Climb Denali - May 18 - July 8 (Summitted on July 4th)

Everyone needs a range with his or her goals. You need to be able to make certain that most of your goals are somewhat attainable to give oneself momentum and act as a reward for progress.  But you also need one or two that will take a serious physical or mental (well both actually) effort.  One of the ways to feel alive is to push yourself to new limits or immerse yourself in a new experience/culture.  All of these claims are just my opinions…but living the same experience day after day is just existing, not really living.

One of my more serious challenges was my attempt to climb Denali (Mount McKinley). I have always had a love for climbing but until this year I had stuck with easier climbs like Rainer and Hood and even Kilimanjaro in ’07. When I think back Denali was really what started this whole idea off. I thought what should I buy myself for my 40th? Let’s see I could go the typical mid-life crisis route…a Corvette…or a cool gold chain…or grow a pony tail…no, those wouldn’t do it for me. But climbing a tough mountain and the highest in N.A. sounded like a good present to give to myself, so I signed up.

When climbing there are a few things we can’t control outright like route conditions, weather, our climbing partners (unless you know climbers to climb with), etc. But there are things we can control when climbing which is our fitness, our skill level and all around mental preparation to name a few. For the skill level part I had taken a few climbing clinics and was set to take a week long course including glacier rescue techniques, so I felt confident in that. I also would have my EMT license by then and would be able help others if it came to that. Finally, in the fitness part I felt confident but for one small part…around my Cuboid bone in my right foot. I had injured my foot almost a year before and had never been able to run from that point on. The bizarre thing is that I could do stairs all day long with only slight discomfort, so while I could do the Columbia tower race without problem I couldn't even run across my kitchen without having my foot pop, which left me limping for weeks every time I reinjured it.

As I increased my training for Denali, both in length of time as well as the amount of weight in my backpack, my foot began to hurt more and more. This was a good illustration of one of the many things that can side track your goals and the key is to not get overly frustrated, rather to get smart. I had visited 5 foot surgeons in the last year and not one of them could help. More than once I was offered advice to ‘take up another sport and forget about running.’ Ok I don’t love to run that much but you’re telling me you can’t fix it so I should just go on with my life and never run again?

So I did what any normal person would do in this day in age; I went on the internet. I thought, ok my foot hurts, so who would know the most about foot injuries? I came up with Soccer and Ski doctors. My first choice was a soccer doc but I couldn’t find one that I could see so I went with choice #2, which was a doctor that worked with the US ski team and practiced out of Vail, except a few days a month when he worked out of the Oakland, CA office…perfect. So I flew down, he took a look and floated the option. You can wait if you want but I think we can make it better….

So now I had a decision to make (after the first appt.). Should I:

a) Try to move my Denali departure to later in June so I could go under the knife?

b) Tough it out hoping I didn’t have to sit on the mountain at 17k watching the others try for the summit if my foot got worse? Or…

c) Just move the entire trip to next year?

The above issues are just part of the ‘tax’ we have to pay for taking our bodies & minds to new places. For me it was ‘A’ all the way. I had no desire to risk spending 3 weeks climbing a mountain only to be stopped by a foot injury. And as for ‘C,’ that is just the thing that drives me crazy…talking and then not doing. You know the type, always some excuse….

So in short I was able to move the start of my trip out a few weeks and headed down to go under the knife on April 9th. Best case scenario was three weeks in a cast, three in a boot and a couple to three in Physical Therapy before I could really start back in. My departure date was the 18thof June, which meant at the very best I would have spent 8 out of the last eleven weeks not training like I should.  I’ll be the first to admit I sometimes bite off more than I can chew, but that is just one of the many areas for personal improvement…right?  (loooking in mirror...Sean Patrick...this is just another area that you can "work on".)...still chewing....

In the end I headed off to a week of training in the North Cascades on June 9th. This was my first foray back into anything physical after the time off to let my foot heal (had a piece of bone taken out and some scar tissue removed in my cuboid region), and this week would tell me a lot about what kind of shape I was still in, (or not in). We headed up with packs full and around 70 lbs for a 6 day course. The weather completely sucked (like totally sucked...Rain and wet snow everyday...wet 24/7), but the other climbers were cool and that’s all that really mattered. For the sake of time I will cut it short but basically we spent 3 days climbing and training and then something unexpected happened. A guy in our group from Brazil twisted his knee and couldn’t walk, so as it turned out, we spent the next two days on what became a rescue mission to get this guy off the mountain (and dropped the remaining training). Pretty wild week but he was a good guy so we were all happy to help (if not a bit disappointed in not working on all our skills).

So after 5 days of climbing with a heavy pack I went ahead and flew off to Denali a few days later. I was not in my top shape but this was the challenge to kick it off so I was going to try my best to add it to my ‘resume.’

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What: Summit the highest Mountain in North America

Why:A real (and technical) climbing challenge way up in Alaksa that was a great mental challenge (as well as physical).

How:There are a few different groups that guide on Denali. I choose to go with Alpine Ascents out of Seattle and would not have changed a thing. They are a top notch safety conscious and experienced company that guides all around the world.

http://www.alpineascents.com/denali.asp

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Following is my Trip Report for the climb:

Day 1 – Mosquito’s

One of the complexities of getting to Denali was timing the flight from Seattle to coincide with, upon landing in Anchorage, to meet the Shuttle to Talkeetna, the town from which we fly to the base of Denali. As for my timing it sucked. I arrived at 8.30am which was the exact time that the ‘early’ shuttle left for Talkeetna. The next shuttle left at 4.30pm so I had a good seven hours to kill. I left the terminal to get my bags and of course was not allowed back into the ‘secure area.’ When i looked around i saw there was ‘a’ starbucks and ‘a’ magazine shop so it was clearly a 'hint' to leave the airport...and I guess visit Anchorage? 

