Updated: Jun 21, 2021
The flight to Anchorage was crowded but smooth and I was able to choose an exit row seat with plenty of leg room to spread out. I sat next to two Alaskan natives, one who spend the last 20 years in Talkeetna - the place where I'm heading. From there I'll catch a ski plane and land on Denali's Kahiltna glacier. Interestingly, both of them were brought up in families that moved to Alaska in order to escape the hustle and bustle of city life on the East coast. They were both raised in cabins surrounded by mile upon mile of raw wilderness. I have a patient who was also raised in this manner. Although life must have been extremely challenging for them growing up in these circumstances, nobody I spoke with seemed to express remorse. Instead, they appreciated the simplicity and depth of their childhood experiences.
I arrived in Anchorage at 10:30 that evening and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Anchorage. The room was very cozy and I slept really well. In the morning, I woke up, opened the curtains and staring back at me were endless snow capped mountains across from the parking lot!
With a little time to kill before meeting my team at the airport, I decided to take a short walk down a hiking path behind the hotel. The weather was gorgeous and for being right near the airport in downtown Anchorage, the path was stunningly beautiful.
Members of our climbing group started trickling into the airport at 2:00PM. I was feeling extremely excited and nervous at the same time. "What will my climbing partners be like?" "Are they well trained?" "Are they fit enough?" "Are they going to leave me in the dust?" All of these questions were swimming through my mind when I met the first climber, James, who arrived all the way from Hong Kong. It took him 3 days to get to Anchorage. He was soft-spoken and courteous, putting my mind at ease.
We all boarded a shuttle and stopped off at REI and a supermarket in Anchorage and then off to Talkeetna where we would stay the night and hopefully fly to the Kahiltna the next day. The day was overcast and although we were getting closer to Denali, there were no mountain in sight.... until... two and a half hours later all of a sudden right before entering Talkeetna, Denali suddenly showed her magnificent presence. We immediately stopped the shuttle and rushed out to take pictures. Tears welled up inside of me when Denali suddenly stood out above the clouds. Although Denalu looked humongous, I didn't feel intimidated, just awe.... she is so beautiful!!
That night we stayed at the Swiss Alaska Inn in Talkeetna:
Slept unusually well that night since my bed was surprisingly comfortable despite the mouse in the wall and the ancient lonely feeling of the Swiss Alaska hotel in Talkeetna. We were generously provided with single rooms that have two beds for each of us five climbers. Plenty of space to spread out our gear on the second bed for a gear check the next day.
Armaan - living in New York and originally from India. Climbed several Himalayan Peaks, Aconcagua and others around the world. He was first to ride a motorcycle across largest lake in Siberia, Lake Baikal (395 miles long) - on pure ice!!
James - Living in Hong Kong and originally from England. He climbed many mountains including Everest, about which he wrote a book, He has a great sense of humor (dark and genuinely British).
Jack - living in Jacksonville Florida. He is an avid hiker and completed the Appalachian Train along with other multi-week climbs. He is very kind and full of charisma.
Greg - living in Kansas City, climbed Aconcagua, trained in Colorado climbing the 14000'ers and Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
Main Guide - Climbed all over the world including guiding Denali at least 7 times and Everest. His stories are numerous and full of rich experience. One involved a fall on Everest when a fixed line anchor that popped out of the snow and sent him flying downward.
Guide 1 - Guided several Denali climbers to the Summit. Extremely enthusiastic and strong climber.
Guide 2- Has not climbed Denali yet but is very competent and very mountain savvy. She gave us many pearls of mountain climbing wisdom.
Today was our orientation and gear check day. Felt relieved knowing that I had all the right gear since two of our team members had to return all the way back to Anchorage to get a missing beacon and mittens. This entailed paying $85 each for a taxi and a total of 6 hours driving. Over the last few months I compulsively reviewed the gear list and even memorized it. Our main guide allowed me to drill a few holes on one of his sleds to rig it with poles. To do this I brought a battery-powered drill with me from Portland. I found this method of rigging much easier and safer when training on Mt. Hood. The other climbers will be using ropes instead of poles.
Hard Rigged Sled:
After a lot of trial and error and research, I realized that a hard rigged sled is the way to go. With only ropes between my sled and I, it's easy for it to bang against the back of my legs while going downhill and swing to the side when traversing steep sections. Stainless steel hard-rigged poles prevent this from happening by keeping the distance between sled and legs constant. I investigated several ways to hard rig a sled and tried each one of them. At first I tried using PVC poles, but these were flimsy and prone to cracking. The final product was my own version, involving 5 foot long 1/3 inch steel pipe which doesn't bend much or crack. I used an angle grinder to make steel brackets out of u-clips and mounted them to the sled with screws. Next I drilled holes through the steel pipe and placed a 1/8" pin and locker on each bracket. This setup worked wonders while training for and climbing up Denali until it didn't... At first the IMG guides were hesitant to accept my version of sled and warned me that in a crevasse fall the steel bars would cause injury. So I remedied this situation by wrapping the bars with pipe insulation. There are several sections during the climb where climbers have to strap those huge expedition sleds to their backpacks after dropping off the cache. I suggested that all the sleds be placed on my hard rigged sled and then I can haul them back to camp for everyone. Our main guide, liked this idea and it worked out perfectly. This avoided having to attach sleds to everyone's pack (not an easy task) and the inconvenience of wind hitting the sleds, pushing climbers off balance while hiking back to camp. It wasn't until the last day of the climb that I regretted my hard rigged sled configuration. In order to take the steel poles on my flight to Alaska, they had to be cut in half. So I decided to use a union with screws as the easiest way to reconnect them in Alaska. I also brought a battery powered drill, wrench, screwdriver, and all the accessories to rebuild the sled in Talkeetna. I practiced how to fix the sled in route if needed - which came in handy. There was a lot of fixing to be done while descending Denali since the unions kept splitting apart and there was no way for me to stop and fix them!! In hindsight I should have placed a pin and a stopper in the middle of the steel bars instead of a union.
