Denali - Trip Report - Part 20

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Tuesday, May 27:

At 6 AM I heard the voices of the guides, telling us to wake up. I had only recently managed any sleep at all, due to a combination of the 17,000 foot altitude, worrying about the climb, and the noisy tent flapping in the strong wind. Still, I managed the now-familiar process of putting on my clothes while scrunched up in the tent. It was cold, and heavy frost again coated the inside of the tent. There was not much to breakfast this morning, just some hot water the guides brought around to our tents--I might have made up some cocoa. They had already given us our breakfast bars the day before, but they tended to freeze up quickly unless you kept them on your body, and I had forgotten to do that.

I wore my warmest clothes for this summit day. On my body I wore two polypro shirts, a light and a heavy, plus my green pile jacket and then my heavy, hooded down jacket. My legs had a expedition-weight polypro bottom and my North Face down pants, and my feet had seven layers on: thin polypro socks; vapor-barrier socks; thick wool-blend socks; the Gore-Tex lined inner boot of my Lowa boots; the plastic outer boot; a neoprene overboot; and then my strapped-on crampons. Thick liner gloves and pile mittens with Gore-Tex shells were on my hands, and my polypro balaclava, green fuzzy baseball cap with ear flaps, and sunglasses covered my face. In case my face got too cold, I had my wool balaclava handy, plus ski goggles stored around my forehead, but I never needed either.

Once dressed I got out of the tent and started to get my gear together. It was very clear out, but still a bit windy, although not quite as windy as the day before. The guides announced the rope teams for the day, and I was happy to be on Steve's team, following Steve and Bill and ahead of Bruno. I didn't want to be on the team with Luis, since I still harbored doubts that he was well enough to make it, and Steve seemed to be the more experienced and physically fit guide, too. Little did I suspect that I was actually on the slower team.

I put on my harness and crampons--it wasn't so cold that I couldn't take my gloves off for a minute to cinch my straps extra-tightly--and then got my pack together. I didn't put much in it at all, just some water, what few extra clothes were left after getting dressed, and other random stuff, leaving it severely underpacked. Also, Bruno and I were told to secure our tent better, since the guides had noticed the way it flapped during the night, and they didn't want it blowing away while we were gone. So I used some otherwise useless stakes as deadmen and the snow saws as stakes to do a much better job than we had the night before.

I think we all left at about 7:45 AM, which was not too bad considering all the futzing we all had to do. My toes had gotten cold a little while waiting, and I was happy to be off so I could warm things up a little. As usual, Steve's team, including me, went out first, and I was excited to be moving towards the summit. He set off downhill a very short ways to the base of the slopes leading up to Denali Pass, then set up a steep grade that led to the long traverse that led to the pass. The whole slope was north-facing, and therefore in the shade this early and quite cold. Still, my toes had warmed up nicely by the time we were halfway along to the pass, and the rest of me was warm, too. Steve's pace was slow but solid, and Bill and Bruno, who had shown excellent conditioning so far on the trip, were keeping up well.

Photo: The treacherous slopes leading up to Denali Pass.

After the initial steep attack on the slope, the path started the long, uphill traverse, and since the slope was icy, a little steep, and the glacier a long way below and dangerous, the standard practice was to protect it with a running belay of pickets. Steve would come to a picket, stop, and clip the rope behind him into the carabiner in the picket. Whenever Bill, myself, or Bruno encountered a picket, we were to shout "Anchor!" so everyone else knew they had to stop, then unclip the rope and re-clip it back in behind us. The pickets had been set up by an RMI guided group that had left before us that morning--somehow the guides arranged for the protection of the slope among themselves, and whoever came down last had to retrieve the pickets and carabiners.

The slope, although icy, had a good footway on it with solid footsteps, so there was no difficult French technique to be done. The pickets slowed our progress considerably, though, since we had to wait every time a climber came to one. Eventually I got pretty good at unclipping and re-clipping quickly, but Bill and Bruno were slower at it, and Bruno never called out when he reached one--he just stopped, unannounced. Fortunately, most of the time Steve was stopping at the same time as Bruno, since the pickets were always about a rope-length apart.

The slope seemed endless as we neared 18,200' Denali Pass. The sun came out and hit us for the first time near to top, my toes had thoroughly warmed themselves up, and I was starting to get optimistic that we were actually going to make it. The weather looked to be holding and our team seemed strong--indeed, even Mike's team, with Luis, Andy, and Greg W, was almost right behind us. Around 10 AM or so, I think, we reached Denali Pass--the path had actually brought us up to a point a hundred feet or so above the actual col. We all rested among some rocks, where we could gaze out over to the dark rock of the North Peak.

