Guest on the blog today: my wife, Rebecca.
I hit the summit of Denali, aka Mt. McKinley (though all climbers and most of the rest of the world outside the borders of the USA call it Denali) on June 12th, 2007. It was warmer up there than I expected; one of the warmest summit days on record actually: 0 °F (-20 C). In fact, I'd experienced much colder already on lower parts of the mountains. This was my second attempt: in 2003, I had attempted to climb Denali and failed. Thoughts of how I could have made it, how I should have made it, how I would have to try again haunted me from the time I returned to Seattle in June 2003 until the time I made my next attempt in May 2007. It's a terrible thing to have an enormous mountain lurking over your shoulder, so when the chance came to make another attempt, I took it.
Full disclosure: both times I climbed with a climbing school and guide service called American Alpine Institute (AAI). The guides lead the rope teams on the mountain and handle the logistics (reserving the airplane, buying the food, etc.). Everyone carries their gear and a portion of the group's gear and everyone participates in digging out the campsites. This is not a trip for people who are new to mountaineering and AAI screen applicants very carefully. The upsides are you don't have to do any planning. The downsides are you have very little control over what happens; you don't even get to pick your teammates. My brother went with me on the 2007 trip, but the other nine people (that includes the three guides) were strangers. For our team, this worked out okay, but that's not always the case.
So what was Denali like?
Denali is big. It rises right up from sea level, giving it more vertical relief than Everest. It tops out at 20,320 feet (6158 m). Most people who climb it plan to spend three weeks; some go for longer. Climbers see the peak from the river that runs next to Talkeetna (the tiny, no-stoplight town the skiplanes fly out of), and from Base Camp. It's too big to be seen any closer than that. After we left Base Camp, the next time I saw the summit was the day I touched it, and even then I didn't see it until the last half hour or so, when we hit the steep and narrow ridge that leads into it. It is odd. I can recognize places on the mountain. Show me a picture of the Polo Field, a wide flat area at around 12,000 feet (3636 m), I will not only recognize it but I will tell you about how, on the day we crossed it while moving our camp to 14,200' (4303 m), it was so windy that the snow had blown away, leaving a sheet of blue glacier ice, and there were chunks of ice blowing across it, and the bite valve on my Camelbak broke (thank goodness I brought water bottles as a back up) and water sprayed down my jacket and flash froze, covering my front in verglas. But show me a picture of the mountain itself, in all its icy glory, and I might just ask you "What peak is that? It looks familiar..."
Denali is long. There are three main routes up Denali: the West Buttress, the West Rib, and the Cassin Ridge. The West Buttress is the least technical and therefore the most popular. The West Rib is a mountaineering classic. People who make it up via the Cassin are people who should be worshipped as gods. I went up the West Buttress. There are five camps along that route: Base Camp at 7200' (2182 m), Camp 1 (aka 78 camp) at 7800' (2364 m), Camp 2 (aka 11 camp) at 11200' (3394 m), Camp 3 (aka 14 camp) at 14200', and High Camp (aka 17 camp) at 17200' (5212 m). The Cassin Ridge route diverges from the other two at Base Camp. The West Rib route leaves the West Buttress route at 78 camp, where the West Rib climbers enter the Valley of Death. Climbers at not given to exaggeration or metaphorical language; the Valley of Death won its name for its crevasses, rockfalls, and avalanche hazards.
The West Rib crosses paths with the West Buttress again at 14 camp. 14 camp itself is in a basin and is one of the few places you don't need to worry about crevasses. At the far edge there is a steep drop-off nicknamed the Edge of the World. From the Edge of the World, you can look down into the Valley of Death. All routes converge at High Camp. You can also camp at any hospitable (and that's a relative term for those caught in foul weather) site between camps, but these sites are the most optimal way of breaking up the trip. The Park Service also maintains a couple emergency bivouacs at 16200' (4909 m) and an emergency cache at High Camp, but I'll get to that later.
