Denali ( Mount McKinley ) – 20,320ft. Highest Point in North America via the West Buttress
Team MIT: Matthew Gilbertson, Eric Gilbertson, Dan Walker, Darren V, Woody Hoburg
May 16th -May 28th , 2010: thirteen days plane to plane
Author: Matthew Gilbertson
Trip report quoted in the Fairbanks Alaska Daily News-Miner Newspaper (May 2011): Part 2, Part 3
Day 0: Sat May 15th : Fly in to ANC, buy & repackage food, stay in Microtel.
Day 1: 7am shuttle to Talkeetna, meet with rangers, fly to Base Camp on glacier.
Day 2: Move to 7800′, camp there
Day 3: Move to 11,600′, camp there
Day 4: Rest at 11,600′
Day 5: Cache at 13,500′, camp back at 11,600.
Day 6: Move to 14,200′
Day 7: Pick up 13,500 cache, sleep at 14,200.
Day 8: Rest day
Day 9: Move to 17,200′
Day 10: Rest day
Day 11: Wednesday May 26 th : Summit day, sleep at 17,200′
Day 12: Sleep in until noon, hike down through the night
Day 13: Hike all morning, arrived at Base Camp at 7:00am, fly out of glacier
Day 14: Sat May 29 th :Woody, Darren, Dan take shuttle to ANC and fly home. Matthew and Eric have rest day before backpacking in Denali National Park for a week.
“Let’s go see what the top of the country looks like.” Darren said. Our elevation was 20,100ft—about 200 below the top.
Through the past eleven days we had ascended 13,000 feet over 13 miles. But the final 2,000ft of climbing had been grueling. Even though we had tiny packs (compared to days ago) each step upward was now a monumental feat. There was one-half the oxygen here as at sea level. Every twenty seconds of hiking you needed to rest for the next thirty to catch your breath and slow down your pulse. Imagine climbing Mount Washington with an extra 200lbs on your back, while breathing through a small coffee straw, while the mountain is made of soft sand. That’s the effort level of the final 2000ft up Denali .
We paused a few seconds to catch our breaths. You couldn’t speak a complete sentence without needing to refill your lungs. We had split into two groups; Eric and I had just summitted while Darren, Woody, and Dan were on their final pitch to the top.
Me: “Almost there…[gasp]…just watch out…[gasp]…for the Polish people [gasp]”
Dan/Woody/Darren: “Let’s do it! [gasp]…”
Day 0-Saturday May 15th:
The five of us had swooped into Anchorage on Saturday May 15 th from across the country: Eric/Dan from Boston/Cambridge; me from Maryland; Woody from California; Darren from Virginia . Our goal was to climb Denali (aka Mount McKinley ), the highest point in Alaska, the country, and the continent.
Eric and I were seeking the crown jewel for our state high points collection. We could worry later about
our remaining 14 state high points (mostly the southern and north-central states). Since Alaska was on the list we had to climb it. We invited Darren, Woody, and Dan to join. I believe all responded an enthusiastic YES within 10 minutes of the invitation email.
We had all managed to push and persuade our advisors/employers to give us the three weeks off that we figured we would need. We had all read trip reports or books that warned that even three weeks might not be enough because of the high potential for bad weather. We heard that sometimes people could even be delayed for days on either end of the trip because the glacier planes needed good weather to land on the glacier.
We thus set up a tight schedule and wanted to get onto the glacier as soon as possible. Eric and I descended upon Anchorage first, around 3:30pm on Saturday. Dan/Woody/Darren landed later. We grabbed our bags and put them in the rental car. We each had about 130lbs of non-food gear. We dropped off the bags at Microtel Anchorage (best rates in town) and pulled in to Walmart for some hardcore food shopping. We each took a cart and a deep breath and stepped inside.
We had created a Google spreadsheet for everyone to list their food preferences. Here’s the food we bought that we ended up eating:
Dinner: For dinner we picked up pasta, couscous, and some Ramens. Couscous and Ramen are super simple because you just need to add boiling water, and it’s a cinch to clean up. We got some good sausage, pepperoni, and brought some meats that we had dehydrated. We also dehydrated some vegetables and pasta sauce. Many thanks to Kate for the dehydrated spices that along with some Dan Walker cooking made our dinners particularly awesome.
Lunch: We picked up 20lbs of cheese split up into five gigantic bricks. We also had a cracker mix of
Triscuits, Gardettos, Combos, and cheese crackers, along with some Tortillas.
Breakfast: Bunch of oatmeal for some, and cereal/powdered milk for others.
Snacks: Soft fruit bars, cookies, Great Value chocolate chip/fruit/nuts trail mix, Jello (for a real tasty post-dinner dessert)
Eric and I got quite a few looks while we were shopping. I guess not too many people are pushing around two overflowingly full shopping carts. I think we had about 10 boxes of oatmeal, 10 bags of mini-wheats, 20lbs of pasta, 30 boxes of couscous, 10 huge bags of crackers, 5 x 5lb cheese bricks, 20lbs of sausage, and about 300 Ziploc bags. On three separate occasions people asked us for help because they thought we worked there.
We planned on eating a lot of food in 20 days. On the nutrition facts a box of couscous might say “3 servings” but when you’re working as hard as we would be you can divide that number by 3 or 4.
An hour and a half later we traded $950 for 250 lbs of food. I guess for five hungry hikers for 20 days that’s not too bad, especially considering that we’re in Alaska , where most prices are way higher. Heck, I probably eat for more than $9.50/day in the city. I think a lot of other climbers buy expensive Mountain House free-dried food, which costs about three times as much and produces three times more trash.
When we got back to Microtel it was time to repackage everything. We began the daunting task of pouring all the food into Ziploc bags. The original food packaging produces a tremendous amount of trash, both in mass and volume. By repackaging food into resealable bags you can get rid of all the extra plastic and cardboard. Through years of trial and error and especially from the Appalachian Trail , Eric and I discovered that by far the best bags are the Ziploc one-quart freezer bags. Eric and I cleared the room and began our assembly line.
We poured the food into the bags and lined them up into two huge matrices on our bed. Each column of the matrix was one person’s food. Darren, Woody, and Dan landed around 7:30pm and made it to the hotel around 9, and helped us finish up. In the end we had about two big trash bags full of waste packaging. We ended up reducing the amount of trash we carried up the mountain from about 3lbs/person to just a few small, compact ounces of Ziplocs.
We’ve found that 2lbs of food per person per day is about right. So for twenty days that’s 40lbs per person. With Darren’s handy hand scale we each picked out about 40lbs of our favorite food bags. It was like a little shopping trip all over again. We ended up with about 50lbs of extra food. I guess that’s better than not having enough. Bedtime finally came around 1:30am.
We wanted to get an early start so we had reserved a shuttle to Talkeetna at 7am with Denali Overland
Transportation for $160/person. Talkeetna is the town that you fly out of to get onto the glacier. In retrospect it might have been cheaper to rent a big van and park it in Talkeetna during the trip, but we didn’t want another thing to worry about.
As soon as we got to Talkeetna after the 2.5hr ride we started weighing our bags. Our air carrier, Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), requires that each bag be less than 80lbs and have the weight written on it, for better balancing on the plane. Each person is only allowed 125lbs (supposedly a TSA rule, extra weight costs more), so we ended up 625lbs of gear/food for the five of us. The flight was a staggering $500 per person roundtrip. But TAT had good customer service. They sold us some bamboo wands and let us store our extra stuff during the trip. They have a safe for valuables too.
Next we needed to have a meeting with the rangers. As the park requires, we had registered for the trip more than 60 days in advance with the team name MIT. We each paid the $175 special use fee and sat down. Our ranger discussed the sanitation procedures on the mountain, which consists of using a Clean Mountain Can (CMC). You do your business in a plastic bag lining the small plastic cylindrical can, and when the biodegradable bag fills up you tie it off and throw it into a deep crevasse. (That’s much nicer than needing to carry it out!) Our ranger didn’t even ask us about our experience. I guess the assumption is that if you’re willing to pay that much money you probably know what you’re doing. But we later discovered there were plenty of people on the mountain who didn’t have a clue.
Once we were done with the half-hour ranger meeting, we noticed a board in the ranger station with climber statistics. So far this year, 235 people had attempted the mountain and only 20 had succeeded. This doesn’t look promising, I thought.
TAT informed us that the weather was too bad for flights at the moment. We were getting worried we might not make it onto the glacier that day. But after a quick hour we got a call from TAT that the weather had cleared and flights to the glacier had resumed. We were up. It was showtime.
Four of us would be flying in a single-prop Beaver five-person plane. (I bet Woody knows more of the details of the plane.) Darren drew a short straw and would fly in a different plane. The planes were awesome. They had retractable aluminum skis that allowed them to land on snow. There were a bunch of other bush planes with huge tires all around. These planes were Alaska-tough.
It was one spectacular ride. In a plane that size you really feel like you’re flying, unlike in a commercial jet. We flew over some genuine Alaskan bush thick with muskeg. Some lakes still had ice. We flew through a couple of clouds and finally “The Great One” was in sight. Denali . Mountains and glaciers stretched from one end of the horizon to the other but Denali towered a full mile above everything else. It was absolutely massive.
We first followed the Tokositna River , then flew up the Kanikula Glacier. Soon a high mountain pass came into view; it was called One Shot Gap. “That’s our gap,” the pilot said. With what seemed like only a hundred feet to spare on each side we shot through the gap and were over the Kahiltna Glacier, which would be our friend for most of the expedition. We turned into a little valley and a small city of tents came into view below. Base Camp. We landed smoothly and the pilot cut the engine. We dragged our monstrous load of luggage out of the way.
Weeks ago I thought, “man, that seems kind of lame that you need to take a plane onto the glacier—if you can land on snow why not just land on the summit? Where do you draw the line? How high can you land and still say you climbed the mountain?” We found out the location of the 7200ft Base Camp is one of the closest spots to the summit that is free of crevasses and also outside the wilderness boundary. So even if you found a crevasse-free landing zone higher up on the mountain you’d get in trouble for landing there because motorized vehicles are not allowed in the wilderness.
