The Climb

June 9, 2012
Talkeetna, AK

We flew from Seattle to Anchorage this morning and spent the afternoon enjoying beers and sunshine with friends who graciously drove us from Anchorage to our lodge in Talkeetna.

The Fireweed Station Inn was an unexpected treat, the mosquitoes capable of carrying me and my gear off into the Alaskan bush, were not.  The Inn was built in the 1940s as a hunting and fishing cabin and eventually purchased by the current owners in the 1980s, who basically took it apart and put it back together as a quaint B&B surrounded by the Alaskan wilderness.  Except for the mosquitoes, my husband, Darrin and I were fortunate to have the whole bottom level, I may have made a small dent in their bastion, I killed 10 in the bathroom.

As I crawled under my mosquito net in the plump queen bed, I contemplated the fact that this could be the last night this month that I slept in a bed and could just get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom.  I was nervous, running through all of my gear, reviewing my now-complete training plan.  Would it all be enough?  My mind wandered back to a warm afternoon in Seattle, dragging an SUV tire up the steep road near my house.  A scruffy woman in a white SUV slowly pulled up to me, "What are you doing?"  I looked up and tried not to loose my balance as I told her.  Her eyes narrowed as she thought about it, like she was deciding whether my reason was sufficient.  "You go kick that mountain's ass, girl!" she said and drove off.  I knew that I would never see her again, and she likely will never know just how much this accidental exchange would affect me.

June 10, 2012
Talkeetna, AK
Day 1

The last gear check!  Together with my team I quadruple checked my gear for the last time.  As I stood there looking down at all the neat piles of food and down clothing, I found it hard to believe that this is all I would need for three weeks!  Surely I was forgetting something.

After a quick tour through town to pay our evacuation fee to the National Park Service, we headed to the airstrip.  Although it was cloudy all day, we were able to get a flight to the glacier at 4pm.  I have been thinking about this trip for more than a year but somehow I felt like things happened too fast today.  As I changed into my climbing clothes and traded flip flops for mountaineering boots, I wasn't ready for say good bye to civilization, I felt like there was something more that I needed to do to prepare.

The flight from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna glacier was stunning, we flew so close to mountains I thought that I could reach out of the tiny Twin Otter plane and touch them.
Arriving at the Kahiltna glacier
Photo:  Darrin White

June 11, 2012
Base Camp 7,200 feet
Day 2

It's been snowing since we arrived, big, fat, wet snow flakes have spread over everything.  There is an odd mix of people at Denali base camp.  We are firmly in the newbie camp, we still smell like soap and haven't been burnt by the brutal sun.  We still care about how we look.  Then there are the climbers who are ending their expedition.  They care about little but sleep.  While I was snuggled in my bag last night, I heard two British climbers clamber into camp and sleep right on the glacier.  Finally there are the tourists who have paid an outlandish amount to fly from Talkeetna to land on the glacier for snowballs and photos.  We accidentally set up our toilet a little too close to their photo op spot ... oops!

Our team spent most of the day practicing the basics of safe glacier travel ... anchor building, self-arrest, crevasse rescue.  Finally we rigged our plastic sleds with the gear and food that we will carry to half camp tomorrow.  Now is when I start (ok, maybe continue) obsessing about weight!  Being the smallest person on my team, I have a natural disadvantage when it comes to hauling heavy loads.  I've spent a lot of quality time dragging an SUV tire around my neighborhood, so I should be prepared.  But, tomorrow's load will be the heaviest of the trip.  I estimate that my sled contains 45 pounds of group food and gear, and my backpack weighed thirty-six pounds without water in Talkeetna.  Those weights are less than my top training weight, so I should be fine.  I reminded myself that tomorrow's move will only be three hours with little elevation gain.

June 12, 2012
Half Camp - 7,400 feet
Day 3

The move to half camp wasn't bad at all.  Thankfully, since we were carrying all of our gear, the terrain was mostly flat.  My shoulders ached from the pull of the sled - just like they had with my tire - but I felt fine.  We left base camp at 7:30 am and were building camp by 11 after taking two breaks on the way.

