I honestly don't consider myself a "real" mountain climber. For most of my life I've been more of an armchair-mountaineer with just an occasional foray into high and wild places. However, after recently retiring, I decided I finally had the time to train for an attempt on Denali.
For anyone who has lived in Alaska for any length of time (and for many who live outside) Denali is an iconic symbol of all that is Alaskan. Punishing cold, hurricane force winds, dizzying heights and air so thin it can barely sustain human life - all combine to thwart even the strongest and most determined of assaults. Climbing Denali requires perseverance, courage and true grit (picture Matt Damon sauntering in at this point, outfitted in the latest soft-shell tech-no fabrics and tossing around the newest carbon fiber ice-axes and titanium widgets). This is what climbing Denali is all about ... or so I thought.
Instead, I found that with decent weather conditions, climbing the popular West Buttress route is a relatively straight-forward and fairly easy proposition for anyone with a reasonable amount of Alaska mountaineering and glacier travel experience, and for one who is physically and psychologically prepared for up to three weeks of sustained effort (in addition to the aforementioned cold, hurricane winds, etc.). It turned out the entire climb was well within my comfort zone ... who would have thought?
The other thing I discovered is that one will definitely not be alone, and the West Buttress of Denali is not the place to go if you seek peace and solitude in the mountains.
With over twelve-hundred climbers registered for the 2010 climbing season, nearly all will begin or end their trip during the months of May and June. Nearly all will follow the West Buttress route and nearly all will be spending two or more nights in each of the four main camps along the route. The image of a constantly moving, traveling circus comes to mind; put the tents up, feed the animals, clean up the poop, take the tents down and then move to the next town.
And much like a circus, in my time on Denali I also encountered a myriad of different nationalities; Argentines, Koreans, Italians, Japanese, Poles, Spaniards, Russians, French, Germans, Czech's, British, South Africans, Canadians and, yes, even a few Americans. It was a veritable Cirque du Soleil. The climbers were both male and female, young and old, able and disabled, polite and impolite. And along with all these people came just about all the drama, comedy and tragedy you could want to see or experience. So what follows are just a few snippets of the people and things I encountered on my recent trip up "The Great One."
Mittens good / frostbite bad: During the night, as we slept peacefully at our Anchorage bed and breakfast, another climber arrived fresh off the mountain. During his summit bid he apparently dropped his mitten, which promptly blew away. He seemed strangely eager to show us the severe frostbite he had on three fingers of his right hand. They were blistered and swollen down to the second knuckle and were beginning to turn black. Note to self: DO NOT lose your mittens.
Center of gravity a foreign concept: We sat in amazement (and hysterics) at the landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier as we watched five Italian climbers, in matching outfits, prepare for the long slog to camp one at 7,800 feet. They had opted to wear small climbing rucksacks and loaded all their remaining gear onto the orange, plastic kiddy sleds provided by the air taxi operators. Each of their sleds then held about eighty pounds of food, fuel and gear which was piled up about forty inches high. Each time they attempted to move, one or more of the sleds fell on its side. After about an hour, they had finally moved around the corner, and out of sight. Thank goodness, because my sides hurt from laughing so much.
An act of devotion: After the Italians had gone, a young Japanese couple walked quietly down to the pee-spot; a location in the snow near the air-strip unceremoniously marked by a home-made card-board sign reading "Piss Here." The husband gently draped a shroud over his young bride, completely concealing her as she did her business. While we are all touched by this scene we can't help but imagine how this strategy will play out higher up the mountain - especially at ten below zero with a forty mile per hour wind blowing: "Oh beloved, I need to tinkle. Will you please get the shroud?" "Oh sweetness, could you please just hold it until we get down off this giant popsicle?"
The heroes project: Anyone who may have watched the Discovery Channel's series "Everest: Beyond the Limit" will recall Big Tim Medvet, the biker/climber who loved to yank the chain of the expedition leader Russell Brice. As he stepped off the plane onto the Kahiltna Glacier in his trademark camo-vest and red toque I recognized him immediately and it was clear that something was up. It turned out Medvet was attempting to climb the seven summits (i.e., the highest peak on each continent), the twist being that on each climb his climbing partner will be a different wounded veteran from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and his sponsors have dubbed it "The Heroes Project." We exchange good-natured banter as we make our way up the mountain together and I'm amazed at the determination and the outright joy on the face of Tim's partner as he makes his way up Denali on one good leg and one prosthetic leg. (Note to rest of team: Complaining of any kind will not be tolerated from this point forward.)
Marital discord: On Ski Hill we passed and then got passed by yet another Japanese couple. They are obviously older than the first couple and married for far longer. They appeared to be intent on cursing and yelling at each other the entire way up the mountain. Unfortunately, their taunts are all in Japanese, and we lack a competent interpreter in our group. Still, it's quite entertaining.