But still, I thought, if your goal is to climb the mountain under your own power wouldn’t it be much more honorable to start from a town or a road, rather than getting flown in to a seemingly arbitrary spot on the mountain? Before we left we looked into this option, but that would basically add a month to the trip. Imagine hauling seven weeks of food and 100lbs of gear through trees, bushes, and rocky terrain, then having to pick your own way around moraines and crevasses all the way up the glacier just to get to base camp where most of the 1200 other annual hikers start. Some people do it, and it’s admirable, but we didn’t have that kind of time to spare. Maybe we’d save a trip like that for next time.
But if starting at 7200ft still sounds dishonorably high, think about other state high points. For Mt Whitney you start at 8300ft and climb to 14500ft; the same is true for Mt Rainier. And for Mt Elbert you start around 10000ft and climb to 14500ft. Plenty of high points even have a road to the top. With that reasoning a net climb of 13000ft for Denali sounds honorable enough to me. Not to mention the fact that it’s glaciers all the way.
We checked in with Lisa, the Base Camp ranger, and she gave us six gallons of white gas fuel that we had paid for back at TAT. Since we would be obtaining 100% of our water by melting snow, we had each brought a stove: three MSR XGK’s and two one-piece Coleman stoves (all used white gas). We’ve found through Winter School that one of the biggest pains of winter camping is huddling around the stoves after dinner and shivering while the snow melts into drinking water. It takes hours each day. So with a stove for every person we could speed the painful process up substantially.
Next, we each picked out a sled from the well-used stack. Normally when towing a sled you want a rigid connection between you and the sled so that if you go downhill the sled doesn’t crash into the back of your ankles. People often do this with two skinny PVC pipes. But since we would be roped up the whole time, for downhills we could attach the sleds completely to the rope, by prussiking the front and back. For uphills we’d pull the sleds behind us with a simple rope. The route is pretty much either all uphill or all downhill. Woody had the brilliant idea to bring some elastic cord which absorbed some of the stop and go while walking and eliminated a lot of jerk from the sled.
As soon as we landed we needed full skin protection from the sun. With clear skies above and bright snow all around and below us it was like we had two suns shining upon us. We definitely appreciated our special glacier glasses and last-minute purchase of nose guards. We covered our heads and necks with hats and handkerchiefs. Woody won with a white Arabian explorer-type hat. We slathered on the sunscreen and got to work setting up the tents.
The sun was so intense that the tents acted like greenhouses. Outside it might have been in the 20’s (Fahrenheit) in the shade, 50’s in the sun, and 70’s in the tent. Later on in the day the sun went behind a mountain and thankfully we were in the shade again. We tried to sleep but for those of us with minus 40F down sleeping bags we basically had to lay on top of our bags all night to keep from sweating. Eric and Dan brought thinner bags with thermal liners which allowed them to customize the insulation of their bags. We all brought some kind of vapor barrier liner (VBL) which you would wrap around yourself before getting into the sleeping bag. This waterproof barrier would prevent body moisture from saturating the sleeping bag as you slept and would maintain its warmth. But lower on the glacier most of us were too hot to need the VBLs.
Darkness never really came on the glacier that night but we were all tired enough from two days of travel that we nevertheless slept 12 hours. It had taken us all less than 36 hours to travel from our origins all the way to the glacier, with enough time to purchase/repackage food and meet with the rangers along the way. Things couldn’t have gone smoother so far. Now that a big chunk of the logistics had been executed flawlessly, it was time to actually start climbing the mountain.
When we woke up the next morning it was time to put on the armor and prepare for battle. Suiting up
for glacier travel with a huge backpack and sled is a lot different that suiting up for a simple climb up Mount Washington . Eric and I were on one rope and Dan + Woody + Darren were on the other, with Darren in the lead. We heard the glaciers were huge in Alaska so Eric and I tied in 40m apart while Dan/Woody/Darren were about 30m apart. We each had enough gear to build an anchor in case the other(s) fell in: a picket, an ice screw, an ascender, beaners, slings, and a belay device.
With my wide-rimmed cowboy-like hat and handkerchief across my face along with all kinds of weapons dangling from my harness I felt like an outlaw in the wild west. My gear jingled with each step and I could draw an ice screw like a handgun. We donned our packs and hitched our sleds and we were ready for battle. A battle with Mount McKinley . We buried two days worth of food at base camp and marked the cache with a bamboo wand and a flag provided by the Park Service with our name on it. We would use this food if we came back to Base Camp during a storm and had to wait a while for a flight out.
Before we left we got to see the National Park Service helicopter come in for a dramatic operation. First the chopper landed near the ranger tent. Pretty soon it took off with a long rope dangling 100ft below it. One dude with a body harness and fighter-pilot helmet clipped in to the bottom of the rope and was hoisted high in the air. That dude was in for one wild ride I tell you. I hope he’s bundled up, I thought, otherwise he’d be a dangling human popsicle in that wind. He and the chopper disappeared down the valley and cruised up the glacier. We had no idea what they were up to. About an hour later they came back and the dude unclipped. Weird, we thought. Later, when we got off the glacier we learned the reason for the dangerous mission.
Now it was time to head out. Eric and I marched in front with Darren/Woody/Dan (I’ll call them ‘DWD’ from now on) covering the rear. We started down the only downhill of the ascent, ‘Heartbreak Hill.’ It’s only heartbreaking on the way back when you have to climb it. Pretty soon we were down on the good old Kahiltna Glacier. Luckily we were early enough in the season and the snow bridges were thick enough that we couldn’t see any crevasses in our path. This demonstrated the benefit of hiking on such a popular path: we could see where 200 people before us had walked this season and hadn’t punched through into a crevasse, so we felt pretty confident that we would be safe.
The sun blazed overhead and Eric and I stripped down to shorts and a t-shirt and slathered on the
sunscreen. It felt like 90 degrees. The bowl of the Kahiltna Glacier acted like a heliostat with us at its focus. By mid-afternoon another tent city came into view: 7800ft camp. This would be our camp for the night. There were already a bunch of snow walls from previous climbers, which were built to shelter the tents from the wind and drifting snow during storms. “What storms?” we thought as we looked at the bluebird sky. But we knew that “the weather can change in an instant ” around here.
We set up our hardcore MITOC two-person and three-person Trango tents in some vacant spots. It was only 4pm so we still had some time before dinner. Dan rigged up a nifty shade canopy so we could sit without getting toasted. Woody pulled out the snow saw and started cutting snow blocks. The snow in the Whites is never compacted enough for blocks so we were novices at first. In cutting out the blocks, you had to keep in mind the mechanical engineering principle of design for manufacturing, which suggests that we should cut the blocks with the right draft angle so we can extract them. If you angle the cuts the wrong way it might be impossible to extract the block.
Either Dan or Woody cut the angles just right on the first block but then were faced with the dilemma of how to get it out. “This sounds like a job for an ice screw!” Woody suggested. Dan sank two ice screws into the block and extracted the specimen flawlessly. Our campsite neighbors came over to admire it and it became our dinner table. Ah, the simple joys of camping on a glacier. That would be just the beginning of our study of snow block architecture.
That night we met a few of our neighbors. The two guys camping next to us were from Seattle and Park City , UT and brought a life-size, ahem, X-rated blow-up figure whom they named Molly Tucker. From then on we referred to them as the Molly Tuckers dudes. Later, three Japanese climbers silently and swiftly built camp next to us. The three of them cooked and slept in a tent 50% smaller than our two-man tent. Who are those guys, we wondered. A Dutch climber whispered: “those are the famous Giri-Giri Boys from Japan , they’re probably doing something crazy.” Interesting neighbors indeed.
Next day we woke up a little earlier to beat the heat. The tentative plan was to camp at 9800ft camp, as
recommended in our guidebook (“Denali’s West Buttress: A Climber’s Guide to Mount McKinley ‘s Classic Route ” by Colby Coombs). But we would see how we were doing when we got there.
We suited up for battle. This was starting to feel routine. We pulled out of camp just in front of a 12-person guided group, split into three teams. Approximately 25% of climbers on Denali are part of guided teams, and each client pays about $6000 to the guiding companies, which covers everything except gear once they get to Anchorage . By comparison each of us paid about $1100 once we got to Anchorage for food, transportation, and the permit. Although from what I hear the guided companies had pretty good food.
Eric and I made it to the top of Ski Hill and waited for DWD. We thought it was kind of steep but it turned out to be an ant hill compared to some of the later climbs we would face. The guided group passed us and then we met up with DWD. A little higher up we had a little powwow. We decided to rearrange the groups for increased efficiency: Eric/Matthew/Dan on one rope, Darren/Woody on the other.
We also talked about camp. You climb the mountain slowly in order to acclimate to the thinner air. On other mountains most of us had felt the debilitating headache and nauseousness associated with acute mountain sickness (AMS) before and didn’t want to experience that again on Denali . Our book suggested ascending an average of no more than 1000ft a day in order to properly acclimate. But below 10,000ft none of us had really felt symptoms of AMS before so we felt the recommendation to limit our day to only 9800ft was too conservative. I think that recommendation in the book might be fitness-limited and not altitude-limited. So we decided to try and push on to the next camp at 11,600ft. We would spend a rest day there to acclimate.
We all agreed on the plan and split up into two groups. We agreed to radio in periodically with our FRS radios. Pulling all our gear up to 11600ft camp in one shot was hard work but our first team made it to camp around 5pm. Walking into camp felt like walking into a town in the Wild West. We cowboys strolled in down main street. For a second everyone stopped what they were doing around camp and sized us up, then went back to their business. If there were tumbleweeds they would have drifted across the street. There were probably 75 other people in camp.
Luckily there was an awesome vacant campsite that was perfect for two tents, and complete with an
attached cooking area. This was one of the only places in Alaska where it was OK to cook right next to your tent without having to worry about grizzly bears. We chopped out a massive block for a dinner table and pitched the tents. We radioed and in Darren and Woody were on their way up. They arrived by the time we had gotten camp set up.
One of the things to look forward to each evening was the weather forecast. It was given by Lisa, the Base Camp Manager, at 8pm every evening on Channel 1. It was followed by a trivia question. Around 7:58 every evening the entire camp would go silent and everyone held up their radio. The forecast for the night at 14,000ft was “Up to a foot of snow with lows around 5 above.” With weather like that we were glad to be in a solid campsite, with a rest day to look forward to the next day.
