THE  DENALI TOUR

 

17 May 1989

 

I pushed through queues of sun seekers clutching folded beach umbrellas, clambered over a knot of hopefuls waiting for the 0650hrs (delayed) to Corfu and circumnavigated a group on a Florentine Art Treasures tour. At the far end of the Departure Hall I made out a chaotic mountain of rucksacks, cardboard boxes and skis. Men in fibre pile jackets were standing around talking. I made my contribution to the heap then approached one of them: "Is this the Tour to Mount McKinley?" We shook hands. The two Tour guides stepped over to introduce themselves and for a time the air buzzed with talk of terrifying glacier flights, heroics on the Cassin, and epic Indian bus journeys. Paul established his credentials immediately: "Hi, I’m Paul; I’ve guided on the West Buttress six times. Been to the summit four times." He offered no information on the summitless occasions. Mal, the leader, assumed familiarity with his exploits and launched into a series of outrageous stories about events at the Talkeetna Miners’ Day Gala. His eyes glittered with manic enthusiasm yet betrayed a hint of panic and concern. There were muttered conversations about rescheduled flights and a missing Sherpa; the bags and boxes were counted and counted again. We made our way through Passport Control and Security. I surveyed my fellow tourists, sampling their talk, wondering why they had handed $2800 to a travel company to take them up the highest and coldest mountain in North America.

 

Pete and Derek were talking ice: "and I got to the top of the pitch - grade 4 I’d say, though the guidebook gives it 5 - and found myself under the biggest cornice you’ve ever seen. I swear it drooped while I tunnelled it.”

"Well," said Derek, "I was avalanched in Corrie Fee when a cornice fell down. Had to call out the Rescue for my mate. For his bits, anyway."

Arthur, who claimed acquaintance with the stars of the mountaineering world, was advising on equipment: "Maelstrom make the best expedition suits. I got one to test, specially made. Anyfink you want I can get - stuff that ain’t available to the general public."

He was speaking to Mark, a serious youth of 19, who was busy adding the final touches to a water bottle insulator made out of bits of old Karrimat.

Behind them, Phil and Tom were discussing the qualities of Yorkshire bitter, comparing it favourably with that cloudy stuff with bits floating you get in places like Namche: "You’d need to drink a gallon to feel anything; good for keeping up your fluid intake though." Fervently, they hoped Alaska would provide a better opportunity to extend the bibulous experience.

Steve, a rangy, raw-boned milkman from Devon, was expounding his philosophy on life and adventuring to anyone who would listen: "It’s a way of getting away from a life of bullshit. There’s just you and Nature - she’s impassive, totally honest; there’s no conniving or double-dealing. Nothing to come between you and the experience." Waiting by the Gate, Erik and Olav, from Norway, were silently studying a map of Alaska. They spoke English perfectly and solemnly informed me that they had been in training for the expedition for a year. Nothing much - just regular Nordic ski races and winter climbing in the Jotunheimen every weekend. I felt too embarrassed to tell them I’d only done a month’s jogging but mentioned that I’d joined up for want of the time and knowledge to organise such a trip and a shortage of suitable companions.

 

In drizzly Anchorage some of the group made last minute purchases of minor items in the local backcountry store. Tom bought a pair of gaiters. We were loaded into a battered bus bearing the sticker, "In Memoriam - Prince William Sound" and set off along Alaska Highway No 3. A bedraggled moose was foraging listlessly beside the road. I wish I’d paid it more attention - it turned out to be our sole sighting of any furry member of the Alaskan fauna. The bus droned a soporific path through endless forest. After an hour, silence. I woke and saw that we had drawn up at a Safeway supermarket. Mark and I, as vegetarians, were given some dollars and instructed to buy what we needed. Being thus precipitated into the role of food organisers, we were caught short of a considered shopping list, and came away with a large bag, filled mainly with tins of beans and packets of macaroni cheese. Talkeetna in the rain had the depressing air of a place hastily set down in a forest clearing - as a temporary prospectors’ camp - which had lingered well beyond its raison d’être. The miners have gone but the muddy streets and scattered log cabins stuck at the end of a long road punched through the trees still give the place a frontier feeling of rough and ready isolation. We were shown into what the brochure optimistically called a motel but was entirely reminiscent of a Scottish bothy - "find yourselves a space on the floor, guys: just move that gear if it’s in the way." The speaker was Doug Geeting, owner of an eponymous Aviation Company, whose literature assured us of his Number-One-Choice-for-expedition-transport status. Because of the weather there was no immediate prospect of flying, which was just as well because the famous aviator was drunk.

