The window in the weather was closing and it was becoming a race to see if six Juneau climbers could get off the mountain before a three-day storm moved in.
The Juneau climbers -- Al Treacy, Bob Bartholomew, Rich Clark, Paul Hamby, Doug Wessen and Jim Kistler (a former Juneau resident now living in the Phoenix, Ariz., area) -- had just conquered Mount McKinley, but the approaching storm threatened to keep them trapped at the 7,200-foot base camp for days unless they could make the small opening in the weather.
As storm clouds boiled around in the distance, the Juneau climbers quickly threw their gear into two planes at the top of Kahiltna Glacier in preparation for departure. The climbers had already been on the mountain for 22 days and not only was their food running out, but Treacy needed medical attention for six frostbitten fingers and two frostbitten toes.
One of the planes, containing Treacy, Bartholomew and Clark, gunned its engine and began its descent down the sloped glacier airstrip. Just as Clark said, ``All right, we're out of here,'' the pilot aborted his takeoff and spun the airplane to the right, embedding the right ski in the snow. The plane was too heavy. So the climbers had to offload all their gear, then, with the help of several other climbers at base camp, they had to push the plane back up to the top of the sloped airstrip for another attempt.
Finally both planes took off, just as the weather closed in. They were the only planes to get off Mount McKinley that day, and just an hour or so later another plane piloted by Iditarod musher Don Bowers became disoriented in the weather and crashed, killing Bowers and his three park ranger passengers.
``It was just the mountain kicking our butts all the way down,'' Treacy said of the storm. ``We barely escaped.''
``We had to chuck our packs, but at that point it was Who cares? We're leaving,' '' Bartholomew said.
The Juneau expedition also featured Carl Bausler, but he had to return to work a couple of days before four of the climbers reached the summit - Treacy, Clark, Wessen and Kistler on June 16. Of the seven members of the expedition, which did not use a guiding service, five are members of the Capital City Fire Rescue's rope rescue team (Kistler and Clark are the non-
members). Wessen and Bausler also are members of the Juneau Mountain and Rescue squad.
The Juneau climbers, who ranged in age from 24 to 44, have been climbing together for four or five years, with some members of the group climbing together for more than 10 years. Of the group, Bartholomew was the only one who had been on the top of Mount McKinley before, having summited the peak twice. Wessen was in a 1992 climbing party that reached the 19,000-foot level of the 20,320-foot mountain, but the group got turned back by the weather.
It was during one of the group's local climbs a few years ago that the idea was kicked around to climb Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. After not giving the idea much initial thought, the Juneau climbers decided to attempt the mountain during the 2000 climbing season, which usually runs from May to July each year.
``We'd been to Mount Jumbo and Mount Roberts this winter to do some winter climbing,'' Bartholomew said.
``At least once a month we were out practicing,'' Wessen added.
Kistler was the only one not in Juneau for the practice climbs, but he worked out on a couple of Phoenix-area peaks.
``We had the technical skills we needed, because of the rope rescue team,'' said Treacy, who also teaches climbing classes for the university. ``It was just a matter of getting our physical training in, our cardiovascular training.''
The expedition members come from a variety of backgrounds, but climbing is their link. Bartholomew is director of administration for the Alaska Permanent Fund. Clark (Bartholomew's stepson) is a traveller who lives out of his backpack and is now up in the Fairbanks area. Bausler is a physician's assistant for Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). Kistler is a Web site designer. Wessen is a psychologist for the Juneau School District. Treacy is a college student and part-time worker at Costco. And Hamby is a firefighter.
The Juneau climbers headed to Anchorage a few days before Memorial Day, spending a couple of days at the home of Bartholomew's parents while they purchased last-minute supplies and prepared their gear for the climb. Finally, on May 29, the group flew into the Kahiltna Glacier base camp, ready to start its climb up the popular West Buttress route to the 20,320-foot South Peak of Mount McKinley. The route was pioneered by mapmaker/climbing legend Bradford Washburn in 1951 and has since become the most popular route up the mountain with more than 1,000 climbers a year heading up Mount McKinley in recent years, the vast majority using the West Buttress route.
Once on the mountain, the Juneau climbers took things easy for the first few days as they adjusted to the altitude and practiced emergency skills like crevasse rescues. Bartholomew said they spent the first six days practicing, and they were also slowly moving gear up the mountain and caching it at higher altitudes before returning to base camp for the night.
