When I was training last year, some days I would keep going by imagining what my first words to all of you would be. The time has come to finally say those words and I’m speechless and trying hard to convey the multitude of emotions and thoughts that are cruising through me at this moment.
We arrived at the NOLS branch early this morning (3:00 am) after being up for 24 hours so please take all that I am saying in the context of extreme exhaustion and sleep deprivation that it emanates from…
How was it? It was everything. Every paradox known to exist…it was hard, easy, awful, amazing, beautiful, ugly, good weather, bad weather, I hated it, I loved it, I wanted to stay forever, I desperately wanted it to end…you get the picture…
Standing on the summit was very emotional-I probably could have sobbed up there for hours if I wasn’t worried about contact frostbite from the tears and if I could have caught my breath enough to cry-there has been tremendous upwelling over the past week as the realization of a year’s journey had come to fruition and indeed, facing into the void of what might come next…
The days were long for the most part-12 hours of travel, often requiring us to push well beyond where we thought when we needed or wanted to stop…pushing well beyond when our grocery tanks were long empty and every step was an act of will and determination. We took only 5 rest days in 31 and the toil shows on our bodies. As we travelled out of the park yesterday, several people wanted to feed us and some referred to us as “the walking dead.” All were interested in our stories. At one point, we thought they might have to put up a sign that said – “please don’t feed the mountaineers.” The summit peaked her head out as we drove away… the sight of how tall she is floored me and the magnitude of what I had accomplished began to seep in…
I am healthy and have all my fingers and toes. My feet are a bit torn up from all the hiking of the past week, my nose, lips, and ears have scabs and I look like a bit of a raccoon from all of the sun on the glacier. My bottom lip is a big mess and it’s hard to drink or eat-though it is healing fast now that I am down from altitude. I lost some weight but not as much as some of the guys – haven’t been on a scale yet.
That’s it for now…thanks so much for your notes and thoughts… there was many days I turned to them for inspiration and support. I took each and every one of you to the summit with me and I’m sure I could not have done it without you there behind me in the past month and past year.
With love as big as Denali,
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We got picked up at 7 am and drove to the NOLS base. The rest of the day was flat out with procurring gear, food and clothing for the expedition. We did some team building and started to get to know the fourteen folks who would make up the expedition team. 12 men and 2 women ranging in age from 20 to 42-all USers except for me and Yves who is from London. We learned to pitch the tents so that could withstand mountain storms and to tie knots in our rations bags that could be undone with mittens. We pared everything down to a minimum-trying to shave off ounces to save pounds. We dropped into an exhausted sleep that night.
Up early to pack everything and load the bus. We visit the NOLS Shrine and do a ritual where we all tie a knot in a piece of rope and commit to all of us coming back safely-a moving moment since the assistant director points out the Alumni Pin of a student who didn’t come back. He fell into a glacier moulin (river) and died some years back. We are somber as we get on the bus. Off to Talkeetna to have an orientation with the National Park Service. There, we see pictures of our route, the gory reality of frostbite and learn how to poop in a plastic bag as to not contaminate the mountain. We drive 4 more hours and attend another park orientation about camping in bear country. Normally they require campers to use bear canisters but they weigh 5 pounds a piece-weight we cannot afford. They want us to hike to “ice” (i.e. the glacier) the first day (a distance of 12 miles) but if we can’t make it-they want us to “circle the wagons and post a century.” This meant that we would leave the food in the middle of a circle of tents and post someone to watch for bears-if a bear came in, we would chase it away. This sentence became a theme for the expedition. We never did see any bears except from the park buses (thank goodness). We camped at the park entrance at Riley Creek Campground and continued to pare weight from our belongings by putting last minute items in an “amnesty” bag that would travel back to the NOLS headquarters with the bus. Again we dropped into a deep sleep.
Up early to get the camper bus into the park. Hike over to the Visitor Center in our plastic boots and heavy packs-that half-mile seems about enough for the day. We learn to walk like Frankenstein to preserve our feet rather than the traditional head to toe gait. There is a bit of a mix-up and we have to wait an extra hour to catch our bus. The tourists steal glimpses over at us and eye our “sharps” encased packs with suspecion. On the outside of our packs, we’ve strapped crampons, ice axes, and snowshoes. Finally we load the bus and we’re off on a four hour ride into the park. Dick is our bus driver and he has a quick wit and shows his park driving experience off to a “T.” He threatens to disembowel anyone who has him stop for a ground squirrel-he only wants to stop at “quality, close-up wildlife sightings.” We make the trip to Eielson Visitor Center in record time. Rangers meet us there and we load the packs into two vehicles for a four mile run up the road to the bluffs that will give us access to the “Thoroughfare.” Suddenly, it’s quiet. The rangers have gone. There is now no escape. My emotions are actually calmer as now I can’t turn back, I can’t escape, I’m in this adventure for the next 32 days. We make our way down the steep hill and start crossing the great braided river bed to the toe of the Muldrow Glacier. We review river crossing techniques and do our best to high step so we don’t soak our boots on this first day. Packs are heavy-mine weighs 66 pounds but it doesn’t feel too bad since I’ve been carrying that since Grand Canyon. It starts to rain a few hours in and we make camp in a clearing beside the glacier about five miles up the valley.
We awake to fog and rain. Pack and start walking up and beside the vegetation covered glacier. We are quickly soaked to the bone and cold but as long as we are hiking, body temperatures stay up. We spend the day walking along the lateral moraine (pile of rocks pushed aside by the glacier) and catching stolen glances at the peaks surrounding us. We make camp another five miles up in the pouring rain and it’s quite cold. I give up trying to dry my wet clothing on my body and change into dry stuff for the afternoon. I changed back into wet to cook dinner-such a lovely feeling to get back into wet cold clothes but I never soak all of my clothes…it a bottomline kind of thing for me. Eventually the sun comes out and we get to dry a bit before the next deluge. Exhaustion overtakes us again.
We get a break in the rain to cook breakfast and as soon as we’re packed it starts to rain again. This morning we climb onto the glacier for the first time, traversing it’s vegetative covered spine and making a big turn west-catching for the first time an enormous glance of the huge glacier in front of us-it appeared to stretch to infinity-piles and pile of rock reminicient of a lunar scape called us forward. Hills, dips, cliffs, turns, bends, and piles and piles of rocks block our passage and we have to weave our way through trying not to get hung up or dead-ended along the way. All three small hiking groups meet at the corner so we won’t be separated amoungst the pile of slag and we travel now as a group of 14. Every step requires concentration and I’m glad for my trekking poles that help keep my unruly load from winning. After lunch we climb onto a part of the glacier that is naked-it has no snow and no rocks-it is pure ice and suddenly travel becomes much easier but much hotter. We have our first experience of being “Corning Ware” from the freezer into the oven. Because the ice reflects so much of the sunlight that has finally appeared, we don bandanas under our hats and sunscreen every part of skin that is showing. We learn how to make an ice camp that night and wake up the next morning to crisp, frozen temperatures but at least we’ve been able to dry everything out.