Just kept praying for good weather and a strong team. It was quickly becoming obvious that everyone was getting along very well. My teammates were really cool and their passion for climbing really shows. I hope that my teammates become friends for life and that we can celebrate at the summit. May the universe look out for us and support our mission as psychotic as it is. Today is a beautiful day in Talkeetna - a total blessing. Denali lures you in like a black hole. The closer I get, the deeper the urge to place my feet on her soft white skin. At her mercy we cautiously put one foot in front of the other, hoping she abides as we make slow and gentle strides.
We waited all day for the weather to clear in order to fly via Talkeetna Air to the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip. Thinking that we'd be able to fly out after a couple of hours of waiting, they loaded a 6 seat ski plane with all of our gear, then waited... waited.... and waited some more. After about 7 hours, they called the day off and off we went back to the Swiss Inn. We were all still in great spirits and met members of other teams. Cracked jokes, drank a bit of whiskey, and chilled out all day on the porch overlooking the runway. We were told that it's common to wait days before planes can fly to Denali due to constant cloud cover above the runway. Pilots will sometimes fly if there is a "hole" in the clouds and dive through it aiming for the airstrip on the Kahiltna.
I have never seen anywhere this beautiful in my life. The mountains here are magnificent and full of earth's energy that simply overwhelms my being. Today, first thing in the morning, we were given the go-ahead and rushed to the airport for our incredible flight to the glacier. As we flew closer to Denali the plane practically whisked the sides of each snow-capped ridge. Before boarding, I asked the pilot to give us one of his signature dive landings
- a maneuver that pilots make that requires diving through a hole in the clouds. The pilot complied and said "by special request, I am going to nose dive to the glacier." It was crazy fun!! Luckily, to this day, nobody on the team knows what the hell he was talking about or who requested the nose-dive. Landing on the snow felt surprisingly smooth despite the chunks of ice, dips, and bumps. As soon as the plane stopped, we were reminding right away that this wasn't your typical tourist excursion. We immediately had to unload over a thousand pounds of gear and get it at least 100 feet away from the plane and runway with only a few minutes to spare.
Soon afterwards, we took a 7 mile trek with 120lbs combined weight in our packs and sleds to 7800 camp. We passed areas of huge serac and ice waiting to fall. The weather held nicely. Made it to 7800 camp, carved tent platforms, and erected our tents within a few hours. I've heard horror stories about the Kahiltna and how crevasses were everywhere. Luckily, due to an early season start, the crevasses
weren't so prominent and our trail avoided them entirely.
Today we climbed up ski hill - which was much longer than I anticipated. The term "Hill" was probably meant to encourage climbers or ridicule them. The proper term would be "mountain." Today's mission is to cache our gear at 10200 feet and then return to our camp at 7800 ft. Weather became rough from 9000 ft with white out, wind, and cold. After caching, everyone had to load sleds into their backpacks because lighter sleds are prone to flipping over when not loaded.... except me! Since my sled was hard-rigged and not prone to flipping, I simply towed it behind me without an issue.
Today was a "rest" day at 7800 camp since weather above us was too windy to proceed. It was warm down at camp though! I was feeling amazing and had tons of pent up energy so I asked if it were okay if I dig the cache hole although it is usually the role of the guides. Of course they were like, "Sure! Go right ahead!" So I dug a 5' x 5' hole in the snow and then did a cardio exercise routine while others shook their heads at me and conserved their energy per recommendation of the guides. Our guide was excited to see the hole I dug and proceeded to check out the layers in the snow and conduct an avalanche test. I was, as with most days, the first out of the tent (and usually the last one in the tent at night). Tears automatically flowed down my face as soon as I opened the tent zipper that morning as the stunning views unfolded.
5/20/21 Today we climbed to 11000 Camp. On the way we dug another cache hole at 10,200 and placed our gear inside. Weather was windy and cold. At appx. 500 feet from 11000 camp our guide suddenly fell ill and collapsed on the trail. After a long period of time with wind howling and whiteout, he then proceeded to barely make it up to camp and then collapse again. Once we arrived at camp, I immediately attended to him. The other guide told me to work my "magic" after I placed my arms around him and said that I will help him get better. I immediately administered acupressure on his LI11 and LI4 points (since he was having intestinal spasms) and then gave him highly concentrated electrolyte water since he was extremely dehydrated. Shortly afterward, I also had him drink water with concentrated clove and ginger oils to help regulate his digestive system. I could immediately see that he was improving and told him to rest. Within a few hours he reported feeling much better and the expedition went on. We then occupied ourselves with tent platform preparation, wall building, and tent building - this took several hours. Our Main Guide thanked me afterwards and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction assisting him. I was grateful that the other guides felt comfortable enough to entrust me in his care.
This was just a chill day at 11000 camp. Laid down all day, hung out in the tent while watching downloaded movies. Watched the movie 02, which was filmed inside of a small capsule that transported a scientist to a new planet. At first it was difficult to watch because I felt so crammed into our tent of 3 people that watching this movie made me feel claustrophobia phobic.
Today we went back down to the cache sight to retrieve gear. Basically, this entails digging up gear such as food, shit can, and climbing gear that we buried into the snow about 5 feet deep for storage. The whole cache scenario helps reduce carry loads and aids in acclimatization. I woke up with a light headache and couldn't shake it the entire day. Took some ibuprofen which helped a little but realized that it would be better to take at night to prevent headache the day after. Luckily the weather improved today and we can see Motorcycle Hill to our back and a huge crevasse and serac layer surrounding us. Just met another climber from Argentina. Slept in the middle of a three person tent and couldn't sleep at all. About an hour after hitting the sack, my tent mate rolled over onto me and kept shaking from the cold. With no extra space in the tent I just laid there like a zombie.