The biggest risk on this part of the mountain is crevasses, and they are everywhere!  I could tell from indentations in the snow where some of them were when I was walking over them.  When I was near a crevasse, I always made sure to step exactly where the person in front of me had.  Just before camp this strategy proved to be flawed when my left foot slid right through the snow bridge.  I landed face first on the opposite lip of the crevasse.  My first sensation was that I lacked an ice axe to stop my fall, the second was my foot hanging in the open air of the crevasse, my third thought was that my sled was about to hit me and fall in too.  I screamed "faaaaalllllinnngggg!!!" and two rope teams hit the deck to stop my fall.  I think this is the most control I have ever had over a group of men.  Since I was in the middle of the rope, my rope mates walked in opposite directions and I popped right out.  That left me lying face first on the glacier with 40 awkward pounds on my back.  I flailed around like a wounded turtle but eventually got my feet under me again and continued on.

June 13, 2012
Camp 1 - 7,800 feet
Day 4

Traveling low on the mountain
Photo:  Darrin White 
There aren't many inhabitants at half camp, and I was ready to leave this morning and continue moving up the mountain.  We left around 9 am and were at the base of ski hill by 11 after one quick break along the way.  There was just one short hill on the route, and I felt strong; so far my training is paying off.  The wind was strong today, causing my eyes to water and sting, I'm sure that in a few days my tears will freeze.  I'm happy that our full carry days are over and weren't as bad as I envisioned.  So far the hardest part of each day has been ensuring that our designated camp area is crevasse free.  I'm not sure, this might be a mean mountain guide joke, but to do so we walk in a line and jump periodically - with packs and sleds.

Let't talk about the amount of gear required to safely travel on a glacier with a sled.  In addition to the climbing rope, sled, and harness, there are more cumbersome cords to attach my ice axe to me, my back pack to the climbing rope, and finally my sled to me and the climbing rope,  One twisted piece of rope and the whole thing turns into a giant snarl of rope and gear me in the middle squirming to try to escape.

June 14, 2012
Camp 1 - 7,800 feet
Day 5

Today was a clear, beautiful day.  We left camp around 7:30 am, headed for camp 2 at 9,800 feet.  We're now caching our gear as we move up the mountain, which means that the day prior to moving to the next camp, we carry about half or our gear - the half that we won't need for a day - to the next camp, bury it in the snow, and then return to the lower camp to spend the night before moving the following day.  We arrived at camp 2 at 11 and spent a couple of hours burying our cache and making tent platforms for our move here tomorrow.

We were back at camp 1 at 2:30, and everyone's attention turned to overdue snow showers.  I'm happy that I brought a few contraband soap leaves, because I was able to scrub the stinkiest parts of the clothes that I have been wearing for the past 5 days.  I even used the remaining soapy water to wash my hair and then sat outside for a few minutes in the sun. But, the most exciting part was .... clean underwear!  It was a big day!

After dinner tonight a Park Ranger stopped by our camp to tell us that motorcycle hill, which is between camp 2 and camp 3, avalanched today, burying four Japanese climbers.  This is an unusual place for an avalanche, but apparently the upper mountain got three feet of snow followed by warmer weather which created the conditions.  We'll find out more tomorrow when we move to camp 2.

June 15, 2012
Camp 2 - 9,900 feet
Day 6

We woke up early to break camp and prepare for our move to camp 2.  While we were enjoying breakfast, another climbing team stumbled by our cook tent as they descended.  They looked beat up - one girl was barely walking along the climbing rope, dragging her ice axe behind her in the snow.  She had a big patch of frost bitten skin on her cheek.  Her teammate's nose was purple.  I promised that I wouldn't allow myself to look or feel like that.

We got to camp 2 in three hours, thirty minutes faster that the day before, it was nice to know ahead of time what the terrain would be like for our move today.  As we got close to camp, a helicopter flew next to us and then turned and flew through a notch toward camp 3, in addition to the avalanche on motorcycle hill, there was one on the Denali  headwall yesterday.  The climbers on the headwall were injured and evacuated, the four climbers overtaken by the avalanche on motorcycle hill are still missing and likely dead.  

Since we got to camp early, I took advantage of a warm tent to do some mountain yoga and stretch my aching leg muscles.  The weight of my pack and sled haven't been as bad as I thought, but my hips and back are a little sore, mountain yoga was just what I needed to get my mind and muscles back in shape.