The day’s travel starts easily on the ice of the glacier but soon we are driven back onto the slag piles of the moraine and travel slows to a crawl. We heave our bodies up and over seemingly endless piles of brown and red rock learning to evaluate the “Alaska factor,” where everything is further away than it appears. Slowly, ever slowly, we progress up the glacier strengthening our body and minds with every step. After 12 hours of moving, we make camp in a small snow patch…here we’re introduced to our snowshoes and some of the tricks of pitching camp in the snow. We drop into bed.
The days dawns clear and there is great hope we will reach McGonnegal Pass today. The peaks around us seem to glow with energy and possibility and we catch a glimpse of Denali for the first time. We see the back side of Karsten’s Ridge and the part of the route that we can see, looms large and impossible in front of us. Denali spurs us forward and we take to the world of rock once again. We have some interesting moments that require teamwork, scouting, and pack passing but 14 hours later we arrive at McGonnegal Pass and learn to pitch the tents amid the rocks by tiling a platform from flat rocks. Now the expedition is truly underway.
30 miles of tough hiking is under our belts and we get to sleep in for the morning. In the afternoon, we tackle our cache which was delivered by dogsled to the pass in March. It has our next 26 days of food, some climbing gear, and 24 gallons of stove fuel to sort out. The food was packed in bear resistent kevlar bags but somehow the ravens have figured out how to peck through them…some of the food is ruined by raven guano but how much is a big question? We take out the food and begin to sort it out into two categories (low and high ration). The low ration is 2 pounds of food per person per day has is higher in fat and protein. The high ration is 1.75 pounds of food per person per day and is mostly carbohydrates because they are more easily digested at altitude. The ravens have taken all of the raisins but not much else-a big sense of relief ripples through camp. The food gets lined out and the high ration gets re-packed into the green bags since it will be ferried up the mountain and won’t be touched for the next two weeks. Each bag weighs 25 pounds. The low ration gets divied up amoungst the cook groups and we feast that night with new food that will power us the mountain. A big bit of wind came in…37 mile per hour gusts and our thoughts turned to what winds we might face higher on the mountain since we were only at 5700 feet.
A day of classes and preparation. We learned to put our glacier rigs together and how to communicate and work together as rope teams. We learned how to haul a fallen climber out of a crevasse. In the afternoon, we did snow school and reviewed how to self-arrest, use our ice-axes to arrest a fall. We started by practicing sitting and sliding down the hill progressing to falling head first on our backs and finally barrelling down the hill on our bellies head first-using our axes to stop our falls. A fun yet somber class that brought out the inner child in all of us. We returned to camp to dry out our snow soaked clothes and boots.
Let the work begin. AJ, the expedition leader, had framed the expedition as requiring lots of work on our part but said that fun could be interspursed with the work or that we could make the work fun so he used the word WFOURNK (work with fun in the middle of it) to describe what was required of us. It became another of our rallying cries…we said it aloud, we said it to ourselves, we wrote it in the snow, we wrote it in our journals. Today was our first carry and our first roped glacier travel. We aimed big and made our loads huge (probably too big). We carried all of the green bags (high ration), most of the black bags (low ration) and some of the clothes and gear we wouldn’t need until later. My pack was well over 70 pounds and hurt to carry. The rain began as soon as we were packed and a fog decended making route finding tricky. We wore our snowshoes for the first time and began to settle into the routine of travelling 15 metres apart on the rope.
Each rope team chose a name to use in communication. Zero means stop moving. Clear means it’s OK to move. You need to adjust your speed so there is no slack but no one is being pulled or yanked-it takes constant vigilance and attention. My first team used the lovely brand new orange and black and yellow rope so we called ourselves the mango team. We were the first team to head out. I was second behind Mike one of the instructors and we had to break trail through the snow for the four miles to Camp One.
Camp One was located just below the Lower Ice Fall. It took us 6 hours to get there, we dug a metre deep hole to stash the food and gear and fuel in, covered it back up with snow, and headed back to our McGonnegal camp. It took us three hours to get back. We were the last rope team on the return trip so our exhausted legs got to take a break and enjoy the work hardened trail we forged in the morning. Back at camp in the early evening, we made a quick dinner and dropped into bed with aching bodies and expanding spirits.
Stay tuned for the next instalment and see what happens as the team begins to carry loads in ernest up the mountain.
We awake to pouring rain and fog. We break camp with everything soggy and move up the glacier to Camp One (6900 feet). We travel an hour faster than the day before, dig out the cache and begin to dig out our first glacier snow camp. Some folks probe the campsite to make sure that we are not camped on top of any crevasses. Crevasses are cracks in the glacier ice-sometimes 3 inches wide-sometimes 3 feet wide. They get covered by snow and lie in wait for the unsuspecting, unroped mountaineer. Crevasses can be several hundred feet deep. One the perimeter is probed; it is marked with bamboo wands. No one can go outside the perimeter unless they are part of a rope team. The whole campsite for the 14 of us is approximately 30 feet by 50 feet. Tight living quarters both inside and outside the tents.
We dig for about three hours creating a level platform for the tent, a large hole for a kitchen, and walls to protect the tent in case of storms. Down low, we only make wall foundations (about 3 feet high). Up higher we will build six-foot walls at any hint of stormy weather. We are using four season heavy-duty tents but huge mountain winds can flatten a tent in seconds causing the poles to collapse and the tent fabric to tear-a catastrophic situation.
I camped in one of the four-person groups. Our tent was about 6 feet by 6 feet. The four of us slept head to foot to maximize room in the tent (basically we were packed in like sardines no matter how we arranged things). We dug out the vestibule of the tent (front porch), which gave us a place to sit and put on our boots and outerwear. Snow kitchens can be quite elaborate affairs with counter tops, fridges (dugout areas to store water so it wouldn’t freeze), sump holes, food storage areas and spice racks. We all peed at the lower camp perimeter to minimize the chance of drinking yellow snow and we found a “pooper” crack to handle “number 2.” The ideal pooper crack is 3 inches wide and deep. Feces are dropped into the crack with judicious aim and snow is the toilet paper of choice at lower altitudes.
We melt snow for drinking water and cooking and soon fall into bed for a deep sleep.
The day dawns clear. I volunteer for the day’s scouting mission through the Lower Ice Fall. Six of us head out early while the rest of the team takes a rest day. We head up through the fall and pass quickly under the high risk area of Big Bertha, a hanging glacier that has the potential to drop house-sized blocks of ice on climbers who’ve ill-timed their passage. Once we safely pass Big Bertha, there is still a mile of rock fall danger so we continue to travel quickly until we top out onto a large flat area in the middle of the glacier. The sun rises and the cloud cover rises and we get our first glimpse of the route. The scouting party goes quiet in awe. Wow. “That’s where we are going?” we ask in high squeaking voices. “Indeed,” replies Hunter, one of the instructors. We don’t say much for the next hour as we make our way towards and through the Hill of Cracks. We find our next campsite and probe out a small perimeter to save time the next day. We have a bit of time left so we head off into the Great Ice Fall trying to forge a route for the move after next. We go one way and get blocked by a large crevasse. Back track and try another. Blocked again. The third try gets us a bit further. It’s good to be scouting with such light packs. We make it about one-third of the way through the icefall when the fog descends again and visibility drops to zero. We follow our tracks and the wands we’ve left like breadcrumbs back to camp hurrying once again through the area of rock fall and under Big Bertha’s icy threat. We are welcomed back to camp with freshly baked corn bread and tell excitedly of the day’s adventures and views. Bed beckons for exhausted bodies.