We woke up late the next morning to a mere two inches of fresh snow on the tents. I guess that’s better than a big blizzard. I don’t think any of us felt symptoms of AMS, but we all felt pretty lethargic. Part of us didn’t feel like doing a darn thing. But from our fast-paced lives we temporarily left behind I think some of us felt a little torn. From being on the go all the time during the school year and for the past couple of days, part of my mind said “what are you doing just sitting around, you need to be doing something productive!” But we were doing something productive, we were acclimating. By resting now we were enabling ourselves to climb higher the next day. Ascending too fast can lead to AMS, which can progress to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which are both bad news. So eventually we all felt completely comfortable sitting around doing absolutely nothing.
After a couple hours of sitting around it became time for a little boondoggle. From working on trail crew for the Inyo National Forest several years ago, Eric and I became familiar with the word ‘boondoggle.’ It’s something that you do to feel important, to feel like you’re working, but isn’t really necessary at all. We decided it was time to “flush the toilet.” Around here that action takes on a slightly different meaning than at sea level, since you have to dispose of human waste in deep crevasses. We had identified one such potential crevasse next to camp. There were two bamboo wands stuck into the snow next to it to form an X, the sign for WATCH OUT. We had to check it out to evaluate its suitability for our purposes.
We suited up for business and Eric belayed me out to lip of the crevasse. I didn’t want to get too close,
but it looked pretty deep. You would not have wanted to fall in. It looked like a good place to empty the CMC. Darren became the designated flusher. He tied off the CMC bag and Eric belayed him out to the edge. With a dramatic flourish he tossed the bag into the abyss and it plunged into the icy bowels of the glacier without a sound. “That was a good four seconds before it hit anything,” Darren said. That’s how you flush the toilet at 11,600ft.
A little while later it was time for another little boondoggle: crevasse rescue practice. I felt the least experienced with building a Z-pulley so Darren and I tied ourselves together and he jumped into a pit I dug. I was pulled to the ground and had to self arrest. I tried building an anchor but the snow was so soft it pulled out, a scary sight. Dan showed me that if the snow is too soft you don’t pound a picket in vertically, instead you bury it horizontally and it holds a lot better.
Toward evening after the skies had cleared and we were back to blazing sunlight we suddenly heard a rumble near the outskirts of town (camp). Everyone around dropped what they were doing and looked up. It was a big avalanche coming down the cliff. Giant snow chunks rumbled down the hillside and pulverized each other into a big cloud of white that made it all the way down to the trail but stayed safely away from camp. That was another advantage of camping in an established site that people used year after year: it was probably out of reach of avalanches.
Ahh, it was nice to have a quiet day on the mountain. We relaxed on our carved benches around the dinner table. We prepared a gourmet meal of pasta with dehydrated sauce, spices (from Kate), sausage, and dehydrated tomatoes. The forecast was good weather for the next few days.
We woke up the next morning refreshed and ready for action. Since the terrain between 11,600ft camp and the next camp (14,200ft) was so rugged and we still had about 120lbs each we decided to make the move in two loads, known as a “double carry.” The first climb out of camp was Motorcycle Hill, followed by Squirrel Hill, and then across Windy Corner. We would carry roughly half the gear in our packs up to the well-used cache site at 13,500ft and bury it there, then hike back down to sleep at 11,600ft camp. The next day we would move the rest of our gear all the way to 14,200ft camp, then pick up the cache the following day. That was the plan suggested by the guidebook.
Eric and I took the lead again with DWD behind us. Unfortunately a slower 5-person Polish team had started just moments before us. It’s tough to walk off-trail and pass though because the surrounding snow is way softer than the trail. In typical Polish fashion (as we later discovered) they refused to step aside to let us pass, so we slowly trudged past them in the soft snow on the side of the trail. It was tough work. By the time we completed the pass Eric and I were totally out of breath and took a while to regain it. But it would have been even more agonizing to hang out behind those guys all the way up Motorcycle Hill.
The top of Motorcycle Hill gave us an awesome view of 11,600ft camp. From above it looked like a small
village in a developing country. We could see how campsites had sprung up on either side of the main trail into town and people were working on new campsites on the outskirts. Little alleyways separated the different compounds. Just like a real village, this one had its share of sanitation problems. The rangers instruct everyone to urinate in communal sites to localize impact, so you could see giant yellow stains from half a mile away. Everyone treats or boils their water anyhow just to be safe. It was an interesting lesson in the need for urban planning.
Next was the even steeper Squirrel Hill. As we climbed we got an awesome view of the corniced ridge on the other side of camp. There was so much snow on the ridge that it was hard to tell what was snow and what was bedrock. As we got even higher we realized we were completely above the clouds, called ‘undercast’ in Mount Washington forecasts. You felt like an airplane immune to the weather below.
Pretty soon we were at the 13,500ft cache site. “Wait, where’s Windy Corner?” I asked Eric. “We already passed it,” he said. I guess Windy Corner wasn’t so windy today, we didn’t notice any difference between it and any other mountain pass. We tried to radio in to DWD, but the signal didn’t carry far enough. We hung out by a big hole that our Dutch predecessors had already dug and looked for something to keep us
occupied while we waited for DWD.
I came up with a brilliant idea for a boondoggle: building a house structure out of bamboo wands. We needed to mark our cache site with some style, we couldn’t just stick a little flag in the snow like everyone else. We needed to make ours stand out. First I made a cube and Gorilla-taped the ends together. Then I made a square-based pyramid on the top. Voila. We had the only house-shaped cache marker on the mountain.
We needed another boondoggle. We needed an official flag. I cut a section of yellow trash bag out and taped it to a wand. Then, in red Duck tape, I taped ‘MIT’ on the flag and made a skull and crossbones beneath it. DWD made it up at that point and we buried a bunch of stuff. Unfortunately Darren had a runaway altitude-induced nosebleed. But we made the most of it, and piled a bunch of the bloody red snow on top of our cache pile. With a bamboo house, MIT skull and crossbones flag, and bloody snow watching over our cache we were confident nobody would dare to lay a finger on it.
We turned around and headed back to camp. Descending was an order of magnitude easier. Gravity was now cooperating with us. It made the air denser and gave us less potential energy as we descended. Good old gravity.
When we got back to camp I had to take care of a little business. While we were waiting at the cache site
for DWD, another climber on his way up had approached me and Eric and bashfully requested a special favor. It turns out that his group had accidentally forgotten to dispose of their CMC bag in the crevasse at 11,600ft camp before they had left. They had left the bag in their campsite. If a ranger found their special surprise and discovered the owner they could get a big fine (this actually happened to someone when we were back in Talkeetna). So the guy respectfully asked if we could throw the bag away for them, and we would be duly rewarded. I said no problem. As soon as we got into camp I found their little surprise and pitched it into the toilet crevasse.
When we got back to our campsite we were amazed at the effects of the intense solar radiation. Objects that aren’t colored white heat up a lot more on the surface of the glacier. A pair of potgrabbers (a ‘spondonnagle’ if you’re an Aussie) that we had left on the dinner table had melted their way about three inches deep and had frozen into place. A snow shovel that was anchoring our tent had heated up the snow around it and had crept about 6 inches, extruding snow through two holes as it moved.
But more importantly, our sleeping bags had dried completely in our greenhouse tents and were nice and fluffy. I remembered how difficult it had been for me and Eric to dry out our sleeping bags when we hiked across New Hampshire in January a few years back. Basically, every day they got wetter and wetter from body moisture and lost most of their insulation after just a week. We were planning to be on Denali for three weeks. That’s why Dan suggested that everyone use a vapor barrier liner. But with intense sunlight we could get away with a little bit of moisture in our sleeping bags and wait for them to dry out during the day. If it got stormy and cloudy things might be different…
We finished dinner at a reasonable hour and it was time to get to bed. It was still weird to go to sleep at 11 when the sun was still out, but we were getting used to it. We found that it never really got dark, just twilight. The sun would officially set around 11:30pm in the north-northwest and rise around 4:30am in the north-northeast. The darkest part of the night occurred around 2am, but even then you could see outside just fine without a headlamp. At night the sun would drop just a little below the horizon for five hours. From 11:30pm to 2am was just one long sunset. From 2am to 4:30am was one long sunrise. Over the entire trip we couldn’t see any stars, just Venus. When the moon was full it did just the opposite of the sun, rising late and setting early, and stayed just a little above the horizon. It was bizarre. Later on in town I heard someone ask a local, “isn’t it hard to get used to all this daylight?” I thought to myself, it depends where you’re from, if you’re from Alaska it’d be hard to get used to so little summer daylight in the Lower 48!
Today the plan was to move the rest of the gear to 14,200ft camp. We stashed our snowshoes since we would just be using crampons higher up on the mountain. We said goodbye once again to our camp and climbed back up Motorcycle Hill and then Squirrel Hill. Once again Windy Corner was no big deal. We were delighted to see that people had heeded our warnings and nobody had touched the cache. The bamboo house, MIT flag, and bloody snow were still diligently watching over as we walked by. They would need to watch over it another day because the plan was to retrieve the gear the next day. Eric and I strolled into 14,200ft camp first and were stunned by its size. There were probably 50 tents spread all over the place. Even though we had beaten the rush, including our Polish friends, there was no room for us at the inn so we pretty much had to make our campsite from scratch.
We needed to rest first though. At this point we were currently higher than probably 99.999% of the rest of the country. We were 300 feet below the elevation of Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, and Mount Elbert , the three tallest mountains in the lower 48. The air was pretty darn thin. But we were only at the base of Denali . We still had over a mile of climbing to go.
As we rested I brought out one of the little toys I had hauled up: a solar charger for my camera battery. I bought a waterproof, durable 7W Powerfilm Rollable solar panel online before I left. The nominal output was 12V. Theoretically, even with 10% efficiency it should have enough juice to charge my battery via the battery’s car charger with 12V input. I tried for weeks to test the system in Cambridge but it was never sunny enough to produce enough current. I was worried I would need to buy another solar panel. But finally, just before the trip, the sun finally shone upon Cambridge and the charger seemed to charge the battery successfully. I decided to bring the system on the mountain but didn’t have too much confidence after only one test.
