I’m back in Alaska and really enjoying the familiarity that it brings.
Today is day 1 of my second attempt on Mt McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. I’ve been here before as you can already tell. In 2011 my climbing colleagues Hugh and Bridie and I made an independent attempt for the summit but this time around I’m climbing with a group organised by Alpine Ascents.
We are an hour into equipment and food preparation efforts, the floor of the hangar appears chaotic but somewhere in all of this is a level of organisation. Cece, our lead guide appears to be holding 3 or 4 conversations at once but is managing to move from team member to team member and review the equipment each of us has on the floor. Eventually we are stowed away, the bags are weighed and itemised for the Talkeetna Air Taxis to base flight weights on, and with just a few items to purchase locally, we are on the road into Talkeetna to present ourselves to the National Park Services office and obtain the final approval to fly onto the mountain.
Final purchases made, NPS approval received and now nothing to do but wait. We are at Talkeetna Air Taxis and as yet the landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier hasn’t opened for the day so flying is on hold. There’s an obvious level of nervous anticipation in the team. Like myself LC and Nolan are back for their second attempt to summit, Mike, well he’s on his 3rd time up the mountain and we have our 2 rookies Mario and Drew also keen to get going.
We are lucky, the call to get ready comes through and we’ll be the first flight out this afternoon. Our focus is now on getting changed into mountain gear, load the plane and then sit tight for the 40 minute flight to the glacier. By 5pm we are atBase Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier and once again I’m staggered by the fact that I’m here again in the Alaskan Range and by the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead of me for the next 20 days. This time I feel more comfortable about what lies ahead, I’ve been here before and I can see in my mind’s eye the route through to the top of the fixed lines. Despite all my preparation; the physical training and rope skills practice I can’t help but question whether I’m ready for the challenge that this section of the upper mountain climb brings.
Our first full day on the mountain is used for skills refresher with Pete and Nick, the guides supporting Cece, and making the final refinements to food and equipment loads. Our rope teams fall naturally into place, Mike and Drew, both from Colorado join Pete, friends LC and Nolan will be with Nick and Mario and I are with Cece. So for the next 3 weeks I have Cece, who we have already seen doesn’t let anything escape her hawk-like review, watching almost every step I make!
Our progress up the lower mountain (Base Camp through to Basin Camp – 14,000 feet) goes like clockwork. We’re using an expedition style approach that in general provides for a day to carry and cache food and equipment, and then on the following day move forward with our remaining equipment. Our biggest issue is the weather, it’s blue skies, calm and WARM. Too warm in fact – most of us are having trouble dialling in our layering system. I think on day one we nearly drove Cece insane with the number of requests for a “HOLD” (stop walking I need a break). These breaks typically lead to a stop to remove another layer of clothing before calling “CLEAR” (I’m ready to move again). At the end of day 1 on the move we got the message pretty clearly from Cece over dinner “we are going well team but please sort out your layering, our time on the move today was unnecessarily extended by the time spent changing clothing layers!”
On day 9 we make Basin Camp and the next day we complete our installation by making a carry of our cached food and equipment from 13,500 feet, about 30 minutes down, but about 90 minutes return journey from the camp.
Our progress to date has been to plan but there’s a problem ahead that has the potential to be major stumbling block for us, and most other teams on the mountain. The fixed lines, 2 sets of rope, one for upward the other for downward travel on the head wall are not available. The upward sections of rope have frozen into the ice while sections of the downward set are damaged from last year’s use and require replacement. The guide companies and National Parks Service take joint responsibility for managing and replacing the ropes as required but this early in the season there’s not been time to get them into a useable condition. Cece’s on the job, has discussed with other guides in the camp and also with the Rangers in the Park Service camp and a combined group have agreed on a plan that culminates in a day of activity on the fixed lines. In the end, the group completes a day of full on effort that results in the upward rope being chipped out of the ice and the damaged sections of the down line are replaced. Pete and Cece represent our team in this work party while the rest of our group spend the day building snow walls around our camp site. We are all very appreciative of the effort put in by the guides on the fixed lines – our ascent can now progress.
