Crevase around Windy Corner
We were one of the first groups of the day to move up from camp 3 at 11,000 feet headed to camp 4 at 14,000 feet. We had left before the mountains had exploded with sunlight, as it does each morning on Denali. It was a cold day; -20 degrees I heard one of the climbing rangers say. Since we left so early in the morning, we had many teams coming up behind us. The normal courtesy on a route like this is to yield the trail to the team heading uphill. We stopped in the middle of “windy corner” to step off the trial and let another team by. As we had done dozens of times before, I stepped off the trail. Suddenly, it was like a trip door had opened up underneath me, instantly plunging me down into a crevasse. Apparently I had stepped on a weak snow bridge and fell through. Since we were carrying our ice axes in the SELF ARREST position, I was able to catch myself with my ice axe and only fell in up to my waist. I looked down towards my feet; they were dangling into a 40 foot crevasse! Thankfully, I caught myself and was roped up to my teammates. This fall was an extremely close call to say the least.
Mount McKinley had been on my list for years. It was a large mountain and one of the seven summits that really can test you mentally and physically. I decided to climb with RMI, as I had used them before to climb Mount Rainier. We had a group of nine, made up of six clients and three guides. We meet in the Anchorage airport. From there we drove up to Talkeetna, Alaska , where we would pack up our gear and fly via bush plane to base camp. We arrived in Talkeetna and stayed in the local motel called the TP. It was an old shack they charged mountain climbers $80 per night for. I thought this was pure robbery for the quality of the place. At this point, it became obvious that the town is supported by the huge influx of climbers from May to July. We spent the next day packing up our gear and making sure we didn’t bring more things than we needed. It was a huge surprise how much gear it takes to climb 22 day on Mount McKinley. We had about 125 pounds per person of food, fuel, tents, technical and personal gear. We then flew on to the mountain the next day.
The nearest road to base camp on Denali is about 60 miles away over rugged tundra and smaller mountain ranges making it necessary to fly onto the mountain instead of hiking. The flight was absolutely amazing. The views of the tundra and the rest of the Alaskan Range were spectacular. We flew in a little 4 person Cessna 185 plane. It got bounced around a lot by the rough air over the mountains. I’ll never forget the experience of going through small, mountain passes with the plane with about TEN foot clearance on each wing. Once we arrived on the glacier (at 7200 feet elevation), we were greeted by the sight of Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter. It was quite a shock the first time Mount Hunter avalanched right by us. It sounded like a jet flying over your head. Hunter continued to avalanche about every 20-30 minutes for the rest of the time we were at base camp. While waiting for the other plane carrying the rest of our teammates and gear, we rigged up our sleds which held more than 60 pounds of gear and supplies. Then, we attached these sleds to our mountaineering packs which were another 60 pounds. The loads of gear and supplies were back breaking in their weight. They made every step feel ten times as hard as normal. We started moving about two and a half hours after we landed.
The first day on the glacier is a long maybe 5-6 mile slow incline in between a number of high peaks which surround you. They make you feel quite small. It is a tough day. You don’t really have a good view of Denali and you’re still adjusting to the weight of your pack and sled. So, it is very easy to get discouraged during this part. You have to keep yourself focused on the task at hand. Get rid of all the self doubts as you push through the physical pain as your body adapts to its new surroundings. We camped at the base of ski hill. My team was very happy to roll into camp and setup our tents because everyone was tired. After a quick dinner, we were off to bed which became the norm. On an average night we would sleep for about 12 hours. When we were moving and having hard days like these were, it was not a problem to sleep for 12 hours. Although on rest days, when you didn’t expend massive amounts of energy, it became much more difficult. In early May, Alaska has about 5 hours of darkness on Denali. But when it is “dark,” it really doesn’t even look dark. It’s more accurate to say 5 hours of a light dusk. This made sleeping very difficult until I found my face mask which covered my eyes. It was a life saver on the mountain.