We are now operating on Glacier Standard Time (GST). In order to mitigate some of the glacial hazards, it’s important to be traveling in the dawning hours of the day. To make this a bit easier, we’ve turned the clocks fours hours ahead to yield GST…i.e. it is really 2:00 AM but our clocks say 6:00 AM. The snow is crisp, the day dawns clear and we’re up and at ‘em to do a carry to Camp Two. We load up our packs a bit lighter than the first carry and start making our way under Big Bertha once again. The higher we climb, the lower the visibility gets but it doesn’t matter since we have a wanded route to follow. The wands are placed every rope length so in whiteouts it’s always possible to find your way up or down the mountain. It takes about 40 wands to cover a mile of the route and we have about 400 wands in our fleet.
By the time we hit the campsite, we can see only 10 feet in front of us. AJ warns us to make sure we are wearing our sunglasses-he says the only cases of snowblindness he’s seen have come during whiteout conditions. We dig out the cache, put in all the food, fuel and gear and cover it all back up. We head back down through the Hill of Cracks, Lower Ice Fall and give Big Bertha one more chance to play cosmic pinball. After 10 hours of traveling, we’re back in camp for a quick dinner, water making and sleep.
We’re hoping third time is not a charm. We break camp and carry our heavy packs under Big Bertha for the third day. We shave a few hours off of our travel time and hit Camp Two (8100 feet) earlier than expected. A scouting party heads out to finish the route through the Great Ice Fall while the rest of us dig out under a blazing sun. Our first experience of the super scorch of the glacier. We strip down to t-shirts, put on our bandanas a la Sahara style and dig and sweat and dig and sweat. That night we can hardly sleep as bedtime comes around 6:00 PM (real time) and the sun is still blazing down upon us. Sleeping head to foot in the heat brings the additional challenge of smelling one’s tent partners’ feet in ways that really shouldn’t happen. We curse the heat until the sun hides behind the adjacent ridge and the temperature plummets and we can finally climb into our sleeping bags for the night. We are camped beside another big hanging icefall but safely outside it’s reach. Through the night we are awaken by large whumffing sounds and avalanche after avalanche released and careened down the mountain harmlessly beside us.
Originally, this was to be a rest day for me. I was excited for a rest day. I was tired from five days of moving in a row and looking forward to a rest day. I thought I needed a rest day. Life is short, things change. No rest day. It’s a carry day through the Great Ice Fall. We load up the high ration, fuel, and gear and start the big trek up the steep icefall. We stop about 45 minutes in at one of the few rest stops, then again in another hour and finally top out about 2 hours later than that…camp is another 1.5 miles up and that section has not been scouted so we proceed very slowly as the lead rope probes for crevasses and makes a route that will go. It can be challenging to stand still with a 50-pound pack on your back-it’s better to sit or move but in this case, we just had to stand. Finally we made it to the campsite, dug the cache, expanded the perimeter, had a snack and turned around for home. I was leading the group down the route and set quite a pace on the descent. It was a 12-hour travel day and once again, sleeping bags were a welcome relief for tired bodies.
You know the routine. Up early. Pack up the campsite. Load up big packs. You know what grueling hills await you so you set out with a bit more trepidation but as per usual, the ground is covered a little easier and a little faster than the day before. It’s only a five hour trip to Camp Three (10, 200 feet) and the weather is clear so a three person team goes out to set the fixed line and running belays up for our move to the “football field” on Karsten’s Ridge. The rest of us dig in and create another snow village. We can see the route up the ridge and we are stunned when the instructors point out where we are going. Karsten’s Ridge is the crux part of the route-a slim, exposed ridge that lets us by-pass the Harper Ice Fall which is impassible and blocks our way higher on the mountain. The sun is out again in full force so we have the chance to dry out everything and another chance to figure out how to fall asleep while being baked alive until the sun surrenders behind the nearby ridge and the temperature falls to well below freezing for the night.
OK-got to hit the hay for the night…the next installment will take you up Karsten’s Ridge, into our first storm and beyond…stay tuned.
The Sourdough Expedition of 1910 ascended Karsten’s Ridge 95 years before we did carrying a 15 foot spruce pole. This group of miners became the first to climb Denali’s North Summit using rudimentary gear with no technical climbing experience. Fuelling themselves with coffee and donuts, (Tim Horton would be so proud) these early mountaineers climbed to the summit from 11,000 feet- a superhuman feet. We followed in their footsteps (though much more slowly).
We moved from our 11,000 foot camp to a small wide patch on Karsten’s Ridge we jokingly called the ‘Football Field.” This was a humorous reference to the “football field” we would see on summit day-a large flat plateau just before Pig Hill. Our football field was probably 30 feet wide at the widest and our perimeter was maybe 50 feet long. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
We started out early on snowshoes heading for the seam in the ridge that would allow us access. After 45 minutes of travel, we stowed the snowshoes on our packs for the steep climb up to the berkshrund (or ‘shrund, if you want to sound cool). The berkshrund is a large crevasse that is formed high on a mountain when the glacier pulls away from the slope and begins into downhill journey. Sometimes the ‘shrund is an impassable obstacle but on our case-it’s really a piece of cake to traverse and was followed by our first ascent of a fixed line. A fixed line is a rope that is anchored to the mountainside to protect against a fall. We still climb up the slope but we attach a device called an ascender to the rope and slide it up and we climb with our rope team-if someone falls, they could be caught by either their teammates or the fixed line. Fixed lines require patience and absolute attention on the part of all team members for safe, efficient travel to result.
As we topped out at the end of the fix line, we began 7 pitches of running belay along the ridge. Running belay is another way to protect the rope team. It consists of one anchor per rope length that the team clips into while traversing that part of the ridge. Again, fixed belay demands a team that is efficient and concentrating because the terrain is steep and consequences of a fall severe. As each member of the team is tied to the rope, each anchor piece requires team members to use special procedures to clip through to maintain safety. Lots of zero and clear and zero and clear were heard as the four teams ascended the ridge. It was our first day on such technical terrain-the views were stunning, the exposure caught your breath (i.e. seeing how far you could fall), and time flew quickly in the face of such adamant focus.
We arrived at the football field and dug another cache hole. We buried the green bags, more fuel, and some other stuff and covered it back up with snow. We marked our new perimeter and began to make our way back down Karsten’s Ridge back to Camp Three. The exposure that seemed manageable on the way up suddenly stretched out in abyssness in front of us and caused pause until we found our plunge steps worked to control our descent. It would be amazing to notice in two weeks how easy this descent would seem but today it has us all gripped and aware of our tenuous hold on the mountain and life. Back down the running belay pitches, back down the fixed line, back over the ‘shrund, down the steep slope, snowshoes back on, and back to camp about 12 hours later than we left it. Dinner, water, sleep.
