Summit Day on Denali
Posted by Joseph Anderson
“We have gathered you all up to give you an option.” My co-worker Seth announced to the group. It was a balmy 10 degrees F and our six climbers were assembled in their oversized down in our windswept snowy camp in the sky. “There is a major storm due to arrive the day after tomorrow” he continued. Everyone knew what this meant for attempting the summit on Denali.
The regular schedule after arriving at high camp is to take one full day off. This time allows for increased oxygenation in your blood stream thus making it more likely that you will physically make it to the summit. But, if we took that extra day it was now clear to everyone we would not make it…storms of this nature don’t allow for summits. Actually, once that storm came in nobody on the mountain summited for another two full weeks that season.
The choice was made.
Fast forward 15 hours a quick snooze on the bright side of twilight and a non eventful uphill hike under blue bird skies. Finally there I was on the summit ridge with my three successful clients: two thin and fit women who perhaps weighed 230 Ibs between them and the fire fighter from Seattle likely weighing over 230 lbs on his own.
All was well.
Certainly it was well because we were just about on top of the mountain but it was also well because we were moving fast enough. By fast enough, I mean that we were moving quickly enough to get to the top of this darn mountain and get back to camp before those deep dark clouds obscuring the mountains to the south would blow us clean off the mountain.
On our way down the initial 500 foot descent from the summit the first warning winds kissed our skin reminding us not to linger. But it was here when our fire fighter stopped.
“Ed? What’s going on? We’ve gotta go.” I reminded.
He answered in a frail tone “I just… I just need a break.”
No movement. “Come on Ed. Time’s up. The storm is on us!” and yes I’m yelling now. Winds are picking up. I walk over to him and make him eat another energy gel. “We’ve gotta go Ed!” I give him a consoling nudge on the shoulder. “Come on Ed - let’s go!”
“I, I, I can’t…just need to lay down.” He mumbles.
I throw his arm around my shoulder and start pulling. He’s walking but feebly across a large flat section that goes for about a quarter of a kilometer. This section is called the football field and it completely kicked my ass. “No way,” I thought to myself, “there’s no way in hell I’m going to carry this 230+Ib slab of fire fighting meat down this mountain and live to tell about it.”
“There….there…..there’s a tent somewhere around here.” He was mumbling again. “Just let me stay there. I, I can’t...” He continues but there is no tent and if there was it wouldn’t matter because this kind of storm, the storm coming in quickly, does not leave tents standing.
We’re at the other end of the football field and he’s now on the ground. “Shit!” I concede aloud. My thin fit female duo are standing there with a look that says now what do we…? The wind is only picking up and stinging….through my mask, visibility is leaving quickly.
“Shit!” I yell again.
I know that any one of these gusts here at close to 20,000 feet on “The Great One” can be the last, not of the storm, but our last. Then I remember something. These two gals with me are top shelf and are as fit as thoroughbreds. It wasn’t only because I had spent the last two weeks with these fantastic ladies working our way up the mountain. It was a full two and a half weeks ago during our first meal together in Anchorage when I realized that they were keepers. That’s right, it was during the first ice breaker dinner that all guides use or should use to size up their clients. “Who the hell am I taking up there?” Is what you should be thinking from the moment you meet them until the moment you get them safely back down.
So it was during this precious first meal that these two thunderous personalities made a positive impression on me. They were sharp, smart, witty, but perhaps more importantly they were friendly the real type of friendly, the type that lets you know they aren’t afraid of people, life or obstacles’, they’ll give you the shirt off their back if you asked for it, even if you don’t deserve it. But it wasn’t just that that let me know they were worthy. They ate. Any 115 Ib human that ate as well as they did is definitely running a V12 engine no matter how small the frame. Of course from that point on there was the whole climb up the mountain to assess them. The extra effort to help build walls, tend to camp, good laughs, stories shared, and the continued dedication to staying positive, to remaining a bright light when things got hard, windy, cold….And here were my lights, my bright shining lights at the onset of death.
“Dominika!” I yelled. She was with me. “I need you to be ahead and stay on route. Keep an eye on the wands placed every 50 yards or so. I could count on her I knew I could. “Elsie! I need you to be the one to keep an eye on us.” She too was with me. “ED LETS GO!” I yelled louder now to the heap of a man piled on the ground. “GET UP ED!” I pulled, I pushed, finally I punched. “GET THE FUCK UP ED!” I punched harder and he started to move.
