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Climbing Denali – Quest for the Seven Summits

by Dave Mauro Special to Adventures NW

Mauro just above the headwall, approaching Washburn’s Thumb

At the age of 32, I climbed Mt Baker with the help of some friends and a guide from the American Alpine Institute. I had not done any mountain climbing prior to this. I remember sweating a lot, feeling tired, tagging the summit in whiteout conditions and stumbling back down the hill.  The next day I retired from mountain climbing. To me this seemed good. I had stood above my kingdom, even If I could not see it, and had nothing more to prove. I found this to be a pleasing stasis for the next eleven years. My brother in-law, Ty Hardt, was for many years the on-air news anchor for the ABC affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska. In 1999 he decided to combine his love of mountain climbing with his vocation of reporting. The end result, a documentary about his team’s  attempt on Denali that year, won Ty an Emmy. High Definition television emerged soon thereafter, but almost nothing had been filmed in HD. So in 2006 Ty decided to climb to the ceiling of North America once more, this time filming the experience in High Definition. But he wanted the storyline to include the fresh perspective of a few non-climbers, in addition to the hardened veterans that would make up this team. My phone rang. I declined.  But the notion haunted me. A few months later I found myself washed out in one of life’s ebb tides. I thought about the climb. Though I had no good reason to believe I could make it to the summit of Denali, things were at such a low point for me that I doubted failing would bother me much. More importantly, if I could make it to the top, my life might just turn around. As  climbing goes, it was both the best and worst reasoning one could imagine. I called Ty and told him I was in.

The expedition’s bush pilot unloading gear onto the Kahiltna Glacier.

At 20,320 feet, Denali (Mt. McKinley) stands like a white ice-covered sentry at the gates of the arctic circle. It’s mass is sufficient to create proprietary weather systems. These, combined with the rogue storms tumbling in off the Bering Sea, serve up heavy snow and temperatures as low as -35 F during the climbing season of May through June. We hired a small plane on skis to ferry us and our gear from the hamlet of Talkeetna to the Kahiltna Glacier, base camp for Denali climbers. The next day we set out early across the heavily crevassed 5 mile approach to camp one. Each of us carried 60 pounds in our pack and pulled a sled with another 80 pounds of provisions, supplies and film gear. The next day we made a “carry” of supplies up to camp two. That night the other “non-climber” on our team decided to call it quits. Kirk clipped in with a team of Germans on their way out the following morning.

Ty Hardt, at camp 3 after the storm let up.

We worked our way to camp three over the next few days but there, in the shady back bowl of Denali, an all-too-typical storm blew in from the Bering Sea and pinned us down. Heavy snow fell round the clock for three days, requiring us to shovel out the tents in rotating shifts. One night as I lay in my sleeping bag, a loud crack startled me awake. The shuddering rumble that followed told me the hillside above us had broken loose in an avalanche. We had built our camp on a ridge formation we believed to be safe from avalanches, as the load would split on either side. In any case, there was nothing we could do but lay there and listen to the terrible thunder.  Mountaineers do not like to validate danger, so in times like these they will cheer as though it is all part of the fun. Maybe it wasfun. For them. All I could think about was my boys back home and, for some random reason, my pet fish, a beta named Axel. The team continued to carry supplies up the mountain, caching them in trenches we dug in the snow. Eventually we arrived at advanced base camp, at 14,200 feet, where a congress of international teams were holed up awaiting conditions permitting further ascent. A Swiss climber died that first night. He made the mistake of taking a sleep aid at altitude, a strict no-no.

Mauro at camp three practicing his knots.

Acclimatizing to altitude is a tricky bit of business for the human body. Possessing the physiology to adapt to thin air is not a matter of fitness or age. One either has this physiology or he does not, and science has not yet found a reliable way to sort the two out ahead of time. So we go to high altitude to find out. Those who lack the requisite biologic advantage will become quite sick, but find immediate relief upon descent. The more fortunate adaptors will find their bodies cranking out additional red blood cells while they rest. This is the body’s thin air strategy of “making it up in volume.” We rested there at camp four for several days, watching spindrift being stripped away from the ridge above us. Finally we got a weather forecast indicating the onset of two days of clear skies and light wind. We seized the opportunity. Carrying monster pack loads, we scaled the icy 600 foot near-vertical headwall out of camp four.  We arrived at camp five, 17,200 feet, that evening. I was hurting like Willie Nelson at a tax audit. Expeditions typically take a rest day after such a trial, but our forecast only promised one more good day. Instead of missing that day, and perhaps being trapped by a storm at high camp, we decided to leave for the summit of Denali the following morning. Back in our tent I asked Ty if he thought I could do it, if I could make it to the top. I felt completely wiped out from the move to high camp and self-doubts were dogging me. We talked for a bit without Ty ever saying he thought I could or could notsummit. I now see that as a gift. Summiting a major peak requires everything a climber has left in him. He will have to dig down into that bag of inarticulated desire and see what is really there. It is a very personal quest, so words of encouragement mean almost nothing. In the end, he will own success or he will own failure, but the least a climber is owed is full ownership.

Climbers headed back down the Kahiltna Glacier under the midnight sun.

I woke the next morning feeling recovered. The long ascent up Denali Pass was cold but not unduly taxing. However, that missed rest day caught up with me as we ascended higher and higher. By the time we crested the football field, a vast flat area a few hundred feet below the summit ridge, I could hear the Allman Brothers playing somewhere in the distance and my dead brother was walking next to me.

Climbing the headwall
Climbing the headwall

I panted and gasped my way to a clear head while we stopped to gear up for the ridge, a narrow back bone of ice that leads the final 100 yards to the top of Denali. On one side the earth falls away several hundred feet, on the other side several thousand. We clipped into the fixed lines that ran the length of the ridge and began our careful high-wire walk.

Tears ran down my cheeks as the summit showed itself just past the final fixed line anchor. I started to smile, but this only brought pain as the ice and snow clinging to my two week beard resisted. Mark and John were already on the peak now and Ty stood waiting to summit with me. Together we took the last few steps to the top of North America. A moment later Big Sam joined the four of us. We had done it. We laughed. We wept. We hugged one another through impossibly thick down parkas. Then I heard Ty ask me how I felt. When I looked up to answer, there was a video camera in my face.  I tried to put some kind of thoughts together, but my oxygen starved brain just could not manage the task. Then it came out. “I probably look as bad as I’ve ever looked, and feel about as good as I’ve ever felt.”

 

 

 

 

This is the first in a series of seven stories by Dave Mauro, each describing the ascent of one of the “Seven Summits”; the highest points on each continent. Next up: Kilimanjaro  

 

Vinson Massif 033-2

Dave Mauro is a longtime Bellingham, WA. resident. By day he works as a financial advisor at UBS. By night he is an improv actor at the Upfront Theatre. Now and again, he travels the world with the goal of climbing the highest summit on each of the planet’s continents. Follow his quest at www.AdventuresNW.com  His blogs, photos and videos are also available at https://sites.google.com/site/davidjmauro/.  

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