"The west buttress of McKinley is often said to have all the technical challenges of a long walk in the snow. That is more or less true, but it is also true that if you should, say, trip on a boot lace at the wrong moment during the walk, you will probably die."
Jon Krakauer, Eiger Dreams
On the mountain arriving in Alaska I arrived in Anchorage in the evening on May, 5 with two huge pieces of luggage, large number of small fragments of information and one big dream gluing it all together. The weather was crap. When I first got off the plane and felt the sleet on my cheeks it was as if someone had just slapped me, the snowed over hills rising from the seaside around Anchorage did not improve the picture. It is a long way from London to Alaska and I had just spent a lot of money and effort to get there to see the weather beginning to erode my plans. There was nothing else to do but wait for my friend Sebak to arrive and worry. After I listened to all the latest gossip from Prague we crashed right there at the airport and fought the jet lag to get a bit of sleep.
This is it, we better get ready - brief consolidation in Talkeetna.
When we got to Talkeetna the next morning we had to fight outbursts of hysterical laughter. The place was all under thick white snow cover and the sky was one big iron cloud. I felt like turning on my heal and do what most other sensible people taking their treasured few weeks off in the summer would do - go someplace warm.
Things got better when we arrived in McKinley Air headquarters - a jurt standing by the airstrip with a Cessna 185 parked alongside. Apart from a small hole in the right wing it seemed in a good shape. The McKinley Air staff of two turned out to be the friendliest lot among the few air companies in Talkeetna and we got an especially warm welcome being their first climbing customers of the year. After we lost several hours running between the jurt and the Talkeetna Ranger Station collecting last bits of material (e.g. I woosed out after seeing all that snow at the sea level and bought a set of neoprene overboots) and fulfilling our registration duties (consisting primarily of going through a slide show with instructions what to do with your bodily and any other waste) we started packing up. Even though it initially looked as if a bomb exploded in the jurt we managed to squeeze most of our stuff into the little plane and put the rest of it on. Looking at the jagged kingdom of ice from high up in the sky. The flight to the Kahiltna glacier was an amazing experience. I got a very strong 3D feeling being so close to the jagged mountain sides. Everything was white with occasional rocky bits shyly sticking out here and there.
Slow journey on skis up the glacier
We only got up to the Base Camp in 2,200 m quite late that day (around 6:30 p.m.) but after re-arranging our gear once again between a large backpack and a big heap on top of a small plastic sled each we could not wait anymore and we set off to get the first taste of the climb. After walking on skis for about 2-3 hours the wind and cold forced us to break a camp and tuck into our dawn bags. There was plenty of light still and in fact it never got really dark there. It got me thinking why the hell we did bring those head lamps. After a couple of days of hard work going up the glacier with heavy loads (70-80 kilos each I reckon) we arrived under the Motorcycle Hill in some 3,700 m. We were always the first to start in the morning and when we arrived there some people were still just getting up. The truth was that the camp was in a shade until quite late in the day which made it an excruciating place in the morning. We quickly set our tent up and made our way up the steep slope on our first "carry" of the trip (until then we carried our load all in one go to save time). When we got to the blizzard beaten traverse leading to the Windy Corner we decided not to suffer any more that day and dug the food supplies and spare gallon of fuel in the snow leaving a fair number of markers around the place to ensure safe recovery.
Getting through the windy corner
The weather was really nasty the next morning. We had to think more than twice before we got ourselves started pushing up and against the wind with the rest of our equipment. As soon as we passed the cash from the night before the hell broke loose. I was in front leading the way but I could not see where I was going. I had to keep staring into the ground to avoid having the little that was exposed on my face whipped by tiny sharp pieces of ice flown by the wind at high speed. Windy Corner was tough that day and not many people made it through. It was a hard day. We finally began to feel the altitude not spending any extra time on acclimatisation. By the time we made it to the ABC we had to rest after every few steps. Digging the tent in and building the wind shield was an exhausting job in this condition but it was necessary up there in 4,300 m and we almost dropped dead when it was finally finished. I think it was this time I first started my toe frosting when I stayed out cooking our dinner and my toes froze solid in my boots.
