by Steve Bragg
"It was so cold that I froze my butt off. Here, let me show you.”
I looked away from the televised pictorial of an Alaskan backcountry traveler who had solo-skied across the state the previous winter. Why do people enjoy dropping their trousers in front of a TV camera?
It was 4 o’clock in the morning on May 17, 2001. The sun was shining weakly through the window of my room at the Millennium Hotel in downtown Anchorage. I had just arrived there by a series of flights from Denver, and could not decide if I should crash for a whopping two hours before the shuttle to Talkeetna arrived, or raid the room’s refrigerator for candy bars and watch bad programming.
The sleep option won, but just barely. I faded away with an unopened candy bar in one hand.
* * *
I woke with the candy bar contorted into the shape of my fist. I carefully returned it to the refrigerator and dragged two monstrous duffel bags downstairs to the lobby. A pair of extremely lean men in expedition-weight polypro jackets were lounging in chairs near the elevator, sipping coffee. One was Todd Kelly, a painter living near Lake Tahoe, and the other was a Seattle resident, Thom Porro. Todd was also an amateur cross-country ski racer, and in extraordinary physical condition. Thom was the general manager of Sawbones, which is a company that creates plastic bones that surgeons use to practice on; it also developed the original Pooper Scooper, but wisely sold off the rights after deciding that selling dog poop holders to surgeons was a limited market.
The shuttle was late. I wandered around to the rear of the ornate hotel, past a variety of stuffed animals and hunting scenes to buy a muffin the size of a Kodiak bear. Outside, the temperature was in the forties. A seaplane roared overhead and trucks rumbled past (ah, virgin Alaska!) as I called the shuttle company to see what was going on. The shuttle arrived in the middle of the call. We dragged several hundred pounds of climbing equipment into an attached U-Haul van, and settled into our seats for the three-hour drive to the frontier town of Talkeetna, which would be our jumping off point for Denali.
* * *
The single key factor that drives so many people to climb Denali is that it’s the biggest damned thing in the Arctic. It stands 20,320 feet tall at 63 degrees north latitude. It bulks up from the Alaska Range, which is generally only about 3,000 feet high, so it has an enormous profile that can be seen from well over a hundred miles away. The splendor of its size attracts a multitude of (generally) the best climbers in the world for a two-month climbing season that begins in mid-May. This year, 1,365 climbers had registered with the Park Service to make the ascent. The mix of climbers is quite international -- Japanese, Germans, French, Spanish, and especially Koreans frequently attempt the peak. The Koreans are especially well-known on the peak for the large number of rescues required to bail them out. They tend to have short vacations, and so attempt to push their way up the peak in much less time than is needed to properly acclimatize, and also are prone to travel in the worst possible weather conditions.
Denali’s sheer size generates a singular weather system that can be characterized by brutal storms that dump extraordinary quantities of snow – I had sat through a storm on the peak three years before that dumped three yards of snow. During that trip, we experienced 1 ½ days of good weather out of 17 days on the mountain. Also, climbers high on the mountain can expect to see temperatures as low as -40 degrees, especially in May. We were climbing in May.
The weather patterns cause a large number of accidents. In a typical year, about 100 climbers succumb to either altitude sickness or frostbite, requiring an average of twelve rescues. The peak is located only 130 miles to the north of Cook Inlet, which is a natural feeder system for large quantities of precipitation that rumble toward it like a freight train. Consequently, snow tends to fall more heavily on the south side of the peak, as these weather juggernauts slam into the mountain and dump their loads. The worst storms come from the southwest, and usually involve four-day storms that are accompanied by heavy snowfall and high winds. Arctic weather coming in from the north is obviously much colder, but tends to be linked with clear weather and high winds. If weather comes from the northwest, climbers camped on the lower Kahiltna Glacier are treated to inordinate amounts of fog, snowfall, and general misery that roll over Kahiltna Pass and down the glacier like a wet blanket. In short, this is not Jamaica.
* * *
Denali had a forbidding approach at the beginning of the twentieth century that required a half-year investment of one’s time, as well as an extraordinary level of expertise in winter camping, glacier travel, white-water boating, hunting, and dog sledding. The standard approach route was from the south, up the Cook Inlet, overland for a number of months by either dog sled (in the spring) or horse (in the summer), and then a lengthy glacier approach from the north on the Muldrow Glacier (named after Robert Muldrow, who co-led a surveying expedition to the area in 1898). Even in those days of adventurous people, very few were willing to undertake such labors when there was no clear idea of the layout of the mountain, or of how it could be climbed.
The first serious expedition to Denali was in 1902, and was led by Judge James Wickersham, who was in search of a higher authority for his legal opinions. Denali’s Wickersham Wall was named after this explorer. This group was followed in 1903 by an expedition led by Dr. Frederick Cook, reaching 11,300 feet and also circumnavigating the entire peak. If Dr. Cook had left matters at this point, he would have been recognized as a solid performer in Alaskan history. However, he returned in 1906, again failed to climb the peak, and then popped back into the wilderness with Ed Barrill, an assistant horse packer, and came out with a story of having made an incredibly rapid ascent of the peak. Knowing a good idea when it had worked before, Dr. Cook then went on to claim being the first man to the North Pole, even though he never came remotely close to it.
An ardent group of supporters of Dr. Cook opposed all skeptics of his Denali claim, so the other members of his 1906 group came back in 1910 to trace his alleged route. Its leaders, Dr. Parker and Belmore Browne, discovered that an insignificant peak on the Ruth Glacier (named after Dr. Cook’s daughter), located twenty miles from the top of Denali, was the actual site of the “summit photo” that Dr. Cook claimed was the top of the peak.
The Sourdough Expedition, which was comprised of a group of miners, completed an extraordinary tour de force in 1910, completing an 11,000 vertical foot climb in one day to reach – the wrong peak. They climbed the slightly lower north peak of Denali. This achievement was particularly impressive, because they also dragged up a 14 foot spruce pole, four inches wide at one end and 2 ½ at the other, which they planted on the north summit. This group’s remarkable work was offset by the claims of its leader, Tom Lloyd, who claimed, in the grand tradition of Dr. Cook, that they climbed the south summit instead.
These efforts were followed by a return visit of the Parker-Browne expedition in 1912, which completed an epic half-year trip to and from the mountain, actually making it to the summit ridge of the south peak, but being blown back down by ferocious winds without being able to make the final quarter-mile traverse to its top. They just escaped from the peak in time, for an enormous earthquake destroyed their ascent route behind them, throwing a cloud of snow particles thousands of feet into the air.
The summit was finally reached on June 6, 1913 by the Stuck Expedition. Hudson Stuck was the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon. The Archdeacon’s Tower, high on the peak, is named after him. Harry Karstens, later to be the first superintendent of Denali National Park (formed in 1917), was also a member of the expedition.
Ski plane landings were also an early part of the peak’s history. The first landing near Denali was on April 25, 1932 by a Fairchild monoplane, on the Muldrow Glacier. This is now within Park limits, and so landings are no longer allowed there. Instead, planes land on the southern edge of the park, on the Kahiltna Glacier. The first landing in this location was made by Terris Moore (also part of the third successful summit team) in 1951.
The most popular route on the mountain, the West Buttress route, was discovered by Bradford Washburn, who was also well known for making a definitive series of aerial photos of the peak, and also for manning a high-altitude medical camp on Denali for many summers. Nearly all climbers now take this route. As of 1997, 10,000 climbers had reached Denali’s summit. Though this number may appear large, it must be balanced against a total of 91 deaths as of 1998, with an average death rate of 2 per year. The worst year was 1992, when eleven climbers died. Of these deaths, 34 have occurred on the “safe” West Buttress route (which has also seen more than 400 accidents, as logged by the Park Service).
* * *
We drove past the seaplane airport, which was a small lake completely surrounded by beached seaplanes. In Alaska, everyone has an airplane, a 4x4 truck, and a Zodiac boat. The basic rule here is to own everything that contains spark plugs. Pretty much everyone also owns large-bore artillery, since the odds of encountering a grizzly bear in the wilderness are high. I was ruminating over this particular item as we passed a combination espresso stand and taxidermy shop on the way out of town.
Signs of civilization quickly dwindled as we drove north alongside the Susitna River, with the distant Alaska Range on our left and the Kenai Mountains on our right. On two previous trips through this valley, we spotted Indians sitting on couches by the side of the road drinking beer. Many Indians in this area do not work, because of oil royalties, and fritter away their time observing the local traffic. All residents of Alaska receive an annual $2,000 oil royalty check, which results in a frenzy of local buying when the checks arrive in the mail. Our one stop on the way was at a coffee shop in Wasilla, which also houses the last “real” (i.e., sells roasted coffee beans) grocery store prior to Talkeetna. Our bleary-eyed driver became much perkier after imbibing a pint of Wasilla’s finest gourmet brew.
After another hour, the van turned in at the local Alpine Ascents International headquarters, which is located two miles outside of Talkeetna. It is comprised of a very fine log cabin home, as well as three spacious Mongolian yurts, which are round structures with leaky roofs and a great deal of interior padding in the form of colorful woolen wall hangings.
We were the last arrivals of the climbing group. The rest of the team included Paul Lego, a Woodside, California resident whom I had met on an earlier climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in 1994; Michael Davis, the agent for the singer Jewel; and Monique Palumbo, an investment banker from New York. The assistant guide was Dave Bangert, a resident of Ridgway, Colorado. He is an astoundingly good cook, with an acerbic attitude toward unsafe climbing practices (sometimes appreciated) and excellent climbing skill. He has been involved in the rigging for a number of climbing films, as well as for ESPN’s Winter X Games. The lead guide was Vernon Tejas, who is a legend in Alaska, and the chief reason why several of us had chosen to go on this trip. Vern is a solidly built six footer, with bushy black eyebrows and a shaved head. He is famous for a number of things – 31 trips on Denali, its first winter solo ascent, the first winter ascent of Mount Hunter, the first solo ascent of Mount Vinson (high point of Antarctica), finishing in the top ten in the 1999 Eco-Challenge race, and playing a fiddle all over the mountain (he even recorded a CD on Denali’s summit). There is a book called Dangerous Steps that recounts his solo winter ascent of the peak. He is a wonderfully gregarious character who talks to everyone on the peak, rockets down the safer areas on a climbing sled whenever possible, and generally enjoys life immensely. He can also be seen on the “Taste of Alaska” program on the Food Channel, in which he is the commentator. It was a rare privilege to spend three weeks with Vern.
