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In response to requests that I present a record of our 1998 ascent of Denali (Mt. McKinley) I here endeavor to present a brief accounting of that climb. As will soon be evident, writing is not a gift I am endowed with but what was even more quickly evident to me, is that with or without endowment, writing is painful. It thus shares some of the same feelings as climbing does, and probably is as potentially dangerous. Not only is it dangerous for those lofty souls whose writings confront injustice and provoke change, but also probably dangerous for me if I had to rely on it for my sole occupation.
Now, to the mountain and to the climb. Denali, at 20,320 feet, is the highest peak in North America and though it is much lower than Mt. Everest, it is colder due to its position near the Arctic Circle. Denali is the historical and original name for the mountain, and for that reason the one used by climbers, from the first climber, early in this century, the Rev. Hiram Stuck, up to present day mountaineers. It is also the official name of the park that surrounds the peak itself. Although "McKinley", by a certain twist of history remains the mountain's official name, Denali is what almost all climbers and most everyone in Alaska calls it. We named our expedition "Free Burma Rangers" and had a flag made up with that name in red above mountains of blue on a field of white. On this adventure, we also carried an American, Thai, and Alaskan flag, all of which we planned to carry to the summit. And speaking of adventures, this adventure, like most proper adventures, completely met Bilbo Baggins' (of Hobbit fame), definition of an adventure, "Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" You the reader will soon see for yourselves the conduct and outcome of our particular adventure but first I would like to introduce our team.
There were four of us, Karen Eubank, Mike Stoneham, Pete Dawson, and myself. Expedition member support climber- we had only one-Karen Eubank, my lovely wife, and cheerful partner in numerous Eubank-Torture-Tours. She said that mountaineering was all well and good for three or four days at a stretch, but that living on ice for weeks at a time in a small tent with three other men was a bit too scruffy for her. While she has climbed the highest peaks in the Alps, Sierras, Cascades, and Tetons, and has an amazing amount of power packed into a less than Amazon frame, she still showed no zeal for a month on Denali. So, in preservation of matrimonial harmony, she enthusiastically volunteered to haul loads as far as the 11,000 ft. camp, and then drop down and extract via ski plane. This worked out well as Pete would only have 13 days on the mountain, and we needed to get all supplies up as high as possible so that when he came in he would only have to haul his personal gear and thus be able to chance the very rapid ascent he would have to make in order to summit and be off the mountain by 19 June. Karen was thus our small but quite durable sherpani.
Summit Climbers-These we had three of- Mike Stoneham, Pete Dawson, and myself.
Mike Stoneham: Mike is a long-time friend and fellow torture-mate from Special Forces days. He is currently a major in the US Army Special Forces and on a teaching assignment at West Point. Mike is an accomplished climber, skydiver, cyclist (among other things has biked across the USA), and all around hard man. More than these he is a true and trusted friend whom I respect and love. Mike is of a literary bent and provided much needed intellectual and artistic flavor to our team. He presided over our discussions on literature great and otherwise. Our selection of books included: the Bible, Conrad's "Nostromo", G. Young's amazing account of living with the Lahu peoples of Northeast Thailand and hunting man-eating Tigers and Leopards, "Tracks of an Intruder", a Navy leadership book (which was good for its humor value), Maile's," A Year in Provence", Wallace's "Ben Hur", a few other titles that now escape me, and Pete's high-brow offering - A hooah novel in the Clancy tradition.
Pete Dawson: Pete is my brother-in-law, and boyhood friend from Thailand times. Pete is a nuclear submarine officer in the US Navy. He has been closest friend and is the charter member of Eubank-Torture-Tours, and although we have not yet managed to kill ourselves, it has not been for lack of trying. It was his wife, my sister Laurie, who accompanied me into Burma to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and has been a strong support in our work for a free Burma. She is also a mountaineer but this time volunteered to look after their two children while Pete climbed.
Karen was quite satisfied with the composition and relative sanity of the team and before we launched gave us our expedition motto, "CLIMB OR DIE!" (This motto drawn from Amy Carmichael's writings on the spiritual life and obedience to God's call, served us well and we chose to climb rather than die.) The expedition members converged from Italy, via the east coast, from West Point, NY, and from Thailand. Pete was being re-assigned from a NATO assignment in Italy through a Naval Officer school in New England, flying into Alaska on 5 June. Mike came in from New York, leaving his very generous wife to maintain the Stoneham patrol base and its free spirited troops. Karen and I came from a month of hectic work along the Thai-Burma border, as well as inside Burma, hastily throwing gear into duffel bags and rucksacks, arriving in Alaska on 29 May. Mike, Karen, and I were hosted above and beyond call of duty by Dave, Nanette, and Lydia Pierson in Anchorage. Dave is a top cyclist (which I found out personally by trying to draft behind him on what he called a leisurely bike ride), while Nanette is a champion marathoner. Much more than this, they are good friends and pillars of spiritual support. They head up the youth ministry at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Anchorage where we have many good friends. After being feted and feasted by the Arnolds, Maxine Johnson, Bill and Sue Bonner, (and later by the Friedmans), we realized that we would carry more than the usual supplies and impedimenta up Denali....we would also be carrying the love and prayers of so many wonderful people. As my parents told us upon return from a recent trip, "God has many wonderful friends that He like to share with us". Anyway, more friends are better than less and God has a lot of good ones.
