June 17, 2005: 17,000 foot camp on Denali's West Butress.
A chorus of wristwatch alarms woke me from my spotty on-again/off-again (mostly off-again) sleep at 3 AM. I hadn't been sleeping well for the past week, partly due to the ever increasing altitude, but mostly due to the inescapable fact that cold lumpy snow - even if separated from you by a Thermarest pad - just isn't cozy. This moment started the day that I had been thinking, dreaming, fantasizing, worrying about for months: the day of my attempt on the summit of Denali, some 3000 feet still higher than our tentsite and the highest point in North America.
The three of us sharing the VE-25 tent sat up in our -40 degree down bags and, working in contemplative silence, started putting on our clothing for the ascent. On this climb I was with one old friend of many years and one new friend. John was from San Francisco and we had climbed Shasta together many times, while Nikos was a Greek that I had met for the first time only 12 days ago; Nikos was the guest of Z, who had finished his seven summits by summitting Everest on the same day as Nikos; Z had planned this Denali trip, hoping to get a second summit of Denali.
Today would be the culmination of all my mountaineering experience acquired in the past twenty years - a final exam during which my mind would return to the joyous times I've had frolicking in nature's playground juxtaposed with the failures and disappointments in that same venue. Summiting today, I hoped, would make everything right again somehow.
Flashback: Late May 1986, the Chinese Karakorum.
Summitting a 20,000 foot peak isn't something most Americans get to claim, and wasn't even on my radar screen a year previously. But here I was hitting this milestone in the Chinese Karakorum, right next to K2. OK, the peak was 6050 meters high so technically not 20,000 feet, but those are just numbers, right? I had summitted this nameless peak with other members of the support team for the 1986 American K2 Expedition. Our job was to arrive at base camp a month ahead of the "famous" climbers and stock advanced base camp at the base of K2's North Ridge. As there are no villages on this side of the peak and therefore no local porters, the expedition leader came up with the ingenious idea of packaging our unpaid toil as an "adventure travel opportunity of a lifetime." Hell we even PAID to do this, but because we were seeing an area of the newly-opened China that hadn't seen Westerners in ages it was worth every penny.
Peak 6050 towered above base camp,beckoning for the month we were on duty. Once the final loads had reached ABC, our team rewarded ourselves with a climb. As we had been living above 14,000 feet for a month the camp at 18,000 feet didn't seem all that high. The final steps on the 6050's Northwest Ridge didn't yield the view of the K2 North Ridge route that we had expected: a cloud - the only one that day - sat between us and K2. But the rest of the view!!! Fantastic! This climb got me hooked on international high-altitude adventures: Ladakh, the Mexican Volcanos, and Peru.
June 6 2005:
Our Denali expedition started in earnest on June 6 when the skis of Doug Geeting's 1971 Cessna 185 touched down at Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.
Lisa, the base camp manager, arrived with sleds for our gear - well, half out gear. Due to weight limitations we had to divide the team in half along with the gear. Nikos and I flew together while John and Z stayed behind to fly out when the Cessna returned to Talkeetna. Nikos and I spent the day preparing camp but it soon became clear that the weather wasn't going to let our team rejoin, so we packed our gear for a carry that night to camp 1. Because crevasse bridges are more solid at night when the snow re-freezes, most Denali climbers make there trips on the lower mountain at night. So near the Arctic Circle the term "night" is dubious as it never gets dark in June on Denali - we did not take flashlights on this climb.
We left at 1 AM, roped together in case of a crevasse fall, with me leading and pulling a sled while Nikos carried an extra heavy pack. When carrying sled, the sled trailing behind you is tied at the rear to the climbing rope to prevent its wandering or - more seriously - from crashing on top of you in case of a crevasse fall; but the last person on a rope therefore can not pull a sled and compensates with a heavier pack. We covered the 5 miles and 1000 foot elevation gain pretty quickly, buried our gear the requisite 3-foot-deep (to thwart the ever-hungry ravens), and returned to base camp for a well deserved sleep while we waited for John and Z to arrive.
