Whew. One last installment of Denali and then back to regular mountain shenanigans. If you’re just tuned in, this is installment three of three from my trip on The High One this spring. If you and your internet connection survived all the photos from the last two posts and still returned, thanks. I left off on the end of the day we moved to 17,200ft, the high camp.
True to form, we got up late. Our orienting ranger back in Talkeetna had advised us to travel the Autobahn only once the sun had climbed up over the shoulder—we definitely waited until at least 9am before crawling out. Judging by the nickel size flakes that covered the inner tent, it had been the coldest night of the trip. So it was a good call.
We’d been at high camp for about fourteen hours, and the altitude was already starting to mess with my stomach. Somewhere above 14,000ft, the body stops digesting proteins and fats. It will continue to acclimate, but the strain of maintaining itself only saps the strength gained below. Many people will try to make summit bids and high climbs from 14,200ft camp to avoid camping on the upper mountain. Given our levels of stamina, that wasn’t an option. So the Poptarts, which had usually been a solid breakfast, tasted like the cardboard they actually are. Oatmeal wasn’t that great either.
Weather reports stated that the storm would be arriving Sunday, the next day. That meant that our window was today, and today only. No getting stuck in storms at 17,200ft camp. Strangest of all, it dawned on me that if we got up to our destination, we wouldn’t be able to go up any higher. Two weeks of plodding and resting with no end to the hill made it feel a bit mythic.
Sometimes it’s better to just keep my head down in suffer. Though neither of us said it until later, the first hour out of camp was rough. Grant was out of breath. Both of us felt like garbage from the long day before and our intestinal rebellion. At our ends of the line, we each fought a little internal battle to keep going even though it didn’t seem like we’d make it.
Worst of all, we’d witnessed a rescue by radio the day previous. Near the Washburn Thumb, Grant’s radio turned on. Because it was set to the evening weather channel, which is also the accident reporting channel, we heard the status reports on a couple of climbers who had HAPE on the summit ridge. They were short roped down. But all along the tracks, alongside the fixed protection, were the reminders—dark red splotches of foamy, dried blood that they’d coughed up on their way down. Each one was another opportunity to check my own mental state, think through our quick ascent from 14,200ft camp, and worry about the altitude drugs in my pack.
Stuffed alongside the nifedipene (emergency treatment for HAPE) was the heaviest summit pack I’ve ever carried. All my clothes. An emergency bivy and sleeping bag. Extra food. Water. A stove. Spending the night out above 19,000ft is somewhere near the top of the list of things I don’t need to do. And of course, my skis. During our short time on the upper mountain, ours were the only skis I saw. Implicit in strapping them on was the promise that, come the summit, I’d lock down the bindings and take the easy way back to camp.
Much of the plodding is the same on the summit day as anywhere else on the hill. Both of us had nagging headaches; not bad ones, but enough that we took ibuprofen that further unsettled our stomachs to calm our heads. At Denali Pass, 18,500ft, we stopped for a break.
But it’s the stop about half an hour later that interests me more.
Moving along at our slow but steady pace, I realized that the blood on the trail was getting to me. The altitude was. I wasn’t sure if I was ok. So we stopped, I drank some water, and rebuilt my mental state over a few minutes—we were moving fine. Some headache, but not the splitting ones that could signal HACE. We had the gear. We had our skis if we needed to move fast downhill.
At that, it was back on for me. Before too much time went by, we were just below Archdeacon’s Tower. Then beside it surveying the Football Field, Pig Hill, and at last, the summit. These final sections took us three hours, mostly because every other group on the route that day was stacked in front of us.
Pig Hill is steep. The summit ridge above it is narrow enough to warrant running protection. When it comes into view, the summit itself seems to deny that universal rule of Denali: no matter where you are, it always gets higher. No more up.
And all of a sudden, with a hug and some words, I got to congratulate Grant on making it. Halfway to a safe ending, but still on the top of North America.
Finally able to take a picture with both Hunter and Foraker in the frame.
All the planning and money and hard work narrowing down to a last few steps near the USGS pin. I didn’t cry, but I can see why some people do. Two years of the idea lurking in the back of head, a spring of prep, and here we were. All the folks that had helped us along the way, and we’d been able to make it happen.
The non-reality began again, though this time it was reversed. Not that we were going to Denali, not that we were there. But that we’d made it to the top. Taking pictures. Marveling at the view. Getting our skis on. Pole whacking the edge of the south side. A pole tap, then traversing out along the summit ridge to drop back into the West Buttress route. Given how we’d been moving, we opted to skip skiing the Orient in the name of safety.