Life in the ABC
By the next morning we recovered from the exhaustion of the previous day but although we did not suffer from the usual high altitude headaches we remained very weak and moved around the camp in a very slow motion. By the time I got out of the tent just after mid day Sebak had already started preparing grounds for our next "major" challenge - Project Igloo. It took us till sunset to finish the core structure but we did close off the top successfully without the whole thing collapsing. It is not totally trivial for someone who had not done it before and a living proof of that is group of French climbers who inspired by our apparent success left behind a memento resembling more a collapsed Eiffel Tower than a snow house :-)
We were in a cloud the whole day but at least it was not very windy. The next day, however, it got worse. We spent our time perfecting the igloo so that we could sleep in it. It proved to be quite comfortable and extremely well insulated against sound so we slept like two Eskimo babies until the afternoon the next day without knowing anything about the world around us. Other than that we were slowly getting acquainted with the various characters occupying the camp.
There were not many people up there at such an early time in the year and the atmosphere was nice and friendly. The sky finally cleared the next day and a lot of the acclimatised parties who arrived before us set off on their summit assaults. We had to go back down through the Windy Corner to retrieve our "cash".
The weather was flawless though we still got fairly tired carrying the spare food and fuel. On the way there was a whole caravan of people, majority of them Korean (we were to meet some of them again the next day again). All that time we looked forward to an easy rest day before the summit assault. Unfortunately back in the ABC, the rangers confirmed that the good weather was not supposed to hold for long. The next day would still be sunny - a brilliant opportunity for the climbers in the High Camp to reach the summit - but the conditions would start to deteriorate the day after. As you can imagine we had quite a bit of a dilemma. Number one we were still not properly acclimatised which was pretty obvious whenever we did some work. Number two we had just had quite a hard day, we were not packed and it was getting late. Last but not least would be fairly tight on the weather.
Despite all that we decided unanimously - we would go up early the next morning and race against the time. We had been up long enough to know that once the weather window shuts it could take days or even weeks for another one to open.
Setting off for an uncertain assault
And so we did, we were up indeed quite early but there was also a lot to do - most importantly finalising the packing from the last nigh (apart from climbing and bivouac gear we were taking for example food for six days, thermos bottles, robust expedition tent, snow saws, aluminium pegs, shovel and a bunch of bamboo markers). We carefully anchored our spare tent in the ABC and stuffed ourselves with hot porridge. We were heavy, very heavy. As we slowly started parting ourselves with the camp we used ski sticks to keep the balance. When I looked above it seemed impossible that we would even make it to the "Col" that day, never mind the High Camp. The last 250 m in the steep ice before the Col were fixed with ropes and I pulled myself up at a pathetic "speed".
The backpack was dragging me down. Past the Col the altitude really started to creep on me and I told Sebak to go ahead to secure a good bivouac spot in the High Camp. It seemed like a large group of Korean climbers would take us over otherwise. The sharp ridge leading to the High Camp got very busy at that stage with also the first people already coming down from the summit - a young and obviously rather tired Spaniard for example tripped above me on his way down. My pulse almost stopped as he was rolling down towards me. If he had not luckily stopped he would most likely take me with him. Interestingly, at one point the Koreans stopped and after a while all turned around. I did not.
How cold can it get (night in the high camp)
In the High Camp Sebak secured a snow hole for the night (some people called it also a snow cave but hole is pretty much what it was). We were still happy for it though since it saved us a lot of hassle building, securing and dismantling the tent, digging it in and building the wind shield, all of which was a lot of work as we learned in the ABC. As the sun disappeared behind the mountain the temperature started to drop rapidly. The ever lasting wind took away any heat that was left. The hands were the main problem as we needed to take the gloves off every so often - I would never dare for more than a few seconds followed by a minute or so of frantic clapping. We soon gave up trying to bring the water to boil (despite the fact the boiling point drops to about 65 degrees Celsius in 5,300 m). I slurped my warm soup in a hurry as it was cooling down rapidly when taken off the stove. Sebak didn't eat much arguing he was not hungry and moreover he was not keen on going for a poo at that altitude and cold.