But it turned out the sun was so intense at 14,200ft high up on the glacier that the system worked beautifully and charged the battery successfully. The whole reason I brought the system was to ensure that Eric and I would always be able to take pictures (I also brought two extra batteries and so did Eric). Now we were in business. Woody also brought his own solar charging system that charged an intermediate battery and had success too.
After a little breather it was time to get started digging camp. There was some talk of a chance of snow so we wanted a bomber campsite to shelter us. Eric and I started sawing away in our own little campsites. With each campsite we got more and more ambitious and demanded a greater level of perfection. This one was going to be awesome, we resolved. We would cut blocks out of the middle of the campsite and pile them up for walls. This way the distance between the top of our tent and the top of our wall—our level of protection against the wind—increased twice as fast than if we had excavated outside camp.
Pretty soon DWD made it up and now we had five construction workers excavating the site. Before long we had two tentspots with roughly 6ft walls along with a sheltered cooking area. Behind our compound we had a plush super secret latrine area where you could use your CMC without anyone seeing you. Privacy was otherwise scarce at 14,200ft camp.
While we were working on camp we experienced a thing I called “Mountain Magic.” When hiking the
Appalachian Trail you’re lucky if you come across what’s called “Trail Magic,” which is where nice “Trail Angels,” often AT alums, park at road crossings and offer food to hungry hikers. Sometimes you’ll discover Trail Magic in the form of coolers with drinks and fruit that Trail Angels leave in the middle of the woods. While we worked on camp a few nice climbers on their way down the mountain were pulling around sleds offering free food. They said they summitted early and had extra food they wanted to get rid of so they wouldn’t have to carry it down.
It was mutual benefit: they were exhausted and still had 7000ft to descend and wouldn’t need the food anymore, it would just slow them down. We didn’t necessarily need the extra food, but it was nice to pick out a few items that were different that what we had brought like cookies and different bars. This wasn’t a favor that would be repaid immediately. Hopefully we would also summit early and be able to reciprocate the favor to the next round of climbers on their way up…
As we finished up camp a guide from another expedition on their way down asked if we could do them a favor and watch their tent to make sure it didn’t blow over. They would be back with another group of clients the next evening. In exchange we could use the tent for cooking. We gladly obliged. It turned out that the tent was absolutely perfect. It was a huge pyramid-shaped tent with a big pole in the middle. The bottom was dug down about five feet and had a nice circular bench for people to sit around. Most importantly, it enabled us to cook without needing sunglasses and headgear to protect us from the sun. Every day so far we had worn our sunglasses and hats pretty much from the moment we crawled out of the tent in the morning until the moment we crawled back in for bed.
It was a debate between couscous and Ramens this evening. Woody, Eric, and Dan selected a Ramen/couscous combination while Darren and I stuck to couscous. While we were eating a dude knocked on the tent and asked if we were the MIT group. He thanked us profusely for cleaning up his
group’s little surprise back at 11,600ft camp and gave us a nice bar of premium Toblerone chocolate to show his appreciation. We said thank you and split up the bar as well as we could into five precisely equal portions, but two small chocolate triangles were left over. All five of us concentrated on the two pieces and contemplated how to split them equally between five people. This could be complicated, we thought, it would be difficult for each of us to get exactly 40% of one piece. We could melt the two pieces down, Dan suggested, and cast them into molds in the snow so we all got exactly one-fifth. Wow, that could be cool, we thought. Or we could mash them up and split the mashed chocolate into fifths. Or maybe a neutral person or middleman could cut them into 40%-sized chunks and unbiasedly distribute them.
We focused our brainpower onto the problem. Surely three mechanical engineers, an aeronautical engineer, and a chemical engineer from MIT could develop a workable solution. Woody went outside to meditate for the solution on the latrine. I stared at Dan. Dan stared at Eric. Eric looked at Darren. Darren looked at the chocolate. We were deadlocked. It was a hung jury. Just about that time Woody ran triumphantly back into the tent and declared he had the solution. He threw me the two tiny chocolates and said “Matthew should get both of them because he’s the one who did the dirty work and threw the CMC bag in the crevasse.” Brilliant! Everyone nodded in agreement. I gave one chunk to Eric because he also initially agreed to do the dirty work for the person. We all sighed with relief that that problem had been solved justly.
The next day our plan was to pick up the cache we had buried at 13,500ft. I think we were all feeling a
little bit of AMS and dehydration from the day before. We needed a couple of low-key days to recuperate. As we hiked down we noticed that the trail transected a gigantic crevasse via a thinning snowbridge. We could see a giant crack on each side of the trail and it looked like the snowbridge the trail crossed didn’t have too many more days. Indeed, our guidebook showed that later on in the season the route changes and goes around the crevasse. I definitely wouldn’t want to be last person on the current route, who prompts the change to a different route!
Our bamboo house, MIT flag, and Darren’s bloody snow had watched vigilantly over our cache the past couple days. Now it was time to relieve them of their duties. We exhumed our stuff and put it in our empty packs. Before long we finally had all our gear at 14,200ft camp. We were exhausted from the little two-hour workout and the past couple of epic days.
We lounged around camp the rest of the day reading fine literature. Four of us brought books to kill the time while resting and waiting out bad weather. Without a book in my hands keeping me busy I might have been compelled to walk around and waste my energy. I read Skunk Works , while Eric read Seven Summits , Woody brought [???], and Dan brushed up on his Freakonomics . Dan’s sun canopy made a nice shelter. We lounged about in our down booties beneath overboots. We put on our down jackets for extra warmth and puffiness. There were plenty of cozy spots around camp to dive into a book and immerse ourselves for a few hours in a different world.
I think we all finally felt pretty good today but our schedules and bodies called for another day of rest. We were planning to haul our gear up to the next camp—17,200ft camp—all in one shot, called a “single carry.” The route between the two camps contained the trickiest and steepest terrain of the entire route. We could see the infamous fixed ropes on the steep 55-degree slope high above us. The fixed ropes had been placed there by guiding services and/or the Park Service because it was too icy to self arrest. So if you started sliding you’d go all the way to the bottom, or end up in a crevasse. Without the fixed lines we would have needed a whole bunch of ice screws for protection. The fixed lines would be safe because we would just clip one of our ascenders onto the rope and slide it up as we climbed. If we fell the ascender would catch and we wouldn’t slide more than a couple feet. But from the bottom it looked incredibly steep. It looked like Alaska ‘s “Golden Staircase” from the movie White Fang.
“I don’t want to have to climb that twice,” Darren said. We all agreed. It would be miserable to have to do a double-carry up that steep slope. And descending the lines didn’t look like a cakewalk either. Plus, beyond the fixed lines was the also-infamous Washburn’s Thumb perched on a knife-edge ridge. This was another shorter set of fixed lines with a 3000ft slope on either side. From what we had heard and
read, most people do indeed double-carry this portion. If we double-carried and cached gear high up on the ridge, we thought, we would want to cache five days of food (10lbs/person), along with some stoves, fuel, and shovels (about 10lbs/person), for a total of only about 20lbs/person. I said: “if someone told me, ‘you can either climb that whole route twice just because you can’t handle the extra 20lbs, or you could suck it up and quit being a dang nancy and do it all in one shot,’ I’d opt to avoid the nanciness.” Everyone else nodded their heads in agreement. So the plan was for one epic day tomorrow with packs of probably 75lbs. We needed a rest day to prepare for it.
We lounged about some more in the morning browsing our fine literature while observing the climbers on their way up. A couple of 12-person guided groups were on their way up the fixed lines. It looked absolutely brutal. From our camp far below the people seemed to be standing still. Either they’re sissies or it’s really steep, or both, we thought. The weather was so beautiful a huge number of people were on their way up; we counted probably 30 people strung along the route.
With such awesome weather prevailing above us and in the forecast it was a little agonizing to sit around camp and twiddle our thumbs, but the name of the game today was once again patient acclimatization. The reason 14,200ft camp was so massive was that this was the camp where people waited out the weather. Even with just a little wind or snow the trek to 17,200ft camp would be dangerous. We saw a bunch of people headed up in front of us, but it seemed that even more were behind us. By flying in to the glacier on a weekend we had picked a popular starting day. But by avoiding a double-carry farther down the mountain and with plans for a single-carry tomorrow we had set ourselves up to be slightly ahead of the pack. As more people poured in camp grew throughout the day.
It was time for another boondoggle; our minds could only absorb so much text at this altitude. We
decided to head over to the “Edge of the World” for a good view and the chance for cell phone service. Our guidebook said some people can get a signal if they stand close enough to the edge. We roped up and headed out towards the edge of camp. Along with about three other groups with the same idea we arrived at a rock outcropping above a who-knows-how-many-thousand foot drop. We prudently placed some pickets, ice axes, and screws in for protection and a few of us whipped out our phones to try to contact that special someone down in the States.
After the crowds had cleared and it became clear that our cell phones wouldn’t get service Darren decided that he needed to inspect the edge a little more closely. Woody built a bomber anchor and belayed Darren out to the top of a rock that you wouldn’t want to fall off. I don’t think he could even see the bottom because we were above the clouds. When Darren was satisfied Woody and Dan determined that they needed to take a look as well.
Our Polish friends showed up and also determined that they needed a good look. But they wanted to spice it up a little bit, to make it a little more thrilling. Instead of building an anchor one burly Polish dude crouched down and got a wide stance. That was their anchor. With the five of them still roped together, three stood right behind the burly dude and one smaller woman walked out to the edge. The burly dude had coiled the rope around his torso because he was too cool for a belay device. He “belayed” the woman out to the threshold of the abyss. We held our breaths because if she fell they were all going downtown. Their system had actually multiplied their individual risks of falling by a factor of five. “Let’s get out of here,” one of us whispered, “I don’t want to see them get killed.”
For the past three days I had been itching to make one vital improvement to the aesthetics of our campsite: we really needed an arch. Something like that could really elevate our campsite to a new level. The others concurred. As the others excavated a new kitchen site I took the extra blocks and started building the arch. Toward the top of the arch I started cutting the blocks at a slight angle so they would begin to arch inward. I cut a keystone block and one block for either side. Eric and Darren each placed a block and I dropped in the keystone block. It was kind of amazing to see everything go together like that and reinforce itself, it worked surprisingly well. I granted Woody permission to christen the keystone block as he saw fit. He carved ‘MIT’ on the keystone to credit our cumulative engineering prowess. We got some compliments from our neighbors.