Flashback: October 1989, Yosemite Valley."You know, I think that ledge you are on is as far as we are going to get today. I'm going to set a cam and you lower me down", my partner called to me, seven pitches up the 12-pitch Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock in Yosemite Valley. It had been difficult judging if we had been moving fast enough - we probably were doing well but the long approach to the climb's base coupled with the abbreviated daylight in early Autumn had cut into our schedule and darkness was approaching. We tied in on a butt-wide ledge and settled down for a very long, sleepless night where I would watch the moon arc overhead and see the headlights of a park service vehicle stopping at my car. The next day - tired, dehydrated, the water bottles long empty - I'd get back to my car to see a note: "Call your wife. She is worried".
June 7, 2005: Denali Base Camp.
John and Z arrived and we practiced crevasse rescue for the nth time and that night moved camp to the 8,000 camp. We spent an acclimitaztion day there, watching returning climbers who had been defeated by unending high winds at 17,000 feet.
June 9, 2005.
With the four of us tied to a single rope, we did a carry to the 11,000 foot camp. It was lightly snowing and visibility was low, but not too bad. Being the last on the rope, I didn't pull a sled but compensated by carrying a heavier pack. At 9300 feet, Z announced that he was going to abandon the climb. I was surprised - Z was a seven-summitter and had done this trip before but the shear amount of gear needed for Denali was just overwhelming on this trip. Fearing the loss of his experience I volunteered to pull his sled - arguing that he would get stronger over time - and we swapped rope positions. After an hour I was in agony - best described as "unceasing and unrelenting pain" - my muscles would unexpectedly fail and I would drop to my knees.
When we got to 11,000 feet we buried the cache of gear, but Z didn't bury his. That said it all - our team was down to three. When we returned to 8,000 feet we re-organized the logisitcs: We'd take two VE-25s to 14,000 feet, with just one needing to go to 17,000 feet. We would leave one stove, along with a Megamid, with Z. We'd take two MSR white gas stoves to 14,000 feet and then rely on the cartridge stoves up higher.
Flashback: June 1990, Mount Shasta."God can't even see me" I muttered to myself as I searched for the faint imprint of my footstep from the previous day. I was at 10,000 feet on Green Butte Ridge, attempting a solo ascent of Shasta - my first time on that mountain. I went to sleep the evening before in a bivy bag inside a trench I had dug and had woken up in total whiteout; visibility varied between 3 and 5 feet and there was no difference between the snow-covered ridge and the sky. I felt like I had died and woken up somewhere that wasn't Earth - just a uniformly white universe. After waiting for the visibilty to improve (which didn't) I packed up and followed my previous day's footstep - step by step - until many hours later I bumped into a tent belonging to some skiers I had met the day before.
June 10, 2005: Denali 8000 foot camp.
I led our rope team to 11000 feet, setting a even pace and making sure we stopped every 30 minutes for water and every 90 minutes for food. Even with the deliberately slow pace we beat yesterday's time by an hour. We spent the next day resting and gazing up Motorcycle Hill, which leads to the 14,000 foot camp. 11000 foot camp is in a narrow valley and doesn't get direct sun intil about 10:30 AM and as it was my job that day to melt snow for the team, that rest day didn't seem very restful, at least my toes didn't think so.
June 12, 2005
We left for 14,000 foot camp that day. As the route is steeper on Motorcycle Hill and when rounding Windy Corner, we buried our snowshoes and proceeded with crampons.
We also decided to leave the sleds down low too as the slope of Windy Corner. The snow quality was good and with each step my crampon points sank deep into the firmly packed snow and I knew that slipping or falling would be nearly impossible that day.
After a couple hours we rounded Windy Corner, which thankfully did not live up to its name, and before me I saw Denali’s West Rib leading up to its summit. Due to the topography of the valleys we had been traveling through, this was the first time I could see Denali’s summit; our goal was getting more and more tangible.
Finally, after crossing a couple crevasses we reached the 14,000 foot camp, a tent city populated by over a hundred climbers and about a dozen Park Service rangers, doctors and high-altitude medical researchers. I could hear climbers talking in several languages – Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese – Denali is on the must-do list for climbers of all nationalities.
On the return trip, with an empty pack and every step leading downhill, I was able to relax and take in the incredible scenery. Light cloud cover alternately hid and revealed corniced ridges and snow spangled rock faces. Immense glacier systems and ice-carved cirques lay before me. On my MP3 player I listened to a recording of a recent KVMR broadcast of my wife’s folk music show – Laurie is a KVMR DJ – and I felt like she was traveling with me.
