, and cold of the night blanketed the area. I went in the tent, rested a while in my sleeping bag, got out, looked up the route, which was visible from camp, to see if I could monitor Rodger and Eileen's progress. Whenever I saw two people maintaining equi-distance while moving (meaning they were roped), I would presume it was them and begin boiling water. I did this three times, thinking it was Rodger and Eileen returning. Each time the water would begin freezing in a matter of minutes, and I'd to melt and re-boil it.
It was about 1 AM, at the start of the coldest time of the night, when they finally returned. They devoured the warm meals and hot drinks I had prepared. We discussed how we were going to go light, and take only what was completely necessary. Rodger and I suggested to Eileen that she forego her tent, and we all fit in one tent to decrease weight and bulk. She opposed this, and said that she would carry all her own stuff. Rodger and I thought it was ridiculous, and knew she was making a mistake. She had been having pack- weight issues the entire climb. There was nothing we could do. Soon after that, we crawled into our tents and drifted off to sleep. I was thinking of the technical crux of the next day's climb, anticipating the 17,200-foot high camp and the preface to the summit bid.
10 June was no different than any other climbing day where we'd always end up getting a late start. I moved at a moderate pace, still wanting to go early, as this was the beginning of the technical crux of the climb. I suggested to Eileen and Rodger that I go ahead and meet them above the fixed lines, and they agreed. I accepted that I would have to take the increased risk of soloing the headwall. Risk management, cost/ benefit analysis, and critical thinking are all necessary parts of mountaineering, and must all be continually assessed.
The entire route is glaciated and the traditional blanket rule is to rope up on a glacier. However, there are circumstances when roping is unnecessary or even unsafe. In this case, I knew hundreds of people have traveled this route and no accidents had occurred this season and fixed ropes were available to use on the headwall section, thus the risk was acceptable.
I started up the route and soon noticed I was climbing at the same pace as a nearby three-member team consisting of a few 20-year-old males. They were playing 20 questions, and invited me to join in. It made the time go by quickly.
A bit later, at the base of the headwall, I saw Alexander, from the sponsored Serbian team, sitting and looking upset. After resting awhile myself, I climbed up a short section to him, and learned on my on my ice axe as I approached. Alexander explained that his expedition leader wanted only two members to summit and that he, and three others, hadn't been chosen to go to the peak.
Alexander was bitter. In his thick accent, he said, "You see all this," pointing to his gear and clothing. "When I get back, I sell it. I'm done. Twenty-five years of climbing is enough. I go back to my other hobby - SCUBA diving." The politics of climbing on a sponsored team was not worth it, he said. He came from a part of Serbia that had few climbers, and if he were to summit he would get more notoriety than his leader and, therefore, more sponsors and money. His leader didn't want that. I expressed my sympathy; we exchanged e-mail addresses, and I continued on to the fixed lines of the headwall.
In front of me was a Korean soloist who was climbing the fixed lines with a prussic friction knot, using a length of accessory cord attached to his harness. Today, most climbers, as I did, use a device called a jumar, or ascender, to climb fixed lines because it's simple, efficient, and usually reliable. The fixed lines are bolted into the hard, blue ice of the headwall, and there are about four separate sections over an altitude gain of 800 feet wherein a climber has to detach from one section and re-attach to the next section. During this period of detachment and re-attachment, the climber is exposed the most, if not backed up by another means.
I was following the Korean. I soon realized I was going faster than he because his prussic was inefficient. Still, I didn't mind going his pace. This stretch was treacherous with the wall being divided by a 'bergschrund' (referred to as a 'schrund' or 'bergy'. A bergschrund is a wide crevasse formed where the glacier meets the solid rock, breaking away from the slope.
It was taking a bit of time for the Korean to get over the schrund; I decided to strike up a conversation. He was a sophomore at Cornell University, originally from Korea. He was disappointed in himself for not bringing a jumar, and insisted that I go in front. I was going faster, and he said he didn't want to hold me up. I went ahead, and ascended with an efficient rhythm. Climbing is all about rhythm and pattern when the terrain remains the same. First, I'd plant my ice axe into the wall, then slide the jumar up the rope, and step up one leg, then the other, kicking my crampons into the ice, tuning into the rhythm: Chck vvvvt cheh cheh, chck vvvvt cheh cheh . I continued this pattern -- until I reached the pass.