Standing, he was on his feet and we were walking. We would make it several hundred yards, but then Ed would collapse again. I yelled I, prodded, I swung my fists into his shoulders, he finally got up we moved on. It continued like this for well over an hour…or perhaps two hours with the wind challenging our balance. Like my fists the gusts stung and we kept making progress. Ed could help a little here and there but mostly I looked forward to when it was steep, so I could lower him and he would slide.
“That’s far enough.” Dominika would yell when more could mean disaster. She was a hoot, a judge from Switzerland. I remembered one evening during dinner she was all over herself carrying on and laughing in her thick Swiss accident. “Ha ha ha, it’s the most guilty ones. They’re just so guilty, when they leave the court room we all just start laughing...” she continued to laugh “ha ha ha.”
From the beginning Ed was the assumed quiet nice guy. He would sit in camp appearing perfectly content. He would sit there at night and eat his dinner without a word. “Nothing to complain about,” is what I guessed he was thinking.
Only 4 days ago we were picking up a cache at 13,000 feet, a stockpile of food and supplies that we had dropped off 5 days prior to us picking it up. This is the typical technique to climb this mountain. You shuttle loads higher on the mountain, bury it in the snow and mark it. The next day you climb higher, next day rest and then the next descend to retrieve it. It’s a perfect system for climbing Denali. It keeps people working, acclimating and preparing for the taxing summit push. So it was here while retrieving our 13,000 foot cache that it happened.
“You guys are giving me so much more stuff because I’m a blue collar guy.” Suddenly the silence was broken. Not the group’s silence, the group was never silent; It was fluid and happy. But not now. Ed’s internal struggle had just spilled out like red blood all over the white snow.
Seth and I looked at each other. “They’re all the same.” I assured the giant fireman.
He wasn’t anything new. What you learn when guiding Denali or any of these big famous summits around the world is that there is usually at least one member with a screw or even a bolt just a tad loose. Put them in a small group and expect them to be an outgoing effective member of an ambitious goal? Inevitably, most naturally and most effectively you end up jiggling that screw till it completely loosens and disassembles into pieces.
Ed certainly had company from previous trips. There was Bob from Anacortes. Bob tried climbing Denali a total of 8 times every time to turn around due to an impending internal fear of what’s above. Then there was Wes from Bellingham who everyone wanted so badly to like, because Wes had AIDS and Wes had lost 150 Ibs in the last year leading up to his climb, and he biked all the way from Bellingham to Alaska, and his trip was entirely paid for by Diabetes funds because he was climbing the mountain for his daughter but the big problem was that Wes was 100% certified, batshit crazy. Like the kind of crazy that scares people and drives the friendliest most easy going group members insane.
But in the end the wing nuts make up only a small very loud percentage of the groups on the mountain. What I have learned on this great mountain is that it brings up to the surface what people are made of. This said, I have found more people like my two hard charging gals that weighed 230 lb between them then the 230 Ib firefighters that blame all of their fears and problems on their fellow neighbors.
I remember two hard working brothers from Massachusetts who on one particularly cold and windy trip would never stop working on building walls and keeping things moving so long as the guides were. I remember two gents from Ireland and England who brought an uncommon level of humour into the arduous journey, adding almost unbroken belly laughs to even the coldest most laborious moments. Then there was my friend Toni who for years had been flying me onto the mountain as a pilot for K2 Aviation. Finally he joined up on a trip and was the first one up every morning and was a friend to warm my spirit while I fired up frozen stoves and put coffee up.
Now over 2,000 feet lower the wind was less fierce and kept to a steady rhythm. We had arrived at Denali Pass. This marked the last quarter mile from camp. Finally Ed started coming back around and running on his own engines. We moved slowly and quietly. I looked up glimpsing the erie whiteness of the mountains and it was here that emotions came like a flood. I didn’t see it coming either it just billowed out. My group members couldn’t hear me, it was just me, the Alaskan light and the spectacularly frigid heavens swirling around me.
Today, I thought to myself, we got the job done.