Twelve days after our arrival at Base Camp, we reached Denali’s 5,240-metre High Camp, just over 900 metres from the summit, by way of tough and tricky terrain that has been given appropriately descriptive names such as Windy Corner, the Head Wall and Motorcycle Hill. Along the route, we encountered a couple of snowstorms, neither of which was particularly nasty, but the climate did grow noticeably colder and, more importantly, the air grew a lot thinner. Acclimatisation and staying healthy were of the utmost importance and, to that end, each of us drank anywhere from four to six litres of liquid per day.
With my camcorder in a small bag that I had borrowed from John at the beginning of the trip – and which I rigged to my backpack’s shoulder straps so that it would always hang just below my chest – I was prepared to capture as much as possible of this extraordinary expedition. Nevertheless, it proved hard to lm while climbing, especially since I was constantly roped to Anthony and Cory. I still managed to pull out the camcorder every now and then in order to shoot on the move. Indeed, when I dared to do so while negotiating the narrow ridge near Washburn’s Thumb – a landmark rock at just over 5,000 metres – it created quite a stir among my colleagues. There was a sheer drop of several hundred metres on either side and, should anyone slip, a team-mate would have had to swiftly throw himself the other way and perform a ‘self-arrest’ to stop the fall.
By the time we reached High Camp, all our bad weather days had been used up, compelling us to attempt the summit, even though there was an unfavourable forecast. Not doing so would have been disappointing, to say the least. Shortly after 8:00 pm, the decision was taken: we’d be setting off in as little as four hours’ time, regardless of the fact that our toughest and longest day would be undertaken without adequate rest, thanks to all six of us having to squeeze into just a couple of two- man tents.
I distinctly remember Bill resting on his poles, handles under his armpits, and wildly swinging his feet forward and back so that some blood might rush to his cold toes.
For my part, I made a big mistake by not wearing my eece garments under my outer shells when getting dressed at around midnight. On summit day, high winds would make us freeze, and I’d be very close to turning back before the weather suddenly improved a little. In the event, we all wore our down jackets over the outer shells, and I was glad to have also brought along my down mittens, which served as a third layer only a couple of hours after leaving High Camp.
At one point, I distinctly remember Bill resting on his poles, handles under his armpits, and wildly swinging his feet forward and back so that some blood might rush to his cold toes. It must have been close to minus 40 degrees Celsius (which happens to be the same gure on the Fahrenheit scale), and I was kind of hoping he might soon give the order for us to turn back. Instead, he urged us to press on, insisting that there was still no valid reason to do otherwise. Then, a short time later, he himself was forced to do just that. Phil was exhausted and couldn’t go any further. So, like any reputable guide, Bill escorted his client down to the relative warmth of High Camp and relinquished his own chance of summiting.
Meanwhile, hunched-up to fend off the bitter cold, I was suffering from acute back pain between the shoulder blades, yet I kept inching my way towards the rooftop of North America with Cory, John and Anthony all on the same rope. First, we traversed an icy, arduous, 30-degree slope named the Denali Pass. Then we negotiated a ridge that led us to a plateau known as the Football Field. It was Sunday, June 29, 2003, and at 10:45 in the morning we nally reached our destination. I had been far too cold to attempt to lm anything that day, including the summit and the beautiful ridge that leads up to it, but after we’d all left our backpacks at the foot of the nal climb, I had made sure I’d brought along my small camera so that I could be snapped at the summit, proudly holding the Lebanese ag on the second of my Seven Summits.
Unfortunately, while there, the bitter cold and unrelenting wind prevented us from really savouring the moment or the awesome views down on to the beautiful Alaskan plain. Instead, we all had just one thought in mind, and that was the often-underestimated task of getting safely back down the mountain. This is the hazardous part of the expedition, when tiredness and over-con dence often result in bad, sometimes fatal accidents, so extra care is required. When we made it to High Camp, we all fell on our backpacks outside the tent, exhausted and oblivious to the large- ake snowstorm that had just begun.
