In June of 2018, I didn’t climb Denali, the highest mountain in North America. I didn’t summit. I didn’t die. No one got frostbite, AMS or was ravaged by a Yeti. I simply didn’t make it. This is in some ways a meditation on failure, some ways a memoir, and in other ways just a record of how much my team suffered on without me (unrelated to my absence) until they were defeated by the weather.
Some blog posts write themselves, screaming out of you like steam from a boiling kettle. Some have to be dragged out, kicking and screaming, and then beaten into submission. A few, a very few, leak out like sap through the frozen bark of a wounded tree over the course of a few tortured days. This post is in the last category, I think because while the stifling weight of failure and shame has lifted over the past few days, the core of it remains. Sometimes an experience changes you. Sometimes it just reveals who you are…and who you are not.
Which brings us to an obvious question: Why should you read a blog about someone’s failure to do something? In a very literal sense, I don’t care; this is my therapy session. Do what works for you. But if you’re thinking of climbing a Denali or any other mountain, or reaching for other goals, you may find a few thoughts here worthy of note. If not, the pictures are still pretty.
I remember the exact moment I first thought about climbing Denali. My mother and I had been hiking in the Denali National Park, nowhere near the mountain. On one of those gorgeous days when everything happens but you both forget to bring cameras, and thus there is no evidence the hike even occurred, my mother stepped in a hole dug by hungry bears routing for edible little mammals and sprained her knee. That was a long sentence, but I’m trying to set the mood. We were miles from the park road, and river channels spread out like a sleeping woman’s braids between us and the road, all but impassible with her injury. We hobbled along the flat, gravelly riverbed, up slopes of slippery wet alder and snappy willow, over soggy tussocks and crystalline streams until we finally got to the road too late to catch the last bus out of the park. Fortunately, a patrolling camper bus (one meant for campers, not hikers) saved us from a night in the rain.
The next morning, with hiking out of the question, we took a scenic flight around Denali (pre. Mt. McKinley). We rose up from the east, gliding over the lower glaciers between Mt. Mather and Moose’s Tooth until Denali emerged from the clouds, a great fist of rock and ice punching through the crust of lesser mountains toward the vast gray-blue of the morning sky. I had never seen anything like it, not up close, and as we circled higher from south to west to north, my awe increased exponentially. But it wasn’t until we turned directly at the mountain that I really grasped its size and horrific nature. A stormy, frothing sea had been turned on end and a great tumult of waves and rage had been frozen as hanging glaciers and cornices on the face of the Wikersham Wall, creating thousands of feet of impassable mountain hell.
“That was one of the first routes up Denali,” my mom said in the headphones. I thought I’d misheard her. People had climbed that? It seemed impossible or at least suicidal, but she was right. People had climbed it. And for the first time in my life, I wondered, what would that be like?
Climbing Denali is a distinctly personal goal for me, not part of some greater aspiration. I have no desire to conquer the Seven Summits or even Everest; those goals seemed artificial and vain, not that they’re unworthy, but you don’t do them because you love (or fear) the mountains. You do them to check a box. I had no box for Denali; it didn’t fit in my head. Even when I started planning, it remained a fantastical thing. I’m not sure I ever believed I could do it; I just wanted to try, to see her up close, to know what all that power feels like when the wind is screaming in your face and your body is just this side of joining the ice.
Somewhere along the way, I climbed some minor peaks and took some glacier training seminars (via RMI, the same group I went with to Denali), became a (bad) ultra-runner and generally prepared myself. I would be the first to admit that I have none of the passion that my mother has for the outdoors generally, or the drive that takes ice climbers up frozen routes every weekend. I like the mountains, I love skiing, but on most days I’d be just as happy running a soft mountain trail until my legs give out. My girlfriend Kam finished ticking off all of the California 14ers with our training climb up Mt. Shasta a bit more than a month ago. I’m glad for her, but I don’t care if I ever do the same.
If you sense ambivalence, you’re paying attention, which is nice. It’s possibly due to self doubt, or because I had injured my Achilles again in 2017 and thus couldn’t do the heavy training nominally required for success on Denali, or due to any number of other things that come at you in life. Whatever the cause, whenever someone asked if I was excited about the coming climb, I had no good answer. I was intrigued. I was anxious. I overthought every equipment purchase. I tried not to think about it.
And then, suddenly, I was at baggage claim in Anchorage with 80 lbs of expensive gear and a worried mother. Denali was visible from Anchorage, a hundred miles away and still the biggest thing in the sky. Was I excited, my mother asked, because clearly she was. I think in a different time she would have climbed this mountain herself. Was I excited? Was I ready? I wasn’t sure, so I went to REI and bought more long underwear.
In Talkeetna, we checked into Latitude 62 and waited for the team and guides to arrive. We walked the tiny, dusty town, worrying about last minute food purchases. We found the local mountaineering store that’s oddly disguised as a church. We looked for views of Denali through mist and clouds. I dithered.
Then then one of the guides, Bryan, ended the prologue with a terse call from the team shuttle. They’d be there in thirty minutes. I should meet them at the hanger. I had to assemble my food and fear and get ready. He hung up.
Itinerary Day 1 (Mon, May 28) / Travel Day
The shuttle leaves [Anchorage airport] at 4:30 pm and takes three hours to arrive in Talkeetna. The group will stop at a grocery store in Wasilla for the opportunity to purchase any fresh food you’d like to bring on the mountain. The team will arrive in Talkeetna at approximately 9:00 p.m. Overnight at the Latitude 62.
We met the team at the K2 hanger in Talkeetna and I introduced myself to everyone. I didn’t think I’d missed too much in not carpooling with them, but it turns out a key conversation on “hot drinks and coffee” would later prove essential. No matter; I don’t really need coffee in the morning, right?
After unpacking, all of us clients went to dinner at the Denali Brewing Company. We ate, we drank, we exchanged giddy stories and short backgrounds. The team comprised ice climbers and Aconcagua summiters and more. It was a good, strong group without too many egos. The beer was excellent. I fought the feeling that I really didn’t belong there, largely because this is the fight I’ve waged every day since I first saw myself in a mirror; that feeling that I didn’t fit in. Like any child on a sleepover with richer, cooler friends, there was always that lingering fear they would notice the fraud in their midst. I smiled. I made jokes. It seemed to work.
For reference, the other clients are David and Matt (who had climbed together with RMI before), Jim and Paul (father and son), Lei (who had attempted Denali two years earlier but been turned back by weather at High Camp), and then Ben and Jeff (who would end up being my tent mates). Oh wait, I pretended to miss Marc because he’s tiny. That’s all nine of us, and we’d be climbing with three guides I’ll get to in a second.
Back at the hotel, I ended up rooming with Jeff. He’s almost as tall as I am, and an experienced ice climber. In the room, talked about what we’d packed, what we were excited about, what we were worried about, and then we tried to sleep. He may have succeeded.
Day 2 (Tue, May 29) / Pre-Trip Prep and Planning
7:00 a.m.: Meet at The Roadhouse Restaurant. Our main goal today is to get the team ready to fly onto the mountain. After our breakfast meeting, the team attends a National Park Service presentation on expedition climbing and special considerations about Denali National Park & Preserve.
Packing Stuff in K2 Hanger (Talkeetna)Breakfast at the Roadhouse was excellent, which is to say, filling. I had the breakfast burrito with bacon. It’s like a fat and carbohydrate WMD (Weapon of Mass Deliciousness) targeted directly at your stomach. Tylor Jones (TJ), our lead guide, sat with Nick and Bryan, the two junior guides, and slowly began the process of introducing himself and the task we were about to face. He has a scar on his cheek that looks like he once went to war with a bear and won. It’s quite manly, and tends to make you take him seriously when he says things like:
“Denali is the hardest of the seven summits. No one is carrying your shit. There are no Sherpas. This mountain is hard. It’s cold. It’s windy. It’s unpredictable. But I’ve done it twenty times and, if you listen to me, I’ll get you up there safely.” He smiled. I chewed on some bacon. Twenty times? “Everest is for pussies,” he may have added, smirking. I don’t think he guides on that trip.
