"What?!? Are you crazy?!?"
Denali here I come, but first I’ve got some explaining to do, so this is an open invitation—I’m begging really—for help from my fellow SummitPosters. Please share your thoughts and feelings about what compels you to climb big mountains. You see, I’ve noticed something about high-altitude mountaineering. As long as I keep my plans to myself, I can remain blissfully deluded that I’m a veritable model of sanity, the sensible sort of man you can rely on to make rational decisions about what to do with his time, talents, and resources, but the moment I begin to articulate my mountain climbing ambitions out loud or in writing to friends and family, typical responses make it seem like I can keep whole teams of psychiatrists busy for years. Why do we do it? I know it all makes sense to my fellow climbers on SummitPost.com, an asylum for people who think this kind of thing is fun, but how am I supposed to explain to everyone else what is so appealing about spending the equivalent of the gross national product of several third world countries on technical climbing gear just so that I can voluntarily expose myself to howling gale force winds, absurdly frigid temperatures, white-out blizzard conditions, and excruciating levels of physical and psychological fatigue, not to mention the very real possibility of dismemberment, disability, or death from falls, frostbite, hypothermia, AMS, HAPE, and HACE? Do you know what happens when a contemporaneous webcast of a big guided expedition reports that you had a brush with HACE almost 23,000 feet up in the high Andes? I do. Your friends and family Google “HACE” and freak out. It’s not enough that I’ve already put them through Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, and Aconcagua. Now I’ve set my sights on Denali. Isn’t there a 12-step program for this? It’s sort of like what I’ve heard about flying from fellow pilots. It’s a disease for which there is no cure, only treatment. So, dear friends and family, this is me getting ready to check into yet another mountaineering rehab facility. This one is called Denali National Park and Preserve.
Me on the summit of Elbrus at 29 degrees below zero, displaying that superior power of misery which distinguishes the human being and places him or her at a proud distance from the most melancholy chimpanzee
How do I respond when friends and family ask why I would climb a particular mountain? Everest pioneer George Mallory already took the now-famous best answer, "Because it's there," so I've had to look elsewhere for my inspiration. Here's a bit of wisdom from Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, filled with peace and joy, but encompassed by all of the horrors of the half-lived life." Climbing big mountains for me is just one more part of drinking as deeply as possible from the cup of life. It's just one of many things about which I'm passionate. The thing is, greater climbers than I--of which there are many--might be able to reach the seven summits and descend safely with half-lived lives, for perhaps they are capable of that and so much more, but for me it will take absolutely everything I've got, and so in a very real sense climbing big mountains like Denali is just another part of my ongoing personal quest to turn my attention away from all of the horrors of the half-lived life and enjoy the tropical island paradise of the soul Melville describes.
Me and a stuffed tiger (one of those traveling garden gnome things I've got going with some of my friends) at Havasupai Falls near the Grand Canyon--seemingly a lot closer to Tahiti than the summit of Elbrus at 29 below
The Grand Design
My plan is to acclimatize before I ever get to Alaska, first by myself for a week on Humphreys Peak (12,633’), the highest mountain in my home state of Arizona, and then I’ll fly my twin-engine Cessna 310 to Lone Pine, California, where I’ll join my climbing partner Bryan Guiney, a 25-year-old Marine lieutenant getting ready to redeploy. We’ll spend another week or so acclimatizing together on Mt. Whitney (14,494’), the highest mountain in California (and the lower 48 for that matter). That will give us plenty of time to review glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques as well as conduct a comprehensive gear check. I’ll have an Iridium satellite telephone with me, and one of my pilot buddies has graciously agreed to keep an eye on the flying weather for me while I’m on the mountain. Once Bryan and I are reasonably well acclimatized, we’ll wait for the first patch of decent flying weather, descend Mt. Whitney, load up the airplane, and beeline it to Talkeetna, stopping for fuel and rest at the Skagit Regional Airport (BVS) in western Washington State and Juneau (JNU) in southeast Alaska. The cabin of my airplane is unpressurized, and I typically cruise at an altitude of 12,500 feet, so we’ll be able to preserve the effects of our acclimatization en route. If all goes well, and there are no significant delays hitching a ski-equipped airplane ride onto the Kahiltna glacier, weather permitting, Bryan and I will be able to push all the way to the advanced base camp at 14,200 feet without having to stop for acclimatization purposes, because we’ll already be acclimatized to that altitude. The whole idea behind acclimatizing on Mt. Whitney is to put ourselves into a position to move as quickly up Denali as we can, fast and light, alpine style, taking advantage of any breaks in the weather. We’ll be prepared to dig in and wait out abysmal weather, if necessary, but we won’t have to stay put for acclimatization purposes when we are graced with decent climbing weather.