He offered me a diaria pill though, and I naively took it trusting Sebak's expertise as a doctor. Well, it didn't work to say the least. The frost broke loose at 10 p.m. when the sun dipped into the lowest point behind the mountain. The temperature dropped below anything we experienced so far. That was when I learned that the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales intersect at -30 degrees, on my own skin. Even with one sleeping bag (extreme -12) inside the other (extreme -30) and fully dressed I was not able to sleep at all. Sebak eventually gave up (having also a problem with the zipper on his sleeping bag) and so we got up at around 2 a.m.
It took me a good while until I warmed my boots above the stove enough to be able to put my feet in them. Everything was very slow because we could not take out our hands out of the gloves for more than a few seconds at a time. We were finally ready to go at 4 a.m. The early start proved to be a lucky move.
We were now going up a steep uphill traverse leading to the Denali Pass, fully dressed in dawn jackets and thick fleece balaklavas but still not a drop of sweat - the slope would remain in the shade till about noon. It felt never ending and it took us three hours and good nerves to get across (we decided not to carry a rope to minimise weight and increase speed). Do you remember the pill? This is when stopped working. Erhm, anyway, we entered a completely different world on the other side of the Denali Pass. It was as if we suddenly walked into the Wonderland. The sun was shining on this side of the mountain and everything was bright. After a short break we continued up now only a moderately sloping glacier. We started placing the bamboo path markers in anticipation of bad weather. Despite the beauty of the surroundings we soon began to wear tired of the long ascent. Only until quite high we saw first time the actual summit and it was not until we reached the "Football Field" in about 6,000 m that we saw the final seemingly vertical 300 m snow & ice headwall. By now it felt extremely intimidating.
The clouds began to accumulate around the summit. We decided to give it a try now that we got so close but it was still going to be hard. Abandoning all unnecessary luggage (remaining markers, backpacks with thermos bottles, food, spare hats and gloves etc.) we went on. At the top of the slope was the final summit ridge. As long and sharp as a sword. We used each one ski pole for balance and held an ice axe in the other hand ready to break if we slipped.
There were at least three deceiving humps on the ridge but then we finally spotted the summit flag. I could not believe it. It had been so long, but we finally made it. We were lucky and the clouds teared up briefly around us as we reached the summit. We realised why so many summit photographs look so funny. They are more often than not taken in a rush and we were no exception. We had a strong urge to get down before the weather got worse. We were the only ones to reach the summit that day only a day after the first successful assaults of the year. We were glad we were a day late though. It was a very special feeling to have the whole mountain just to ourselves.
Its not over yet - getting down safe when exhausted
Despite we finally reached the summit we were not safe yet. We still had to go down and now we were very tired. Most accidents apparently happen on descents and I as you will see later on we almost improved those statistics. We decided to cut straight across the summit headwall on the way down rather then going along the ridge and then dropping straight down at the lower end. This was arguably more exposed but for us the number one concern was to get outta there asap since the weather was also deteriorating quite rapidly. There was a very moderate 50 m or so slope leading towards our abandoned backpacks and I almost could not get up it. That's about how tired we were at that point. Fortunately from there it would only be downhill and we began to loose altitude very rapidly. About third of the way to the big traverse we met two members of the first Danish all female expedition to Mt. McKinley. I almost fell when they asked us how far it was to the summit.