Can't believe that 8 days have passed already! I dreaded the idea of storm days before going on this trip and sitting inside a freezing tent without anything to do, but eventually found them to be quite pleasant! At least yesterday wasn't so bad staying in a warm tent chilling with the company of my ten mates. Armaan is a very sincere and kind friend while James has an amazing sense of humor and a great climbing storyteller. I listened to downloaded audio books and movies. James suggested that my next climb should be to Camp 3 of Everest to get a "taste" of what climbing the big one feels like and see if summiting is in my future. James climbed Everest and a shitload of other mountains. With all the combined experience of my team mates, I felt surrounded by giants.
A high pressure system is working its way in (at least that's what they're saying) and I'm hopeful that we can move upward to the 13500 ft cache sight. The challenge is to get past Windy Corner, famous for extremely high wind, narrow ledges and a steep drop off. I feel so grateful for the guidance that IMG provides and their excellent attendance to food/nutrition throughout the climb. So far all advice provided on the trail has been incredibly helpful.
For now, all we can do is sit and wait for the weather to change. Well, actually, you know me... Walking around camp and getting to know other Denali climbers and exercising was actually my cup of tea. I also volunteered to help the guides out in whatever capacity possible... building snow walls, collecting snow for water, you name it...
Every night at 8:00PM sharp on the mountain, National Park Service at 14000 camp gives a weather forecast over CB radio. Pretty much every guide in every team tunes into these announcements and you can hear the forecasters voice vibrate throughout the entire camp. Our guides made sure every night to tune into the weather forecast but at the same time told us that it is a complete waste of time since Denali weather is totally unpredictable. When the forecast predicted improving weather, the weather seemed to get worse. And when they predicted worse weather, it would get better. Perhaps the NPS forecasters were aware of this too and on some occasions would simply report, "Sorry, today we have no clue about the weather" and the guides would let out an "Awww, come on!" Immediately following the weather forecast every evening was a few trivia questions to keep climbers entertained. Each guide team would have a chance to chime in with their answers and National Park Service would respond with "That's correct" or "Sorry, anyone else out there wanna give it a try?" We all found the trivia and NPS's sense of humor very satisfying as it distracted us from our current circumstances, living in sub zero temperatures and pooping in a can. The most accurate prediction of the weather, however, was the sound of our main guide's footsteps every morning. At around 6:00AM he would unzip his tent, walk around a little bit and then, if it was a "No go" that day, he'd simply crawl back into to his tent and zip up again without saying a word. If I heard him walk closer to our tent then he'd usually say, "Okay guys, breakfast in 10 minutes, it looks good out there today!"
After 4 days of stay at the 11000 camp, we finally made it to the cache sight at 13500 feet. It was a beautiful day with little wind and clear skies. Actually, it got really hot with the sun radiating off of the snow and, most of all, Windy Corner wasn't windy at all!! We did, however, take loaded sleds with us and they kept wanting to swing off the edge of Windy corner and take us with them. It was a battle to keep the sleds from swinging like crazy and maintaining our balance. While waiting for the guides to dig up the cache at 13500 ft, my eyes immediately caught sight of a wandmarking a cache sight directly in front of me that read "Mama's Boys". Holy shit!! That's my group!! Well, not exactly.
The Mama's Boys Story:
About a year prior to climbing Denali, I met a potential Denali partner through Mountain Project on the internet. At 25 years old, he was fit and determined. We contacted each other daily and kept track of gear and exercise through online spreadsheets. We had a lot in common and got along amazingly. He even liked my idea of "Mama's Boys" as our registered team name. In January of 2021 he flew all the way to Portland from New Hampshire for 1 week of training with me on Mt. Rainier. I quickly noticed that he was stronger and more of a mountaineer than I was in every way. The weather on Mt. Rainer that week was horrendous. Rangers closed the gate only hours after we passed the entrance to the park and didn't open it until a week later when we were heading down. Actually, we ran into a few rangers on our way down and it was as if they saw a ghost, "What the heck are you guys doing here?" they asked. "We were here the whole time!" we responded. There was so much snow and whiteout that week making it impossible to ascend higher than Panorama Point. But training we did! From wall building, lots of digging, trail navigation, pulling super heavy packs/sleds, anchor building, avy training, skiing with sleds, and snow fort building. At one point during our training we traversed the parking lot and didn't see a single person around and 3 feet of snow covered absolutely everything. While walking across the parking lot, I noticed an unlocked door swinging in the wind from the corner of my eye. I decided to go check it out and to my surprise it lead to a long underground corridor. The corridor was kept at a warm temperature, thawing out my chilled body. At the end of the corridor was a bathroom that was even warmer!! We staying inside the bathroom for hours, drying our sopping wet clothes under the hand dryer. By the end of the trip, everything, including our sleeping bags, was soaked inside out. There were no views of Rainer or the surrounding mountains, just plain whiteout the whole week through. We were the only ones on the entire mountain. The weather started to improve on our way back home so I invited Mike to climb Mt Hood together. He was totally down for it and we had a beautiful climb to the summit of Mt. Hood and down. But I didn't hear from him after he returned to New Hampshire and I had a hunch that he was backing out. Shortly afterward I received an apologetic letter from him saying that he is not sure about going. In short, he backed out with only a few months to spare before our Denali departure date.