 

Talkeetna

One of the duties of Denali candidates is a visit to the Ranger Station to be vetted and given horror stories about the dangers of frostbite, altitude sickness and crevasse falls. We were initiated into the skills of crapping in an environmentally acceptable manner and shown gruesome footage of frostbitten digits and twisted bodies. We were advised that only 50% of attempts succeed and that the death rate is 17 per 1000. Many parties venturing on to Denali have little experience of the conditions they are likely to encounter; some have little experience of mountains. Ours, as the Rangers had noted from studying our questionnaires, fell into both categories. There were some experienced people, but only one, Paul, had actually climbed the mountain. In an effort to avoid problems, and needless rescues, the Park authorities have a system for licensing experienced guides, effectively giving local operators a monopoly of commercial guiding on the mountain. Our unlicensed expedition, mused the Chief Ranger, seemed to be violating this rule; could Mal explain? Mal looked sincere. He tried to sidestep: he was "sort of commercial" in that he worked for a Company which brought people together to climb mountains but took no responsibility for getting them to the top. This was disconcerting news to us package adventurers but the Ranger came to our rescue with a neat tackle. He would like to check directly with the Company, if Mal would provide the telephone number. Mal was discomfited: "er, well actually I front the Company." The Ranger was diplomatic. He congratulated Mal on his candour, said he was sure something could be worked out, then invited him backstage to negotiate a deal. A package deal no doubt. In the afternoon Paul organised a softball game with the local team, the Mandingos. An earlier practice session, when we learned that the ball was both hard to hit and hard when it hit, caused Mark and me to be sidelined because of injury. The Norwegians sensibly took no part in the event and together we watched our team being ground into the dust by a wholly superior force.

 

Base Camp

On the third day, with the sky clearing, we were flown in relays to Base Camp at 720Oft on the Kahiltna Glacier’s southeast Fork. Three of us plus the pilot plus gear were shoehorned into the red Cessna so there was no feeling of insecurity even when the plane strained over the aptly named One Shot Pass, its wing tips almost grazing the steep rocks of the col. The craft turned the corner of Mount Hunter and plunged through mists towards the glacier, a dazzling field of light. We looked into blue-tinged crevasses before the pilot brought the nose up and the plane surfed through powder and slewed to a stop by a small radio hut and a group of tents. Our advance party came over to help drag the loads to the tents. The Norwegians, though, were conserving their energy for higher things: when they approached and found that their own bags were not on the aircraft, they simply returned empty handed. In the afternoon, a couple of hours were spent practising sled hauling and crevasse rescue techniques. Here I found that the youthful Mark was no slouch with the ropes, despite his admitted lack of climbing knowledge. I could elicit no mountain experience other than a trip to Concordia ("with Doug") and a camping weekend in the Cairngorms. Steve, our man for Relating to Nature, was to be my partner on the rope for much of the expedition, and I noted that he too had little interest in hills per se but had accomplished a number of Challenges such as John o’ Groats to Land’s End and the Fastnet Race. Tom, on the other hand, was keen on mountains - he had been guided up Mont Blanc and Chulu East - but seemed to choose his peaks from the pages of brochures. His next trip, he declared, would be "to those mountains on the Equator, the Roo -something", which he’d apparently spotted in a Quest advertisement. I was beginning to feel a little disconcerted at being on a mountain with people who were less than dedicated hill-goers. I broached the subject with Paul. Did the organisers not vet people for suitability by studying the CVs they sent in? Well, came the unabashed reply, they just took everyone who applied and if some hadn’t got their acts together in the first few days, they would be dumped at a camp until the remainder of the party returned from its summit bid. However, he added soothingly, our group was the most competent he had yet led, implying there would be no recourse to such a miserable sanction. Chuwang, instantly nicknamed Twang, made his delayed appearance on the final flight of the day. A Sherpa friend of Mal, he was there to extend his mountain experience and not, sadly, to make pots of tea or assist in the load carrying. This was bad news: in the following days we were to discover the tribulations of hauling sleds loaded with three weeks’ food while simultaneously humping a pack stuffed with personal survival gear.