Vern conducted a gear check inside one of the yurts. A startlingly large amount of equipment is required to climb Denali, because of the risk of encountering severely cold and windy conditions. Alpine Ascents had sent us a two-page list of climbing equipment to bring to Alaska. While searching the Internet for some of the gear, I had found the slightly shorter list that another group was using for a Mt. Everest trip!
Vern stood in the middle of the yurt and worked through the list, making sure that all required items were on hand. This included double plastic boots, overboots, crampons, an expedition sleeping bag, booties, down pants, expedition park, ascenders, climbing harness, an extra-large pack, and no fewer than four hats – a ski hat, a lightweight balaclava, a heavyweight balaclava, and a neoprene face mask. Vern gave us a stern lecture about bringing extra equipment, using the motto of “ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain!” We were to find, as we progressed up the mountain, that quite a few “essential” items could be dumped into a cache, such as extra snacks, books, cameras, and even water bottles. Several of us used water bottles as pee bottles (and vice versa) in order to avoid carrying a bulky extra bottle. I tried this approach at high camp, and strongly recommend a healthy dose of Gatorade powder to mask the unfortunate flavor.
The target of much of the gear reduction was Monique, who was determined to retain a stylish environment for as long as possible (in keeping with the tight black clothes and high heels in which she arrived at the yurt). Dave Bangert would not allow her to bring any of four issues of The Economist, and she was only allowed to bring an eight-pound Canon camera and twenty pounds of candy on the condition that she abandon both at base camp.
After re-loading everything into large duffels, we squeezed into the Alpine Ascents van like frat brothers into a phone booth and motored two miles to the ranger station at Talkeetna to check in with the Park Service. Passing the “Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Talkeetna” sign that bears a suspicious resemblance to a large shingle, we found ourselves facing the exceedingly short “main drag” of Talkeetna.
This unique town was founded in 1910 as a trading station – its original name was Talkeetna Station. Its uniqueness stems from both its buildings – which may be delicately described as “restored colonial,” and its people, who are representative of the settlers who blazed a trail through the Old West. During an earlier expedition to Mount Foraker, I spent a pleasant afternoon parked on the steps of the town liquor store, sharing a 24-pack of beer with the town drunk, and watching outhouse races (you grip some inside handles, peer out the breathing holes, and run like blazes), people beating on a car with a sledgehammer for a $1 fee, flybys by the local bush pilots (between the trees), and a group of Hawg riders who prowled down the main drag at ten miles per hour, cycled through some back alleys, and then frowned their way down the main drag again.
We were in a rush this time, however, so we went straight to the ranger station. The Park Service requires everyone to sit through a one-hour briefing about the route, which was delivered by a bored ranger who kept referring issues to Vern, to whom he appeared to have the same relationship as that of a neophyte priest to an archbishop.
There was good weather between Talkeetna and the snow runway at Base Camp, located sixty miles away on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, so Vern squeezed us back into the van, stopped briefly at a local climbing shop for last-minute equipment purchases, and then drove to the runway. The Talkeetna airport is an extremely busy place, since it is the home of several famous flying services, such as K2 Aviation, Doug Geeting Aviation, and the service we were using – Talkeetna Air Taxi. The pilot weighed our duffel bags and affixed a weight tag to each one, so that the planes could be loaded properly. Our plane was a Beaver, which is the largest-size ski plane that can land at the mountain’s base. Just as we were loading gear into it, Vern appeared with several “Denali” pizzas from the nearby pizza shop. We climbed on board with pizza slices in hand and the pilot slammed the door behind us.
The others, who were new to the mountain, might have thought that this level of speed and efficiency in getting underway was normal, but I knew otherwise. In 1998, we had to wait for a backlog of 90 climbers to fly in before us, due to poor weather conditions from the previous few days. In this case, Alpine Ascents not only got us in the air with the greatest possible speed, but also jumped us in front of a 34-member team of Finns who were already sitting next to the runway.
The Beaver requires very little runway to become airborne. We were up in seconds and banking hard toward the Alaska Range. The plane flew over a wasteland of bogs, fens, and marshes that lie between Talkeetna and the lowest foothills. There are no roads that cover this distance, making either air travel or an early-season ski trip the only options for reaching the Kahiltna Glacier. A few very intrepid climbers arrange for the air drop of an inflatable raft at the head of the Kahiltna Glacier, which they use to paddle back home.
The pilot leveled off the plane at about 8,000 feet. Looking ahead, we could see Denali heaving its monstrous bulk up over the horizon. Some peaks certainly seem large – a case can be made in favor of the fifty mile-wide Kilimanjaro – but nothing compares to the extraordinary base-to-summit vertical gain of Denali, which springs up nearly four miles from the surrounding countryside.
* * *
The peak was known by the local Indian tribes well before European and Russian explorers arrived on the scene. The Susitna Indians called it Doleyka, the Aleutes called it Traleyka, and the interior Indians called it Denali, “the high one” (which is the name of the national park in which it is located). A name that was dangerously close to sticking was Densmore’s Mountain, which is derived from Frank Densmore, whose written description of it during an 1889 voyage in the region was widely circulated. My favorite is the name the Russian traders bestowed upon it – Bulshaia Gora (Great Mountain). Its former legal name of “McKinley” comes from W.A. Dickey, a Princeton graduate; he gave it this name because he fell in with some prospectors in the Alaska region who were rabid free silver champions, and got so sick of their repetitive discussions of the issue that he named the peak after the champion of the gold standard to spite them. He sent letters to the New York Sun about his experiences; the Sun published them, and later championed the continuation of the name when the U.S. Geological Survey protested making it official, on the grounds that the name was now so well known through the newspaper’s publicity. The name “Denali” is frequently used to denote the peak itself.
* * *
The Beaver popped through One Shot Gap with perhaps fifty yards to spare on either side. I don’t know if pilots go through the pass so low in order to save fuel, or if they are just trying to scare the snot out of their passengers. As the ground fell away on the north side of the Gap, we could see an enormous glacier, the Kahiltna, spread far away to the north, more liberally cracked open with crevasses than the paint job on my house. Directly ahead of us lay 17,400-foot Mount Foraker and its impressive southeast ridge. A decade earlier, I had spent two weeks trying to climb it in bad avalanche conditions; we finally bailed out and climbed 12,800-foot Mt. Crosson, which soon appeared to the northeast of Foraker. The Beaver bank hard to the right to loop around a mountain spur, and descended abruptly into the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, where Base Camp was located. We buzzed over a group of climbers descending Heartbreak Hill at the foot of the runway; a series of tents flashed past on our left in rapid succession – a bump, another bump, and we were down in a cloud of snow particles. The pilot used the plane’s momentum to turn around at the end of the runway, and cut the engine.
We formed a human chain to ferry equipment out of the Beaver, while a group of disreputable-looking climbers impatiently waited to climb aboard for the flight back. We were soon disembarked, and the Beaver flew off with a shattering roar that echoed off the surrounding peaks. A second plane load soon arrived, and the entire group and its equipment was on-site.
The first task was to set up camp for the night. We trundled the piles of gear to a set of campsites that had been abandoned by an earlier expedition, and set up three North Face VE-25 tents. Vern and Dave slept in a Posh House tent, which was nothing more than an lightweight tarp, supported by a ski pole sticking out of a central mound of snow. They dug down to create a pair of benches, with leg room in between, and a cooking platform at one end. This proved to be a remarkably useful tent, for it could hold all eight of us in a pinch, and shed snow surprisingly well. When we were leaving to pack a load up to the next camp, Vern simply pulled out the supporting ski pole to collapse the structure, and dug it out again upon our return.
All dinners involved the stewing of a single large pot of carbohydrates, such as reconstituted potato, into which was mixed some form of generally unidentifiable meat. There was also a dessert, of which coagulated pudding was the most common. To eat it, we sat in the Posh House, four to a bench, and ate from a bowl. When finished with a meal, we reach down between our legs and scraped snow into our bowls from the snow supporting the bench. Some vigorous scrubbing with a spoon completed the job. Sometimes Vern brought in a long aluminum tube, out of which he extracted a collapsible fiddle, and serenaded us with some really good bluegrass tunes.
We stayed in camp the next day to conduct a review of glacier travel skills. Three of us tied into each climbing rope, and simulated the fall of one person into a crevasse, usually accompanied by a screech of “ohmygodohmygod I’m falling!” Vern was usually available for a helpful yank on the rope that sent the other two people tumbling down on their faces. We switched into the roles of victims and heroic rescuers several times, and learned enough of the “Z” pulley system to maybe understand it and certainly be dangerous in the event of a real crevasse rescue.
We conducted the training exercise smack in the middle of camp, so that one rescuer was frantically rigging a rescue pulley system two yards away from a French climber who was relaxing under a beach umbrella and smoking a noxious cigarette. Meanwhile, the victim at the other end of the rope was roughly even with the communal toilet, and so had a startlingly different view of the climbing scene.
Base Camp is a cluster of several dozen tents, containing both fresh-faced climbers who have just arrived, and a scurrilous crowd of mangy, sunburned derelicts who are praying for a flight out. There is also a Park Service ranger who checks the weight of trash being packed out. If there appears to be too little trash, an expedition can be fined for littering. The various flight services also communally pay for a Base Camp administrator, who is responsible for issuing a nightly weather report by CB radio to all climbers on the peak, as well as for coordinating flight operations at the runway. The eastern end of the camp is a tangle of marker wands, signifying the locations where outgoing expeditions have buried a few days of extra supplies, in case they are snowed in upon their return. The military also leaves large black fuel tanks here for its helicopters, who visit regularly on training missions. The temperature at the camp drops to zero in the evening, and can easily surpass eighty degrees during the day, due to the reflective effect of the surrounding peaks.
To the southeast of the camp lay Mount Hunter, which is a formidable 14,573-foot beast with a reputation for hard routes and major avalanches. It was known as Roosevelt Peak by early prospectors, but was renamed Hunter during Dr. Cook’s 1903 expedition by Robert Dunn, who named it after an aunt who was a financial backer of the expedition. Vern had been in the first group to climb it in the winter. During that trip, the warmest temperature they experienced was minus fourteen degrees.