I'm starting to become obsessed with smells,  After yoga, I smelled all of my clean clothes just to remember what clean smells like.  I've carefully segregated them from the dirty ones in order to preserve their cleanness.  I'm also very focused on not allowing my sleeping bag to smell like my quarantined dirty clothes,  Baby powder, hand sanitizer, and sore muscle ointment are my only defenses.

June 16, 2012
Camp 2 - 9,900 feet
Day 7

Today we cached gear, food, and fuel at Camp 3, which is at the base of motorcycle hill.  It took us less than ninety minutes to move up to 11,200 feet.  We arrived just before 11 to a bustling camp under the bright sun.  Everyone was doing something - cooking, roping up, breaking camp, setting up camp.  It all stopped abruptly when a red helicopter - probably the same one that we saw yesterday - flew into camp to drop off two search and rescue teams.  One of the SAR teams included a very well behaved border collie, which made me miss my poorly behaved dogs at home.  While it was interesting to watch the SAR teams work, it is eerie to think that there are four people buried on the hill.  We could plainly see the crown of the avalanche at the top of the hill and its runout below.

We took our time caching gear, distracted from the SAR teams and the soberness of the situation.  While we waited, I took a look at motorcycle hill and contemplated dragging my mischievous sled up it in two days.  It looked daunting, but I timed other climbers going up in 60 minutes.  I told myself that I could handle it and took a deep breath.

SAR helicopter landing at Camp 3 - avalanched area to the right of climbing route
Photo:  Darrin White

We were back at camp 2 by 1, just before the clouds started to build.  The SAR team skied by on their way back to base camp, and stopped for a chat.  Their dog made herself at home in our camp - I really wanted to kidnap her for the rest of the climb!  They were unable to locate the bodies of the Japanese climbers, it made us all sad to contemplate their unfortunate fate, and was a sobering reminder of how dangerous our environment is.

June 17, 2012
Camp 3 - 11,200 feet
Day 8

One thing about Denali weather is that it changes quickly.  During most days we experience snow, wind, scorching sun and freezing cold.  Today we added one more weather phenomenon to the list - earthquake.  I woke up at 5:20 feeling the earth under my sleeping bag shifting, it was just a small quake, but another reminder that we're at the mercy of the mountain.

This morning it was windy, foggy, and snowing but I was ready to move to camp 3.  The poor weather continued as we moved, and I was thankful for my hardshell pants, which usually just make me hot and cranky.

June 18, 2013
Camp 3 - 11,200 feet
Day 9

When we arrived at Camp 3 yesterday there was not a route up motorcycle hill because it had snowed so much.  When I woke up this morning, I was happy to see that there was now a route, unfortunately it went straight up.  We left camp at 10:30 after a leisurely breakfast and made it to the base of squirrel hill by 11:40, we were moving faster than the teams I had timed when we cached gear.  My little legs felt it.  We took a welcome break at the base of squirrel hill and looked out over the pristine Peters glacier below us.  I slammed some water and honey and focused on my next challenge.  I hadn't read much about this section of the route, so I naively assumed that it would not be too difficult.  It was soon apparent that my honey was inefficient and that my long underwear were painfully unnecessary.  Being overheated zaps my energy, but despite my best efforts to unzip every possible zipper for ventilation, I was still uncomfortable.  Thankfully things leveled off when we reached the polo field, my heart rate dropped, and I started to cool off.  We put on our helmets as we neared windy corner, I ate a Snickers and some shot blocks and hoped that my energy would improve.

I was still sweating my ass off and wishing that I didn't have so much crap in my sled when a Japanese climber who was taking a break looked at me and said "powerful" in broken English.  I needed to hear that more than he probably realized.

Enjoying ice cream at Camp 3 after a hard day
Photo:  Steve Tambosso
After caching our gear, we got back to Camp 3 in just one hour and sat in the snow eating ice cream imported from Talkeetna, tired from a long day.  I reviewed the day in my mind, it was by far the hardest so far, partially because I was overheated thanks to too many layers.  Tomorrow we would make the same trip, plus ninety minutes more to camp 4.  I thought about what I could do to make tomorrow easier.  Surely knowing what to expect would help, I also needed to hydrate today to be better prepared.  I know that I can do it, I just need to focus and take care of myself.