Flashback: November 1991, Orizaba.
I was alone on the Jalapa glacier on Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America and the highest in Mexico. My partner had just turned back after realizing that his ever decreasing pace would not get him - or me - to the top that day, although it was still early morning. As he turned back I was met by three residents of Mexico City and I asked to join them. They agreed and in my best high-school Spanish I explained that we could either have two rope teams of two or one of 4. Their leader replied "Subimos sin cordas." and my mind quickly raced through the disaster scenarios. Two days previously I had read in a climbing log at Senor Reyes' house in Tlachichuca about a climber (roped) dropping into a crevasse near the crater rim, so I thought that roped travel would be prudent. But I really wanted to summit, so I went along, following the footsteps of their leader, with my rope in my pack in case he should drop through. After a short while he turned to me and said "OK It's your turn to lead". Great. I've got the only rope and it won't do much good with me at the bottom of a crevasse. But I dutifully took over and a couple hours later we hit the crater rim, and soon afterward was on the summit with three new friends.
June 14, 2005: 14,000 feet.
Today was a rest day, and I stroll over to the medical tent to get some advice on my blisters. For the rest of the day I ate, rested, and surveyed the next part of the route – a 30 degree slope that rises for 1200 vertical feet to a set of fixed lines, a series of ropes anchored into the ice that protect the 800 vertical feet of 45 degree ice.
June 15, 2005:
We decided on a plan where today we take one tent up to 17,000 feet, set it up and stock it with stove fuel, food, and our high-altitude clothes; then tomorrow we would do a light carry of just our sleeping bags and then get some sleep for a very early summit bid on Friday. Such plans are totally dependent on the weather which was forecasted to start turning bad late on Friday.
We set out for the fixed lines before sun rise, and reached them, 1200 vertical feet above our camp, as the sun came over the West Rib, warming our bodies and spirits. The group ahead of us, a guided commercial expedition, was preparing to turn back as a client had declare he couldn’t continue (a common occurrence on Denali) and so we clipped in to the fixed lines and proceeded.
At about noon we topped the fixed lines, and suddenly the entire character of the climb changed dramatically. Prior to this point we had all been traveling on a glacier with cliff walls rising above us, but now we stood at 16,000 feet on a narrow ridge that dropped off for thousands of feet on either side. Below me the Alaska range - peaks, ridges, cornices and glaciers – seemed to go on forever. “Now we are finally climbing”, I told myself, grateful for the new scenery.
For the next couple hours we followed the ridge, roped together for our mutual protection. If one of us were to fall off one side of the ridge, the others were prepared to jump off the other. Occasionally there were stakes hammered into the snow to clip our rope into in order to protect an exposed traverse.
After a couple hours we reached the Crow’s Nest, the 17,000 foot camp. Looking up to 18,000 foot Denali Pass which we must go through to reach the summit, we could see dozens of climbers descending from successful summit bids. We wondered if we should have just taken everything up with us today and not split the loads into two trips, for we wondered if we are going to lose the perfect weather window that these other climbers are enjoying. We set up our tent and turned back to 14,000 feet, resolved to move quickly in the next couple days and get the summit behind us.
Flashback: July 1996, Pisco Oeste, Peru."Phil, I think Andy has HAPE", one of my teammates whispered to me just as I settled in for the night at the high camp for Pisco Oeste in Peru. We were at 17,000 feet at had been planning on summitting the next day. But now the universe is changing our plans for us. I went to his tent and the signs were unmistakable - I didn't even have to put my ear to the chest of my best friend to hear the coffee-percolator bubbling from his lungs. I packed his gear up so that at first light we could stuff his sleeping bag in and leave.
That next morning we set out - with another teammate Joe carrying Andy's pack until we found some Peruvians building a hut. We paid one to carry Andy's pack while I accompanied them to the road where we caught the daily bus to Huaraz. A few days later Andy recovered and ended up climbing Alpamayo and leading the final pitch.
June 16, 2005: Denali 14,000 foot on Denali.
We left with light loads, and moved quickly, full of anticipation for the summit climb the next day.