The next morning, May 19th, we arose at 1:30 AM to carry loads to Camp One, which was located 5 ½ miles up the Kahiltna Glacier at an altitude of 7,800 feet (which is a gain of 600 feet from Base Camp). We were not yet used to the early-morning temperature, so everyone staggered into the Posh House wearing their full expedition-weight regalia – booties, down pants, down jackets, and balaclavas. Vern was in charge of breakfast, and ladled out surprisingly good pancakes and heated syrup. We made all the noise we wanted, since it is a peculiarity of the climber to want everyone else to be awake when he goes to the trouble of arising at an obscene time of day.
We formed into rope teams, attached sleds to the rope behind us, and set off down Heartbreak Hill (so named by those who struggle back up it at the end of the trip). After a half hour, the trail cut right through a crevasse field and then trickled out into the center of the Kahiltna. These crevasses are the most dangerous ones on the entire route, and have brought several expeditions to an early halt. They are large, deep, and hungry, and are spanned by shallow snow bridges. This was the main reason why we were getting up so early – the bridges were frozen solid at this time of day.
The passage was uneventful, and we soon found ourselves plodding steadily up the glacier, with small plumes of steaming air trickling away from our mouths. There was a cold breeze flowing down towards us, so we put on ski goggles for protection.
Despite these crevasses, the Kahiltna is generally a mild glacier, with just a few concentrations of crevasses that are easily avoided during the early season. Most crevasses are relatively small, being just a few yards wide and perhaps a hundred yards deep; those who go into them are not inclined to measure the exact depth. No one is certain of its depth, but estimates have gone as high as four thousand feet deep. Studies have shown that it moves downhill an average of eight inches per day. Denali is surrounded by glaciers – the next one to the east is the Ruth Glacier, on which Alpine Ascents conducts training classes – and the famous Muldrow Glacier on the north side, up which all of the early expeditions traveled. It is still used by those who want a truly wilderness experience, but requires a much longer time to complete. We were later passed a group that had completed an epic ascent from the Muldrow side, hauling all of their gear to the summit, and were descending the Kahiltna for a flight out.
We reached Camp One, which is a small cluster of tents at the bottom of Ski Hill. After digging a deep hole, we dumped our loads into it, covered it, and marked the spot with wands. The return trip was a race against the rising sun, which soon drove the temperature up to eighty degrees. We discovered that the reflection of sunlight off the snow caused sunburns up our noses, on the roofs of our mouths, and on the tips of our tongues. The only prevention for avoiding a sunburn inside your nose is to twirl a sunblock stick in there like a plumber cleaning out a sewer pipe.
We were up at the same time the next day to break down camp and move to Camp One. It took much longer to get going, since we were not used to breaking down the tents and packing efficiently. We dealt with frozen tent poles – to un-stick them, you breath on the frozen linkage without quite touching it, until it breaks apart for packing. We then moved up the glacier and arrived at Camp One just as the sun was cresting Denali.
The first order of business when constructing Camp One was the snow wall. The prevailing winds went straight down the Glacier from Kahiltna Pass, so we stomped out an outline for the encampment that was oriented parallel to the glacier, with pointed ends. It was critical to use this battleship shape, rather than blunt ends, as I had learned here in 1998. At that time, we were stuck in a series of localized storms on the lower Kahiltna in Camps One and Two. We had constructed square enclosures, resulting in the snow-heavy winds butting up against the walls and dumping their loads on the spot, rather than being turned away by a “prow” construction, which tends to shift the snow away from the camp. In this previous case, our tents were completely buried as frequently as once every three hours, and the total accumulation within the snow walls was eighteen feet – even though the actual storm only dropped a few feet on the glacier as a whole.
Paul had an engineering degree, and proved that he was genetically inclined toward that discipline by carefully creating a quarry for the cutting of snow blocks. He scraped off the surface layer of snow, which was not compacted enough to form blocks, and then dug a trench parallel to where he wanted to quarry them, like an Egyptian pyramid builder. He then rectangular blocks with a snow saw, and then pried them loose with a shovel. He handed them up to me, which I placed in an offsetting series of rows to form the wall. In order to create a perfect wall, we discarded any blocks that fractured, or came out with slightly incorrect dimensions, and also carved them with a snow saw even after they were firmly seated in the wall – just to make the wall look better. Dave announced to the other expedition members that our wall was a “perfect example of an ideal snow wall.” This resulted in some good-natured catcalls, such as “assholes!” and “gay bastards!”
After the wall was completed, we assembled all of the tents, staking each one with a single bomb-proof picket or ice ax to prevent a major wind gust from carrying everything down the glacier. We attached tent stakes to the tent guy lines and buried the stakes sideways in the snow; once frozen in, they became effective tie-downs for the tents. We also dug a small hole in the snow beneath each tent vestibule. This created a good entryway into each tent that allowed us to sit up on our sleeping pads and don our expedition boot shells, which were left in the vestibules overnight. By having this hole in the vestibules, it was much easier to jam our feet into the frozen boots. In one case when I tried this approach without a vestibule hole, I rammed my foot into the boot shell so hard that the boot flew out of the tent and into the snow wall like an artillery shell.
Each tent had a clothesline, made of parachute cord, strung through internal loops near the top of the tent. Though they were effective for drying wet items, such as balaclavas, socks, and backpacker towels, it made the interior of the tent look like a Chinese laundry. It was particularly irritating to move suddenly in the tent and end up with Paul’s underwear draped about my head like a swami.
The next morning, we arose at 2:30 AM to prepare for the carry over Ski Hill to our cache point at Camp Two. This was located only 2 ½ miles away, at an altitude of 9,800 feet. I had a bad memory of Ski Hill from the last trip, because we had climbed it in one push, using very heavy loads, and did so late in the day, when the snow had turned to mush. This time, things went much better with lighter 60-70 pound loads on a frozen surface.
Rope positions varied by day. In this case, I was bringing up the rear, with Monique in front of me. She motored along just fine until near the top of the hill, where she completely ran out of steam. Later, while caching gear, I hefted her haul bag, and found that it was at least twenty pounds heavier than anyone else’s. She had been the last one to rig a sled that morning, and so had taken the last haul bag, which everyone else had ignored due to its weight. This surreptitious juggling of load weights was fairly common, especially when you were feeling poorly. On the other hand, the two people who went out of their way to imitate pack mules were Paul and Todd. Paul carried a monstrous load on his back that was the size of a VW, while Todd, being far more fit that anyone, routinely packed several dozen extra pounds. One of his loads was so heavy that he broke the waste belt on his pack (and then carried the same load anyways).
While hiking up the trail, a pair of KH-11 double rotor military helicopters thumped overhead. Military craft routinely fly over this area from Elmendorf Air Force Base, using it as a training area. They fly in pairs, so that one can render assistance if the other goes down. We saw smaller attack helicopters, as well as hefty C-130 cargo planes buzzing about the peak at various times. In this case, they were dropping off a military climbing team that was testing winter climbing equipment in the area. They caught up with us the next day, and each expedition passed the other several times during the trip.
While digging the cache, Paul had an attack of diarrhea. He snagged a role of toilet paper from Monique, who had enough for a supermarket, and went to a corner of our wanded enclosure to take care of business, while Monique fretted that he would use the entire roll. She was a champion toilet paper user, running through no less than five rolls during the three-week trip. The recommended amount is just two rolls. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) even taught its students to use no TP at all, though I suspect that the use of snow for this function would be a startling. I came down with Paul’s affliction the next day, sending Vern and Dave scurrying to boil water instead of just melting snow for our water bottles.
On the way back from the cache, Vern offered us the option of hiking down with our sleds strapped to our packs, or of roping up and sledding down through the crevasses. Paul, Todd and I volunteered for this elaborate form of suicide, while the others wisely elected to walk. As this activity is not entirely approved of by the Park authorities, he requested that we keep this little secret to ourselves. I lay on the lead sled, with my legs hanging out to control it, while Paul, linked to me by a rope, was several dozen yards behind on another sled. I started off down a moderate slope, and soon found that a great deal of leg dragging was needed to keep the sled going at a reasonable pace. However, even a minor correction to one side or the other caused Paul’s sled to pendulum wildly across the slope, causing Paul to do a complete 360 flip while frantically clutching his sled. We stopped several times to air our differences; I meekly promised to mend my ways during the next segment, while Paul glared at me threateningly, though the effect was watered down by the amount of snow packed into his ears, jacket and goggles. I never could quite get it right, so we ended up blazing far off to one side of the correct path and skirting a large crevasse field. On the other hand, Todd and Vern got the technique down in quite a spectacular fashion, blasting down like an arrow through the most difficult sections.
The next day, May 22nd, we moved up to the dreaded Camp Two. This Camp is positioned directly below Kahiltna Pass, over which spills a flood of moisture-bearing clouds on many days. This causes intense local storms that dump amazing quantities of snow, while also blanketing the area in a dense layer of fog. I had been stuck here for five days during my last trip on the mountain. Vern was passing through here once in a white-out, and tripped over the top of an igloo containing a group of Mexicans who had been snowed in here for eleven days.
Upon our arrival, the lead rope team thoroughly scouted a rectangular section of snow for crevasses, jumping up and down to see if they could punch through (picture a portly jackrabbit in Gore-Tex). We then marked the corners of the area with wands, so that no one would walk past the reviewed area and fall in a hole. It had snowed two feet the previous night, so it took several extra rounds of stomping to pack down a camping area. We then built an especially well fortified complex with extra-high walls for protection from storms, including a walled toilet enclosure with a yellow rubber duck for companionship. Vern warned off a pair of Koreans who were eyeing our brand spanking new toilet with the obvious intention of actually using it. We brandished shovels and ice axes and glared at them.
The storm came. According to the evening radio call on Channel 19 of our CB radio, there would be a multi-day storm centered on the camp.