So I checked my bags and took a taxi into town. In hindsight, and having driven through on the way back from Denali I would have posed the “where can I go have fun’ question to the taxi driver in another way and maybe had him take me to something a bit more historically significant than the Diamond Mall. But alas that is where is spent my time before the shuttle to Talkeetna…at the Diamond Mall. A review of my day is easy so I will just bullet point it.

1. Arrive at mall, pay taxi driver and realize (after he leaves) that the mall doesn’t open for an hour and a half.  SKies are grey and temperature is around 40. 

2. Walk across 8 lanes of traffic to Denny’s (of all places, choices were limited) for breakfast. Received a yellow rubber thing on the plate that they called an omelet and decided to just drink my coffee and read the paper.

3. Returned to mall. They have an ice rink. Seriously thought of renting some skates but figured the ankle sprain/break risk wasn’t worth it.

4. Had one of those chair massages in the middle of the mall. Was ok, other than the fact that I was worried about my pack getting stolen so I tied one of the shoulder straps around my ankle...too tight...and almost fell over when I finally stood up as my leg was asleep.

5. Went to the movie “Happening.” What a piece of junk. Would have loved to get those two hours back. It wasn’t the worst movie I have ever seen because i saw Bolero with Bo Derek back in the 80’s...nothing could ever be worse than that one...but this was real close.  "Hey Night Shamalan...I see a shitty movie...."

6. Bought a few books.

Oh and almost forgot. I went to another pub for onion rings and the same taxi picked me up.

Back at the airport I met a few of my fellow climbers as we waited for the shuttle. Looked like a good group of guys. The shuttle finally arrived and we headed off to Talkeetna, a 3 hour drive.

 

Downtown Talkeetna

It was curious as it seemed that almost every home that we could see, on the way to Talkeetna, seemed to be built by taking pieces from other houses and nailing them together. Now I am just reporting on what I watched outside my window…at 50 mph…so take it for what it’s worth. We were all staying at the ‘Fireside inn’ that was recommended from Alpine ascents. At first take it certainly wasn’t what I imagined, or actually maybe it was structurally but the location seemed a bit remote.

I had this ‘Yukonesque’ vision that we would roll into town and park outside a saloon in which our rooms would be located on the second floor, with a banister overlooking the bar below.  We would need to walk through the ‘Saloon’ (yes, they would call it that), to reach the desk where we would register by signing our names on a ledger.  We would then take our key (actual key with the plastic tab that reads ‘postage guaranteed’ on the back) and head to the stairway. On the way from the registration desk we would pass table’s filled with bear trappers, hunters and mushers with leathered skin, bloodshot eyes and unshaved faces. They’d be filling their shot glasses from a bottle with no label…ok maybe I’m a bit of a romantic... There were no grizzled hunters, no saloon, and to be frank, there wasn’t even a town so my Jack Londonesque dreams, well, were just stereotypes from yesteryear.

But now about the ‘Fireside:’

 

Fireside Inn

The place was totally cool, if not a bit random. It was about 15 minutes from town but close to the hangar where we would sort and check gear in the morning, so it made sense. The rooms were kick ass and the gal who ran it cooked a home-style meal that was tops. So to do it again I wouldn’t change a thing.  And if you’re wondering, there is no saloon/inn reminiscent of The Good, the bad and the Ugly in Talkeetna ...so the Fireside is the place to stay.

We’ve all heard the national bird of Minnesota is the Mosquito, or so the lore goes. Well in Alaska the Mosquito, at least on this day, was as common as Acid Wash denim in the 80’s. From the moment we stepped out of the van we were, for lack of a better word, attacked. I never thought Mosquitoes hunted, but now I’m sure of it. There was some strange order going on and we seemed to get attacked from all sides. I swear there were decoy’s buzzing in my face to distract me from the 3 or 4 deadly lances about to pierce the back of my neck as I looked towards the decoy.

Once inside we were shown battery powered tennis racquets. Yes they looked like actual tennis racquets except the strings were made of wire and held a charge so when u hit the mosquitoes it electrocuted them. Completely ridiculous, but a bit addicting I have to admit. I went John McEnroe for about 5 minutes outside and came back in sweating, the stink of burning Mosquito flesh emanating from my electric racquet, and…well…strangely satisfied…If Mosquitoes can record history it would be best if I never showed any bare skin in Alaska again.

So we set our gear in our rooms and all met to for a great ‘family style’ dinner. It was a good time to get to know everyone a bit better and get ready to live together for the next 3 -4 weeks. We also met our guides for the very first time. All together it was a pretty short night. When it’s the last chance to sleep in a real bed for the next month heading to bed early is pretty appealing.

Finally there was another family; dad, mom and kid, who were about to go into the back country to fish.  they were all cool and i talked Suly with the dad for quite awhile (he had on a Godsmack- t-shirt), but i have to admit i was a little worried for them.  We were in town and the Mosquiotos where like ninja-assasins so i could only imagine what the Mosquitos where like in the 'back country.'  Really i think they were screwed  but i hope they made it out ok.

Day 2 – Gear Check (or per MIchael Horst: “you don’t need that…that’s to heavy…leave that here’….)

The plan was to meet early the next morning and head to the hanger, where we would do a gear check.  We had all just met the day before so I wanted to make sure not to be ‘that person.’ You know...the one who is late and makes the whole group wait. I had to really work on this because I am not a morning person...I take some time to ‘warm up.’ At any rate, sure enough there was one person that took longer than everyone else...but I swear... it was the LAST time I was late....:)

So we headed out early the next morning to meet and go through our gear as a team, for the first time. This was the first time we sat with our guides and talked ‘work.’ I don’t think first impressions mean anymore than second impressions, but our head guide Michael was patient, and confident, and the latter goes a long way in my book. One of the big challenges of Denali, even beyond the cold, the danger and the altitude is the weight one has to carry. There are no Sherpa’s on Denali, unlike many of the bigger mountains like Everest. So what it meant was that because we were carrying all the weight, we would have to be very thoughtful about what we had in our packs. In general it went like this…we would pull out our gear for a certain part; ie wind gear. At which point our guide would suggest leaving about half of it behind, which we would end up being grateful a few days later.