On Sunday, 31 May, we spoke at 1st Christian Church, Anchorage (about our work in Thailand and Burma), and were warmly sent off with their love and prayers. Two experienced climbers had already died this week on Denali and the congregation was concerned. That same day we arrived in Talkeetna and checked in with K2 Aviation who would be flying us onto the glacier. Mike, Karen, and I were up early on 1 June and pleasantly surprised to find that K2 had put our expedition onto the first plane out! (This was to prove significant as the weather deteriorated later in the day eventually shutting down all glacier landings). Our pilot, Tom, was a rather quiet and calm yet vigorous man. He reminded me of some of the better special operations pilots, and he handled the small Cessna with grace and confidence. We touched down on the sloping ice of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7000 ft. elevation. There were 10 to 20 climbers from other expeditions crowding along the edge of the "strip". None of them had summitted, but instead had endured the thrashing by some of Denali's worst weather in years. We had heard before landing, that the 1998 season was so far, one of the worst in history, that two lives were lost already, and that no one had summitted. As we loaded our equipment onto sleds, (leaving a three-day supply of food and fuel, spare stove, and tent buried in the ice), the skies closed in and it began to snow. The first part of the route is actually a gradual descent from a side arm of the Kahiltna Glacier, down to the main flow itself. Once on the main Kahiltna, it was up at a continuous, yet not steep, grade. The packs and sleds were 170 pounds each for Mike and I, and around 80 pounds for Karen.
We were carrying a month's worth of food and fuel in addition to all the snivel gear we owned and could afford (Due to Mike's procurement skills and the generosity of 40 Below, we ended up affording the best there is.) To digress briefly on equipment, we each carried basically the following on our persons and in our rucksacks: rope, ice axe, crampons, harness, prussics, -20 sleeping bag, Marmot 8000m down parka and pants, full Gore-Tex suits, two pairs of mitts, double plastic climbing boots, 40 below overboots, pile jacket, gloves, glove liners, polypro. underwear light and heavy, socks, baklava, face mask, goggles, sunglasses, cameras, sleeping pads, first aide kits, numerous other sundry items, two stoves, 1 Wild-Country mountain tent, shovels, ice axes, ice screws, pickets, a deadman snow anchor, ropes, belay devices, mechanical ascenders, and various other iron mongery. It, along with the duffels full of one-day, three- man packs of food and 4 gallons of fuel, made quite a pile, and made us feel like some arctic version of Incas dragging unreasonable loads to even less reasonable heights.
As we moved that first day, the snow increased, and visibility dropped to about 150 feet. Four hours later at 8000 feet, we established our first camp. Here we improved an existing tent position and settled in for our first night of the climb, although night never really occurs in June on Denali. We ate Spaghetti that Karen made. This was to be just about our last non-freeze dried meal of the expedition. The temperature was only about 0 at the coldest time (2 am), but inside the tent it was not much below freezing. The second day (2 June), we began the haul from 8000' to 10,500'. This was a smoker as the terrain grew steeper and the route had a rather endless quality. We came to a level spot at 10,500', at about 6 in the evening and began to dig out a fighting position for our tent. "We" is used here in a very general way as Mike and Karen did most of the work, with Mike excavating prodigious amounts of snow for the main tent site (deep enough to position a medium tank, hull-down), while Karen worked her mastery on her specialty, the toilet and stairs. Due to altitude sickness which hit me about the time the real digging commenced, I started our two stoves and began to melt snow. Although I was now in full employ , continued to give helpful comments and suggestions-not always as enthusiastically received as I would have hoped.
The next day, we had a very short move up to 10,800' which we planned to establish as a lower base. From here, Mike and I would carry food and fuel to higher caches and this would be the camp that Pete would come to in one long push from the LZ (landing zone). On the 4th of June, we woke to snowfall. Mike and I decided to climb with a cache to at least 13,500. Into our rucks and onto our sleds we loaded numerous three-man food packs and two gallons of fuel. We set off strongly but soon began to feel the effects of altitude and the steep slope. We maintained a good pace, however, and in two hours, unexpectedly broke through the clouds into bright sunshine. The views were breathtaking and the scale of Denali and her surrounding peaks humbled us. It was not long before we reached the slopes below Windy Corner and by that time we had each acquired new code names: Mike was "Sherpa-boy", for his tireless work and tendency to call me Bwana, while he gave me the moniker, "Windstopper" after my amazingly expensive and amazingly new gloves of the same name. These were bright red North Face beauties that indeed stopped the wind, yet whose cost alone almost stopped all thought of purchase. Only horrific tales of frozen and gangrenous digits eased the shock of payment and only now in the often less than friendly world of Denali, were they truly appreciated.