To make rest day even more exciting we got to see another helicopter landing. While we were on the glacier we had seen the helicopter buzzing overhead nearly every day so far. “I thought that was only for emergencies,” I said. The chopper swooped down and in a big cloud of snow touched down near the ranger tent. We got some lessons in helicopter dynamics from Woody. Days later, when we were already off the mountain, we learned the reasons for all the helicopter excitement that week. We heard rumors that a French climber had fallen high up on the mountain and died. The helicopter was retrieving his body. In another bizarre case, a Polish woman had apparently hiked up to 14,200ft camp and decided she didn’t want to go up or walk down. She wanted a helicopter to come pick her up. NPS determined that there was nothing physically wrong with her and she could hike out easily. She refused and hung out for three or four days before her relatives back in Poland had persuaded the Park Service to fly her out. I’m sure it was not a cheap ticket off the mountain.
We tuned into the weather from Lisa the Base Camp Manager on Channel 1 at 8pm that evening and it looked to be beautiful for the next three days: no snow, clouds, or wind. The temp was forecast to stay below zero at 17,200ft with minus15F at the summit. That’s about as good as it gets for late May. After the weather came the eagerly-awaited trivia question. “Which animal injures the most hikers each year worldwide?” You’re supposed to think “bear” because we’re up in Alaska . “Other people,” one person answered, “dogs,” another replied. “Dogs is the right answer,” Lisa said. That was the extent of our communication with the outside world today.
8am: time for action. We wanted to head out of camp ‘early’ to beat the guided groups. It would be agonizing to be stuck behind a slower group all the way up the fixed lines. We took only the essential gear and cached the rest. We packed five days of food, our most reliable MSR XGK stoves, a gallon of fuel, camping gear, and mustered our strength for what would be our second-to-last epic climb. We pulled out just ahead of our neighboring guided group and with me and Eric in the lead we struck up the mountain. We had had three solid days to gaze upon the fixed lines and contemplate our destiny. We could see 2000ft of climbing right in front of us, two-thirds of the day’s total. We were hungry for some more altitude. We were psyched.
After about half an hour we were above 14,500ft, and higher than any land in the lower 48 states. The only way you get higher than this in the rest of the country is with an airplane. Pretty soon we passed a group of South American climbers. One of them had collapsed and sat down next to the trail. Eric offered to help, saying the Spanish word for help: “ayuda,” but the climber and his buddies waved us off. We slowly inched by. Pretty soon six of his eight companions had abandoned him and kept climbing. The two others kept him company. It must have been the altitude. I guess his companions didn’t want to be showed up by five Americans each hauling four times as much weight as them.
Now near the beginning of the pack Eric and I reached the bottom of the fix lines. It was so steep—
supposedly 55 degrees at the steepest part—that snow didn’t stick. It was solid blue ice with a few dustings of snow. A giant crevasse would eat you up if you slid the whole way down. A predecessor had dropped a trekking pole a few feet off the trail but it was too dangerous to recover. We couldn’t make any mistakes here. First Eric clipped on his ascender, then backed it up with a beaner attached to some independent webbing from his harness. That allowed him to safely transfer his ascender from one section of rope to the other. We remained roped up because it would be too dangerous to unrope with a giant crevasse right below us. And plus if I fell and my protection failed I would hopefully be saved by Eric’s equipment.
Pretty soon it was my turn to attach myself to the fixed rope. Ascenders are pretty cool devices that allow rope to slide through them one way but a cam-shaped piece with teeth jams the rope if it tries to go in the other direction. The alternative would be to use a prussik but you would need to re-tie the prussik for each of the ten or so different ropes which would take a while.
It was excruciatingly steep. For 800 vertical feet we climbed up steep, smooth ice without a comfortable place to rest our feet. That section alone gave my feet blisters that persisted for the next week. Our gigantic packs resisted every vertical step. My crampons seemed to just barely stick. I fell twice against the ice and thankfully my ascender caught me immediately. Just getting up from the fall was a monumental feat. Once I had muscled my pack into position I stood in place for a few seconds to catch my breath. Finally, after about ten sections of rope we were at the top of the fixed lines and looked triumphantly down at camp far below. DWD were just starting up the fixed rope in the midst of a traffic jam of other climbers.
We paused for a few seconds to revel in our newfound view. We were currently at 16,200ft, higher than most of the mountains around us. Glaciers stretched out like rivers in every direction. It was down every way we looked, except for one: the West Buttress. We still had a long ways to go. But we were beginning to taste it. Pretty soon Eric and I were at the base of Washburn’s Thumb, a gigantic rock outcrop above a steep section, named after the famous cartographer and route pioneer, Bradford Washburn. By now we felt like pros at the fixed lines so we cruised up.
The next part of the route took us over a knife-edge ridge. On the right was a nearly-vertical 2500ft drop to 14,200ft camp. On the left was a rocky 2-3000ft slope onto another glacier. Luckily the Park Service had pounded pickets into the snow along the ridge. Most pickets already had webbing and some even had beaners. With 40m of rope between us we could comfortably clip through one or two pickets at a
time. In the longer gaps Eric would place one of our own pickets or ice screws. I guess you could call it “sport mountaineering.”
Pretty soon we rounded a little hill and staggered exhaustedly into 17,200ft camp, the final camp before the summit. There were only two partially-made campsites remaining when we arrived so we grabbed them in a hurry. Half the work was already done for us, all we needed to do was dig out the campsites a little more and strengthen the walls. I threw down my pack victoriously. “How do you like them apples!” I yelled.
We were exhausted but there was still plenty of work to be done to make the campsite livable and awesome. We spent the next two hours excavating blocks from our little quarry before DWD arrived. At first we saw Darren appear on top of the last hill. I threw my shovel in the air to indicate it was us. Life moved at half-speed at 17,200ft. There was a little nub of a hill to climb to get to our campsite but it morphed into a small mountain. Darren, Woody, and Dan trudged in quietly. We were all too tired to even speak or congratulate each other.
I could cut only about three blocks before I became exhausted. The air was definitely thin but I didn’t really perceive myself as being out of breath. It felt like there was something mysterious slowing me down. I could rest for a minute and feel fine, but after five short minutes of activity I needed a break. I felt out of shape. Dan had a nifty device that fit over the fingertip and could measure heartrate and blood oxygen saturation. Like little doctors we eagerly tried it out whenever we got to a new camp. Most everyone’s pulse was near 100 bpm with about 88% oxygen saturation. As expected, our oxygen saturation had been decreasing the higher up we went, while our pulse increased to compensate.
Finally we had two nice tentsites and a kitchen carved out complete with stylish benches and tables. In the meantime probably twenty other climbers had slowly trickled in. Every one of them exhibited the half-speed “17,000ft stagger.” Most were too exhausted to say anything and quietly got to work on their campsites. About a third single-carried like us. We were pretty darn lucky to be the first ones in camp because all the latecomers had to start from scratch on new campsites and didn’t get walls that were even half as tall as ours.
We were all really happy to have our big down jackets at this camp. In the sun it felt warm, like temps were above freezing but in the shade of the snow wall our thermometers read minus 5F. But to me it
didn’t quite feel as chilly as the minus 5F in New Hampshire that we were used to. Maybe that was because around here, unlike New Hampshire , the sun was always shining and the wind was light. But another factor might have been in play: the thinner air. It seems reasonable that air with half the density would conduct and convect your heat away more slowly than sea-level density air, making it feel less cold. That would be an interesting thermodynamics problem…
Another big plus of the lack of darkness was the pleasantness of cooking. In New Hampshire in the winter you’re always fighting darkness. Most often on overnight trips in the Whites you get into camp just around dark and have to sit around the stupid stove for hours on end in the darkness melting snow while it gets colder and colder. Here at 17,200ft you could sit for hours and cook in the sunlight. Cooking wasn’t faster here, it was just a lot more pleasant. I think that’s why we didn’t end up needing more than three good stoves the entire trip. In NH we would have used all five stoves.
The forecast predicted good weather for at least the next few days. But we needed a solid rest day to recover and acclimate. It had been a monumental day and we fell asleep rapidly. I had incorrectly assumed it would be our toughest.
I awoke late the next morning to the sound of a jet circling loudly overhead. “What’s going on,” I wondered. It looked like a Boeing 737 and it seemed really low. “Why’s it flying so low and so loudly?” But then I remembered that we were at 17,200ft, about twice as close to the big jet cruising altitude as at sea level. Not to mention there was probably only one-fourth the air between us and the jet. The jet made a giant circle around Denali with a period of 13 minutes. We could see seven huge circular contrails in the sky already.
The other big news item at 17,200ft camp this morning was the number of people attempting the summit. We saw a long line of people headed up the hill outside of camp, on the way up to Denali Pass. The weather looked perfect for it. We hoped it would be just as good for our summit day tomorrow. We saw the line of climbers traversing a steep slope. We wondered why it was taking them so long. We guessed they were probably placing a lot of protection along the way.
Today was another day for reading fine literature. We settled back into our sun-warmed tents and sleeping bags and looked forward to a day of rest to build up our energy for the planned summit day tomorrow. My book, Skunk Works , talked about the secret Lockheed stealth projects back in the 60’s and 70’s. Eric read about the first guys to climb the Seven Summits. I turned the pages and grimaced
from the deep crack developing in my thumb from the dryness. We observed that no matter how good a care you took of scrapes, nothing healed at this elevation. I had a few cuts on my hand that hadn’t healed at all in the last five days. It’s easy to get infections at altitude because wounds never close. I guess our bodies were working so hard they didn’t have the resources to devote to healing superficial wounds.
We kept this day low-key and felt good about it. We seemed to be acclimating well and none of us ever had a headache for long. We also maintained our voracious appetites, which can sometimes dwindle at altitude.
We tried to psych ourselves up for the day tomorrow. We heard that some teams take up to 12 hours round-trip to summit. “Why could it take so long,” I wondered aloud, “it’s only 3000 vertical feet over 2.5 miles, that’s about 30% less distance and elevation than Mount Washington .” Altitude was the answer, we figured. But nevertheless we predicted that with light packs we should cruise up the mountain, as we had so far.