Two days later and we make our first move up from Basin Camp to the fixed lines. Weather wise it’s not a great day and by the time we make the second plateau out of camp the winds have increased to such intensity that Cece has called a halt and eventual turn around for our team. There are many groups on the move up today, we’ve turned first, but eventually all the groups come to the same decision and return to Basin Camp. By the time we are back in camp the winds are really whipping across the face above us. There was no way that we were going to be successful on climbing the fixed line in those conditions. Higher up we can also see snowdrift being whipped off the ridge line that climbs through to High Camp – this was a good day to stay put in Basin Camp. In Cece’s view “that was a good shake down for higher on the mountain”. Read that as – we didn’t do a great job, too many stops for changes to clothing layers again, one of our group had cold feet and required a stop to warm them while Drew has had problems keeping his hands warm.
The following day is a repeat effort but we’ve decided on a later start to avoid being on the slopes before the sun arrives around 9:30am. Once again most of the team in Basin Camp are making a move higher and although we get to the fixed lines in good time we end up spending an hour and a half queuing to get onto the lines. It’s frustrating, and that’s heightened by having to deal with those who think they have a right to jump the queue or even start ascending the down ropes!
Eventually we move onto the lines and make good time to the top of the head wall. My anxiety about being able to manage the ropes is ill-founded although I’m struggling with a chest cold and it’s making breathing at the altitude difficult. In the end I have to call a halt to my progress at the top of the head wall and that’s where we end up making our food cache. Personally I’m disappointed that I’ve brought the team to a halt today, I was expecting to be able to make more altitude gain than that, hopefully that’s not going to be my best effort for the trip. Our descent goes without a hitch and it’s not long before we are back in Basin Camp.
Tomorrow we plan to be moving up to High Camp although we now know that only 4 of us will make this move. Drew has decided that the risk of permanent damage to his hands from frost-bite is too high and he’s decided going down is his best option. Nolan is also planning to descend as he’s finding the cold he’s carried for the last 4-5 days have sapped his energy levels.
Our plan for the move to High camp is to start the ascent around 11am and thus have the sun on the head wall before we leave camp. At the top of the fixed lines we’ll collect the food and gear we cached and then complete the walk up the West Buttress ridge line into High Camp at 17,200 feet. If you say it fast it sounds easy but on the day it was anything but that. The climb to the fixed lines progressed well, it was warm but not overbearing. We had a short break before clipping onto the lines and moved through this section relatively quickly compared to our previous ascent. I was feeling much better that previous trip through this section but I knew I had a descent weight on my back – I was estimating about 22-25kg. What was worrying me was that I knew I had at least another 10kg’s gear to collect and carry from the top of the head wall, would I have the energy to carry that for another 3 hours to High Camp?
Once we loaded the additional cache food and equipment on it was obvious I was in for a slow trip through to high camp, the reduced oxygen at the higher altitude and then the shear weight of the load was really putting me under pressure physically. Additional to that was the pressure I was putting myself under, I wanted to make a good showing on the move through to high camp to ensure that I was dropped from any attempt we might make on the summit.
The West Buttress ridge is something that you have to experience. It’s knife edge in places and the exposure on either side is staggering. On the south side it’s a drop all the way back down to Basin Camp at 14,200 feet. On the northern side the drops seem even more impressive. The first hour of the climb is steep and we followed Pete’s rope team. They were moving quicker than us and it wasn’t long before they pulled away and left us to travel alone. We took a break at the foot of Washburn’s Thumb, a large rock outcrop that presses out across the ridge line and requires a short stretch of fixed line to secure the route around it. Once past this point the route lessens in gradient while the width of the ridge line narrows. Add in the need to move across exposed granite rock along with the ice and snow and the underfoot conditions become just that little more testing.
Almost 3 hours after leaving the top of the fixed lines we arrived at the last traverse across to High Camp. I’m not sure if I was more physically or mentally exhausted but when we stopped walking in the middle of High Camp it was all I could do to untie from the rope and sit down. It took me at least 15 minutes before I was able to get onto “self care” activities – drink water, eat food and put on some additional clothing. I remember being in a similar state on Mt Aconcagua back in January. I’m aware of what’s going on around me but participating just doesn’t happen!
By the time I start to comprehend events in the camp our first of 3 tents is fully pitched and the second is starting to take shape. I know that I was participating in the camp building activities but on reflection now I find it really hard to define what I contributed. Looking back I believe that the mental focus on the fixed lines and then the climb up the West Buttress left me mentally drained beyond almost anything I had experienced.