We approached Windy Corner and as we traversed its steep slope , our sleds swung violently down, hanging perpendicular to our bodies and in their own mindless and inanimate way attempted to pull us into the abyss below. We dug our ice axes in and rounded Windy Corner with out mishap and crossing a large crevasse field set up our cache at 13,500 feet. Many of these crevasses could swallow a school bus, and further below, some looked ready to handle the whole school! We then took a few minutes to enjoy the beauty around us, the Kahiltna Glacier behind us, the West Buttress rising and sweeping steeply to our left, the great drop down to the North East Fork of the Kahiltna to our right, and straight ahead the South Face of Denali, and crowning top of the face, 7000 feet above us, it's icy summit. Satisfied with the work done and in awe of the stupendous surroundings, we turned back with empty rucks and sleds and had a beautiful descent. Along the way, we marveled at the 17,000 ft white hulk of Mt Foreaker to the south, and then at 12,500', the sheer Father and Son wall between the Northwest ridge and the West Buttress. This wall of pink granite and ice rose up massively and vertically to the black argillite of Denali's North Peak.
Once down to the top of Motorcycle Hill, we paused again to gaze at the stark beauty of the Peters Glacier thousands of feet below us. Below and beyond that glacier and the mountains that guarded it, stretched tundra and shimmering rivers and lakes. Then we kick-stepped down, down, down past the 11,000 ft camp where at least 10 expeditions were massed on down to 10,800' where Karen had hot drinks and chow laid on. This day, was for me, one of the highlights of the climb. As the weather turned out to be perfect we climbed strongly and well, and we managed to put 150 pounds of food and fuel up high. Coming down we both felt light and free and fully able to appreciate the grandeur around us. Best of all, was seeing my wife and the much improved camp when we returned. Having her serve us excellent food and hot beverages was a tremendous help after a long day of climbing and made our camp seemed even home-like.
The following day (June 5), we had planned as a rest day and did just that. We melted snow, ate, read and slept. This day the snow also fell and fell heavy all day. There was however, one event that should be noted , June 5th was Karen and my fifth wedding anniversary, and we celebrated it in fine style. We dined on the finest our supplies could offer and finished with a reading of Proverbs 31-this was for Karen. Having Mike along to celebrate our anniversary was certainly novel and we only were missing his wife Ellen to have a proper double date. ( Ellen, like Laurie was also taking care of their two children but we missed her cheerful company and unmatched culinary skills. Due to her absence we lacked the Japanese treats and other delectables that she is known for. However, upon my request she had sent a large bag of chocolate-chip and walnut cookies with Mike) Also on this day, Mike and I began what was to be an expedition-long discussion of things theological. We started each day with a short prayer and enjoyed long discussions on God, God's will for us, our choice to obey, the value (or lack thereof) of prayer, and our admitted doubts and perplexities.
June 6th came with increasing wind and more snow. The plan this day was for me to carry one more load of food and fuel up high, and for Karen and Mike to go back down to the 7000 ft LZ. Karen would fly out on the plane that brought Pete in, and Mike and Pete would then commence the long climb up to our 10,800 foot camp. This plan hinged on good weather for a plane to bring Pete in as well as Pete being able to push all the way from 7,000 ft to the 10,800 camp in one day. This climb normally takes at least three days and when we had earlier told another expedition of our plan, they exclaimed, "that's impossible, you can't do it! The Irish team pushed to 9,700 in one day and they looked like they were going to die." But, we didn't have any other options because of Pete's limited time on the mountain. We did, however, have some things going for us. One, Pete's ability to acclimate amazingly rapidly (once climbing Mt. Blanc, 15,800, in less than 24 hours with no effect). And the fact that Pete is extremely strong and of pit-bull like determination. If convinced something needed to be done, then there is no stopping him. Some may consider these attributes alarming, but to our merry band, they created a familial bond. Two, Mike would be leading him back up and as he too was of similar pit-bull stock, as well as being an excellent navigator - they could pull it off. Mike had volunteered to have the honor of picking up Pete and leading him back. This was a big help to me as I do not acclimate well and could use every additional day at altitude.
The morning of the 6th, I prepared a load of food and fuel to take up as high as I could while Mike and Karen roped up for the descent. They left in increasing winds and snowfall. I kissed Karen goodbye and gave Mike a gentlemanly shake of the hand, said a prayer, and once they were down the slope and out of sight, I shouldered my ruck and began to climb up towards Motorcycle Hill. This hill is a steep slope that leads up to the top of the divide between the Kahiltna and Peters glaciers. From there the route climbs up over squirrel point (named after an off-route rodent that survived for a while on climbers caches). At the base of this slope the winds had picked up to 40-50 mph. A Swiss team was already 100 feet up the slope burdened with full packs and heavy sleds. The wind had stripped away all the snow and the face was now hard ice. As I front-pointed by the Swiss, I could see they were having a difficult time with their much heavier loads on this now treacherous slope. At the top of Motorcycle Hill, another expedition huddled together in what was now at least a 60 mph wind. Pieces of snow and ice were flying through the air making it very difficult to see and climbing up against the wind made the ascent higher not only more difficult, but more painful. In spite of this, I felt strong and acclimated, and very happy to be free of the horrible sled. I also felt very happy that I was free to go up instead of down and was again grateful for Mikes hard work.