Next, we focus on equipment, including an extensive personal gear check and recommendations for what to bring onto the mountain and how to pack for the flight to Base Camp. Finally, we organize the group food and equipment, putting the final touches on our packing for the flight. We enjoy a final meal in town before our expedition begins.
One thing I quickly realized was that while RMI has a method and our guides strove valiantly to work within that method, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. I had, for instance, spent considerable time reviewing glacier self-rescue and related techniques as per the RMI seminar I’d taken earlier (including repeated rescues of Kam’s weights from inexplicable falls off the balcony), only to be told that none of it really applied because we’d be traveling in roped teams and thus all self- and small-team rescue techniques and related equipment were irrelevant or extraneous. I looked haplessly at my biners and slings. I could have Z-pullied a moose out of the Grand Canyon, but that was apparently not a requirement for the climb.
Other variations applied directly to equipment on the RMI list. TJ preferred cordellete to bungees to secure duffel bags to sleds, both for weight and because it could be used as rescue gear when needed. This meant my 3 mm paracord and bungees (except one for the sled break) were unneeded, but I didn’t have enough 6 mm cord so I brought the paracord anyway.
One thing that TJ emphasized was weight; the problem of it, the reduction of it, the evil of its nature. Is that tube of toothpaste going to help you climb Denali? No? Then fuck it. I spent part of my evening pulling things out of my pack. Did I really need them? I cut down a few pounds this way, and accidentally took out all of my Purell. I was going to be a dirty, dirty boy. Okay, that sounds weird. Here’s the other stuff I decided not to take:
- Julbo Goggle case (bag). Just wrapped goggles in hat.
- Anker Solar Panel. Jeff had agreed that I could use his. He’d bring his panel, and I’d bring an extra pair of sunglasses. Not really fair weight-wise, but he was taking the panel anyway. I also agreed to take a knife and he’d leave his, but he accidentally brought it. I think he just wanted to win heaviest pack contest but, come on–the man brought four pounds of cheese. He had this thing locked up.
- Heavy long underwear bottoms. I had my light smart wool bottoms, mid-weights, and over-pants, so these seemed extraneous.
- Second smart wool t-shirt. Never took off my first.
- Mid-weight long underwear tops. Just didn’t need the additional layer. I had the light Arc’teryx fleece top.
- All but one bungee cord. These weren’t part of TJ’s method.
- A few carabiners and all prussics. Also not part of the plan. “Prussics?” I imagine TJ saying. “We don’t need no stinkin’ prussics.”
- Compass. Same comment. Same disdain.
- OR Active Ice Leggings. Long story.
- Second Nalgene water bottle & parka. I hadn’t really intended to bring them anyway, as I could carry three liters of water if I used my thermos.
- Heavy fleece hat. I was going to miss the picture of me in all my black face gear looking like an arctic ninja.
- Other odds and ends. This included a tube of toothpaste, dental floss, extra Band-Aids, trash bags, etc. I can’t tell you how much time I spent considering the weight-to-strength ratio of Contractor vs. Compactor bags, only to find that literally no one gave a damn. For the record, compactor bags are the better choice if you don’t plan to reuse them for multiple caches. Just sayin’.
These gear changes didn’t cut the weight by much, but they did reduce bulk. The real weight loss came from cutting down on snack foods. Even so, I had more than enough lunch food for 22 days. All good things, but it would have saved money and time if some of this information and guidance had been known or explained in advance. Not sure that’s practically possible.
I had a tense good-bye dinner with mum at Latitude. The dinner was not good. Who cooks fish that way? Mom was worried. I was tired and irritable. Was I excited? Not really. This was followed by a poor night’s sleep in anxious anticipation of the day to follow. I don’t believe in omens, but if I did, this dinner was probably not a good sign about my head space and focus.
Day 3 (Wed, May 30) / Fly to Kahiltna Base Camp
After breakfast we meet at K2 Aviation for the bush plane flight to Kahiltna Base Camp, weather permitting. The spectacular scenic flight takes approximately 45 minutes. Kahiltna Base Camp lies at 7,300′ on the S.E. fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, approximately 20 miles distant and 13,000′ below the South Peak of Denali, at 20,320′. At Base Camp we rig our sleds and review mountaineering skills needed for our climb.
Aside from the stunning views and the fact that we were able to land without being blocked by visibility or wind, the best part of the flight from Talkeetna onto the lower Kahiltna Glacier was that you didn’t descend to land; you just sort of flew at it and the glacier rose up to meet you. You’re in the air, then you’re skidding up the face of the glacier and bouncing to a stop in front of the caretaker’s tent, all in a matter of seconds. Add some disorientation due to the flat light, and it all seemed a little surreal.
After landing, TJ decided it would be better to wait until morning to proceed to the next camp due to snow conditions. This started our pattern of getting to bed early and getting up early to beat the glacial sun, heat and slushy conditions. We quickly setup camp, packed into our tents, and ate a hot dinner. It was cold, but not that cold. Mostly, it was vast and white and hard to comprehend.
My only journal entry for this day (written the next morning) was, “Crap sleep.” I seem to remember a massive lump under my tent where we hadn’t packed the snow down enough. This was a pattern. I don’t think Jeff and Ben had it out for me, but…
Day 4 (Thu, May 31) / Kahiltna Base to Ski Hill
Leaving Kahiltna Base, we descend 400′ down Heart Break Hill to the main Kahiltna glacier, where we turn towards Denali, and travel 5.5 miles up the gently rising glacial rolls. Our camp sits at the base of Ski Hill at 7,800′.
I remember this day in snapshots. Most of my anxiety had washed away after a night of sleep that, while terrible, was no worse than many of my restless bouts with insomnia. The morning was crisp, clear and icily calm. The scale of things is hard to describe. You are a tiny mammalian spec in a great elemental landscape that is in no way aware of your presence. You are merely an observer of something far grander and more powerful than yourself, and there is great comfort in such insignificance. Plus, it was freakin’ gorgeous.
I was inordinately proud of my little sled. I named her “What the fuck are you looking at?” and she had a prideful orange glow and feisty spirit that set her apart from the other drab plastic buckets. Our relationship, while passionate, would end abruptly in a few days, and her replacement was a demonically possessed succubus that drove me close to homicidal rage, but we’re not there yet. On this morning, she was lovely, broad of beam and floated gracefully on the snow with all the plastic pride she could muster.
I realized quickly that sweat and temperature management was going to be the major challenge for me on the expedition. I warmed up in light gloves and puffies far too quickly, and risked sweating through my baselayers and getting chilled. Within a few breaks (we stopped to rest every hour or so), I had determined to walk in my sun gloves and sun shirt baselayer, and little else, and then quickly put warmer gloves and a puffy on when we stopped. This layering system worked in sun and cold all the way to 14K camp, though at some point I swapped the sun gloves for glove liners (in any kind of wind, the sun gloves were useless).
Once I got it into the rhythm of things, I was able to just walk and take in the view. The slack in my rope was okay, I was moving, I was breathing, my hands were warm, and I was walking up the goddamn Kahiltna Glacier. I teared up more than once at the immensity of it, or the relief of being there, and perhaps because I felt unworthy; you can’t earn the right to such beauty. It is beyond any of us, a gift we can never repay. It’s humbling, awe inspiring and, yep, I was totally crying. Don’t tell anyone. I was just grateful to be there.
Somewhere in walk-rest-walk transitions, my thumb, forefinger and part of my middle fingertips got painfully cold then slightly numb (Mostly numb, like mostly dead, is not as bad as it sounds), and then thawed out painfully. The next morning, they would be swollen and tender. Was this what would get me? Cold fingers?