One of my favorite moments was when i brought my headlamps out: two headlamps and enough batteries to power a fleet of Barbie RV's....

The conversation went something like this:

Michael: "you won’t need your headlamps."

Me: "Of course I will, especially when we climb at night."

Michael: "The sun never sets this time of year...."

Me: “Oh ya...uh, i actually read that last week but forgot...I swear”

Michael: “Then why did you bring the headlamps”

Me: “In case I fall into an unmapped gold mine?’ :)

It was pretty amusing at the time. I mean I knew...that there was 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year but I had forgotten. Not easy to get used to the sun never setting....

Day 2 Cont., and day 3 – Base camp

Gear check...uh, check...now it was on to the airport. Of the many issues to deal with before even getting to the mountain is the weather. We headed to the airport, but were forewarned that many teams had taken days for a break in the weather so they could just get to base camp. However, we were lucky. We arrived, checked the gear, & waited for the Otter...so far so good. We loaded up into the 1.5million dollar (!) 1954 De Havilland Otter and were on our way.

Smile all u want you won't have a shower for the next month....

 

I am thinking of a movie...."what is 'alive' Alex....

 

Ok things are starting to look COLD

One of the ‘talking points’ on your way to base camp is that you should enjoy the beautiful green foliage before heading over the mountains...as it will be the last green thing you will see for the next month (except the green plastic toilet). At the time I didn’t pay much attention to it, and actually didn’t think much about it while climbing, but you really notice it when returning home. In short, when returning, it’s an Oasis of life...of living organisms, for the first time in what feels like a long time.

Back to the now...all clear to land...ski’s down, plane down...and here we are...Denali base camp 2008

The first order of business is to unload the plane so the pilot can get out fast.  We shlepped the gear up to a suitable site, and started building camp. 

And...for those of us who had to use the bathroom it would be the first time we had the honor to use the green throne. There’s so much more to share on the eloquence of crapping in the mountains that I just can’t contain myself...so let’s just forget it for now.

The rest of the day and into the next we worked on glacier rescue, team dynamics, knots, and an introduction to the wonderful sleds we would be towing the next night.  I think Mr. 7 Summits and two time Everest champ Jeff Dossett called them 'fat pigs.'  I can think of no more accurate a description.   

For a few reasons we would travel at night on the lower glacier. For one, there was the risk of falling though the ice into a crevasse...so traveling at night would help insure a more solid base to travel on. Secondly, the solar rays can be brutal when traveling on a glacier, especially with weight. And while it might be -20f outside, it can be unbearable with the heat and reflection off the glacier.

Day 4 – Base camp / head out

So this was the day that we got ready to go. Again, the weather would be a factor and for us, in the end it was ok. It actually rained a bit in the morning, but, thankfully it would be the last moisture we would feel for a long time. Coming from the Northwest moisture is a constant issue...and nothing is worse than sitting at 8k sopping wet. But at Denali, moisture was not an issue...there’s not much moisture when it’s 30 below.

 

We checked gear and headed out at around 1am. This was a very interesting time. You see it would be the first time we would actually start moving...and it would be with 70lb packs and 50 lb sleds...per person...so it would cut through the crap of who was ready and who was not. The first day was supposed to be one of the toughest and it didn’t disappoint. We started with a quick downhill trek which gave us time to get used to our sleds...or let’s just say...to understand that we would have to ‘live’ with these crappy things, and feel how it was to have 50 lbs., slam into your achilles.

On the way to 7800...fat pigs in tow

I am keeping this short as there will be so much more to deal with, but...this was a hard carry. The only issue I had was that one person in the group had major problems on this day. Now I understand sickness and injury but baring that no one should have so much trouble on the first day where they consider stopping...right? A sign of things to come....

We arrived at 7800 camp at around 8am and set up camp fairly quick. The view, to say the least was stunning.

Day 5 and 6 – 78camp

7800 camp was our first stop on the way up the mountain. I don’t count base camp as that was just the starting point. We slept until early afternoon and some more glacier rescue work before our evening meeting. The decision was made to take a rest day on the next day. This was a bit troubling but is just the reality of climbing with a group of people that don’t know each other. There was one person who had a tough first day and that person was asking for a rest day. Again, this was very troubling. The guides are stuck because we are a team, but for all of us it’s just playing to the lowest common denominator. By taking a rest day now that meant there was one less day that we could use when trying to the summit in case of inclement weather and such. But more importantly and I think a bit unsettling to the group was if we are taking a rest day now…after the FIRST day…how will this person ever make it to the top?  Looking into a mirror...."exactly." 

At any rate we continued to rest and train through the next day and got ready to head out the next night.

Day 6 – Ping Pong Ball

Finally we carry. It started snowing hard last night at around 6pm which postponed our midnight departure. To write that I had cabin fever is an understatement. 36 hours at the 7800 camp was really a bit ridiculous. Can’t blame it on the guides as it’s just the price we pay when we get 6 people together who don’t know each other. But at any rate there is rest and pure lethargy and this is the later. You have to understand this is at 7800 and we started at 6500…so anything beyond 12 hours (in this case) is just time sitting around and getting bored. And I am a bit impatient as well.

I awoke at 1am and no one was up. A good 4-6 inches had fallen, the tents were covered and our gear was barely visible in some cases and not at all in others (as I tripped over a sled). At 2am we finally made the call to leave. This was the first part of a double carry which meant carrying ½ our gear up to a set point (goal was 11k), coming back down spending the night (or day actually) and then carrying the remainder of our gear up to the next camp. Usually the camp would be above where we left our first carry so after we set camp we would come back the next day to get the gear we carried first. We roped up and headed our around 3am. As a team we are not the quickest to get started but I’m not one to talk about getting going in the morning (or middle of the night in this case) so that’s all I'll say.

The fun started almost immediately. Our head guide took about 5 steps and “whoosh…” disappeared. He had stepped into a crevasse. If anyone wondered why we use ropes they just had their answer. A moment like that makes one realized how risky it is to climb this mountain solo and not roped up, but as we were roped in it didn’t take that much to get him out of the crevasse and get moving again.