 

Camp 1

Camp 1 was established next day, 4 miles up the Kahiltna Glacier. Paul directed us to sink a huge pit and to pitch the tents within. Thus, he asserted, they would be sheltered from high winds sweeping across the glacier. It was a salutary demonstration of the Arctic survival craft. It vexed me that we’d already pitched our tent on the surface of the ice and had to labour in the dusk to encircle it with a fold of snow blocks. As we went to bed the wind began to strengthen. It blew all night but morning came bright and merely breezy. I could hear shouts and scrapings outside. I shook a light cover of spindrift from the tent and looked out. Paul was taking the lead in excavating his colony from a deep smothering of snow. It seemed they had been up since the early hours, vainly digging ....

 

Two days later, on a fine, windless day, we moved all our food and gear up to Camp 2, a ready-made warren of snow holes and enclosures at 9200ft. Before we could relax in this pleasant spot, we made a carry up to a dump at 10000ft. The overnight temperature dropped to -18°C, as a result of the clear skies. Henceforward, staying warm would become something of a struggle, particularly when starting out in the morning. On day 6 we skinned and snow shoed past our cache and up to Camp 3, at 10500ft, in the middle of the glacier, above Kahiltna Pass. Bad weather was imminent so the fittest of us, including me, went back down to the cache to bring up the balance of our supplies. On the plod back, I unwisely allowed myself to dream of relaxing in a warm tent with a mug of hot tea. But Mark was fiddling abstractedly with the stove when I arrived and, unjustifiably, received the sharp end of my tongue for not getting on with the necessities of survival. He was exhausted and had badly swollen lips, a condition for which he received scant sympathy.

 

Camp 4

Next day we moved up to Camp 4, a metropolis of tents at 11000ft between two huge ice cliffs. We put on crampons and made a carry up to 11800ft, on the crest of the West Buttress, then returned to the bustling camp. It felt quite metropolitan - a radio blared nearby and there was a constant tramping along the hard packed road. Everyone had trouble controlling the Coleman stoves; one tent sported several black-rimmed holes. Once, ours flared suddenly and splashed blazing fuel on my legs. Mark reacted quickly, heaving it outside. "I don’t like your method of keeping warm," he remarked. A comparative jollity of wit, for otherwise his humour tended towards the macabre, a not unexpected trait from someone who gave his address as The Lodge, Bacup Crematorium.

 

A day of character building quality followed, the most gruelling so far. We made a dump of the skis, snowshoes and redundant gear and went slowly up to the cache. A stiff wind raked the Buttress with spindrift; the sleds were hard to manage on the 30° slope and often capsized on traverse sections. When the angle eased, I rested and noticed a Canadian coming up fast on Telemark skis. "I wish you people would step off the track if you’re stopping," he yelled. "I want my group to keep together. I’ve got my living to earn, you know." I stared at him, then at his party, plodding wearily towards us on Alpine skis. "This is High Altitude," he added, "you can’t mess about here." Halfway to Windy Corner 5 of us, plus Mal and Twang, stopped and sheltered in the lee of a low wall of snow. I was exhausted. Mal was scanning the slope below for signs of the rest of the party. Suddenly, he got up and walked down several hundred metres to a group standing huddled just above our cache site. He came back, alone, and motioned us to get moving, saying little. We learned later that the others were exhausted and Paul had made them retreat to Camp 4 after Tom had dropped his gloves and refused to put them back on, claiming indifference to frostbite - a possible sign, I thought, of hypothermia. Late in the day, the remnants of the expedition rounded Windy Corner in half a gale and camped in a cracked ice basin at over 13500ft. I put my legs into one of the cracks, a narrow crevasse, and had to be hauled out by the shoulders, too tired to be properly shocked.

