Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thinking about Denali?

In 2003, Jay Meyer summited Denali with an AAI expedition, and recently published an amazing website: "An Expedition to the Top of North America." In his website, he describes all aspects of the trip, including planning and preparation, a full description of the West Buttress Route, and how it feels to summit the highest peak in North America. The following story includes excerpts and photos from his expedition. If you would like to read the full version, click here.

"I first considered climbing Mount McKinley [Denali] in the early 1990s, when I became increasingly interested in winter mountaineering. With M
cKinley in the back of my mind, I climbed a series of progressively higher and more difficult peaks to improve and assess my skills. For me it was clear that a guided expedition would be the safest and most realistic way to attempt the summit. Although I had not climbed with the American Alpine Institute before, I researched the available services (six have National Park Service concessions) and chose AAI based upon its well deserved reputation for skilled, enthusiastic guides and a collaborative instructional philosophy.

My trip began in earnest when I left Portland, Maine for Anchorage, where I met AAI's guides and the rest of the team. Our guides were John Kear, Julia Niles and Seth Hobby, each exceptionally fit and skilled after years of guiding and climbing in the Cascades, Rockies, Andes, Himalaya and Alps. The team included a physician, two lawyers, an engineer, an architect, an air traffic controller and two graduate students. Two of the clients were Canadian, two British and the rest American. Although diverse, we proved to be very compatible and cohesive.

After meeting with the Rangers we returned to the airport, where we loaded into two ski planes. Although carefully weighed and organized, our gear was bulky so the boarding process was more like a mosh pit than a major airline!

Our camp procedures were fairly uniform throughout the trip, except at high camp where we spent nearly all of our time in sleeping bags sheltering from the cold and wind. In the lower camps we ate and socialized in a large kitchen tent pitched over a snow pit with seating around the perimeter and a central counter for stoves and cookware. In our smaller tents we read, talked, wrote in journals, listened to the radio, slept or just stared at the walls.

The first morning we carried loads to cache at a future campsite. It was cold and, at first, snowing lightly. But soon the snow fell heavier and blew into blizzard. In whiteout conditions the guides used GPS to find our way to the cache site, approximately five miles from base camp. There, in the blowing snow we dug a deep pit and buried our load of food and fuel. The return to base camp was difficult; we lost our way several times on the foggy, crevasse strewn glacier, finally snaking back to base camp almost twelve hours after we began.

The next day we broke camp at 11,000' and moved to 14,200', leaving behind a large cache of waste and items such as snowshoes that would not be needed until we came back down the route. At 14,200', in the basin at the top of the Kahiltna, is perhaps the most important campsite on the West Buttress route. During the climbing season National Park Service Climbing Rangers maintain a constant presence there, with radios and basic medical equipment. We were there at the height of the season, and the camp was crowded with more than a hundred climbers of many nationalities. After arriving we spent hours preparing our tent sites, kitchen and protective snow walls.

After two stormy days the weather cleared, and most of our team prepared for the climb to high camp. The process was slow as each climber clipped onto a rope and ascended in single file up a path of steps kicked into the steep hard face. One member had suffered breathing problems on the headwall, and decided to return to the basin camp with a guide.

Twelve hours after we left the basin camp, we labored over the final knob of the ridge and then down a short slope into high camp at 17,200'. After a short break to catch our breath in the thin cold air, we spent hours building camp walls with blocks of hard sawn snow.

When it became clear that we would be spending more than a couple of days at high camp, a guide descended to our cache at the top of the headwall to retrieve more food and fuel. But our supplies were still limited, and we were swiftly approaching the date when we had to fly off the mountain and return home. In fact, we all considered descending on Wednesday, but remained in the hope that it might clear on Thursday, the last possible day for us to attempt the summit.

I tossed and turned most of the night before our summit attempt. We had plenty to think about, all the good and bad things that might happen the next day. And beyond the next day, I also thought of my wife, family and future in mountaineering.

Early in the morning our guides gave the word and we began to suit up for our climb to the top of North America. As always on this trip, we would travel in roped teams so we put on harnesses with an assortment of carabiners, slings and other technical gear. My hands became stiff from the cold when I strapped crampons onto the overboots that covered my heavy plastic mountaineering boots. We gulped down a quick breakfast and warm drinks, and stowed a few snacks and insulated water bottles in our packs. Then, we roped up and headed out of camp.

I struggled for a comfortable breathing rhythm, finally settling on three or sometimes four breaths per step in a rapid, deep pant. After about two hours, we reached Denali Pass and took a break. Until then we had been climbing in cold shade, but when we reached the pass the sun hit us and its warmth was welcome. A few hours later we walked over a prominence known as Archdeacon's Tower, and down onto a plateau at the base of Pig Hill, the final slope below the summit.

The jagged summit ridge was spectacular, and at our feet McKinley's southwest face dropped away precipitously for thousands of feet. We snaked out along the ridge, clinging to its crest as we crept upward. And then we were at the top - a mound of snow on the edge of an abyss, with the ridge leading downward on either side.

On June 12, 2003, I stood on the summit of Mount McKinley with seven other members of an expedition guided by the American Alpine Institute. After a decade of preparation on smaller peaks, more than a year of training and 19 days on the mountain, I had reached the top of North America. Unquestionably, each of us experienced a flood of emotions as we embraced and congratulated each other on reaching this great high place. I was overjoyed for myself and also for my tentmate, who had come back to finish the job after a difficult trip years earlier that had stalled at high camp.

Returning to Talkeetna we experienced a jarring culture shock. After weeks on the mountain and glacier, surrounded by snow, rock and other climbers, we were now in a town full of cars, tourists, businesses, trees and greenery. After we unloaded the plane, I talked my way into a shower at the airport's tourist information building. It was unmitigated pleasure to peel off clothes that I had been wearing for many days, and then soak off the accumulated grime and perspiration.

Has this experience changed me, and what meaning can be drawn from it? I returned a little thinner and a little hairier, but with the exception of two bruised toes I suffered no injuries. I attribute my success and well being to diligent preparation, skilled guides, a worthy team and a healthy dose of good luck. But on a deeper level, achieving this great goal has proved to me that dreams can be made real through hard work and patience. And at the same time it has caused me to reassess my goals, because if one believes that dreams can come true, then it is even more important to consider which dreams to pursue."

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