June 19, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
Day 10

We left camp 3 just before 10 this morning and made our last trip up motorcycle hill - thankfully!  We followed the same route as yesterday, and this time I felt much better, thanks to one less layer, shorter ski poles, sugar, and probably some acclimatization.  We arrived at camp 4 at 3:30 and during that time I ate four shot blocks, one ProBar, one Butterfinger, honey, and a gel shot.  My stomach must be one gooey, sugary mess, but thank goodness for sugar!

We stopped at yesterday's cache site, just around the corner from windy corner, and continued another seventy minutes along moderate terrain to camp 4.  It was blisteringly hot again; I start each day with cold fingers and with in a few hours am drenched in sweat.  Speaking of sweat, I have been wearing the same shirt for ten days.  It's beyond disgusting and there's even a blood stain on the front from a bloody nose two days ago.  I'm going to burn it at my first opportunity.

When we got to camp 4, we assumed a vacated camp site and it still took two hours to step up.  I felt exhausted from the long hot day, but some water and salty corn nuts helped.  I felt tired, but not beaten up.  As we were walking into camp our next challenge came into full view - the Denali headwall looks impossibly steep, but I'm taking it one day at a time, and focusing on taking care of myself.

June 20, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
Day 11

We had a leisurely morning and then headed back to our cache spot at 13,400 feet near windy corner to retrieve our food, fuel, and gear.  It took about thirty minutes to get there, and my load was heavier than I remembered.  The big bonus is that since I have been reunited with my hermetically sealed clean clothes, I can rid myself of this smelly shirt that I have been wearing for eleven sweaty days.  Hauling my load back to camp today generated enough sweat to reactivate the sweat from the ten previous days, the vapors almost made me pass out.

It is now 6:30 pm, and according to my watch it is 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the tent.  Time for hot yoga and a snow bath, it's like being at the spa!  Before putting on my clean clothes I relished the smell of detergent on them for the last time.

June 21, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
Day 12

Our tent is on the edge of camp, close to the trail that leads up the headwall, which still looks impossibly steep.  It's good that I have today as a rest day to consider it.  I feel like the previous eleven days were just the approach, and that now it's time to start climbing.  Tomorrow's plan is to carry up the fixed lines of the headwall and cache food and fuel at about 16,200 feet.  I'm ready to go, even though I know it will be difficult, I just keep telling myself that it's a four hour hike.

The weather so far for our climb has been unbelievable stable, while we've had snow and fog and wind, it hasn't been so severe that it has impacted our ability to move up the mountain.  Temperatures have also been warmer than usual, which has been both good and bad.  While I've fought not to overheat during the day, it was been in the 20s in our tent when we wake up in the morning, much better I expected.

Today's highlight was an evening walk to the "poop crevasse".  In order to keep the mountain clean, the Park Service requires all climbing teams to use a Clean Mountain Can (CMC).  Here's how they work:  the can (which the Park Service provides) is slightly larger than a gallon paint can and is lined with a biodegradable bag.  You sit on the can to do your business, if you're the one using the can when you unfortunately realize that it is full, you get to take the bag to the crevasse designated by the Park Service for disposal.  It seems odd to me to throw that much poop into a crevasse, but I'm happy to not have to carry it, and I'm happy that the mountain isn't littered with excrement like others I have been on.

June 22, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
Day 13

Trip number one up and down the headwall complete! We left camp at 10:30 am and returned at 4:40 after caching our gear at the top of the fixed lines.  The first section of the route - just outside of camp - felt very steep, in part, I'm sure because we were just getting started.  It leveled off briefly after about fifty minutes; this sequence repeated again until we reached the bottom of the fixed lines.

On Denali, the fixed lines consist of several ropes strung together and anchored to the mountain with snow pickets.  The blue rope in the photo below is the fixed line.  The climber attaches to the fixed line using a device called an ascender or in some cases using a carabiner.  The ascender or carabiner is connected to the climber's harness with a short rope.  Fixed lines are used to increase climber safety when climbing on exposed terrain, if the climber falls, he or she will not tumble out of control down the mountainside because the fall will be stopped by the ascender attached to the fixed line.