Once on top of the headwall at the exposed saddle of the West Buttress ridge, I looked down and could see colored dots on the snow. I couldn't tell which 'dots' were Eileen and Rodger. I couldn't worry much about where they were at this point. There was something much more vital that I had to turn my attention to: the weather was turning awkward, with wind picking up and snow beginning to blow. I knew I was going to get cold soon, and immediately donned my down parka and down mitts. I took an idle break, peed, refreshed myself with water, and ate a power bar.
Only then did I begin searching for a cache Eileen and Rodger had buried in this area the night before. The cache happened to be right in front of me, below a rock outcrop. In fact, I was sitting on the outcrop. The cache was identified by a wand with our team name written on tape attached at the top. (This marking system is required by the NPS). I avoided unpacking my shovel. I just took one that was sticking out of the ground from another team's cache; later replacing the shovel.
I dug up the duffle bag full of our food and fuel, enough to last -- we thought -- for the three of us for three days. (Actually, we discovered that we had too much food). The wind was whipping and the skies were dark. I had no idea exact time, but knew -- because of the cold -- that it must have been around 7 or 8 PM. How could it be that late?
I wasn't alone for long. Fighting the wind, the Korean appeared over the wall and began climbing up the route towards me. He yelled over the whipping wind, "What are you doing here?!" "Waiting for my teammates!" He nodded and continued up the ridge. A French team soon appeared. I described Eileen and Rodger, and asked if they had seen them. They said, "Yes, maybe a half-hour down." I was getting frustrated. It was late, the weather was worsening, the temperatures were dropping, and to climb from here to 17,200 feet would be at least another three or four hours up the ridge.
I don't know how much time had passed, but Eileen and Rodger finally crested the headwall, and we immediately started packing only necessary food and fuel. They apologized for taking so much time and explained that Eileen had (as Rodger and I suspected the previous night) packed too much. They had to cache her tent, along with other gear and food, below the headwall.
We packed and started up the ridge, battling the weather. Soon, it became apparent I had too much in my pack. The slope was steep, and I was hunched over nearly on my hands and knees crawling up the ridge. I yelled to Rodger to stop. I told him it was impossible to carry what I had, including a full gallon fuel can. I had attached the can to my pack, and now it was swinging around making me unbalanced. We stopped and consolidated the fuel into Rodger's can. The remaining we cached right where we were, under a rock outcrop. We began again. We were tired and the weather wasn't getting any better. We got to a flat spot about 200 feet above where we were and took a break. The Korean happened to be there, as well, caching food and fuel.
The weather was brutal by this point. We were totally exposed on this ridge. It was late, temperatures were dropping, and we were nearing exhaustion. We were desperate, and we had to decide: Attempt to go to the 17,200-foot high camp, hours above; bivouac where we were, on a narrow, exposed ledge; or forfeit the summit and go back down.
Rodger and I were skeptical of staying on the ledge. It was a notorious spot where tents had been shredded or blown back down to the 14,200-foot Basin camp. None of us thought we had the energy to go up, and to go down would conclusively end the climb. Eileen, the most experienced mountaineer among the three of us, assured us that the weather report didn't predict winds over 40 mph. She said she had camped in winds of 70 mph, and was confident that establishing a bivouac on the ledge would be our best decision. Not wanting to end the climb and not seeing going up as viable, both Rodger and I agreed with Eileen. The Korean thought we were crazy, told us to go down, and yelled above the howling wind, "You going to die!"
Rodger and I immediately started chopping a level notch in the ledge big enough for our tent, while Eileen began searching out hard snow pack to cut blocks for a snow wall fortification. There wasn't much good snow for cutting blocks - just enough for minimal protection. The three of us, our gear, and food were packed in the tent reversed head-to-foot to make more space. That night I had restive sleep. Although I knew we were well anchored with ice screws securing the tent, I was anxious. The wind pummeled our meager shelter, and I was thinking about getting blown off the ridge, down 2,000 feet along the mountain's face to the Basin camp.
The morning of 11 June brought clear, blue skies. The wind had ceased, and we had a physically restful day. Still, it was full of tense, critical decision-making. When we first woke, we discussed moving up to the 17,200-foot high camp. But soon we realized that, after trying to carry the load up just the few hundred feet from the saddle to our ledge camp, that would be easier said than done. Eileen, not looking well, admitted she had symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness), and was in no shape to climb. She wasn't even thinking of the summit. Rodger was getting tired of how much he was urinating. (At this altitude, through a condition called diuresis, less water is retained by the body, resulting in drinking more).