We tuned in for the weather for one final confirmation that tomorrow would be the day. “Forecast for the summit…,” base camp manager Lisa said “…for tomorrow—[howling]” We heard a bunch of howling on the radio. “What?” Woody said. All we could hear on Channel 1 was a bunch of bizarre howling. The we heard “everyone at base camp is dead…[howling].”
It turned out that some idiot somewhere on the mountain was overpowering the weather transmission from Base Camp. “I’m not going to give the weather because people are howling,” Lisa said indignantly. A random person on the mountain broadcasted “hi Lisa, this is the howling person and I’m really sorry, could you please hook us up with the weather?” But then the howling began again. We didn’t hear any forecast that night because some jerks wanted us to hear their howling instead. If we had seen the howling people they probably would have gotten tackled by everyone at 17,200ft camp.
“Jerks,” Woody said, “tomorrow is the day we need the forecast the most.” But we figured that since the forecast from yesterday called for decent weather, with temps around minus 15F at the summit, it probably hadn’t changed in the past day. We figured we still had a perfect day of weather to look forward to…
Dawn broke on our summit day. The ranger had advised us to start late, around 10am, when it was a
little warmer, and there would still be plenty of sunlight on the way down. Over the years plenty of people had gotten frostbite on summit day. We didn’t want to join their ranks.
I knocked on DWD’s tent. “Rise and shine, it’s showtime!” I yelled. We sat around the kitchen and ate our power breakfasts: me with my cereal and powered milk, DWD with their oatmeal, and Eric with his poptarts. We each had our own recipe for success. The rest/acclimation day had paid off yesterday and we were all feeling ready. Months of planning, weeks of physical effort, luck, and the help of our fancy gear had brought us to this spot.
We suited up like soldiers preparing for war. I punched Dan in the shoulder to test his armor. He reciprocated. We were ready. DWD took the lead with me and Eric bringing up the rear. “Ok, move out,” Darren said. Like a two-pieced hundred-meter snake we slithered out of camp.
Pretty soon we were reunited with our long-lost Polish friends. They were a bizarre sight to behold. Four of them were tethered about 3ft apart. One small Polish woman walked unroped in a big down jacket without a pack close behind them. She looked like a small lost child. They marched with synchronized footsteps. Darren, in the lead, caught up to the five of them before the first hill. He patiently waited behind them and when it became apparent they wouldn’t step aside he began to pass them. The kept marching along. Finally they got the message and let us pass. DWD slowly crept by them and then Eric
began to pass. But up ahead Darren got to a steep section and needed to go slower. We all slowed down. Then the Polish people suddenly decided to keep going. They were walking in the middle of mine and Eric’s rope but tried to ignore it. We crept along but pretty soon Darren got to a steeper slope and needed to place in a picket for protection. No matter, the Polish people kept marching in the middle of our rope. They got to the steep section and decided to forego the fixed pickets altogether.
Things were getting complicated. I was still standing on flat ground at that point twiddling my thumbs and watching the little fiasco unfold in front of me. The problem with the Polish people walking in our rope is that if they fell they could pull us with them. Luckily the five of us were anchored so we wouldn’t fall far. On the other hand, if we fell we could dislodge the Polish people and they would start falling without protection to catch them.
The Polish people clearly had no idea what they were doing, as well as no sense of climbing etiquette. They were a walking contradiction. The purpose of being roped together is so that you can clip through pickets. That way, if one person falls a picket stops them and the whole team from sliding down the mountain into a crevasse. For goodness sake, the Park Service provided the blasted pickets so you could be safe without needing to carry your own. By tying in so close to each other, the team couldn’t even use the NPS-provided pickets, and didn’t bring any of their own. Since they were roped only three feet apart, if one of them fell they would immediately bring the other three down with them. Now instead of one person needing to self arrest all four would need to self arrest to catch a fall. They had successfully multiplied their chances of falling by a factor of four. We didn’t want to have them reducing our own safety.
As I nervously watched ahead while they stepped on and got their crampons tangled up in the rope between Dan and Woody I could see two other teams of about five people starting to catch up to us. They were roped in a similarly senseless manner. My sixth sense told me they were also Polish. “Oh great,” I thought, “this is about to get even more interesting.” Pretty soon Darren stopped and let the five original Polish people pass. Our rope was so long that I was still standing stationary on flat ground and starting to get cold. At last we all started to move and things became a little more efficient.
Pretty soon the other five-person group caught up to us. They were roped up about ten feet apart—
slightly safer—but didn’t want to use the pickets either. Of course, they were also Polish. Yet another five-person group appeared behind them roped up in a similarly scary manner. “Yes, we’re all Polish,” the guy said to me. “Did you come here together?,” I asked. “No, we’re all different groups,” he answered. Darren was placing pickets and clipping in up ahead which explains why we were slower than all the other groups that avoided the pickets. I sat at the back of our 100m snake stationary as Darren wrestled with an obstacle far ahead. I couldn’t really see Darren, let alone hear him. I stood there, stationary, and observed the lead Polish dude shuffling about impatiently. He’s gonna do it, I thought, he’s gonna pass us too.
He cocked his head to the side and asked, “you predict to slip?” with a look of confusion. “No I don’t expect to slip,” I answered, “but since the pickets are already here we might as well use them, it doesn’t take any extra work.” “But your rope, it’s so long,” he commented. “The longer it is,” I answered, “the more pickets you can clip through and the safer you are!”
He turned around to his companions, said something in Polish, and they decided it was time to pass us. I mean, I felt bad that we were standing stationary there on the trail and they had to wait for us, but that’s just how it is on the mountain. It’s not really safe to pass on such a steep slope. He said, “we going to pass, OK?” There was nothing I could do. “Just stay out of our rope,” I said, “stay below it. BELOW IT.” “OK no problem. Bye.” Of course they walked above our rope. Luckily mine and Eric’s rope was comfortably clipped through two pickets. If the Polish dudes fell, they would be in trouble, not us.
It was like the Polish dudes had taken to heart just a single sentence from the Denali climbing book: “you need to be roped up to each other to climb Denali .” They didn’t seem to know why they needed to rope up or how to do it. The just got the shortest rope they could find and tied themselves to it. Oh, you’re supposed to be 30m apart? Why, you can’t talk to each other when you’re that far apart.
I watched painfully as they slowly trudged past us. Up ahead Eric banged his ice axe against the snow, a universal sign of frustration. We were probably twice as fast as those Polish guys but the five of us clipping into and out of pickets slowed us down significantly. As frustrating as it was though, slowing down a little to clip into some pickets and protect ourselves from falling was pretty important. It was definitely worth it. Through clenched teeth I vowed to pass everyone who had passed us.
After two tough, complicated hours everyone including probably twenty Polish people had reached Denali Pass , at 18,200ft. The route ahead was steep with 2,000ft of climbing but thankfully there wasn’t enough exposure to warrant too many more pickets.
It was apparent that we cruised at different paces. We decided to split ourselves up independently: me/Eric would go in front with DWD behind. Each rope team had enough safety gear to bivy on the mountain: a pot, stove, fuel, food, pad(s), shovel, sleeping bag(s). Our packs were way bigger that everyone else’s we passed that day but at least we had a decent safety margin. That’s the Winter School way. That’s the safe way. The plan was for me/Eric to summit and come right back down to meet DWD. If any of them were feeling bad they could tie into our rope and we’d take them down while the others summitted. If they were all feeling good we would hike with them back up to the summit.
As we discussed the plan we began to realize it was actually kind of cold. We each put on almost all our upper layers including our heavy down jackets. On my upper body I had two polypro layers, two fleeces, a shell, and my heavy down jacket. It must have been cold because I climbed in all those layers for the
rest of the day and didn’t overheat. Thank goodness it stayed sunny with light winds.
All the Polish climbers went by. Now it was our turn. After a little while we officially split up, and Eric and I pushed on ahead. Without the need to place protection we were indeed faster than the Polish groups. We began to pass them. I believe they were surprised. We trudged through the soft snow on the side of the trail and gradually made our way to the front of the pack. Of course it wasn’t a race, but it was sure nice not to have to wait behind the Polish teams going way slower that we wanted.
As we climbed we moved slower and slower. We were walking in a slow motion movie. Every few steps we had to stop, rest our heads on our ice axes, and catch our breaths. Features that seemed so close for our brain doubled in apparent distance for our body. We wanted desperately to keep climbing but an invisible hand was holding us back, weighing us down. The thinning air and our yearning for the summit made us forget about our hunger. We tried to force some food down but couldn’t stomach more than a few bars. We tried to drink some water but even in our insulators our bottles had frozen shut. It must have been way colder than it seemed.
We could see the summit ridge on the other side of the Football Field. Just a little bit higher and we’ll be on top. We dragged our bodies to the base of that last hill. From a distance it seemed like an insignificant little nub, just a false summit before the peak. But when we climbed a few feet up it turned into a towering obstacle. This was going to be way harder than we expected. Five steps…rest…breathe…five steps…rest…breathe. I didn’t want to look down because I knew we hadn’t climbed much yet. I didn’t want to look up because I knew we still had a long ways to go. I just looked at the footprints in front of me. People had made it up successfully yesterday. We would make it today. It was probably a 500ft hill but it seemed much higher.
We were going to make it. By gosh we were going to make it. Even if I broke my leg at that point I still think I would have made it to the top through sheer willpower. Ugh. My mind was now overpowering my body. So far during the past seven hours of ascent I had two little fruit bars and a few swigs of water. I’m not sure what my muscles were running on, I’m pretty sure I had exhausted most of my body’s reserves over the past eleven days. Finally we made it to the summit ridge.
The summit was in sight beyond a sharp corniced ridge. The Polish people were just starting at the base of the hill. If we didn’t blow our lead the summit would be ours alone for a few moments. It was awfully tempting to just throw caution to the wind and dash to the top without placing protection. But we didn’t come all this way to fall off the mountain just below the summit. Eric was better at placing pickets so he went in front. “LET’S DO IT!” I yelled.
We had a few choices which way to go. To our left we had a 500ft crevassed slope down to the Football Field. To our right we had a full five-thousand foot drop to the Ruth glacier. Behind us we had the way we had come. In front we had the summit. I knew which way I was going. The ridge was literally as sharp as a knife—a really dull one I guess. With no flat top it was safer to favor the 500ft drop over the 5,000ft drop so we walked carefully on the left slope. Fortunately there were a few pickets placed by the Park Service that we could clip through. I guess it was cheaper for them to invest in a few pickets than in a rescue. No helicopter in the world has ever rescued anyone at this altitude.