I passed a Polish expedition at 12,300. They were struggling upward in the fierce wind and had stopped to clear ice from their goggles. Once at 12,500 I came to the final expedition I would see that day. This was a group of Americans who had their shovels out, and with these, along with their ice axes, were attempting to hack a hole in the side of an ice slope. Feeling still strong, I proclaimed probably a bit too cheerfully, "great day, huh" (because of the wind, I had to shout this even though I was face to face with them). They looked at me with incomprehension and I could see the pain and worry etched on their faces. I found out later that the winds at the top of this plateau were over 90 mph and Windy Corner was living up to its name. No one was going any further that day and as I was alone, unroped, and with no belay, I thought it would be unwise to continue, especially if the clouds descended and a white-out was joined to the already fierce winds. Even climbers roped together had perished attempting Windy Corner in less serious weather. So I hacked out a hole in the ice, buried my cache, and with an empty ruck began the descent to the 10,800 camp. I'd only gone 100 feet when clouds closed in and swirling snow, mixed with driving winds reduced visibility to zero. By the time I was at 10,900 all previous tracks were covered and I could not see the route down. I knew the general azimuth from the 11,000 ft camp to our camp at 10,800, but also remembered the large crevasses on each side of our camp making even a 1 degree drift in either direction unhealthy. So I followed the azimuth as painstakingly as I could. When my altimeter showed 10,800 I stopped as I was at the altitude of our camp and decided to wait in hope that I might catch a glimpse of the camp through the blowing snow. Within about 5 minutes, was a small break in the clouds and I saw the camp.
I waded through now knee deep snow to find the tent almost completely buried in fresh snow. As I dug the tent out, I wondered how Mike and Karen were faring on the trip down. I chastised myself for not convincing them to carry down snowshoes and thought that I had exhibited a poor piece of leadership. For all my years of climbing that I could be so stupid angered me, but it was too late. I decided that the only thing I could do was that if I heard a plane come in the next day, I would drag all our snowshoes down to the LZ in a sled. With them Mike and Pete would at least have a chance of making the trip back in one day. However, I thought that there was no way a plane would get into the glacier in this kind of weather and that Mike and Karen would be waiting at least a few days at the LZ. So, resigning myself to a long wait I began to shovel the tent clear of accumulated snow. As I had to shovel every two hours this kept me more than occupied.
The winds now were blasting around our little camp but what I didn't know was that lower down the weather had not yet deteriorated so badly. Mike and Karen had sped down to the LZ only to find there were no planes coming in. Meanwhile, back in Talkeetna, Pete was in the K2 office persistent in his pleas for a flight in. No one would fly in this weather was the reply but one K2 pilot, Tom (who had flown us in originally and who was soon to be our hero) said, "yea, I'll fly". So Pete and Tom hurried out to the plane and took off for the Kahiltna. As they landed, the storm had almost descended to the LZ and things had become a bit more sporting. But Tom put the plane down on the ice, Pete jumped out, and Karen, with Mike's help raced to the plane and urged on by Tom who yelled, "Hurry, we have to go right away." Mike threw her rucksack in, Pete gave her a quick hug and she lept in the plane. Tom immediately revved the still-running engines and the plane shot down the glacier bouncing over the ice on its skis and then was airborne. This was the only plane that came in that day, and the last plane to land for four days.
Mike helped Pete organize his gear and load the sleds and they set off up the glacier. As the storm grew worse, visibility decreased to almost zero. At one point, after about seven hours of movement, and confronted with ever-growing winds and an inability to see their route, they began to excavate a snow cave for use as a shelter. When Mike had almost completed digging the cave, there was suddenly a clearing and they could see they were indeed on route, and had made relatively good progress. So rechecking their bearings, they set off in hopes that they would soon meet me in the tent at 10,800'. Minutes after they resumed their climb the storm closed in again with now increased fury. Back at the tent, at about 4 in the morning, I had just crawled into my sleeping bag after shoveling out the tent and I thought I was dreaming when I heard, "hey Dave, get out of the rack!". When this call was repeated, with the addition of, "you lazy slug", I knew it was no dream and with amazement and joy scrambled to make room for Pete and Mike. They were encrusted from heat to toe in ice and looked whipped. I got out of the tent so they could organize themselves and get into their bags. They had accomplished an amazing feat, especially in the current weather conditions. Because of Tom's willingness to fly and Pete and Mikes ability to navigate and make fast progress, we now were well situated for the second phase of our climb.
The storm lasted three more days and for the first two, Pete and Mike mostly rested while I cooked and melted snow. Also, due to the rest they needed, I did most of the initial shoveling to keep the tent clear and thus was responsible for the first near disaster of the trip. As I was shoveling around the tent, a big gust of wind swept the blade of the shovel against the tent tearing the fabric. This we immediately repaired but were left wondering if our now weakened tent would disentigrate under worse conditions. Mike later made me feel a lot better about this by placing his ice axe through the front vestibule creating a third and unwelcomed entry. This was also repaired. On 9 June, the storm was still with us, but the winds were not as high. Pete and Mike were feeling strong and we were all ready to leave what we called the "ice-swamp". The inside of the tent smelled worse than most locker rooms, and even newly arrived Pete was beginning to lose his freshness. When he had first entered the tent , in his relatively clean clothes, he was quite horrified at our six-day old stench, and more than once, reproached us. But it didn't take long for him to drop to our standard of living and by now, everything was damp and worse than that, the cherry pie that Pete had brought was long since gone. It was time to go.