``We tried not to push it,'' Bartholomew said of the first few days of the climb.
``We pretty much had an itinerary and stuck to it,'' Wessen said.
Kistler, who just left Juneau to return home today, said the group made good time to the 11,000-foot level, but then Bartholomew said the weather started to turn ugly and the group was stuck there for five days. Luckily, the group had arrived early in the day and had been able to pick the best existing campsites recently vacated by climbers on the way up or down the mountain, campsites that already had snow windbreaks built by previous climbers.
While camped at the 11,000-foot level, there was one scary moment when an avalanche swept down the mountain and missed the camp site, which also had several other climbing parties, by just 200 yards.
``This big block of ice came down, about the size of a house,'' Kistler said.
``It was 40 feet by 30 feet, and it shook, rattled and rolled down the mountain,'' Bartholomew said. ``It went right down beside our camp.''
From there, the group climbed up to the 14,000-foot level, just below the Headwall, where they spent six nights adjusting to altitude and waiting for the weather to clear again. Then it was another two days to the 17,000-foot level. Bausler, who had work commitments with SEARHC, left the group on June 11-12 after reaching the 16,000-foot level. A few days later, Hamby left the group and joined some British climbers heading back down to the 14,000-foot level.
``Carl got stopped and he saw his weather window closing,'' Bartholomew said. ``It was hard travelling when we were moving to 17,000.''
``Paul wasn't feeling comfortable,'' Treacy said. ``That was one of the advantages because we had a large enough group we could afford to send him down the mountain with a tent and some gear without having to cut the whole trip off.''
When the five remaining climbers reached the 17,000 foot High Camp, Treacy was hitting the wall because he hadn't eaten enough food and didn't drink enough water during the climb. But the group had budgeted three days of rest at High Camp, and Treacy was recuperated by the time they were ready to attack the summit on June 16.
TO THE SUMMIT
Finally, on the morning of June 16, it was time for the final push up the mountain.
Bartholomew, who most of the climbers credited with getting them to the top, decided he would take a pass on reaching the summit since he'd already been to the top of Mount McKinley twice before. Instead, he would stay at the 17,000-foot High Camp and would have food and fluids ready for the four climbers who would make the summit.
The raw temperature was minus-30 degrees, with a wind chill of minus-80, when Treacy and Clark paired off in one group of two, with Wessen and Kistler in the other pairing. The two groups would get separated during their assaults on the summit, but both reached the top of the mountain. One photo of the group leaving High Camp, taken by Bartholomew, showed at least 30 other climbers also heading for the summit that day as the weather finally broke for a summit attempt.
``There hadn't been anyone to the summit for nine days when they went up,'' Bartholomew said. Before the weather broke, Kistler said he'd been ready to turn around and head back, but he was glad he was able to stick it out.
The group left shortly before noon for the summit, and it was about midnight when Treacy and Clark finally returned to High Camp, and it was even later when Kistler and Wessen returned. Both pairs were very weary when they finally trudged into camp, only to be rejuvenated when Bartholomew thrust some food at them.
``If Bob hadn't been there (at High Camp) to cook for us, we would have been in trouble,'' Treacy said. ``I never could have gotten my harness off.''
Having summitted, the climbers took two days to return to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Base Camp. Treacy said conditions deteriorated so much on their descent that at times their visibility was so bad they could barely see beyond their own feet.
They finally arrived at base camp about midnight on June 19, only to be told that a storm was moving in and they'd likely be trapped there for at least three or four days. The Juneau climbers, who had regrouped with Hamby, went to sleep thinking they were stuck on the mountain. But when they awoke the next morning, they found out there would be a brief opening in the weather about noon and possibly a plane or two would be able to get in to pick up some climbers and get away before the weather moved back in.
The weather opened up, and the climbers were able to get off the mountain, with five of them sticking around in Talkeetna for a few days to await their gear while Treacy returned to Juneau so his frostbite could be treated. His fingertips were still a bit blistered on Tuesday, but Treacy is healing and should return to work later this week. The only other health problem was some minor frostnip on four of Kistler's toes.
``I had no blisters,'' Kistler said. ``This was a great diet plan.''
``We all lost about 15-20 pounds,'' Treacy said. ``I was just glad we were able to get to the top, so I wouldn't be thinking later in life that I hadn't made it and I'd feel a need to go back.''