It continued to snow the entire way up. Our first hill, ski hill, was a real good warm up to get the legs going. The wind slowly picked up as we trudged on higher and higher. Between the wind the snow the glacier and the dead light its hard to tell where the mountain stops and the sky starts so its like your in a ping pong ball. At around 10k one of the climbers asked how close were were to caching our gear. This was the same person who caused us to sit around for 36 hours after the first day of hard climbing and as I mentioned its tough. We have 6 climbers but are forced to bend to the lowest denominator…its frustrating, we had only climbed around 5 hours and knowing the climb back to camp would be quick (as it was steep going up thus easy going down) it would have been nice to keep going, but we ended up caching right there and heading back. The climb back down was easy. The plan was to eat, sleep and head to 11,4k at midnight; hoping the weather lets us.

Day 7 – Cold

Today we moved from 7800k to 11200k. Its nice to start moving higher where we can feel the air thin (ever so slightly). Our starts are still slow but it really doesn’t matter I suppose, at least until summit day. We headed out at around 245am with packs and sleds so the load was heavy. No more than ½ hour out of camp one of the climbers in our party called it a trip; thankfully. Real nice guy but he had been having a hard time from day one so it was probably for the best as the workload was about to get a lot harder. In addition we could likely pick up the pace which would give us more time at 17 camp to make our summit bid; more time on top equals more time to use as backup in case of bad weather.

We also  learned that for more than ten days no one had made the summit due to extreme cold and storms...so our fears of wasting days was well founded.

On the way up ski hill, the first hill out of 78 camp we passed a team heading down. We stopped for a bit so the guy that was leaving could hook up with that group and head out. At any rate I can distinctly remember the guy I stood next to. He was a tall guy with a beard and had a look like he had just seen a ghost. I asked him how it was (knowing that they sat at 17 camp for 6 days without ever getting the opportunity to go higher…but what else do you say?), he just looked at me and said with a crazy stair, “I was totally unprepared for what I just went through.” In a few words they sat in their tents for 6 straight days trying to wait out a series of storms. On day 6 they finally had to give up their summit dreams and head down, both because they were running out of food as well as the fact that people had flights to catch. 6 days in a tiny-arse tent with two other people…after not showering for the last  20 days…and never getting to get to the summit which was the entire point of the trip…brutal…I really felt bad for all of them.

But there are always two sides to a coin. The gal behind him, on hearing my sympathetic response quipped, ‘hey, at least we still have our fingers and toes.’ Probably the best way to think about it really…although maybe that's a bit too new aged for me...I haven't decided yet.  I mean you could lose all your fingers and toes to frostbite and use the same logic...ie.  "hey at least u still have your cerebellum...not sure that scans....

After we switched out the guy who wanted to leave we continued on our way. It was similar to the day before…same route, same white out. The one slight difference today was the cold and the wind. Part of the constant game is regulating your temperature. If you’re warm as you’re getting your crampons on then you’re going to be far too hot once u start moving. If your too cold you’re probably going to be ok once you start moving but then again you don’t want to start ‘to’ cold or you will never get warm and then u can expect hypo, at least, a minor version. And just to be clear I’m not giving advice; I rarely got it right myself.

And once u start climbing the real issue begins. If your fingers are near frostbite how do you know? If the winds are at 40 mph and its 30 degrees below zero you can’t take your gloves off or you’ll have frostbite for sure. So how does one know? That seems to be one of the dilemmas, ‘watch out for frostbite, if you fingers feel cold you need to actively re-warm them asap…,’ but how does one know? You can’t really look at them, and if there frozen you can’t feel them…and the only way you could have had previous experience is if you already had frostbite…and if it was bad you wouldn’t have finger anymore, so then you would have the question of what it feels like posed….and…and….   Hey..what do i know?

So on and on we went. We passed out 10k cache and kept moving up. The route steepened considerably, the snow continued to fall, the wind continued to…do whatever wind does, blow I guess, and all you really do is look at your feet hour upon hour. I was thinking I should have glued some pictures of my Husky Casper on my boots to keep my spirits up-cuz all i was doing was stairing at my feet.

Its in these longer climbs that you realize how much ‘thinking’ you do. I suppose its rather therapeutic really. When walking on a glacier or a dangerous route you’re roped up, and approximately 30 feet from your fellow climber. So you have one person to talk to; yourself. ..and that is my psychology climbing 101 lesson for today.

At about 10,5 the clouds thinned and when we looked up we could see the corona of the sun so close we could almost touch it. It was fascinating really. The never ending sun finally shone through but the actual sphere was behind a small peak right in front of us so only the corona was visible & magnified by the light clouds and mist. Six hours of snow, glacier and clouds, and when u finally have some ‘color’ and ‘dimension,’ the contrast is stunning. Onward and upward…a just a mere 900 feet (and 2 hours...) to 11 camp. The last hour or so was a tradeoff between 30 second breaks in the weather and 59 minute/30 second of slashing wind in our faces. Corona peaks through

We finally arrived 11 camp at around 9am and began to set camp. It should have taken an hour or so but we were basically digging into blue ice to set the stakes, so it took a really long F’ing time especially after climbing for the last 7 hours. But hey I sound like a baby don’t I. I’m climbing a friggin glacier and complaining about ice??? Tomorrow we head back down to pick up our cache at 10……

Day 8 – Hot

The night before I had problems getting to sleep; it wasn’t that the ambient temperature was that cold but the wind was blowing right into my tent through whatever small opening could be found. I put on a down jacket and some down pants to keep warm and finally fell asleep. I awoke at around 3am and to my amazement it was totally clear. Morning hit and we got ready to move down…to pick up our cache…and then move back up. This was a lesson in contrast. The day before it was brutally cold and today it was stifling.  All sun, no clouds and on a glacier…worse than laying down on sun reflector. The only other point that I find worth mentioning is that I recognize absolutely nothing on my way down or on the way back up to 11 camp. It’s really amazing how the weather can completely change the environment. If you had offered me 1 million dollars to tell me what we would next pass (even though I had been there less than 12 hours ago) I wouldn’t have made one right guess.