A cold crisp morning-our coldest yet. Pack camp. Rope up. Snowshoes. Climb to ‘shrund, up fixed line, up running belays…arrive back at football field 4 hours later. Unrope within the perimeter. Our smallest yet. Last team hasn’t arrived-they are cleaning gear (anchors) off of the route. Start to make village plan. Some disagreement. Sun disappears. Snow begins to fall. Wind begins to blow. Disagreement diminishes. Plan come from instructors. Dig tent platforms like townhouses, share wind walls, start digging….FAST….weather is coming in. Shovel. Move snow. Cut blocks. Shovel. Move snow. Push out the perimeter. Cut blocks. Eat a small bit. Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. Curse the mountain. Feel fear-we’re in a pretty exposed place-1000 feet off of the glacier. Shovel faster. Tent goes up. Kitchen is dug in a hurry. Keep digging until everyone’s homes are set. Eat a quick dinner. Make sure nothing is unaccounted for-mark all gear and packs and food with wands so they can be found in the event of a big snow. Crawl into the tent as the wind picks up. Warm in sleeping bag. Hoping and praying that I won’t have to get out and shovel snow off the tent in the middle of the storm. The wind howls. The wind roars. Trains of air bear down on us one after the other. The tent shakes. The tent shutters. The tent flattens against faces. Will the tent withstand the winds? Will the tent last? Hard to sleep. Too much noise. Too many questions. Too much wind and snow.
Silence. That’s the first thing I notice when I awake. Then the comforting hue of orange and blue above me-the tent is intact. We’ve weathered the storm. We crawl out of the tent into a very white world-white above, white below, white, fresh snow everywhere. The day’s move to 14 is cancelled and a rest day is declared. Thanks be to God. I’ve wanted one for the past week and we knew weather would eventually bring us one. Two instructors will try to scout the route to Camp Four while the rest of us decipher the green bags and high ration. There are also rips and tears to be sewn and naps to be luxuriated in. The day is productive and restful. We’re eager to move up.
Windy and cold. Not a day to spend six hours on fixed lines. Today everyone gets a rest including the instructors. We cook fancy meals, read, write in journals, nap more and pray for a change in the weather. We listen to a story of the Sourdough Expedition read aloud. We’re ready to go higher…will the mountain let us?
We have a big task in front of today…move a ferry load to 14,600. We have over a thousand feet of fixed line to negotiate and many pitches of running belay. Our budding technical skill will be put to the test right out of the starting chute. The ridge has changed from past year and we face a steep icy/hard snow incline that is nearly vertical. I’m second after Mike and we set off. The opening moves to gain the fixed line are a bit sketchy and I’m glad for a lifetime of rockclimbing experience. I dig in my crampon points into the ice way, my ice axe in dagger position and heck, I even try to skewer my other hand into the snow somehow. The Muldrow Valley yawns below and I hope not to feed the hungry glacier. Super slowly and in total sync, my team inches up the fixed line. Step. Step. Move the ascender up. Move ice axe. Don’t step on rope. Move other hand. Breathe. Breathe. Step. Step. Move the ascender up. Move ice axe. Don’t step on rope. Move other hand. Breathe. Breathe. It takes over an hour to ascend the first fixed line.
Move onto the ridge. The terrain moderates for a bit and we just climb along unprotected (except for each other). The ridge then climbs up through two big cornices that resemble shark fins and we’re back on running belay. Cornices are huge snowdrifts that hang over a ridge indicating the dominant wind direction. After a few hours, we take a snack break at the bottom of a very steep part of the ridge that necessitates seven pitches of fixed lines with many directionals. What this means in short, is that zero, clear, zero, clear, clear, zero, clear, zero could be heard often for the three hours it takes us to climb this section. All of the rope changes did provide a chance to rest and catch one’s breath, which at 14,000 feet is harder to catch hold of.
Near the end of the fixed lines, I start to drag. I feel like I have no energy. I’m out of groceries. I’m out of fuel. I haven’t eaten for three hours and my glycogen reserves have given out. We top out and I look forward to a break but Mike has a different idea-camp is up the hill a little further so we’ll stop there. I dig deep, find some will and make my body put one step in front of the other for the next 45 minutes. Finally we arrive and I can stop fighting with my mind and fuel my body. I have to throw many layers on because I’m cold for the first time (no fuel) and I empty my water bottle and snack bag. We cache our food on a big rock and shovel a big mound of snow of it. My energy returns with the calorie infusion and I’m soon ready to make the trip back down to Camp Four.
Again, facing the exposure of the descent gets our attention and we move extra slow since we are so beat. We make our way down the fixed lines and at one point, we are very far ahead of the other rope teams so we pull up. I get to spend the next 45 minutes in a most interesting spot. I’m on a piece of the ridge that is only 15 inches wide…wide enough for my two boots. That’s it. I can’t turn around. Can’t sit. Can’t shift. I stand with a 2000-foot drop to my right and 1500 foot to my left. Mostly I choose to look straight ahead. Not down. Except on occasion. Finally we get to move again-a huge relief and we make our way down the remaining pitches of running belay and fixed line. Since my team was first down, I start cooking dinner and making water for my cook group. We turn into bed 16 hours after we began the day having gained and lost 3000 feet of elevation each day. Knees, ankles, and quads are screaming from the intense downhill-hamstrings from the intense uphill. Finally I get into bed. I’m well hydrated so I’ll have to pee during the night.
It’s probably time to introduce you to the “Freshette.” A sickly pink colored piece of plastic. One that gives great masculine powers. Well-the power to pee standing up anyway. The Freshette is a urinary re-direction device…a $25.00 hunk of plastic that was god’s gift to buttock warmth on this trip. I hold it up between my legs and suddenly I can write your name in the snow with the best of them. I actually cut a hole in my long underwear and undid a seam in my gortex pants that would allow me to position the Freshette while wearing my climbing harness…time saving, heat-saving, and modesty-saving (even though I wasn’t particularly worried about that one). The time was most important to save since in our 10 minute breaks, one had to pee, eat, drink, apply sunscreen, lip stuff, adjust gear, take pictures and get ready to go again.
Anyway-the Freshette came into the tent each night to allow me to pee in the communal pee bottle. I pee in the bottle and then dump it into the snow in one of the vestibules. It took me awhile to convince my body that it was OK to pee standing up or pee kneeling (as opposed to crouched) and even longer to convince it to pee in front of three others-but necessity being the mother of invention and new behaviors, I was soon peeing right along with the guys-it sure beats getting out of the tent in the cold and wind.
So, after the big carry to 14,600, my legs were beat and my electrolytes a bit off so I got leg cramps that night. First my quads fire off and I sit up in absolute pain. I stretch them out and then the hamstrings fire-I can’t find a balance stretch point that keep them both out of pain and almost wake my tent mates by calling out in pain. Then the calves start in and I pray to God, Buddha, Mohammed and Tim Horton to “Take me Now”since I can’t figure out how to get out of this cramp pickle. Suddenly I decide to curl into the fetal position and that works and all the muscles relax. I drink more Gatorade to try to alleviate the cramps.