Flash flood warning! A cloudburst in the Arizona high country between Humphreys Peak and the Grand Canyon.
Would you like to fly with me in my private airplane to Alaska?
If you or anyone you know want a ride in a private airplane to Talkeetna on or about May 17, returning most likely during the first week of June, the more the merrier in terms of sharing costs. My airplane seats six, so even with all of our climbing gear I could easily make room for several more people. Just remember that I fly on Hawai’ian time, which means I fly when I feel like it, and if there is anything dicey about the weather or the airplane, then I don’t feel like it, so if you’ve absolutely got to get somewhere by a certain time, fly commercial, because I’m just not going to get you there unless I’m absolutely confident I can get you there safely. I strive to be an excellent pilot, and an excellent pilot is one who uses his or her excellent judgment to avoid having to use his or her excellent skills.
My magic carpet ride, a twin-engine Cessna 310.
This trip report is going to be under construction until I get back from Alaska. For the time being it will be more of a weblog. I’m going to ask a friend to update it on my behalf as I have news to report by satellite telephone. I plan to begin climbing Humphreys Peak on May 3. I plan to fly to California to begin climbing Mt. Whitney with my climbing partner Bryan on May 10. Weather permitting, we’ll fly to Alaska on May 17. Stay tuned.
Mt. Shasta in late September, flying south along the western flank of the mountain, an example of the kind of weather I hope I don't encounter en route to Alaska.
On Top of Arizona
I've begun my acclimatization process on Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona. Yesterday I made the drive up from the Phoenix area, which is roughly 1,200 feet above sea level, to Flagstaff, which is around 7,000 feet, and beyond to the Humphreys Peak trailhead, which is above 9,000 feet. I made my way up the mountain, developed a predictable altitude-related headache, and descended quickly to spend the night in Flagstaff. Today I'll take my time climbing Humphreys Peak and then spend the night at the trailhead. So it begins. Climb high. Sleep low. It's been very breezy, and this evening the forecast for Flagstaff calls for a 30% chance of rain, with an even better chance of a light snowfall overnight, with temperatures in Flagstaff slipping to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It will be much colder where I'll be up on the mountain, but still a day at the beach compared with some of the crazy weather I've experienced on big mountains.
Hurricane Force Winds
On May 4, 2007, on my way to the summit of Humphreys Peak, I encountered hurricane force winds. I've been through two typhoons and a hurricane, so I know what 100 mph wind velocity feels like, but there's a monumental difference between waiting out a storm in a refuge at sea level versus clinging to highly exposed rock at 12,000 feet. No less than three times I was literally picked up into the air by the wind and dashed into some jagged rocks. Airborne! No part of my body touching the ground until I came crashing back down. Although justifiably nervous and sensitive to the danger, there was a part of me that found the sheer absurdity of the situtation amusing. I kept thinking, "Are you kidding me?" No, my judgment wasn't completely impaired by the relative lack of oxygen. (I'm still getting acclimatized remember.) The extremely high winds caught me completely by surprise. There was a shift in the wind direction that created a powerful venturi effect over the mini-saddle between the false summit and the true summit of Humphreys Peak. Sustained winds of 60-70 mph were accelerated to 100 mph in an extremely localized area as the wind shifted to exactly perpendicular to the ridge line. I was doing just fine, and I'd encountered a couple of other climbers who'd just descended from the same area safely who reported manageable wind velocities on the summit ridge. The next thing you know I'm on all fours and worried I'm going to end up in the land of Oz with Dorothy and Toto too. As it was, I didn't have to click my heels and say "There's no place like home" three times, but I did get a pretty nasty cut on my leg on one of the occasions when the wind picked me up and launched me into an outcropping of jagged rocks. Right through my shell pants and fleece. Ouch!
