Getting Religion, Alaska Style
A journalist once misquoted Matt Culberson, our guide, as saying that he wanted to kick some guy’s butt on Denali during a daring and heroic rescue. Ironically, he probably did want to kick my butt up there that year for my ridiculous choice of clothing....not to mention for my attitude. In the next three days, my bistro bill arrived as the horrible realities of alpine climbing in Denali National Park set in. Seracs that Matt said would probably “not do that again for a few years” did it again, and kept on doing it.
My few useful antics, such as perfect management of food, water, and fuel were eclipsed by my general naivety. Only a decade or so later do I realize the gentle persuasion and persistence Matt exercised, resulting in a twenty pound garbage bag of worthless crap from my pack finding its way into a crevasse, bringing me down to weight and closer to reality where the alpine climbing was concerned.
Three days after we started up the gully route of Peak 11,300, I saddled up and looked down that gully like it was the entrance to a swirling vortex on the high seas. A prayer for courage was about all I had to offer at that point, and the committing gesture of clipping onto the rope line was made. Everything beyond that was mayhem. Matt was not stopping, and we kept up or got pulled right off of our feet. The crevasse field that occupied the center of the steep gully was mostly filled in, making huge benches. I don’t remember seeing much of Matt, but would see Al, my father-in-law, go head over heels each time he would make it back onto his feet, and I followed suit. Things were no better on the flat spots. Dozens of bowling ball-sized ice chunks had landed, baked in the sun, and had become polished wet crystal balls that made Matt’s pace near impossible to follow without crampons, which had intentionally been left in our packs.
My heroic moment of self-arresting arrived, but there was no fame in it, no National Geographic photographer, no glory whatsoever, in fact. As custom from my rock-climbing experience, I bellowed out a “falling…self-arresting…I’m OK”, which was returned with a glance from Al and Matt that could only be described by “You wanna cookie?? Get moving!!!!”
We spent twenty minutes descending what had taken four hours of hard climbing. For five minutes we sat at the entrance to the gully, smiling and joking for the first time since we had loaded the plane at Hudson’s. No sooner had Al mentioned that the gully was looking pretty tame again then a monster icefall broke loose and pummeled the chute we just ran down. Those were our last smiles.
An hour of crevasse weaving landed us at our cache, and the clouds were not far behind. Matt was silent, Al was grumpy, and I was finally ready to get something done. My promise to my wife to not swear in front of my father-in-law was all that kept my mouth closed as he laid the critique on thick over my tent site and how long I was taking to get it set up. Matt, probably more to calm the anger he briefly caught I my eyes, gently offered that I was wise to dig in judiciously as we could be there a few days with our present cloud situation…and we were.
We ended that trip stomping out a runway, stomping messages in the snow, and eating burgers at the Latitude.
I sat in Talkeetna having lost the opportunity to climb with one of Alaska’s greatest guides, chewing on a scone from the Roadhouse, trying to make sense of who I was where climbing was concerned.
I was a fat and outta shape, that was for certain.
I was scared beyond reason of what had just happened, no denying.
I was done climbing.
I was done trying to get into medical school.
I was planning my next Alaska venture as soon as we boarded the plane home.