We awoke to blustery winds, fog, and over a foot of snow parked on the tents. Vern and Dave roused us with venomous cheerfulness and announced that today was clearly a “travelin’ day.” The distance for the day’s carry was only 1 ½ miles and 1,300 vertical feet, but there was simply no way to see anything at all. I have never traveled in such a complete white-out. Vern took the lead, using a pitifully inadequate pair of Japanese snowshoes that were only marginally broader than his boots. He broke trail nearly the entire way to Camp Three, through snow depths that gradually increased to two feet. The weather cleared as soon as we made a right hitch in the trail and climbed above Kahiltna Pass. The return trip was worse, as we plunged into a thickening morass of fog. Dave and Vern walked in front, widely spaced, consulting their compasses to find the route back. After some wandering, the camp appeared to our left, now thoroughly buried in snow. We spent an hour digging things out, and then crawled into our sleeping bags for the rest of the day.
There was an even worse snow storm the next day. About two feet of snow had fallen inside the camp walls, and it was banked up in large drifts all around the outside. Plowing through the fresh snow to the bathroom area was nearly impossible. We packed up as rapidly as possible (three hours) and set off with Vern in the lead. He chugged along with snow up to his thighs.
People can suffer from optical illusions when caught in a white out, because there is no point of reference for the eye to fasten upon. In this case, picture a painting in which the characters have been painted onto a white background; they appear to float in mid-air. At one point during the day, I happened to glance at Vern, who promptly dropped about twenty feet. As I looked back to view each person on the climbing rope, each one also dropped the same distance. I blinked, and they all sprang up to where they had been in the first place.
This state of affairs continued for about two hours, when we passed a lone tent parked in the middle of the slope. A Norwegian couple had given up on finding their way to Camp Three, and were waiting there for some likely victims – us – to lead the way. They broke camp with astonishing speed and were soon cheerfully trooping along in our wake. We broke through the clouds a short distance below Camp Three and staggered in for a well-deserved rest. Vern had led nearly the entire way, and looked beat for the first (and last) time on the trip. Vern declared that we had just passed through the worst weather he had ever experienced on that part of the mountain. Luckily, there were some vacant snow walls available, so we set up camp within them and called it a day.
The morning of May 25 was cold, snowy, and windy. Vern decided that it would be dangerous to travel through Windy Corner to our schedule cache point that day, and instead declared a rest day. This was perfectly acceptable to several clients, who were completely bushed from the effort expended the day before. Tom in particular was so tired from being in the second position the day before, tramping through Vern’s bow wave, that he appeared to have the flu.
After lazing about in the tent until mid-morning, most of us switched to the Posh Tent to sit up and socialize with the others. Since there was a snowstorm on, entering the Posh invariably involved cries of “watch your head!” (since our expedition parka hoods reached much higher over our heads than we were used to), “Don’t break the friggin’ zipper!” (which invariably became tangled in our hoods), and “shut the zipper ALL the way down, you idiot!” (because even a small opening in the zipper allowed a frigid blast of air to enter the tent).
The newest entrants were relegated to the least desirable seats nearest to the door, since this spot was furthest from the hot stove, was last to be served hot drinks by the cook, and got cascaded with incoming snow. Generally, those nearest the door were fully dressed in expedition-weight clothes and mittens, while those progressively closest to the stoves wore less clothing, with the cook frequently in nothing more than long underwear and booties.
The drinks of choice were hot cider, hot chocolate, coffee (carefully hoarded), and even simple hot water (usually squirreled away into one’s jacket for warmth, rather than drunk). If a drink was too hot, one simply leaned back, grabbed a chunk of snow from the wall, and plunked it into one’s drink. There was a constant round of hot drinks being produced, with the cook digging a hole under the stove area (a la The Great Escape) to procure more snow for conversion to water. There was also a profusion of power bars making the rounds. Since they were frozen, they usually made their way to one’s mouth by way of the crotch or armpit.
With seven of the eight members of the group being male, it was inevitable that the focus of conversation centered on a combination of scatology and sex (though not both at the same time). In this camp, I had proposed the question of who had had sex on the most arcane type of furniture. The discussion flew about the tent several times, while we worked through the usual household appliances (clothes washer, refrigerator, stove) and furnishings (stools, chairs, and the occasional bookcase). Dave threw us a poser that required intense discussion – was a lobster trap considered furniture? There was no question that he had in fact engaged in sexual activity on the trap – men only lie about this to women – but could it be considered furniture when it was still in use on a lobster boat, and in fact still contained a lobster? At this point Monique cheerfully stuck her head into the tent and brightly inquired as to the topic of conversation.
“Lobster traps – now look, if it could eventually become an article of furniture, then it certainly should fall within the rules.”
“No way. The question was who had had sex on an existing piece of furniture, and your average coffee table does not have a lobster crawling around inside it.”
Monique pursed her lips in a disgusted manner and went off in vain search of another female somewhere – anywhere – in the encampment.
The overnight temperature dropped to five degrees below zero, so we were bundled up a bit more than usual on the way to breakfast the next morning. Part of the morning drill was to check our oxygen absorption and pulse with a pulse oximeter that clipped onto an index finger. The trouble was that it had been hanging in the Posh Tent all night, and so was similar to clipping an ice cube onto one’s finger. Consequently, the first person into the tent each morning was responsible for warming it up before passing it around for readings.
A good reading on the oximeter was an absorption level of 90 or more. If someone clipped on the device and got a good reading, the fortunate recipient made a show of revealing the score on the device to the next person in line, saying the score in a loud and obnoxious voice. Anyone with a poor score typically muttered that the oximeter was obviously still frozen, and plunged it into a pocket for further warming before attempting to achieve a better score. Vern kept track of the results in a notebook. If anyone had an unusually low score, Vern might have the group stay at a camp an extra day for further acclimatization. However, the only place where scores were low was at high camp, and we were constrained there more by the weather conditions than any need to wait for better scores.
Breakfast looked like a Miserable Misfits convention. Todd or Thom usually arrived first, carrying foam pads that they laid out on the twin benches in the Posh Tent. I was next, giving a cheerful cry of “Where the white women at, eh?” – this being a standard line from Blazing Saddles, combined with an atrocious French Canadian accent that I was cultivating. This cry brought Thom into fine form, who had the most amazing Japanese jabber imitation. Then Paul stomped in, proclaiming, “You wanna’ be the husband, o’ you wanna’ be the wife?” (Please understand that I slept for three weeks next to Paul, and not once did my Bowie knife leave my hand). Michael and Monique (definitely not morning people) then clambered into this cacophony of both bad and foreign languages, receiving the least prestigious door positions.
Today’s carry was about fifty pounds each, and led to a cache located at 13,500 feet. To get there, we had to ascend Motorcycle Hill, which was a 30-35 degree slope directly above Camp Three, then turn right and eventually make our way past Windy Corner. The initial ascent up Motorcycle Hill is always tough, because it is a steep ascent with full loads, and everyone’s muscles are still cold. We also abandoned snowshoes and switched to crampons at this point. The Hill climb took one hour to complete.
Though it was foggy, we still had a fine view from the top of the hill of Peters Glacier, a spur of which was spread out below us on the hill’s far side. The formidable Peters Icefall rose high above it, swathing an immense granite wall in a sheath of ice. We turned right and pushed up a moderately steep slope for a half-mile. The slope fell away 100 feet to our left, dropping 3,000 feet to the Peters Glacier. This area required some attention to footwork and balance, especially since our sleds tended to drag towards the drop-off.
The first of the Alpine Ascents expeditions crossed paths with us here. They had encountered blue ice while climbing the Headwall (more about that later), and had then sat at high camp for a week, waiting for the weather to break, which it never did. At one point, they figured that the combination of high winds and –40 degree temperatures at night were resulting in a chill factor of ninety-four below zero!
This short hike brought us to Squirrel Point, which was named after a red squirrel that survived on abandoned food caches here in 1993. The route then opens out into a wide valley that gradually ascends another thousand feet to the infamous Windy Corner. On a sunny day, the valley is nature’s equivalent of a microwave oven. On a bad day, the winds howl through Windy Corner and rip down the valley at hurricane speeds, making it impossible to traverse. Today, the weather was somewhere in between, with light fog and a breeze. An hour of slow hiking through a web of small crevasses brought us to Windy Corner.
Windy Corner is a relatively wide gap at the top of the valley that reveals tremendous views of the southern Alaska Range, especially of Mounts Foraker, Crosson, and Kahiltna Dome, which guard the western flanks of the Kahiltna Glacier. It also gives a great view of the worse crevasse field on the route, along which the trail skirts. The most dangerous part of it is an area immediately to the left of the Corner, where the slope drops off into a large crevasse. A slip here and a quick “oh shit!” and you are gone. Three people have died in this area.
Today’s weather was not conducive to falls, so we dragged our sleds a few hundred yards past the Corner with no difficulty, and cached our gear. Though the ascent had been both hard and slow, the return trip was anything but – we were back in our tents in ninety minutes.
The next day was a hard day, for we were carrying all remaining gear not only to the cache point, but past it to Camp Four, located at 14,200 feet. When Vern had any doubt about how fast to travel, he went slow – really slow – so the sun rose high in the sky and rolled around the other way as we plodded up the trail. Passing the cache, we skirted to the left of a series of huge crevasses that began at the end of Camp Four and tumbled away over an enormous cliff wall that hovered over the Kahiltna Glacier.
There is nothing worse than having a hard day on the trail and then building a complete winter camp from scratch. We avoided this fate, because an earlier Alpine Ascents expedition had built a complete set of walls and then moved up to a higher camp. Another Alpine Ascents group was still in camp, guarding these walls for us. We gratefully set up our tents in their lee and stretched out for a nap.
There are usually between one and two hundred climbers acclimatizing at Camp Four for a few days before pushing up to high camp at 17,200 feet. It is protected from much of the weather that blankets the lower Kahiltna, and from the winds that slam into the higher parts of the peak with such regularity. There is also a Park Service ranger station located here, which is manned by one ranger, a doctor, and five volunteers. These people do not have an easy time – during my previous trip, one of the volunteers had gone high on the peak to search for a fallen climber, and had slipped 1,000 feet down onto the Peters Glacier.
From this camp, the primary route was up the Headwall, which loomed directly behind the camp, to a notch in the West Buttress at 16,200 feet. The West Rib route also passed nearby on another ridge; there was a well-used trail that ascended to that route, because many climbers liked to stop off here for a break before continuing to the top. In between these routes was the infamous Orient Express, which is a steep couloir that can be used for a direct descent from high camp to Camp Four. The trouble is that it is very steep, and ends in a large crevasse. Thus far, fifteen Orientals (mostly Koreans) have died while attempting its descent – hence the name.