It was very, very windy at Denali Pass, and the rocks we rested behind offered little protection. Bill told Steve that he thought his toes were freezing, since he had lost feeling in them, and Steve decided to try to re- warm Bill's right foot. They took off Bill's crampons and boots and shoved his feet into Steve's armpits, and Steve also massaged them for twenty minutes or so. While waiting for all this I ate some food, but dropped a Nutri-Grain bar down the slope about 20 feet, where it rested near a rock. They were the bars that stayed most edible in the cold, so I went to get it, ate it, and admired the scenery while offering to help with Bill's foot. Steve had the situation under control, though. Bruno looked kind of cold and was being especially uncommunicative, even for him. Mike's rope team went off ahead of us, where they would stay all day.

Bill got the feeling back in his foot, and we were soon underway again. However, in my biggest screw-up of the day, the rope had gotten all tangled up, partly because I had gone down to get my dropped breakfast bar, and I exacerbated things by stepping over it in an attempt to get it straight again. Steve got a little mad at me as we danced about to his instructions to get the rope right, but then we were finally off. The route climbed up steeply from Denali Pass on the typical icy hardpack snow, behind the crest of the ridge, and it was fairly crowded with other groups of climbers. The steepness slowed us down, and it was now extremely windy, too--it was a constant roar, about 30 mph or maybe a little more, that made communication difficult.

Near here we passed a small automated weather station. I later looked at the records for its two thermometers, and on this day the temperature was in the range of -30 to -26 C (-22 to -15 F). This is certainly cold, especially with the strong wind, but not horrendously so.

Not far above Denali Pass, on a steep stretch of snow near some big rock cliffs alongside the trail, Bruno suddenly stopped and sat down on the trail. Steve, Bill, and I wondered what was up, and I yelled down to him, but got no reply. After a minute some other climbers that were stopped in the same spot as Bruno answered me--they told me his goggles were fogged and he was cleaning them off. I was getting increasingly upset at Bruno's lack of communication-- sure it was windy, but I could talk to Steve, 2/3 of the rope away from me, but I still needed another climber to tell me why Bruno was stopping. This was not the first time Bruno had problems with his goggles, either, since visibility was the problem when he had fallen into a crevasse at Windy Corner.

We got moving again, and thankfully the slope got less steep as we moved up the broad, ill-defined ridges and slopes of the Archdeacon's Tower area. The terrain up here was difficult to figure out, and I did not have a good idea of the relationships of the various ridges and other features. The route was also very crowded with other climbers, since this was the first really good summit day all year, and the huge backup swarming up the summit was like a dam bursting. Our rope team was one of the slower ones, either because of Steve's deliberately slow pace or Bruno's increasing exhaustion, and we were passed several times, often rudely on the narrow footway. One idiotic team had a rope trailing for fifty feet behind the last climber for no reason, and I recognized one person who passed me as Julie Smith, climbing solo and unroped, who said that Glenn and Shawn were below.

I was taking about three breaths for every step on this section of route, and I was exhausted when we finally took a rest break near the crest of the Archdeachon's Tower ridge. Mike's rope team was there, too, going along well. I drank as much water as I dared, but my bottles were getting more and more frozen as the day went on, even with their protective parkas. For food, all I had was the collection of energy bars I always had, plus the last of my peanut M & Ms. Although tired, I was feeling OK, and I was warm enough, so I was glad to get moving again and get the damn mountain climbed. The wind was still very strong, and we heard rumors from the many passing parties that it was stronger above, but that the summit was actually pretty calm.

After more gentle uphill we crested a rise and then dropped slightly to the famous "Football Field", a large flat area at about 19,500'. Rising 820' above it on its far side was the final summit ridge, and it didn't look too bad or too far away. Crossing the flat expanse was easy, although the wind did rip across it pretty nicely. However, as we started ascending the steep slope up towards the summit ridge, we slowed down considerably. This is more or less where Bruno hit a wall--he started asking for rests, often by just sitting down in the middle of the trail, and Steve slowed the pace to four breaths per step. Almost every other party on the upper mountain had passed us, and now they were frequently passing us as they went down. Still, we chugged upwards.

About a third of the way up the slope to the summit ridge we took a long rest, and Steve, Bill, and I noticed that one reason Bruno was so slow was that his sit-harness had crept down so that his waist band was on his thighs and his leg-loops were around his calves, severely limiting his mobility, to say the least. Bruno was wearing a big down suit, but somehow his harness didn't work with it well. Steve patiently re-adjusted it for Bruno as we rested, then we made the final, exhausting push uphill towards the summit ridge. This was the worst part of the climb for me--my four breaths per step were sometimes not enough as the slope got steep and every time I glanced upward the top seemed no closer. We were right behind Mike's rope team, and somehow I put my head down and followed the green rope blindly until collapsing on the very summit ridge to rest.