Shortly afterwards, I came across a Russian team on facebook looking for a 3rd member. I immediately jumped on board desperate to keep my Denali dreams alive. After training with them, however, I realized that you cannot climb Denali with just anyone. The training in Snoqualmie Pass itself went nicely, we drank vodka that evening and joked until late. However, we later argued about safety and other basic issues. It was extremely difficult to decline their invitation after that since I really wanted to ascend Denali by hook or crook. I also didn't want to mislead them into thinking I'd be climbing with them. So my idea was to give them my registered date and name "Mama's Boys" and wish them good riddance while I backed out of the group. This worked out well and they thanked me for eliminating the red tape. To be honest, I was surprised to see that they did not change the group name, nor ask me where the hell I got it from. The name Mama's Boy's was my way of honoring our mommies for raising such crazy but determined kids. Shortly before backing out of the group I contacted International Mountain Guides to see if anyone cancelled since all their climbs were booked. I immediately received a response from our guide, one of the guides, who told me there were 2 last minute cancellations. I immediately jumped on board and paid in full. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, knowing that I would be in good hands. At that point saving money was not a priority. I simply wanted to be as safe as I could be on Denali... safety was my first priority and summiting was second.
So we cached at 13500 feet and then went back down to 11000 camp for the evening. I was grateful that our main guide let me lead the team back down because it allowed me to experience the scenery first hand, without anyone in front of me. So far, I was the only one given the opportunity.
Climbing up and down the big mountain feels like meditating. The rhythmical sound of snow crunching below my feet, breathing in one step and out another, and the sound of the ice axe as its sharp metal tip enters and exits the snow, all put me in a trance. So when suddenly a climber came up seemingly out of nowhere and asked, "are you Gary?" my trance came to a screeching halt and I looked up in shock, "Yes, that's me." The voice continued, "I was your guide last year on the Grand Teton!" How in heaven's name could he have recognized me with ski goggles, face mask, and every inch of my skin covered? There was no way he could have recognized my voice since nobody on my team, including me, said a word for hours. But there was no doubt, he was Jason, the guide to took Pat and I to the summit of Grand Teton last year! On Denali he was a guide for Alaskan Mountaineering School and on the Tetons, for Exxum Mountain Guides. His group was a bit faster and stronger than ours but the weather slowed him down a bit and we eventually summitted around the same time.
Today we ascended a total of 2500 ft and descended 2500 ft.
We woke at 6:00am for our ascent to 14000 camp. It was another amazing weather day and so off we went with fully packed sleds and gear. Today, however, Windy Corner was very windy and my sled (and the one in front of me) kept trying to pull me down into an abyss 2000+ feet as it swung sideways like a pendulum. 14000 camp was also very windy and extremely cold. Setting up camp in these conditions was a real challenge and took what seemed like forever. Setup took hours and sapped our remaining energy after a 3000ft climb with full sleds and packs. Splitting up responsibilities among team members alleviated the burden to some extent. After camp was set up we collapsed into our sleeping bags and slept well.
We woke up at 8:00AM to build snow walls around our 5 tents. Walls had to be about 5 feet high by 40 feet long. I was given the responsibility of making snow blocks by using a snow saw and stacking blocks. I loved carrying out this role and any other because it help keep me warm up and enhanced blood circulation. The more responsibilities the better. My job was to saw out 1' x 2' blocks from a snow
quarry. Other climbers came up to the quarry and hauled off the snow blocks via sleds to the wall where our main guide and other guides carved it to perfection. Later that day we went back to the cache sight at 13500 ft to retrieve our gear. After we returned to 14000 camp it was back to building more walls, which took hours and we were all exhausted. But again, we each had a specific role to play and it helped get the job done much faster.
Woke up today with three more feet of snow and everything in the tent vestibule was completely buried. I had to dig my boots, backpack and everything else out of the snow. It snowed all day with high winds. Couldn't go anywhere or do anything, just stuck in my sleeping bag crammed into the side of the tent. Occasionally we had to go out to fix falling snow walls. We also practiced fixed line climbing to prepare for the headwall climb from 14000 camp to 16000 foot ridge. Not able to sit still for long, I decided to build a snow fort and lay down inside it for a while. The fort gave me reprieve from the howling winds and blinding snow. Our main guide didn't like the idea of me sleeping inside it, so I just used it for resting. He thought that if my clothing gets wet, my expedition would come to a halt. I half agreed with his point despite the fact that the inside of our tent in the morning is probably more damp than a snow cave. Despite the shitty weather everyone seemed to be in good spirits. With all the snow, however, there will be tons of avalanche danger higher up in the mountain, so it is likely we will spend a third night here at 14000 camp. Who said climbing Denali was easy?
A book with the title, Denali's Howl describes the plight of 12 men in 1967 who attempted to climb Denali. After reading this book and being intimidated by the story, never did I realize that Denali actually "howls!" At first I thought it was a plane or helicopter flying above. Then I started to think it sounded more like a train - the closest one would be at least 60 miles away. Through the process of elimination, I finally realized that it was the sound of extremely forceful and constant wind higher up in the mountain.
The weather today was much more mild but the snowpack was very loose due to yesterday's heavy snow. Nobody in our 60+ person 14000 camp dared to climb the headwall in such conditions. Hopefully we will be able to ascend tomorrow when the snow settles and bury our cache at 16000 feet and then return to 14000 camp. They are predicting another wave of nasty weather and winds up to 60 MPH. Only tomorrow can tell what the weather will bring.
We waited another day at 14000 camp hoping for a break in the weather. Today was windy and snowy all day. It was so cold that I had to walk around camp a few times to feel my toes again. Several other teams including two IMG groups who arrived after us already bailed out due to unforgiving and unpromising weather. Our team remains strong and upbeat. I really want to summit but also want to return home to see So Young and Angelica really bad.