Ten pickets later we found ourselves on the roof of America . YEEEAHHHH!! I roared at the top of my lungs. I yelled so loud I actually knocked the wind out of myself for five minutes. We were currently the
highest people standing on solid ground in all of North America . We saw the Alaska Range unfold beneath us. There were gigantic mountains with awesome glaciers a full two miles below us. We could see the Kahiltna Glacier spreading like a frozen river fifty miles away. It was like we were in an airplane. Except here on Denali the awesomeness extended 360 degrees around us and 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. Like few other places in the world we had a full and complete hemisphere of unobstructed view all around us. Nothing was taller. The closest taller mountain was Kangchengzhongga on the Chinese/Indian border, 5400 miles away.
A few years ago I had never expected I would be standing here. I thought, “I guess if we’re going to climb the 50 state high points that includes Denali . But Denali ‘s for real mountain climbers, like Everest. It sounds a little too dangerous to me.” But here I was. MITOC’s Winter School had turned the tide. Eric had turned the tide.
After a couple minutes of pictures and awe it was time for the most important picture. I wanted to give credit to MITOC, the MIT Outing Club. Through five years of Winter School we had gained our foundations in winter hiking and climbing. We started out as freshmen students but now we were the senior leaders, instructing the next generation. Just for the occasion my girlfriend Amanda had made one shirt for me that said “MITOC RULES” and one for Eric that said “ DENALI .” My idea was that the two of us would stand together with the t-shirts and get a picture on the summit of “MITOC RULES DENALI.”
Problem was, with temps of minus 15F and a little breeze it was awfully chilly for a photo in just a t-shirt.
I was already starting to feel sick from the altitude and wanted to get down soon. I had thought ahead and just slipped my t-shirt over the top of my down jacket. Eric decided instead to go for the glory. I asked Eric, “where’s your Denali t-shirt, Amanda worked so hard on it?” “I’m wearing it,” he said. “Oh jeez.” After a few minutes of hemming and hawing, Eric decided to go for it. “Now you better take this picture quick Matthew,” Eric warned. Like a bolt of lightning he stripped off all six of his upper layers and I snapped a quick picture of him posing without his shirt. I guess you could say I chickened out.
He extricated the Denali t-shirt and put everything back on. Not often do you wear a t-shirt over a down jacket. We precariously perched my camera on my backpack and clipped it in. We didn’t want that camera falling off the mountain. Finally we got our summit picture.
We had stood for 15 minutes on the roof of North America and needed to get down. I was getting a big
headache and was going downhill fast. I had had that same feeling on Mt Shasta years before and knew it was only going to get worse. I needed to get the heck out of there while I still could. Our usual tradition is to get a picture of me jumping and Eric juggling on top of the state high points but we didn’t have time for those rituals now.
We staggered off the summit. Now we were only halfway through summit day. We passed some Polish friends on their way up. They had ditched their packs at the Football Field. Next we met up with Darren, Woody, and Dan. They were doing awesome and feeling pumped. I wished that I could go back up to the top with them but I was feeling miserable. We planned to radio in periodically and meet each other back at camp. Eric and I moved out and DWD moved up.
The “towering little mountain” that we had struggled up turned back into a nub of a hill on the descent. With gravity helping us we were probably going four times as fast on the way down. We blazed past all of our other Polish friends on their way up. That day, by our count, 25 people summitted: the five of us and twenty Polish climbers. The numbers were similar yesterday and would be about forty tomorrow. That was probably the most successful three-day period on Denali so far this year.
I felt like we were descending a completely different mountain than we had come up. Now we could walk down at a normal pace; someone had just released the “slow motion” button. We cruised to Denali Pass and faced our last major obstacle of the day: the steep side slope. Unfortunately the wind had blown all day and filled in the trail with soft snow, making it much easier to slip, especially since we were the first ones down. Camp was tantalizingly close; we could see it less than a mile away. It was now 8:30pm, we had already been hiking for eleven hours and were exhausted. We were ready for sleep. Once again it was tempting to throw caution to the wind and make a dash for it without placing protection, we could probably go twice as fast. But I had to remind myself that we didn’t come this far just to fall off the mountain on our way down.
I had Eric go in front because I knew he would be more liberal in placing protection. We slowly made our way across the steep slope. About halfway we looked back and saw some Polish friends appear behind us. “You’ve got to be kidding me if you’re not going to place protection on this slope,” I said aloud. Luckily they kept their distance and didn’t compromise our own safety. The slope felt so long because we could no longer just put our minds on cruise control and march down. We had to concentrate the whole time on our footing, the rope, and placing pickets. We had to make sure each footstep was solid.
Near the end, when there was no longer a huge crevasse below the slope and we had determined it safe
enough to stop placing protection, my tired foot slipped and I began to slide down. Come on, I thought, not when we’re this close. I planted my ice axe weakly and slowed down after 40 feet. I was too tired to hike back up so I made a new trail.
We staggered on and dragged ourselves up the last little Heartbreak Hill to camp. Eric immediately plopped down on his pack and held his head in his hands. I laid down in exhaustion onto the snow. It was cold but I didn’t feel it. I was zapped. I was drained emptier now than after the Boston Marathon. We had done it. We were back.
Now we awaited DWD’s return. We had tried to radio in but I guess we were out of each other’s range. The time was 10:30pm. After 12 hours Eric and I were wiped so we figured DWD would be zombies by the time they showed up. We had each only eaten two bars all day and drank a few sips of water before the bottles had frozen solid, even the ones in insulators deep in our packs. We would have needed a thermos to keep the water liquid all day. We fired up the only stove we had and began the slow process of melting snow. After an hour and a half we had finally thawed our own water bottles and used their contents to create three liters of boiling water. As tempting as it was to drink it ourselves, we decided that since we were feeling OK we would save all the water for the other guys. We had no idea of their condition. We knew they would appreciate hot water. In the meantime we put the hot water bottles in our jackets for mutual warmth retention.
Next we began to melt some snow for cooking dinner. We finally heard a crackling transmission from Woody that they had reached Denali Pass. Now that we could see them in the distance we relaxed a little. If they had been in bad shape I don’t know if I would have even been strong enough to offer much help. At midnight I began to turn into a zombie myself. We sat there on the cold benches around the stove. The sun had set and it was probably minus 10F. We were too tired to talk. We just looked. I learned to appreciate just how much heat it takes to bring one liter of minus 10F snow all the way to boiling.
Around 12:30am Darren emerged over Heartbreak Hill. Then Woody. And finally Dan. We were all back. The three of them sat down on the benches. Nobody really said anything. We all stared distantly at the stove. “You guys did it, congratulations!” I pounded Darren and Woody on the backs. They sipped from their hot water bottles and we all ate some couscous. Then the three of them went into their tent and fell asleep. Eric and I stayed awake for the next hour creating some water for ourselves and finally got to sleep around 1:30am.
Our bodies were totally shot so we slept in until 11:30am. We weren’t in any hurry to get down. We knew that the biggest obstacles ahead of us were Washburn’s Thumb, the long fixed ropes, and not punching through lower down on the glacier. After that we would be at Base Camp and within reach of Woody’s finish line: a cheeseburger in Talkeetna.
A huge line of people was headed up the mountain for the summit. Darren counted forty people,
including what looked like two twelve-person guided groups. I’m glad we weren’t tangled up in all of that. We packed up and headed out. Camp had grown dramatically over the past day; people were probably encouraged to head up by the stellar forecast. DWD went in front with me and Eric bringing up the rear and together we made our way slowly, carefully, down the sharp ridge. Pretty soon our close-roped Polish friends appeared again out of nowhere and blasted by us. They still didn’t seem to understand the purpose of the anchors in the snow that we were using.
After Washburn’s Thumb it was time for some more fixed rope action. Going down was going to be kind of tricky because ascenders are designed to work while you’re going up, not down. We would have to hold the ascenders open while we descended, and if we slipped we would release them and hopefully they would catch the rope. First Dan, then Woody, then Darren, then Eric disappeared over the steep edge. I’m glad we had the ropes to follow because the clouds had rolled in and we could no longer see the bottom. We were descending into a white abyss.
Pretty soon I joined the rest of our group at the bottom of the fixed lines and the clouds broke, giving us a good view of 14,200ft camp. I was amazed. While we were away camp had doubled in size. New campsites had been added all around the edge of town. People were pouring in. This was probably the peak couple of weeks for climbing Denali .
We remembered our cache and realized with disgust that our packs were about to get a lot heavier. “Hey let’s give away some food,” Woody said. Dan and Darren excavated the gear and we put all our food that we weren’t going to eat into three sleds. Since the weather had been so awesome and enabled us to go fast we had a huge amount of food to spare. Like the ice cream man with his ice cream truck we towed the sleds around camp hollering “FREE FOOD, get your free food here!” People emerged like prairie dogs from their shelters. Most were bashful at first but when
we conveyed to them that we really didn’t want to carry all this food down they dug in. We were especially thankful when a guide came out to browse our sleds; he had probably been through this dozens of times before and knew what to grab for his future clients. He grabbed about six pounds of cheese, pounds of oatmeal and crackers, and about six bags of pasta from our sleds. We were delighted. He also grabbed a spare gallon of fuel. Our packs were getting lighter and we were making people happy.
Most of the food was gone in twenty minutes. But we still had a few pesky pounds of pasta. Maybe the Korean team would like it… They didn’t speak much English but once it became apparent that we were giving away the food instead of selling it they opened up. “Pasta?” they asked. “Oh yes, pasta, macaroni, very good,” we said. “OOHH, macaroni!” We stacked four pounds into their open arms. “Sank you, Sank you!” they said. They bowed deeply and I bowed and with big smiles all around our sleds were basically empty and we were on our way.
We had tentatively planned on spending the night at 14,200ft camp. But Woody’s cheeseburger awaiting him in Talkeetna was becoming increasingly more attractive. Even though it was 7pm we felt pretty good and decided to push down to 11,600ft camp and reevaluate. I held my head high as we moved out of camp. People in camp were waiting with uncertainty for their shot at the summit but we were already victorious and were on our triumphant way down. I thought I could hear trumpets playing in our honor in the distance.