Reaching the top of the headwall
Photo:  Darrin White
In total there were probably six ropes making up the fixed lines on the 1,700 foot headwall, just to make it interesting, each rope had a different amount of give, and on occasion there would be a knot in the middle, requiring me to move my ascender from one side of the knot to the other, disrupting my cadence.  In the end, it was more of an upper body workout than I anticipated, but I was happy to give my little legs a break.  As we were climbing I kept thinking of the big fat rope in my grade school gym.  My mind focused on the way that I felt then, as a little girl looking up at the impossibly high rope anchored to the ceiling and topped with a tiny bell.  I remembered the way the fat, coarse rope felt in my hands as they got sweaty half way up.  Most importantly I remembered the satisfaction and pride that I felt hitting the little bell at the top.  I just kept reminding myself that if I could do that as a little girl, I could do this now.

Tomorrow we will move to high camp at 17,200 feet.  I'm a little worried  that my pack will be heavier, making the move up the headwall more difficult than today, but I also know that I am stronger than I believe!

June 23, 2012
High Camp - 17,200 feet
Day 14

My pack was definitely heavier.  Forty pounds in my estimation, but I hung in there, and kept repeating to myself a quote that a friend gave me before I left ... the difference between possible and impossible is determination.  That, plus a lot of honey and the a random guy taking a break who told me that I looked strong made a big difference.

We picked up part of our cache from yesterday at the top of the fixed lines, and continued toward Washburn's thumb.  Although there was added weight in my pack, I knew that only 1,000 vertical feet separated me from the next camp.  I was anticipating a mellow walk along a beautiful ridge overlooking pristine mountains.  I guess that my perspective was based on the numerous books that I had read on the West Buttress route, none of which as I recall described the sketchiness of the ridge.  It was exposed on both sides as I expected, but in several places I had to crawl around rocks using the pick of my axe to pull myself along.  There was protection in a few places which I clipped in to.  And then there was the wind.  At times the rope was levitated three feet off the ground and vibrated,  Camp provided protection from the wind, and because the only other occupants were three Park Rangers, we had our choice of campsites and were able to pilfer the best snow blocks from unused camp sites to fortify our own snow wall.
Ginormous bright yellow puffy at high camp
Photo:  Darrin White

The best part of being at high camp ... I finally get to bust out my Feathered Friends puffy.  It's warm and ginormous and bright yellow and I love it!

June 24, 2012
High Camp - 17,200 feet
Day 15

The snow and wind began last night and put our snow walls to the test, I hate to admit that I was dreading crawling out of the tent to retrieve the rest of our cache, even with my ginormous bright yellow puffy.  The snow seemed to be blowing from all directions and, honestly I wasn't looking forward to climbing down and back up the ridge.  For the first time, I considered putting heavy objects in my pockets to weigh myself down.  We changed our minds every time the wind shifted.  In the end, two members of my team plus one guide retrieved our cache.  Selfishly, I felt better that I wasn't the only one not excited to make the trip.  The group returned to camp around 8 pm.  These were tough guys, who looked beat up!  We helped them unclip and removed their packs, and offered warm drinks.  They told stories of howling winds up to 50 mph.  I'll forever appreciate their efforts and tenacity.

June 25, 2012
High Camp - 17,200
Day 16

Today I feel like crap.  I have had a growing headache, which I initially attributed to altitude, but now I'm not so sure, it should have been gone by now if that were the case.

The mountain continues to pelt us with 20 mph gusts and a few inches of snow each day, although it's hard to tell if it's new snow or just relocated snow.

Now is probably a good time to expound on the bathroom situation.  Our team has always taken great pride in building a deluxe privy.  We spend extra time to be sure that all of its components (door, walls to deter the wind, pee hole, CMC) are positioned appropriately and we even include an "occupied" flag, which we all appreciate because each person can peek out or their tent and decide whether it's worth the effort to suit up and make the trek to the bathroom.  Suiting up at high camp involves ski goggles and two layers of clothes.  I will never take for granted the ability to walk down the hall and use the bathroom!