Although this was the first day hauling the sled and carrying the pack, it was pretty mellow and easy until the very end just near 7.8K camp. Until then, I seemed to manage the sled on downhills and uphills just fine, the weight (90-100 lbs) of gear between sled at pack didn’t seem that bad. But on the final ascent I was suddenly gassed. I think TJ accelerated slightly as he turned into the powder of camp area, but maybe I was just tired. Either way, I was dragging as we dug and stomped out our tent platform. A few others mentioned the sudden acceleration at the end, so I didn’t worry about it. Mostly, I was just hungry, thirsty and ready for a nap.
After eating, drinking and (not) napping in the hot tent, I got to enjoy the view. From Base Camp until our first night at 14K’ we never had weather other than bright sun and a cool morning breeze, and the views were stunning. The picture above shows our goal, the summit of Denali, as the middle peak under a bright blue sky. Sure, there might be 70 mph winds up there and -25 temps, but it’s right there. How hard could it be?
And the answer is: very hard if you don’t sleep. Sleeping in the tent made me claustrophobic and twitchy, and for whatever reason our platform digging had left me at the bottom of a small hill that Jeff and Ben kept sliding down. As the night progressed, my space got smaller and smaller until I was sucking nylon. Ben and Jeff both tried to keep their slide in check, but there was nothing they could do and we weren’t going to re-level the tent. Sleep was evasive.
You spend a lot of time on bodily functions. Which is to say, peeing, pooing, eating, drinking and managing the cycle of ingestion and excretion is pretty much a full-time job. Because of this, you have pee holes and shitters with very nice walls and views, and you spend a lot of time thinking about how and when to sit on the Clean Mountain Can (CMC), how much toilet paper to use, if you should use wipes (because you can’t put these in the CMC), etc. The best article I’ve read on this topic is here, but the one truly awesome saving grace for our team is that our CMC was in a five-gallon outer bucket with a toilet seat. At no point did we actually have to sit on the CMC itself. Thank you, RMI, thank you.
You spend a lot of time in your tent. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s cold, and sometimes you ought to be sleeping. Whatever the reason, you will spend more time in your tent than out of it. You should train to enjoy or at least endure this, including the cramped quarters, smells and tent-mate habits; in the end, this is what defeated me (more or less). Silly right? I agree.
It’s not that hard (physically). Aside from one bad day of self-imposed misery, the daily work of climbing the mountain was never that hard. It was work, but it was manageable work, and I imagine if I’d been able to train like the others it would have been even easier. I’m sure the summit day is devastating, but until then…it’s just climbing, slowly, up a mountain. Anyone can do it.
It’s very hard (mentally). The really hard part is the psychological aspects of patience and powerlessness. You spend a lot of time not moving, not working, and subject to the elements. As I write this sentence, my team has been stuck in the same camp I left literally nine days ago. Other than take a cache to 17K, they’ve been stuck in place for more than a week. There is nothing you can do about this. It’s probably not a big deal if you’re comfortable in your own skin and in small spaces (and sleep well), but this would prove to be the hard part for me.
Day 5 (Fri, Jun 1) / 7.8K to 10K Cache & Back
This is where reality and itinerary diverge. Due to good weather and strong team, we moved faster and farther than the itinerary anticipated. For Day 5, the itinerary had us moving from 7.8K camp to 9.6K camp, instead we skipped right past 9.6K camp and moved a cache to 10K and then returned to 7.8K for the night. For reference, here is the itinerary:
Ski Hill is the first major elevation gain of the trip. In a series of rolls, the Kahiltna glacier rises from our camp at the base of Ski Hill towards Kahiltna Pass at 10,000′. We leave camp, and climb up the glacier to our second camp at 9,600′, just below Kahiltna Pass.
I think we waved as we went by with our cache load to 10K. Not sure we even discussed it. 9,600′ Camp is for babies and tourists. JK. On the way down, we attached our empty sleds to our backs and skipped lightly down the glacier.
At some point while resting in my tent, I heard two female skiers swoosh in and call out for TJ. They talked and then the skiers left to camp below us. I later learned that one of the women was Anne Gilbert, one of my guides from Rainier. Turns out, she had been at TJ’s wedding. It was a close-knit community.
Your body adapts. On the way up, my previously chilled thumb and forefingers were fine but my pinky and ring fingers were cold. By the next day, I all my fingers had gone through some odd adaptation to the cold, and were never cold again even in far chillier and windier conditions. Love to know what that’s all about
Power bars suck. Well, they freeze. While compact and calorie efficient, they have to be kept next to the body or they become giant chocolate Jolly Ranchers that threaten to extract your teeth with every bite. Bobo bars, on the other hand, are just find well below -10, and far more delectable at any temperature.
My Achilles was fine. I had spent months worrying about my Achilles, and while it had hampered my training, I never even noticed it on the mountain. Maybe I was overcompensating with my trekking poles, because I did strain my left arm somehow on day two, but otherwise…all good. The double boots seems to protect my tendons at almost any angle, though there was no front-pointing on crampons until above 14K’ Camp.
Caffeine withdrawal headaches. Aren’t that bad. Watching everyone fuss over coffee and hot chocolate, I realized I was fine with just hot water. This is a personal thing, of course, but I later cached what little cocoa, coffee and tea I had at 11K because it just wasn’t worth the effort to carry.
Day 6 (Sat, Jun 2) / 7.8K Camp to 11K Camp
The itinerary had us moving from 9.6K Camp to 11K Camp (At Kahiltna Pass, the Kahiltna glacier makes a prominent turn to the east, continuing up a glacial valley into our camp in a basin at the base of Motorcycle Hill.), but instead we moved from 7.8K Camp to 11K, passing our cache (to recover the next day).
It was another beautiful day, but I don’t remember it that well. While the view is gorgeous, the middle Kahiltna glacier can be overwhelmingly white and homogeneous. The Kahiltna Dome got closer and smaller. I’m sure something amazing happened.
Oh, I got a tiny blister on my left heel. It says so in my wee waterproof journal right before, “Why can’t I seem to really feel present here? I just feel emotionally removed and out of place. No matter where I go, I bring myself with me.” Jesus, what a fucking downer. No wonder Ben & Jeff messed with my sleeping platform. Now that I write that, I wish Jeff was named Jerry. “Ben & Jerry really whirled my core today.” Hmm, sounds a little too homoerotic.
Seriously, though, when I got into the tent to lay out my pad and bag, I found a six-inch deep hole right under me and the entire left side (my side) of the tent was basically hanging in the air. Jeff just cracked up. When he’d moved the tent to adjust for some premature vestibule customization, he’d forgotten to backfill the snow. I took care of it when the solar blaze eased later that evening.
TJ has climbed the Cassin Ridge. And descended by via the Muldrow Glacier. That’s pretty badass. This is a man who loves the mountains.
Day 7 (Sun, Jun 3) / Acclimation Day @ 11K Camp
This was to be a rest day, and it was mostly, but first we had to return to 10K to get our cache. It was a pretty mellow day either way, but I was nauseated from either altitude or sun exposure or lameness. It passed, but it added to my nagging doubts. Was I ready? Was I the worst prepared person there? Didn’t keep me from stuffing my face. I also volunteered as the “don’t do it this way” guy for crampon and self-arrest training. That’s just how giving I am. The only picture I took this day was of my grizzled face. I was sad to see that a Dorito had escaped my mouth to photo bomb the shot, but it happens.
Somewhere around here I was getting worried about my sleep. I had slept 0.25 hours since the first night at Base Camp, and before that in Talkeetna I’d slept very little. I could climb this mountain if I could sleep; I didn’t think I could if I didn’t. I had taken a little edible marijuana with me and tried a tiny bit the night before, and while it calmed me, it didn’t help with sleep. I thought I might try a larger piece at 14K if I couldn’t sleep there. This is foreshadowing.