The weather today looked very promising so we departed camp at 9:30 and then headed up the headwall and across the ridge to our cache sight at 16500ft. I had a slight headache in the morning but decided not to take Advil this time. At first I thought it was a stupid idea to skip the Advil (which usually helps tame my altitude related headaches) but as I
ascended it slowly went away. Usually if I am in higher altitude and wake up with a headache, it only gets worse the higher I go. But not this time!! I felt amazing today overall and just so happy to move after being crammed in at 14000 camp. After arriving at the 16500 cache sight I proceeded to help our main guide dig the cache hole. Afterwards I felt the urge to do pushups and burpies to let off a little excess steam and show off a bit, he, he. I must have looked like a dipshit with my crampons and gear strapped to my body doing exercises in the snow. Our main guide kept calling me an "animal" and wondered where I got all my energy.
Unfortunately, today marked the day when two of our team members turned around due to the effects of altitude. One showed signs of illness early on in the trip while the other experienced symptoms from today.
The weather was beautiful today, not too hot or cold. There was a lenticular cloud surrounding the summit that actually formed a rainbow at its outer edges. The scenery on Denali above 14000 camp is breathtaking. Huge cliffs and ridges hover over us like giants.
Back at 14000 camp today we're waiting for another breakthrough in the weather. Our main guide was afraid that today would be more of the same with bad weather stopping us from ascent. He was still hopeful that we would continue to climb once weather improved and planned for 2 guides to prepare camp at 17000 camp. He was hesitant, however, to separate guides from their clients and I immediately saw this as an opportunity and asked if I could go.
A Note About 17000 Camp:
17000 Camp is the highest camp on our route and it is exposed to extreme wind and cold with no protection from jet stream. Climbers who spend more than a few days there reduce the chances of summiting because of fatigue, lack of sleep, and the potential for dangerous weather scenarios. It is common to get stuck at this camp and be forced to wait for weather to improve before going up or down. I was completely aware of this at the time of my request to ascend to 17000 camp but waiting and waiting at 14000 camp with sick team mates didn't seem like a better option. I just wanted out of there and also desired to be closer to the summit. I also felt secure in the hands of two competent guides.
Returning from his morning guide meeting our main guide smiled at me and said, "No worries, Gary. We were able to get two guides to ascend to 17000 camp. You don't have to go." My heart started to race as I immediately responded, "Can I go anyway? I don't want to be a burden but would do my best to help prepare camp for everyone!" Our main guide responded, "A burden?!? You have been nothing but an asset to our team. If you want to go, of course it would be okay and greatly appreciated. but just let me warn you that the longer you spend up there the less your chances of summiting, and I really want you to be able to summit." Even before he finished talking, I already decided and was mentally ready to go. We planned to leave directly after lunch. I quickly packed my bags and was ready to go soon afterwards. The feeling of excitement and adventure was flowing through my veins.
This decision turned out to be the pivot point of the expedition. If I had not left that day with the two guides to 17000 camp, a Denali summit would have been impossible.
The climb up to 17000 camp was amazing since the weather held up and we had the chance to see how beautiful the terrain below us was while ascending Kahiltna Pass (the ridge that leads to 17000 camp). But when we arrived at 17000 camp at 10:00PM, it became bitterly cold and windy. So instead of setting up camp for the next group, we decided to simply prepare our own tent platform and pitch
a single tent. The three of us (two guides and I) slept scrunched together that evening and I started to feel the effects of claustrophobia or altitude (not sure) hyperventilating on an off throughout the night. These episodes didn't last very long but were a bit scary. All of the guides and most of the clients have already started on a regime of Diamox - a diuretic commonly used to alleviate acute mountain sickness symptoms. Personally, I hate taking any
type of drug and avoid it like the plague. I would consider taking a tiny piece of pill if symptoms persisted. The guides swear by the effects of this medicine, but I think it is a reflection of the whole pharmaceutical epidemic that humanity is currently facing. The idea that popping pills will take away the issue. Sure there's likely a place for Diamox, but I don't believe it should be so readily accepted since it is a diuretic and dehydration is a huge issue up at this altitude.
That night the 3 of us slept with at least 5 layers of upper and lower body clothing, including our biggest defense against the cold - expedition puffy jackets! These jackets make us look like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Not to mention that our sleeping bags were rated for -40 degrees. With so many thick plushy layers, we literally blended together into one big puffball inside the tent. At 17000 ft on Denali everything freezes within seconds. The tent filled with snow from the condensation of our breath. Snow gets inside everything, including sleeping bags and the bottom of the tent was full of ice. Now that we are on the topic of inconveniences.... Getting out of the tent itself is a chore since you have to climb over your tent mates. Hence we have a pee bottle in our sleeping bag to take care of business without shaking the boat. Getting on my boots in the morning takes about 15 minutes because the zippers are usually frozen solid and snow somehow works its way inside them overnight. Everything needs to be tucked into the sleeping bag at night to avoid freezing, this includes water bottles, gloves, battery pack, phone, and other electronics. I found that placing wet items like sweaty gloves and socks between layers of clothing helps them dry by morning due to radiated body heat. Although other climbers did not find it tempting, I actually slept with my inner boots on. This kept my toes warm and eliminated half of the time to get on my outer boots in the morning. My socks also tend to dry automatically if I sleep wearing my inner boots. The only issue is that my feet cannot breath well and although this method works adequately, it cannot be done every night.
We woke up the next morning to complete whiteout conditions and -20 degree winds. It was so cold that getting to work building snow walls and cutting platforms for tents right away was the only way to keep warm. I was the first one out of the tent since if I didn't get the hell out of there quickly, I would have gone completely berserk. I scouted around the 17000 camp and reported to the guides where we could salvage a "bathroom", tent site, and quarry to build blocks.