For me, the the summit was the only topic of discussion. Rodger was 100 percent ready to tackle it, and, although I initially wavered, I ultimately concluded that I was on a singular mission, to reach Denali's summit, and committed myself to not leaving until I made the proper effort. Rarely do we have opportunitites to engage in such an experiences, plunging ourselves into a world of risk with such high stakes. Our modern world has largely removed us from the physical demands and struggles of our ancestors. I wanted this back. I wanted the raw biology of my instinct to prevail. The mountain was exploiting my weaknesses, and I was going to strike back. I tore away from defeatist thoughts.
The three of us concluded that Rodger and I would make an unconventional bid for the summit from our 16,500-foot camp the following morning, 12 June. Eileen, if feeling better, would join us. (If her condition hadn't improved, she would stay at camp). If well enough, she'd secure our camp, and move up to the 17,200-foot high camp to meet her new climber friends, whom she had met at the 14,200-foot Basin camp. Rodger and I were getting along and climbed well together. In fact, I was looking forward to just the two of us making the summit bid.
We communicated by radio to Nunatak, at the 17,200-foot high camp. They told us that Casey and Brian soloed to the summit the day before and had already skied down. Joel, however, decided to forfeit the summit, concentrating instead on his photography. They reported that they'd make their way down from the 17,200-foot high camp later that afternoon, and would stop at our 16,500-foot ledge camp during the descent.
When they indeed stopped, we got what information we could from them. We told Casey of our plan to summit from there. Casey, an honest and good-hearted person, told us that it would be 'very difficult' because of the distance, combined with our lack of acclimatization at the higher 17,200-foot camp. By "very difficult" I knew he meant that it would be very unlikely we would make it. But he didn't want to plant that thought into our heads. If I made it, he told me, I'd certainly be "burly." Both Casey and Brian said that if we were comfortable climbing on thin, exposed ridgelines then it would be to our benefit to go solo, without a rope to save on weight. Solo climbing increases risk, but significantly decreases time. Nunatak snapped some pictures, wished us luck, and continued down.
After talking with Casey and Brian, Rodger and I decided we would depart, as the expression goes, "light and fast" from our current camp. This meant adopting a type of climbing that widens the margin of risk because of the lack of contingent survival or rescue gear. Conversely, you reduce exposure time by going faster, which is -- arguably -- safer. Traditionally, summit gear includes all the equipment one might need to survive one night, plus clothing, rope, a shovel, anchors, first-aid kit, and harnesses with hardware. Overnight accoutrements include a stove and cooking gear to melt snow and boil water, a snow saw, one sleeping bag per two people, a tarp, and extra food and fuel.
In the end, we brought only food, three liters of water, clothing, and our harnesses with hardware. We went to sleep early, trying to get a good night's rest. Rest -- never mind 'good night's rest'-- is negligible at that altitude, especially without the acclimatization we needed. We knew, too, of the possibility of acquiring HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) during the summit day. This, especially, by starting at our lower altitude. All in all, we would have to take special care to to keep an eye on each.
I awoke early the morning of 12 June, spilling my pee bottle in my sleeping bag. I was cursing and soaked. A bag, once wet, could be rendered useless. Down doesn't dry readily. I jumped out my clothes, boots, and removed the water bottles from my sleeping bag. I hung up the socks to dry, but they froze. (Luckily, I had spare clothes for this summit day outside my bag). I grabbed toilet paper and began sopping up the mess. Thankfully, most of the spill was absorbed, and bag's nylon lining prevented seepage into the down. I got dressed and arranged my boot system. I removed my bag from the tent, opened it, and let it dry on the tent. Although we were packed tightly in the tent, Eileen and Rodger slept, without stirring, throughout this dreadful experience.
Eileen still was not feeling well, and said she'd remain at camp. Rodger awoke soon after my pee spill fiasco, and we started preparations for our summit climb. We predicted travel time at about 20 hours for the round-trip -- to the 20,320-foot summit and back to our camp at 16,500 feet.