I think I can, I think I can: On our return trip down Motorcycle Hill we passed a large group of un-roped Korean climbers coming up the route. They all had the same matching jackets, and sled bags with huge mattresses strapped to the top. I passed by one gentleman who was breathing very heavily and seemed to have decided it is easier to ascend the hill on his hands and knees. An interesting technique, but not one I think I will try.
The bird: On the approach to camp three we found ourselves stuck in traffic, and moving at a snail's pace. Seriously, I spent more time standing still rather than moving forward. Just before I'm was ready to end my misery by impaling myself on my ski pole, a passing bird decides my lack of forward momentum indicates I am an inanimate object. He landed on my head. I shook my head several times in an effort to get him to leave, but he seemed intent on taking up residence. I am now also certain he had taken a dump on my hat.
The moron: Initially, the views from high camp at 17,200 feet were absolutely amazing. Standing on the edge of the ridge, we looked directly down, three thousand feet below, to our camp of the previous night. Foraker, Hunter and a good part of the Alaska Range could be seen in the distance. Once the weather closed in, however, the waiting game began as we hoped for an opportunity to try and tag the summit. During one of our storm days I exited my tent to get a little fresh air and visit the facilities. I noticed another climber in a red down suit standing about a hundred yards away, looking up at the route leading to Denali Pass. It looked like there were two broomsticks coming out of the bottom of his pants with tennis shoes attached to the ends. I asked one of my teammates: "What the hell does that guy have on his feet?" Her response: "He is a double amputee you moron." I felt like an idiot ... yet again.
How do you spell "exhausted?": Three days in high camp is not a long time by Denali standards, but our weather window had arrived and the forecast indicated it may quickly be closing. Conditions were not ideal, but we decided to take our shot. Temperatures were cold, but not extreme, and the winds were blowing about twenty to thirty miles per hour. Later, visibility improved, but we knew it could change as the day wore on. After we made it up the "Autobahn" and over Denali Pass, one of our team appeared to be having difficulty and the decision was made for her and her climbing partner to descend back to camp with one of the guides. It was painful to imagine having come this far and then having to turn around.
The rest of us kept moving up, slowly, and reached the summit in swirling clouds after nine hours. We were ecstatic, but each of us knew it was a long way back to camp and we needed to get moving. My climbing partner had taken his mittens off for a few moments to snap some pictures and ended up with frostbite on several fingers. He obviously hadn't gotten the "mittens good, frostbite bad" memo. The descent took nearly as long and was complicated by fresh snow on the route, treacherous footing and flat light. We arrived in camp at 2:30 a.m., after sixteen hours on our feet. Crawling into my sleeping bag had never felt so good, and we slept like babies until 1 p.m. the next afternoon.
Beached whales and Guinness Stout: After a late lunch, we packed up and descended to camp three where we spent the night. Early the next morning, we began our long descent and hike out to base camp with the hope that we could catch one of the last flights back to Talkeetna. All went well until we reached the base of Ski Hill at about eight thousand feet. The glacier had been bathed in hot sunshine all day and there were large patches of rotten snow. By a stroke of dumb-luck, I had kept the flotation tails on my snowshoes and I was able to stay on top of the mess. Except for two of our guides (who are on skis), the rest of my teammates were not so lucky. On several occasions, I looked back only to see most of them lying on their sides, pinned under heavy packs and flailing around like a bunch of beached whales. It was not pretty, and the possibility of euthanasia pops briefly into my mind. As it was, they were in no danger, but the work of extricating (and re-extricating) themselves from the snowy mire was exhausting and we arrived at basecamp long after the last flight of the day. My only consolation was the small cache of Guinness Stout I'd buried at base camp. I was able to crawl into my sleeping bag with a tummy full of that brown Irish nectar. Ah yes, life was good!
A hasty exit and final reflections: The next morning our re-entry into the world of flush toilets, hot showers and fresh vegetables was made complete by the miracle of aviation. And as always, it was accompanied by that overwhelming sense of wonder and gratitude that comes after having been without such things for nearly three weeks.
As I said at the outset, my climb up the West Buttress turned out to be well within my comfort zone. I can also report that the circus-like atmosphere of climbing Denali is unlike any other peak in Alaska. It feels good to have checked this one off my bucketlist and I look forward to future climbs and other adventures knowing that I have accomplished something that so many dream about, but never seriously consider doing. And, as cliché as it may sound, I also came away knowing that whatever the challenge may be, if this skinny old retired desk-jockey can scratch his way up Denali ... just about anything is possible.
• Bob Meiners is a longtime Juneau resident, a mountain enthusiast and has summitted Mount Bona, Ciro Aconcagua in Argentina (the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere), has attempted to summit Mount Fairweather and has skied across the Juneau Icefield.