The altitude proved to hit hardest while skiing. Even though we were descending, skiing the ice/sastrugi/Styrofoam/wind buff stuff that was the snow around the route up wasn’t easy. Add the weight of our packs, and it was solidly anaerobic work—which left us both with thumping headaches.
Dodging crevasses and keeping our skis mostly on the ground, we rolled into Denali pass just as a guided group was getting set to cross the Autobahn. Earlier in the day, Grant had mentioned that he wasn’t jazzed on skiing across it. With a several thousand foot fall as the cost of messing up, he had a point. Camp would have been an easy twenty minutes away if we skied, so I asked him a few times if he was sure. Given his headache and fatigue, it made sense to walk, so we roped up and cramponed most of the way. Just above camp, I skied the last bit.
I don’t think I spent more than ten minutes in camp before I was in my bag, ready to sleep. Grant graciously made some Ramen, which made my stomach feel a bit better. Next thing I knew, it was morning.
While we got ourselves functioning, Grant coughed outside the tent, then stuck his head in. “That one had blood in it. Let’s get out of here.” In easily our fastest pack up of the trip, we had everything pulled down and stowed in about thirty minutes. In hindsight, it was probably from his nose, but the blood pushed us out of camp just in time to miss the guided groups leading the parade of folks up the ridge above the fixed lines. I was tired, and clicking into my skis for the flat light slop below the lines was really welcome. Grant hit a death cookie on his descent, but aside from that we pulled into 14,200ft camp exhausted, tired, and generally beat. The Swedes were still there, and they helped us put ourselves together as it started to snow.
For about the next twenty hours, things were really slow. Grant cooked at one point, and I remember eating rehydrated potatoes O’brien in the afternoon. The Army boys came through camp on their way down, though they pressed on towards Kahiltna Base. I fell asleep at 8pm saying I’d wake up and make dinner. At midnight, I woke up, but then fell asleep. At 10am, I finally woke up. A few inches of snow had fallen. It was a nice day. So I made pancakes for breakfast.
Several people asked us when we were headed for the summit. Upon realizing that we’d been there, they asked, “Why are you still here, and digging a snow cave?” To which we had no good reply, but boy was it fun. While we were busy on the upper mountain, one of the Swedes had tunneled from the cook area to our vestibule pit. I enlarged a snow cave that we could stand up in from the tunnel while Grant built an arch.
The elder Swede also dug out blocks for their wall, with the end result being a phallus-shaped trench pointed directly at our tent.
Pancakes were the order of the next morning. I gave a few away, thinking of all the food we’d need to get rid of with our descent looming. That morning, we’d made the call to head on down. We had food and fuel for at least another two weeks, but I think the general interest in doing more was gone. Looking back, I’d have loved to ski the Thunderbird or Orient, but it wasn’t the trip.
Sometimes, the strange things are the funniest. Grant’s Nook would display images of famous authors when it turned off. I walked into the tent to find him snoring, the Brontes not six inches from his face.
So I piled our supplies, we grabbed five days of food, and I wandered around camp giving everything else away. The half bottle of Jack Daniels was thrown in to get rid of the last half of the sled. We said our goodbyes to the Swedes, and pulled out of camp about 4:30pm.
The sleds were an instant problem. Loaded down with gear, they proved unwieldy and frustrating on the downhill. Sled brakes didn’t seem to help much, especially on the sidehills. I was skiing with mine on the hill beneath me, steering it by means of some sort of reins. I tried riding it and steering with my skis as an ersatz snowmachine. Blue ice around Squirrel Hill was terrifying. Grant was pissed at his, which reflected the awful situation: all that excellent ski terrain, powder even, and we were stuck with these stupid sea anchors to make it a bunch of work.
At 11,000ft, we pulled our cache, and descended into a full on whiteout. Nearly a foot of fresh snow covered the trail, so I was skiing straight downhill, linking wand to wand. Otherwise, there was no contrast or visibility.
Once or twice a tent appeared and then we ghosted off into the fog. By 8000ft, it was mush—heavy slop that would grab my sled and flip it. Cracks had also opened up with the heat. Where things had been solid earlier we found ourselves momentarily glimpsing the black depths of the glacier under our skis.
7,800ft camp was deserted. Several lonely tents testified to the socked in weather; not many groups had been able to get in. We ate some Cheezits, emptied our CMC for the last time, and took off across the Kahiltna while it got darker.
It felt like a bit of a warp. More cracks, fog, wind biting down the non-frozen surface, and skinning just as fast as the promise of being done would allow. I was living in the little bubble of my hood—just keep pushing along. Our late travel was a good thing, as the surface outside the packed path was still mush—a ski pole basket would easily slide in up to the grip. Other groups would later tell us that they all punched through in various places, but our skis kept us joyfully on the top. Eventually, we put both sleds on the rope behind me, because the gentle slope of the glacier caused Grant’s to hit him from behind.