Two liters of water wouldn't be sufficient for this trek. We washed out our pee bottles and used those as a third, and with some powdered lemonade drink mix added in, any taste of urine disappeared. I didn't have an insulated case for the "pee bottle" as I did for the other two water bottles, thus the lemonade began to freeze quickly. I drank it first, continually shaking it as it slowly became a watery slush. A layer of ice covered the bottle opening, which I had break through to reach the 'sweet elixir.'
We started off up the ridge to the 17,200-foot high camp at 11:18 AM. We moved swiftly and felt strong. We stopped for pictures, but didn't stop for a break until we got to 17,200 feet, where we ran into the two summiters from the Serbian team. They encouraged us and gave us some 'Gu,' the commercial name for a high-energy power gel.
We continued up Denali Pass, notorious for its dangerous exposure, and its history of falls resulting in deaths. Its common for climbing teams to use running belays for protection along this stretch. We knew this, but our light and fast method didn't allow for it. After taking a break on top of the pass, we followed the ridge along the southwest face. We got to a series of rock outcrops. Rodger and I looked at each other, and before we actually mentioned our thoughts, I said, "You too?" He nodded and we both climbed up to discrete spots in the rocks and took out our toilet paper.
After relieving ourselves, we continued to a large plateau known as the Football Field. As I climbed higher I felt my mind simplifying my thoughts, focusing on the singular goal of putting one foot in front of the other until I could go no higher. Physically, my muscles were strong, but my cardiopulmonary system was being stressed, which eventually led to a feeling of nausea. My body was craving energy. I reached into my pocket, and grabbed a granola bar. I unwrapped it, bit a piece off, and began to chew it. Although my mind wanted it, I felt too ill, and I immediately spit the granola bar onto the ground, and continued up.
We eventually met a fellow coming down whom I had originally encountered at the 14,200-foot Basin camp. He was a forest ranger, in Oregon, who was in his mid-60s, and had climbed Denali 32 years before. I stopped, smiled, and said, "Gravity's a bit nicer to you on the way down!" He smiled. He quickly turned serious, saying he didn't have much time to chat. In fact, he said, he wasn't summiting this year, because he assisting in taking a climber down who was exhbitiing the beginning stages of HACE. The ranger told us that another HACE victim, with more advanced symptons, was at the Football Field. (We later discovered, once back down to the 14,200-foot camp, that the forest ranger's victim suffered only some short-term amnesia). As we approached the Football Field, we saw the other HACE victim tied closely to another climber taking him down. He was stumbling with ataxia, an d, we were told, he didn't know his name. Rodger and I looked at him, then at each other. The look said, "Let's keep a close eye on each other."
At our altitude, climbing became even more physically taxing. Oxygen supply to your muscles is continually decreasing. We could only climb a few steps, before stopping to breath and replenish our muscles with sufficient oxygen. Again, we'd start upward, repeating this routine from time to time. It felt so good to stop and breath that I had to remember, that in order to reach our destination, I'd have to start climbing again. Thankfully, there was no worry of hyperventilating in the thin air.
As we climbed, we could feel our thought processes slowing. Talking became strained. I felt a slight pulsing in my head. I didn't know what this was, but knew it was altitude related, and I was scared of HACE. When we had met the forest ranger, I started to get suggestive symptoms. Rodger told me I was probably unaffected, and, to prove it, he commanded, "Relax! Stand up right, close your eyes, extend your arms out to your side, and bring your arms in, touching your index fingers with your nose." OK. I was fine.
We continued across the Football Field to what is known as Pig Hill, the summit headwall that leads to what is referred to as Kahiltna Horn and the summit ridge. I could see the Hill from a distance and thought, "You have gotta be fricken kiddin' me!" I knew Rodger felt the same way. We got to Pig Hill, and aside from lack of oxygen, I was feeling strong. I led the entire trip with Rodger behind. I would look back on occasion to monitor Rodger's progress, which I assumed was proper - throughout the entire expedition he was the fastest and strongest on our team. Now every time I looked behind, he would be further back. I was going faster than he, and I wondered about that. I yelled, "You doing OK?!" "Yeah!"
We continued. By now, it was late and everyone else summiting that day had gone down except for three Canadians above us. Two were on Pig Hill, while one of that group's faster climbers had already made it to the summit ridge. We had been gaining on the Canadians the entire day. Finally, we passed them near the crest of the summit ridge headwall.