By 11pm our camp is set. We now have 3 people per tent and Mike has joined Mario and I. A little less space to move about in but warmer with more down clothing and sleeping bags, plus body heat. Counter that additional warmth with higher altitude and the corresponding drop in temperature as we have a forecast for the next day of -15 degrees Fahrenheit (-26 Celsius).
22nd May is an “active rest day” in High Camp for us. A late breakfast and then more sleep. There’s hardly any movement in our tent until approx. 1pm at which time Cece has called for some wall building activity. The forecast for the next 24 hours suggests high winds are imminent and right now we have very little protection in place. For the next 3 hours we cut blocks from the quarry area that’s approx. 10 metres away from our camp site and build them into semi circular wall approx a metre high. Throughout the whole exercise I continue to feel the effects of altitude and move slowly from tent site to quarry and return. I think we are all suffering from the altitude as I note that all of us are almost moving in slow motion. I’m also finding it a challenge to keep eating snacks and drinking water to assist with acclimatisation, a sure sign that altitude is impacting on my body.
By late afternoon the winds are increasing in strength and the temperature is dropping quite quickly. The forecast is deteriorating as well. The weather window that we were planning on using as our summit day is disappearing fast. Tomorrow may be a possibility for us but it’s a complicated situation, tomorrow is OK (at present) but the following day is marginal and then for many days after that a strong storm is forecast and will impact from Base Camp through to High Camp. It boils down to – getting to the summit may be possible but getting off the mountain may not.
Overnight the winds strengthen and our tent is continually buffeted. I’m sleeping in one of the side berths and it’s not uncommon to feel the wind get under the side of the tent and lift the tent floor, me included, partially off the ground.
Come morning the winds have eased but it’s very cold. We can hear Cece and Pete discussing the forecast, the mountain conditions and the options in the tent alongside us. We can all tell that Cece has mixed views on how to proceed, either go for the summit or descend while we can. The visual weather signals are confusing as well, there are lenticular clouds forming on the summit of McKinley and Mt Foraker and they are giving mixed signals on wind speed and direction.
For the next 3 hours there’s much discussion between Pete and Cece, and Cece and other guides on the mountain. We hear that one group suffered a broken tent pole overnight and they have erred on the side of caution and will descend. We stand and look toward Denali Pass and there are several groups already on the move and making an attempt for the summit. For those of us that have been on Mt McKinley it’s a difficult time – play it safe and descend and add one more missed summit attempt to the tally or go for it but have all the downside risks to manage.
In the end Cece makes a call – the right one – we are descending. Later on the lower mountain Cece will confide with us that that was her initial gut decision but she knew that with four of us on 2nd or 3rd attempts to summit she wanted a different outcome.
We are all gutted that our next move is down but thankful that a decision has been made. We reduce our camp to pack size loads and prepare to start the descent.
Down the West Buttress ridge to the head of the fixed lines. Onto the fixed lines. Whether it’s the negative feelings about being on the descent I’m not sure but my progress down the lines is sketchy at best. The heavy pack is not helping either and my footwork is poor. Add to that the need to stop and assist the climber below me who has stopped, exhausted from his own descent and my own progress slows and technique deteriorates even further. By the time I unclip from the fixed lines I’m tired and angry with myself. I’ve let myself down, for goodness sake it’s down hill how can I be so tired and how could I put myself in a position where I’ve dropped a glove and seen it slide into a crevasse?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this day when I flew back to Sydney. We had set ourselves a reasonable objective for the day – to reach Camp 2 at 11,000 feet. In the end we came up well short of that objective. We were impacted by delays on the fixed line as we assisted the climber from another group but I also believe that we had set ourselves up for a summit attempt that day and we mentally lost focus when we decided to descend. I had a very similar situation on Aconcagua when the guides called a turn around at 6,500 metres because of the avalanche risk. I remember the feeling of extreme disappointment then – a numb feeling that’s hard to break through and re-establish a (safe) status quo. Can you train for this situation – I don’t know but it’s something I’m going to follow through on.
For the record we made it back to Base Camp the next day. At camp 2 we unburied our cached snow shoes and sleds and made good time across the Kahiltna Glacier. Our two rope teams “raced” side by side up Heart Break Hill into Base Camp and with an hour of arriving there we were on Talkeetna Air Taxi flight back to the “real world”.
So the summit of Mt McKinley still beckons. In 6 weeks time I should be stepping onto Mt Elbrus in Russia but maybe 2016 is the year for a return to Alaska and success on Mt McKinley?