For some non apparent reason my sub-conscious restlessness drives me to challenge myself physically and emotionally and usually in faraway places. This time it was the acclaimed and magnificent mountain Denali (Mount McKinley) 20,320′ in Alaska. At 63 degrees north bordering the Arctic Circle, it is light for almost 24 hours a day this time of the year. It was cold, weather extreme, excessively glaciated and unpredictable.
My climb began on the 8th May 2007 as 7 of us plus guides boarded 3 Beaver prop planes equipped with snow landing pads to land us with a huge amount of gear and food onto the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet. 30 minutes after take-off from Talkeetna airfield as we approached the mountains word came via Base-camp that weather had closed in so we did a 180o and returned to Talkeetna. Four hours later we re-boarded and this time succeeded to land on the glacier around 6:30 pm. By 10 pm we had established Base Camp, eaten and climbed into our sleeping bags.
May 9 we practiced crevasse rescue techniques and discussed strategy.
May 10 we set off for Camp 1 descending from the Southeast Fork to the main Kahiltna Glacier each one of us pulling a sled weighing about 90 lbs (40 kg) of gear, food, fuel, etc. and also carrying a backpack of 50- 60 lbs mostly of personal and technical gear and clothes. The initial descent and the long ascent were gradual but grueling. Six long hours later exhausted, we arrived at our Camp 1 position. The lower Kahiltna Glacier is laced with crevasses so travelling on it requires zigzagging around large open cracks and tediously stepping over snow-bridged ones. They are everywhere and your travel is precipitous.
May 11 we hauled up to 10,300′, cached food and gear in a dug-out snow hole, and then returned to Camp 1 to sleep. The idea is to separate the weight into 2 halves when moving up on steeper slopes and also to acclimatize by climbing high but sleeping low. This was a 9 hour day and at least 5,000 burned calories later.
May 12 & 13 it snowed 3 feet. We were buried in our tents and had to regularly dig out.
May 14 one member of our expedition Tim from Florida decided to throw in the towel and return to Base-camp and fly-out. Together with Jason our guide and 2 other climbers from another expedition they started out roped up trudging through the deep snow. Later we learned that Jason fell 20′ into a crevasse almost yanking 2 other climbers with him. He got out unharmed. We on our part, trudged in the opposite direction up the glacier to 9,800′ and made camp. That night it snowed another 2 feet.
May 15. Late in the day when the snow stopped, we moved up to 11,200′- Camp 2. Immediately after arriving, we then dropped down to our cache at 10,300′ and dragged it up to our new Camp 2. By midnight we were ready for our bags.
May 16 we moved up some steep and long slopes this time carrying only heavy backpacks ( probably 65- 70 lbs ) and cached at 13,800′. Once again we descended to Camp 2 at 11,200′ to sleep. Sleds and snowshoes now would stay at Camp 2 and crampons would be the order of the day above this point. This day was 8 1/2 long tough hours.
May 17 we moved up to Camp 3 at 14,250′ with the rest of our loads. Camp 3 is advanced base camp in so much that you are within striking distance of Camp 4 and the summit and the weather is still moderate. 14,000 feet is considered a sort of threshold where one must manage carefully acclimatization to prevent AMS – acute mountain sickness. At 14,000′ oxygen pressure decreases to 58% from sea level. Ultraviolet sunlight increases 5% per 1000 foot gain. Since oxygen pressure decreases 3% per 1000′ gain the summit will have only 40% of the oxygen pressure we get down below. Also weather becomes considerably more severe above Camp 3 on the ridge and higher. It will be preferable to spent as little time as possible at camp 4. On our way up the mountain we encountered several international parties who had all been defeated by the severe temperatures at camp 4. They told me that the high daytime temperature was 37o below.
May 18 we retrieved our cache at 13,800 and rested.
May 19 we moved up to 16,430′ into a col and cached. We had to climb a steep headwall using ascenders so travel was slow and difficult. It took us 8 hours to get back to Camp 3.
May 20 to 24 we were held hostage by the weather at Camp 4. Our weather at Camp 3 was up and down but higher on the ridge it was nasty. It started to seem like our summit bid was rapidly dissolving. Food was getting low and our flight dates out were fast arriving. It was demoralizing to think that all our excruciating work of dragging such heavy loads higher and higher up the mountain was in vain. Would we be denied our chance to try for the summit. We were reduced to lying in our tents and waiting.