It was then that I learned about Phil’s three frostbitten ngers. He hadn’t been aware of the problem until removing his mitts after reaching the camp with Bill – certainly, his decision to turn back had been totally unrelated to having cold ngers. However, this turned out to be a good thing, since further exposure to the increasingly unforgiving cold could have cost him those digits. We all went over to the park rangers’ station to help cut off the ring around one of his ngers, fearing that restricted blood ow would cause even more severe frostbite.
It truly is amazing how much punish- ment the human body can withstand. Indeed, just when you think you have handed it all the beating it can take, it often endures further mistreatment without comment.
In the meantime, with the snowstorm growing stronger by the minute, we had no choice but to pack up and leave High Camp only a couple of hours after returning there from the summit. Carrying heavy backpacks and descending with the aid of xed ropes at both Washburn’s Thumb and the Head Wall proved to be gruelling, and the layer of fresh, uffy snow on hardened ice didn’t exactly make things any easier; such is the nature of this high, uncompromising mountain. When Bill’s rope team set off rst, and Phil slid about ve metres after tripping in his crampons, John managed to arrest his fall. In fact, while traversing rocky, icy terrain, it was fortunate that they happened to have slipped their rope behind a boulder, to decrease the distance of a possible fall and also to create leverage. This is a commonly used practice in such an environment.
Despite our exhaustion, we now had little choice but to continue descending for several hours, all the way to Camp IV, where we managed to erect our tents before collapsing inside. It truly is amazing how much punishment the human body can withstand. Indeed, just when you think you have handed it all the beating it can take, it often endures further mistreatment without comment. At least, this was the situation for now. Later on, there would probably be some sort of payback.
The next day, June 30, our long descent to Base Camp proved to be torturous for both Anthony and Cory. The trouble began as early as Windy Corner, above Camp III, where Cory lost control of his sled anditnearlysenthim-andus-onahellrideofsev- eral hundred metres into one of the adjacent deep, gaping crevasses. It took him close to half an hour to be ready to continue, and Anthony and I waited patiently amid the icy gusts of wind while he again rigged himself up, intermittently cursing and shout- ing. Unable to look behind me, I couldn’t really see what he was doing, but whatever it was clearly sounded tedious and unpleasant. No sooner had we resumed our journey than Anthony’s sled overturned. It was stop-and-start all the way to Camp II.
Every time there was a steep hill or an awkward traverse, either Anthony or Cory would experience dif culties. Cory was visibly shattered, and he had so much trouble at the rear end of the rope that he often lost his nerve and, on occasion, acted a little irrationally. Unfortunately, this continued all the way to Base Camp, and his pace – and consequently ours on the same rope – kept slowing down to the point where Anthony, at the front of the line, would often stop and look back to see what the heck was going on.
It wasn’t until 5:00 in the morning on July 1 that we reached the landing strip at 2,200 metres, and although we should have set up our tents, we were too tired to actually do so. Instead, Cory, Anthony, John and Phil simply slipped into their sleeping bags in the open air, while I sat on a makeshift armchair next to the rangers’ station, quietly re ecting on the events of the past three weeks and thankful that there had been no major mishaps.
By noon, it was still snowing lightly across the Kahiltna Glacier, and a few teams that had arrived at Base Camp before us were also waiting for the weather to clear so that they could y back to Talkeetna. Eventually, even though the cloud cover was very low and visibility was down to less than 30 metres, K2 Aviation’s pilot Al Knabe bravely ew in to collect us in his four-seater aircraft, having decided to attempt a landing as soon as he’d heard about Phil’s frostbite. That was really considerate of him, and we had no choice but to jump the queue and y back before the other teams, all of whom had been waiting longer. We thought we were dreaming when we rst heard the distinctive, welcome roar of the Beaver, and when its bright red fuselage emerged from the fog it was truly a beautiful sight.
Due to Phil’s situation, he, John and I took the rst ight back, and this meant that Bill, Cory and Anthony were left behind, fearful they might have to wait several days until the storm subsided. As it turned out, they were blessed with a weather win- dow the very next day, and this enabled them to return to Talkeetna and join us for the celebration party. No doubt about it, there were many reasons to rejoice and have a good time.