That’s where the Freshette comes in again. With all the Gatorade, of course, I have to pee. I get into my knee-based tent pee position (it looks a lot like prayer) and am about to let loose when I get a massive hamstring cramp again. I flop on my side like a beached whale-ever grateful that the urinary stream had not begun (that would have required advanced Kugel exercises to stop flow in the midst of such a massive cramp). I get the cramp to relax. The bladder starts to sing “Please release me, let me go.” I try to oblige but as soon as I approximate the peeing position, the cramp fires and I’m knocked on my back (all within my two foot mattress space). The bladder sings louder. I try again. No luck. Really loud now. I think I might have to go outside to pee but it’s cold, I’d have to crawl over Brad’s head, put on my boots, and the bladder has reached operatic volume. Then I remember yoga….there was a reason I did yoga all year…I get into a modified Warrior Two position with the offending leg stretched out behind me, the Freshette delicately held into place, and the bottle even more delicately held by the Freshette…please dear god-just let me pee. The trickle begins, then the torrent-no sign of the rapids in my leg and I finally get relief-I hold the stretch position while the making yellow snow in the vestibule and then try to get back to sleep. Ya right!
No visibility. Some wind. What do we do? Do we move? Stay put. I’ve already packed my sleeping pad and pad since I’m the breakfast cook and have crawled out of the tent into the morning when AJ says we’re in a hold…eat breakfast then go back to bed for 2 hours. I make hash browns and then go unpack my stuff and crawl back in. We’re sad-we want to move-we’ve had enough rest.
Quickly back asleep-suddenly the tent is shaking-a few hours have passed and the “I”-team has decided it is a go-the visibility hasn’t improved but the wind doesn’t seem to be accelerating and the temperature and barometer are rising…it’s a go….we’re moving to the 14,600 camp. We will repeat yesterday’s route except today we won’t see any of it-it is totally whited-out. We’re lucky if we can see 10 feet in front of us. In some ways, I think it might be easier since we won’t be able to see the exposure and I often think hills are less steep in the dark when you can perceive the slope…and indeed…it was easier….as per usual, the second passage went smoother and faster. We topped off the fixed lines into a growing sunshine and made our way to camp. I was once again out of groceries despite renewed efforts to prevent such boinking but since I’d done it the day before, I knew I could do it again. We got to camp at 5:00 pm and began to dig in. My group struggled a bit with our tent site and spend 1.5 hours digging with nothing to show for it-we got a bit of re-direction and managed to get dug in just before the temperature began to plummet for the night. Because of the late hour and our new location, we no longer needed to be on Glacier Standard Time so we moved our clocks back from some extra sleep and turned in. Many were feeling the effects of moving to 14,600…headaches abound and sleep was a welcome respite.
OK…stay tuned for the move to high camp….summit day is coming soon!
Spent much of the previous night wrestling with my mind. I felt so tired and dragged out. I had a headache. Would I bring myself to ask for a day off? Would I have the courage to admit that I needed it? Would I be willing to sit still while everyone else did a carry further up the mountain? Probably not, I thought. I’d just suck it up and deal and haul myself up another 3000 feet and push through the pain and daunting fatigue. The alarm went at the appointed hour and I dragged myself from my bag to cook breakfast for my group. It was very cold and snowing. Our makeshift kitchen of the night before was covered in snow, the food bags were covered in snow, the pots were dirty, we had no made no water the night before, my fingers were instantly chilled to the core…everything felt hard, very hard. I just wanted to sit in the snow and have a good cry. Instead, I steeled myself and decided to break breakfast down into a series of small, manageable steps. Dig out the stoves. Dig out the food. Light the stoves. Make water. Clean the pots. Make hot drinks. Decide to make brownies for breakfast as a big boost is needed. As the tasks unfolded, the overwhelm melted away leaving only the bounding ache in my cranium.
As is often the case and is often easily forgotten, I was not only one feeling off that morning. As the instructors visited the various camps, they noticed several dragging bodies and called a check-in meeting for the whole group. Using our thumbs as indicators, we could signal how we felt that morning. Five of us, including one of the instructors, felt like we’d been hit by the equivalent of altitude MAC trucks and so were offered a day off. After a bit of a hesitation, I accepted the offer. Light activity is the best prescription for acclimatization so I spent the morning digging (albeit slowly) a brand new kitchen that actually had some counter space and then spent the afternoon napping and writing in my journal. By the end of the day, I felt 100 percent better and was ready to tackle the next day’s move to high camp. The rest of the expedition carried to 16,500 and buried the cache-they’d been stopped by low visibility for an hour so they didn’t make it all of the way to high camp. We welcomed them back with warm supper and hot drinks.
Day Twenty-Four (a.k.a. The Big Birthday)
Having been the first out of the tent and breakfast cook for the previous 22 days, I informed my tent mates that I wanted my birthday morning off to be able to enjoy my birthday cards. As it turns out, I’d had a bit of trouble sleeping the night before so I read my cards in the middle of the night but I re-read them while Yves was out cooking breakfast. He delivered my morning hot chocolate in bed and I thought I could get used to this birthday stuff!
We packed up the tent and met the rest of the group by the ropes. As we were tying in for the day’s travel, the whole group broke into song and the glacier echoed with the notes of Happy Birthday. We left camp and traversed around the leading edge of the Harper Icefall and dropped onto the Harper Glacier. We took our first break in a flat expanse that blocked all views of the lower mountain making it seem as there was only one direction to go…up! After the break, the terrain steepened measurably and we crested wave after wave of glacier only to see that another hill awaited us. After several hours of this steepness, we topped out unto another plateau. We had to make end-runs around several large crevasses-adding many steps to our day. We reached the cache that the group had placed the day before and took our second break. We decided to back-carry from this cache-meaning we’d climb back down for it on another day. A big sigh of relief went up that we wouldn’t have to add another 30 or 35 pounds to our backs.
After the cache, the terrain demanded more of us again and it was imperative to find a rhythm within which to climb. I found that it always took my body several minutes to get going again after a break and as the terrain steepened and as we gained altitude, this waiting period became more and more challenging to experience. These moments felt like drowning to me…a sense of panic arose as I would struggle to keep up with my body’s oxygen needs-I would feel like I could easily be incontinent through all orifices and it always seemed like there was no way I could continue to climb feeling like that…what I needed was to settle into the rest step which matched breathing with stepping…sometimes the ratio was two steps, one breath; other times it was one step, one breath. This brought the air hunger under control, provided a foundation for deep breathing and enabled me to climb for hours.
As I climbed higher and higher, I gained more skill in dropping into a rhythm quicker and getting back into one faster after an interruption. I began to expect the drowning feeling, gave myself permission to shit myself if needed, and started to trust that the intensity of the drowning state would eventually pass. I soon cherished my climbing rhythm especially since it was highly meditative and grounded so strongly in the present moment. With my mind paying such close attention to stepping, breathing, ice axe placement, and rope tension-there was no space for daydreaming, for the past or for the future-each moment was the only thing that existed for me for hours at a time.
As we passed the 17,000-foot mark, the wind began to pick up and the temperature dropped noticeably. For the first time, we had to stop and put on more layers. The last 600 feet of elevation gain to camp felt like thousands as energy stores were depleted by the previous 12 hours of climbing. We arrived at the campsite just as the sun was dipping below the ridgeline and the temperature dropped another 25 degrees to well below freezing. I put on my insulated pants for the first time. I put on my big down parka for the first time. I struggled to take off my crampons because my hands were instantly wooden. I had to have someone do up my parka zipper because my fingers didn’t work. My head pounded with every breath. This was a dig or die moment.
