Below is one of my more memorable days on Denali. It definitely qualified as one of the most rewarding and challenging days on the mountain and I wanted to share it with you along with some chilly pictures. Step into the world that is Alaska...
The snow had finally melted and the water trying to boil. Once poured into the food bag we’d have 10 more minutes and then fuel to feed the furnace that is our tummies.
It had been a long and exhausting day on Denali. The mountain was starting to show it’s menacing side.
With the temperature below -40C, things were serious. I hold the bag waiting for the food to hydrate. I can tell the food is losing it’s heat already. I’m cold, tired and clumsy. I caress the food bag in my lap but don’t realise my grip is too tight. The bag opens and water spills out into my sleeping bag. The food is now losing it’s heat rapidly. I give it a try anyway in the hope for some much needed calories. Cold. Crunchy. Inedible. I look over at Tim. He is having the same problem. We have our toes in the same sleeping bag trying to share what little heat we have. Our full down jackets are on and never have I worn so many clothes and still be the coldest I’ve ever been.
The day had started uncertain. The night before the weather on the radio had forecasted strong winds and heavy snow however in the morning it was hard to tell if it was as bad as predicted.
Denali weather is a question mark. It’s the main reason for failed summit attempts. People run out of time or have to retreat because of the fierce, week sometimes month-long storms. The one thing we know for sure is that the storms on this mountain are not to be taken lightly.
That morning, the four of us come out of our tents. I share with Tim and Matt and Will share a tent. We look up at what is known as ‘Motorcycle hill’ – the name supposedly comes from the idea that if a motorbike was to try to drive up it, it would topple over because it is so steep. The incline is covered in crevasses that sometimes reach the width of a 4 bed house. That’s not the only danger of course, avalanches have been fatal here, previously killing a team of four as they climbed up.
We stare up, calculating the risk. That’s what expeditions are all about. It’s not about risk taking for the sake of it. It’s about forever calculating the risk of getting where you want to be.
There’s a cloud lingering but it’s hard to see if it’s a storm cloud or not. There’s no obvious sign of spin drift which would in turn mean high winds. Our team contemplate our next move.
We decide to pack everything but the tents away whilst keeping an eye on the peaks above.
The visibility appears to improve so we make the call that it’s safe to ascend.
Our bags are heavy and I mean really heavy.
As well as that we have two pulks between us. It’s unheard of on any other mountain to pull sledges up an incline of this such but Denali is unique. Our bags and sleds are packed full of supplies in case we were to get tent bound for a long period of time (we of course later do get stuck for two weeks so yay to us for this forward thinking!)
I lead the group. I jump over open crevasses shouting "CREVASSE!" every time so to alert the others to be extra cautious and ready to brace in the event I was to fall. You don’t really get used to it, every patch of snow is different so you don’t know if what you are jumping onto is safe or not, it could just be a snow bridge ready to collapse. I must admit that it helps to have experience for judgement, I’m no stranger to glaciers and I suppose second guessing yourself at the last moment when it’s too late isn’t particularly helpful.
Our body temperatures rise with every step that our crampons bite into the snow. Our ankles rotate on the steep hill, straining with the weight on our backs and the weight trying to pull us backwards – the sled.
We reach the top of the motorcycle hill, this is only the first stage of a very long day but it feels great to get it ticked off.
What comes next is further incline (it is a mountain after all) but it is a little bit more forgiving. We’d been warned this next part is even more crevassed so extra care is to be taken. Just on cue, my leg punches through the snow and dangles in mid-air. I’m able to use my weight to get myself safely out from the crevasse but it’s clear that we are in a field of them. I continue navigating, trying to find the best route through the deceptively safe blanket of snow.
The cold air is irritating my throat and I’m developing an aggressive cough that compromises my breathing whenever we stop, and the breathing rhythm is broken. I try to keep moving but as it always is when moving together on a rope, tiny stops are inevitable to allow for others.
We continue climbing for hours and hours. I force feed myself a baby belle cheese in the hope it will fuel me for the rest of the day. Distance means nothing at altitude. The camp is now only 1 mile away but the time that could take is unknown and up to this point we had been too optimistic with our times anyway.
We pass another climber who is coming from our next camp destination. He assures us the camp is not too far but to take it easy on the hill into camp because the day before he had witnessed a man have a heart attack whilst he approached camp. We gulp and thank him for his advice.
It’s hard to explain the act of not getting enough oxygen in your lungs. It doesn’t just affect your lungs, it starves your muscles from the sacred O2 and the feeling of weakness is not only physically hard to deal with but morally too.
I pace it up the hill, the thought of the poor man who had a nasty surprise the day before.
The time in now 9pm and the sun has disappeared behind the mountains. It may stay late for many more hours but the temperature plummets. I finally see our camp as I get to the ark of the hill. I shout, “we’re here!” and with the little energy that I have, I raise my arm in celebration.
The next few metres seem to take forever. I’m moving as fast as I can but it really is snails pace and my patient is getting thin.
Although we are here, the hard work is not done yet. We now must get our warm clothes on, dig and flatten a surface, get the tents up, build some walls to protect us during the night and get dinner on.
… Now we’re in the tent. My dinner has just spilled on me and the unsatisfying crunch to it is a huge disappointment. The temperature is just too cold and are bodies are depleted. Will we sleep? Will we wake up? Tim and I look at one another with the look of anticipation and anxiety on what the night ahead brings. It’s going to be a tough night and things are only about to get tougher.