Saturday, November 21, 2015

365 True Things: 237/Denali

I'm going to cop out again today and post an essay I wrote a while back about climbing Denali. It was an exquisite experience for me: my first (and last) big mountain; real mountaineering. (Sorry, it's long.)

Windy Corner

It is late May, and I am trudging up an endless snowfield. I count as I breathe through each step—one, pause . . . two, pause . . . three—up to two hundred. The words reverberate in my head, punctuated only by the slow, rasping crunch of my boots in the snow. I look up at our destination—Windy Corner, 13,300 feet high on Mt. McKinley—and back down at where we’ve come from, the crest of Motorcycle Hill, perched above the camp at 11,000. I see that, in fact, we have made progress, even though the snowfield ahead of me seems still to ascend forever, up, up, up, etching a sharp line against the impossibly blue sky. Recognizing that a count of two hundred is insufficient, I raise my mantra to five hundred and, wearily, trudge on.

I have never been happier.

7,000 feet, where we start and end
Two months ago, I could not have anticipated this state of bliss. Two months ago, even two weeks ago, I was an anxious wreck, beset by a thousand fears. My rock climbing partner of four years, Mike, a man with twenty-odd years of experience in high, inhospitable places, had been hit with a “Big Mac Attack” and had more or less begged me to give the mountain a try. Reluctantly, I agreed. His enthusiasm (and his beseeching) baited me, as did his description of huge vastnesses of pristine ice, snow, glacier, and rock that, he said, “make a six-seat Cessna flying through the gap toward base camp at 7,000 feet look and sound like a tiny, insignificant midge.”

I wanted to experience those vastnesses. But I was far from sure about the mountaineering aspect of things. 

11,000-foot camp
I am a climber, yes, but of moderate rock (dry, sunny; beer at the end of the day), not of mountains (minus 60 degrees potentially; weeks without a shower). The only other mountain I’d climbed was the Breithorn, next door to the Matterhorn—and to summit that, you take a ski lift to within a few hundred feet of the top; it’s an afternoon romp. McKinley—or Denali, as many prefer [now its official name]—is different. At 20,320 feet, it is the highest mountain in North America. It flows with vast rivers of ice, is faceted by several-thousand-foot rock precipices. Its weather can be brutally severe, and the effects of elevation are exacerbated by its high latitude. My mind, as I considered what I had gotten myself into, was besieged by yawning crevasses, thundering avalanches, debilitating cold, incapacitation by pulmonary or cerebral edema. And what about basic necessities, like eating or going to the bathroom? What about staying amused out in that snowy wasteland? Would Mike and I get along, being tied together—and I don’t mean that metaphorically—for three weeks straight?

Many use skis; we used snowshoes
To soothe my fears, I bought two books: Denali’s West Buttress, so I could memorize every crevasse, dropoff, and pee hole on the route—never mind that those things are constantly changing; and Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue, my “practical guide” to keeping life and limb intact. And then I did, indeed, practice rescue techniques. Granted, my “crevasse” was a heel-dragged line in the coarse desert sand of a friend’s driveway in Joshua Tree, California, where Mike and I were spending a springtime week rock climbing. But still: I could kinesthetically work on boot-ax belays, Z-system pulley-hauling, and ice-ax self-arrest—all means of extricating one’s partner from an unexpected crevasse. So what if my ax didn’t actually penetrate the decomposed quartz monzonite dust of the desert, and if the “body” I rescued was not hauled up, hand over hand, from a deep gap in the ice but dragged effortlessly across the plate-flat driveway? I was etching line diagrams and step-by-step instructions into my brain as I went through the motions; that was enough. At least, it was all I could do.

Windy Corner on a windless day
Mike, who had summited McKinley three times already, assured me that climbing the mountain was “basically snow-camping your way to the top.” I had snow-camped before—once—and survived, so his pronouncement eased my fears. I knew one key to snow-camping comfort was equipment, starting with layers of clothing: Capilene, Gore-Tex, Windstopper, fleece, down, wool. I had all that. What I didn’t have for the mountain was boots, so I plunked down a large sum on shocking-yellow plastic boots with space-age silver liners, and on purple Neoprene overboots for when the temperatures grew extreme. Finding these things in coastal California in April proved challenging at best, so I resorted to the Internet—ordering the boots in two sizes, just in case. (Fortunately, one pair fit perfectly.) Specialized tools such as crampons and my desert-scarred ice ax joined my growing pile of stuff, along with a minus-30 down sleeping bag and two sleeping pads to insulate me from the snow but a tent floor away.

I also busied myself with arrangements: booking flights, shuttles, and hotels, reserving our climbing permit with the National Park Service. In the end, there was little time for anxiety. I was too busy doing to think a whole lot.

Home sweet home
Most of my friends greeted my plan to climb McKinley with bemused horror. Several said they would pray for me; one strung up multicolored Tibetan prayer flags in her backyard. The best support I got was from my friend Tony, who gave me a big hug and said simply, “Stay in your body—and don’t forget to breathe.”