 

Advance Base

It was a knackered crew that trudged into Advance Base Camp at 1420Oft next day. At the Medical Centre, Ian was found to have incipient pulmonary oedema and, to help measure the course of his treatment, the rest of us were expected to submit to a series of tests. I didn’t mind - it was warm in the Medical hut. Dr. Peter Hackett was in charge. He wired me up and watched a screen. "This waveform’s real pretty," he exulted, "you’ve got a surprisingly early diastole. Uh, 80% oxygen saturation." I went away knowing that my acclimatisation was "progressing normally". Mal, as expected, was almost fully acclimatised but the two Norwegians, irritatingly, were equally well adapted. The Camp was a pleasant haven to rest up in, talk to people and enjoy the mountain. When the clouds parted it became a suntrap, a feature I was grateful for when, one night, I rolled over in my pit and burst my water bottle. The sodden bag was dry by mid-afternoon. One could squat on the throne below the tents and watch mists swirling round the base of Mount Foraker. We discovered later that these mists were storms which kept people lower on the mountain - including the balance of our party - tentbound for five days. One calm evening, three French paragliders came swooping on gaudy, translucent sails, down from the North Summit. A first descent. Smiles and handshakes. Gallic joy. In the early night snatches of Christian hymns seemed to drift in the air. I thought I was dreaming but later found a "church" sculpted from blocks of snow, surmounted by a white cross. One morning, I questioned Mal about his motives for mountaineering. He spoke frankly of the pleasure of relating to others in the mountains. On Denali he particularly liked the mental challenge required to get things right, to survive and yet to survive well.

 

Camp 6

He was keen to get a good forecast before committing his weakened team to a summit attempt, and made frequent visits to the radio operator to get the latest. Two days of near perfect weather had passed however, so he decided to make the move up to the final camp. We moved easily up the fixed ropes on the headwall to a cache already established on the upper West Buttress. A fine, airy traverse of the ridge brought us, after 6 hours climbing, to Camp 6 at 17200ft. Erik, Olav and Twang were already established, having taken half the time. We laggards slumped in the snow, taking in the magnificent panorama, unwilling to set about the chore of hacking out a platform and building a wall for the tents. But a good fairy appeared, in the form of a group of Germans who were going down, having reached the summit. Yes, we could have their enclosure, with its ensuite kitchen, and please would we like this tasty freeze-dried food also? Overnight the thermometer registered -30ºC.

 

Summit Day

The morning was clear. Steve was too ill to climb so the seven of us made up three ropes and set off, moving together, up the long diagonal traverse to Denali Pass. We rested there briefly, thinking we’d done well. I was on the second rope, Mal’s rope, bringing up the rear. I could see that Mark, in the middle, was manfully trying to keep up with the fast pace being set by Mal, who was anxious about the weather. At one point, Mal dropped back and urged me to move faster. I said nothing, but continued with the slow but steady pace I knew I could maintain. I thought, angrily, that if he asked again, I would unrope and climb the mountain solo. But he didn’t, and we came at last to the Football Field, a broad, flat basin below the final steepness. The summit was already shrouded in mist and the wind was rising. Erik and Olav bounded past on their descent, grinning broadly. Progress became fitful as Mark pleaded for more and more rests. At last, 5 hours from camp, we sat wearily on the summit, hunched against the wind and sleet. There was scarcely time to take a photograph before Mal was chivvying us on, snapping at Mark for snagging the rope, charging off down the hill without warning, so that I was jerked to my feet and forced to stumble and lurch along the cornice like a badly strung marionette. Down on the Football Field he stopped and peered into the mist. I wondered why we hadn’t planted wands or taken bearings ... Then, away to the right I saw the fleeting shadow of a ski pole I’d stuck in the snow. We were back on route. Suddenly, I saw Mark sway like a drunk. His legs buckled and then he was lying, face down, in the snow. We attended him, heaved him upright and cajoled him into plodding on. After twenty paces his rubber legs would fold again and he would drop to the snow for a minute or so before raising himself and staggering on. Somewhere in the vicinity of Denali Pass, we teetered uncertainly at the top of a steep gully, half blinded by spindrift, until two Americans, Neil and Al, who had abandoned their summit attempt, guided us down easier slopes to the start of the traverse. They tied into our rope, giving physical, as well as moral, support to Mark. For five more hours we shuffled behind his funereal two-step: stumble, crumple; stumble, crumple. Just waiting and trying to maintain concentration was exhausting enough. Twice I dug my axe into the snow and whipped a couple of turns round the head to hold a slip by Neil. Once, he performed the same service for me. Halfway down the traverse, Twang made a late appearance with Derek. Having reached the summit they had described a number of circles in the white maelstrom of the Football Field before three Italians on skis had indicated the way down. Twang now took charge of Mark until, with easy ground attained, he could go ahead to brew tea. The rest of us, though, had one final indignity to suffer. We got lost again, floundering around in the drifts until someone spotted a tent and Mal led an exhausted rope of five into Camp 6. Twang brought mugs of tea round. I spilt most of mine on my sleeping bag and had to turn in having managed only a cold drink. Fortunately, the bad weather brought milder temperatures - it was a balmy -21°C overnight.