We cached our snow shoes and three days of food and fuel, and then each carrying a ruck and pulling a fully-laden sled, we climbed up Motorcycle Hill. We broke out of the clouds at 13,000 and finally escaped from the storm. Pete was quite smoked by this movement as he had only been on the mountain 3 days, whereas Mike and I had been up for 6 and had already climbed to 13,500 earlier. Also, to make sure that Pete didn't feel cheated by missing out on our earlier carries, we gave him the heaviest load. We set up camp in a prepared tent site recently vacated by the Polish expedition. They had been trapped four days here by the storm. They were very interested in our "Free Burma " expedition flag and voiced strong support for the democracy movement there. Having lived under a dictatorship, they felt deeply the value of freedom and knew the sacrifice it demanded. Their expression of support was very moving to me. The next day we hauled all our gear, plus what we cached earlier, in what amounted to about 130 lb. per person to 14,200 where we once again established camp. The following day, 11 June, was a rest and acclimation day, where Pete made a rather gourmet concoction of butter fried tortillas with melted Jack and Provolone cheese. Mixed in with the cheese was shredded jerky and over this was spread a generous amount of cream cheese. A couple of dashes of Grey Poupon and Tabasco sauce completed this masterpiece and we each our fill. The sun shone the whole day and we studied the route up to 16,000 ft. while our sleeping bags and down gear dried out.
Twelve June was snowy and windy and of the 10 or so expeditions at 14,200, we were the only ones who set out. Our mission was to carry a seven day load of food and fuel to 16,200 where we would cache it. We would then descend and spend another night or two at the 14,200 camp acclimating. We climbed through knee deep snow that smoked us until we got to 15,000 feet. There the face steepend sharply and we attached our ascenders to beginning of the fixed rope. There is about 1000 feet of fixed rope on the West Buttress headwall put in place by the guide services. Everyone uses it and is grateful. It is however, an absolute smoker and not a lot of fun with full packs. The headwall seemed near vertical in places and the climb was made significantly more sporting by the high winds that lashed us. Bits of ice and powder snow were being whipped through the air, making it very difficult to see and making this part of the route unpleasant. It was on the fixed ropes that Pete received his Denali codename, the "Claw". Every hundred feet or so a fixed rope was anchored by an ice picket and tied off, so at every anchor point we had to detach our ascenders and re-attach them on the rope above the anchor. Pete could not open the gate on his ascender without taking his mitts off which meant his gloved hand began to look like an ice-coated birds claw by the time we were only half way up the face. He persevered, however, and at 16,200 we topped out on the West Buttress. We cached our supplies and made a hasty rappel back down the fixed ropes in brutal conditions.
We took another day off at 14,200. and then in bright sunshine and perfect weather, we set out for 16,200 on the 14th of June. We recovered our cache at on the top of the ridge, and on the north slope of the Buttress, dug out an old snowcave. This cave had been cut out of the ice years before by the famed Alaskan guide, Brian Okonek, and although filled with snow, his work made ours much easier. The cave was big enough for us three and our gear, but emptied out onto the steep north slope of the Buttress. This was the same slope where three climbers had recently fallen to their deaths. Two had died two days before we started climbing, and the other had fallen to his death in the same storm that had trapped us at 10,800'. We built a small revetment around the entrance to our cave and placed our own fixed rope from the cave back up to the top of the ridge. We felt like three little birds perched as we were in the entrance to our cave/nest. But a colder nest would be hard to find and although inside our icy hole we were safe from any storm, it was not exactly a relaxing place. As Mike had a bad headache coming up, and as I wanted to be cautious about my own and Pete's acclimatization, we spent the 15th of June resting and melting snow.
For those interested in things of a more personal nature, such as our relationship on the expedition, I must report that we had no major conflicts or arguments except for a uncooperative lighter that received a furious, yet well-deserved thrashing followed by its ejection from the camp by Mike. Cooking was also often a battle of endurance, that is, he who could stay in his bag the longest, could probably be ensured of someone else finally getting up and starting the stove, at which point, the cook would toss bits of insults and sarcasm back into the tent. If that failed, the cook would eventually devise some necessary task which was impossible to do alone and shame the bag-bound ones into action. Although Pete may have carried heavier loads than anyone, he also was the hands-down champion of sleeping bag endurance. In terms of outlook on the climb I think we all viewed the whole experience with gratitude. It was a wonderful thing to be high in the mountains of Alaska, surrounded by majestic beauty, with such fine friends. In terms of the climbing itself, I viewed it a bit like a campaign of war, with the need for careful and deliberate action following a coherent strategy. Although surrender was not a Ranger word, I was also unwilling to rush up the mountain, possibly compromising safety or incurring serious altitude-sickness that could spell the end of the climb and I wanted to actually have a chance to enjoy the climb every now and then. There were moments of enjoyment or fun, although to quote a fellow Denali climber, "the whole thing is kind of like fun, only different". It was not too difficult to have agreement on climbing strategy, but Mike did question my caution at times, while Pete who was much less acclimated questioned only whether or not we were going to continually give him the heaviest loads. I felt our plan was not too cautious, but was a carefully calculated strategy to maximize success. I had been thinking in detail about even during my treks inside Burma, months earlier. ( And in terms of Burma, during one particular mission, during which the possibility of ambush by a Burmese Army patrol was real, I remember thinking how terrible it would be never to see my wife again and to miss out on climbing Denali. Such was my pre-occupation with Denali. A pre-occupation which I enjoyed as I find that there is almost as much joy in planning an adventure as going on one.),...now back to the climb. Mike and Pete may have done it a little differently, but I respected their willingness to readily agree even though their own strategies may have differed by a day or a certain placement of a camp. We reached all our decisions by consensus and from the beginning agreed that we would only do what all felt right doing.