Later in the day, we packed our packs including group food for the cache move to 14K the next day. My pack ended up being the heaviest in the group, with the possible exception of the guides’ and Jeff’s. I’m not sure why. My food and the group food just seemed massive. TJ at one point tried to make a joke by lifting it and then backed away in horror. Well, he said, that’s certainly a Denali pack. He looked worried. Probably not a good sign.
The guide’s probably right. Despite some odd tendencies for the lead and junior guides to say entirely different and conflicting things, they were always right on the things that mattered. My crampons could indeed be tightened. I was dubious. Nick proved me wrong. In fact, once I’d made the adjustment, there was still room for tightening. Something odd about the physics here. I never had any problems with my crampons, but then again I never did the technical part of the climb.
Our tent smelled the best. This came up multiple times. Smell rank from worst to best according to at least one guide was (3) Matt / David / Marc, (2) Jim / Paul / Lei, (1) Shawn / Jeff / Brian. The guides’ tent probably smelled like daisies. I attribute our superior odor to mildly restrained flatulence and an excess expenditure on smart wool socks, base-layers, and everything else. Smart wool rules. I probably could have skipped this paragraph.
Day 8 (Mon, Jun 4) / 11K Camp to 14K Cache
Leaving camp, we climb Motorcycle Hill to a bench with stunning views of the Father and Sons Wall, and the Peters Glacier. The subsequent climb up Squirrel Hill leads us to the Polo Field, a wide glacial bench at the foot of the West Buttress. We traverse around Windy Corner at 13,300′ to our cache site at 13,500′. After leaving our load of group food, fuel, and personal items, we descend back to our tents at 11K Camp.
Instead, we hauled cache all the way to 14K camp so we wouldn’t have to spend part of our rest day returning to get it. This was my worst day by a long, long shot. We cached our sleds at 11K, because TJ thought they were a nightmare around Windy Corner (and based on what I saw, he’s right). I was going to miss WTFAYLA.
In fact, I missed the sled immediately. My pack was achingly heavy and I cracked at the top of Squirrel Hill. I leaned heavily into my poles, my breathing quickened, and I generally became an inefficient anchor at the end of the rope. I kept the pace, but just barely, and Nick made it clear that my shit was not together. He was right. Frack. By the time we got to the top in the boiling heat, I was convinced the climb was over. I wasn’t strong enough. They were going to send me down.
If this sounds melodramatic, imagine hyperventilating for two hours in blazing heat while stumbling up the remaining 2,000′ feet as a guide watches every step. It was a test, and I was failing. I knew the breathing issue was at least partially psychological, but that didn’t help at the time; I was just struggling to hang on. Whether it was sleep or fatigue or something else, I was worked by the time we reached 14K and TJ had to spend a few minutes talking me down. He was awesome, BTW, and made sure I knew that all was fine. Between the pressure of Nick on the way up and the reassurance of TJ afterward, I knew what I had to work on and that I could do it. By the time we had walked back to 11K under a stunning blue sky, my head was back in the game.
I have no Idea what works on blisters. It was never a problem for me, but even with my tiny blister, both blister-specific Band-Aids and duct tape failed. I suspect a duct tape sleeve around my ankle would have done the trick, but it seems idiotic. David was suffering badly on the downhills due to foot problems, and nothing seemed to work. There has to be a better way.
If it makes you (me) feel better. It’s harder to breath on Denali than other mountains at the same altitude. Because Denali is so far north, and atmospheric pressure decreases as you approach the poles, 14K on Denali is like 17K on mountains closer to the equator. I felt a bit better about my performance after TJ mentioned this, until I learned that it only applies during the winter. Psych.
Day 9 (Tue, Jun 5) / Move to 14K’ Camp
This is an important acclimatization day before our move to 14K Camp. We spend the day resting, hydrating, eating, and organizing our loads for our move day.
This was one of my best days. After Nick’s mocking of my breathing “technique”, backpack “style” and facial “appearance,” I was hell-bent on doing better today, and it worked. It was kind of easy. I focused on breathing like a starving leopard on the last mangy rabbit in the woods before winter set in. I could have breathed my way to space. It was almost a religious experience not hyperventilating for hours. When I dropped my pack at 14K, I thought I could climb another 3,000′. It was awesome.
We spent the day resting, eating and watching ants crawl up and down the fixed lines below High Camp. We all came out to see a helicopter rescue two climbers with frostbite at 17K. We built a really nice shitter.
But then evening came. We finished an awesome hot dinner in the cook tent (aka Posh) and crawled into our little nylon tombs for the night. I read something distracting on my Kindle, focused on breathing calmly, took a larger bite of edible pot than a few nights earlier, pulled my hat over my eyes, and prepared for a great night’s sleep.
I quickly found myself gasping for air. It was as if the thought of sleeping, or the angle of my head, convinced my body that I was suffocating. I changed position. I breathed slowly. I waited for the pot to kick in and relax my inner freakshow and then I think I actually dozed off for a bit.
“OH MY GOD I CAN’T BREATHE.” I didn’t say that out loud, thank God. I was sitting up in the tent, gasping. Jeff and Ben were either asleep or faking it well. It was around 10 pm. Why, I wondered, did I feel like screaming?
A little background will help. A year earlier, I had been visiting Alaska to hike with my mom and Kam when aforementioned maternal figure presented me with some now-legal edible pot cookie things. “Maybe it will help you sleep,” she said hopefully. I should include in this background that I have chronic insomnia and can’t sleep in my own bed at sea level, let alone in a tent in the mountains. I ate some of the pot. I slept a bit better, but the effect quickly wore off and I never used it again.
Skip forward several months and mom was visiting for Christmas. At some point in our hiking around the southwest, she acquired some more edibles in Vegas and gave them to me with a sweet, “These should be a little stronger.” I waited until New Years to try them for some reason, and took a single square of edible chocolate. Within an hour, I had lost the ability to talk and was curled up under the TV shaking like someone with palsy. I panicked every time they played dramatic music during a half-hour episode of Black Mirror that I swear lasted thirteen hours. I panicked more under waves of deja vu every time the lead character spoke. I spent hours convinced I was going to shit myself because I couldn’t tell what my body was doing. My head was jacked for days. So, not for me.
But somehow I’d forgotten all that until I woke in the tent around ten and tried not to have a complete freak out. Yes, this sounds moronic in retrospect. But it doesn’t change the fact that it was ten hours until breakfast and I couldn’t lie down without feeling like my lungs were full of ice. The only positive thing was that it had finally started snowing, and the sound of ice pelting the tent covered up in any involuntary noises I might have made, and provided some distraction.
The best part of whole night was standing at the pee hole around 2 am in a fresh foot of powder while the camp slept. I stayed there for a good half hour just to avoid getting back in the tent. It was sublimely peaceful, and probably the only time on the entire trip when I felt like I was there.
To avoid crawling back in the tent, I cleared the snow off the top and scooped powder away from the bottom, did a bit of the same to the other two client tents, dug a pathway to the posh, dug out the posh steps, cleaned off a bit of the guides’ tent while trying not to wake them, then cleared off our tent again. By then I was getting chilled at it was time to go back inside.
Around 4 am I was on kneeling on top of my bag, rocking back and forth, head in hands, trying to pull my hair out while simultaneously feeling grateful that my hair was too short to get a grip on. I scrawled unintelligibly in my journal something like, “Why won’t the morning come? Just let it be over.” My head went to some pretty dark places.
Guides are Just People. Yeah, they’re crazy strong and yeah they work unbelievably hard, but they still get cold and grumpy. On this morning as we packed for the move to 14K, the guides had a loud disagreement as we pretended not to notice. It was disconcerting, and I wondered if it would impact us at higher altitudes, but it probably just means that tired people are grumpy AF regardless of rank and experience. Maybe moreso; there was some very creative swearing. Fuck cheese? I don’t even know what that means.
