Denali (mount mckinley)

The Kick Start

2003-06-29

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  • Alaska - USA - North America 6,194 m / 20,320 ft
  • N 63o 04’ W 151o 00’
  • Expedition length: 16 days
  • Summit: June 29, 2003

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‘The Great One.’ That’s what Denali means in the language of the local Athabasca Indians. And in light of its glacial, 5,486-metre vertical rise – much, much higher than that of Mount Everest – as well as a big freeze that once saw a thermometer left at 4,500 metres record a temperature of -73.3 degrees Centigrade (–100 degrees Fahrenheit), North America’s tallest mountain represents the greatest of chal- lenges in the most treacherous of environments.

Not that you’ll get any help when trying to climb it. Whereas mules, yaks and porters are available on other mountains, you can forget about any such amenities on Mount McKinley, as Denali was patriotically named in 1897, honouring U.S. President William McKinley. (The man himself wasn’t Alaskan; he was from Ohio.) That means no yaks or mules to carry your food and equipment to the lower camps or, in the case of the human aides, to lend their knowledge of the native terrain. You are on your own, using ropes while negotiating brittle, unreliable snow bridges that, in the event of a collapse while you’re traversing a hidden, 500-metre-deep crevasse, could quite easily book you a one-way trip to oblivion. It is a very scary, nerve-racking round-trip experience.

Still, why avoid danger when the objective is to embrace it? After failing to conquer Aconcagua, I was determined to re-ignite my drive and kick-start the Audi Seven Summits challenge by immediately tackling one of its toughest segments. A case of getting back on the horse as soon as I’d fallen off. Besides, having already summited Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc and Elbrus, I did feel adequately quali ed to take things to the next level – even if that level would require a substantial leap.

Since mountaineers should always ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst,’ I chose to attend a week-long climbing seminar immediately before heading for Denali. This was with the Washington state-based guiding out t, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). It certainly polished my existing skills, while teaching me new ones that would help protect me when attempting to scale uncharted heights, not only in Alaska but anywhere else in the world. Indeed, no sooner had I returned to Base Camp with my RMI team-mates and instructors Brenda, Mike, Nate and Liam, after summiting Mount Rainier – at 4,392 metres, America’s most extensively glaciated volcanic peak – than I was preparing for my next adventure, purchasing a camera and digital camcorder that were both small and light enough to carry anywhere on the mountain. Having already spent an entire day, prior to RMI’s Camp Muir seminar, acquiring the gear that I’d need for my three-year odyssey, I did my laundry, stocked up on small supplies and arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just in time to board Alaska Airlines’ three-hour ight to Anchorage.

This was my rst airborne trip within the U.S. since 9/11, some 19 months earlier. What’s more, since the king salmon shing season was kicking off in Alaska, I was just about the only ight passenger without a shing rod. Not that I’d need one where I was going, as arranged by New Zealand-based expedition organiser, Adventure Consultants. After arriving in Anchorage and unloading my duffel bags at the Duke Hotel on Eighth Street, I met the group I’d be climbing with: guides Bill Crouse (of Adventure Consultants) and Cory Bennett (of the American Alpine Institute), and fellow adventurers – John from the U.S.A., Anthony from Australia and Philip from the U.K. All six of us discussed the expedition and then enjoyed a slap-up dinner at a renowned downtown Anchorage restaurant. (There is nothing like a little optimism to help with pre-expedition nerves!)

The next day, we drove just under 200 kilometres north in the rain to the small town of Talkeetna, the gateway to Denali National Park. From here we’d take a 45-minute ight in K2 Aviation’s small, ski-equipped Beaver plane to Base Camp at 2,200 metres. Theproblem was, after arriving in Talkeetna and weighing our food and gear, we had to wait on standby for several days until the bad weather cleared over the mountain.

When the mountain wakes up, you hunker down; and when it falls asleep again, get up and climb.

During that time, having been away for four days and therefore unable to maintain my usual tness regime, I at least managed to go for a run, after as- suring the guides that I wouldn’t be away for more than 20 minutes at a time, in case conditions im- proved for ying. When we did nally take off in the direction of the 58-kilometre-long Kahiltna Glacier, on which Denali’s Base Camp is located, I have to admit I felt less than easy seeing the mountains so close to the wings of our single-engine prop plane. Thankfully, we made it to our destination in one piece, ski landing somewhat roughly on a make- shift runway that has been mockingly nicknamed ‘Kahiltna International Airport’. (The ‘control tower’, such as it is, consists of a plastic chair under a parasol, while the ‘airport’ itself is a lone Weather- haven tent.)

“When the mountain wakes up, you hunker down; and when it falls asleep again, get up and climb,” advised our pilot, before once more taking to the skies and leaving us with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be back to collect us for another three weeks. That was quite some thought as we walked eight kilometres along the crevasse-covered Kahiltna Glacier in the twilight of that Alaskan summer night, in order to reach the 2,450-metre Camp I, located at the base of Ski Hill.