The next day was mostly a rest day. Vern cooked a vast breakfast, which included French toast, bacon, and sausages. We ate until we were bloated, and then crawled outside into the brilliant sun to watch Todd Burleson, the owner of Alpine Ascents, talk to his main office in Seattle by satellite phone about logistics for the various trips going on around the world. There is also a cell phone station at Camp Four, so that anyone who has hauled a phone this far up the mountain can call relatives. Michael brought a phone here in order to call Jewel on her birthday.
At eleven o’clock, we began a short hike back to our cache. Going down was incredibly fast, and we arrived in twenty minutes. Before starting back up, Vern placed a cell phone call to a voice mail box in Seattle that Alpine Ascents was using to update a Web site, so that relatives could find out how we were doing. Thus far, our families had been wondering what was going on, because there was no way to contact the mail box from the lower camps on the back side of the mountain. Vern’s message was as follows:
Hello out there in cyberland! This is Vernon Tejas with Alpine Ascents trip #3, also known as Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. We are now at 13,500 feet picking up our cache of food and fuel which we will soon take up to our Camp Four and the 16,200 foot level. Its a beautiful clear day. You can see from here all the way to Russia (if you look real hard). Everybody seems to be doing very well, but certainly we can feel the altitude, but with several days rest at 14,200 feet, Camp Four, we should be doing quite well. We are staying on schedule and things should go as planned. And here we have...let's see this would be Dopey or is this Grumpy?
Hello, this is Grumpy, also know as Steve Bragg, and sending along all my love to Mom and Dad and Melissa, Victoria, and Andrea. Everything's going well here, everyone's in good shape and I'm passing the phone along to another member.
Yes this is Stinky, also know as Paul Lego. I don't know how I earned that nickname but uh...(laughter in background). Hi Kathy, Hi Paul Henry, Hi everyone at Virage, everything's going great, see you soon and I'm passing it on right now to another dwarf..."
The team name came from the distribution of sexes in the group. We had one female (Monique) and seven males, so the name was an easy one. The real question was what dwarf name each of the men would be assigned. Dumpy was an obvious one for Paul, because of his early case of diarrhea, while the rest of us came up with other names, such as Pissy and Crappy – there was a common theme behind them.
May the 29th was yet another rest day. Our main objective at this point was acclimatization, since the next camp was 3,000 vertical feet higher. Altitude sickness issues were most likely to arise from this point onwards, so Vern was being extremely careful with us. In the morning, we made a ¼ mile hike to the Edge of the World to take pictures. This is a rock ledge to the southeast of the camp that has an abrupt drop of 4,700 feet to the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. This fork is also known as the Valley of Death, because there is a hanging glacier above it that regularly calves off ice blocks that turn into avalanches, sweeping across the entire width of the fork. Since this is also the route to the base of the West Rib route, climbers usually traverse the Valley at midnight, when avalanches are least likely.
Our next activity was clipping practice. Dave rigged a rope into a square, and tied it down into snow pickets at the corners. We then attached ourselves to the rope with ascenders, and practiced clipping in and out of the rope at the corners as we shuffled around in circles. Though this may appear boring, it is an excellent idea to be very clear about how to move around pickets – especially while wearing thick mittens – in a safe place, rather than on a steep pitch high on the West Buttress. We finished with a race around the square to see who could blast through the course in the least amount of time – Michael won.
The rest of the day was open for anything we wanted to do. Monique donned every scrap of clothing she possessed and lazed out in the sun to “catch some rays” – perhaps on the one square inch of unexposed skin on the back of her neck. She was reading segments of War and Peace as soon as I handed them to her. I had brought the whole book, cut off hundred-page chunks as I finished them, and passed them to her. I was most happy with this arrangement, since I was packing along a progressively lighter book as we went up the mountain.
No discussion of Camp Four is complete without a description of the famous throne. The throne is a plywood toilet plunked down in the center of camp. Given the volume of climbers, there is no other way to keep from being inundated with feces, so the Park Service requires that everyone use it. This year, they added a squat throne for those more used to this method. Both thrones have an outrageous view of Mount Foraker, which sometimes leads climbers to sit (or squat) much longer than necessary, resulting in mutterings from the long line of climbers who are standing with crossed legs in a line behind them. During one visit to the throne, I was even videotaped by a Japanese climber! Later, several climbers registered a complaint against a French climber who was ejaculatingnext to the throne. Another climber was running naked through the camp and jumping into snow drifts.
That evening, Vern posted the following message to the Alpine Ascents web site:
Hello cybersurfers! This is Vern Tejas with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Expedition. We're presently camped at 14,200 feet, with a beautiful vista of Mt. Hunter and Mt Foraker to the south. The weather has been clear and calm and we're hoping to move up our food and fuel tomorrow, high on the ridge of the West Buttress at 16,200 feet. Today we spent a lot of time just lazing about and building red blood cells. To pass the time we took a trip over to the Edge of the World, which is the edge of the plateau here, and we can look off and see a tremendous vista -- over a mile and a half drop down to the lower glacier. It was fabulous.
When we came back, we practiced our rope work so we can ultimately be very efficient and smooth once we get through the fixed lines up at 15,000 feet. Everybody seems to be in very good spirits and their health is very good as well. And we're hoping that its going to stay that way and the weather will continue to cooperate and very soon we will stand on the very top of North America. So that's all for now. This is Vernon Tejas signing off from 14,000 feet. Bye Bye.
On May 30th, there was bad weather higher up on the peak. Unbeknownst to us, another Alpine Ascents group, which was sitting at the high camp that day, posted the following message in regard to weather conditions:
Today we've probably got ambient air temperatures of -25 degrees Fahrenheit; that would be a high temperature for the day. We've also got about 25-30mph winds. I'll let you all do the math there, it just means that it's darn cold. We're going to sit tight and hope for better weather. We'll keep you posted on our progress. That's all for now. This is Allen Carbert at 17,000 feet on Denali saying goodbye, and I wish you all well.
The normal wake-up time at Camp Four is 10 AM, since this is when the sun strikes the tents. However, any ascent day requires an earlier wake-up, in order to beat everyone else to the fixed lines on the Headwall. These two lines are located ½ mile north of Camp Four, beginning at a filled-in bergschrund (a big crevasse) and stopping 900 feet later at the crest of the West Buttress, at 16,200 feet. Since there is only one line for climbers going up and one for those going down, it is not uncommon to have an extended wait at the bergschrund (sometimes three hours!) before clipping onto the rope. Accordingly, we were up at 8 AM in minus five degree conditions, and heading out of camp at 9:30 AM, just in front of an advancing line of sunlight.
The trudge up to the base of the Headwall is an extremely boring haul. On the other hand, a quick glance over one’s shoulder revealed an incredible view down the Alaska Range, including hundreds of smaller peaks that were just appearing as we gained enough altitude to see over the tops of the nearby peaks that had previously blocked the view.
Todd and Vern were carrying sleds with them to the Headwall, since they wanted to bomb back down to Camp Four at the end of the day’s climb. Others, who had never exceeded an altitude of 14,000 feet in the lower 48 States, were more concerned with what their bodies would do to them, as each step forward brought them to new personal altitude records. The added strain of high altitude and heavy loads certainly increased the amount of tension. For example, as the lead person on each rope climbed into the plateau in the bergschrund, he turned around and belayed the following person up the steep slope just below it – in Paul’s case, this meant belaying Michael. The rope between them caught on the lip of the bergschrund, causing some jerks on the rope as Paul tried to clear it. Michael thought that Paul was doing a crappy job of rope handling, and came up over the edge snarling like a wolf. The two had a very short war of words that Vern cut off at once – they were both profuse in apologizing later in the day. It was particularly unusual to see this from Paul, who is a close to a mild-mannered Clark Kent as you will ever see, but who needed to say something in defense.
Once everyone was in the bergschrund, we immediately clipped ascenders into the fixed line and climbed up the headwall. There was no time to waste, since a long line of other climbers was approaching from below; they would clog up the fixed line if we allowed them in front of us. The Headwall begins at an angle of 55 degrees, which drops off to a 45 degree angle almost immediately, and then continues at that angle for 900 feet, which brings you to a saddle on the West Buttress. The Headwall is not remotely difficult to ascend, but it is very slow. The basic process is to slide the ascender forward a foot or so, clomp up a step, pigeon-toed in the crampons, and lean forward on the ice axe while waiting for the rope to tighten, allowing for another step forward. There are a number of pickets driven into the snow, where each length of the fixed line ends and another one begins. At these points, we unclipped the ascender briefly, reached forward and clipped into the next length of rope. The final length of fixed line terminated at a picket right on the crest of the West Buttress, revealing a gorgeous view of the Peters Glacier and the lowlands to the north of the peak.
It is possible to camp at this point, but the crest is quite narrow and windy, so it is usually only used when a group is pinned down and cannot move to a better location. A pair of snow caves have been dug underneath the north side of the ridge for this purpose. However, we were only there to cache supplies. Vern and Dave were busy excavating a hole in the hard snow just a few yards to one side of the fixed line. This turned into a major construction project, because of the presence of a Park Service ranger.
The ranger was probing the snow with a long wand, looking for caches that were buried less than one meter deep. One meter is the minimum depth of snow that the Park Service requires climbers to have over their caches. If it is less, the Park Service removes the cache. Vern did not like this rule at all, since climbers may return to a cache for much-needed supplies, and find that it is gone, creating a major crisis. To make matters worse, a smell of gasoline soon pervaded the area, indicating that the ranger had punctured someone’s fuel container with her probe. Vern glared at her and told me to keep a camera handy in case she did something illegal. In the meantime, we dug an enormous hole in the snow for our cache – when we asked Vern how deep to dig, he glanced at the ranger and said “to China.” This seemed a trifle far, but we were good Boy Scouts, and knew when to take an order. Consequently, the cache we eventually left behind was the size of a small condominium.
Returning down the Headwall is great fun. The trick is to keep the ascender on the rope, but to jam your thumb under the gate, so that it stays open just enough to let the rope run through it freely. If there is a problem, just remove your thumb from the gate, and it clamps down onto the rope, stopping all progress. We also kept one arm wrapped around the line, and of course were also independently roped together. With this triple protection, there was no risk of falling. We were down the fixed line in a few minutes.