The ridge was a little bit of a knife-edge, especially to the south, and Steve told us we were fifteen minutes from the summit, now plainly visible at the end of the undulating ridge in front of us. While drinking a little bit of my precious water a familiar voice accosted me--it was Glenn Morrison, alone and on his way up, too. We chatted a bit, and took pictures of each other, before he set off on the ridge towards the summit, right after Mike's rope team. Steve, Bill, myself, and Bruno finally got going, leaving our packs behind at the saddle on the ridge and taking only our cameras for the final push.

Photo: Climbers make their way along the very summit ridge of the South Peak of Mt. McKinley, nearing the 20,320' top of North America.

The last bit of the climb was pretty spectacular, hiking on a very narrow path atop a knife-edge ridge that plunged down especially spectacularly to our right. It looked and felt like we were actually climbing something significant. The wind indeed was less up here, too, and the lack of any really serious uphill sections left me the energy to appreciate the beauty of the ridge and the surroundings. It was hiking along here that the realization hit me that I was actually going to climb the mountain, and I almost started crying when the full impact of this fact sank in. I had been planning and thinking about this climb for so long, and the trip had been such hard work, and I had thought so much about how great it would be to add this peak--state highpoint #50--to my experiences, that it all kind of hit me at once and I somehow felt extremely happy to the point of tears.

There was one short, steep, icy section on the ridge, Bruno called for one or two halts due to his increasing exhaustion, and a couple other parties passed us on their way down, including Julie, who I exchanged congratulations with. But after fifteen or twenty minutes we were suddenly taking our last steps up to the a well-defined snowy high point, the summit of the South Peak of Mt. McKinley, highest point in North America at 20,320'. It was about 5 or 6 PM. Mike, Andy, Luis, and Greg W were all there, and Steve, Bruno, Bill and I exchanged high fives and congratulations with them for a minute before they took off, headed down. The only other person there was Glenn, who also soon left after I congratulated him and we expressed amazement a the way we wound up on the summit together.

Photo: Greg standing at the summit of Denali.

I had already had most of my big emotional things happen during the approach to the summit, and Steve kept our stay there to about ten minutes, so I didn't do much. We all took pictures of each other at the absolute highest point, a little knob at the far end of the summit area, and I even had a couple shots of myself taken with my hat and balaclava off so I would be recognizable. I sat down and rested for a minute, and I admired the view, but, truth be told, it wasn't that great. The day was exceptionally clear, but we were so high up that the riot of Alaska Range peaks below us was just a bunch of faraway white triangles, and the Alaskan tundra a big, hazy, distant mass of green. It was like the view from an airplane.

We were running kind of late--in fact, only one other guy, Glenn's buddy Shawn Parry, summited after us the whole day. Steve told us to get ready to go after we had photos taken of us individually and with him, and after a last walk over to the mathematical point of the summit and quick pat with my mittened hand, I was ready to go. For the descent we reversed the order of our rope team, and Bruno went first, followed by myself, Bill and finally Steve. On the narrow, exposed ridge we passed Shawn, struggling zombie-like uphill, and I gave him some encouragement as we headed down.

At the saddle on the summit ridge we stopped for a while to get our packs back on, and Steve and I spoke to Glenn again--he had been waiting there a while, and told me he planned to wait until Shawn got back from the summit and then help him down, since it was obvious Shawn was in bad shape. I thought back to the time Glenn, Shawn, and I had been on Mt. Rainier last February, and how Shawn had been gung-ho about doing the Cassin or the West Rib--to see him limping up the mountain's dog route was quite something.

We were soon headed downhill, now well behind Mike's rope team, and as we descended from the summit crest and then across the football field we got even more behind. Bruno was now totally gone, and he would just sit down in the middle of the trail without warning every twenty minutes or so. Of course he never said anything, but at least he was going first so that Steve, Bill, and I could see why we were suddenly stopped. Steve tried to cheer him up, yelling and exhorting him to continue, and eventually, usually after five minutes, Bruno would somehow get up and stagger downhill some more. I wasn't exactly Mr. Energy at the time--I was very dehydrated and pretty tired--but I had a long history of booking on downhills, and I wanted to be going downhill much faster.

The slight uphill from the football field to the Archdeacon's tower ridge was a killer, and it didn't help Bruno, but after that the downhill was at a nice, easy grade for a while and we made good time for a change. It was getting late--probably about 8 PM or after--and the mountain was now strangely deserted after the throngs on the route earlier in the day. The only other people near us on the descent were Glenn escorting a delirious Shawn, behind us at about our slow pace. Mike's rope team was way ahead of us, since Luis, the slowest member, was doing well on the downhill.