Day 9 – Haul

Day 9 was sure to be a long one…even before I snowed 6” the night before. Six inches in nothing on a normal day but when breaking trail at altitude it starts to increase the workload exponentially. In climbing to 14 it finally feel like we are actually ‘climbing.’ Seven K?..Hell I lived in Boulder for a year and that was almost 6K. eleven K?..Planes are pressurized at almost 8….but 14..ok now we are starting to climb...thankfully....

Motorcycle hill, squirrel hill, windy corner and then to the point where we would cache our load which was just up from windy corner at about 13k. I finally feel like we are climbing now and not because of the work, rather the altitude. Climbing at 8 or 9 or 10 doesn’t really feel like much, but when we hit 11 or 12 you finally start to feel a tiny reduction in oxygen and it feels good as you feel yourself working a bit harder. All in all it was a pretty good day, and not too tough. Cached at 13 and headed back down to 11 camp.

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Day 10 – Up to 14

Closer to the summit (or summit bid) by the minute…today we leave 11 for good. Again, motorcycle hill squirrel hill, ski hill, windy corner, our cache and then 14 camp. As I said before we are slooooooooooooooow to get going in the morning so we didn’t actually get moving till 11 O’clock. The first part, motorcycle hill, was quite a warm up. Back to the temperature thing. I was near shivering right before we left and then was sweating my arse off in the first 5 minutes.

It was snowing pretty hard right as we left and I was prepared for the ‘white’ moment yet again. To this point I had volunteered to carry the xtra loads so we could keep going. Today I would finally feel the pain, and this was the day that hurt. I’ve heard that ‘everyone’ has their ‘day.’ I can’t attest to that as I volunteered to carry more to get us to the summit quicker but I have to say I was ‘bonking.’ I had a strange relationship with food early on the trip. I don’t mean that I took a shower together, in the nude, with a Cliff bar….rather I just couldn’t seem to get enough calories. I mean..F, me…Gorp, snickers, Balance bars, Cliff bars, dried fruit, blah blah, its really amazing when u think of how much you eat each day.

Anyhow for whatever reason I was eating like 2.5 x’s more than anyone else. I would go through a 3 day lunch bag in 11 hours…its funny now as I write about it, but at the time it was stressful. It wasn’t the guides fault I was just eating a ton…and my ‘ripped 169 pound’ chicken body didn’t show it. Ok so lost train of thought….but the point is...I was BONKING big time as we approached 14 camp as I was not eating at the breaks as I HAD NO FOOD! (Again this is my not asking…not the guides fault). At windy corner we had to start worrying about rock falls…and donned our helmets for whatever it would be worth.

We passed ‘windy corner’ and it was…not windy…so that was good. For all the horror stories I had heard about that part of the mountain we were not to experience it. But its funny right?..what size rock…would fall…and hit your head…In which…A STUPID PLASTIC HELMET WOULD REALLY SAVE YOUR LIFE? NOT a chance. Now for a fall down a slope? SURE! But for a rock..no Fing way.

As we continued up to 14 camp I was reminded of how the glacier is always shifting and moving downward. From the moment we stepped on the Kiltana there were avalanches constantly taking place in the near cliffs around us. From ‘windy corner’ on up we followed what was essentially a crescent shaped route with the camp slightly appearing off in the distance as we grew closer, or we should have been moving closer as we trudged up the mountain. I swore the 14 camp was on wheels and moving away from us….

We set up camp quickly and by the time we were done it was around 9pm so we hit a quick dinner and planned to go off to bed after a long day. We are now camping at the same altitude as the summit of Mt. Rainer, so that is fun.

It was just as we were finishing some post-dinner hot drinks when we heard about a chap that had just been helped down from 17 camp. One of his guides came into our posh (cook tent) and filled us in. He was pretty broken up over the entire event: (all of my recollections are based on what the guide said).

Day 10 Cont. – Frostbite

Apparently two days before he made a go at the summit with a group of around 8 people. The weather, from what I gather was complete crap and all but two of the people turned back somewhere around 19k. However, two guys wanted to take a shot for the summit and continued on. The guy with the frostbite made the summit (along with another guy), and apparently went down to liners for a quick picture on top of the summit (holding a banner). When they headed back down to 17 camp the person, apparently, never made much of the fact that he had frozen fingers. Long story short his fingers were frozen and when he was brought to 14 camp he had ‘blebs’ on 7 of 10 of his fingers. Blebs, if you have ever seen a pic of frostbite are the puss filled sacks that surround fingers damaged by frostbite. At the risk of sounding crass they look like huge clear sausages filled with liquid. The reco at that point is to slowly re-warm and get down for medical treatment. Slowly re-warming is to immerse in water at about 106 degrees F. Now having said that don’t quote me as I am not a doctor, but I have read every damn article on it. Active re-warming is to late at this point but above all else you don’t want to re-warm the fingers (or whatever part) unless you can keep it warm for good. In other words if you re-warm someone’s frost bitten fingers and then let them freeze again as you descend it’s a very bad thing, (and frostbite alone is bad enough). One other thing that was brought up is that the guy might not have had enough clothing to keep warm which means that his body would have worked to keep the core warm, where the organs are, and sacrificed the extremities in the process (good old EMT knowledge).

Anyhow the real point of this, beyond how brutal the mountain can be, is that it was a great ‘reminder’ for all of us. When u have a problem jump on it asap, because if you wait you may have lost the chance to fix it and end up paying for it forever.

Day 11 – Rest

After moving to 14 we took the next day as a rest day. I must admit the previous rest days drove me crazy but now I felt it was probably a really good idea even if I didn’t really want to rest. It all just goes back to climbing with guides that are experienced and wicked smart when analyzing peoples physical (and mental) conditions.