The Canadian climber who had made it to the top of the ridge was, apparently, in a comical mood, shouting to his partners, "What the hell took you so long?!" Then he started singing the Canadian National Anthem, knowingly out of tune. In climbing to the summit of North America's highest mountain, it was supposed to be emotionally epic. I wasn't expecting to be greeted by a comedian. But it made my anxiety disappear.
We greeted each other on crest of the summit ridge headwall, took off our packs, drank some water, put on our down jackets, and started along the thin ridge for the half hour hike to the summit, leaving our packs, only bringing some snacks, water, ice axes, and the obligatory cameras. The ridge was so thin with shear faces to either side that if you fell it would be surely fatal. I just kept walking. About 30 minutes from the start of the ridge and 11 hours from our 16,500-foot ridge camp I could see the corniced summit. (We had traveled at an above-average pace).
Now, finally at the summit. My eyes welled up with joy - after 23 days of physical and emotional endurance, all culminating in this final climactic event. It was about 10 PM. I fell onto one knee, resting my arms on my ice axe, almost genuflecting Columbus-like, as if reaching the New World. I looked out over the clouds below, then to the clear, blue sky above, and I thanked God. I thanked Him for every successful step I took. I was remarkably humbled by this experience. Tears still fell from my eyes. Soon I had frozen dots on my cheeks.
For all the effort, we didn't spend much time at this sought-after pinnancle. We made our requisite summit photos, starting, soon after, our descent. Before departing, I offered Rodger a kind of warning, "We're emotionally and physically fatigued, we're malnourished, we're dehydrated, and we're hypoxic. Most accidents occur on the way down. Let's be careful."
We walked in the direction of the setting sun and, through the still of the night, we saw peaks of the Alaska Range piercing the amber and pink hew of the clouds below. It took a mere three hours to descend. Again, the most treacherous bit being the Denali Pass. On the path down, my feet would dislodge little chunks of ice, and I'd watch them eerily slide down the wall and into crevasses, imagining that chunk of ice as myself. It was a frightful stretch, but soon we were down to the 17,200-foot high camp. We radioed to Eileen, but got no response. We continued to the West Buttress ridge like mountain goats, using batman arm rappels on the fixed lines, rather than our ascenders to save time. It was 1:30 AM when we got to our camp tent -- and Eileen. She wasn't there. We assumed she had gone to the 17,200-foot camp.
Rodger collapsed in the tent and went to sleep. Although tired, I prepared things for later that day and ate a bit. We slept for about eight hours.
We didn't waste anytime moving on. We struck camp and began our 17-hour descent to base camp. Before leaving, however, we attempted to reach Eileen again. We finally made radio contact. She reported that she made it safely to the 17,200-foot camp and joined some friends. She made it clear that she still wanted to attempt the summit. She'd be fine, she said, and we could go down. I confirmed that she would be safe with partners on her descent and signed off. At this point, Rodger and I started down the Buttress ridge to the top of the headwall. (After leaving Alaska, I contacted Eileen and discovered that she had, in fact, summited).
At the saddle above the West Buttress headwall, we retrieved our portion of the cache. The fixed lines were already dangerously congested with climbers descending. My pack was incredibly heavy, and I knew that on the steep headwall my legs would be stressed to their maximum. I slowly down-climbed making each foot hold steady and deliberate. Maintaining focus and attention was mandatory. It was midday and the little snow that was covering the hard, blue ice underneath was sloughing off, leaving little purchase for my crampons to grab hold. I was using my jumar in a descending fashion, wherein you hold the clasp that grips the rope in the open position until you want to stop. Then you let it down to grip the rope. But it kept getting full of ice and wouldn't grab the rope, leaving me with no protection. I detached the jumar from the rope, leaving me exposed and insecure. I chipped ice from the jumar with my axe, re-attach it to the rope.
As I was nearing the end of the last length of fixed line, I heard an annoying, whiny voice of a woman, a member, as it turned out, of a guided group, she was having trouble. As I was stepping down paying close attention to every move, the woman whinged, "Juuustiiiiin, Juuustiiiiin!" For a split second my attention was diverted, my foot slipped off the slick snow, and I fell, abruptly. I had been swung around so I was facing the wall, and it snapped me to a stop as the ascender gripped the rope, and I dangled there on the headwall. I was safe; I just picked up where I left off, continuing the descent. (Apparently, the guide's name above me was 'Justin,' as well).