June 26, 2012

High Camp - 17,200
Day 17

We made an attempt for the summit today, although it felt more like a dress rehearsal than an actual attempt, which was fine with me.  It felt good to move around and spend some time becoming familiar with the next section of the route, which is called the autobahn.  The conditions were very poor, the wind gusted up to 30 mph, and snow was blowing in circles around me, at times I could see very little in front of me.  All of the fresh snow made traversing the autobahn very difficult; I came to one snow picket, prepared to clip into it and it pulled right out of the snow.  I pounded it down in a new location with my ice axe, and had to dig down six inches to find hard snow.  Needless to say, we didn't make it very far.

We're all starting to get edgy about the weather.  Each evening at 8 we huddle in the cook tent and listen anxiously for the forecast.  And each evening the gentle female voice on the other end of the radio politely reminds me that I am on a mountain and that I'm not in control and that the mountain doesn't care if I've spent months training and years thinking about it, it doesn't give a shit about me.

The kind voice on the radio told me that it would be crappy for the next three days.

June 27, 2012
High Camp - 17,200 feet
Day 18

Two other climbing teams have arrived at high camp, settled in, and then descended since we got here four days ago.  That makes part of me feel resilient and strong, like the old man who won't leave his ramshackle house even though it is in the direct path of a forest fire.  It also makes me feel like they know something that I don't and that I should just go back down to soft beds and cold beers and clean underwear.  But I can't.

Last night's weather forecast predicted 12 - 18 inches of snow and 30 mph winds.  While the wind arrived, the snow did not, and the winds died down today by 10 am.  We're "preparing" for a summit attempt tomorrow, but I feel like it will be another dress rehearsal.

June 28, 2012
Day 19

We woke up early and had breakfast at 6 - if I see one more "Denali delight" (comprised of an open-faced bagel with Canadian bacon and pepper jack cheese fried and steamed) I'm going to loose it.  We all had our doubts about summitting since the forecast was for wind gusts up to 40 mph and a foot of new snow.  But, it was calm, sunny, and probably -10 F when we got on the ropes at 8, so I hoped for the best.

The terrain just outside of camp is downhill, and we took a short break here before stepping foot onto the autobahn.  I dropped a layer and looked up at the slowly curving traverse ahead of me.  The autobahn is sloped toward Denali pass, and is known for deadly falls, more so than any other place on the mountain.  This isn't to say that it is the most dangerous place on Denali, but it sees more traffic than other, more dangerous spots.  The autobahn is not physically demanding to climb; it gains only 1,000 feet of elevation on its way to Denali pass.  Snow conditions on the autobahn can range from hard-packed snow and ice to feet of avalanche-prone fluff.  Today we were in for some fluff.
Traversing the autobahn
Photo:  Steve Tambosso

The route across the autobahn zig-zagged toward the pass, and I was thankful for the snow pickets that had been placed there to offer protection.  Today they all stayed in place, but my ice axe slid easily through the powdery snow when I leaned into the slope, sometimes it would slide further than expected throwing me slightly off balance.  I focused and stopped leaning on it so much.  The autobahn ended at the rocky edges of the pass and dwindled to one boot print wide.  We arrived at the top of the pass in two hours, and without any self-arrests.

I ate a frozen candy bar, contemplated the logistics of peeing, decided it was completely impractical given four layers of pants, a giant puffy parka and the precarious terrain.  I looked up toward zebra rocks and started to move with my team.

I started to sense that the temperature was cold, it felt like everything had fallen away and all that was left was desolate and isolated and frozen.  I focused on taking care of myself because I was the only person who really could.  I mentally scanned my body and thought about where I was cold or uncomfortable, and narrowed in on the left side of my forehead.  I felt a small gap between the bottom of my balaclava and the top of my goggles.  An image of the girl with a frostbitten cheek popped into my mind.  As carefully as I could using the enormous puffy mits on my hands, I adjusted it as best as I could, but still wondered what the cost of reconstructive surgery on my forehead would be.

About this time it hit me that we were probably going to summit, the weather was still clear and winds had taken a break, everyone looked strong, and I heard an overwhelming voice in my head telling me not to fuck this up.  I became hyper focused on the route ahead of me and breaking it into achievable pieces.  I focused on reaching archdeacon's tower and eventually we started down a small hill, which seemed horribly unfair, and I could see pig hill.