Then things started to happen: flying out of San Francisco and meeting Mike in the Salt Lake City airport; spending a day in Anchorage food shopping (could I really survive on a granola breakfast for three weeks?); shuttling up to Talkeetna, the jumping-off point for trips to the mountain. We spent an afternoon at the National Park office viewing videos warning us of all the bone-chilling dangers we might meet and instructing us in great detail on blue-bag human waste disposal. That evening, we lived it up with moose burgers and a bottle of Cabernet, followed the next morning by the largest blueberry pancakes I’d ever seen—our last civilized meals.

Overlooking Mt. Foraker
And at last, there we were, flying in a tiny red and white Cessna, piloted by a gruff, bespectacled man in his mid-fifties named Randy. He wore an insanely gay green and pink Hawaiian shirt—a sort of amulet, I figured, to ward off any chance of getting caught on that mountain overnight. Beneath us, immense rivers, mountains, and glaciers began to fill my field of view, until soon they seemed to be overtaking us. I looked at Mike, who, though a burly six-footer, was dwarfed by our duffels and skis and backpacks in the back of the noisy plane. I pointed at the sheer rock looming not far beyond the small window, made a “what the heck are we doing here?” gesture. His mouth opened wide in laughter: he was coming into his element, the mountains. I laughed too, as I felt myself being swept away. Out of mind . . . and into something far bigger than I had ever imagined.

Looking down from 17,000 feet
on the camp at 14,000
When I reach five hundred in my trudge-count, I suggest to Mike that we take a break. He stops and coils the rope as I catch up, then we plop down on our packs and he pulls out some weak Kool-Aid, a Zip-Loc bag of gorp, and a big bar of 85-percent dark Swiss chocolate.

Now, in my normal life, I detest Kool-Aid, I pick only the cashews and hazelnuts out of gorp, and chocolate comes in a weak fourth to rhubarb pie, rice pudding, and crème brulée. On the mountain, though, everything is different. The Kool-Aid—raspberry or orange, depending on which little Twisty-tied baggie Mike dumped at random into his Camel-Bak this morning—is ambrosial, the gorp like manna, and the chocolate is something I find I cannot live without.

Sitting here on my pack, leaning on my ski poles, crampon-clad feet kicked straight out before me, I am seized with a feeling of contentment edged by soul-satisfying weariness. I feel whole, utterly and totally complete. The words sound trite, insubstantial, but sometimes words can’t do justice to the feeling that there really is no more to life than this. The day—our eighth on the mountain—is splendid, fresh and brilliantly clear, not a hint of wind; you can see well over a hundred miles to the south, out over the Alaska Range as it devolves into foothills and then into flat plain, silver twists of braided river glinting and flashing in the distance.

I look up and realize that we’ve made progress. I can now see tiny people resting at Windy Corner—it looks like a thousand-count away, maybe less. I groan to my feet, heave on my backpack, and wait while Mike heads off, the rope unfurling behind him. As the line becomes taut, I follow: one, pause . . . two, pause . . . three.

*     *     *     *

That day ascending to Windy Corner, a good 6,000-plus feet below the summit of Mt. McKinley, was when it all came together for me on that mountain. On that day, more than any other of the twenty-odd days I spent on the mountain, I fully inhabited my body. I had had a week already to forget my focused, “real world” concerns and to grow used to the slow pace of travel: moving one day up the mountain to bury supplies six feet deep in the snow (a deterrence to marauding ravens) and mark the spot with a long bamboo wand flagged with our expedition name; returning to camp for the night; then the next day heading back up to the cache with the rest of our goods and constructing a new camp in the snow—the climb-high, sleep-low siege-style approach to big-mountain acclimatization. There were simple routines to which I became accustomed: cooking routines, washing routines, packing and unpacking routines, even entertaining-ourselves routines. (Like, if I lost too many times at gin rummy, there was the fling-the-cards-across-the-tent routine.) I gradually realized that my needs had shrunk to very, very few: hot food, sufficient drink, warm sleeping bag, a nearby privy, ample layers of clothing, dry socks.

On the climb to Windy Corner, though, even the routines and my few needs vanished from my mind. A sort of diffuseness overtook me, a larger-than-life sense of being-in-place. Tony’s advice was guiding me as I remained keenly aware of my trudging steps, the glorious clean air filling my lungs. I was fully in that moment, tasting, smelling, sensing in every way each nanosecond.  I was in my body, shlepping everything I needed to survive, and a good measure of communal supplies besides. The load was heavy, it was a burden, but it would keep us going. There was partnership. There was daring. There was adventure. It all added up to a sort of ecstasy.