Don’t do drugs. That’s more for me. I mean, like, ever. Jeez.
Day 10 (Wed, Jun 6) / Acclimation at 14K Camp (1)
After a large but unusually quiet breakfast, we played with some fixed-line techniques. We dug nice holes around our tents. We snacked and watched the wind blow off the ridge below High Camp at 17K. Mostly, we ate and peed a lot. And napped. I actually tried napping. It did not work, but I tried. I can’t even read the notes in my journal for this day.
At some point, TJ came around and “suggested” that we should rest again the next day and we “voted” and everyone “agreed.” It was actually very congenial and there was minimal dissent. Not saying zero dissent, but minimal. He had correctly interpreted the silence at breakfast as fatigue in several of us. I wonder if he had heard me stalking around the camp the night before?
Regardless, the additional rest day gave me a second chance. All I needed was one good night’s sleep, or any sleep at all. Some way to know that sleep would be possible at 17K and I could get through a few nights up there in real cold and wind without losing my cheese. It was another beautiful day. I was genuinely hopeful.
This was strangely helped by the fact that Ben had decided to go down with Mike Walter’s team the next day for his own reasons. I felt bad for him, genuinely, but I relished a little extra space in the tent. And maybe at 17K that would mean only three to a tent instead of four. It was selfish, but a little space can make a big difference. I tried to imagine sleeping without having a pocket full of socks and gloves up in my face. It sounded heavenly.
I also learned that the guides had had trouble breathing the night before, gasping for breath until they realized the snow had cut off all ventilation. “I’ve slept in snow completely covering the tent,” TJ said at one point. “But I’ve never felt completely cutoff like that before.” Which was also good news in a way; I wasn’t imagining it. It was harder than to breathe than it should have been. I talked with David / Marc / Matt about how they ventilated their tent more effectively to improve circulation and cut down on early-morning frost inside the tent, and Ben / Jeff / I kept our tent far better vented that night.
But sleep didn’t come. There was none of the panic the night before, and my breathing was better, but I just stared up at the tent in the late night sun and watched my chances of climbing the mountain fade away. Just a few hours, I thought, just a few hours. Jeff went out to enjoy the pee hole. I inhaled fresh air as the flap zipped open and closed. I tried not to despise myself for failing at a basic human function.
And then someone was screaming.
“Help!” he cried, from somewhere off in the snow. “Help! Help!” he called, desperately. I imagined him stumbling out of the snowstorm, frozen and alone, but Ben unzipped the vestibule and it turns out he was in the camp next to us. By the time we took in what was happening, Jeff, Bryan and a dozen others had arrived. Jeff had helped the screaming man pull his unconscious partner out of the tent. They had both gotten carbon monoxide poisoning from cooking in the vestibule as the insidiously air-tight snow cut off their oxygen. Jeff held up a tarp in bare hands to keep snow off the man. TJ and others broke a trail toward the Rangers’ camp to help take the man to medical care. He was fine, or would be.
I got out to shovel off the tents again, to do anything to feel useful, and I realized I felt better. Something changed in me the second I heard that screaming. I had clearest epiphany that I was doing this wrong. I had come to Denali to feel closer to a great and powerful thing, not to torture myself under endless layers of down, wool and delirium. I felt no real attachment to the experience I was having. The mountain was out there and I was buried deep in my head and even if I summited, the experience would be more about vanity than beauty. I hated every second of my time in the tent, and that’s not how I wanted to remember this experience.
When the man shouted “help!” I realized that people died up here doing what they loved. It was worth it in some way. I would gladly die doing something I loved, if I was truly there to experience it. But for now, for me, there was no such love. It was just a process I was forcing myself through because I’d started and I hated quitting. Well, screw that. I wasn’t going to endanger my team by losing my shit at 17K just to prove a point that mattered to no one I cared about. I was done. If I descended with Ben, there would be minimal impact on the team. It was time to go. I knew I would regret it, of course, maybe for the rest of my life, but that was no reason to put others at risk.
TJ looked flummoxed when I told him, and that was probably the worst part of it, but he took it in stride. Jeff hardly blinked, and that also helped; I liked him, he liked me, but in the end you climb the mountain alone. By the next morning, Ben and I were set to descend with Mike Walter’s team. So ended my great ascent of Denali.
The Team Blog
After a busy week of pushing up to 14,000’ Camp, we took a much deserved first full rest day. The team had a rough nights sleep at our new altitude and learned how to manage the morning “snowstorm” in the tent that develops from the condensation our breath gives off and freezes on the inside of the tent walls. To sum it up, it’s not a pleasant way to wake up! Despite that, we got to sleep in and wait for the sun to hit our tents before we had a big breakfast with bagels, cream cheese and salmon!! The morning sun helped dry out our sleeping bags before some afternoon snow showers moved through. Tomorrow we might have a more active rest day filled with some training and a walk to the Edge of the World. All and all, the team is enjoying some rest and should sleep much better tonight as our bodies continue to acclimate to our new elevation.
Day 11 (Thu, Jun 7) / Team @ 14K/ Shawn Descends (2)
The focus of the day is to rest, hydrate, and let our bodies start to adjust to this new altitude. We practice fixed line travel and running belays, as well as sort another load of gear, all in preparation for our carry onto the West Buttress.
Today was going to be a long day. Mike Walter’s team had been at 17K+ for five days, and they wanted to get out of Dodge. They woke up late this morning and slowly got ready, but the plan was to go all the way from 14K to Base Camp in fresh powder, pulling up every cache along the way, today and fly out tomorrow. If I couldn’t keep up, they’d probably dump my body in a crevasse or give me really dirty looks, which was worse.
I was worried about my pack weight. Due to my short stay at 14K, I had all the food I’d hauled up there, probably 15 pounds of uneaten crap, and everything else. We would be post-holing down in fresh powder to 11K. I just didn’t want to slow the Walter’s team down; I was nobody to them, just a guy at the end of the rope who didn’t make it. I didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t even want to be noticed.
It took them until noon to pack up and get ready. I wandered around camp like a reverse vagrant trying to give food to people who already had too much. I discovered that when you leave a team, the team suddenly needs your stuff, which was fine but a kinda funny. David took my medium-weight socks to help his feet, and a gluten-free Bobo bar and Gus, Marc my blister pads and Band-Aids, TJ and Jeff my remaining Doritos (Thank you), and Paul wanted to swap inflatable sleeping pads because his was leaking (but I couldn’t b/c I didn’t know how long we’d have to camp before planes could pick us up). I was grateful for every ounce of weight they took, and I hoped it would help them. I didn’t even try to find out who had my non-inflatable sleeping pad (I had ended up with an older one after some Posh breakfast). They still had a lot of climbing to do.
Oddly, no one wanted the frozen power bar bricks. I carried those damn things from San Diego, halfway up Denali, back to Talkeetna and left them for other climbers in the hanger days later. #NeverAgain.
And then I was ready to go. After good-byes and introductions, I was roped up at the end of junior guide (is that the right term?) Robby’s team with Ben in front of me, another guy from another group we’ll call Blevin. I took one last picture of 14K in the snow, and then Mike started downhill, towing his massive drag-bag, pack and all the rest of us while using his GPS track from more than a week earlier to try to avoid crevasses now covered in feet of fresh powder.
We zigged. We zagged. Mike was unstoppable, but the pace was mellow and I quickly realized my pack weight was irrelevant. I could do this all day long. Watching Mike drag his massive load up and down small hills to avoid large holes was more than a bit inspirational. Who was I to feel weakness or pain in the presence of such mountainy awesomeness?