The next day was the first real test of our abilities. Ski Hill is a steep section including 6 hours of climbing while still carrying full 120 lb loads. We pushed ourselves through this with a focus on taking it one step at a time. The climb was a stretch of my body’s ability to adjust to altitude and carry a load almost equal to my body weight. My body frame is not ideal for this task, being 6’0” and 150 pounds. The loads made my body look forward to each rest break every hour. Then I could drop my loads and rest my back and shoulders. I made it to the top of Ski Hill and was very happy to see camp that night as well. When I was hiking with team between camp 1 and 2, suddenly I felt my foot go straight down. My body followed and I realized I had punched through a snow bridge into a crevasse. Snow bridges are snow that has compacted over the natural cracks in the glacier. They allow you to walk across the glacier without major maneuvering to avoid the crevasses. I felt my snow shoe become caught in between the two walls of the crevasse and the weight of my pack caused me to fall sideways. With my foot immobile, I twisted my knee in the process. Instantly, I felt pain shoot through my knee. I had only fallen about 6 feet but it felt like a lot more. My team helped me out and I tried to walk off the pain. I tried to keep it to myself that my knee hurt. I figured we had rest days coming up and it should feel better then. Until then I just had to keep pounding away at the mountain.
The problem was there was pain in every step, especially with the heavy loads. However, I was determined to continue on. “No mountain worth climbing is easy. There will always be adversity. I just need to dig down deep to push onward and upward” I told myself. We setup camp at 9500 feet and another team pulled in right behind us. They were doing what we call a carry. A carry is when you take about 40% of your gear up to the next camp. Next, you dig a hole, or a cache, in the snow, bury the gear and pick it up the next day. It makes it easier on the team but it takes an extra day to move from camp to camp. They cached their gear including their snow shoes. This would not have been a bad decision except for what happened next. We went to bed and the winds picked up. Soon afterwards, it started to snow and continued to snow all the way until morning. We shoveled our way out of our tents to find 3 feet of fresh snow. The team below us had no trail and would have to walk up without snowshoes to move to the next camp. This decision put them behind several days. To make matters worse, that night we received another 3 feet of snow. We sank in up to our waists even with snowshoes on. That day we were trying to figure out what to do. Whether we should stay put or try to climb to the next camp in the fresh snow.
After a few hours, we decided to do a carry to 11,000 feet, which was the next camp up. This was no easy task because the beaten down trail had been covered up by the snow. We had to do the existing work of breaking trail in 3 feet of snow. The good news for me was we had much lighter loads on our back but we made up for it in the effort required to break trail. With a team of nine, we were able to do it by rotating our three rope teams of three people. Each team would lead the charge up the mountain for ten minute segments then rotating them to the back for a rest. It took about 5.5 hours to reach camp 3. I felt much better this day than any other since the loads were light and I felt like I could move like a real person again. We cached our gear and headed back down to camp to for the night. It took us only 1.5 hours to descend what it took us all day to climb. That night, as I mentioned earlier, we had another 3 feet of snow dumped on us. We were facing the same situation as the day before. However, we knew we could make it so we moved the rest of our gear to camp three. These were heavier loads and the day was tough. We had 6 feet of snow to break trail through. The weather was very cold and windy that day. So, we also had to deal with almost zero visibility and were relying mostly on our markers (we had marked the route with the day before) and our GPS.