I felt proud of myself for leaving the tent first and scouting the area for bathroom and tent sites and thought the guides would appreciate my efforts. After reporting where I found the bathroom site, however, one of the guides asked if it was the area to the left of the our tent. I answered, “yes, how did you know?” He responded that we’d have to find somewhere else because he saw someone take a huge crap in that spot without using a shit can. Believing this was still the best (and only) spot out there I responded by saying that “the shit he took is probably frozen solid by now and under at least a few inches of snow.” I’m not sure what he thought about this response but our bathroom stayed where I found it for the remainder of our time at 17000 camp.
I also found a quarry to dig snow blocks directly adjacent to the bathroom. The same guide who questioned my bathroom finding skills also didn’t particularly like the idea of carving blocks right next to a pee hole. But apparently, he did not disagree with this idea since digging a quarry anywhere else would have been torture because everything around us was solid ice. So, in short, my suggested places for bathroom and quarry were disgusting but practical.
We got to work immediately after eating breakfast in the tent. Breakfast consisted of boiling hot water in the vestibule and pouring it into a cup of oatmeal. I felt particularly lethargic that morning due to lack of sleep and altitude. I had to rest more often than down below and at one point experienced one of those weird optical migraines that messes with my vision momentarily. Surprisingly, I did not get a headache despite discontinuing Advil for at least two days. So, in short, I was doing really well considering how crazy things can get at 17000 camp.
I was advised by the guides to take Diamox from 11000 camp in order to avoid symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness. Not wanting to experience side effects, I held off until last night and took less than a quarter of a 125mg pill last night after experiencing shortness of breath. Can’t say that it helped much even though I did go back to sleep shortly afterwards. Anyway, this was the only time I tried Diamox during the entire trip due to fear of dehydration and skepticism of drugs in general. Also, my altitude-related symptoms quickly abided the following day and felt practically normal for the entire rest of the expedition.
That day I was given the task of cutting snow blocks and had to rest a bit more than the guides, but otherwise continued to adapt to the elevation nicely. The wind was howling and visibility was only 10 feet or so. We heard on the radio that team 3 (Peter’s team) was approaching and I thought it was crazy that they would attempt to climb the ridge in this weather. I was also very disappointed to hear that my team (team 1) turned around right before the fixed lines as Peter’s team passing them by. One of my teammates explained to me later that weather and the fact that another teammate was having difficulty kicking his crampons into the solid blue ice of the headwall (and sliding all over the place) were factors that contributed. He told me that our calm, composed, and competent main guide burst out, “This is starting to be a shit show!” referring to his client’s lack of climbing ability. Wow! He must have gotten very mad to resort to saying that! By this point in the expedition there were only two of my teammates (not including me) remaining. The other two teammates were sick and stuck at 14000 camp waiting to go down. Two others had to turn around today and here I was at 17000 camp. Man! Our group is all over the place! I'm sure this didn't settle very well with our main guide.
When team two arrived at 17000 camp we had walls, tents, and a bathroom (with a hidden frozen poop underneath) all ready for them. Peter expressed his deep appreciation to us for setting up camp at breakfast the following day. They arrived in the evening after an extremely arduous climb. We all slept shortly afterwards.
We woke to blue skies and hardly any wind despite an ominous forecast. What an amazing gift! “The weather window is open and we’re going to summit!” I thought to myself. Before breakfast that day our main guide radioed in a request that I join Peter’s team for a summit bid. I felt physically and mentally amazing that day except for the fact that my toes and fingers were so cold that I could hardly feel them. “Why now?!?” I thought to myself. Somehow my -40 degree sleeping back and 5 layers of clothing wasn’t enough to keep my extremities warm last night. I was so worried about getting frostbite that I mentioned the situation to Peter and the other guides. They said that I should monitor the situation carefully as I climb to see if things get better or worse. I started to feel my toes and fingers again after Denali Pass (above the Autobahn @ appx. 18000 ft) after exerting myself and finally entering an area with direct sunlight and mild wind. As I ascended further, my condition improved and I felt absolutely amazing, taking in the scenery with my guide Peter and I leading the way for others. Peter is a kind and strong leader and excellent teacher. He commented several times that I was strong and persistent and would make a great guide with IMG. I appreciated this but laughed, saying “No thanks! Not after I saw all the work you guys do!”
While climbing the Autobahn, directly above 17000 camp, we were stuck behind a group of Russian climbers (from Seattle) that were struggling profusely to make it up the mountain. This made me feel good about my decision not to climb with the Russians. They looked so hopeless, struggling with the ropes and taking way too much time to ascend. Our guide shuffled up right behind the last person of the Russian team as if to say, “Move the
heck over!” There was no response what-so-ever as the Russian team just kept stopping every 10 feet for 10+ minutes. Our guide became so impatient with them that he finally decided to break his own trail and bypass the running belay anchors despite how steep and deeply entrenched the terrain was below us.
We all managed to get to the Football Field (19400 ft) – a section where terrain flattens out before the final push to the summit without issue. By this point we were all somewhat tired and intimidated by the fact that there remained another huge hump (900 feet or so) remaining. Along the route I saw the Mama’s Boys again and other Russian climbers from Seattle. These guys were all over the mountain!! I have to admit that I was disappointed not to see any Korean climbers since I always enjoy meeting and talking with my brothers/sisters from afar. I did run into a single Japanese climber along the ridge between the headwall and 17000 camp. We spoke for a little while in Japanese. I was shocked to see him climb alone and wondered if he was just a very advanced climber, crazy, or both.
The summit weather was calm and sunny – an almost miraculous occurrence considering what Denali is capable of throwing at us. I was brought to tears with how stunning the views and weather were that day. Filled with excitement and joy, I decided to do 20 or so pushups and jumping jacks on the summit while others stared at me probably thinking, “who the heck is this wierdo.” Somehow mountains have a way of filling me with a tremendous amount of energy.