The route we were taking was the one commonly referred to as the West Buttress. It was pioneered by a New England native named Bradford Washburn in 1951, some 38 years after the rst successful Denali climb had been accomplished by an Episcopal missionary called Hudson Stuck. Although this technically less challenging means of reaching the summit is also the most popular, like all the other routes, it is very hard work both on the way up and the way down, especially at the start when everyone’s sleds and backpacks are at their heaviest, thanks to the full loads of food and fuel.

It wasn’t easy getting used to being roped-up while carrying a 30-kilogram pack, especially with my harness pulling an even heavier sled. And what with the wind, the cold, the thin air and the slippery ice, I felt really uncomfortable towards the end of our six-hour trek to Camp I. Phil suffered most on this rst leg of the journey, as re ected by his mood while setting up our tent. We didn’t collapse into our sleeping bags until at least 4:30 am, just as the rst rays of the sun began ooding the beautiful, snow-covered mountaintops around us.

 

Denali is a harsh environment, where every part of the body needs to be covered due to the extreme cold, yet where the sun is also strong enough to cause sunburn. This meant we were compelled to wear our glacier glasses even inside our tents, and the same applied to lip balm – like on any harsh mountain environment, failure to protect our lips could result in dire consequences. Still, had we brought our headlamps, they wouldn’t have been of any use. Denali’s northerly location on the map means it never experiences total darkness during the summer months, and it actually took me quite some time to get used to wearing glacier glasses in the evening inside my tent. Furthermore, with sunlight seeping in from outside for most of the night, I basically had to sleep blindfolded.

We’d have dinner instead of breakfast before starting the day’s climb, and breakfast instead of dinner before go- ing to sleep – which was interrupted halfway to eat lunch! Talk about mess- ing with my body clock.

Until we’d reach Camp IV, at just over 4,000 metres, we would have to sleep and rest during the day, while eating our meals at the regular times. This in turn meant that we’d have dinner instead of breakfast before starting the day’s climb, and breakfast instead of dinner before going to sleep – which was interrupted halfway to eat lunch! Talk about messing with my body clock! Certainly, the snow conditions were distinctly better at night, but this upside-down schedule wasn’t made any easier by the fact that I was also trying to adjust to a time zone that is 11 hours behind that in Beirut. Just to add to the confusion, Denali is also the only one of the Seven Summits that adheres to the British Imperial system of measurement. This meant converting my wrist-top computer’s units from metres to feet, as well as from Celsius to Fahrenheit, if I wanted to make my life a little easier – which I did.

Back in Talkeetna, the park rangers had already briefed us on the introduction of the ‘clean mountain can’ (CMC), comprising a custom-designed, hermetic container for each climber’s excrement. Again, this was a little strange to get used to, but before long we were all pooping expertly into our CMCs, having learned a few tricks such as only opening the can at dawn when the contents were still frozen, and therefore emitting less odour. Another was that picked up by Phil, who always just happened to have the lightest can. When Anthony noticed that his own CMC was heavier than everyone else’s, he quickly gured out that Phil never used his own to take a dump. Thereafter, we all kept a close eye on our personal containers.

As we ascended the mountain, we kept hauling gear and food, stashing it in hermetically-sealed bags that we would bury in the snow, going back down to the previous camp in order to give our bodies a chance to acclimatise as per the ‘climb high, sleep low’ maxim, and then returning with lighter loads to dig up our caches a few days later. Such was the procedure when moving up Ski Hill to the 3,000-metre Camp II, and then on to the 3,400-metre Camp III where, a week into the climb, I took advantage of a sunny, windless day to quickly wash myself from head to toe. Drying myself while sitting on an overturned Pulk, I suddenly noticed how bruised my hipbones were, due to the harness that I had been using to pull the heavy load. What’s more, my protruding bones also made me realise just how much weight I had lost, in spite of retaining a fairly good appetite. At high altitudes, the body starts consuming itself, as it burns extra calories to ght the hypoxia and cold. Still, washing myself after so many days of hard physical effort certainly felt good, even if it was quite painful when the water that I splashed around the groin area quickly cooled and froze.

My guides and fellow climbers came from very different parts of the world, yet we formed a good squad consisting of two three-man rope teams: Cory led Anthony and me, while Bill did the same for John and Phil who, despite suffering due to his relative lack of tness, often livened up the atmo- sphere with his English wit. We all got along quite well, and Bill’s pasta and burrito meals compensat- ed for his occasionally cheeky comments. He was - and still is - a good mountaineer, with lots of ex- perience and more than one Everest summit under his belt. Cory, too, knew his stuff, although he had very little high-altitude experience. His cooking was ne, too, and he often came up with delicious concoctions like chocolate cheesecakes and hot sandwiches that we baptised ‘Bacon McBagels’.

Being a farmer from Australia, Anthony had several – let’s just say – ‘unusual’ habits that took some getting used to, while John, a divorced insur- ance broker who lived with his three children in Or- ange County, California, was probably the ‘coolest’ of the bunch. Talking of which, the immense cold didn’t stop us from spending good times together inside the mess tent that we erected at each loca- tion, housing a central console and seats that we dug in the snow.

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.