Weather on Denali
Once at camp 3, which is at 11,000ft., we were able relax for a well deserved rest day. This ended up being two days due to unstable snow (avalanche) conditions on the sloped we needed to ascend to reach the next camp. There was also a crowd of 70 climbers all bottlenecked at 11,000 feet for almost a week due to bad weather and avalanche conditions. It was quite a neat thing to be stuck at camp 3. We were able to meet people from all different walks of life and all over the globe. I said earlier in one of my audio dispatches that it was the only place on earth where you can hear “top of the morning to ya” from the British army team and go to bed with “good day mate” from the Australians. After these rest days, we packed up and did a carry to 14,000 feet. It was a cold and very windy day with temps around -20 degrees and 40 mph winds. Our rest breaks were no longer because it was so cold you wanted to keep moving. At one point, my hands were hurting from the cold. It was painful to move them to get blood flow going to make them warm again. The pain is so intense that it becomes your main focus. You really can’t think of anything else. Thankfully, one of my teammates commented to me “why don’t you put on your mittens?” It hadn’t crossed my mind. The cold made me focus so much on the problem that I lost sight of a simple solution. It was a good lesson to learn. We thought about turning around for the day since the weather was so bad. However, it improved within the next half an hour and the winds died down enough to make the mountain safe to climb on. So we began our trek to 14,000 ft.
We went around Windy Corner next, which is a large outcropping of rock prone to avalanches and rock fall sometimes the size of cars. So, we moved through quickly to minimize the danger. After we passed this area, we cached our gear and headed back down to our camp at 11,000 feet. I had been struggling and hoping my knee would get better after the rest days we had at camp 3. However, the trip to 14,000 ft. had made it very clear, with every painful step that I was in over my head. We had some of the hardest climbing of the trip ahead of us and I struggled with each step as well as with the loads on my back. The pain coupled with the realization of the sustained agony of the trip made it obvious to me what my decision needed to be. If I was going to be a responsible climber, by not putting my life or the lives of my team mates in danger, I needed to stop. The decision was not very difficult to make. It was clearly the right thing to do. Turning my back on the dream I had to summit Mount McKinley was very hard. I sat in my tent thinking of all the hardships we endured to this point. The hundreds of miles of running, the thousands of miles of biking and endless hours in the gym working out were all for one goal. I had wrapped up a great deal of my life into this endeavor. It seemed to end too easily, with a little bit of bad luck and one wrong foot placement. Replaying in my mind were all the different scenarios that could have happened but didn’t. I knew I had to announce my decision. Finally I got up the nerve to tell my team what I decided. It was a difficult conversation to have. All my teammates were shocked that I was quitting since I had kept the pain and agony of my knee mostly to myself, with only minor complaints. We worked out a schedule that would get me back down the mountain the next day and arranged a flight out for me from base camp. I still had seven hours of down climbing to do to make it to the bottom. Thinking in my tent that night I knew I had done the right thing. Being happy about the decision but yet sad about leaving the mountain. Would this be my only shot at climbing Mount McKinley? I wrestled with this question the next day as I climbed down the mountain with two of my other teammates.
On the way down, I was able to really taken in and enjoy the views and mountain around me. We were about 5 hour or so in to the climb down when we reached the last home stretch called Heartbreak Hill. This was the part of the climb leading to the landing strip at base camp. It is about a one hour stretch of uphill climbing prior to base camp. It is very appropriately named. Be able to see base camp at the end of your climb while pushing your tired body up this hill, after hours of down climbing, is very hard. We were about to take a 10 minute break at the bottom of the hill when we saw a Hudson’s air service plane come in and land on the glacier. This was the plane coming for me. We tried to radio base camp asking them to hold the plane but they had a hard time hearing us on the radio. So we decided to skip our needed break and pick up the pace, pushing ourselves up the hill to try to catch the plane before it took off. We moved the fastest we had in the entire time we had been on the mountain. It was a very heart pounding and grueling pace, especially with a hurt knee. I pushed myself to the brink of exhaustion. We were about 2/3 of the way up the hill when we heard the plane starting to take off. At this, we just stopped and dropped our packs. Having packed light, we had not brought any tents or much food down, since we were expecting to catch this plane. I missed my ride by about 20 more minutes of hard climbing. It was a terrible feeling like your door to the outside world had been closed. We slowed down our pace and made it to base camp about 40 minutes later. Once we arrived, they informed us that the Hudson’s plane had seen us on heart break hill and told the base camp manager he was bringing another group out in two hours. I was very relieved and was able to fly out later that day.
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