The best thing about 14 camp was that there was actually a ‘real’ toilet seat. When one goes a week and a half w/out a toilet seat he or she tends to really appreciate the small things. Now having said that, every time I used it there were usually at least a dozen people that would walk right by as I was ‘using the facility.’ In hindsight, its quite funny that after a week or two climbing denali you (or at least I) could have cared less who was walking by when I was using the bathroom…the comforts of life we so quickly forget. Now that we are on the topic of crap…I might as well take opportunity to share the reality of how one relieves himself. After meeting with the park services we were giving 3 devices called CMC’s; which look like this:

Think of an old school coffee can and then double it, (barely). Everyone does their things in that can and when its full you take the plastic bag out and chuck it in a glacier. Personally, that seems ridiculous as everything is frozen so the odds of ‘bio-degradable’ success is unlikely. Now I will admit the movement of the glacier might ‘pulverize’ the bags of crap… but I don’t know. What I do know is that I wouldn’t want to be drinking water out a tap...in Anchorage...around the year 2075. To urinate its much easier; as we have ‘pee’ holes, so just drop it all and let it fly. Most of this is within public view but you just stop caring by about day 2 and maybe even show off a little.

To be honest, after 3 weeks in denali, I think I could actually walk into my local mall and take a doo doo right in the middle or the food court…but of course that’s gross and I never would. That is all I really have to say on going the bathroom.

Day 12 – Back to pick up cache at 13

Today we head back down to 13 to pick up the cache we left 2 days before at 13. It was really simple. Head down dig up our crap and back to 14. Again, and I understand I sound like a broken record but the temperature thing is fascinating. I was freezing when I left and 20 seconds after picking up our cache (and adding a load) and heading up I was freaking dying from being so hot.  Props to our guides Michael and Suzanne.  As I was right behind Michael I asked him after every stop what ‘he would wear,’ and his suggestions, which were not ‘naturally intuitive’ were always right, (and he never got mad at me asking him 3-5 x’s a day).

The only other thing about day 12, that I can think of, is that this day, for me (and a few other climbers), is when the trip started to feel long. At my height 2 weeks in a tent starts to feel like a long time…but whatever….that’s all.

Day 13 – Carry to 16k

We woke up wondering if the weather would let us move up. The plan of record was to rest after we picked up our cache from 13, however, our guides were ready to let us carry up today due to our desire and a lousy weather forecast a few days out. Every day from this point on carried more weight than the day before due to the stress we felt form knowing that we were up against the clock. One doesn’t really think about running out of food or fuel…or time…in the first week; however as we get close to entering week three one realizes a string of bad weather can quickly (or slowly and painfully) end your trip…thus everyday is scrutinized more than the last.

In the end the decision was made to carry up to 16 just above the fixed lines. The fixed lines and the hill that holds them is the longest and steepest yet. It’s around 55% at its steepest and the last 800 feet is fixed lines with ascenders.

So off we went up to cache at 16,5. This was quite a climb, and was one of the best (or the best) to date. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky to start. Now to be clear its still around zero farenheit, but with the sun out, no wind…and a brutal climb ahead… it’s hot as hell.

There is always the temperature delema, and we have always debated what is worse; in other words, if I had a choice, would I take ‘110’ or ‘-30?’ Well into day 13 with a high of zero, I really think (at this point) I would take 110.

So we hit the top of the fixed lines and headed up another 2-300 feet and buried our cache just at the bottom of another little, what I thought at the time, cute fixed line. You know it was on Wahsburns thumb which is visually stunning and the fixed line was a nice deep purple color, and well…it looked easy…and was short…Who said it, ‘careful for what u wish for’?

Well back down, which was FAST, and…that’s all.

Day 14 – Up to high camp (17k)

We woke up wondering if the weather would let us move, (as usual). The plan of record was to rest after we had picked up our cache from 13 the day before. Yet today our guides were ready to let us carry to 17 due to our desire to keep moving and a lousy weather forecast a few days out. We watched those last days closely as any extended storm would stop us short of our goal.

We headed out by ten in the morning (same slow group). The wind was minimal but that didn’t give us any idea of what to expect on the ridge above the fixed lines. As with anything the second time around is, if not easier physically, then easier mentally as one knows what to expect. I suppose there is a school of thought that would disagree and say that ignorance is bliss, but for me I would rather know what’s coming. The fixed line was much easier than the day before. This would be “day two J ” using an ascender and it was much easier today. There is a small nuance when using the ascender which keeps it from slipping as you torque (or pull) yourself forward. Dave, who is responsible for many of the pics on this page, and our resident Lance Armstrong, had extensive experience and shared some small ideas that made all the difference.

So the route to washburn’s thumb was difficult but we knew what to expect. At the bottom of Washburn’s we picked up our last fixed line…a little thing with a purple rope. Funny how a little mark can be such a beatch. It was actually a slightly tough little route as it wrapped around the enormous rock, labeled the thumb.

From there we continued on the ridgeline to 17 camp. This was definitely one of the more spectacular views. The ridge is a few meters wide and it falls thousands of feet on both side and offers some of the most incredible views imaginable. The wind was quite strong at times and its understandable how people could be blown off but for us it was not bad enough to alter our climb to 17.

Above Washburns thumb

I think at around 16 is where the altitude was relevant. The distances seemed to fall away and stretch on forever. What seemed like a ½ mile at sea level felt like 2 at 16 and seemed to go on forever.

We rolled into 17 camp late in the day and set tents down at once. I hadn’t mentioned a couple of things:

1. We cached a tent at 14 to save weight on our carry which meant we were living three to a tent at 17.

2. We picked up the cache, which we had left on the way up the day before, on our trip to 17 camp. It meant the carry from the cache at 16 under Washburn’s thumb would hurt but it also meant we wouldn’t have to go back down to pick It up the next day. Another quality call, which I would not have thought of, by our guides.

That’s all….