Upon reaching the bottom, Vern and Todd jumped on their sleds and blasted down the slope in a cloud of powder, blazing past several ascending groups and eliminating the beautiful “S” turns that a telemark skier had made while making multiple descents of the lower Headwall. They arrived at Camp Four in seconds. The rest of us were a trifle longer in returning.
That evening, Vern posted the following message to the Web site.
Hello cybernauts! This is Vern Tejas with Alpine Ascents and the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves team . Today we moved our food and fuel up to 16,200 feet in crystal clear skies where you can see for many a mile. Everybody did well, and we ended up having the biggest cache ever built at 16,200 feet. It was a delight. And here's Snow White to tell you what her day was like:
Monique: "Oh, it was a great carry and a great day. We have warm weather and no winds and everyone's really excited; we have two more hard days left: the move to 17,200 feet and then summit day. So all are strong, healthy and excited, and thanks to friends and family for watching."
This is Vern Tejas at Camp Four, 14,200 feet above sea level, signing off. Good night and God bless.
May 31st was, for many of us, the toughest day of the trip. We broke camp, carried full loads up the Headwall and along the West Buttress, and set up shop at Camp Five, located at 17,200 feet and at the far end of the ¾ mile-long buttress. The trouble was the 3,000-foot vertical gain, at high altitude, on a ridge that was narrow enough to make some folks nervous, with very full loads. I got into trouble before we even reached the Headwall.
Michael was leading the rope team that I was on. He had to go to the bathroom pretty badly (common during the first hour of the day, when a pack’s waist belt compresses your bladder), so he stepped off the stairway which had been cut into the snow by the large volume of ascending climbers. This meant that, while we waited for him, two teams (one French, one female) jumped into the stairway that we had just vacated, and climbed past us side by side. There was an enormous line of climbers, so we had no chance to get back into line for a long time. Meanwhile, the other two rope teams from our group were already in the bergschrund and peering over the edge to see what was taking us so long. Michael continued climbing close to the stairs, while I was forced off into deep mushy snow, which was exhausting work.
The massive amount of work, combined with the thought that this was caused by a single thoughtless moment by Michael (who could avoided it by holding on for ten more minutes) got me as riled up as I’ve ever been. I pounded over the top of the bergschrund, fuming, “I just got fucked down there!” Paul intercepted me and kept me off in a corner to relax and get my breath back. Michael was already in line for the fixed rope, and probably did not realize that there was a very irritated climbing partner ready to do something illegal to him with an ice axe. This may seem like a minor issue, but it is quite difficult to keep a steady energy level at high altitude; any sudden exertion can require a long time to recover from. My twenty minutes of sprinting completely blew me out for the rest of the day, and I was not feeling well again for a full twenty-four hours.
We ascended the fixed line in colder temperatures than the day before, and saw plumes of snow coming off the saddle at 16,200 feet. When we reached it, the weather was clearly worsening, with snow squalls moving through. Our guides were very cautious as we trudged up the West Buttress, for it is narrow and can have winds strong enough to blow climbers completely off the ridge and into the valleys on either side. Consequently, we clipped into aluminum pickets driven into the snow and used running belays, so that the team was always anchored to at least one picket as it moved upward.
The first obstacle on the ridge is Washburn’s Thumb, which is a fifty-foot block t sticking up in the middle of the Buttress. There is a fixed line that runs around the left (north) side of it, which is recommended in stormy conditions, and is quite unnecessary in calm weather. It was in this spot in 1998, during my last trip to the mountain, that a Rainier Mountaineering guide named Chris Hooyman was blown 1,500 feet off the Buttress by a wind gust. He had unclipped from a rope team in order to go to the assistance of Florida lawyer Larry Semento. My group had been descending the Kahiltna at the time and I had called in to Base Camp to request a ski plane for the flight out, and instead ended up listening to the Park Service staff at Camp Four talking to the surviving climbers on the Buttress, who were radioing down for assistance.
A Park Service volunteer ranger, Mike Vanderbeek (and a Colorado Outward Bound school director from Colorado) had died a few days prior to this accident when he had soloed up the West Buttress to look for the body of Canadian Daniel Raworth, who had been blown off the ridge the day before by 60 mph wind gusts. While we had been at Camp Four, a high-altitude Llama helicopter had been buzzing around the Peters Glacier looking for both bodies – it found the Canadian’s body as well as the ranger’s pack. Though no fatalities had occurred yet this year, we did not want to be the first. Consequently, the pace on the Buttress was extremely slow, perhaps ½ mile per hour, as Vern tested each step from his lead position and shuffled around the more dangerous spots.
We finally plowed through to the top of the Buttress and into Camp Five. This is a scattering of snow walls that are spread widely over two areas. The first group is on the side of hill, next to a Park Service cache of rescue gear located at the top of Rescue Gully. This steep gully allows risk-takers to make a fast descent to Camp Four with the aid of a fixed line that is rolled up in the cache. We passed this and headed for the larger camping area, located on a flat spot at 17,200 feet, near a promontory that looked out over Camp Four. Fortunately, there was an extensive complex of snow walls that another group had recently abandoned, so we set up camp within it in a short time. We had brought one less tent to save weight, so Todd moved in with Paul and me. This was only for one night, since we gained a tent from a departing Alpine Ascents group the next day. That evening’s temperature was the lowest of the entire trip, at –12 degrees.
That night, Vern sent the following message to the Web site:
Hello all you cyber-surfers out there, this is Vernon Tejas with Alpine Ascents' Snow White and the Seven Dwarves expedition on Denali. Today we moved up from 14,000 feet all the way to 17,000 feet. We are now at our high camp, and we're in position to go for the summit. During the day, we strained ourselves quite a bit, so tomorrow's going to be our rest day. We're just going to drop down tomorrow and pick up some food and supplies that we left down at 16,000 feet and just kind of let our bodies acclimatize, so that when we're due for the summit, we can give it all we got. Everyone seems to be a little bit tired. We were eight hours on the trail today and we also spent two hours breaking camp and putting camp up on each side of that so a good long 12-hour day at altitude. But I'm hoping that they're all going to spring back tomorrow and we'll get ready for the big push for the summit. So keep your fingers crossed gang and we'll talk to you tomorrow. Bye bye.
The next morning was absolute perfection – only a scattering of clouds far below us, no winds, and warm temperatures. It was an obvious summit day, but as Vern had stated in his Web site message, several of us were completely bushed and needed at least a day to recuperate. Since this meant that we were probably going to be sitting in Camp Five for a few days, we needed to drop back down the Buttress and pick up our cache. Accordingly, Dave, Todd and I trooped back down the ridge (only forty minutes with empty packs!) and picked up the cache. Given the conditions, this was easily one of the top-five most stunning climbing days I have ever had. A C-130 cargo plane was roaring about the ridge on some sort of training flight, while we enjoyed the view of a long line of other climbers crawling up the Headwall. Dave burrowed deep down into the cache to pull out meals for the next few days. The return trip was much faster than the first time around, since the conditions were so good and the loads were much lighter than before. The only incident was when a descending French climber stepped on our rope. I heard Dave yell out, “watch the fuckin’ rope!” This is his standard approach for politely informing other people that he disagrees with them. The Frenchman passed me, muttering “do you think you own this peak or something, eh?”
We returned to a quiet camp. Monique, Thom, and Michael were still in a bad way from the altitude, and had been resting. Part of the problem with altitude sickness on Denali is that its position at a high northern latitude results in a barometric pressure that is lower than what is found on mountains closer to the equator. This results in air pressure at the top that is normally found on 21-23,000 foot peaks, and which is therefore harder to acclimatize to. Vern left the following message on the Web site:
Hello cybernauts! This is Vernon Tejas with Alpine Ascents' Snow White and the Seven Dwarves expedition high on the flanks of Denali. Denali shows her evil side tonight. We are poised ready to go for the summit yet the wind is howling right now. The tent is flapping in the background and we're figuring its probably 40 to 50 mph. We're pinned down -- we can't go up and we can't go down, but fortunately we have enough food and fuel to last for several days. Today Dave, Todd, and Steve dropped down to our cache at 16,200 feet and picked up enough food that we can sit out a couple of days of storm. So we're holding tight biding our time and hoping that the weather cooperates and tomorrow we'll go for it. That's all for now high on Denali. This is Vernon Tejas signing out.
The wind was indeed picking up. During the night, a five-foot long section of our north wall, which was over a foot thick, collapsed under the continuing assault of the wind. We stayed in the tent, wondering why the tent was flapping so hard. With the temperature at eight degrees below zero and a fifty mile per hour wind, it seemed better to wait until morning before going out to conduct repairs. The following morning, Paul and I put up a two foot thick replacement wall, and added an upper layer to the existing wall, which brought it up to at least five feet in height on all sides. The weather remained poor all day, so we stayed in camp, reading books, playing cards (Las Vegas should stop Paul at the border), and adjusting equipment. The pulse oximeter was finally showing a good reading for everyone, so we were ready to go for the top. Vern left the following message on the Web site:
Good evening cybernauts! This is Vernon Tejas with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We're pinned at 17,200 feet high on the flanks of Denali. The winds have been raging all day at 40 to 50 mph. We've only been able to walk out to take care of particular things and rebuild our walls. Hopefully, tomorrow the weather will stabilize and the winds will drop and we will climb up to the top of North America, so keep your fingers crossed for us. Here's Snow White:
"Just wanted to say hi to Brad and Kim and Susan for watching. We have to wait out a weather system but I'll be home soon."
"Hi this is Paul, I just wanted to say hi to Kathy and Paul Henry. I miss you terribly and I'll see you soon."
"Hello, this is Steve. Just saying hello and all my love to Melissa, Mom and Dad, Victoria and Andrea. I suspect that you are sleeping better than we are."
