Life And Death On Denali
Karen, John and Netti
National Park Service
Mountain Climbing Rangers
Denali National Park
Dear Karen, John and Netti
I’m supposed to be on the summit today, not in a local hospital with torn ligaments on my knee. At least I'm alive and warm with a circle of family and friends that love me. When I get home they are going to kill me, but, for now I am safe.
June and I began preparation for the trip to Alaska's Denali National Park nine months ago. Safety was always in the forefront of every stage of the planning. Every scenario was planned for; injury, weather, equipment failure. We were ready for whatever the mountain had in store for us, so we thought.
The thing about a plan is that it is subject to change, sometimes without notice. We prepared our diet based on the changing elevation of our campsites. Since the body digests protein slower at high altitudes, we were to have a protein-based diet up to the camp at 11,000 feet. After that we would switch to carbohydrate-based meals. That was the plan. By the time we got to 11,000 feet, we didn't care if we ever ate chicken again. Nothing tasted good. We scraped the meal planning and ate what we wanted - unfortunately, I wanted a Big Mac. One night we started talking about what food we would eat if we could have anything we wanted. This is a bad idea unless you are on the way home. Do this on the way up the mountain and you will hate the food you brought. We traded chocolate for pilot bread and put spicy mustard on it for supper, and snacks, and lunch.... The mustard was given to us by three special forces army rangers that were on leave from their unit. They thought they could just march to the summit without acclimating. The mountain turned them back after only reaching the 11,000 ft. camp. We learned that your body craves spices - of which we had none. Good food makes a difficult journey much easier. The altitude weakened our appetite. We knew we had to eat, although we didn’t want to, just to stay strong. Take good food with you when you do something like this. The meals should be a treat after a long day of hard work. Ours were not.
We planned for altitude sickness, frostbite, trauma or something as simple as the flu. Our first aid kit was like a MASH unit. We had a sterile suture kit, a variety of antibiotics, diuretics, steroids, NSAIDS, mole skin, and tape. The kit weighed over five pounds. We carried an extra ax and spare set of crampons, extra glacier glasses, gloves and a repair kit that could be used to repair a small nuclear reactor, a CB radio, two walkie -talkies, sleeping bags rated to -40F and a GPS unit. In all, our gear weighed 216 pounds - lighter than most by far, but still a lot of stuff to carry up over 12,000 vertical feet. Certain things could be dropped along the way and picked up during the descent. At base camp we left a gallon of fuel and three days’ supply of food. We left the snowshoes at 11,000 feet along with the exposed film and a few camera lenses that seemed to get heavier with each day. At 14,000 feet we dropped more food and fuel and everything else that wasn't absolutely necessary for us to tag the summit.
We didn’t plan to be stranded in Talkeetna for two days because the glacier was socked in with fog and our airplane couldn’t land. The town’s motto is “ A quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem” so we did our part to defend this motto for a day or two.
Talkeetna air taxi flies, among other planes, a “Beaver.” I don’t know much about airplanes, but I like these little work horses -- and you can stuff a lot of equipment in them. The twelve-cylinder radial engine coughed and sputtered like it had pneumonia when they fired it up, but it soon smoothed out and was running like a well oiled machine.
I think the flight to the glacier was a little more than half an hour, maybe closer to 45 minutes. One Shot Pass gets its name honestly. The pilot has one chance to get over it, or fly into the mountain. We climbed during most of the flight, taking off near sea level and landing at 7,800 feet. I didn't know what to expect when we landed. Was it going to be cold? How deep was the powder? Was there any powder? Was there crevasse danger in base camp?
Lisa, a national park ranger, met us at base camp. She had a friendly face and gave us lots of good advice. We promised not to become a statistic, and went about our business. We dug out our campsite and started sorting gear. We had to decide what gear to carry ahead and what to leave behind in camp.
The first day of climbing started with a descent of 900 feet, to the bottom of Heartbreak hill. It was foggy and we could only see a few rope lengths ahead. This area is relatively safe with no major crevasses and is used as the landing strip for the air taxi service. After the descent the climb wasn't bad at all. Gentle uphill climbing was the theme for the day. When our turnaround time came we had covered about four miles and were back at our starting altitude of about 7,800 feet. Snow can blow in and cover the trail with no advanced notice, so we left little bamboo wands in the snow to mark the route for our return trip. Returning, we were much lighter so the trip was faster and downhill, until we got to the bottom of Heartbreak - the hill that keeps on giving. We rested the next day, and moved to Camp One on the third day. With the sun out we could see that our first trail went right thought the middle of a huge crevasse field! Another excellent reason not to move equipment in white-out conditions.
From Camp One we could see Windy Corner, and a cross section of the glacier where it periodically would shear off and fall a few thousand feet to the glacier below. We were told stories of people getting frostbite while turning the corner, or being flash frozen as they enter the exposed areas in bad weather. Above that, we could see the summit. The trip seemed to be unfolding just as planned. The first glimpse of the summit fortified our commitment to reach the top. This was really happening.
We moved camp the following day, but didn’t go all the way to the 11,000 foot camp. June was ill and unable to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. She was unwilling to end the trip and go home, so we rested a day. While she recovered, I spent the day building an igloo at 9,500 feet. I had the bright idea to sleep in it, after all, how cold could it get? I didn't make the entrance to the igloo correctly so the wind blew in all night. We nearly froze to death that night. At 6:00 am we shivered our way back to the tent. We got up around 10:00 am and were on the trail by noon. We climbed for what seemed like an eternity, dropped the food and fuel cache and returned to the igloo. The next day we moved to the camp at 11,000 feet. I had a wild hair and decided to retrieve our cache alone while June worked and acclimated around camp.
