Editor’s Note: Rich McDrew and Dennis Swanson were recipients of a Backpacking Light Magazine Adventure Grant. Their grant award was based on some state of the art mountaineering and snow travel gear – including Ushba Altai Titanium Ice Axes, Northern Lites Snowshoes (on Denali? You bet!), and more. Rich and Dennis are no spring chickens – in their 60s, they were thrilled to share their success with us to the top of North America’s highest peak during a foul weather window that saw few successful summits among scores of attempts.
“Yo, Matt, I thought you were going all the way to high camp?” We had hopscotched with Matt and his friend Oakley since base camp, and he had passed us at the top of the fixed ropes on the headwall.
“I decided to leave my cache here and head back to 14. It’s getting late, and I don’t like the wind. Walk to the edge over there and look towards high camp. You can see snow drift whipping through the gap. But watch your step. Slip off that edge and it’s all over.”
We carefully but aggressively planted our crampon spikes in the icy snow as we made our way to the view spot.
“I don’t like the looks of this, Rich. It’s late. The wind is building and the temperature is dropping. We are exhausted. Our packs are too heavy. And Coombs’ book talks about the danger and exposure of the route ahead along the rocky ridge. Remember what Roberto said about the short stretches of six-inch wide trail with the 2,000 foot drop on each side? Maybe we should consider a bivouac in the snow bank and wait until morning.”
Rich looked at the blowing snow towards high camp and then at the fixed lines up Washburn’s thumb.
“Absolutely not. When we get to 17 we can set up our tent and wait out any weather in safety. We can make it OK. We’ll just take it slow.”
“I think it’s risky, but OK. You lead.”
For the first time in nineteen days on Denali’s West Buttress, Rich headed off first.
“We’ll see you and Oakley tomorrow, Matt. Take it easy heading down the headwall to 14,000.”
The route behind Washburn’s thumb was steep and exposed, and the fixed ropes provided a needed sense of security. Where the ropes ended, however, the unobstructed wind across the ridge was at gale force.
“Let’s make sure we keep a tight rope. If one of us is blown off balance, there is a good chance the 100 feet of rope between us will get hung up on a rock and help break the fall.”
We picked our way along the ridge, grabbing rocks when handy for support from the wind and otherwise relying on ice axes and ski poles. Soon visual contact was lost; only the tug-of-war with the rope confirmed two climbers were on the ridge.
“Dammit Rich, slow down.” Dennis yelled pointlessly into the wind while yanking on the rope in retaliation. He was struggling with the buffeting wind, the uneven, exposed terrain, his 60-pound pack, and the exhaustion that comes from overexertion at altitude. He adjusted his facemask in an attempt to unfog his glacier glasses. Suddenly he caught a glimpse of Rich on his hands and knees. Was he falling? He braced for the jerk that might pull them both off the mountain. But none came. Rich was crawling across an exposed section, keeping his center-of-gravity low to thwart the 70 -100 mph gusts.
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“I don’t think so. I’m pretty cold and hungry, but the cheeks and fingers seem OK.
We had just arrived at a cold and windy 17,000-foot camp. It was 11:30 p.m. and we had not eaten anything except a few peanuts since 6:00 a.m. breakfast.
“We need to set up the tent quick. We’re sweaty, and it’s below zero and windy. Once the adrenalin wears off, we’ll crash, with a risk of hypothermia. We need to get into our sleeping bags ASAP.”
There were other tents set up behind snow block walls, but no empty protected sites. We squeezed the tent between two camps and, fighting the wind and cold, managed to set up the tent.
“I can’t believe you guys made it across that ridge in this wind. You’re tough. I thought for sure you would camp at 16,200. Do you want some tea or hot water?”
Roberto had heard us cussing at the wind and came out of his tent to see if we were all right. We had crossed paths and compared pack weights just below the fixed ropes on the headwall. He was traveling by himself, and even though he had done everything possible to reduce weight (including only carrying a couple days of food up to high camp), his pack was still over 65 pounds. This was Roberto’s second attempt to summit Denali; he had been beaten by bad weather two years prior.
“That’d be great. We’re out of water and can get into our bags without spending time to melt snow.”
As the shivering subsided inside the -40 degree down bags, the question remained, “Tell me again why we are here?”
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“You know, one of the things I’d always planned to do when I retired was climb Denali. But like a lot of things as I have gotten older, it’s been crossed off the list.”
Eighteen months before the expedition to Denali, we were sharing a cup of coffee while planning an upcoming fishing trip.
“I’d be interested. Are you still serious?”
“Hell yes. I never found anyone to go with, and I’m not interested in a guided trip. Part of the fun and challenge is the planning and execution, plus you can pace yourself on your own schedule, which is critical at our age.”