That day alone, we’d dropped almost 7,000 ft. Almost 12,000ft lower than the summit from five days before. Once reaching Heartbreak Hill, the last mile uphill into camp, we felt like the gods of acclimatization. Practically ran up that hill. The oodles of oxygen in the dense air was like swimming. In honor of the Cheezits we’d scarfed at 7800ft, we renamed it Heartburn Hill.
One am saw us pull into base camp, set up the tent next to Kurt and Craig, and once again, fall asleep.
There was talk of getting up early to be first in line at the Base Camp manager’s tent come morning. We managed to oversleep, which wasn’t an issue, given that we spent most of the day listening to stories about how everyone had been stuck in camp for the last four days. The Army boys, who had arrived early Monday morning, were still there in the Wednesday half-sun. Not happy about it either. Apparently, eleven planes had been able to get in the day before, but that still hadn’t cleared up the backlog of climbers needing their lift back to hamburgers and springtime. I went down around 10am and let the manager know we were back—which meant we were twenty-something deep on the list for TAT.
They call it the Kahiltna Hang. It’s a tenuous balance of nearly-dozing in the tent, most of the gear packed, and the rest ready to go in a few minutes in case you hear an airplane. Those climbers who had been there for days had been swapping reading material, as they had all finished their books. It’s strange being so close to being off the mountain and having it totally out of your hands. Sometime around 3pm a frenzy of activity in camp caused us to pack our gear and wait down below.
Each party sits there, staring at the edge of the arm that terminates over by Foraker, hoping that the plane from their air taxi company (of which there are three: Talkeetna Air Taxi, K2 Aviation, and Don Sheldon Air Service) is the one that’s going to swing into sight.
To make things worse, all of the air taxis also run flightseeing trips that will land on the glacier. To see a turbo Otter bounce up the runway with all the potential of getting us out of there only to disgorge a pile of people in running shoes with cameras is a bit discouraging. I can only imagine that the sunburned, crusty folks sitting there with their skis and stupid piles of gear look like aliens to the glacier-landing tourists.
To pass time, we chatted with the Army boys. Eventually, I started did some batting practice with my avie shovel and snowballs.
As the clouds came in, so did our plane. The group previous hustled off, we loaded up, and just cleared the snow as the fog reclaimed the runway for the evening.
One more plane was en route from Talkeetna, and had to turn around. That’s how close it was. We’d lucked out again.
As the mountains passed, getting smaller this time, we realized how green it had become. Rivers that had been ice were now the massive braided versions for which Alaska is famous.
Once landed, we were that much more ridiculous in our ski boots—the trees had green leaves.
It took us until about ten to get to eating, but I think that might be the best calzone I’ve ever inhaled. For about a week, I’d been dreaming of salad. That delivered too.
The next day, we got breakfast at the Roadhouse, and a ride to Anchorage with my buddy Landis. Grant changed his ticket and flew south, while I rode out the next ten days in Homer and Seward with family.
As I type this out, it’s almost two months to the day since Grant and I stood on the summit. Given how much I think of and relate back to those sixteen days, it was certainly a life changing experience. For further evidence, I’d have you ask the friends who’ve had to endure repeated, tangential trips back to the glacier in otherwise normal conversations.
The sunburns healed. Our godlike acclimation disappeared. Our gear still stunk, but we didn’t have to live in it. I found myself profoundly grateful for everything that had happened on the hill—our setbacks, our decisions, the fact that we’d proved to ourselves that two skiers could make it happen, the people we’d met in the process. Grateful to have a buddy like Grant who was there with me through all of it, and stoked that we’d followed through on his idea from those years before. So happy to go home to all the people that had helped us out, worried, prayed, and sat there thinking of us while we did our thing.
To me, freedom comes with being seeing personal horizons expand. Mountaineering presents an arena to challenge what I think I can do in measured, reasonably safe ways that still hold real, unadulterated risk. There’s the notion that I’m capable of a certain amount; to see that there’s more is liberating and gratifying. I take no truck with anybody who uses antagonistic language to describe their outside pursuits. The mountains aren’t actively working against those who climb them; there’s no conquering or winning against the mountain involved. Instead, I see it as a way to reframe who I am and what I’m capable of—my fears, my limits, what I can look forward to. I conquered my own estimations of myself on Denali. The mountains prove a potent and spectacular vehicle for imagination, easily the best I’ve ever found. What better way to know your own mettle than to see it frozen, sunburned, tired, losing weight, and still smiling?