DENALI/MT. MCKINLEY PART 3: 14,000FT TO SUMMIT


I last left you at 14,000ft camp on Mt. Mckinley. As I’ve said, this was the most beautiful camp on the mountain, but also the most intimidating. Just up the mountain from camp is the Headwall, the steepest section of the entire climb. It’s incredibly hard to judge how big the wall is … until you see people on it. I remember waking up our first morning at 14 camp and coming out of the tent to see these tiny specs on the trail up to the ridge. Those tiny specs were people! The magnitude of the Headwall was insane! We weren’t heading up the wall that day, but it was fun watching other teams make their way up. I was really looking forward to testing myself on the wall in the days to come. Our first day was mostly a rest day with a quick trip back down to windy corner to grab our cache. The move to 14,000 was really tough, so I was quite glad to recover for a day even if we didn’t get to rest completely. We had to dig a new kitchen out which turned out to be exhausting. Generally, we dug the kitchen a few feet into the snow so you can stand up under the tent that covers it. About a foot into digging we nailed a solid ice layer. It was about a foot of solid ice that we had to get through. It took hours and hours, and was absolutely exhausting, but in the end we had a wonderful kitchen to hang out in.

The next morning was an early one. We woke up at 5 A.M. for another carry day. Our goal was to carry gear up the Headwall and part of the way up 16,000 ridge to a place called Washburns Thumb. We headed out of camp around 7 A.M. It took about 15 minutes to get from camp to the base of the wall. Fifteen minutes is a long time to stare at something that intimidating, but once we started climbing I really began to enjoy it. With something that steep it feels like you make progress very quickly. Every time we took a break and looked back at 14 camp it looked significantly smaller and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. After about 2 hours of climbing up the wall we reached the fixed lines, the steepest part of our entire climb. Fixed lines are ropes put in place by the park service that are secured onto the mountain. When you reach them you clip an ascender to the rope. An ascender is a really cool tool that slides easily up the rope but won’t slide backwards. It’s there for safety on such a steep section. If you fell without the ascender you would most likely slide forever and take your entire team with you. The fixed lines finish off the headwall and although it was insanely hard, it was the best part of the climb. I really felt like I was climbing a big mountain.

Climbing the headwall!

Climbing the headwall!

We took a quick break at the top of the headwall, then continued up the first part of the 16,000 ridge. This has to be the craziest place I have ever been! Not only are we climbing higher but we are on a narrow ridge line. In a few places you walk along a narrow section and on either side of you are thousand foot drops! It took us about 5 hours to reach our cache point and everyone was in great spirits. We snacked and rested a bit before heading down. Heading down the ridge was a little bit scarier then going up it. You could really feel how high you were and how narrow the ridge was, but the view was incredible! As we descended back to camp I started to feel a small twinge of a headache developing. Headaches can indicate that you are getting a bit of altitude sickness. If altitude sickness progresses it can be disastrous and even fatal in some cases. I knew that I didn’t drink enough water throughout the day and the previous day when we were building our kitchen. I hoped that if I drank enough I could reverse the effects. By the time we were ready to eat dinner though my headache was ragging and I even felt a little nauseous. I forced myself to eat and drink and tried to go to bed early and get some rest. At least there was a rest day the next day to hopefully get over that headache.

16 ridge on Denali

16 ridge on Denali

When I awoke the next morning the headache was gone!! I was so glad that I was feeling better especially since it was the 4th of July! We had an awesome breakfast of pancakes and had a great time chatting throughout the day. We didn’t get to rest completely though. The great part about the Alaska Mountaineering School guides was that they were constantly teaching. We headed part way up the headwall and practiced our self arrest skills (stopping yourself from sliding down the mountain). It was fun and definitely something we needed to be really good at. I had another infusion planned for that day and as I was getting ready to do it, my guide Melis asked if she could try again. She had been studying the cheat sheet for infusions that I had given her and wanted to see if she could get through the entire process without help. That was awesome! I loved that she wanted to try again and make sure she had it dialed in. We sat it the kitchen andinfused. She nailed every step up until she almost forgot to take the tourniquet off! We caught it in time though and the infusion went great. 

View from the top of the headwall with Mt. Foraker in the background

View from the top of the headwall with Mt. Foraker in the background

The next day was probably the biggest day of the entire climb next to summit day. We were moving to high camp at 17,000ft to get ready for our summit push. We couldn’t have asked for better weather to move up the mountain. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The headwall was just as difficult physically this time but since we had already been up it once, didn’t feel as daunting. The 16,000 ridge was even more spectacular with the cloudless sky. You could literally see for hundreds of miles in every direction. It was completely surreal. I felt like I was hiking in a painting all day. We reached Washburns Thumb, and our cache, fairly quickly and loaded everything into our packs which meant ridiculously huge packs. Washburn’s Thumb also has fixed lines on it. It’s very steep for a few hundred feet, but with gigantic packs it was killer. Once we got up the thumb we moved pretty slowly. It was even narrower than below and we had to make sure enough protection was in place in case of a fall. It took us another few hours to reach camp but I still felt strong when we arrived. As we pulled in, we heard the radio chatter from other teams on their summit day. They were having a great day and were almost to the summit. I was thrilled for them and excited that we would hopefully be in the same spot tomorrow. As we ate dinner we talked about the impending summit push. We only brought two tents up instead of our usual three, so it was tight and no one slept well that night. It’s hard to shut your mind off when the summit is just hours away.