 

Descent to Advance Base

Morning came clear, but breezy. Apart from some slight frostbite, Mark seemed to have recovered. Dressing and packing was a slow, frantic struggle, urgently manipulating frozen laces and buckles while trying to avoid frostbitten fingers and toes. I approached the fixed rope in the steep Rescue Gully with some trepidation and looked down. A small black figure was visible hundreds of feet below: Mal at least had no doubts about our ability to get down safely, without guidance. Thus inspired, I launched myself down the frozen strand - a 2000ft rappel to the icefall above Advance Base Camp. There, the climate was balmy; there were smiles and handshakes and mugs of hot tea. The rest of our party had just arrived from Camp 4 and was listening, rapt, to Mal’s tale of our epic descent through the 90mph storm and pondering, with him, the mystery of Mark’s sudden collapse. The lad himself was examined and pronounced fit, apart from minor frostbite. He had been lucky. Three shrouded forms brought down from the foot of the West Rib in the morning had been less fortunate. They were a poignant reminder of the thinness of the line that separates adventure from misadventure, triumph from disaster.

 

Staggering down to Base Camp

Next morning, a bright day with a curious lenticular ‘cloud of death’ menacing Denali’s summit slopes, we prepared to descend. The decision to go down provoked long faces among the new arrivals. I sympathised with their claim that a summit attempt was feasible: the weather seemed to have stabilised and we had two days in hand before our flight home. Some recalled, darkly, that the Miners’ Day Gala in Talkeetna took place on those two days. Hadn’t Mal been keen to take part .... ? But in truth the leaders had lost confidence in the retarded group. Sure, some had been exhausted that day above Camp 4, but there were veiled accusations of incompetence and even of a cocky insouciance displayed by the one who had dropped his gloves. Mal wasn’t prepared risk any delay to our flight from the SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. So we raced down through the camps, at first on foot, later on ski and snowshoe. Those who have skied roped to a partner will know what a ludicrous activity it is. Add a sled which rockets past you on a slalom of its own and then a partner who isn’t wearing skis but snowshoes and you may understand why I had to snow plough much of the time. At a rest stop, Arthur was watching my efforts. "You know, mate, you’d do better with short swings." He demonstrated impressively. "See," he said, "that’s how I get down things like Aladdin’s Couloir," adding, "there ain’t much you can teach me about ski mountaineering." Well, we got down in eight hours, sweating up Heartbreak Hill’s final rise, to the airstrip where Marvin, our friendly Air Traffic Controller, awaited us with a handshake and a can of Budweiser. "I guess you guys had a real hard time," he opined when he heard our story, "the winds were gusting to 45mph two days ago. You should have waited till today - the Rangers tell me there’s 80 guys headed for the top and the weather’s perfect on high." We could see that, as the Cessna roared over One Shot Pass and dazzling bands of orange, yellow and red streaked the sky behind the massive silhouette of Mount McKinley. And I, for one, was perfectly on high.