Early morning on the 16th we pulled on all of our poly-pro and Gore-Tex layers as well as overboots. We then put on our 8000 m. down parkas and emerged from the cave like fat caterpillars. We roped up and with crampons biting into the hard ice, began the climb up. We soon reached the crest of the ridge and turning to the east climbed for the end of the West Butress at 17,200. From there it would still be 3,000' to the summit. It was around 7 in the morning and bitterly cold. Pete carried our only ruck for this summit attempt, and in it we had our three down pants, a spare pair of mitts, and a first aid kit. Inside our jackets and next to our bodies we each carried two water bottles as well as some candy bars. Our plan was to rotate the pack every 1000 feet. As we did throughout the climb, I was at the front of the rope, Pete was in the middle, and Mike was at the end. It took us less than two hours to climb up to 17,200 where we knew there were at least 4 expeditions camped. 17,200 is the usual high-camp from which expeditions launch their summit bids. We had chosen to go for the summit from the lower 16,200 camp because we thought we would be better acclimated, (the climb high-sleep low program), and we would not have to haul our loads any higher. Also, we knew that even if we were not the most skilled team on the mountain, we had good endurance and were fast and should make use of these strengths. Much to the chagrin of Pete and Mike, we became especially fast whenever there was an expedition climbing in front of us. For a probably less than sufficient reason, it was always a good thing to me when we passed these teams up and again had the horizon to ourselves.
The climb along the ridge was the most spectacular of the route. With great exposure off both sides, yet never exceeding class 3 or 4 in difficulty, it is an alpine classic. When we got to the 17,200 camp, we were amazed to find that none of the expeditions had moved.. We looked up at 18,000 ft Denali Pass above us and saw why. Snow was streaming over the pass and the winds there were howling, obviously making climbing not only more difficult, but dropping the temperatures well below minus 50. As we passed through the encampment (which is in a shallow dip between the top of the West Buttress and the Northwest Face below Denali pass), a climber from another expedition yelled, "you'll never make it, the winds are too high!" But we were committed, gave no response, and kept on moving. Another climber then yelled, "if you make it to the top of the pass, wave so we can see what it is like up there." From 17,200 to the pass is not steep, only 30 to 40 degrees yet because of the altitude and conditions on the face, this part of the West Buttress route has seen the most fatalities. It took us two more hours to reach the pass where we were almost blasted off our feet by the wind.. Hunching over, we took off our sunglasses and put on our goggles, and cinching down our hoods continued our ascent up. To our amazement, there were four rope teams behind us. It seemed our going gave them the confidence they needed or more likely, our freshly kicked steps were too great a temptation. However, all but one of these rope teams, made an abrupt about face upon reaching the pass and it's winds. The one rope team that continued was led by a professional guide named Marty Schmidt whom we had met earlier at 16,200. He was a world class climber with ascents of Everest, K2, and numerous other difficult peaks. He was guiding a Brazilian and for the first time we were passed. I was more than happy to follow as between 18,500 and 19,500 the snow drifted up to two feet deep in places. However, the wind blew so strong, and at times visibility became so bad due to wind driven snow, and our own altitude induced tunnel vision, that I quickly lost the tracks and had to make my own. Mike had carried the pack after Pete's turn was up at 17,200 and he had given it to me when we hit Denali Pass at 18,000. I was now carrying it. Although the winds were strong, and our faces and goggles coated with blown ice, we were never thrown off our feet and continued to make progress. I thought that as long as we could move upward, we could make the summit, even if we had to crawl. We climbed an undulating series of ice humps and minor ridges up to the Archdeacon's Tower, a rock pinnacle at 19,500. Up to now, we had been taking one step and pausing for two breaths and then another step. This rate of motion did not exactly make us feel we were eating up the miles!