Cooking dinner
The eleven days beyond Windy Corner—going up to camp at 14,000 feet, where we would acclimate in preparation for the summit push, then, eventually, coming back down to 7,000 feet to radio for our Cessna ride out—brought me various lessons as well. For one thing, I found I was wrong about the granola—and Mike refused to share his instant cinnamon-apple oatmeal, so I learned a thing or two about partnership also. Schlocky novels, my journal and a sharp pencil (I would risk no frozen ink), CDs through headphones, and endless games of cards in the warm yellow space of our snowbound tent were, I found, all I really needed to pass the time.

The 14,000-foot base camp did, however, open up our entertainment options. Here we found ourselves in society: a small community dignified by some sixty colorful nylon tents, hunkered down within walls of firm snow cut into blocks and stacked three or four high, and the climbing rangers’ two quonset-hut-style canvas tents. There were people to talk to, and I struck up a friendship of sorts with one of the very few women on the mountain, part of a trio from Summit County, Colorado, who happened to be camped next door at both 14,000 and 11,000 feet. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” I heard as I stumbled, exhausted, into our empty tent spot and let gravity claim my pack. Funny how such a clichéd greeting can be so buoying.

During an extended snowstorm, an improvised boarding competition got going, lasting several days at sporadic intervals. Occasionally we would venture out to watch as the contestants bumped and bounced over the hand-built course on what looked like miniature snowboards sans bindings, or overgrown skateboards sans wheels, to the accompaniment of cheers, hoots, and much laughter. Even in horizontally blowing snow, silliness won out. It may be too strong to call such pastimes “needs,” but they sure did make life a lot more pleasant.

For the most part, though, beyond a quick hello or exchange of information after the daily weather report (six o’clock on channel 19), we all tended to stick to ourselves—trying to ignore, perhaps, that we weren’t really alone in the wilderness. At least once a day, Mike and I would go for a hike—roped up, of course. A favorite “stroll” of camp denizens takes one along a well-packed trail through two-foot-deep snow to a plunging dropoff aptly named “Edge of the World,” with Mounts Hunter and Foraker (the second highest peak in the Alaska Range, sixth highest in North America) forming a dazzling backdrop. We took in that view a couple of times. And one day, we ventured up to an overlook where we could see out and around a corner of the mountain into a whole new system of glaciers, valleys, and peaks.

In the medical tent
We ended up not making it to the top. The reasons were various: a mild case of food poisoning (rich dehydrated soup, incorrectly prepared) that confined Mike to the medical tent for a day, and took a few more days to recover fully from; a blizzard; ultimately, a plane to catch. We did get as high as 17,100 feet—twice, as practice forays following Mike’s incapacitation. On one glorious day we climbed with light packs onto the West Buttress of Denali, part of the “regular route” to the summit—and, according to my book, the most beautiful part of the entire climb. We were feeling strong and optimistic, and that evening over dinner talked excitedly about attempting the 6,000-foot summit push the next day. However, within hours bad weather blew in, and it stayed with us, dumping two feet of snow over the next three windy days. When the skies cleared, we watched with amusement as some fifty climbers kick-stepped their way up to the fixed ropes on the headwall, eager to shake the torpor of being tentbound out of their limbs. Then we turned and snowshoed in the opposite direction: off the mountain.

I wasn’t disappointed to reach “only” 17,100 feet. We did so on perfect days: cloudless cobalt-blue skies, blazing white snow, and exquisite views out and over and beyond. And the journey overall proved—dare I say—enjoyable. Splendid, even. Crevasses were easily surmountable, dropoffs breathtakingly beautiful. Ice fall occurred at a safe remove, awesomely majestic. And there was not a single avalanche. We felt resilient and able, ready to take on any mountain, any challenge. Putting one foot before the other, not letting thoughts take over but relying on the simple strength, balance, and coordination of body: I first experienced that aching, powerful pleasure on the long slog up to Windy Corner, and I cherished being able to experience it again higher up. To be physically so present, ungripped by my ever-wheeling mind, was a blessing. Windy Corner taught me what could be, if I just let myself relax into the moment and breathe deeply.

*     *     *     *

I’ve been back home from the mountain several months now. I look at pictures and have that familiar post-vacation sense of viewing episodes from a dream: Mike drying his freshly washed hair on a bright, sunny day, grinning wide ➚ ; the two of us sitting at the Edge of the World, Foraker and Hunter behind us; Mike cooking ramen on his wind-blocked MSR stove; the view from Windy Corner out over the great land of Alaska. Photographs never add up to anything approaching a whole, but they’re nice mementos.

And then I have the memories of what it felt like to be in that place—which are also like a dream, but it is a dream that will always reside in my body, a dream that has, ever so slightly, changed the way I am in the world.

The prayer flags are still up in my friend’s yard, though they’re faded and have been joined by a new set, this one for the health of a baby on the way, my friend’s youngest daughter’s first child. Oh, the challenges we take on, each of us. Life is full of passages, prayers, and promises. I’ve had my share, and Denali was all three.

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