It was day six of the storm, sixteen or seventeen on the mountain. To this day, I’m still not sure but it doesn’t matter. I woke in my sleeping bag at fourteen thousand feet and like every morning stealthily slid into my gore-tex jacket, making sure not to wake the others. I used the brim of my hat to carefully remove the frozen condensation (that was our overnight exhale) from the inside of the tent. The frost was particularly thick this morning signaling a welcome change. The vicious flapping of the tent had slowed and the damning sound of being railroaded by a freight train had softened, promising that the high winds had subsided. I became giddy over the thought of eating more than just a handful of Swedish Fish. “It’s over,” I thought. The relentless storm that had pinned us down for six days had finally ceased. “We are leaving” echoed from the tent nearby. With the first weather window in almost a week, the guys next doors decided to call it quits.
Six days in a tent with two other guys is a long time. Add that we were short on food, water and entertainment and it felt like an eternity.
Denali is a badass mountain and we survived its fury.
The grandeur of the ice flow and enormity of the surrounding mountains were overwhelming and inspiring.
The first eleven days on the mountain were perfect. We were on plan and on schedule and after more than a week we had perfected the art of making a kitchen that was functional, a bathroom comfortable, and windproof camp protected by tall, thick, snow block walls. Afternoon sunbathing in the brisk Alaskan air became routine and nightly trivia was never missed. Each day, we relished the warmth of the setting sun and despite our best efforts, losing at trivia was a sure bet. We drowned the bitter taste of defeat with whiskey – our daily nightcap. One shot was enough to lull us to sleep despite the frigid, nighttime temperatures.
At first the weather cooperated and Denali welcomed us with light winds, thin but warm mountain air and a sense of freedom that can only be felt in the Alaskan wilderness. One of my clearest memories from the expedition was feeling completely unsubstantial on the Kahiltna Glacier. The grandeur of the ice flow and enormity of the surrounding mountains were overwhelming and inspiring. My pack was sixty-five pounds and sled tipped the scale near forty. Over one hundred pounds of weight was minuscule though difficult to carry; as an individual and a rope team we were so insignificant in comparison to the landscape. Being exposured is committing; and demands that you are self-sufficient. As you watch your bush plane lift off the snowy runway and realize that it isn’t coming back there is no choice but to rely on yourself and all that you were left with. We had a plan and one that we had spent six months researching, preparing and perfecting; three guys, hundreds of pounds of food, equipment and supplies and one goal; summit Denali or try like hell in failure.
We witnessed an experienced climber collapse in the snow, unresponsive to CPR and succumb to the effects of altitude. He died of heart failure at the age of 62.
“Rummy.” Damn it, I had done it again. We played hundreds of games of Rummy. We played Go Fish, Crazy Eights and I think we even made up a few games waiting out the storm. I learned how to play cards for entertainment instead of desperately competing to win. I thought you could only read a book once, but I was proven wrong. I lamented that a buried iPod and solar charger were as useful as a song without music or lyrics.
We were hungry. On the West Buttress of Denali you cache [bury in the snow] your food, equipment and fuel for the upper mountain at thirteen thousand and five hundred feet on a plateau just around windy corner – a section of the route that becomes so treacherous it can be impossible to pass. You climb high and sleep low to acclimatize to the altitude. In short, the storm prevented us from recovering our cache after we built camp at fourteen thousand feet. We spent our storm days – nearly a week – with one Snickers candy bar, a few handfuls of M&Ms mixed with Swedish Fish, some summer sausage and a small block of cheddar cheese to split between the three of us. Our meager daily rations were unsatisfying to say the least. Every day was a non-stop cycle of hunger and boredom. Hungry. Then bored. Hungry. Bored. Hungry. Bored. Unsurprisingly, we managed to mix in an unhealthy amount of sleep and had too much time to think.
Six days in a tent–that luckily survived the elements – was a test of sanity. Inside we were bored, a kind of boredom that you can’t imagine. The words “Mountain Hardwear” written on the outside of the tent read backwards and were the catalyst for our fictitious, code language. Second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day, the storm raged on. With unrelenting fury, many of the lighter-weight tents nearby were either buried or torn apart by the storm. Climbers were forced to find quiet, safety and salvation in snow caves.
You know the saying…if you don’t use it, you lose it? I’m not sure they meant it this way, but I found it true about the human mind. Despite my greatest effort, I nearly lost mine. During waking hours, everything inside the tent was dilly-dallying, except my brain. At times, thoughts were racing from one incoherent stream to another without a clear distinction between the two. They were whirling at the same chaotic speed as the hurricane force winds and rapid snowfall outside. Things completely unrelated became one irrational plot but nonetheless entertaining. Between the nonsense, I visited and explored some deeper thoughts. It seemed like the less my body moved the more active my mind became, sane or not.
I thought about my family and friends. Through separation I found a deeper appreciation for friendship. It became really clear who mattered most. I thought about my parents and grandparents and how they must be worried, aghast and excited in ways that only protectors can. How in some ways, it was selfish of my brother and I to do this together. But then again, isn’t life supposed to be lived? To us, this was living! They had enough confidence in our return to partially front the bill, which assured they were deeply proud. My sister was an anxious mess, she always is. At times, I longed for beach days or a round of golf. What I wouldn’t have done to share a cold, crisp beer on a hot day with my buddies. I found motivation in knowing they were rooting for us and living vicariously. I pictured the day I could share my story with those who cared to listen.