Denali is hard. Not only do you have to deal with the effects of altitude, you have to be your own Sherpa and sled dog. Three weeks of food and fuel in addition to tents and sleeping bags and shovels and stoves and cooking gear and all sorts of warm layers adds up in terms of weight. I was on a team of eleven people, including myself, and at the beginning of the trip we each had over 100 pounds (more than 50 kg) of stuff each. These loads were divided up evenly with no regard to the size or gender of the people carrying them. Women in the audience take note: the fail rate for women is no worse than the fail rate for men (though we do make up a much smaller fraction of the climbers). Of course, no human can or should carry 50+ kilos on their back all at once. That's why we dumped parts of our loads in sleds and dragged them behind us. But, on terrain steeper than the very, very gentle rise from Base Camp to 78 camp, even splitting that much weight between a backpack and a sled is unwieldy. After we made one solid push to 78 camp we started our progression of double carries: move part of a load up the mountain, bury it, flag it (the technical term for burying and flagging the site is caching, and since traditionally a man can be killed for messing with someone else's cache and climbers are an honorable bunch to start with, we weren't worried about thieves), sleep, move camp, sleep, retrieve the cache, sleep, make a new cache further up the mountain, and so on. I basically climbed the whole mountain between 78 camp and 17 camp twice. Also, the mountain gets progressively steeper and icier as you go up. Up to 11 camp, we wore snowshoes. At 11 camp. we traded snowshoes for crampons. At 14 camp we ditched our sleds and carried everything on our backs up a steep face that was protected by fixed lines the Park Service maintains. This fixed lines defeated me in 2004. They almost defeated me in 2007. I hate them.
Denali is temperamental. If everything goes smoothly, you'll be up and off the mountain in two weeks, but everyone carries at least three weeks' worth of food and fuel because at some point you'll be forced to take an unscheduled rest day or two or three or four. Bad, unpredictable weather is part of what keeps the success rate on Denali down to 50%. There were a couple days when it started out with a bright blue sky and then by afternoon we were caught out in a storm. And the storms last days. You shouldn't even try to summit on a day that's less than perfect so every climbing team on that mountain is scrambling to get in a position where when the good day comes they can make their summit bids, but the thing is there're maybe four or five good summit days in a climbing season that's two months long. For my team, the first forced rest days happened before we were even on the mountain. Foul weather over Base Camp meant the planes couldn't go in. The next set of forced rest days didn't hit until we were at 14, where we pulled in in the midst of a storm (remember what I said earlier about a place called the Polo Field? That was the beginning of the storm). To reach 14 camp, we had to come around a big rocky arete called Windy Corner. When Windy Corner is living up to its name, no one wants to be there. By the time we realized how bad it was going to be, it was too late to turn around. I almost lost my balance in the wind. A couple other people, a man about my size and a woman smaller than me, actually got picked up off their feet. That storm cleared out in a day, but high winds up high pinned us in 14 camp and sent people at High Camp fleeing back down to 14...if they dared. It's not healthy to linger long at 17200'. It's even less healthy to dare an exposed ridge in gale force winds. And when we went to set a cache at 16,200 feet (top of the fixed lines), the weather did another 180 on us. That was even worse than Windy Corner in some ways because not only was it too steep to safely adjust layers, the fixed lines are slow. You can't pass people and the nature of moving on fixed lines is very stop and go. I was under-layered and couldn't move fast enough to warm myself.