We were in thick fog by now with minimum visibility and it was very late in the afternoon (5- 6 p.m., I think). There was no way they were going to make it and we told them so. They decided to go on a bit further and we were in no condition to hold them off but it was pretty clear they would have to turn soon anyway. The summit was still at least 4 hours in those conditions. We drunk the last drops of tea and ate a bit of chocolate at the start of the traverse. It looked very intimidating indeed. Apart from the far end there were scary looking crevasses deep below us at the bottom of it and falling would mean a serious trouble. As we were getting closer to the end and bottom of it (the path went diagonally across) our mood was improving.
I was therefore totally shocked when I found myself flying through the air head first. One of my, by then totally teared, neoprene overboots must have got caught in a crampon. I could not stop. A) I was going down in loops head first and B) the slope was too hard and steep. Somehow however, partially thanks to the fact that the slope was becoming less steep at the bottom I managed to stabilise on my stomach and by heckling the nose of the iceaxe in the snow with all the might I still had left I came to a halt some 100 m below the place I tripped. I would not had been so lucky would I had fallen in the initial steep section of the traverse. But then I was probably much more careful there. Still, it was not a nice feeling. Moreover the adrenaline rush increased my heartbeat above level acceptable for that altitude and I thought my head would crack from the headache caused more by the lack of oxygen than by hitting the ground with it. The most annoying thing was that I lost my ski pole 50 m higher and I had to climb back to retrieve it.
A difficult decision - we split for one night
I was fairly shaken and decided to spend one more night in the hole. Sebak could not face another night in the freezer and he went down to the ABC still the same evening. Judging by my condition I was very worried and I tried to follow his progress using a 300 mm zoom lens. Neither that nor the radio of one of the rangers who happened to be in the High Camp helped much so I was fairly worried. I gave two big chocolates to the Danish girls to make up a bit for the bad news we had to give them up on the mountain (saved me carrying them down ;-) and went to bed. The thick fog we experienced high up descended upon us the next day. I could not further than a few meters and given that all the footprints snowed under I had a hard time finding my way to the ridge leading to the Col. The few climbers I met on it all saluted me. It turned out they slept in the Col and gave him water. They therefore knew we reached the Summit the day before. It was a nice feeling, plus I knew Sebak definitely made it to the Col. There I also caught up with the Danish girls again who left the High Camp a couple of hours before me. The Col was actually quite busy with people making cashes plus climbers who changed their mind and decided not to go to the High Camp in that weather. One of them showed me a clever way to use my jumar on the way down along the fixed rope - I found it a bit contra intuitive to use jumar for the way down to be quite honest and was in no shape to experiment anyway.
From the bottom end of it would be just a walk down but because I had a truly huge backpack (taking also a few things Sebak left behind) and the snow was a bit funny it was really tricky to keep the balance so the last 200 m or so on the flat leading to the camp felt a fair bit longer. I was extremely happy to see Sebak and so was he to see me since it was already about 6 p.m. by then. The clouds stayed above and it was a beautiful evening in the ABC, totally still. I was knackered but we decided to go down through the Windy Corner and the Motorcycle Hill anyway because the wind was supposed to pick up the following day. It was a fairly mystical feeling with the sun shining throughout the night.
We put the skis on the next morning and wheee, we were in the Base Camp in absolutely no time (4 hours or so compared to two and a half days on the way up). There were crowds of people going up by then and we were happy for our relatively quiet way up and a private day on the summit. We caught the last glimpses of the mountain and the frozen ice kingdom of the Alaskan range from the Cessna on the way down. We made it! And in a good style.
It took until later on that evening and a fair number of bears make it sunk in. For one night we became the local celebrities of Talkeetna and we were cheered by the crowds while putting up our flag as the second one the year (first one was Kazakh) on a large painting of Denali above the bar in "Fair view". It took significantly longer to heal our burned faces and lips. "I don't know you, but I am going to shave you!" were my thoughts when I first looked in a mirror. I brought home a frostnip which took a few weeks to go away. I guess that was a cheap price to pay for the coldest experience of my life. In the time we spared by coming down so quickly (in 11 days) we went to the Denali National Park to see some grizzlies. But that's a different story.
© Petr Lukšan, květen 2001
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