I emptied my pack, sat down on my empty sled and shoved off. I forgot how hard the snow was packed, how steep the slope was and how far down it was to the cache. Judging by the impact my face made with the snow, I was near terminal velocity. The snow was packed in my ears and goggles. Once I figured out how to steer the sled, I made it to the cache in less than ten minutes. Three hours, it took me three miserable hours, to load the gear into my pack and sled and get back to the campsite. This was after getting only a few hours rest the day before. At this point life sucked for me. I got cramps in both my legs that went from my calf muscles all the way up. I wanted to die. It was pain worse than hell. I had to sit up all night. If I laid down both legs would start cramping again. We rested a day or two at 11,000 feet to acclimate and for my legs to recover.
Motorcycle Hill was the next major hill to climb, followed by the Squirrel Point then the Windy Corner. We carried gear passed the corner and cached it in a crevasse, then returned to 11,000 feet. The top of Motorcycle has a mandatory right turn. If you fail to turn, you are faced with a 3,500 r ft. rock and ice wall and near vertical descent into Peters Basin. One Frenchman I met referred to it as a “precipitous gravitational acceleration southward.” We thought it sounded like something to avoid. We turned right and negotiated 500 vertical feet of blue ice over Squirrel Point then enjoyed a somewhat flat trek towards “the corner”. As we neared the corner, it was anything but flat. The wind was calm and it was almost pleasant outside. From the corner we could see our first camp 6,000 feet below. At this altitude the glacier is littered with rocks from the mountain above. Some were small and some quite large. Once or twice one would roll to a stop not far from us. For some reason, perhaps the altitude was affecting our judgment, this didn’t seem to bother us much. Thinking back, it bothers me a great deal.
It was time to move camp to 14,000 feet. This is the big move. At 14,000 feet the weather can turn deadly in minutes. Most teams will spend 4 or 5 days resting and waiting for a weather window to make an attempt for 17,000 feet and on to the summit. The National Park Service has a seasonal ranger station there and they assist climbers with weather reports, technical advice and, if needed, will attempt rescues of fallen climbers.
We stayed at 14,000 feet for several days to acclimate and wait for the weather to clear. At one point we were stuck in the tent for 4 days because of high winds, blowing snow and subzero temperatures. When the conditions were right, I decided to make an equipment carry to the top of the fixed lines at 16,500 feet. I climbed alone - because I am an idiot, and June was still having some health concerns. I was at the top of the fixed lines in two and a half hours. I cached the gear at 16,500 feet and started my descent of the lines. Things were going well until I punched in a small crevasse below the bergschrund and hyper-extended my left knee. From here it took another three hours to descend to the tent. I could hardly put weight on the knee. I slept like a baby that night. The next day June was feeling better, surprisingly my knee didn’t hurt and the weather was perfect. We started climbing around 10:00 am. We were just passed 15,200 feet when June decided she was finished and needed to turn back. I dropped my pack and escorted her back to camp. For some reason I thought I could still climb to 17,000 feet and camp. I blame this decision on the altitude. After all, June had a spare tent to sleep in and plenty of food and fuel. After I started climbing the headwall for the third time in two days, and after a huge fight with June, (I can be an “insufferable bottle necked jerk”, so I am told ) and after I decided that I would retrieve our gear at 16,500 feet and return to 14,000 feet, abandoning our summit bid altogether, it happened.
Have you ever heard the sound that a stack of dried spaghetti noodles make when you break them? That is the sound that came out of my left knee as I slipped and fell just below the fixed lines. It felt like a knife had been stuck under my kneecap; this was worse than the leg cramps I had at 11,000 feet. As I fell, I saw some of my equipment race down slope and disappear into a large crevasse. I think I blacked out for a minute because I have no idea how the snow got in my goggles and packed in my ear - again. After digging the snow out of my ears goggles, I tried to get my pack on and stand up, but it wasn’t happening. I splinted my leg with tent poles and tried to stand, but in the deep snow I couldn't walk and couldn’t get my pack on. After an hour, and much debate (I was debating with myself) I swallowed my pride and radioed to the rangers at 14,000 feet for help.
I have been in some tight spots before. I’ve never had to amputate my own arm, or eat bugs for survival but they were tight spots none the less. This was the first time I had to call for help. Humiliating as it was, with the sun and temperature going down, I could see no way out.
A curious thing happens when you get hypothermic. After the shivering subsides, you get really sleepy. At least I did.
I had a lengthy wait ahead of me because the rangers were 2000 feet below me. During the wait, John, the ranger in charge, would check on me by radio I guess I was dozing when my radio crackled to life. It startled me and I jumped. Had I not been securely anchored to my ax, I surely would have been reunited with my equipment that was lost in the crevasse.
A National Geographic camera crew heard the call and was there to assist me within two hours. The rangers were there half-an-hour later. Karen and Netti are climbing ranger baby dolls. ( And highly skilled, seasoned, expert mountain climbers ) They assessed my knee and determined that I couldn’t walk down. They loaded me into the litter and with the help of rangers, nearby climbers and the National Geographic camera crew, took me down to 14,000 feet and a warm tent. The next day the rescue helicopter took us to base camp where an airplane was waiting to deliver us to Talkeetna.
Typically the rangers would have helped June find her way off the mountain under her own power. On this day one of the air taxi airplanes went down and the rangers were spread thin dealing with the death of one of their close friends and three clients. They decided instead of escorting June to base camp, it would be better to fly her off the mountain.
If not for the dedicated rangers on Denali I wouldn’t be here to share this story. I want to thank them all, but specifically John, Netti and Karen, keep up the good work. If I am able to do some good in this world from this day forward, it is only because you were there when I needed you. THANK YOU
With my rehab complete I am going to Mexico next month to try out my new knee on Pico de Orizaba. Wish me luck!