Then I looked down below the fixed lines. Everyone was having trouble, slipping and falling on the slick snow. Rodger, while I was having my drama, in fact, had to self-arrest himself with his ice axe to prevent being shot into the crevasses below. We took a break at the bottom of the headwall and then slowly made our way down. It was incredibly physical, demanding work descending to the 14,200-foot camp with the amount of weight in our packs. I got down anyway I could. I'd fall and roll and try to let gravity take me down, I would plunge-step, try to slide, glissade, anything. I probably looked like a rag doll coming down the mountain to the climbers at the Basin camp. Finally, I made it down about 20 minutes behind Rodger. We spend a few hours there resting, indulging in a good meal, and distributing whatever food and fuel we could.
Many climbers take a humane two or three days to descend, but we decided to do it one day, partially because of some intelligence I gathered from climber to whom I gave some food. He mentioned that the weather below 11,000 feet was in clouds and planes weren't able to fly in to take climbers off the mountain. Consequently, teams were waiting two or three days to fly out. We wanted to get there as soon as possible to add our names to the waiting list.
We departed Basin camp around 8:30 PM with one sled and our packs. The sled presented immediate issues. I was leading, pulling the sled, and Rodger was behind. I was fine, but the weight of the sled, attached to the rope, was pulling Rodger down the mountain. He was trying to counter it by pulling in reverse, and he was getting worn out. When we got to Windy Corner we rested and tried to manage this problem. We asked passing teams what kind of rigging they used. We got some suggestions, but ultimately, everyone was having problems. A guide said, "Its is a big pain in the ass no matter what and there is no good way. Just get it down the mountain anyway possible. Kick it, push it, pull it ."
Once we got to the 11,000-foot camp below Motorcycle Hill we dug up our cache of food, fuel, Rodger's second sled, and snowshoes. We ate and hydrated. Rodger, using his engineering skills, came up with an idea for the sleds. On higher angle slopes we would take the duffle bag from the second sled and let it drag on the ground as a drag bag, taking the sled that it sat on and stacking it under the first sled. This increased friction, countering the weight of the first sled, thus reducing the pull on Rodger, yet still allow me to pull it down with relative ease. On low angle slopes we would reverse this and put the drag bag back on the sled so I could pull it with reduced friction. This system worked wonderfully.
From there we weaved our way down through the night. Apparently we weren't the only ones that caught wind of delays at Kahiltna base. Many other teams were also heading downward. Over the next eight hours or so, teams slowed, took breaks, and sped up. As all this happened, we would leapfrog over them, they would leapfrog over us, and sometimes we would break at the same time. We got into a rhythm, wherein I felt like I was on an elliptical machine for hours on end. It was boring but efficient.
Although the sky was light all night in Alaska during this time, the sun was low and we were in a cloud. I had difficulty seeing the route, exacerbated by my prescription sunglasses. I had no idea where my regular prescription glasses were, and the cost of stopping to look for them wasn't worth the benefit. But I would occasionally wander off the trail, aggravating Rodger who, in turn, would post-hole, wherein a one's foot penetrates unconsolidated snow. This was all the more dangerous because of crevasse danger on the glacier. After a few times of wandering, I made a concerted effort to stay on the route.
We approached the 7,800-foot camp (where many teams were laying up), and I asked whether we should also stop. I wanted to keep going! Other climbers were doing exactly that. As I viewed them below, I saw their arms moving in sync with their trekking poles in a deliberate, rhythmic pattern. This motion -- highlighting their faint figures shifting through the dark and the mist -- made the climbers, including ourselves, resemble zombies -- glacier zombies.
We moved onto the heavily crevassed lower Kahiltna glacier and realized we only had about three or four hours until we reached camp. I kept moving with deliberate strength. Anytime I stepped over an open crevasse or crossed a snow bridge, I'd warn: "Crevasse!" These warnings, from and others, were the only words uttered and heard for hours. That is, except for the whiny woman from the headwall who was yelling annoying expletives that broke the otherwise peaceful silence.
Despite my strong performance thus far, I finally started to feel my strength waning, and I began getting frustrated that I had hauled both sleds the entire way. At the same time, I didn't want to take the time to switch places with Rodger because I didn't want to interrupt our traveling, as it was going at such an efficient, steady, and rhythmic pace.