Heading up the Autobahn on summit day

Heading up the Autobahn on summit day

I did eventually dose off but morning came quickly. Since it is light out almost all day, we didn’t have to get up crazy early like some other mountains I have been on. I put on every layer of clothing I had, it was super cold, and we headed out around 9 A.M.. The first obstacle we encountered was the Autobahn. A very steep uphill section followed by a traverse over to Denali Pass. The uphill wasn’t too bad, but the traverse was very hairy. It was incredibly steep and this area is notorious for falls. This is where most of the protection on summit day is used so travel is pretty slow. We rested quickly at Denali Pass then continued through Zebra Rocks, another steep section that is fairly short. We began to slow down here. The effects of this exhausting adventure began to show on members of our team. I still felt great but we needed to stick together. We were all going to make it.

We started out taking lots of breaks on summit day, but the weather began to change. We needed to keep moving. As we reached the Football Field, a large flat area before the last steep section, clouds started to form. Luckily it was still warm out, but I noticed the teams ahead of us up on Pig Hill began to fade into the clouds. We started up Pig Hill knowing that was the last hard part until the summit, we were almost there!!! It took us a long time to get up Pig Hill and the weather was changing fast. I was so nervous that we weren’t going to be able to make it. Would we have to turn around so close to the summit? We got to the top of Pig Hill and I waited to hear the dreaded words from the guide, “We have to go down.”. Those words thankfully never came, though we did need to pick up the pace on the Summit Ridge. I read a lot about the knife edge on the Summit Ridge and how hairy this place can be. As I was making my way, I remember thinking that it wasn’t so bad, but that was probably because we couldn’t see anything! It seemed like we were in a cotton ball. We could see the trail and the bamboo wands placed by the groups ahead of us but that was it. We hiked in this snow globe for about 15 more minutes and passed the other groups coming back down from the summit. They were elated and gave us great encouragement that we were close. They were right. We rose over the final ridge and a small summit marker stood on the top of North America. After seven hours, we made it! I felt like I was about to break into tears, but never did. Maybe I was too tired. I honestly couldn’t believe I made it. This climb was the most difficult thing I have ever done, and I doubted whether I could do it many many times during the journey. But I made it. I was proud of myself and my team for never quitting. The weather really began rolling in while we were on the summit. Backpacks had to stay on and we could only get one or two photos before starting the decent. I wish we could’ve stayed longer, but I was overjoyed to just have made it.

Group shot at the summit!

Group shot at the summit!

The descent started out amazingly. Melis let me lead our way off of the summit. My job was to find the wands in the snow globe, get us to them safely, and then clip into the protection next to the wands. The first few were easy but as we descended lower it became more difficult. At one point I was making my way to the next wand and the clouds broke for a split second to my left. I could see thousands of feet straight down to massive rocks. It was incredibly freaky not to know that was there, and then to have it disappear again. I continued to lead down to Pig Hill. About half way down the hill the trail just disappeared. The wind had blown snow over the little trail I could see and at that point I couldn’t even see far enough to the next wand. I turned around and could barely see the other two people on my rope. We stopped, and Melis looked around for the trail. It looked bleak for quite awhile. We even went back uphill to try and find our last wand to no avail. Just when it looked like we might have to dig a snow cave and hunker down for the night, the clouds and snow broke just enough to reveal the next wand. We made our way to it and continued down. The wind really started howling lower on the mountain but at least the clouds and snow dissipated and bit. 

We were going slowly on the decent. The other team member on our rope was absolutely spent which is completely understandable. I was now the last person from our team going down the mountain with the responsibility of cleaning the protection as we went passed. We approached Zebra Rocks and as my teammate made his way down the steepest section I was getting ready to stop and clean some gear. I was about to shout ahead and tell the team to stop when suddenly the rope snapped me off my feet and threw me on my side. My teammate had fallen and this ripped me off my feet! In the split second this happened all our training flashed through my mind. I landed on my ice axe and immediately rolled into self arrest position to stop the fall. We didn’t slide far but I held on tight. I called down to make sure everything was OK but heard nothing. The wind was hollowing. I kept yelling for about ten minutes but still no answer. I didn't dare move until I knew absolutely sure everyone was OK. Finally, I hear Melis’ voice above the wind asking what was going on. Apparently everything was perfectly fine below, and they had been yelling up to see if I was OK, I just wasn’t able to hear a thing. I unclipped and cleaned the protection to head down, my heart was still racing. I thought something really bad had happened. It took us forever to finish our decent but we all walked into camp safe and sound. It took us 14 hours overall and we were greeted with hot water and some food. I slept so hard that night. I never thought I could be that exhausted. 

Back to 17 camp after a successful summit!

Back to 17 camp after a successful summit!

The next day the storm was in full force with incredible wind. We couldn’t move down in those conditions so we rested in the tent the entire day. I can’t say I was disappointed. When we were finally able to move down, we did it in a BIG way. We packed up our stuff and descended ALL THE WAY DOWN! From 17,000ft to the runway and base camp, picking up all our other gear on the way. That meant huge packs and heavy sleds for almost 18 hours. This day is a complete blur. It’s known as the march of death and was even harder than summit day. The absolute worst part was the last hill going into base camp known as Heartbreak Hill. We had been descending for 16 hours at that point and then we had to climb again, 500 vertical feet back to the runway. I thought I could never be more tired than summit day, but I was so wrong. I was completely destroyed going up that hill. The only thing that keeps you going is knowing that was the end. Once we got to that camp … no more hiking. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to make it somewhere. I dropped my pack in camp knowing it wouldn’t have to go back on for a long, long time. It actually started raining as we set up camp at the runway which was pretty miserable, but we were all in great spirits. We finally went to sleep around 2 A.M. knowing we were almost done. The next morning we packed up for the final time. As we sat on all of our gear waiting for the plane, our guide surprised us with some cold beers they had stashed. It was amazing! The journey and adventure of climbing the highest peak in North America was now over. To this day it all feels like an incredible dream.

Now no one can say someone with hemophilia can’t climb that mountain.

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