After descending back down to 17000 camp 12 hours later (@ 11:00PM), the guides asked me if I wanted to go back up again and set a record. I was feeling really good at that point and had enough in me to go back up with my team when they arrived. But deep inside, I just wanted to return to my family and besides, my thumb was really infected and inflamed at that point, making it almost impossible to clip and unclip the rope from the 30+ running belays along the Autobahn.
I was pleasantly surprised to see our main guide’s (Team 1) Team at the 17000 camp upon our arrival. They were already asleep and all geared up for a summit push the day after. They finally arrived after having to turn around at the headwall!
I burst out of the tent first thing in the morning before anyone else in order to see my team off. It was a warm-hearted reunion and we were all smiles. I gave our main guide a huge hug as soon as I saw him and thanked him for the opportunity to summit yesterday. I then proceeded to crawl into Armaan’s and James’s tent. We were all really happy to see each other. I was then bombarded with questions about the summit, “How difficult was it?” “Is there anything we should know?” “What layers did you wear?” etc etc. I can tell James was a bit nervous about going up but he and Armaan were in good spirits and excited to finally get the chance to move onward.
I was seriously thinking about the possibility of ascending with them for a second summit bid but the better half of me was convinced that enough was enough. My thumb was still extremely swollen and civilization sounded unusually appealing. Otherwise I felt energized and great and physically had it in me to summit again. As a last-ditch attempt for a final decision, I borrowed a sewing needle from one of the guides, sterilized it, and poked a hole through my thumb. The first time I inserted the needle nothing came out, but suddenly, after the second poke several ounces of white puss came out and the swelling reduced. While this gave me some relief, my thumb was still stiff and very difficult to bend – not enough to warrant a second summit climb despite encouragement from the guides. Hence I made the decision to head down with Peter’s Team.
Before heading down, Peter asked his team members if they wanted to take the fast track or the slow track down the mountain. The fast method entailed a 12 hour push through the night from 17000 camp to the airstrip at 7000 ft. This would help avoid getting stuck at base camp waiting for a break in the weather. Talkeetna Air Taxi needs almost perfect weather to land their planes on the glacier because they do not use instruments, just a visual location of runway. Of course we chose the fast descent option since getting back to running water and toilets sounded like a dream. Even though I was the first to agree with this approach, I later realized that is was absolute torture and the hardest part of the climb.
Well actually, getting down to 14000 camp was the easy part since the weather was calm and we didn’t have to take sleds. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about Armaan and James, wondering how they were doing up there towards the summit. I hoped for good weather up there. We received a radio message from 14000 camp that Jack and Greg wanted to be picked up on our way down from the mountain along with other climbers who did not make it. Our team kept getting bigger and bigger picking up hitch hikers as we descended the mountain.
Shortly afterward, we received word that my team turned around just 800 feet shy of the summit. Armaan told me later that James was showing signs of HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) at the Football Field (19500 ft). He was so confused and disoriented that he didn’t even know where he was! I’m not sure what perspired afterwards, but apparently, he was able to descend without issue and recover soon afterwards. I was somewhat surprised to hear that James had suffered up there since, out of all of the climbers, I thought he was most capable having more climbing experience, including two Everest climbs. Yet the effects of altitude aren’t always predictable and sometimes hit when we least expect them to. Again, I’d like to emphasize, however, that this was Armaan’s account of what occurred below the summit. Perhaps I’ll never know the actual details. Armaanj and I spoke in Talkeetna after the climb and he was visually disappointed about not being able to summit. Maybe Armaanj thought it was possible to continue? Apparently if one climber shows signs of distress on the mountain, two guides are responsible for escorting them back down. That would have left Armaan without any guides and put an end to his summit chances.
It made me feel both sad for my team mates and proud of myself that I was the only one on the team who made it to the summit of Denali. I’m so grateful to Peter and his team for adopting me and providing the opportunity to summit. Everyone, except for 1 member of Peter’s team, summited that day.
Upon arrival at 14000 camp, we were greeted with fresh quesadillas – as many as we could eat – and were congratulated by everyone in camp. I packed down a total of 8 quesadillas as my stomach kept saying, “More, MORE!!” After an hour’s rest, we loaded sleds and proceeded to 11000 camp. This stretch was the most difficult part of the climb for me. Total weight was about 120 lbs and guides gave me more to carry knowing that I am capable of hauling heavier loads. We must have been quite a spectacle, looking like something our main guide would have definitely called a “shit-show.” Our sleds were so heavy that rather than following behind us, they swung like a pendulum besides and in front of us as we struggled by Windy Corner. Swinging sleds wouldn’t be much of an issue if it weren’t for Windy Corner, Squirrel Hill, and Motorcycle Hill – steep sections that loss of balance could lead to serious consequences. As we descended Squirrel and Motorcycle Hills, the sleds wanted to ram right into the calves of the person in front of us. Most of our effort was focused on pulling the sleds back up the hill, making it difficult to stay balanced and focused on the steep terrain. I tried unsuccessfully to keep the sled from slamming into the person climbing in front of me, which caused him to trip and fall despite giving it my best. At one point, he stopped in his tracks and started to curse like mad. “Fuck this shit!” “I’m done with this!!” he muttered. He even kicked his sled and duffel bag as hard as he could with crampons on! We were all really upset about how sloppy and awkward this section felt. The guide climbing behind me on the rope also let my sled slide too far forward at times, knocking me off balance as I said repeatedly, “Please pull back, thank you!” in a strong and desperate tone – or was it more like a yell? I was being impatient and erratic. Embarrassed by all of our cursing and complaining, nobody looked at each other in the eyes at the next break and all was silent.