From left to right: archdeacon's tower, the football field and pig hill
Photo: NPS

I had read about pig hill and the frustration it causes climbers so close to the summit due to its steepness.  But, somehow it looked more menacing than I expected.  I took the time to assess my strength, energy level, and general attitude at this point.  I was tired, for sure, but I didn't feel exhausted and was breathing fine.  I felt strong enough to descend safely.  I started up pig hill with my team, and it was harder than I expected, there were several inches of fresh, powdery snow, making it hard to gain momentum.  I just kept telling myself that I was stronger than I knew.  I believe that we made it to the top in about an hour, and took our last break before reaching the summit.  We all shared warm tea from a thermos and I ate more frozen chocolate.
The summit ridge
Photo: Steve Tambosso

At this point, I was less than one hour from the summit, but still had a lot of climbing and descending ahead of me, so I suppressed any thought of celebration.  The summit ridge is narrow and corniced; although visibility was poor, there were times when I could see unknown distances of exposure on both sides and knew that a misstep would send me on a short cut 8,500 feet back down to the Kahiltna glacier.  I summoned my yoga drishti and chose a focal point a few feet ahead of me while deliberately placing each foot on the precarious snow.  In one section, the path was pointed so that my heels were on top of the snow and my toes curled along each side.

When I could, I looked ahead but couldn't make out the summit until I saw a small green flag flapping in the wind.  After eighteen months of thinking about and six months of training for it, I was finally here, but I wouldn't let myself celebrate or get emotional.  I had too much work to do.

We stayed on the summit for probably thirty minutes, taking the requisite photos in every combination.  Visibility was poor, but none of us cared, we were just happy to be there.

Darrin and me on the summit
Photo:  Steve Tambosso

The descent was thankfully uneventful.  We made our way down the same treacherous summit ridge, down the loose powdery snow on pig hill, and onto the football field where I was reunited with my backpack.  I reminded myself that this was a no mistakes environment as I crossed the rocks on Denali pass with shaky crampons.  I thought about all of the twelve points of each crampon and ensured that they made solid contact with the snow underneath me.  It took about two hours to descend, and I recall looking down and to my right and rationalizing what would happen if I fell in certain places, the outcome ranging from a few broken bones to death.  It's funny how these thoughts feel natural in such an extreme environment.

Eventually we could see camp and the same hill that I was happy to descend this morning now became my enemy, but I was determined to end this day, which was now fifteen hours long.  It was now 11 pm and our private camp was bustling with people, one of which was using our CMC, maybe it was an emergency, I'm not sure, he was very embarrassed, but still poop pirates are not cool.

I felt good when we got back to camp, tired for sure but thanks to too much sugar and a healthy dose or adrenaline, I didn't feel exhausted.  The ramen noodles that I had for dinner that night were the best meal I had ever had.

June 29, 2012
Day 20

We left camp today at 8 am, which didn't leave a lot of time for sleeping, but I was happy to go, it felt too crowded now.  Gone were the quiet, pristine days that I had spoiled me.  Despite a heavy backpack that threatened to pull me over backwards while I crawled around Washburn's thumb, I made it to the top of the fixed lines without incident.  The Denali headwall had collected several feet of powdery snow, which would have been great if I was skiing, but moving down its steep slope with at least a forty pound pack was a challenge.  I was up to my waist in powder in spots.  I just focused on the goal of making it down the headwall, which I viewed as the last difficult section of the route.  I actually was looking forward to reuniting with my sled so that I could get some of the weight off my back.  Visibility continued to deteriorate as we approached camp 4 and struggled to locate the ski poles that we cached there days earlier.

I fantasized about staying the night at camp 4, but had to let it go, and accept that the next 24 hours were going to be long and tiring.  The excitement of rejoining my sled also waned when someone dumped a bag full of canned food in it ... cans, really?  Couldn't the same people that invented Gore-Tex figure out a lighter way to store food?  Just as we were leaving camp I was told that the route was in good shape and that people were making good time,  I felt a small sense of comfort until I realized that her definition of "good shape" meant hours of post-holing and miles of thigh-deep snow.  Needless to say, the next several hours bordered on miserable.