Denali is covered in ice. For three weeks, the scenery was white snow, occasionally blue ice, and rocks. It is desolate and it is beautiful and it is deadly. Everything you need to survive must be carried in. There's no improvising; there is nothing to improvise with. There is no running water. We drank snow. There are no campfires to be had up there; no one's going to waste their strength packing in wood. This means that you are your own heat source. A glacier is inherently unstable. Anything taller than you is liable to come down on top of you n the form of an avalanche, icefall, or rockfall. As a result, there is no safe shelter from sun and wind save what you can construct for yourself (if a rock falls on you, that's tragic, if your tent or snow cave falls on you, that's stupid). Anything below you is liable to fall out from underneath you. The crevasses themselves range in size from hardly more than a sidewalk crack to gaping abysses that can swallow buildings. Sometimes, you can see a bottom. Sometimes, you can't. Sometimes, you can step over them. Sometimes, you can jump. And other times, you're stuck with either finding a stable snowbridge or making and end-run. There are no plants and the only animals I saw, other than fellow climbers, were ravens. The glacier is not for humans. That's why we go there.
Denali is north. Below the Arctic Circle but above the 60th parallel, the sun is not up at midnight but Denali does get what the Russians call "White Nights". That far north, twilight lingers for hours, and at that time of year, the dusk ends right when dawn begins. For three weeks, I was without night. I did not see a single star. I did not see the moon. I did not see the famous Aurora Borealis (though I have seen it in my home state of Washington, but that is another story). All I saw was various shades of blue sky, clouds, and twilight. When I refer to on Denali, I'm talking about that twilight period, when the sun wasn't on us and it got cold. Some people have trouble sleeping as a result. I was sufficiently tired that I never did.
Denali is crowded. This is not a solitary wilderness experience. At any given camp, there are dozens of people from all over the world with the same goal. Some of them even want to be your friend. 14 camp, where two routes converge and people just get stuck waiting out the weather, is a veritable tent city. Looking at it from above, it even looks like it has streets and squares. 17 camp, where the three principle routes all meet, is also fairly busy but, since no one stays at 17 longer than they have to, it's not as big and sociable as 14. This crowding also happens on the routes, especially on any technical-ish bit where it's either impossible or extremely unwise to pass a slower party. In fact, I witnessed and even felt feelings akin to what people usually experience in traffic jams. I call it route rage. It's a bit disconcerting to hear climbers shouting curses at each other. And, when we hit the summit plateau, there were already around 30 people already there.
Denali ends with a death march. Once you summit, or your supply clock runs out, you descend. All the way from High Camp to Base Camp in a single go. The morning after summit day, we packed up camp, picked up the cache at 16,200', went down to 14 camp where we dug up our sleds and some other stuff left behind, and sat for a few hours, waiting for day to pass so we'd hit the lower section of glacier at "night". Then we started on down.
We went down forever. Descending is brutal on the legs. Descending with a sled is brutal on the soul. We picked up our trash and snowshoes cached at 11 camp. At 78 camp we took another break. Sometimes, I'm not sure I dreamed this part or not, but my brother was there and he remembers it too. It was 3 am and just barely light enough for me to read the packages on my snacks. A light snow was falling. All of us had blisters. All of us removed our boots and socks to tend our blisters out there, on the snow. It didn't feel cold to us. And then came the worst bit: the last stretch was a veritable minefield of rotten snowbridges and deep crevasses. Feet punched through. Sleds fell in. I'm not sure what it would have been like to cross that mess during the full heat of the day - when we went, it was supposed to be cold and frozen. I was so tired I lost all sense of direction - I was just walking. And walking. And walking....
Coming into Base Camp, we had to go up a short distance. This is called Heartbreak Hill. It deserves that name. Fortunately, we did not have to go as far up Heartbreak Hill as we might have; a crevasse opened up near the top of the runway and they moved the whole thing downhill about a hundred feet. When every step hurts, that hundred feet means a lot. Base Camp itself was crowded. People had been collecting there, caught by bad weather. We'd honestly been mentally preparing ourselves to be stuck as well, but as the dawn twilight gave way to morning the snow clouds burned away and the planes started to fly. We got in at 7:30 am and had to wait around for about an hour and a half before the air taxis services opened for business and we could radio for a ride. And then we had to get in line. Around noon, our plane came. When I got off that plane, I could hardly walk.