AJ quickly gathered us together, explained that the next several hours would be miserable, that we needed to find the reserves deep within ourselves and handed out tasks. A few folks began to melt snow for water, many began to level a large platform for all four tents, some probed out the perimeter and the two folks who were really hurting from the altitude bundled up in every piece of clothing they had and slowly walked laps around the perimeter waiting for the safe havens of the tents to go up. I was feeling cold so I knew I wanted to be physical but I wasn’t sure where the energy was going to come from as I hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink in about fours hours.
I’ll try to help you understand what this moment was like…imagine being a bit drunk or tipsy while already feeling the next day’s hangover, feeling deeply chilled overall with really cold feet and hands, being able to move two shovel-fulls of snow and then having to lean over your shovel out of breath, then having to swing your legs to make the blood go back to your toes through centrifugal force, then having to catch your breath again, then shoveling again, then feeling a bit dizzy and unsteady, then swinging your arms to bring blood to your hands, shovel a bit more…repeat the above for four hours all the while just really wanting to curl up into a ball in the snow.
My core temperature warmed up while shoveling though my toes continued to feel cold and I feared frostbite. I shoveled until I truly had nothing left. By then, tents were up and it was finally OK to crawl into the security of those nylon walls. It was 10:30 PM-we’d left Camp Five at 9:00 that morning. Ryan was feeling pretty good so he cooked dinner in the tent vestibule and we each got a half package of half-cooked ramen noodles in tepid water…a positively divine birthday dinner…I was asleep in minutes without writing in my journal-the only day I missed on the whole trip. I was probably the only person in the whole wide world celebrating a birthday at 17,600 feet-my highest (and perhaps lowest) birthday of my life. I’ll attach a picture of how I looked in the tent that night-it’s not pretty-it’s common to bloat when you are at altitude…
When I first awoke, I thought of the theme song from the Poseidon Adventure…”there’s got to be a morning after.” The sun was out and 17,600 seemed much warmer with the sun shining. This was another morning where everything seemed hard. In fact, it was hard. Life at 17,600 feet is hard. The temperature was around minus 30 C and it took strategic planning to cook breakfast without getting frostbite. Big bulky mitts equal warm hands but no dexterity. Small thin gloves equal dexterity but no warmth. Balancing the two was key and quite a challenge. The snow at high camp was very dry and it took hours to make water. I made “hot water bar” for breakfast…a fancy way of describing that each person added hot water to whatever they wanted to eat for breakfast (noodles, oatmeal, cold cereal, couscous). Yves was suffering badly in the altitude and in fact had vomited over my head into the vestibule during the night so he passed on breakfast. I didn’t have much of an appetite but I choked down some noodles.
Today was a rest/acclimatization day so light activity was once again on the agenda. I fixed up the kitchen-building some wind breaks and digging a sump and fridge. I moved very slowly with the hope of fooling the pounding drum that was my head into submission. After staying up for several hours, I spent the afternoon napping once again. In some ways, sleeping is tough on the system at altitude because when you sleep, you breathe slower-when you breathe slower, you get less oxygen, when you get less oxygen, your body and head rebel. I got up again and made another round of water and helped Brad make a big pot of chicken noodle soup and pasta for dinner. We wanted a big meal since it was likely we were heading for the summit the next day. At altitude, we mainly ate carbohydrates since fats and proteins require more oxygen to digest and there wasn’t enough of that to go around.
AJ got a weather report and it looked good for the next day and we all went to bed hoping we’d get to try for the summit the next day.
The alarm went at 6. All quiet outside. A good sign. Pulled on my upper layers. Pulled on my gortex pants. Pulled on my inner boots. Tied them with extra special care. Hat. Three pairs of gloves. Neck gaiter. Gortex shell. Much more clothes than usual. Boots on. Unzip the tent. Clear, blue skies. Mike’s cooking breakfast next door. I say, “so?” He smiles and says, “it’s a go.” I give my tent a big shake and announce the decision and my tent mates scream in protest as I’ve showered them with frost. In this cold weather, our breath condenses on the inside of the tent as frost and it “snows” whenever the tent moves.
The usual routine. Make water. Try to decide what the big breakfast is going to be. Opt for another rendition of the chicken noodle soup-lots of carbs and hydration. Make a double round of hot drinks. Pack my pack with all clothing I have left. I’m on AJ’s rope team for the day. We head out last. Our rope name is Nyama Choma-a name from Kenya-it translates to Roasted Meat-that’s what we feel like on the glacier when the sun is out. AJ’s hurting from the altitude so we start out slow. I find my rhythm and feel great as we make the relatively gentle climb to Denali Pass. The sun is out so soon I’m feeling quite hot and sweaty so I start to disrobe a bit and by the time we hit the 18000 pass, I’m climbing in only my midweight base layer.
We stop at the pass for a break and I start layering back up immediately because the wind comes up again. From Denali Pass, we can look down and see all the tents on the south side-so glad to have had the solitude and isolation and wilderness of the North side of the mountain rather than the veritable “urban” environment on the West Buttress route. (a side note-this year 734 people have summated Denali thus far-and as far as I know, 720 of them did it from the south side).
After the break, my rope team moved into the second position as we started climbing steeply towards the Archdeacon’s tower (a rock landmark on the route). I gave thanks again and again for my climbing rhythm. We stopped just shy of the football field for our next break and the moment we stopped moving, the wind instantly stole the heat from our bodies. I donned my parka and determinedly started eating and drinking-I didn’t want to boink and run out of groceries on summit day. I’d saved a chocolate bar for summit day and quickly demolished it. All we eager to start moving as it was just too cold to sit around.
AJ took the lead and we climbed a short hill and dropped onto the football field. What a joy to traverse a flat (or almost flat) piece of ground. Beyond the football field was Pig Hill. Aptly named. It was a pig to climb. The route went straight up its flank. No switchbacks. No relief. Just straight up. For about two hours. Until your legs feel like rancid bacon. At first, it appeared impossibly long to me. How would we ever get up it? Then I began to take delight in small measures of progress in this white steep world…my inner dialogue…
”Wow, we just passed a route wand.”
“Oh shit-that next wand looks far away”
“Just keep stepping.”
“Don’t look up yet, the wand won’t be close enough yet.”
“Wow-it’s another wand-we’ve gone another 150 feet.”
“Are we getting anywhere?”
“Stay in your rhythm-just keep stepping”
You get the idea. I climbed Pig Hill one step at a time and celebrated the passing of each rope length. You can’t probably imagine how slowly we were moving. The next time you climb a set of stairs try taking one step, then take one deep breath in, then one deep breath out, then take another step, then take one deep breath in, then one deep breath out, then take another step, then take one deep breath in, then one deep breath out, then take another step…then imagine doing that for 4 hours at a stretch. The route steepened even more as we neared the top of the ridge, it got decidedly icier, and each step was measured carefully. The summit ridge seemed to stretch all the way to Russia and there were many false summits along the way.
