The Trip of a Lifetime, Until I About Drowned
A Big Mountain Is No Place To Drown
For well over a hundred years of mountaineering, the sport’s history is notoriously symbolized by daredevil behavior, cutting-edge equipment, and large-scale accidents on the world’s most dangerous peaks. Back in 1995, mountaineering headlined the mainstream media amidst the growing list of extreme sports. The Mt. Everest disaster, glamorized by the boom of the Internet, novels, and magazine rack periodicals, abruptly ended the infancy era of extreme sports. As the popularity of extreme sports increased, gear-manufacturing companies began producing huge amounts of outdoor equipment. Competitive price wars ensued. As Joe Shmo could now own world class gear, the summit of North America’s tallest mountain became a mere checkmark on a list of expensive, death defying adventures. 1995 issued in a new era of haughty, hard rock athletes whose goals in life seamed only to fill their backpacks with oversized egos and every luxury item credit cards can buy. Half cocked on the latest super powered energy freak drinks, they buzz out of society and into the wilderness aspiring to become the next cover model for some Xtremely Bent magazine. Most sane climbers know that Mt. McKinley is a hazardous adventure that takes too much time and costs too much money to even consider.
Numerous risks are involved with climbing the mountain known to Athabascans as Denali or “The High One.” Denali is reputed for its unpredictably fierce storms and temperature variances. In just a twenty-four hour time period the temperature can swing over eighty-degrees. Even in the summer, temperatures regularly plummet to minus forty degrees, often causing body tissue death known as frostbite. Moreover, at high altitude oxygen deprivation and exhaustion can lead to altitude sickness. If altitude sickness is ignored, dangerous fluid collections in the lungs or brain can lead to coma and death. Life at high altitude is the most popular reason people fail to top out on Denali, but in May 2007, two couples perished by other popular miscalculations. Two climbers succumb to a 1000-meter fall and the other pair was swept away by an avalanche. Every year falls and avalanches mercilessly claim lives in the climbing community. My worries of dying on the Alaskan icon stem from being dragged down on rope by someone else’s slips and falls. Still, it seems to most people that if one can overcome the environmental dispositions of the continent’s highest mountain, then getting to the top should not be that difficult, but it is.
As a fourteen-year Southeast Alaska resident, climbing Denali was more like a local sourdough bar scheme rather than an actual plan. I never really considered climbing Denali until late 2006 when a nonprofit group called Climbing For Christ intrigued me with a greater purpose for being on the mountain. CFC sought to demonstrate brotherly kindness, sovereign mountain stewardship, and a willingness to share their spiritual experience, strength, and hope with an international climbing community. Other benefits included swaying away from the outrageous fees of big named guiding outfits and extravagant shopping sprees. The faith-based organization found ways to save money and shave the cost of each climber down to one thousand dollars for a twenty-one day stay in Alaska’s most famous national park. Churches from Anchorage and Telkeetna contributed hospitalities and vehicles for transportation, which significantly reduced the cost of the trip. The team pitched in equally to fund necessary group gear.
Our objective was Denali’s most popular route to the summit, the West Buttress via the Kahiltna Glacier. All parties attempting “the Butt” fly from Telkeetna into Kalhiltna base camp at 7200 feet. The rapid ascent from sea level, where I live in Juneau,Alaska, to base camp, turned out to be the downfall of my climb.
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