Upon reaching the Crow’s Nest at 17,000 feet we boiled water for our freeze-dried dinners and went to bed early. We would be getting an early start the next day in order to be up and off the summit by the time the weather turn for the worse.
Flashback: July 1996, Huascaran.
"This has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever done". I was at 20,500 feet on Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru. Three feet ahead of me the route disappeared, to start again eight feet later - uphill. It seemed the entire side of this peak was cut through by a wide crevasse; the route crossed a very large toppled ice block which had recently given way creating a gap that had turned back many parties. Those who did summit had continued on by leaping the gap with two tools in hand and planting them on the far wall, followed by some very frantic scrambling to the more level ground above. Being the lightest of our team of three, I was the designated jumper. I looked over the edge; the block I was standing on was about 10 feet thick and stuck about 50 feet above the ice below; if I missed the far side I would swing back and slam into the wall.
All of a sudden, I was overcome with dread; the mountain environment felt alien and unforgiving - the whole undertaking felt foolish and pointless. With physical and psychological cold feet, I turned my back on the attempt. The feeling of defeat stuck with me for a long time, until Denali.
Back to June 17, 2005: Denali High Camp
Nikos, John and I were roped together and headed for 18,000 foot Denali Pass, following an exposed traverse called the Autobahn. For us, the traverse was totally risk-free. In order to reduce the number of accidents here the park service has placed stakes in the snow every 70 feet along the route. As we climbed by we clipped our rope through caribiners slung from these stakes. After a couple of hours we reached Denali Pass and were greeted by welcome sunshine. My breath vapor had frozen inside the balaclava pulled over my mouth, but now with the added warmth of the sun I pulled the mask down and breathed in the thin, crisp Alaskan air.
We followed a broad ridge for 4 hours, passing by landmarks I had only seen in photographs until at 19,600 feet we crossed a flat plain known as the Football Field and I stared up Pig Hill to the summit ridge at 20,000 feet. Plumes of spindrift were blowing toward us off the ridge – we could tell that the winds were significant – 15 to 25 miles per hour.
We climbed directly toward the summit ridge and 20 feet below it we traversed east for a few hundred yards in order to follow the ridge line without exposing ourselves to the wind. We topped out on the ridge and I was met by a totally wondrous sight – I stared down 8,000 feet to the glaciers below. The entirety of the Alaska Range lay before me, stretching expansively until they met the green forests to the south.
Flashback: July 1996. Pisco, the sequelAfter descending Huascaran, my climbing partners headed back to the States and I met some Spaniards for a re-do on Pisco. After breaking my metatarsal on the ascent - one of the Spaniards kicked off a rockslide in which my foot caught - I finally stood on top of a Peruvian peak. For the summit photo I held up a laminated photo of my wife and son. It would be the last photo of them taken in care-free times; after returning from Peru my son would be diagnosed with autism and I would abandon climbing in order to give him and my wife the support they needed.
Back to June 17, 2005: Denali Summit Ridge
I was standing on a cornice that looked like an ocean wave frozen in mid-break. I prudently stayed several feet from the edge both to avoid breaking through the cornice and also to lessen exposure to the wind. The three of us followed the undulating cornices slightly uphill until suddenly Nikos, ahead of me, dropped to his knees and pulled out a
video camera that he had been keeping warm in his jacket. He trained the lens at me and shouted “Phil, where are we?” I jubilantly replied “We are standing on the top of North America!” Then I stretched my arms to the sky and let out a scream that could be heard in Talkeetna. With that scream all the demons of climbing that had followed me over the years died. It was now year one, day one, on a new life in climbing.
We returned all the way to 14,000 that day, narrowly beating out a storm that came that night. A couple days later, in our haste to get to Talkeetna - and burgers - we snowshoed into the tail of that storm and were forced to dig a snowcave on Ski Hill. While digging I kept imagining digging into a crevasse while I detachedly thought "So. This is how I am going to die". But two days later I was back in the Cessna leaving the Kahiltna Glacier.
The pilot asked "Want one last look?" and banked the plane until the mountain faced us directly.
Most Americans know this mountain as “Mount McKinley”, but as I faced the peak I knew that to me it will always have its Athabascan name – Denali – The Great One.