There was no improvement in the weather the next day. This was becoming a concern, since we were running out of food. To take care of the shortfall, Vern went back down the West Buttress with Michael and Paul to clean out the cache at 16,200, which still contained some extra meals. The weather was good enough to allow this trip, though they did not have anything like the incredible views that we had enjoyed several days before. The rest of us spent the day pottering about camp. There was a lengthy discussion in the Posh Tent that night about how long we could continue to stay at Camp Five. The trip was scheduled to last no longer than the following day, after which we were supposed to drop back down and leave the mountain. This did not sit well with Michael and Monique, who were willing to fly in the Marines at their own expense in order to keep us there for as long as it took to reach the summit. The rest of us had commitments back home, though in a few cases we could stay for perhaps one additional day. Vern explained the logistical situation over and over again, noting that there was simply no more food, and that Alpine Ascents was not going to fly in a couple of guides with extra meals, and have them troop up to Camp Five in a two-day push in order to deliver it. Monique and Michael were still talking over their options with Vern when the rest of us had gone to bed. That evening, Vern left the following message on the Web site:
Good Evening cybernauts! This is Vernon Tejas with Alpine Ascents' Snow White and the Seven Dwarves expedition. Here we are hanging at 17,200 feet, another day filled with wind and anxiety. Three of us dropped down and picked up a little more food and fuel from our cache at 16,200 feet and we are now in position, we are now acclimatized, we now have food and fuel to last a couple more days, and yet the weather has not cooperated. It's starting to wear on us, anxiety is running high amongst the crowd, we certainly would like to climb this thing soon, so please, please give us all the prayers in the world for the best weather tomorrow and we'll try to give it our best shot. Thank you ever so much. This is Vern, at 17,200 saying good night and sweet dreams.
The prayers worked. We awoke the next morning, June 4, to sunny skies, no winds, and a temperature of ten degrees below zero. There was no point in getting up too early, since the first part of the route was cloaked in shadows and was stingingly cold at this hour. We set off when the sun was just touching camp, and joined a long line of climbers going up. The leader of the Alpine Ascents group that was following us up the mountain, Wally Berg, had been calling Vern on his cell phone each morning, and found that there was no answer this time:
It's Wally Berg reporting in to you from 16,200 feet. Awesome day up here, we're really high right now. Both Steve and Phil commented to me as they climbed the last section of the fixed lines and came into this little notch up here, very narrow little saddle, "Boy, what could be more fun?" were the comments I heard from these guys. We had unsettled weather today; cloud layers in every direction above and below us.
I tried my normal 8:05am scheduled radio check with Vern Tejas, and he wasn't on the radio, and that made me think Vern and his group probably went for the summit today. I haven't yet been able to confirm that, but we wish them the best luck if they are indeed climbing, and we hope they had as good a day as we did carrying up here to the Col.
The camp had been gradually filling up over the past few days, since the weather was just good enough to allow for an ascent to it, but not enough to proceed farther. This morning, the cork had been pulled from the bottle of climbing champagne, and climbers poured up the mountain. We joined a long line of them who were making the traverse of the Autobahn.
The Autobahn is a slope directly above Camp Five. The route is a traverse across its 45-55 degree slope that brings one to Denali Pass, located at 18,200 feet. This is a traditionally dangerous area, because climbers can slip here and zing down the slope into the mouth of “Jaws,” which is a gigantic crevasse located several hundred yards downhill. It is a particular problem for climbers coming down from the summit, since they are tired and tend to lose their balance more easily. This section turned out to be quite easy for us, since there was a clear path that had been beaten down by previous climbers. Also, the first Alpine Ascents group had left a dozen pickets in the snow, which we used for a running belay over the steepest sections. Nonetheless, we came close to a major disaster here.
We were about ¾ of the way across the Autobahn when a tremendous rattling began underneath us, sounding very much like a subway train roaring through downtown Manhattan. We were standing on a thin layer of snow, perhaps one foot deep, which covered a massive sheet of blue ice. It appeared that this sheet was hollow, and that a large chunk of ice had broken loose somewhere below us and clattered down the slope. This elicited responses from various climbers all over the slope of “Holy Shit (me),” “Yeehah” (Vern, of course), and “Choung Piao!” (Koreans). Everyone started yelling at the lead person to get the hell off the slope, so that they could run by and leave everyone else to certain destruction when the slope cut loose. It did not do so, though we assumed a much quicker pace and reached Denali Pass a few minutes later.
Denali Pass is a notch located between the North (wrong) Summit and the slopes leading eventually to the South (correct) summit. As usual, the North Summit looks like a far more interesting summit than the South Summit, and of course everyone avoids it because it is not the highest point on the mountain. We stopped here for a short break, admiring the view across the Harper Glacier that tumbled away to the northeast over the Harper Icefall. The route was to the right (south), up a steep slope that stayed off to one side of a ridge crest. A startlingly large number of climbers were pouring out of the Autobahn behind us and ascending in several strings of rope teams. We joined the horde and began a series of switchbacks up firm snow.
The angle of the slope tailed off to a very modest ten degrees shortly thereafter, and stayed that way as the route curled around slowly to the left. We spotted the Marine team hunkered down at one stopping point, trying to warm up their chilled feet. I was busy roasting my hands inside enormous Marmot expedition mittens, and so had hand warmers to spare. I tossed a few over, and they gratefully promised me a second-hand tank as soon as they could steal one.
After another few hours of laborious plodding (following Vern’s pace of two breaths per step), we crawled past the Archdeacon’s Tower at 19,650 feet and onto the edge of the Football Field. This is a wide and relatively flat area at 19,400 feet, where a bush pilot once landed his plane long enough to rescue an injured climber. There was an accident here in 1998, in which two British military climbers from the First Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, Martin Spooner and Carl Bougard, were stuck for three days in –30 degree temperatures and 50 mph winds. They were eventually rescued by helicopter at a cost to the Park Service of $222,000.
We stopped in the middle of the Football Field to cache our backpacks. Then, switching to expedition down parkas and carrying one water bottle each, we faced one of Denali’s last roadblocks – Pig Hill. It is aptly named, for it is a pig to ascend. The angle is just steep enough to be absolutely exhausting, despite all of our conservation of energy from the preceding slow ascent. Vern led the way with an even slower pace than usual. Ahead of us, the Hill was crawling with climbers (perhaps leading to the new name of Ant Hill) who had previously passed us and were now scrambling to reach the summit. There did not seem to be any rush, since the temperature was in the balmy range of 10-20 degrees, and the weather had been fine for the entire day.
I had been power breathing for the entire day in order to keep enough oxygen circulating through my lungs, and now used it continuously as a pair of rapid-fire headaches came and went. As a result, I staggered out on top of Pig Hill feeling slightly dizzy from a sudden burst of oxygen coursing through me. Vern was standing on the ridge top, looking like the magisterial Egyptian God-King Amenhotep III, as I staggered past him, trying to look like a discrete drunk. I looked beyond him in consternation at the ¼ mile-long summit ridge, which in several places was only eighteen inches wide. In my buzzed state, walking that thing did not seem like a very good idea.
Nonetheless, there is nothing that a short rest stop cannot fix. We sat down in a small flat area just behind the summit ridge for a last snack, while Vern checked with everyone to see how they were doing, handing out extra food here and doling out encouragement there. After a ten-minute break, everyone was ready to go. The final ridge ran straight east to the summit, with a drop of about 500 feet to the left that would send a climber sliding steeply down to the Football Field. The drop to the right was an unhappy one, being a dizzying 8,000 foot drop onto the tip of the Kahiltna Glacier’s northeast fork. We could not see the bottom on this side, because a thin layer of clouds had built up against the base of the peak on this side. Clearly, if there was any issue about falling, we needed to fall to the left.
The crest was much easier than expected. With no unbalancing wind and firm footing, we rapidly shuffled along. The only problem was a number of French climbers, who were clambering back down with all possible speed, and who were not inclined to step aside for us in the narrower sections, resulting in two climbers passing on 18-inch corniced ledges. In one location, two Frenchmen were descending side-by-side, forcing me off the trail entirely. French and Spanish climbers have a well-deserved reputation for being extremely rude, and this was yet another case. Climbers from these two countries are responsible for nearly every breach of climbing etiquette that I have experienced in twenty years of international climbing.
All fuming aside, after 9 ½ hours of slogging from Camp Five, we reached the summit. This is one of the greatest views on earth. The entire eastern side of the mountain, which had been masked up to this point, was laid out thousands of feet below us, where the Muldrow, Traleika, and Brooks Glaciers wound away in broad swathes of white, and hundreds of smaller peaks rolled off into the distance. To the south lay the sharp spire of Huntington Peak, which was named by the members of the Browne/Parker Expedition in 1910 after the President of the American Geographical Society. There was a small flat area just below the summit point where we congregated, waiting our turn for a brief period of posing and Tarzan-like chest-thumping on the summit point.
I normally operate on an extremely even keel, and do not usually have either very deep emotional highs or lows. However, the excitement of finally reaching a summit that had eluded me for years was sufficient to break through for a massive adrenaline surge. I embraced Michael in a bear hug, and we squeezed and pounded each other in pure delight. If anyone every wonders if enduring three weeks of winter camping and hard sledging is worth it, the answer is an absolute yes. This was a profound moment, completing the fifth of the seven continental high points. Meanwhile, Vern was off to one side with his cell phone, sending the following message to the Web site:
(7:19 PM) Hello cybersurfers! This is Vernon Tejas with Alpine Ascents' Snow White and the Seven Dwarves expedition, here atop North America! And here we are, boy it was worth the wait! The clouds have now disappeared, the wind has dropped, and we are looking out over God's creation and it is a good thing, it's beautiful, and it's vast and we're diggin' it. Everybody's in good health and everybody is standing on the summit right now!! And from Snow White here she is:
"Hi to Brad and hi to everyone else. We're all really excited we made it. We were supposed to have horrible weather for a week and not make it and they were wrong: we had windless days and a blue sky day, and all six of us made it to the summit and we have the most pristine beautiful views you can imagine. I'm going to turn you over to one of the dwarfs..."
"Hey I'm probably the least listened to of all the dwarfs, this is Michael Davis. We're at the top of Denali. It's pretty cool, it's just really really beautiful up here and for me this is a true high five. See you all when we get back. Here comes Paul..."
"Hey it's great! We're on top of North America! Thank you Vern, thank you Dave, thank you God! Hey Kathy, Paul Henry, everybody, see you back soon, bye."
Vern: That's all from the top of North America, we're out of batteries for the moment, but we'll all report in when we get back down safely.
At 6:30 the next morning, my eleven year-old daughter, Victoria, checked the Alpine Ascents Web site and immediately spotted Vern’s message. She called my parents and cried “Gramma! Daddy reached the top of Denali!”