The snow trail soon steepened as we neared Denali Pass, and Bruno, going first, got confused with the routefinding, and it almost seemed like he didn't have a clue. I remembered the route from the morning, and yelled at him persistently to follow the right path, but he wasn't listening, couldn't hear, or didn't care. We came to a weather observatory, and I motioned everyone to the right, since that's the way we had come up. However, an exasperated Steve finally called a halt from behind and told us that we were not following the morning's route, but a steeper, quicker, and more direct path, closer to the edge of the face to our left.

Somehow Bruno half-fell down this steep incline in the roaring wind, and I kept him on a tight leash as I staggered down after him. We made our way to the general area where we had rested in the morning, and took a long rest. It was now getting to be after 9 PM, I think, but Bruno really needed a long breather. I was out of water, and had to bum some from Steve and Bill, but I still felt strong, and I was also still very warm. Bill was doing very well, too, and he and I privately were upset at Bruno's deterioration. I was frustrated but not too mad--after all, I had made the summit, I was still alive, and we were almost back in camp.

Still, the most dangerous single stretch of climbing was right in front of us, the descending traverse from Denali Pass. In the past, many tired climbers had slipped and fallen here, giving it a bad reputation. We finally got going, and Bruno set out first out and around the corner of the mountain to find the path and its line of protecting pickets. As soon as we were around a little I saw that we were too low, and that we should angle up a bit to intersect the path, but Bruno, exhausted and perhaps still blind from fogged-up goggles, obliviously continued along his original traverse line, unprotected. I angled up and eventually Steve and Bill yelled at Bruno enough so that he too finally reached the path. We were over three pickets away from its start, though.

Bruno finally reached a picket, but he mumbled something back to me-- eventually I understood that there was no carabiner on the picket, so he couldn't attach the climbing rope. I yelled back to Steve, and told Bruno to use one of his own carabiners. He did, and we continued, but the situation was the same at the next picket. Bruno only had three carabiners, so at the fourth picket he couldn't clip in. I yelled back to Steve--by now my voice was shot from yelling into the wind all day, both for myself and as Bruno's interpreter--and he finally understood what was going on. Apparently someone had prematurely removed or stolen the carabiners that had been left on the 20- some odd pickets that had been placed.

Steve was as mad as I ever saw him, furious and swearing profusely, as he told us to wait, gathered together all 12 of his carabiners, unclipped from the rope, hiked unprotected around Bill and me to Bruno, gave Bruno the carabiners, and hiked back up to the end of the rope. He was mad at Mike, who he thought had taken all of the biners out. Finally, we continued. When Bruno encountered a picket he would put a biner on it, and, since the pickets were a rope-length apart, at the same time Steve removed the picket and biner and put them in his pack. Bill and I just had to unclip the rope and re-clip it once we were past, stopping the team briefly while we shouted "Anchor!". It was a slow process, made slower by Bruno's habit of taking a three-minute rest every time he clipped into a new picket.

We were most of the way down through the traverse when Bruno ran out of carabiners again. To save Steve from hiking down to Bruno with more from the pickets he had retrieved, I put the three biners I had on to the rope and jiggled the rope to send them down to Bruno. This probably would not have worked earlier, since the slope of the trail, and thus the rope, wasn't as steep as up higher. We continued our descent, past only two more pickets as the path went through a rock band, and then started the straightforward, short, and steep descent to the campsites, visible below. It was now midnight, and the sun was just about to set--due to the way time zones were shifted, the sun was below the horizon from about 12:30 AM to about 2 AM, I think, given our latitude and altitude.

We were dead tired, and Bruno needed a rest halfway down the slope, which, as usual, the rest of used to take some pictures. Glenn and Shawn were still a ways behind us, meaning that they must have been moving pitifully slow, since our downhill progress had been excruciating enough. We reached the base of the slope, and the 40-foot vertical rise up to our campsite was even a killer, requiring one last Bruno rest. We arrived back at about 12:20 AM, over an hour after Mike's team and over fourteen hours after we set off. We all took off our crampons and collapsed into our tents--Bruno was especially tired, but otherwise he and everyone else was healthy and unhurt.

I think Mike had started some hot water, but I doubt any hot food was cooked up. I got some water to ease my serious dehydration when the guides came around to the individual tents with a pot, but aside from that I just took off my down clothes, got into my sleeping bag, and tried to get to sleep. I slept better, being utterly exhausted, but also happy and hugely relieved to have made the summit. The wind was much less too, so the tent didn't flap in the breeze as much.

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