“Let’s make a pact. Let’s start to think seriously about climbing Denali. We can look into the logistics, plan the trip, purchase gear, train, see how we feel about it. Maybe May 2004. If at anytime one of us feels it’s not safe, or it’s physically too much, or we are not ready, or our wives say, “Hell no, you can’t go,” or for any other or no reason we want to call it off, that’s OK. We remain friends. If it all falls into place, we go.”
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“Earlier, we saw a long line of climbers heading towards Denali Pass. There must have been thirty of them. I wonder how they’re doing. Looks like some climbers are coming back already.”
“Yeah, everyone was hanging out looking at the wind screaming through Denali Pass when those five experienced British climbers headed off. Then a bunch of other climbers geared up and followed. Monkey see, monkey do. When they got to Denali Pass, most of the second group turned around. I heard one team that continued were turned back before the summit, one guy with badly frostbitten fingers and another with frostbite on his cheeks. The Brits were fine, they all summited.”
It was the third day at high camp, and the first morning with any sun. But the wind was howling. The top of Denali looked like a hurricane was in residence at the odd moments when it was visible at all. And it was cold. The climbers who stayed in camp were kibitzing and waiting and watching, and secretly wondering if they should have attempted the summit today. After all, the weather had been lousy. One of the worst months of May in 20 years for summit days, and many experienced climbers, including a number of guided groups, had headed down without a summit attempt. Was it now or never?
“This was not our day, Rich. We’re slow and need an early start. And a still day. And I need more time to acclimatize. We can wait. We brought eight days of food and fuel up here and can stretch it to ten. We’ll miss our return flights anyway. The rangers did say there is a chance for a weather break, so maybe we’ll get lucky.” Dennis was trying to convince himself that they made the right decision to wait out the imperfect weather. “Let’s get up at 6:00 tomorrow and see if the weather looks good.”
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The next morning was overcast and windy, so we postponed the summit attempt. But about 11:00 a.m. the wind died down. The weather break had finally arrived. The next day would be the day.
* * * * *
“Rich, let’s get up. It’s 5:00 and no wind.”
By now the morning regimen was routine, albeit still tedious, but we were ready to leave by 8:00. As we left camp, the sun was shining and it was still. The top of Denali looked quiescent. A perfect summit day!
“Hey. Why are you guys so slow? Do you need to acclimatize or something? Get out of the way so we can pass.”
We were slogging up to Denali Pass. The route is steep, and the footing is not secure. Crevasses await below; the route is notorious for falls and injuries. Many climbers were on the mountain, some anxious to move more quickly. Most, but not all, climbers on the mountain are friendly and supportive, and appreciate that we are all in a shared mission and experience.
“No problem. Just speak up. We’re always happy to let folks pass. We’re a bit slow because we’re old enough to be your father. Actually, in your case, your grandfather.” Ah, the impatience of youth. We all hope to be old some day. What’s the alternative?
Above Denali Pass, the route rises steeply, then at a lesser angle for about a mile before the final push up Pig Hill to the summit ridge. The effects of altitude were taking their toll. The day was waning and the weather was looking worse. Thin clouds obscured the top of Denali.
“Rich, we need to leave our rope and packs here.” We were at a small overlook above the base of Pig Hill, and we could see other abandoned packs scattered about. We had brought with us gear for an overnight bivouac, but the extra weight was becoming a burden that could interfere with reaching the summit. “The rest of the climb is so steep, one of us could never catch a fall by the other anyway. And we need to move faster.”
We moved out with a new lightness in our steps, but it was short-lived.
“How are you doing, Rich?” Dennis had been waiting for Rich. The advantage of hiking a bit faster is that you get to rest while your partner catches up, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
“I’m fine. I just need to rest. This is steep! And the footing is bad. Think the weather will hold?”
“I’m worried about the fog filling in below. And the wind seems to be picking up. It’s already 6:00 p.m. and it’ll take us at least five hours to get back. We need to get to the top.” Dennis started up again.
The route traversed around the steepest section, but the snow was deep, and the exposure tremendous. There was too much snow for the best traction with crampons. Finally, the summit ridge was in view: a series of modest undulating hills and valleys, heading ever upward, but with the end out of sight. A narrow path that drops off several thousand feet to the south, and another frighteningly steep drop to the north.
“I think that’s the top, Rich. Grab my hand; we are going to make it to the top together.”
The weather had cleared, the wind had died down, and we had a 360 degree view from the top of Denali! It was 7:00 p.m. on Day 24 of our trip, and we were alone at the top of the North American Continent.
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Postscript: We made it back to camp after midnight on Summit day, after struggling down the Denali Pass trail in heavy winds and windblown snow. After a rest day, we made it back to base camp at midnight on Day 28, after dodging the opening crevasses on the Kahiltna Glacier. Then we waited four days because weather prevented planes from landing at camp. Finally, on June 12 we flew out to Talkeetna, 32 days after we flew into Base Camp and first saw the massif of Denali up close and personal.
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As someone once said, the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. We had an adventure!