And then my legs punched through into a crevasse, my right much further than my left, probably quite small as crevasses go, but it didn’t feel small and I was in full adrenal escape mode instantly. Ben had instinctively self-arrested, but I was in no danger of falling in; my pack had plugged the rest of the hole. I leaned forward, splayed out in the powder, and gradually inched my way out. The guide on the rope behind me called out support and then yelled, “PULL!” Once Ben got up, the rest of my rope team hauled me out in bits and starts while I tried not to suffocate; my chest strap cut off my breathing every time they hauled, but I was just glad to be out of the hole. I couldn’t even stand once I was clear. I had to take off my pack, get up, catch my breath, and then march on. No one even commented on it later; it just happens. Apparently, it happened to Ben right in front of me and I didn’t even notice. He just seemed to fall over, then he got up and we kept moving.
After slow descents of Squirrel and Motorcycle Hills — Blevin fell a few times and I later learned he was having balance problems on steeper hills — we were at 11K and the hard part was over. The snow wasn’t as deep. The sky was gray but it wasn’t snowing. We just had to find our caches, dig up our sleds, snowshoes, take on some group gear, and get moving. I was looking forward to pulling a sled again. It was simple work and gave you something to focus on. Little did I know that going down, you’re responsible for the sled in front of you and, if you’re at the end of the rope like I was, your own sled behind you too. Robby seemed a bit worried about it. I wasn’t sure why. How bad can it be?
You’d think I’d learn. TJ had WTFAYLA up at 14K, so I was stuck with a strange and vindictive sled. I wouldn’t realize the extent of her malevolance until hours later.
The first several miles were fine. I could control the slide of the sled behind me by using the powder at the side of the trail. None of the fancy changes and knots that Robby tried were necessary. It was tough, and I let the leading sled hit Ben too many times, but overall it was just good aerobic work that almost never resulted in me face down in a tangle of rope eating snow. I felt like I was working harder than most of the others, and that meant I was earning my keep. I felt useful. This lasted all the way to Ski Hill and beyond, until the final long, icy decent in the evening gloam when the devil took possession of my sled and tried to kill me.
Once the powder crusted over, there was nothing to keep my sled from overtaking me, taking out my legs, sliding ahead of me and tangling in the rope, or generally being a huge pain the ass. The rope went under her and turned into a brake while Ben’s jerked me forward, so that I sort of spasmed my way downhill while my lower back tried to revolt and the trailing sled found new ways to mutiny. At some point, I lost my happy thoughts and spent an hour of otherwise beautiful time on the glacier thinking about smashing and burning the sled and firebombing the factory in China where she was made. I kicked her, cursed her and all the while tried not to let my sled do the same to Ben.
And then the guide behind me on the next rope (Alex?), tied a clove hitch to restrict the sled’s freedom a bit, and 80% of the insanity vanished. This was in direct conravention of TJ’s “Let her be free” sled style, but maybe he only meant that for the uphill trek. Either way, my last hour trudging down and then up Heartbreak Hill to Base Camp was relatively mellow. Maybe she didn’t hate me afterall.
We were done. We made a crappy tent platform in slushy snow, ate a final warm quesadilla, drank someone’s whiskey (Thank you! I left mine in the cache for Jeff and TJ’s team). And then we went to sleep.
Ben and I shared the tent with the immortal Blevin, who snored with such fierce power, volume and variety that I was at first too stunned to mind. I was reminded of the appearance of Gandolf’s horse in Lord of the Rings where he says, “Behold Shadowfax, the lord of all horses.” Behold, Blevin, the lord of all snorers. He snorted, gurbled, snapped, popped, rumbled, burbled, sucked, whistled, paused and then did it all again in apparently random order. It was singular and yet orchestral, a virtuoso performance so horrifying it was strangely, beautifully perfect. I was sweaty and chilled for the first time on the entire trip, there was a lump under my sleeping pad like a bony ice baby rising from it’s glacial crypt, and I was lying next to the Norse God of Vocal Slumber. I was fucked. And I couldn’t stop laughing.
Mike Walter is a freakin’ tank. I’ve never seen anyone drag and carry that much crap through that much snow without even slowing down. If he’d had to lift up the mountain and move it slightly to the south to get his team down safely, he would have done it. He may actually be a Yeti.
The Team Blog
Today was another rest day with a top notch breakfast donated from our fellow RMI team Mike Walter who is currently on the way down to the airstrip. The breakfast quesadilla extravaganza started with snow and ended with heavy snow. We said good bye to Walter team and are looking forward to some training in the next few hours to dial in our technique for the next stage of our climb to carry supplies for our high camp. This will set the stage for our summit push when the weather allows. For now we will out chill the snow and let you know how our carry turns out tomorrow! We are wishing good luck to the Van Deventer and Hailes teams as they are pushing to high camp today for their summit bid!
Day 12 (Fri, Jun 8) / Team Caches @ 17K Camp (3)
We ascend out of the North side of Genet Basin, gaining the fixed lines at approximately 15,200′ that top out at the ridge line of the West Buttress at 16,200′. Depending on time, weather, route conditions, and energy level, we may opt to make our cache at the top of the fixed lines, or travel higher along the West Buttress towards 17K Camp before caching. After leaving our loads, we return to 14K Camp for the evening.
That’s what the team did. I “woke” to a clear morning and scrambled out of that damn tent as fast as I could. The sun was up. The planes were coming. We broke camp and scrambled toward the runway like migrants trying to leave a broken country. We looked to nervously to the sky for planes, for rescue, for salvation from the cold and ice. Members of Walter’s team, talked about the summit and beer and their triumph and fatigue. I just nodded and smiled. Good for them.
After several long, anxious minutes on the glacier hoping the planes would get to us in the descending fog, we flew out on the first plane to Talkeetna and I started moping around town like an Emo Goth teenager trapped in a post-Memorial Day formal whites discount sale. I was hot. I was tired. I ate a lot. I never stop eating, it seems. My mom had to drive all the way from Seward to come get me, unexpectedly, but she only complained a little. Good mom. I ate more as I waited.
We drove back to Moose Pass that evening. There were rainstorms with double rainbows along Resurrection Bay. It was green and lush and beautiful. I hated it.
Stupid stuff happens when you’re tired. Some of my final memories of not climbing Denali are minor, nagging regrets. For instance, when we were all gathered and waiting for the plane, Mike told us it would be very tempting to scatter once the plane landed, but we had to remember to stay in the hanger, set up tents to dry, sort out group gear etc. But he could order coffee or food into the hanger if that helped. So when we were halfway through sorting I was desperate for coffee and asked Robby if that was actually happening, and he looked at me like I was insane. “I’m not making coffee, dude.” I blinked, confused, but couldn’t explain myself. Now Robby’s last memory of me is that asshole client who wanted him to make coffee.
A second case; when I checked into latitude to take a shower and change prior to my mum coming to grab me, I said I was with RMI Guides and she game me a key to room eleven. I was done with my shower and lying on top of a bed trying to stay awake when I realized this couldn’t be the right room; there is only one room at Latitude with three beds, and it was reserved for the three guides. I called down and the woman apologized, saying she’d meant to give me the key for room seven, but now the guides will think I was the jackass who used their shower and towels. Totally minor stuff, but it nags. Meh. Whatever.
The Team Blog
The Jones Team had an excellent and hard day getting our cache established at 17 Camp! The cold morning had us clawing our toes to keep them warm but by our first break of the day we hit the sunshine to warm us up. Our practice yesterday in camp had us dialed to send it right up the fixed lines with style and in good time. The weather was beautiful on the ridge, with sun and no wind, it allowed us to continue climbing higher to deliver our supplies to 17,200 ft. The descent was just as exhausting but we are back at 14,000’ camp cooking up dinner to replenish ourselves from the effort.
Tomorrow calls for a rest day before we await our window for our summit bid! The forecast is calling for high winds on the summit through the weekend so we may be waiting down here at 14 camp till early next week. Either way some rest and further acclimatization will be beneficial and we are ready when our chance comes!