It’s not often that you look forward to “flushing the toilet.” But for us that meant the chance to stick our nose over a deep crevasse and throw the CMC bag in. We normally steered clear of crevasses and didn’t get to look into them. I had a full CMC on my backpack and needed to lighten the load, so I identified a suitable-looking crevasse a little ways off the route and hollered for Eric to stop. He got in self arrest
position in case I fell in. I grabbed the CMC bag and marched toward the lip of the chasm. I pitched the bag in and I’m not sure it ever reached the bottom, the crack was so deep. It might still be falling to this day. We continued on our merry way around Windy Corner which was luckily calm today.
Having the sleds took all the fun out of descending. We tied the sleds onto the rope between us and Eric went in front. My job as the back person was to keep tension in the rope, which meant I was holding the sleds back the whole time, trying to prevent them from crashing into the back of Eric’s legs. On the steeper slopes like Squirrel Hill and Motorcycle Hill the weight of the sleds on my harness was so uncomfortable I flipped my sled upside down. That way the duffel bag had so much resistance with the snow that Eric had to work a little to drag it down the hill. I felt pretty clever. On leveler terrain I took Darren’s suggestion and tied some extra rope to the nose of the sled, which allowed me to steer it much better and things went much smoother.
Meanwhile, DWD cruised behind us with Darren in front, followed by Woody on skis, and Dan in the back. Woody had skinned most of the way up the mountain on his skis while the rest of us trudged in snowshoes. Now it was time for Woody to reap the rewards of his labor. We enviously watched as Woody snowplowed down.
By 11pm we strolled into 11,600ft camp. It was pretty quiet in town that evening so I hope our excitement at having successfully summitted didn’t wake anyone up. We still had energy so we decided to cook some dinner and keep going. Hopefully we could push all the way to Base Camp that night. It also felt nice to finally take off the dang sunglasses and not need to put on sunscreen now that the sun had set. We figured we might as well hike all night and take advantage of the lack of sun and far more pleasant temps. That was the nice part about being this far north in the summer. We scarfed down some sausage and pasta, compliments of chef Dan, and rolled out sometime after midnight.
Around 1am we saw a bright orange light appear just behind a mountain far down the Kahiltna Glacier in
front of us and soon saw the full moon appear. It was a serene time to hike. There was the perfect amount of light. We walked toward the full moon, which over the course of the next few hours rose just a little ways above the horizon and then headed right back down. We met a couple of oncoming hikers. I wasn’t sure how to greet them. It was 2:30am. There’s “good morning” and “good evening” but it doesn’t seem right to say “good night” when people aren’t going to bed. I’m not sure they understood English anyhow.
Pretty soon I was out of water. I had miscalculated and needed a liter to get me to Base Camp. Dan graciously whipped out the stove and fired it up. As we sat there we looked up at Denali . The massive mountain towered two vertical miles above us. It looked like one gigantic wall. We were five miles away so it seemed to flatten out into one monster face. As we sat there we also noticed that there were some new dips in the trail: the snowbridges over the crevasses were thinning. I had heard this was a low-snow year, but I didn’t expect the crevasses to open up this early. We knew we had to be careful. Luckily we were
hiking at night so the snow bridges should be stronger. A Polish couple on their way up warned that we better get off the glacier before the sun comes up or it could get “dangerous.”
A few miles later we learned what they had been referring to. We were walking through an area thick with postholes from people who had sunk in during the heat of the previous day. Eric tried to step around but as soon as he stepped on virgin snow he sank down up to his waist. Luckily his feet weren’t dangling in the thin air of a giant unseen crevasse but still I got ready to self arrest. Was there a giant crevasse underneath, I wondered. If so, why hadn’t he punched through the whole way? We guessed that there probably was a crevasse underneath this big minefield and that maybe the snowbridges were melting faster because they were less dense than the glacier snow. In future minefields we learned to step exactly where other people had stepped and to craw when we had to in order to avoid plunging through. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near that area in the heat of the afternoon. That snowbridge was probably looking at its final couple of days.
We slogged through five other minefields. It was slow going. Each step you took was a thrill. You
wondered if your foot would hold or plunge into blackness. Finally we reached the bottom of Heartbreak Hill. Actually, in comparison to the other Heartbreak Hills we experienced on different parts of the trip this one seemed to be a piece of cake. We had known about this hill since Day 1 and could mentally prepare for it. The other hills came out of nowhere when we weren’t psyched up for them. Step by step we inched our way up. At 7am the pirate flag marking Base Camp’s landing strip came into sight. We strolled in triumphantly and threw our packs down victoriously.
My favorite part of the day came when I undid my harness with relish threw it violently against the ground. I was finally off the rope. Eric and I had been roped up pretty much every day for thirteen days. Wherever I went I had to make sure I didn’t step on the dang rope, and make sure it didn’t get tangled on anything. We had to go at exactly the same pace. If I needed to go to the bathroom we both had to stop. And I always had to hold that ice axe in case Eric plunged in. Base Camp
was safe enough that we could finally detach that umbilical cord and be free. I had me a big old bowl of granola and powdered milk to celebrate.
“What do we do know,” I asked Eric, “it’s 7am and we’ve been hiking for eighteen hours straight, we need some rest. But the blazing sun is about to come up and people are waking up in Base Camp. It would be tough to sleep here.”
“We fly out,” he answered. The glacier planes started flying in around 8am. I really hoped we could get some sleep right after we landed in Talkeetna. While we waited for DWD I said to Eric, “man, I can definitely see how people could get hurt on that mountain. On summit day if you don’t really listen to your body and get down quick you might not be able to walk out. And the temperature wasn’t too forgiving even on a good day like we had.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, “and lower down on the glacier you better hike at night or you’re gonna punch
through. I don’t think many people know that.” Pretty soon we saw DWD appear next to the pirate flag at the end of the landing strip. “All right, we did it!” I said.
We organized our trash to show to Lisa and disentangled our sleds. We hoped they would serve the next climbers as well as they had served us. We talked to Lisa and got into the departures queue. It turns out that a twelve-person guided group had gotten there last night and were first on the list for departure with our air carrier, TAT. We noticed at that point that there were actually three “terminals” at the Base Camp landing strip: one for Hudson Air, Talkeetna Air Taxi, and K2 Aviation. Each terminal had its very own unique-colored sled protruding vertically out of the snow. On the sleds were duct-taped the letters H, T, and K. Wow, it was a real official airport. Woody joked, “ok everyone, now you can’t take any sharp objects onboard the aircraft.” We laughed. Our glacier gear consisted almost entirely of sharp, pointy, dangerous weapons.
Unfortunately there weren’t any planes coming that could take all five of us at once. One of us could fit on the first airplane, one on the second, and then three on the last, Lisa told us. “Who wants to be first?” Woody asked. Nobody wanted to be first. It was like we all wanted to stay on the glacier a little longer. We were scared to return to the uncertainties of civilization. In order to make this completely, 100% fair it needed to be randomly decided. But where do you obtain a random number on a glacier? This could be difficult. We proposed a variety of solutions. Darren suggested making five small sticks, with one shorter than the others. The person drawing the short stick would be It. Blast it, though, it turned out we couldn’t find sticks (or any plant life for that matter) on the glacier. We would have to use bamboo wands.
But Woody was concerned this wouldn’t be random enough. “What if we had a five-sided dice?” I asked. Unfortunately we couldn’t find one of those either. Eric proposed another solution: “How about I just pick a secret number between 1 and 100, everyone else picks a number and whoever’s closest is It?” “But what about you?” one of us asked. “If nobody is closer than 20 than I’m It,” Eric answered, “the chances should be one-in-five for everyone.” But then Eric backed off: “when people pick random numbers they usually pick prime numbers though, like 23 or 17, so it’s hard to get truly random”
Woody was uneasy. “That doesn’t sound random enough to me, what else can we do?” Eric offered an improved scheme: “I’ll pick a number between 1 and 5 and write it in the snow. Everyone else picks a different number and whoever gets it right is It, otherwise I’m It.” Most of us nodded our heads that this could work. But Woody was still skeptical: “but like you said, people often pick prime numbers so this still won’t be random enough.”
We were deadlocked. Nobody wanted to be It. Nobody would back down. We all stood our ground. Pretty soon the first plane landed and started loading up. This was getting urgent. Lisa hollered “ok, MIT, first person.” Woody turned to us. “OK, fine, we can do it your way Eric but I’m still not convinced we’re going to achieve true randomness.” We all sighed with relief that the deadlock would end. Eric hastily wrote down a number in the snow behind us. Darren guessed the number correctly so he was It. He would take the hit. He loaded the plane and took off. Without argument I volunteered to be the next
person. My decision wasn’t totally random but I could live with it. At least it meant I would get to change into tennis shoes before Dan, Woody, or Eric.
After one of the most awesome plane rides of my life I was back on the ground. Changing into tennis shoes never felt so good. While we were gone spring had come to the rest of Alaska . For the first time in two weeks I saw trees and animals again. Dan, Woody, and Eric didn’t end up flying out until three hours later. In the meantime I gave the CMCs back to the rangers.
It was Friday and we had finished the climb a full week early. Dan, Woody, and Darren decided they would rather get some work done and give back to their employers a week of vacation that they didn’t really have in the first place, so they moved up their flights to fly out of Anchorage tomorrow. Since Eric
and I were taking the whole summer off anyhow, we said to each other “how often do you find yourself in Alaska in the summer with a week to kill?” We decided to go backpacking in the northern half of Denali National Park , an area that contained actual wildlife and not as much snow. ( see pics from that trip).
After a few showers in the TAT bunkhouse we strolled into downtown Talkeetna for some food. “I bet we could find my cheeseburger in there,” Woody said. We walked in to Denali Brewing Company and sat down. The waiter gave us some water. “Wow, you don’t even have to melt the snow to get water here!” I observed. We sank our teeth into our best meal in two solid weeks. Dan played around with Woody’s phone and suddenly raised his eyebrow in surprise. Woody slowly put down his cheeseburger. “What?” he asked with a full mouth. “Dude, your phone’s got a random number generator,” Dan said. Woody: “D’oh!”