The howling wind mutes the crunching of crampons on ice and snow. Snow and spindrift stings my face, as I focus on not to worrying about my frozen fingers. It had been an exceptionally cold season and we’d seen frostbite claim more than a few unlucky climbers. At 20,000 feet, there is only ¼ oxygen than at sea level, and the altitude was quickly sapping not only our physical stamina, but also our mental strength.
I wrapped the sling of my ice axe around my wrist as tightly as I could and plunged it into the snow. Every step focused on balance and protection, carefully following the steps that Allen kicked out in the snow above.
As we gained the summit ridge line above Pig Hill, we could see the iconic cornice and nearly taste the summit just 300 yards ahead.
Then, perhaps from the altitude, exhaustion, or pure bad luck I watched Allen lose his footing and begin sliding down the steep incline. With 2,000 feet of exposure below us, I didn’t need to be reminded of the consequences. I clutched my ice axe in a self arrest as tightly as I could, bracing for the whiplash.
In seconds, I was ripped off the slope, dragged behind Allen. I furiously hacked at the snow speeding past, again and again, in a desperate attempt to stop our fall.
Growing up, I had viewed mountaineering and alpine exploration as the ultimate adventure, but it always seemed a little too far out of reach for a small town country boy like me. I once read that the hardest battle authors face isn’t the actual act of writing, it’s deciding to sit down and write that poses the greatest resistance. In the same way, my journey into alpinism began when I decided that I no longer wanted to be a bystander or just an observer, but a participant.
For years, two of my childhood friends, Allen and Jeremy, had talked about ripping motorcycles from Alaska to Argentina, the longest road in the world. Sharing a common love for mountains, we decided to commit to climbing as many of the classics as we could along the way. With the help of our friend Sterling, we set our sights on Mt. Denali, the starting line for our journey.
A few hectic months later, our team arrived at Denali Base Camp after thousands of miles of hard riding across North America. We had hit rain nearly every day on the Alaskan Highway, ran into countless mechanical issues and were waylaid by a snowstorm in British Columbia.
It was thirteen days since we had set foot on the mountain, and for the past seven, we had been stuck at 14,000 feet in a severe storm.
“Tonight, for 14 Camp. Winds in excess of 60 mph, highs in the -30’s, lows of -40…”
The 6pm evening forecast came through the radio static, bringing news that was expected, but never the less disappointing.
As parties around us gave up hope and began to turn back, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all worth it. My idea of our picture perfect expedition seemed to throw us a curveball. After so many months of training, research, and preparation, failure was a hard concept to swallow.
Going into a climb like Denali, there’s usually only one motivating force– reaching the summit.
I quickly learned that it takes more than a whimsical dream to sustain an expedition when the going gets tough.
With the temperature hanging around -40, I begrudgingly left the warmth of my sleeping bag once again to shovel the snow piling up against the tent walls. I cursed that it was my turn for snow duty and stepped outside into the howling wind. Although it was the middle of the night, the eternal Alaskan sun provided plenty of light to see even in the cloud cover of the storm.
My hands flash froze in minutes, and the wind at times blew snow faster then I could shovel it.
Seven days in, with no guarantee of an end in sight…
As with many things, there’s a misconception as to the actual reality of an experience. With the help of the good ole internet, you can scroll a hundred picture perfect summit photos in the span of 30 seconds that tell nothing of the journey required to claim them. Not to knock on summit photos— Lord knows I need more of those, but there’s a place where the rubber meets the road. Inspiration is good and necessary, but when the excitement has faded, there’s an element of perseverance that is vital to success.
Alpinist’s talk about a concept called “emergence”, which is essentially the principle that the sum of the experience equals the whole. To view one single moment as the climax or goal is failure.
If I’m honest with myself, my goal isn’t to climb Mt Denali- it’s to become a better climber, friend, team member, and person throughout the process so I’m able to sustain this passion over the long haul.
As cliche as it may sound, I believe stewarding a value system that possesses a healthy perspective is essential to leading a sustainable lifestyle in the mountains.
Fortunately, the storm subsided and the mountain graced us with a three day weather window. I was able to help stop Allen’s fall and thankfully our team is able to look back and share a laugh.
We left Mt Denali with a successful summit, and were more than happy to be part of the 24% success rate at the time. I’ll remember the moment we gained the summit for the rest of my life, but in retrospect, the life lessons I learned were gathered from the hours shoveling snow, the miles slogged up endless snow fields, and the conversations that only a 7 day storm can deliver.
I progressed as a climber, but I also grew as a person, and at the end of the day that’s what matters most. Sometimes it’s the journey to the top that we’re chasing.
For us, our journey was just beginning.
To read about the next part of the crew’s journey, check out “Climbing and Risk” to hear about the climb up the imposing Mt. Robson.