Day 13 (Sat, Jun 9) / Team Recovery @ 14K Camp (4)
On Saturday, as the team recovered at 14K from their cache to 17K, I woke up around noon from a solid fourteen hours of sleep. Not kidding. Fourteen hours. I could have slept longer but it seemed excessive and I was hungry. Mom greeted me in the living room with a hug. We drove into Seward. We ate a late breakfast / lunch. I did laundry, which, dear lord, was necessary. I stared longingly up at the flank of Mr. Marathon and wondered if I’d ever do that race, ate more, drank coffee, bought food, and finally headed back to the cabin to eat and sleep more.
After a leisurely breakfast we make it our priority to hydrate and fuel throughout the day so that we’re prepared for our move to High Camp and the summit push. Depending on weather, we may stretch our legs and take a short walk across Genet Basin to the Edge of the World. From here we can look down almost 7,000′ to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna, see our first camp at the Base of Ski Hill, and look across the valley to stunning views of 17,402′ Mt. Foraker.
Yeah, whatever. I didn’t talk much about the mountain. I couldn’t believe I’d failed in such a pathetic, peculiar way.
The Team Blog
Today we took a rest on the edge. At the aptly named Edge of the World outside of 14 camp we stopped for some great photos. Photos so grand, you’ll never see them. The snow fell gently in the afternoon air. We pondered our favorite planets. Security felt a little lax around camp and with murmurs of winter coming we built some walls around camp. Afterwards, during dinner, we concluded that the sun is the collective favorite planet. Have to be honest, the mountain food is just food. But the guides cooking skills are super awesome. Looking forward to capping off the night with some gentle snoring to keep the local wildlife at bay. Tomorrow should probably be a super epic day.
Day 14 (Sun, Jun 10) / Team Stuck @ 14K Camp (5)
Today is the first day the team is officially stuck / waiting at 14K for better weather higher up. Also the first day I got off my ass and did some chores around mom’s cabin. The work was therapeutic, but I was strangely tired and hungry. I hate a few bags of cookies today. Don’t tell anyone.
The Team Blog
To the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air:
Here is the story all about how
We’re stuck at 14 with so much pow
Just wait a little minute and sit right there And we’ll tell you all about these snow walls up in here.
These walls are high, they are not low
Like the saying goes, you reap what you sow.
The storm’s a brewin, it does not matter It just means we make these walls fatter.
Everyone’s spirits are high
Despite this Denali blizzard
Though we admit
We’d rather sip on some sizzer…d
Don’t you worry though
Because when this passes
We’ll be cruising up the pass the masses to the top I tell you loud and clear is our intent so don’t you fear.
Day 15 (Mon, Jun 11) / 14K (6)
They’re still stuck up there. Mom and I drove to Home Depot.
The Team Blog
We made it through a very snowy and windy night at 14,000’ Camp and also made it through the coldest night we have had near -10F. The skies were clear and cold when we crawled out of the tent to nearly two feet of fresh snow. The team cleared the snow from the tents and shoveled the snow out of our snow block fortress. Then we had another amazing breakfast that started with coffee then hash browns, then blueberry pancakes, a Tyler Jones special. We then proceeded to have another round of hash browns and pancakes. This was obviously paired with a healthy serving of crispy bacon.
The new snow along with the wind has most the camp relaxed and waiting till the winds up high on the mountain subside and give the new snow time to settle. The forecast is looking up later this week. We will be patient and out chill the wind and snow, then when the opportunity presents, we will make our move to High Camp. Till then we have a fierce game of Yahtzee in the cool tent and laps around camp to keep us busy.
Day 16 (Tue, Jun 12) / Team Stuck at 14K Camp (7)
Still stuck. I caulked some logs, then we drove to Anchorage and I flew back to San Diego.
The Team Blog
Today was another windy and snowy day here at 14,000’ Camp. After a late breakfast, despite the snow, the team worked together to make an igloo to improve the comfort of the bathroom experience given the current conditions. It’s little projects like these around camp that help down days go by. After a few hours of resting back in our tents the sun made an evening appearance that allowed us to stretch our legs around camp and clear out some of the snow again.
The skiers on the mountain have been taking advantage of the evening clearings by enjoying the powder turns to be had just above camp. We’ve enjoyed standing out in the sun watching them ski back to camp. Unfortunately, the outlook for the forecast took a big swing this morning and instead of high pressure settling in for the weekend it now appears we are expecting a major snowstorm and continued high winds through Saturday to stall our summit bid. The team is staying optimistic however, given we may be at 14 camp for a few more days. Tomorrow’s another day and a forecast is only a forecast!
Day 17 (Wed, Jun 13) / Team Stuck at 14K Camp (8)
Team still stuck. I think this was the eighth day for them at 14K. Kam picked me up in San Diego. It was 80 degrees and brown. Kam was kind enough not to ask too much about Denali.
The Team Blog
Today we had another great breakfast. Then the crew geared up for a climb up towards the fixed ropes. We have had more than our share of good rest in the past few days. We needed to move some blood and keep our fitness we have gained on this trip. From the forecast we are seeing it looks like we could have a few more days of poor weather. We hope to take another climb for fitness tomorrow and be ready for a break in the weather. Fingers crossed!
Day 18 (Thu, Jun 14) / Team Stuck at 14K Camp (9)
I hiked Mt. Woodson with Kam and relaxed the rest of the day. It was 95 degrees and out bright outside. I thought about posting this on the team blog, but it seemed cruel. And honestly, I missed the snow. Day nine for them at 14K.
The Team Blog
We aren’t getting restless yet! We had a beautiful but gusty morning at camp that allowed us to improve our storm walls and batten down the hatches. The summit has been displaying quite the cap over it with long tails indicating the strong winds up high on top of the frigid temperatures. The forecast has finally confirmed that beginning tomorrow and through the weekend will bring heavy snow. We are going to catch the tail of a tropical surge coming off the Pacific, some words to describe it have been a cyclone or Pineapple Express. We will keep you updated on the snowfall amounts! Yesterday, we had a greeting party to welcome Mike King’s team at 14 Camp. We are glad to have some additional company as we wait out this storm. Thanks for the blog comments from our family and friends, keep them coming!
Day 19 (Fri, Jun 15) / Team Stuck @ 14K Camp (10)
The Team Blog
Today we had a foot race,
We all died trying to keep pace,
Another weather day spent playing spades
Up at 14 foiled by these Pineapple Express charades
The snow is getting deep and the wind getting strong
We’re standing in the posh but not for very long.
My feet are so cold from standing on the ice,
Don’t fret for we’ll be crushing more rice.
These foreseeable high winds are full,
While our gastrointestinals are quite dull.
Even still Spirits were high
until news of a pig came before the nigh.
Well, pig news can be a downer. I can only assume that they’re referring to news about the Pineapple Express (bad, wet weather) and not some unfortunate porcine dinner incident. To be confirmed.
Day 20 (Sat, Jun 16) / Team Stuck @ 14K Camp (11)
Yes, you read that right. The team has now been at 14K camp since June 7th/8th, so basically elevem days digging holes and smoking bowls. Just kidding. This is federal land, people. There is no smoking. There is only digging. And building walls. And bodily functions, snow, and, well, whatever. They’ve been there a while. This is also the day on which the expedition is supposed to have ended and everyone is being transported from Talkeetna to Anchorage. Ben made the right choice from a timing perspective, no doubt about it.
Kam and I did the Mt. Woodson loop thing today, 11 miles for me, 22 for her as she trains for her 100 mile ultra. Then dinner with my friends and a good night’s sleep. It was the first day it doesn’t feel like Denali is sitting on my back. I hope they’re doing okay up there.
The Team Blog
It’s possible that delirium has set in:
Strolling up Denali taking a hike
Day 18 brings a cyclone I don’t like
Boys in the posh shoveling that snow
Waiting for the weather window so we can up and go.
You got DK white chocolate
Dropping a sick beat waiting
Patiently for his peanut butter treat
Who needs any meat
At 17,000 feet.