Then suddenly there was no more. AJ crested the summit. There were prayer flags. This was the top. No higher ground could be found. The whole world lay at our feet. As I took the last steps to the summit, I raised my ice axe above my head in celebration and felt a wave of exultation and relief rise from deep within me. A moment I’d worked so hard for…a moment I’d dreamed about…a moment I’d hoped dearly for…a moment I never counted on…a moment of 20, 320 moments that came before it. Tears sprung to my eyes and the emotion threatened to spill over but I feared saltwater freezing on my cheeks so I transformed the emotional energy into a celebratory yelp and climbed to a safer spot to welcome the rope team members behind me to the summit.
We unroped and took summit photos. I posed with the Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canadian and AppleCore flags on the summit-a veritable National Geographic Moment. The last two teams were about 30 minutes behind us because Andy and Tom were really hurting from the altitude-they dug very deeply to find the courage to take each step while feeling so poorly. In the end, I felt like I was cheating on summit day because I was feeling so good. We called the NOLS base from the summit on the satellite phone. The visibility lifted so we caught glimpses of the surrounding Alaska range and we could see that we towered above everything else-we were the cherry on the sundae-the biggest thing going-the Kings and Queens of the blue-white ocean flanking us in all directions. A view and a moment that is hard to give words to…
You cannot stay on the summit forever and after about 45 minutes it was time to descend. A storm was brewing on the horizon and no one wanted to face that at high elevation. Our downward progress was slowed by two climbers making their way up-they’d come from the south side and were moving very slowly (uphill climbers traditionally have the right of way). I actually didn’t mind spending the extra 30 minutes with the view.
Pig Hill was a steep descent. When we reached the football field, I asked to take a quick break to eat and hydrate because I knew I was running low and we still had a very long way to go. I threw back my last half-liter of water and ate a bit of trail mix and we were off again. The wind began to blow harder and the visibility dropped. The storm was hitting. I pulled on my shell hood and tried to get my down parka hood to stay up-it had challenging Velcro to work with in big mitts. Snow began to fall and was whipped around by the wind. We could no longer see the leading two rope teams-just the one immediately in front. Fear started to inch its way in.
Brad, now at the front of my rope team, was running low and feeling quite shaky. Mike kept a close eye on him and gave him lots of support through some of the trickier descents. The wind blew harder. We had to get down. This was no place to be in a storm. Mike implored us to move faster. I was thankful that I’d always been comfortable descending. My focus narrowed and I blocked the fear by concentrating on the immediate tasks at hand. Finally, we reached Denali Pass and caught up with the first two ropes. The wind stung all exposed skin. The snow found it’s way into every nook of my clothes. Would we get down in time?
The terrain is much easier below the pass and we could pick up the pace some but we were also so very tired at this point. Suddenly it got quiet. The wind stopped. The visibility started to lift. We’d made it below the storm. We would be OK. Soon, the tents came into view and another wave of relief cruised through as I passed into the camp perimeter. We were home safe (or at least at high camp) and it was time to eat. Given exhaustion, we opted for a simple dinner of couscous and brown sugar. It was actually awful and I choked it down because I had to and then headed for bed-too tired to do much else. I jotted down a few sentences in my journal and fell asleep with the pencil in my hand (my pen was frozen and wouldn’t write).
Stay tuned for the last chapter-the descent and crossing of the McKinley River…coming your way soon.
After a deep sleep, awake to wind and cold. Crawl out of the tent and start breakfast. I’m the first up. Mike calls from inside his tent, “should we delay a few hours?” I say “I just saw the sun” and so he crawls out as well saying, “I should never make a go/no go decision in bed.” We decide to go. The sun disappears, the wind picks up and it’s a downright miserable, cold morning at high camp. Everything is hard once again but we manage to get fed, packed, and start heading down the hill within a few hours. Toes and fingers are very cold. Visibility is next to nil. We’re glad to be going lower. As we near 16,000 feet and our cache, the weather clears and the sun comes out and suddenly we go from the freezer into the oven once again. Over the course of the day we would repeat this cycle more times than a Corning Ware commercial.
We stop to dig up our cache and retrieve all the food we thought we’d be eating at high camp-it’s like Christmas once again and snack food is passed all round. A group of rangers (that have followed us up the whole route and have used all of our camps) is camped beside our cache so we spend some time talking to them. They complement us on our good camping style. We bid them good-bye and make our way down through an icefall. At the traverse, we have to set protection for a running belay so my team goes out in front to do that. We have to place less pro because we’re more skilled now. It has snowed quite a bit since we were up high so we have to break trail. We reach camp and move back into our former tent sites…a real treat since it entails much less digging. The temperature that night was divine for sleeping-not too hot, not too cold though my lower lip swelled up from the sunburn and I was in a significant amount of pain that night. I pondered going to the instructor tent for a strong painkiller but it was a steep downhill trek so I pondered my options. I was out of lip stuff. I could control the pain some by keeping it wet but as soon as I went to sleep, it would dry out and wake me up. I finally put on a coating of zinc oxide hoping it would seal some moisture in and put a bandana down on the clothes I used as a pillow to protect from the zinc oxide. Because of the swelling in my lip, I drooled. At some point in the night, I woke up with the bandana frozen to my lip by the drool…this is when I once again wished the large vacuum of the universe would suck me somewhere else…I took some ibuprofen, decided it was OK if my lips glued themselves together with blood and finally convinced my body to sleep.
We packed at a relaxed pace and headed off to descend the fixed lines-we hoped to go to Camp Three. We added the snowshoes onto our packs and for the second time in two days, our packs got heavier. The descent proved much more difficult than the last time because of our heavier packs and the fresh snow made for more treacherous footing. It was hard work being the first team as we tried to kick good steps into the slope for everyone to follow. After the fixed lines, I had another of the moments where I felt some fear. Near the spot where I’d gotten to spend the 45 minutes on the 18-inch ridge, I found myself gripped.
The first piece of pro was about a rope length down the side of the ridge. One of my rope team members was struggling a bit with his footing so I was quite nervous until we’d descended enough to clip that first piece. It was a very tense time and a few slips were had but each was quickly stopped. Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief when we reached Camp Four.
We dug up the cache we’d left there and waited for the other teams to arrive. When the last team got there, everyone was feeling beat out and stressed by the day’s travel so we decided to spend “the night” at Camp Four. The night was quite short because we had to get up at 2:00 AM so we could travel the Upper Icefall while it was still freezing. Once again, it was easy to make camp because we were playing “hermit crab” and moving right back in.
The moon was still up when I got out of the tent at 2:00 AM. The horizon was a strip of golden orange as the sun was just rising-it was crisp and cool and the light was magic. I cooked breakfast and started to pack. By 4:00 AM, we were underway and the light continued to amaze and move us with its beauty. Many photos were shot that morning. I was on the first rope team in the last position so I had the great privilege of throwing the day’s bag of poop off the ridge into a crevasse-talk about a long drop. The snow had hardened overnight so the decent seemed very easy and we were off the ridge in no time. Our packs were heavier again and at the bottom of the ridge we traded our crampons for snowshoes.