May 25. The sun shines. We break camp and start climbing up. The slope is moderate but consistent. We stop before the headwall 1400 feet up to take a break and prepare our gear. Above the headwall at the col we collect our cache and start climbing the narrow ridge. It is circuitous and steep. No place for errors. Finally after many hours we arrive at 17,200′ Camp 4. The winds are sharp & cold. Using an ice saw we cut out blocks from the snow packed ground and build 3 foot high walls around a radius big enough to fit 3 three man tents. The day is 11 1/2 hours long before we start dinner. We are totally exhausted.
May 26. Summit day. Again it is sunny. Strange, two good days in a row. This is our chance. Eric Larsen and I start off roped together. We move up diagonally across a steep slope known as the Autobahn for about 1000 feet of altitude or so to Denali Pass. Above this pass we start climbing a steep ridge. We are far above all other mountains in the range. Even Mount Foraker is way below us now. The views are spectacular. All of North America is below us. We push on one foot in front of the next. Jeff Garvin switches teams to join us since we are moving quicker. We continue up & up until we arrive at what is called the Football Field. It is a huge expanse of relatively flat area separating the summit ridge from the Archdeacon’s Tower. We drop our packs and push up a moderate headwall. We are finally on the summit ridge. The worst is over. The summit is almost in view. 45 minutes later, after crossing up and down a knife-edged ledge often not wider than a foot with cliffs 600′ on your left & thousands of feet down on the right we set foot on a irregularly shaped spoon sized summit. It is 6:15 pm. We have beaten the odds. It is one of those rare moments in life, however brief, that you feel a pride of numbness. You forget the anticipation, the physical and emotional sweat, it is not even glory, it is just a little tear in the eye. No one would even notice. We did it.
Few minutes later reality sets in. The weather is closing in. Their is a hint of wind and clouds are thickening all around us. We start back along that cutting-edge ridge to what is called Pig Hill and down to the Football Field and our packs. The wind is now more than 25 miles per hour, the temperature has dropped and the visibility has considerably worsened. We wait for the others. After 15 minutes or so we are freezing and begin moving on. Conditions now are much different than before. Winds are getting stronger and stronger, the snow deeper and visibility difficult. It becomes hard to spot the wands. The wind knocks us down at times. It is hard to get a footing in the loose deep snow on this steep slope.
Finally we arrive at Denali Pass. There is only 1000 feet more of altitude. That exhausting 1000 feet down the steep Autobahn is intense and we fall many times. Finally, we make it down to camp. It has been 13 hours for us and it will be 2 more hours before the rest of the group shows up. Mark Walsh from England arrives almost delirious with exhaustion. He had pushed well outside of his energy threshold to just get to the summit ridge and descend. Nick Cole also from England had summitted shortly after us with Jason and on their descent came across Mark. We were all given our summit chance. Some made it- some didn’t. We gave it our all
May 27. Winds are raging all night. Half a foot of snow has fallen and visibility is poor. We stay in our tents all day resting and recovering.
May 28 we break Camp 4. The wind has decreased but visibility is poor. We slowly descend the steep, narrow ridge to the headwall. Descending the headwall on the fixed lines is always a feat. At Camp 3 we eat and continue down to Camp 2.
May 29. We want out. It has already been 23 days on the mountain. We are dreaming of showers, real food , families and comforts. Saddled again this time with lighter sleds and backpacks, we wearily descend onto the Kahiltna glacier and finally at 6pm to Basecamp. To our huge disappointment, snow starts falling and the Beavers are grounded. Next morning our worst fears are realized. Visibility is horrible and it is snowing hard. Will we be socked in here for days? Almost everyone has already missed their flights home anyways. We wait.
Around noon the sky starts clearing and we hear that the planes are coming for us. You cannot imagine what a sigh of relief that overcomes you. Before I know it I am in a 3 seater plane banking around the awesome mountains of Foraker and Hunter with massive tongues of glaciated ice flowing like rivers below me. I know this moment is so special. This whole experience will be over in seconds and I will have only my memoires to savour. I know that each climb I do takes me out of my Comfort Zone in many ways. The lessons you learn are the great lessons of life. I know I have been lucky on this climb. I also know, even with my success, I have been humbled..