I questioned the meaning of life and the purpose of climbing. Unfortunately, we witnessed an experienced climber collapse in the snow, unresponsive to CPR and succumb to the effects of altitude. He died of heart failure at the age of 62. At the same time we buried our cache, our self-preserving supplies, the climbing rangers were burying the body – no more than 50 yards away. Since then I have dealt with death many times, in and outside of the mountains, and I still don’t understand. I don’t think I ever will. Regardless, the mountains call and I go. I go for adventure. I go for the challenge and to explore the world and myself. And, I go in search of answers to questions that I’m not sure I will ever find. It’s part of me. It is what I do. Denali was no different.
Tucked away in my sleeping bag, I often laughed at the thought of our training regimen and the dedicated routine that we had devoted our lives to. Before the trip we often frequented a chain fitness center, a budget-friendly gym franchise that prides itself on being a judgment free zone. Lunks, as they call them – grunters, moaners and weight-throwers – weren’t allowed. I found happiness and humor when I pondered the judgments placed upon us by others. The inquisitive looks and evident intrigue made it obvious that we looked like over-achievers, lunatics even. I wasn’t surprised since we were training for something much bigger than shedding a few extra pounds around the waist. We spent hours working out every day. We quietly lifted weights, slammed through countless circuits of core exercises and most outstanding, marched hundreds of floors on the Stairmaster with our fifty-pound backpacks. We didn’t stop until our muscles screamed ‘no more’ and the sweat collected in a pool.
Who does that? Who brings fifty pound backpacks to the Stairmaster at the gym?
We did and it was awesome. It’s a miracle that we weren’t asked to leave.
I gave thanks to the foresight we had to bring a small book of jokes with us on the expedition. When every ounce of weight matters there is no room for luxuries. Hell, deodorant was left behind and a toothbrush was a serious consideration because paired with toothpaste it occupied precious space. And, brushing your teeth requires water, our most valuable commodity. I realized that during a six-day storm, the most ordain jokes were hilarious. One crappy punch line is enough to lift the human spirit and restore hope. I learned that laughter truly is the best medicine no matter how bad you smell and dirty you feel.
I go (to the mountains) for adventure. I go for the challenge and to explore the world and myself. And, I go in search of answers to questions that I’m not sure I will ever find. It’s part of me. It is what I do.
I think it was day six when the storm eased. It was hard to tell when sleeping during the day was the norm and time didn’t really matter. The winds were blowing but the snow stopped and it was safe to escape the cramped confines of our tent. We challenged ourselves to safely navigate deadly crevasses. Corey and I decided to go for our cache. The thought of copious food was too enticing to pass. We had saved the Snickers candy bar for this day so we each ate half and down we went. It took us far too long to down climb and uncover the six feet of snow that stood between a lavish feast and us. We sat and ate potato chips, granola bars, candy and more. We couldn’t satisfy our hunger and yet our shrunken stomachs could only fit so much. It’s a weird feeling to be completely full and yet starving at the same time.
As we labored back up to camp we found ourselves lethargic from the laziness of the previous days lying around in the tent. Take three steps. Lean on our ice axes. Three big breathes and repeat. The struggle was disheartening but we decided to shamelessly indulge and rehydrate that night and see how we felt in the morning. After all, we had thousands of dollars, countless hours of training and planning invested and only two more days of climbing to reach the summit. We determined that quitting then would be contrite. We reasoned, if we made it this far another twenty-four hours won’t hurt too badly.
The extended forecast delivered later that night crushed the cautious optimism that was restored by full bellies and full water bottles. The storm was going to intensify and climbing toward high camp and the summit was nearly impossible for the foreseeable future. The culmination of circumstances was tough to overcome. That day we unexpectedly suffered through an insignificant amount of climbing and we were pushed to our limits of acceptance. We tucked in for the night under an ominous cloud of uncertainty with our patience running thin. We went to bed deflated but holding tight to hope that the morning would bring a fresh start.
We met Matt and Ryan at camp one, two radical dudes attempting Denali for the third time. We were on the same climbing schedule and made fast friends over tequila on Cinco De Mayo. When we woke the following morning the Dynamic Duo, as we called them, reached their breaking point and informed us of their plan to descend. Corey and I looked at each other and knew immediately, no words spoken. It was the confirmation we needed to do the same. They broke camp and set sights on Camp One for the night. After careful deliberation, we decided to meet them for dinner but to make the longer journey to Base Camp. We didn’t see the sense in spending another night on the mountain, setting up and breaking down camp for a few hours of sleepless rest. We flew off the glacier to Talkeetna on the first plane out.
I wont ever forget our Denali expedition. As I see it, we didn’t fail because we didn’t summit, we climbed. We humbly took what the mountain gave us, no more, no less. We made precious memories with our climbing partners and made new friends along the way. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves and we are better people and climbers for it. I think that is what this sport and life are all about.