Once at the plateau at 19,500, we could see directly in front of us, the steep northwest face of the summit headwall, and knew we were only 700 feet below the top. Here caching the ruck we took a sip from our canteens and looking at each other with the feeling of confidence and realization that barring any accident, we would summit, we started again to climb. It was at this time, that I wondered where Marty and his client had gone, for if not actually catching them, we should at least be now seeing them on the face no matter how fast they went. They were no where to be seen. The face was steep and battling continual wind, our climbing slowed to 6-7 breaths for every step. The winds had not abated and once reaching the top of the ridge there were hurricane force blasts. The top of the ridge at this point was only a few inches wide and off the south side the slope was very steep, dropping over 10,000 ft. to the glaciers below. In good conditions it would have been possible to climb along the very top of the ridge with a few traverses out on the northwest face. But with the high winds and icy conditions we were reduced to crawling, sometimes along the ridge top, sometimes traversing crab-like on the northwest face. We smoked ourselves pretty good in sinking our axes in for security and pulling ourselves along as we fought against the wind. At this point, it blew at around 80 mph. After a hundred feet of crawling along the ridge, we were able, once again, to stand and climb more normally. There was no question now of turning back, the summit was within reach and all we had to do was not give up and pay the price it was exacting this day. We climbed over a series of ice humps and cornices including one tremendous one that Mike later told me he'd hoped was the summit.
Finally the summit itself came into view about 70 feet ahead. I took the last steps to the top and digging in my crampons, turned and spread out my arms and yelled, "This is it! We did it!" Pete and Mike could not hear me and as they climbed up to the top, I pulled in the rope. The wind was so strong, we had difficulty standing on the summit. We did however, have a good view of all the terrain below us. The mountains, glaciers, tundra, of Alaska unfolded beneath us. Jagged ice-capped peaks clawed up at us through the swirling mists. Great white mountains reared before us and shining ice-falls writhed and cascaded below. Far below and beyond these, meandered powerful glaciers and issuing from these glaciers the great rivers of Denali....the Kahiltna,, the Yentna, the Tonzona, Tatina, to the south and west, the Ruth, and Hidden Rivers to the east, to the north and west the Herron, Slippery and McKinley and finally to the northeast, the mighty Toklat. It was exhilarating yet a victory that we knew was not complete; we still had to get down. The three of us embraced on the summit, I shouted a short prayer of thanks and we took turns taking summit photos. I had brought three cameras (2 print, 1 slide), but due to the the severe conditions and frostbite that had now inflicted each of us, Mike and I only managed a couple of shots a piece.(Despite our best efforts we each frostbit our noses and cheeks, but so far, our fingers and toes were ok.) I knew the descent would be more dangerous due to the conditions and our own fatigue. It was now 5 p.m. and we had been climbing hard for 10 hours. I thought of my wife and told myself, "be hard, Ranger!", and led down off the summit.
The final part of the ridge leading off the summit does not go in a straight line but rather in a curve so that when you leave the summit you are walking an arc along the top of the ridge. I led the rope out along this arc to the end of its curve. Pete was still on the summit untangling the rope and I stopped to wait for him directly across the curve. Because of this curve in the ridge, the rope did not run directly along the ridge but hung over a chasm between Pete and I. When Pete began to move, I saw that he was following the direct line of the rope rather than the ridge. Three more steps and he would walk off the south face. I yelled with all my strength and punched the air yelling at him "go right, go right", "get on the ridge". At 20,320 ft, talking, much less yelling, was absolutely exhausting. And as I gasped for air, I realized he did not understand me and was now only one step from walking off the face. At that moment three things happened, I jumped off the ridge top and sunk my axe into the northwest face yelling, "move right!", at the same time so that even if he walked off the face, I could possibly hold his fall on the opposite side of the ridge. The second thing that happened is that Pete hesitated, and the third thing that happened was Mike, behind Pete, realizing what was happening, grabbed his shoulder. Pete then realized what had almost happened and then why it had happened - he could not see. Wind driven ice had covered his goggles inside and out and he was almost blind. Pulling his now useless goggles off, he climbed down to me. We shortened our ropes so that we were close together and began to inch our way down the ridge. It was very tedious as we had to deeply sink our ice axes with every step in order to secure our descent.
I had wondered what had happened to Marty and his client since we went to the summit and had not seen any sign of them. I assumed that most likely the client had slipped on the steep ridge and pulled Marty down. I felt very sorry for them, yet knew there was nothing we could do, for if they fell, they could be 10,000 ft. below us and would be surely dead. After what seemed like an eternity we came to the point of the ridge where we left the ridge and dropped down the face. Once on the plateau below the Archdeacon's Tower, Mike picked up the rucksack and we pulled out our water bottles, only to find that even under our heavy down jackets, they had frozen. Up to this point, I had felt very strong and after reaching Denali pass earlier, sure of our success. But from here at 19,500 all the way down to our ice cave at 16,200', I felt weak and altitude sick. Although we all felt spent we moved well together and reached 17,000 ft. at about 10:30 that night. Walking up to the tent sites at 17,200 I was surprised to see a lone figure dressed in full down, standing and looking at us. As we drew closer, I realized it was Marty and that he was quite obviously alive. We embraced each other and I said, "man, I thought you were dead," to which he replied, "I thought you were dead." I said, "what happened?" He then told me that because of the conditions he had turned around at 19,000 and due to the blowing snow, we had never seen him pass. He said that he saw us go on, looking very determined and soldier-like, and that he thought then we were probably going to make it. But after the hours had gone by, and the winds increased he began to worry for us. Then, from out of his jacket he pulled a bottle of freshly boiled tea. This touched me deeply as melted water was one of the most precious and hard won commodities on any expedition. That he had taken the time - 1 to 2 hours- and used his own limited fuel to make this tea for us was overwhelming and I felt a great love for this tough yet caring man. While we were sharing the tea, Brian Okonek, the Alaskan guide, also came up to us (he would be leading an expedition on a traverse of McKinley and they had just established their high camp at 17,200). We visited briefly and we continued our descent arriving back at the ice cave before midnight.