May 11, 2007
I flew my Cessna 310 to California yesterday and landed at Lone Pine Airport. I then met up with my climbing partner and we headed up the mountain. We set up our first base camp at Lone Pine Lake which is at 10,000 feet. We then did a climb up to 12,500 feet before heading back down to base camp. The weather is perfect right now. Clear blue skies!
May 12, 2007
Today we're moving our base camp up to 12,400 feet and we'll do a summit attempt tomorrow. The weather is still great. This morning we were woken up by some Japanese climbers who were kicking around a neighbor's bear can. They got away before I could ask them what they were doing. (I lived and worked in Tokyo for 12 years and speak fluent Japanese.)
May 13, 2007
We made it to the summit of Mt. Whitney today. At just shy of 14,500 feet, it is the highest point in the continental United States.
It was a good climb today. Excellent weather but it's really cold up here and the trail is very icy.
We'll be spending the night up here on the summit.
May 14, 2007
Those of you who are familiar with the trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney will recall that when the switchbacks leading up to the trail crest at 13,600 feet are iced over and impassible, the logical choice for climbers is to ascend via the snow chute. The slope varies from around 40 degrees at the bottom to as much as 50 to 55 degrees toward the top. I slipped and fell on an icy patch near the trail crest as we were descending today. I was able to arrest the fall with my ice axe, but not before I dislocated my left shoulder. Everything popped back into place once I was able to take the pressure off of my left arm, but it's really painful, not enough to make me give up my dream of climbing Denali, but a sobering reminder of how careful you have to be on big mountains.
We'll be spending another night on the summit tonight and probably tomorrow night to help get acclimatized to the altitude. The current plan is to head down the mountain on Wednesday and then fly to Seattle before making our way to Alaska.
May 16, 2007
This morning, at 6:12 a.m., my climbing partner Bryan and I were standing on the summit of Mt. Whitney. By noon we were back at the trailhead, an 11 mile hike and a 6,000 foot descent behind us, anxious to enjoy a meal that did not consist of freeze-dried food and melted snow. I checked the flying weather to Alaska with a Flight Service Station briefer, only to find that the weather looked dicey at best. We want to get to Alaska before the effects of our acclimatization on Mt. Whitney diminish, so we decided to fly commercially. Bryan drove back to the Los Angeles area to catch a flight from there, while I flew my airplane back to the Phoenix area to catch a flight from here. It's a good thing we decided to fly commercially. My shoulder was killing me on the flight from Lone Pine, California to Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona where I keep my airplane. I need a healthy left shoulder to control the yoke. I've got a 6:00 a.m. flight on Alaska Airlines to Anchorage that arrives a little after noon on May 17, 2007.
Many thanks to Heather Moore and the rest of the gang in the newsroom at Channel 3 in Phoenix for featuring me and this expedition last Friday evening in the Good Evening Arizona broadcast. Stay tuned to Good Evening Arizona as I will periodically make reports from Denali.
May 18, 2007 - Talkeetna Hang
We're hanging out in Talkeetna, Alaska waiting for the weather to improve so that we may fly on to the mountain.
For those of you that may have seen on the news about the accident on Denali yesterday which resulted in one fatality and one serious injury please be assured that it was not me nor my climbing partner. We'll be as careful as we can be once we're on the mountain.
May 19, 2007 - Day 1 - We head to the mountain
The weather has finally cleared up and we're on our way. We'll be taking a ski equipped Cessna 185 from Talkeetna to the base of the mountain later this morning.
May 22, 2007 - climbing up Denali
The Cessna 185 took us to Kahiltna Glacier on Saturday. Built a small cache of supplies at this point in case we're delayed on our way out. We then took everything else with us on sleds and made our way up the glacier and to our first camp at Ski Hill which is at 7,800 feet. This was a 5.5 mile traverse across a heavily cravased glacier. My climbing partner did just fine but I was exhausted afterwards.