All I want are my peanut butter
Peanut butter cups.
Your dark ridges so heavenly on my lips,
Forever on my hips,
Your sweet and salty, hardly ever
When these mountain days look all
All you need are those glorious
Peanut butt-er cuuups,
To keep on the up and ups.
To be continued…
Day 21 (Sun, Jun 17) / Team Retreats to 11K Camp
By the itinerary, this is the day on which everyone is supposed to fly home from Alaska (We load up the planes and return to Talkeetna to enjoy a hot shower and celebratory team meal. Overnight at the Latitude 62.) I instead slept in and had a delicious omelette.
As it turns out, this is the day they finally threw in the towel. The weather forecast was for more storms and snow, and they are way over deadline. They take the first break in the weather to decamp down to 11K through deep snow. No reports of crevasse falls on the way; I’ll have to ask about that when they get back.
The Team Blog
To all of our fans out there, we know you’ve enjoyed our stories, raps and poems for our blog to fulfill our energy during our long stay at 14,000’ Camp on Denali. This evening however, was the beginning of our retreat down the mountain and eventually back to the airstrip as the weather allows. Today, we had a lull in the never ending storm and the team seized the opportunity to make the descent back to 11,000’ Camp. This “lull” certainly wasn’t an easy escape but the conditions were the best we’ve had in days and better than what’s forecast for the next week. We quickly broke down camp and were walking just before 8pm. Walking into the white and knee deep post holing kept the pace down but the team was managing it well. Squirrel Hill was wind scoured and Motorcycle Hill into 11,000’ Camp provided some more deep post holing. Thankfully, the wind was calm at camp and with some help from some other guides we know, that have also been stuck in this storm, we managed to set up tents quickly and crawled into our sleeping bags by midnight. Way to go team! The next few days still call for some snowy and windy weather so we might not move too quickly but we’ll take every window of opportunity!
Mike King’s Team Blog
Mike’s team was a week behind ours, and joined my team at 14K Camp soon after I left. Mike had also been a guide of mine on Rainier, and I was sorry to have missed him…but maybe not that sorry. His blog post for the same day reveals part of why TJ and team were wise to make a break for it:
Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads following along. The storm broke by mid day with views of the wind blown West Buttress. The Team spent some time walking around camp and getting to know some of the other groups at 14K Camp. We’ve been eating good, getting plenty of sleep and are all eagerly awaiting a window to climb to 17K Camp. The forecast is 5-6 mores days of high winds above and snow down here in Genet Basin. Books are being swapped and audio books Airdropped. That’s all from 14 for now.
Five or six more days? That would put a summit bid for our team at somewhere above Day 30. No one wants that.
June 17 Climbing Forecast for 17K to Summit
- Today: Snow Showers (90%). Highs -5 to 5. SW Winds ~45 mph w/gusts to ~70 mph.
- Monday: Snow Showers (90% / 1-2 Feet). Highs Zero to 10. SW Winds ~40 mph w/gusts to ~50 mph.
- Tuesday – Thursday: Another front coming. High winds and snow expected.
Day 22 (Mon, Jun 18) / Team Stuck @ 11K
Snow! Wind! More Snow!
The Team Blog
We spent a very blustery and snowy day at 11,000 ft Camp. We had wind gusts in the upper forty’s and nearly two feet of snow on top of the more than three feet we walked through yesterday. The team spent most of the day hiding from Denali’s cold breath of winter. We’re hanging in there and crossing our fingers for a break to go to the airstrip.
Hopefully tomorrow will bring better weather.
Day 23 (Tue, Jun 19) / 11K to Base Camp
They’re finally at Base Camp.
The Team Blog
Today we woke to more winter with the wind blowing in our faces as we crawled from our tents. We did an Alaska leisure start. This is when you wake up and wish the weather was better but… will pack slowly. So we crept through the white, snow blowing all around us, and trail blazed through the deep snow. After many hours we arrived in Base Camp in dashing style. The evening was caped with more quesadillas than we could eat and a celebratory beverage. As we nestle in our sleeping bags for what we hope is the last night, we dream of burgers and beverages on the other side….. it’s snowing now, of course. Don’t fret we have had a blast on this adventure though we are bitter with the weather. We will out chill Denali. You can count on it.
Day 24 (Wed, Jun 20) / Flight to Talkneetna
I called K2 this morning to see if they were flying, but no such luck. I hope the team gets out today, and that they don’t have to rebuild camp for another night on the glacier. They’ve been on the mountain for 21+ days now. It’s enough.
Good news. Team flew out this afternoon. Welcome back, guys! Sorry you didn’t summit, but you stuck it out, no one died, that’s all that matters. You rock.
This post has been a struggle, mostly because I have the same feeling for it I did for the climb; I’m not sure what the value or purpose is. I’m not sure what I’ve learned or how to twist failure to success. It it what it is. Sometimes things happen and time passes and everyone forgets. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Success for failure, I don’t want to take anything away from the people who climb Denali with guiding services like RMI. For many, perhaps including myself, that is the only way such a climb would ever occur. But I can’t shake what TJ said about Denali vs. Everest, that “there are no Sherpas here.” But that’s not really true. The guides break trail, carry more weight, take care of all safety and planning, cook, clean help us clear out our sleeping platform and then their own, manage communication and weather, deal with our dumbass questions, bring us endless supplies of water and far more. One thing that really struck me on Denali was that it wasn’t as far from Everest as I had thought. Rich and mostly white people, mostly men, stack up on the fixed lines above 14K (provided by the National park Service) just as they do on the Lhotse face. We do a better job carrying out our trash and shit, and no one carries our packs or sleds, but it’s still a long way from rugged alpinism.
One poignant reminder of this is what happened on the mountain while I was floundering around in my sleeping bag. It turns out that Gilbert was not merely skiing around Denali with her friend. Between the time I saw her talking to TJ at 7.8K camp and when I returned to Base Camp, she and Chantal Astorga became the first women’s team to send the Slovak Direct route up Denali. The article is here. You should read it. This is how you climb a freakin’ mountain.
Of course, both women are highly experience climbers:
Both women, former Denali guides, had previously summited Denali (20,237’), the highest peak in North America. Astorga had reached the summit nine times, and in 2010 she’d skied from the summit down the West Ridge. Chase had summited the mountain four times.
At around the same time, Colin Haley set a speed solo record up the Cassin Ridge. I was reminded again of the fact that TJ has spent nearly 1.5 years of his life on Denali and summited fourteen times. Some people are in the mountains because they love them and embrace the hardship and skill that entails. Some of us are just tourists. I’m not saying either better or worse, but they are different relationships to the mountains, and at times I felt closer to the rich puff-bunnies slogging their way up Everest on oxygen and fixed lines than I ever wanted to.
Before going to Denali, I’d looked at all my equipment and suddenly wished I were a polar bear. I could just eat a caribou and make a run for the summit. I wouldn’t need thousands of dollars of gear, guides and a hundred other things that separated me from the mountain. I would be part of it, up there, just me and my fur in the snow and wind. No one would know I was there, and it wouldn’t occur to me to care.
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself. — DHL
And that reminded me of an episode ofThe Magicians where two of the characters transform into foxes and fornicate on the ice under the northern lights until they’re too exhausted to move. They don’t need no stinkin’ heavy down parkas. They don’t whine about insomnia. I suppose that means I went looking for the natural, raw part of myself on the mountain, and I didn’t find him. I know he’s in there somewhere. I hope he enjoyed the view.
I’ll go back someday. Not to climb Denali, but maybe to ski on the glacier or check out some lesser route with friends. To be part of the mountain rather than just on it. I don’t think she’s going anywhere.
After thousands of dollars and months of planning and training, I failed to climb a mountain because I can’t sleep in tents. If that’s not the shit that heroes are made of, I don’t know what is.