Day 15 – Rest day at Hell camp 17 (sorry HIGH camp, not HELL camp)

So 17 is hell. I understand now how people feel like crap after a few miserable days of trying to wait out weather at 17. Nothing is easy at 17…as an example:

· Most everyone at our camp felt like sh*t. Nausea is fairly typical at 17,200, and as Denali’s latitude is around 60 degrees it feels, on the body, like 19,000.

· The weather is sh*t. The wind howls all day and all night. There are times when, sitting in my tent, i heard what sounded like a train going by the tent…and the walls of the tent bulged in…my mates and I just looked at each other…it was the wind!  Although i must admit i laughed a lot...its either that or complain and we all hate whiners.

I really understand now how high camp just grinds on a climber. The weather, even when clear and sunny, is still brutally cold and windy…life at 17k I suppose.

Mike, our lead guide has passed out food and drinks to the group as it has been snowing and blowing all day. I can’t say enough about Mike and Suzanne; they are all stars. UNDERSTAND…there are no Sherpa’s, so no one is carrying out gear, or anything else.  I just can’t imagine two better guides; fitness, organization, skill, attitude, risk aversion…Mike and Suzanne are second to none (if I haven’t mentioned they guide for Alpine Ascents).

About 10pm Mike stuck his head in our camp (we were warm and it was freaking cold outside where he was), and said that we might try for the summit tomorrow. This was a popular comment as everyone had agreed if tomorrow was ok then we should go for it. Three to a tent was hell but I was with a couple of great chaps so conversation was easy and we put the next day’s summit bid to the side with some good jokes.

Day 16 – The Summit

It blew and snowed like a mother quite a lot throughout the night and we didn’t bother hoping to get out before 10am on the 16th day. There’s not much sleeping in at 17k and It’s a series of steps which go like this;

Try to go to sleep… headache so you can’t fall asleep…the person to your right has to get up to piss in his bottle…the person to your left has to get up to piss in a bottle…etc., etc., etc., (as far as pissing goes)…the wind is so brutal that every 30 minutes you are forced awake when the wind come over the pass and drives through your tent…you wake up for the 12th time that night and can’t fall back asleep….

Not let me also add, that i am tough as nails, but still a bit of a baby.  At 6'4 170 i don't think i ever felt warm during the trip...i would sleep with a -30 bag with down pants, down parka, a hat and glove liners...i never admit being cold but always was...like i said, im kinda a baby....

I can only imagine (or maybe I can’t) what sleeping even higher must be like.

So by 6am I am usually totally awake. Some people can keep sleeping but for me I am usually up as soon as the first person awakes. And understand we are cold, hungry, and thirsty and have to piss…but don’t really want to get up because it’s like -20 outside with a driving wind…and I’m a bit of a baby and don’t really like cold, oh well….

Our guide came by at around 8am and said we were going to make a go at it. It was Friday and it looked like there was a front coming in on Monday so if we didn’t go now then we might not have another chance. One must remember that when we arrived at 14k no one had made the summit in the past 12 days…and that was a real reminder of what our Denali trip could be like. Personally, my desire was to summit Denali, and although the climb was part of the experience, not making the summit just wouldn’t sit well with me.  I was there to complete my goal not to experience nature.  Oh and PS...this meant we could summit on july 4th (if we made it)...sweet....

We packed up and got ready to head out at around 10. There was one party of 3 going for the summit at the same time. I think they were from South America if I am remembering correctly, but they ended up heading out a few minutes before us. This helped us as they broke the new snow (and old snow from the wind) as they headed up. It would have probably been easier for them if they went after us as we had more people but with three people they could move more quickly (and did so).

We started up Denali pass on the Autobahn route (named for a group of German’s who fell off it). This was the longest part of the climb without a break. We would normally go for an hour on and 5 – 10 minutes rest and drink, but there wasn’t a really good place to rest on the route so planned to go to the top of the route which straight up which would take about an hour. The route is a bit steep and you use fixed lines but as it’s the first part of the day it ends up being quite easy. Another factor was that it shielded us from the wind for this first part.

At the top of Denali Pass, when we stopped for our first break, was when we started to feel the cold. We were no longer protected from the wind and this is how it would be all the way to the top. Really this is the time when you start to understand the complexities of staying hydrated, dealing with equipment, eating, managing those really complex things like…uh...zippers…with Mittens on. Yet as cold as it was it was nothing like it could be, or as it was for people even a few days before. I took time to put gortex over my climbing bibs and it was rather entertaining. There is no way to slide them over your crampons so I unzipped the walls first…but of course zipping them back up was an entirely complex issue. It reminded me of trying to get the key into your front door when you’ve had wayyy to many cocktails (that’s front door of home…NOT car). You have to concentrate SO HARD and stare at the key hole for a long time before you can line it up...almost willing the key to go into the hole…same here except instead of too much JD it’s too little O2.

From the top of the autobahn we switch back in fixed lines to the top and around a ridge for the next hour. We were roped up in one group of three and one group of four and this is when people start to become fatigued. It was very windy and cold and with mittens on clipping in and out of the fixed lines took concentration.

The next few hours we continued up to the ‘football field’ which would essentially be the last ‘staging’ point before our final push to the summit. The football field is aptly named and is a huge saucer shaper area below the summit ridge.

The push up to the summit ridge was a tough one. We started out around 10am and it was now 5pm and we were still almost two hours from the summit. There was one more major uphill push to the ridge and then we would walk across to the summit which would have some fairly technical spots with not a lot of room to make a mistake. A few weeks after we got home I got some pictures form a friend of mine who summated a day later in clear skies and it was then that I fully realized how precarious the summit ridge was…some spots with about a foot to walk on with a drop of a few thousand feet on each side. Maybe it was best that it was near white out when we made our last push?;)

The walk up from the football field was one of those times you really feel the heat and reflection. It was as we had a brief hour where the wind slowed for a moment so we could fully suffer as we climbed up to the summit ridge. It was freaking hot at this point you are taking 2 breaths for every to get enough oxygen to move up.