The next day we climbed to 11,000 feet to our next camp. This was a long trip but fortunately the weather has been good. We're moving all of our gear all at once unlike other climbers who make multiple trips up and down to the next camp to get all of their things up to their next camp. Because of this we're moving slower than others climbing here but we're not doing double hikes either.
Day three was the hardest yet as the weather has closed in on us a bit. We were able to make it to the Advanced Base Camp which is at 14,200 feet. Very strong winds and blowing snow but we managed to make it.
Day four and the weather is still pretty bad so we're staying put for now. We're hoping for a break in the weather that gets us two good climbing days that gets us up to the next camp which will be at 17,200 feet.
That's it for now. Another update to come soon.
Made it to the summit! Epic trip!
Sunday, May 27, 2007
The summit day ended up being an 18 hour day. We woke up at 6:30am and headed up from our camp at 16,400 feet. We made it to the summit at around 6:30pm. We made some phone calls and took some pictures before heading back down. We made it back down to our camp at around 1:00am. Along the way down I had the trail fall out from under me. One was above Denali Pass which is a very steep and very exposed area. The other time it happened at "The Orient Express". Luckily we had attached our ropes to some fixed pickets which arrested our fall.
The next day we continued to head down the mountain to the Kahiltna Glacier Airstrip. Along the way we experienced seven "punch-through's" on the glacier. During one of them I fell into a hole up to my neck. Pretty scary but I was able to get out safely without too much damage. The weather has deteriorated pretty badly. We experienced total white-out conditions a number of times along the way down. We're now camping at the Kahiltna Glacier Airstrip waiting for the weather to clear so that the plane can pick us up.
On the summit of Denali, Friday, May 25, 2007
Back to Civilization!
This morning, Tuesday, May 29, the weather finally cleared enough for us to catch a Talkeetna Air Taxi Dehavilland Otter ski-equipped airplane from the Kahiltna Glacier back to Talkeetna, where we indulged in a massive breakfast at the Roadhouse and checked in at the National Park Service ranger station. There we learned that the success rate for climbers attempting to summit Denali this year is only 36%. We felt very blessed that we were able to reach the summit and descend safely, albeit not without some truly epic struggles that pushed us well beyond what perhaps we thought we were capable of before arriving in Alaska to climb Denali. The event that sticks out most in my mind was when I lost control of my backpack just below the fixed lines up the headwall at a little above 15,000 feet. It skidded down the steep slope, bounced over one crevasse, skidded some more, and finally dropped into the gaping maw of a huge crevasse known as a bergshrund. It contained essential gear, not only for the continued success of our climb, but also for our very survival on the mountain. Without the contents of my backpack, not only was our expedition over, our safety in an extremely inhospitable environment was seriously compromised. There was nowhere to turn, no one to help, no one to bail us out of a very sticky situation. As luck would have it, the backpack had come to rest 40 feet below the upper lip of the crevasse on a narrow snow bridge that was only as wide as the backpack was long. On either side of the snow bridge the crevasse descended out of sight into an abyss of oblivion. Our only hope was for me to rappel down into the crevasse and retrieve my backpack. My climbing partner Bryan buried a picket into the surface of the glacier as a deadman belay to hold the climbing rope while I edged over the edge of the crevasse and rappelled down to the level of my backpack. That was challenging enough, but there was no way for me to rappel directly down to the backpack. The best I could do, given the internal structure of the deep crevasse, was to rappel down about 15 feet to the side of the snow bridge, with nothing under me at all, and then swing like a pendulum over to the snow bridge. I owe my life to the integrity and strength of the picket my climbing partner Bryan set up to hold the climbing rope. Some French climbers also helped by throwing another climbing rope over the edge of the crevasse more directly over my backpack. I couldn't have rappelled down that rope, because it cheese wired at least three or four feet into the lip of the crevasse, but it helped stabilize my position in proximity to my backpack once I had made the pendulum swing over the abyss. While all of this made me confront my deepest, darkest fears of falling unrecoverably into a bottomless, dark, cold abyss, what really makes all of this so very important to me is what happened when I finally emerged on the surface of the glacier. We marched right back up to the bottom of the fixed lines and made the agonizing, hideously difficult ascent to our next camp at 16,400 feet. We easily could have retreated back down to the advance base camp at 14,200 feet, but that wouldn't have enabled us to take advantage of decent climbing weather the next day. As a result of our determination to climb 800 feet up the incredibly steep headwall with heavy packs, even after everything that was required to retrieve my backpack, we were in a position the very next day to achieve the summit of the highest mountain in North America and descend safely. I'll write more after I've had a chance to let all of this sink in, especially about the raw terror I experienced falling up to my neck through a snow bridge over a deep crevasse in the lower Kahiltna glacier, but for right now Bryan and I are enjoying a deep and abiding sense of humble satisfaction over having given it everything we had and more to make it to the summit of Denali. Wait until you see the pictures and video! We've seen some amazing things. More to come!