We made our way through the Great Ice Fall once again and took up residence in Camp Two for another quick night.
Awoke to a whiteout. Since much of the snow on the glacier had softened, we were prone to post-holing (sinking into our thighs) even with snowshoes on. I managed to be on the lead rope team for the first part of the route through the “Hill O Cracks” and the route finding through the maze of crevasses was much trickier than on the way up.
The team was constantly on the ready to catch AJ if he happened to drop into a crevasse. Several backtracks and re-tries were necessary. After a tense 2 hours, we took our first break above the lower icefall. We knew we’d need to move through the next section efficiently because of the rock and icefall danger. We had to stop in one section and take off our snowshoes and then just above Big Bertha stop to put our crampons back on…finally we got through. The glacier looked totally different, as it had shed most of its snow in the three weeks we’d been up the mountain. We stowed our snowshoes, ice axes, and crampons and walked on our own for the first time in weeks-the freedom to move at one’s own pace was exhilarating and the instructor’s warned us not to become horses to the barn. We navigated the remaining four miles to McGonnegal Pass and took up residence on the moraine once again. The glacier had moved in the weeks we’d been away so we had to redo our tent site-tiling it with flat rocks. The instructors had much paperwork to do so we offered to hold a potluck dinner so they wouldn’t have to cook.
We worked at cleaning up our cache, which had been pillaged by ravens and small mammals again-collecting all of our trash and burnables. In order to save our backs, we burned much of our trash, wands, and wooden boxes so we didn’t have to carry them out. As our packs kept getting heavier as we descended, this was much appreciated though we took about 2 hours discussing the ethical and environmental aspects of such a decision. It poured rain all evening and we all tried to dry our clothes by the fire.
Up early because a long day of hiking awaited. Packed up camp and departed from the moraine in three groups. Headed up to the actual pass and took one last look at the glacier. Didn’t see much-it was whited-out once again and drizzling. We picked up the climbers’ trail and began to head down over rocky terrain. We had thirteen miles to go and go subscribed to the slow and steady approach. The visibility kept fading in and out as the miles slowed passed beneath our feet. It was hard going being off snow in the plastic boots and my feet got sorer with every step. We crossed several streams and our feet got soggier and soggier.
Our three groups were to meet up to cross a larger river but one group didn’t show up. I went on an hour long scout with the instructors and we finally figured out that the “missing” group was right on target and had found the appropriate crossing and had gone onto camp while we were the ones who were “lost.” After that two-hour delay, we hiked the last three miles into camp-perhaps the longest three miles of the whole trip-in the pouring rain. Two of the guys set up the tent while I fetched water and began dinner. I realized I was so low on groceries that my body was having a hard time generating heat so I began to eat brown sugar by the spoonful directly from the bag. Delicious. Effective. And dinner was much more fun to cook with some energy on board. We’d hiked for 13 hours that day and we all wondered if the McKinley River would let us cross the next day. The original plan had us getting up at 1:00 AM but we delayed three hours because of our late arrival at camp.
After dinner, I crawled into the tent and removed my soaked clothing. I decided I would change into my only dry clothes for the night and then brave putting on the soggy ones in the morning rather than trying to dry them on my body. Warm and dry for the first time all day, I was quickly asleep.
The alarm came soon. Since I had to totally change my clothes and embrace cold and clammy once again, I asked the guys to cook breakfast. All three got out of the tent faster than I’d ever seen them and I was tickled that it took three of them to pull off what I usually did solo. In the early morning light, Denali poked out her summit for all of us to marvel at-the entire campsite stopped in awe at the realization of how high we had climbed. We devoured the rest of our food and headed for the river. Ninety minutes of hiking brought us to the bank of the McKinley River. She stretched for a mile in front of us and it was hard to perceive a way across.
We reviewed two styles of river crossing (the train and the chain) and the first group started out across the first braid. The McKinley at this location had spread out into dozens and dozens of channels-becoming wider and shallower than further up or downstream. We knew we might get half way across and have to come back. The Rangers who’d crossed three days before got stuck halfway across on a sandbar when the water rose and they had to spend the night in the middle of the river waiting for the water to drop. The McKinley River is fed by the Muldrow Glacier so its flow and depth go up as the sun melts the glacier and more water is released downstream. This is why we had to be up so early!!! The water was silt grey and we often had to throw stones into it to judge its depth.
Stepping into the water was like dropping your feet into ice water-it numbed them thankfully quickly but there was much pain until they gave in to the cold. Sometimes the water was up to my knees, sometimes to my thighs, sometimes to my belly button. It often took your breathe away. The larger group members broke the current for us smaller folks and we got everyone across 42 braids safely. We took about an hour break about halfway across because our way was blocked by deep water. We had to backtrack three braids, go downstream about a mile, and then cross many more braids. The relief was tangible when we reached the other side-both physically and emotionally. We had to carry our packs by shoulder straps alone which seemed to multiple their weight and many of us knew that one of our instructor’s had had a student die while crossing a river-we could see the pain etched in his mind and soul as well as the great release that enveloped him when we crossed safely over.
We hiked three miles up to the road head. Our resort bus passed by and stopped to ask where we’d been. When they heard, they immediately dug into their daypacks and started handing food out to us through the bus windows. The campground host heard we might be immerging and had baked us cinnamon rolls. We were deeply touched by the generosity of strangers. We pitied the folks who had to ride the six hours with us on the park bus, as we hadn’t bathed in 32 days. They kept their windows wide open and eventually they were moved to feed us as well. I guess we looked pretty ragged and hungry.
We were dropped off at the park entrance and started to wait for the NOLS bus. The bus driver was caught in traffic so we had to wait much longer than anticipated and we sent a scout party to the convenience store-they returned with 4 grocery bags of junk food: cookies, ice cream, chocolate bars, gummy worms, beef jerky, and four kinds of chips. The fourteen of us descended on the bags like locusts and within minutes the spread was devoured and we remarked as to how we’d never seen or eaten anything like what we had just witnessed. The bus arrived soon afterward and took us to eat pizza. We ate 8 large pizzas among us and took the other four on the bus. We left the park at 10:00 PM and drove the five hours to the NOLS base. Arriving at 3:00 am, we picked up our shower bags and headed for the luxury of hot water. They had clean sleeping bags and tents ready to receive our tired bodies and 24 hours after the day began, I hit the hay.
A day of eating, unpacking, cleaning, and paperwork. We gave a slideshow to the NOLS community that night and it was amazing to share our adventure.
A day of debriefing, good-byes, and a huge meal in Anchorage as our final expedition moment.
The day you first heard from me. I stayed at the NOLS base and started to catch up on my sleep and e-mail.
Day Thirty-Seven & Thirty-Eight
Flying, flying, flying and a most wonderful welcome home to St. John’s. It’s hard to believe that I arrived home two weeks ago and that I summitted almost a month ago. Did it all really happen? Did I really take my body, mind, and soul to 20, 320 feet? I’ve been glad to have my pictures to look at to remind myself that it really did happen. I really did stand on the roof of North America. I’ve been getting more and more glimpses of the lessons that Denali has taught me and I look forward to sharing them with you as they unfold.