This was true until about 6 AM, when we got to the base of Heartbreak Hill - the final uphill stretch to the landing strip. I got to it, and immediately felt like I hit a brick wall. I stopped in my tracks after hours of continuous travel, turned to Rodger, finally asking for help. We rigged the sleds in such a way that we would both be pulling. This worked for awhile.
Acrually, I didn't really feel any difference with Radger sharing the load, and I was frankly skeptical as to how he had rigged it. I told him that. I was done, I said, and please take the lead. He didn't say much. We un-roped, switched places, and roped back in. He started moving before I was able to take the weight of the second sled.
"Wait! I didn't rope the sled to me." He told me not to worry, and he bolted up the hill at a steady consistent pace. Rodger was going faster than my body wanted to go, but I knew he was in a 'mental zone' and any interruption would be disrespectful and disruptive. I was grateful that he took on the Hill, and the least I could do was not ask him to stop. I asked him later, in Talkeetna, how he managed because I knew it wasn't easy. He explained what I had suspected - that he practiced meditation, achieved a heightened sense of focus, and was on "autopilot."
At 7:30 a.m. on 14 June, 25 days after we started our journey, we returned to Kahiltna base camp. The 17-hour push from 16,500 feet to the 7,200-foot base camp left us exhausted. We immediately signed up with the base camp manager to get a flight out to Talkeetna. We wouldn't get a flight until about 5pm, but that was fine with us. We were just happy it was that same day.
I boiled water for a hot meal Rodger wanted, while he dug out the contingency cache that we had squirrelled there on 21 May. I wasn't sure about the hot meal. I was tired. Besides, we could have eaten trail mix. During this time, we met with Nunatak, who had been delayed there for a couple days. We told them our story, and they seemed impressed. They never explicitly said it, but Casey and Brian didn't seem to think we were going to make it. I knew that. So it felt good to let them know of our success.
Camp was a reflector oven, and I was grateful that we didn't climb the lower glacier during the day. After hydrating and eating trail mix until I was full, I just lay on the ground, covered my head to protect myself from the rays, rubbing snow on my face and forehead to keep cool. That's what I did most the time while waiting for the plane. I listened to the base camp manager call teams out as their planes arrived.
Once, however, she called out, "Russians! Russians! Your beer is here!" I watched one member from the team run down to the plane, grab two cases of beer, and walk proudly back to his team. They started downing it. They were an arrogant, self-satisfied bunch. They took off their shirts and strutted around with their chests puffed out. Shades of Putin at the beach. The scene was ridiculous, and people affected turning a blind eye to them.
I made one trip to the designated pee hole that was about 50 feet deep. I if you got too close to the edge and slipped, you'd be swallowed up in a yellow urine grave. On my return, I talked with a climber named Alex Shockley (not the Serbian, Alexander), who we had hung out with at the 14,200-foot camp and who we saw often on the descent to base camp. He mentioned that he was trying to become the youngest climber, at age 19, to climb the seven summits - the highest peak on each continent (by climbing Carstenz Pyramid in Oceania, not Australia's Mt. Kosciuszko, which has already been climbed by someone younger). I wished him good luck as he only had three left: Everest in Nepal, Carstenz Pyramid on the island of Irian Jaya in the South Pacific, and Vinson in Antarctica. The base camp manager finally called our team, and we got plucked off the glacier for the 45-minute flight back to Talkeetna.
After nearly a month of sensory deprivation we were deposited, dazed, in a world that had been foreign to us for the last 25 days. We walked through wild Talkeetna smelling and seeing life - the flowers and the sent of alders overtook my olfactory nerves. I was shot back to reality by cars, a cash register, running water, cigarette smoke, and the hot, fresh steak, and moist homemade chocolate cake, accompanied by my beer-induced trance back at the West Rib Bar and Grill.
Time to reflect. I didn't want to put too much weight on the summit, but it was hard not to. My sense of achievement was overwhelming, yet I didn't feel a need to express triumph. Moreover, climbing emphasizes the team just as much as the individual, and without my teammates' morale and technical support it would certainly have made this expedition much more unbearable, if not impossible, despite some, ultimately, minor conflicts.