Decompressing on Whidbey Island
Yesterday I flew from Anchorage to Seattle, rented a convertible, and made my way north along I-5 to Whidbey Island, where I grew up and where my father and one of my brothers still lives. I guess I felt like I needed to decompress. There was a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier on the flight in, and it was all I could do to keep from heading that direction. I had all of the gear I needed, and I was already acclimatized to 20,340 feet, so knocking off a glaciated peak just a little over 14,000 feet seemed like child's play after Denali. Have I become some kind of mountain climbing addict? Is this what it feels like to be hooked on crack?
Our descent from 11,000 feet on Denali to the landing strip at 7,200 feet was memorable to say the least. It was all glacier travel, of course, and we'd ascended the same route on our way up the mountain a week or so earlier, but the structure of the Kahiltna glacier had changed dramatically in the interim. Snow bridges that previously had provided safe passage over deep crevasses were substantially weaker, and a fresh layer of new fallen snow obscured from sight those tell-tale clues that give an experienced mountain climber a sense of where to place his feet on a heavily crevassed glacier. My climbing partner Bryan--a Marine lieutenant with combat experience in Iraq--described it best. "This is like walking through a minefield!" You would place your feet on what looked like firm snow and ice, capable of supporting your weight, only to punch through up to your ankles, knees, waist, or neck! Between the two of us, there were a total of seven punch throughs. The worst was when I dropped into a deep crevasse up to my neck. The irony was that at the time I was using enormous snowshoes that distributed my weight very broadly. The crevasse was simply too wide, too deep, and the snow bridge hiding it was just too weak to support my weight. One moment Bryan could see me walking ahead of him, pulling our two sleds, and the next there was only the two sleds, a taut length of climbing rope, and my head. My legs were dangling in space, and I was desperately trying to use my ice axe and trekking pole for leverage. The snow was too soft for me to use either to pull myself out of the chasm. The only thing I had going for me was my left knee, which was dug into the side of the crevasse and supporting just enough of my weight to keep me from plunging all the way in. It's interesting what goes through your mind at times like these. I remember thinking, "So, this could be it." That's all. I had hoped that when the end came I would be more philosophical and say or think something profound, but I was just too busy trying to extricate myself from a desperately life-threatening situation. The thing was ... I was still attached to the climbing rope, to which two heavily laden sleds were still attached, as was my climbing partner Bryan. If I fell deeper into the crevasse, I would take the sleds with me, and as strong as Bryan is, there is just no way that he could have arrested a fall with all of that weight. What Bryan doesn't know, at least not until he reads this, is that as I was struggling to keep myself from falling further into the crevasse, I was also struggling to untie the knot that tied my climbing harness into the rope. Ultimately, it didn't come to that, and I was able to struggle back onto the surface of the glacier, all the while feeling like perhaps there were invisible helping hands lifting me just ever so slightly, just enough to make up for how weak and exhausted I was feeling, until with my heart pounding and energy reserves depleted I was once again standing on the surface of the Kahiltna glacier. If you want an example of true courage and determination, ponder the fact that Bryan just stood there, bravely holding his ground, ready to try his best to arrest any further fall, tied into a climbing rope that at any moment might suddenly become loaded with my weight and the weight of two heavily laden sleds plunging into a bottomless abyss. Sleep tight tonight, America, Marine Corps officers like Bryan Guiney are watching your back. Thanks.