The top of the ridge is still an hour or so from the summit but at this point you feel you’re getting close. However now it was blowing very hard as we started across the ridge and freakin' cold.  Such a dichotomy.  My recollections, as evidenced by the decrease in writing, start to become a bit faint at this point, but the walk across the ridge was fascinating. The visibility was poor but every now and then you would get an opening and realized that you are standing about 6” from a drop of a few thousand feet. Its times like these which make you wonder if someone on your team, who weighs more, drops off and you can’t hear him or her callout, what will happen? In many cases you know the answer and it’s not a good one, but that’s climbing.

Looking into the abyss

You walk the last path to the ridge and there you are, the highest point in North America, which is supposed to be a monumental moment. However, for us it spelled tragedy. Jim Nasti on the rope behind me collapsed at this exact moment. Out of respect for Jim, his family I'll put a link here http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/09/mountain-madness/with a more formal report. But Jim Passed away.  In the end we did what we could for Jim but there was no bringing him back and we had to leave him there and get the rest of the team down before someone else got hurt. or frozen.  I only knew him for those three weeks but I had learned he was in a group called the ‘high pointers’ whose goal is to climb to the highest point in every state in America. There are tough ones like Rainer…really tough ones like Denali…and others that would be considered easy, like South Dakota, which was the only one Jim had left to do. So he clearly lived life and passed away doing something he truly loved.  I have nothing but the utmost respect for Jim and those who live their lives like Jim..TO THE FULLEST.

Jim Nasti - Inspiration

 

Mark..Jim's best mate

My diary gets a bit short at this point, but we headed down about 730pm.  It was a rough trip down.  For me i had been working on our friend so I went down to liners for accuracy.  Time passes quickly and before i knew it i had gone almost an hour without full gloves and i couldn't feel my fingers.  This is or was increadibly stressful, but Mike was totally concoius and made sure i kept checking for damage. 

On the way down it was hard to keep our faces protected.  The snow and wind was blowing hard and the sun was at its lowest point so we were decending in a very 'dull' light. WIth a face mast your goggles tend to fog up so i had to take my mast off to see, at which point my nose started to freeze... so i alternately put my mask on (and goggles off) and suffered through brutal snow trauma to my eyes and putting my goggles back on (and face mask off) in which my nose started to freeze.  If i haven't said it enough - our guides were always on it monitoring the situation

The walk down was a long one.  I really cant remember but i think we got into camp at around 2am which makes for something close to a 18 hour day.

Day 17 - Down from 17 camp

So we all wanted to get moving the  next day.  We had met our goal, but we had also lost one of our friends.  I really can't say enough about Mark, Jim's best friend.  I can't imagine what it was like for him to leave his friend at the summit and head down, but he had to...for his own safety, as well as the safety of the group-he is a stong person.

We headed straight down to 14 camp the next day.  Going down is easy, especially when there is a storm on the horizon and it might mean sitting at base camp for another 4 or 5 days...waiting to get out.  At 14 camp we learner another climber had passed the next day.  A 20 year old Indonesian climber who we had met at 78 camp.  I will post a link and not guess as to what might have happened...but it sucks...2 lives in 48 hours.  http://www.topix.com/forum/outdoors/rockclimbing/TFH9ANRIR0P7KSON9

Day 18 - to 11k

The next day we headed down to 11 camps and Bivaked on the glacier.  It was really a great experience.  I awoke at 2am (as we would leave at 3 to make it to base) covered in frost...including my beard...a total blast).

Day 19 - to base

We headed out at around 3am for the base camp.  The closer we got the more people started to fall through breaks in the glacier.  It was shocking (to me) when we go to 78 camp i had no recollection of the area whatsoever.  It looked like the moon really...there were a few 'holes' where tents 'had been' but one had to look hard to find them.  We picked up the cached we had left and headed to base.  Along the way people were constanfly falling into glaciers (ie up to their armpits) so we had to put on show shoes. 

There is something called heartbreak hill, which is the last mile or so to base camp and the one time where a person i forced to 'climb' up to base camp (its all down hill until the last mile which forces a person to hike back up hill).

I could not have thought of a better name---enough said....

So we get to base camp..Now let me set this up.....

-You summited Denali, but lost a climbing partner in the process so it was tough

-The next day another climber dies on the way down from the summit

-You (i or we) arrive at basecamp on day 19 and just want to get home....it been totally sunny out for the morning (or night that u traveled)

-But...u learn that even though its sunny here its cloudy in talkeetna and planes aren't flying....

I tell u this...wow that is a challenge to the psych...it's sunny at base but cloudy at Talkeetna and the reality is that you might not get back to Talkeetna...for DAYS!!!!  :)

We headed up about another 1/2mile to a more sturdy place on the glacier...drippped down...dug up a few beers (from another guides stash (thanks Dave:)) and waitied.  The longest wait of our lives.

About three hours later they made a go at it...it went like THIS.

-----Pilot:  got out plane fast!  "we gotta go...the clouds are closing in, its now or never!'

-----US:  we ran to get all the "crap" on the plane so we could get out.

-----Plane take off and....pilot over radio AS WE TAKE OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!! "oh that's not right that too low...hmmmm what is wrong,  ok looking for landing site..found it down glacier...blah blah.

ok so we took off and had to make an immediate emergency landing on a part of the glacier that was unknown and unstable.  You have to laugh...after all this we are crash FKING LANDING!

ok so we (crash) landed and didnt fall through (ya!)  So now we had to unload the plane as the pilot wanted to make sure the issue wasnt just the instuments.  Now there were lots of jokes going around...but being a pilot myself i really felt like "is this real?"  I am really running short on energy at this point.....

SO...the pilot took off and determined that he thought it was a instument malfunction....

This is where i end it quick...he was right... all is good...the summit was amazing...and don't be boring

ONE LAST WORD...when i look back i realize one thing..yes u have to be inshape, but whether it's climbing a mountian or swimming from one continent to antother (writing this post euro-africa) ITS MOSTLY MENTAL...really