Thursday, July 10, 2008


Whew! That is a big hill, and a lot of time to spend in the snow and ice. For a first trip, it was almost too nice as far as conditions are concerned - we didn't have any major storms, no weather delays, and the lower glacier was still very closed up, unusually so for this late in the season. A late trip often trades warmer temperatures for worse weather and open crevasses, but this year seems to have provided the best of both worlds for our team; a couple of earlier trips ran out of time waiting for the weather.

I'd been to Alaska seven years ago, so knew what to expect generally, but hadn't gotten into the mountains, just looked at them. The Alaska Range is amazing. What struck me most was not its size, in area or height, but it's steepness. I'm used to smaller mountains here in the Cascades, and the sheerness of the rock and ice that surround the glaciers you stand on is intense. Not only is the place huge, but even once you understand that things are on a whole different scale, everything still towers over you, making you wonder if you would ever get used to it. For one thing, you don't have to fly onto many other glaciers - the flight gives you just a taste of how big it is going to be...

A three-week expedition requires enough food and gear that you can't carry it all at once, so sleds are used to get everything where it is going. Sounds fun, but is really a pain to deal with! Contrary to what one of our climbers (who left on the third day) thought, 50 pounds in your sled does not feel like 15 - it feels like 60. It still takes two trips most of the time, so except for summit day, you're really climbing the mountain twice!

We flew in on summer solstice, the longest day of the northern year, so the darkest it got was kind of a dusk, between about 1am and 3am. On the lower mountain, we moved during this time so the snow wouldn't be too soft to walk on.

Working our way steadily up the mountain, we moved first to 7800', then to 11,200' where we could get back on a day schedule, being high and cold enough for the snow to be good throughout the day. A rest day or two, then up to 14,200' camp, where the park service has a medical tent and rangers, and where most teams rest and wait for good weather for going up high.

From here, the terrain gets quite a bit steeper - a section with ropes pinned to the snow to use as a hand line and backup, and a beautiful ridge up to 17,200' camp.

High camp is cold and windy, and really just a staging ground for going up to the summit. We carried loads up, went back down, moved our camp up, and took a day to rest in the half-pressure oxygen of the high atmosphere, acclimatizing and gaining strength for our summit bid.

Winds were blowing a bit too hard when we first got up on summit day, but after an hour lessened enough for us to go for it. Not too cold, about 10 degrees, and we and another team left camp about 11am. We moved steadily up to Denali Pass, up to the long ridge, and eventually to the broad field below the summit ridge. A little slower, we climbed to the ridge crest and along it to the summit, stopped a few feet short, literally, by the tragedy described below. Not too many pictures that day...

We made it safely back down to 17,200', spent a might recovering physically and mentally, and made a long push down the rest of the mountain. Guide friends of Mike's made us water and dinner at 14,200' and we kept going to 11,200' for a couple hours of sleep before taking advantage of the colder nighttime hours to keep the lower glacier firm. We got back to the base camp airstrip 24 hours from when we left high camp - 2 vertical miles in that time. Wow.

Our climbers were amazing, staying strong and pushing all the way back down to beat a weather system we knew was coming that could keep us from flying off the mountain for several days. At base camp, we packed up all of our things and waited for the small plane to return for us.

Because it's not over 'til it's over, however, one of the gauges forced our pilot to make an emergency landing on the glacier below camp just after takeoff, and we piled everything out, prepared to camp where we were or climb back up to base camp. He did a test flight and decided the gauge was faulty, and after a second takeoff we made it back to Talkeetna. That's a lonely place to be standing on a glacier all by yourselves.

Many personal thanks to my lead guide, Mike, and everyone else I had the opportunity to work with, both on and off the mountain. Many, many thanks, as well, to everyone who believes and understands that this is what I do, what I love and, hopefully, am good at.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Summit note

One tragedy marred an otherwise great expedition: on summit day, at the top of the highest mountain in North America, Jim, one of our climbers, suddenly and simply collapsed. We gave CPR for over 35 minutes in an effort to revive him, but he never regained a pulse. Due to the steepness of the terrain, our quickly-chilling group did not have the resources to conduct a complicated recovery to bring him down; we simply had to say our goodbyes and bury him as best we could at the request of the Park Service. Two other Alpine Ascents teams summited a few days later, and were able to rebury his body in a more secluded spot, where it will likely remain.

Here's the Park Service's press release:

As much as accidents and deaths in the mountains are often subject to endless debate and scrutiny, this is a rare case when there's really not much to rehash, fortunately for those of us involved. We may never know what caused his collapse, particularly if he remains buried on the mountain; he was climbing as strongly as anyone else, and had shown no previous signs of anything out of the ordinary, no trouble with altitude. He was climbing with a friend who was also on our trip, and as traumatic as it must be for him, hopefully some small measure of closure and comfort can come to his family through this friend's presence at his death.

We were able to get the rest of our team safely off the mountain with the generous help of many other guides and people both on and off the hill. Everyone we worked with has been incredibly helpful and supportive, particularly the NPS staff. They have to deal with this sort of thing regularly on a professional basis, but manage to do so while being incredibly human and caring on a personal level as well. Huge thanks for everyone's help, and many condolences to those who will feel Jim's loss.