At one point, directly above Motorcycle Hill, we crossed a snow bridge above a crevasse. Nobody seemed to mind the deep holes as our train of heavy packs and sleds chugged across the snow. My foot, however, found its way into the hole and I fell in. Thankfully, I was only knee deep before a quick pull upward and I was outta there. Phew!!
When we arrived at 11000 camp it was time for a few-hour snooze. Since we arrived at midnight and had to get moving again at 3:00AM, there wasn’t enough time for building tents, walls, and platforms. Instead Peter told us to get out our sleeping pads and sleep in the snow! This would have been a wonderful experience if we had stars to view at night. Instead, it was snowing and within minutes our sleeping bags turned white! We were able to find a platform, kitchen hole, and bathroom hole dug out from climbers that moved onward. This saved at least at hour of work for the guides. Peter’s team of guides was so kind, bringing us warm water and dinner (sweet and sour chicken and rice) directly to our sleeping bags! It felt so warm and cozy in my sleeping bag despite the fact that I could see the snow falling all around me. Everyone else seemed to be pretty warm and cozy too since I heard snoring from every direction that night. I couldn’t help but giggle seeing everyone around me unknowingly covered in white snow snoring away. For two hours, I half slept and half marveled at the situation.
At 11000 camp I was finally able to dig up my own hard rigged sled and use it for the remainder of the descent to the air strip. I didn’t realize at the time that my sled, which worked wonders going up to 11000 camp, would give me a hard time going down. After 1000 feet, one of my sled poles broke loose. We were all making excellent and steady progress down the mountain and I wasn’t about to change that. It was my sled, however, that had the final word. The loose pole rammed right into a snow bank, flipped my sled, and stopped me in my tracks. Of course that meant the person in front of me was pulled back too. At that point, I had no choice but to yell “STOP!” and the entire train of sleds and tired humans in front of me came to a screeching halt. I was quite embarrassed since everyone knew I was the only one with a hard-rigged sled. In hindsight, I realize that using an elbow to connect the two sections of pole was a big mistake since the screws loosen with major temperature fluctuation on Denali. But anyway, I had the tools to fix it and in 2 minutes we were back on track. Shortly afterwards this happened again, and then one of the rings that attach to my back pack broke loose! Everything was coming apart at the seams! Each time something went wrong I did my best not to make a scene and dealt with it temporarily by holding the pole in my hand or purposely walking off trail so the split pole didn’t bang into an embankment. Either way, it was extremely awkward, but nothing would have compared to the looks on the others' faces if I kept telling them to stop.
I just couldn't be the one to stop that train! As we continued to descend, I kept getting yanked forward by the rope from my harness and banged around by the sled in front of me. I kept asking myself, "how much longer of this can I take?!?" I wanted to scream out, "Give me a minute." But nobody on our team dared to do to this since we all didn't want to shake the boat and wanted to get our butts to the air strip as soon as possible - it was still about 11 miles away.
I decided to stare at the rope directly in front of me and not what was ahead for fear that the scenery wouldn't change and I'd feel like I hadn't gone anywhere. I tried this for hours at a time only to look up and see that I was practically in the same place I was hours prior. It seemed to take forever to get from point A to B. I was tired, my swollen thumb was throbbing, and I wasn't sure how much more my body could take of hauling 100+ pounds across Denali in turbo mode. That day we descended about 14000 feet and 12 miles to get to the airstrip. I can honestly say this was the hardest part of the entire trip since we kept going and going at a fast pace, constantly being banged around by our sleds and ropes.
Luckily however, the weather was fantastic with clear skies and a gently breeze all the way down from 11000 camp. The scenery around us was breathtaking as we were surrounded by snow-capped mountains on both sides making our way down the Kahiltna glacier corridor. How lovely it would be if the Kahiltna was completely flat and we could just sail right into the airstrip!! Directly before the airstrip is Heart Break Hill - an 800 ft climb right before the airstrip which can devastate climbers. Exhausted as we already were, this hill seemed to last forever! One of my team mates collapsed several times, his heart and body completely broken.
When we finally arrived at the airstrip, most of us were dying to get back to Talkeetna to take our first shower in 22 days and collapse on a real bed. Occasionally climbers have to wait up to 7 days at the airstrip for weather to improve before being able to take off. There were only a few clouds in the sky that day and it looked very promising that we would be able to take off. We were told from the airstrip manager, however, that it would be another five hours before a plane would arrive.
A plane arrived only 15 minutes afterwards and had only one seat remaining. Peter immediately pointed to me and asked if I would like to take it. We pulled straws a few minutes prior to see who would be flying off on the first plane arriving in five hours. I was shocked by this sudden change of plans. I'm not sure what motivated Peter to ask me considering there were 15 other people in our group by then who would kill to get off the glacier. Well, long story short, I immediately complied and thanked him profusely and offered to give him my spot. Peter declined saying that he'd rather stay with the group. And before I knew it.... take off!!
The return to Talkeetna was surreal. We were suddenly surrounded by green, birds, and the smell of flowers. What a contract from the freezing all white scenery that was our home for the last 22 days. Talkeetna seemed to transform overnight and was now a bustling little town full of people in full bloom.
A Little About Talkeetna...
Talkeetna sits at the mouth of Denali National Park and attracts summertime visitors from all over the place. It is a town of 1,237 people, mostly living off grid in makeshift trailers and cabins. There is no police force here, which residents seem to be acutely aware of allowing their young children to ride motorcycles through town and starting bar fights at night that usually result in one or more people being thrown out of a window. Talkeetna during the day in summer is full of smiling faces, awesome pizza, tacos, Chinese food, preachers screaming God this God that in the park, and live music. I made a few friends while there, easily falling in love with their proud, haughty, bad-ass, pioneer-like, cheerful, funny, and lawless behavior.
**Please note that names have been changed to protect the identity of my teammates.