Aside from having the technical and medical knowledge, the physical capability, and mental stability; climbing a mountain such as this, especially with our abnormal long stay, requires strong work ethic, stress management, self-confidence, tenacity, a sense of adventure, the ability to distinguish between danger and discomfort, humility, self-motivation, the ability to manage risk, self-sufficiency, teamwork, self-accountability, and the ability to analyze costs versus benefits. In climbing, any weaknesses and strengths in these characteristics will be magnified. You realize immediately which of these you embody and which of these require reinforcement. Deficiencies will motivate you through fear while strengths will motivate you through courage. As your body acclimates to your environmental needs, it also adapts to your psychological needs.
Why climb? I'm always discovering more reasons. Climbing is about suffering, struggle, compromise, and sacrifice. But also about reward, achievement, and heightened sense of emotions, all emotions. Eileen stressed that it's about comfort management and Rodger claimed enjoyment was a state of mind and, thus, could find it in all grand experiences in life, despite struggles endured. For me, both comfort and enjoyment were minimal at best (as they were with Casey and, assumingly, Brian).
I climb to feel to heighten my senses and experience life in the raw. Every decision in high altitude mountaineering, especially on Denali, which is notorious for its cold, extreme weather, and remote location, hinges on survival. I remember thinking how amazing it was for humans to exist in this unforgiving land. Making a wrong decision at best will force you to abandon the climb, and, at worst, kill you. As long as you know you have the proper gear and proper knowledge you can confidently continue knowing that your decisions will heavily mitigate risk.
Jesse's HAPE on the lower mountain and the HACE victims on the upper mountain could become fatal cases. But they could have been easily prevented through proper decision-making and critical thinking. The HACE victims surely had symptoms prior to getting to that state, but presumably chose to ignore them because the nearby summit was so tantalizing. Months of planning and training, and days of climbing really make it difficult to turn back. I was ready at any point during the climb to turn around if I were heading towards a fatal or even a dangerous circumstance. Brian said, "After all this I'd get a little frostbite on my cheek or nose for the summit." For me, it's unacceptable to knowingly put yourself in danger. Return as you came.
Many in the Western society ease through life with automobiles, microwave ovens, air conditioning and heat, readily available varieties of food and drinks, beds, running water, social and family support, jobs and 401k's, the choice to go at your own physical pace, and other luxuries, yes luxuries. To most, these things seem trivial, but when deprived of them they hold incredible value. On a mountain-top, you're excited that you have enough calories in whatever form to fuel your body, not extravagant meals to please your palate. Finally, you realize what is truly important in life. The struggles highlight priorities in one's life, magnifying things that are meaningful and reducing things that are insignificant.
People are always taking the way of comfort, the path of least resistance, and avoiding risk. But without stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone and beyond what you already know how are you supposed to truly learn about oneself, to grow, and appreciate what little things life has to offer. When devoid of such grand luxuries you learn, above all, humility and respect.
Many wonder why someone would put themselves in harm's way. But this danger, this risk is the 'why' to why we climb. What is climbing without crevasses ready to swallow you alive, avalanches ready to pounce on you when you're not looking, and the cold ready to draw life from you in an unforeseen storm? These are the things that climbers look to harness and navigate around, avoiding death, rather than courting it. This risk-taking - scaring ourselves to death - is the great equalizer, showing us that we are no greater, nor lesser than any mountain or any other man.
Who amongst really wants to drift through the hackneyed nine-to-five, repetitive drone of everyday life? So far removed are the masses from real fear, real natural beauty, and innate human biological reactions that when death finally advances upon you in the prescribed sterility of a hospital room it's quite possible you have already been dead for years. This risk, the risk of not living a true life well lived is my most vivid fear - greater than any hanging glacier, greater than any storm, greater than any mountain. This is why we climb - to learn and truly live.
Many equate adjectives such as bold, fearless, and brave to mountaineering, I suppose because of its deprivation, physical and psychological hardships, and the risk to life. Sure, these all play a role. Although compelled many times by courage, climbing mountains have nothing to do with being an adrenaline junky. It certainly hardened my mind and my body, but it softened my soul.
Someone said I conquered Denali. But I didn't conquer it. I had overcome many trials, physical and psychological, while on the mountain. If I had achieved anything, it was facing these challenges. I wasn't hoping to get some grand answer to the purpose of existence, the 'meaning of life,' if you will. In the end, I just wanted to test my weaknesses and strengths, learn more about myself and who I really am, and, yes, given these hurdles, I did conquer. This, by the way, if I had made the summit or not.