Mike graciously made soup which we drank inside our bags and then he gave our final prayer of the day...a short and heartfelt thanks to God for His creation, our friendship, and the climb itself. We woke at 6:00 am but it wasn't until 8 that we began our final descent. Carrying everything , including cached supplies, we clipped into the fixed ropes and began to work our way down. For the only time of the entire climb, my crampon came off. When it did, I lost traction and was flipped upside down. With the weight of my pack pulling me backwards, it took an effort to right myself and put on the crampon, all the while hanging on the fixed line with the other hand. We descended 200 more feet and my crampon came off again. This time, Pete came down and helped me put it back on, much to my gratitude. Throughout the climb, we were able to help each other and it was a good feeling to be able to climb with very strong and competent partners. I am grateful for their courage and toughness and even more so, for their devotion. I too was devoted to Pete and Mike and we all knew that if anything was to happen to anyone of us, we would carry the other off the mountain, or die trying. These were also the kind of men who didn't confuse wisdom with suffering. Like most good things in life, climbing a big mountain like Denali will entail much suffering and it is at the height of this suffering that people often begin to confuse wisdom with the price of suffering that must be paid to summit. There are times, of course, when a summit is an impossible, or foolish gamble. The discernment of these times will be different for each person. However, long before true danger is upon us, we are often tempted to rationalize quitting and couch our rationalization in terms of wisdom and mature decision making. What made Pete and Mike such good partners was that they knew the price that must be paid and have a very difficult time quitting. And certainly suffering alone is not a good enough reason to quit. At the same time, they have no death wish, and love their families. Mountains are not their God. These things made us a good team and our comraderie made it fun.....or something close to that.
Once back at 14,200 the cache was dug up. Pete and Mike made some food and we decided we would at least get around Windy Corner that day. However, by the time we had descended to our final cache at 11,000 ft , we were all feeling strong and although it was midnight, there was, of course, light and the weather was perfect. Again, I led out with a sled behind me, followed by Pete who kept tension on my sled to keep it from slamming into me, and by Mike at the end, who controlled two sleds, Pete's and his own. During the climb, I had led and the price I paid for this was a bit of extra effort in step kicking although there were only a few days when this was much of a factor. Now, as we descended, I had it easiest. Pete and Mike controlled the three sleds while I strolled down the glacier. Every now and then, Pete would lose concentration and let the sled bang into my ankles. This happened only a couple of times, each resulted in me being knocked to the ice with a good laugh for Pete and Mike. But it was a small price to pay for having my hands free and having Pete and Mike manage the sleds. As we descended the glacier, all was still around us. There wasn't a cloud in sight and we were surrounded by hundreds of towering, ice-covered peaks and hanging glaciers. Over our heads, and moving in a circle around us, was the sun, which 'set" briefly from 1:00 am to 2:00 am. But even so, it never really got dark. The sky changed from light to royal to a deep, deep blue. Alpenglow lit up the peaks changing them from white to orange to firey red, then back to orange again. The ice we walked on also changed color...from dazzling white to steel blue, to grey. Down, down, down the glacier we moved gaining speed with every mile traveled and every foot of elevation lost. At 4:00 a.m., 20 hours after we had left our ice-cave at 16,200, we arrived at the LZ. We reconfigured our equipment for the aircraft and pulled out our bags at 5:00 a.m. for an hour's sleep. Later that morning, K2 Aviation was radioed and we heard our bird was inbound.
At 8:00 am I was amazed to see Marty Schmidt and his client with sleds behind them steaming into camp. They had summitted the day after us and in a non-stop, 36 hour movement, had gone to the summit, back down to their high camp and then descended all the way to the DZ. That was an amazing accomplishment, and I thought "man, this guy is the real thing". We chatted until our aircraft came in and then Pete, Mike and I loaded the ski equipped Beaver and took off for Talkeetna. The skies were clear and the sun was shining brightly. It was a perfect exfil with views of Denali, and the entire Alaska range below, behind, and above us as we flew out. In Talkeetna, we sorted and cleaned gear and began a post-ranger-school chow plan. The next day as we rode back to Anchorage, a storm blew in that would eventually trap five injured climbers near the summit of Denali for 5 days. Thankfully, the storm killed no-one, yet it would have if not for the discipline and endurance of the trapped climbers and the courage of the rescue teams and pilots who assisted them. We were fortunate to have made the summit as this year was one of the worst on record with very few successful summits. We were grateful for the breaks in the weather we did have, but most of all, for the opportunity to have climbed on a beautiful peak with good friends.
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