I passed the time by contemplating a linear dynamics class from college.  The person in front of me on the rope was pulling two sleds, the combined weight of which was probably greater than my body weight.  Luckily, I had this eighty extra pounds of weight distributed between my sled and backpack.  Even so, when the route was angled to either side, the sleds in front of me would pull me forward and downhill while my sled would pull me backward and to the angled side.  My body felt like it might be torn in two like a paper doll.

It was beautiful watching the sun move across the horizon, never setting and creating a warm glow on the hills in front of me while the snow around me sparkled like a million diamonds.  I reminded myself that I was surrounded by dazzling sights that most people in the world would never have the fortune to experience.

Finally we arrived at the top of motorcycle hill, truly the last obstacle in our descent (unless you could the hundreds of crevasses between it and base camp).  The love-hate relationship with my sled had turned to all hate at this point, I had learned to listen for the zinging sound of it sliding into my calves despite the knotted ropes strapped underneath it for added friction.  These sled "brakes" were problematic - too much friction and I worked to pull my sled despite traveling downhill, not enough meant bruised calves.  As I looked down motorcycle hill, I doubted that there was any way to descend it gracefully.  All of our sleds rolled and mine let loose of a plastic shovel, which I grabbed as it slid by me.  Unfortunately I hadn't thought to double tie all of my gear when I loaded my sled, and now it was all hanging off the slide of my sled, which actually helped to create more drag, which I desperately needed on the steep hill.

June 30, 2012
Camp 3 - 11,200 feet
Day 21

It was 10 pm when we reached the camp at 11,200 feet last night, and we opted to sleep without our tent fly in the balmy air.  I woke up at 3 am before the rest of my team, and was treated to a spectacular sun rise, the sky glowed and shined in every color of pink imaginable.  We left camp at 5, and headed for the comforts of civilization.  It was incredible to watch the sun slowly continue to move across the horizon and illuminate everything in its path with gold and pink hues.  I felt surrounded and sheltered by giants, the improbably pristine peaks comforted me somehow.

There were lots of people on the move this morning thanks to stable weather.  As I passed the fresh faces of climbers beginning their trip, I did my best to give them an encouraging smile.  I noticed a raven circling overhead and civilization started to move into the focus of my mind.  Then a red plane crested the ridge to my right and I knew that we would fly to Talkeetna today, there seemed little risk that planes wouldn't fly.  Eventually we could see planes landing on the base camp runway.  It was exhilarating to see our connection back to the world.  I crested heartbreak hill, which lived up to its name, I was dripping in sweat, even thought I had stripped down to a tank top and climbing pants. The heartbreak continued when we learned that we would be flying in 20 minutes from the upper runway.  After that flights would be paused in the heat of the day due to crevasse danger.  I moved as fast as my worn legs and lungs would allow to the airstrip, and the next several minutes were unfortunately chaotic as sleds and gear and bodies were loaded into tiny planes.  I wish that I had taken the time to savor my last few minutes on this beautiful mountain.  I did enjoy the return flight, and admired the terrain as it turned from white to brown to green - natural colors that I hadn't seen in weeks.
Darrin and me on the flight back to Talkeetna

We all still had our fully loaded harnesses and climbing boots on when we landed in Talkeetna.  I didn't think that many things surprised this little village, but we got some strange looks.  I sorted gear with my team and took a "shower" in the tiny sink at the airport hangar.  Oh, how good it felt to wash my hands and face with an actual bar of soap.  Then I threw away my underwear.

Photo: Darrin White

We enjoyed (really enjoyed) beer and burgers in Talkeetna and then made our way back to the Fireweed Station for more glorious food, showers and actual beds.

July 1, 2012
Anchorage International Airport
Day 22

Darrin, our friend Jeff, and I looked like a grubby gang as we walked through the airport, we each had more swagger than the last time we were her, but we were all sunburned, half of us were limping and/or coughing and none of us had shaved in three weeks.  Plus, even though I had showered when I woke, I still felt behind in that department.

We flew home to our friends, pets, jobs, and responsibilities, but it would take and unexpectedly long time to settle back in.

Check out the Lessons Learned page for more.



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