* * *
We dutifully lined up like Japanese at a train station to get our turn for summit photos, followed by a group shot by Vern, who was clinging precariously to the edge of a one-mile drop while taking our picture. By this time it was getting late in the day, so we trucked back over the summit ridge (passing a few stragglers who were still coming up) and then poked our way back down Pig Hill. The pace was not quick enough for Vern, who stood at the crest like Moses looming over the Red Sea, and proclaimed, “People! There are two ways to get down. First, you can take five hours walking like old ladies, and you’ll go to bed after midnight. Second, you can crank it down in two hours and we’ll all have a good dinner. I don’t like option one. Now move out!”
We let out a collective “uh oh,” mentally shifted up into fourth gear, and trundled down the mountain. To put things in perspective, the summit day only covers 3,100 vertical feet and 2 ½ horizontal miles, so someone going downhill can blast through it in short order. Sure enough, we made it down to Denali Pass in 90 minutes, just as shadows started to cover the area.
Our speed shifted down to that of chilled treacle at this point. The trouble was that we were now clipping in and out of the running belay points on the Autobahn, while Vern (who was last) needed a few moments to pull them out. This took a great deal of time, and far too much for everyone, most of whom were suffering from mild headaches and wanted to get down fast. Consequently, anyone fumbling with a carabiner would almost certainly incur the wrath of the people in the front of the rope team. Also, the late day sun was reflecting up from the snow surface, resulting in baking conditions in which we were dressed for the colder weather near the summit. Nearing the bottom, Dave became as irritable as a Cape Buffalo being attacked by flies, and suddenly decided to unclip his rope team from everyone else and speed back to camp. Since I was the next person in line after Dave, I led the remainder of the group back into camp a few minutes later. Even guides have their moments.
It had taken us nineteen days to climb Denali. It was about to take just two days to leave it. Some people have completed the descent in one day, but this presents an enormous strain on the legs during the 10,000 foot descent from Camp Five to Base Camp. Consequently, we were taking the much easier, but still irritating, approach of moving back to Camp Three on the first day, and all the way out on the following day.
One advantage to paying for a guiding service is that there are usually multiple teams ascending the peak, so that some gear can be left in place for later groups to use. In our case, this meant leaving the tents behind, relieving us of about thirty pounds of equipment. Nonetheless, we moved painfully downhill under packs that were crammed with gear, while miscellaneous items festooned their outsides, making us look like an Appalachian family roving in search of a new home. The main problem on the West Buttress was Washburn’s Thumb, for Vern insisted that we clip into the fixed line here, even though the footing was fine. This fouled us up with several rope teams that were trying to come up the line at the same time. At one point, I had to climb over an ascending climber by swinging one leg over his head! It took the better part of an hour to get the entire group past this obstacle.
The descending line on the Headwall was our next problem. There was a considerable logjam going down, so Vern examined the uphill rope and announced that there was no one coming up it. If we were quick, we would not breach mountain etiquette too much by using it. I went first, and soon found that the problem on the downhill rope was a climber near its bottom, who was clearly scared of walking down the Headwall. He was hyperventilating, his legs were shaking, and he was continually swearing at his entirely innocent ascender, which kept clamping down on the rope. A swarm of other climbers were piled up behind him as he wrestled with the ascender, saying “Fucking Petzl! Fucking Petzl!” in a high, scared voice. Petzl is the manufacturer of the ascender he was using.
We kept moving down into a fog bank that was gradually rising over the Edge of the World and enveloping Camp Four. By the time we reached the camp, it was beginning to snow lightly, and visibility had dropped to perhaps fifty yards. Here, the superior organization of Alpine Ascents was evident once again, since the group moving up to our camp had left not only another Posh Tent for us, but food, hot drinks, and a woman to serve the food to us. She had experienced altitude sickness on the Headwall the day before, and was going back down the peak with us.
After a short break, we broke camp and headed down through the murk to Camp Three. As usual, either Monique or Vern knew someone in nearly every uphill group going past us, and stopped to jabber. As one group was passing us, we were staying on the uphill side of the track. Our sleds tended to swing somewhat downhill, to the left, and run foul of the climbing ropes used by the ascending team. Behind me, Vern was chanting “higher right, higher right” so that we and our sleds kept out of the way of the other group. I obeyed the instructions a bit too literally and stepped perhaps two feet outside of the wanded route. Suddenly one leg plunged down into a crevasse, right up to my crotch. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. I bounded back up out of the hole and continued on my way, clearing the adrenaline fiz from my brain. Behind me, Vern changed his chant to “not so far right, not so far right.”
Further down, below Squirrel Point, a group of Japanese snow boarders were sliding down towards Motorcycle Hill, scratching across the icy surface with the screeing sound made by running fingernails across a blackboard. They disappeared from sight around the corner, and continued boarding down Motorcycle Hill, cheerfully cutting turns directly over several covered crevasses.
I think everyone was suffering from jammed toes at this point. Dropping down 6,000 vertical feet, while hauling a heavy pack and dragging a sled can do some serious damage to your toes. Both of my big toes had turned numb before we reached Camp three, so I assumed that those toenails would be falling off in short order, as had happened on many previous expeditions.
We set up camp in the gloom and then crammed into the Posh Tent for dinner. Later, the Marine captain showed up. He had heard of Vern, and wanted to talk with our portable Alaskan climbing legend for a while. His group had made a successful ascent on the same day that we had, and was now spending four extra days on the lower part of the mountain, conducting additional equipment tests. He mentioned that the fiberglass sleds used by his group were much heavier than ours, since they had to be sturdy enough to transport a 50 caliber machine gun (great for clearing a crowded route!). He also offered us a free ride out on the KH-11 helicopters when they arrived in four days. Though it would have been awesome to go out in choppers, there was no way we were staying on the mountain longer than the next day, so Vern declined.
We were up at 4 AM in June 6, so that we could beat the hot weather on the lower part of the glacier. Rather than have everyone plod down with a sled in tow, Vern and Dave roped together the sleds and buzzed down the slopes on these giant pontoon crafts while we cheerfully cruised along under light packs. We reached Camp Two in just one hour, and then caught up with Dave and Vern at the crest of Ski Hill.
This was the same area where Paul and I had sledded several weeks before. It is steep, and the runout is far off to the left, terminating in a large crevasse. Dave was in the lead, and looked quite nervous, carefully checking the knots on his enormous sled. We hiked down a short ways to enjoy the show. The both rocketed past, with Dave in the lead, muttering imprecations. He was tied into a rope with Vern, who brought up the rear, braking for all he was worth. The sleds caromed off to the left and blasted down into a wide bowl far to one side of the track. Vern jumped off his sled and yodeled for all he was worth. We met them at the site of the old Camp One, which was in a state of great disrepair, and took back our sleds for the final haul back to the runway.
The remainder of the hike out was stunningly beautiful. There were high cirrus clouds and bright sunlight that bathed the surrounding peaks in a warm glow. We passed an 11-member Taiwan expedition, plastered with sponsors’ logos, and then stopped for a short break before tackling the slog up Heartbreak Hill in the early afternoon heat. Paul popped into a small crevasse while crossing a snow bridge at the bottom of the Hill; he climbed out easily and continued on his way.
Vern called ahead to have Talkeetna Air Taxi send in some planes for us. As we walked in, he ran off to one side to hug the replacement Base Camp administrator. It was Base Camp Annie, who had come out of retirement to give the new administrator a week off. Her real name is Annie Duquette. She was a Eastern Airlines flight attendant before getting the Alaska bug, and who had run the Base Camp for a decade.
The ski plane arrived after a half hour; Monique, Paul and I crawled into it. The pilot wound up the engine to a throbbing roar, and it accelerated past our teammates, rattled down the runway, hopped over some bumps, and lurched into the air. The plane pounded upward, flying straight across the valley towards Mount Foraker. The pilot banked left, and we were on our way toward One Shot Pass.
This certainly beat the hell out of my last departure from Base Camp. Three years before, we had trooped into camp one hour after the last plane left. Heavy weather had closed in for the next three days, while we gradually worked through our remaining one day supply of food. By the time the weather cleared, we were down to one daily meal of a few pieces of macaroni. I had spent the time building an extraordinarily chesty Venus de Milo sculpture next to the runway, which was sure to distract the incoming pilots.
The plane passed through One Shot with some slight bucking. On either side, a panoply of peaks tailed away for miles, while the brown and dark green of the bogs and pine forests of the Alaskan foothills opened up before us.
The pilot swooped low over the Talkeetna airfield in a light rain, banked, and landed. The musky odor of wet leaves filled the cockpit, and I sneezed. After we unloaded the plane, Monique and Paul walked away to call their relatives on cell phones. A pair of very fat Texan tourists waddled up to me and asked, “Son, have ya’ll been climbin?”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied, “we certainly have.”
The next morning, Vern posted the final entry for our expedition on the Alpine Ascents Web site:
Good Morning cybernauts, this is Vern Tejas with the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Expedition for Alpine Ascents. Yesterday started bright and early, clear skies and hard snow. We got up at four o'clock, had our breakfast, broke down camp and moved from 11,200 feet all the way to the Kahiltna Air Strip. It took us just a mere six hours to get there, because we were actually riding sleds down Ski Hill. We marched in there and were greeted by Annie, our favorite Base Camp operator, and she got us going on a pair of trips back to Talkeetna in just a mere matter of moments. We were whisked away and back to the hands and hearts of civilization. We spent the afternoon getting showered and shaved and then we headed off to the wonderful Cafe Michelle, where we had fine dining and popped the champagne corks and celebrated all the way around. We are very fortunate to have such a fine group and fine weather. We summited three days ago in clear fantastic skies; we celebrated this and gave a rowdy round of applause to everybody who contributed to our success. After Michelle's of course we went off to the bar just to celebrate a little bit more. All the members are doing well and now are on their way home. So soon you'll be seeing your friends and loved ones coming back to you and hopefully they'll be no worse for the wear and tear. Thank you very much for joining us for our expedition. This is Vern Tejas saying goodbye and farewell.
Final note: The final climbing statistics for the 2001 season revealed a very high 59% success rate. The busiest summit day of the year was June 4th, when we reached the top. On that day, 69 people reached the summit.